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The famous ESP-Disk label’s classic catalog is finally getting an authorized domestic reissue (no more second-generation Italian bootlegs), they’ve recorded new material after a decades-long hiatus, and now there is a monthly series at the Bowery Poetry Club dedicated to ESP artists. Not having heard saxophonist ELLIOT LEVIN in person since my year in Philadelphia a decade ago, despite his regular visits to New York, I leapt at the chance to remedy that grievous omission at the second ESP show.
Things got going with poet STEVE DALACHINSKY, a longtime supporter of the New York avant-jazz scene whose most recent work is the book Logos and Language: A Post-Jazz Metaphorical Dialogue (Rogue Art, 2008), a collaboration with pianist MATTHEW SHIPP and photographer LORNA LENTINI consisting of an in-depth discussion between Shipp and Dalachinsky about Shipp’s creative philosophy, Dalachinsky’s poems inspired by Shipp’s music, and Lentini’s photos of the two of them. Dalachinsky rhapsodized over recent ESP releases, including Levin’s quartet NEW GHOST (a copy of which was received by all customers paying the mild $10 admittance), introduced a member of the GODZ who was in the audience (the Godz were an avant-rock band that made three LPs for ESP and inspired an adulatory LESTER BANGS article), and read a poem inspired by the words and music of tenor saxophonist ALBERT AYLER (ESP’s greatest artist) and his trumpet-playing brother Donald.
Then Levin’s trio with drummer JACKSON KRALL and bassist ALBEY BALGOCIAN took the stage and Levin began by reading one of his own poems (he’s had several books of them published). For the rest of his 65-minute set, he alternated poetry, sax, and flute. It seemed as though all the music was spontaneously created, although it seemed possible that a few phrases might have existed before (and there was a brief reference to the ascending opening of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”). Levin, a grizzled veteran by now, has come to a distinctive style that, while certainly inspired by his predecessors’ work, is never obviously derivative of anyone in particular. Nor does it stand in one place; Levin is just as likely to play a melodic phrase as to unleash flying flurries of evolving patterns arpeggiated and/or scalar or soar into the altissimo register of his tenor in ecstatic exultation. His flute playing often mixes with vocalization, but even in that he sounds different from the obvious prototype, RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK (let’s leave IAN ANDERSON’s Kirk rip-offs out of this!), more singing and murmuring than shouting and whooping. His poetry is often wordplay, or perhaps more aptly soundplay, recited in a variety of timbres, as much music as words. Krall, one of the downtown scene’s stalwarts, was equally responsive and prodding, and Balgocian, whom I had never heard before, was imaginatively supportive; both rose to the occasion whenever they had solo or duo space.
Having seen the schedule slip by nearly an hour, tired from working nine hours and having had my brain utterly filled by Levin’s intensity, I wimped out on sticking around for the set by the HUNGRY MARCH BAND, a New York conglomeration I’ve seen several times already that has always been thrillingly entertaining in its daring mash-up of Ayler melodic freedom and marching band instrumentation, presentation, and dynamics.