Concert Review: TomChess Bandit Hat… a band of virtuosos whose music must be experienced!

Date: October 18, 2013
Venue: Spectrum (NY)

Review and videos by Dawoud Kringle

Friday afternoons are an unusual time of the day to hold a concert. CMJ was holding a big shindig at Arlen’s Grocery and you get your occasional concert in the park. But it’s still not conventional: at least not for music venues. However, Spectrum (a music/art/science venue on Manhattan’s lower east side that combines a fearless urge to present the best of New York’s underground elite in a comfortable home-like setting) had other ideas. One Friday I ventured to attend the performance of Tom Chess‘ ensemble Bandit Hat (Tom Chess; oud/ney, Jimmy Mngwandi; bass, and Daniel Kurfirst; drums/percussion).

The music started with some free, atonal smokiness from the bass, which was shattered by a scintillating punch in the sternum from the oud, and directed the formless sounds toward its own tonality. The percussion eased in, and it all coalesced into a Moroccan sounding 6/8 groove. From there, the audience was swept up in a modern magic carpet ride.

Chess is one of the most fascinating oud players on the scene. His astonishing technique, combined with a real poetic sensitivity and instinctive sympathetic vision of the music constantly conjures unpredictable musical delights. He exudes a vibe of a master who is unconcerned with the trappings of spectacle and showmanship, and concentrates on perfecting his art.

Mngwandi is a powerhouse on the bass. His unmistakable jazz by way of South Africa personality contrasted and at the same time unified perfectly with the middle eastern vibe created by the interplay between Chess and Kurfirst. His muscular technique relentlessly drove the music, and painted atmospheres, landscapes, and moods as the spirit of the music needed. His technique is astonishing, which he rides with precision and recklessly joyful abandon.

Kurfirst is an unusually lyrical and poetic percussionist. His grooves, flourishes, and textures formed a strangely liquid bonding force between Chess’ virtuosic ruminations and Mngwandi’s disciplined chaos. Unlike other percussionists, his work insinuates itself into the music, and fills all the spaces, like perfume filling the air. Yet his Air and Water feel never fails to fulfill the main role of the percussion.

At one point, Chess departed form the “accepted” nature of the oud, and began with a jazzy, romantic solo using chordal harmony in a way not associated (or thought possible) with the oud. The band responded with a counterpoint groove that condensed into an almost blues-like vibe. Chess continued with his unorthodox (for the oud) discourse, and then went out in his trademark series of crackling runs, weaving in and around the groove like a dervish. Kurfirst’s solid and deceptively delicate drum work glided effortlessly through the discourse. Suddenly the music took an unexpected turn and ended with harmonic colors that left the audience at the edge of its own dream.

Their next piece began with an intro filled with an almost unendurable longing and sadness. This suddenly gave way to a complex head that seemed determined to fight its way out of its own sadness. Mngwand took a solo that while flying about like Bruce Lee beating the crap out of a dozen and a half men, never lost the groove. Then Chess came in and re-summoned the former sadness; this time in a new context. It moved to an almost chaotic free jazz place, intent upon exorcising its own demons with both poetic precision, and exquisite violence.

Then Chess put his oud aside in favor of the ney. For those who are familiar with the ney’s traditional application, nothing could have prepared the listener for what came next. It was a free jazz excursion wherein Chess explored all nuances of what the ney could do; everything except traditional ney music. To my knowledge, nobody ever placed the ney in this context before; and Chess navigated it beautifully.Mngwand and Kurfirst responded to his surprising offering with a disingenuously aggressive grace and aplomb.

They concluded with Ornette Coleman’s “Peace Warriors.” This began with the haunting lyricism the ney is famous for. It cried and wailed with the more traditional quiet stoicism the instrument is famous for. Slowly, Coleman’s composition was invoked. This was treated with an unmistakable Sufi vibe that worked well with the composition in a way one didn’t see coming.

Bandit Hat is a band of virtuosos whose music must be experienced. This music (not to mention the venue it was presented in) should be supported.