Live at the Bunker Review for jazzreview.com
Improvised live performances have a tendency to begin awkwardly as even a group musicians that has long played together is likely to not gel perfectly at first. Then, as the players gain their barriers and feel each other out, the music gets better and some magic moments ends with a wonderful flourish that causes concert goers to forget the gaucheness of the start of the performance. Live at the Bunker could perfectly capture such an experience if the listener is willing to rearrange the tracks. As it stands, this music -that is, 6 tracks recorded on August 21 and 22, 1999 in Bielefeld, Germany- doesn't make up a coherent concert and feature some tracks that deserve to be heard and others that aren't worth much time at all.
Live at the Bunker begins with "For Us" and more specifically with pianist Michael Jefry Stevens approaching his instrument like Cecil Taylor before falling into a smoky jazz club ballad mode. It is such a vibe that this quartet appears to be aiming for on this track but they fail almost exclusively because Stevens is unable to make up his mind as to whether or not to play in fashion similar to others or to pay homage to Taylor. The pianist is able to play in the music when he is at the forefront but Stevens reverts to a heavy handed style once anyone else steps up to the plate. At his worst, he mars what could have been a beautiful solo from trumpeter Paul Smoker by making it a real chore to not focus on the piano.
"Borrowed Time," the second cut, begins as a decent free improv -the highlights of which come from drummer Harvey Sorgen and Smoker who puts in quite a showing on this disc as whole even if his whirlwind playing doesn't very all that much- before the players meld back together into a structure based on repeated stop-start climaxes with occasional insertions of bluesy interplay between bassist Joe Fonda and Stevens. "Don't Go Baby" is good hard bop played by a bassist, pianist, and trumpeter who have just finished listening to Ornette Coleman's Something Else! and a drummer who is solid but nowhere near as commanding as Art Blakey. That may or may not be a good thing. Fonda nibbles on the bass to open the excellent "Circle" before giving way to Smoker doing what he does best. By this point, some listeners will probably want the trumpeter to expand his horizons but since few players could do what he does repeatedly here just once, perhaps such criticism is harsh. On the whole, "Circle," is full of tension and moves to a definite conclusion which is nice. "Haiku" is a slow ballad showcasing all of the players that is good but not great. Do, however, note Stevens' work at the beginning and his excellent use of echoes.
And then there is the fantastic closer "Oh, Lord, It's Nice to Sit on Your Front Porch Today." Smoker starts out with playing that is constantly referencing but not imitating "Saving Grace." Sorgen joins in and is soon followed by the other two as the music evolves into a nice funky groove and the four exuberantly singing the cut's title. Then comes a breakdown where all four seem to be forcing sounds out of their instrument. The music plays itself out and winds down before a dramatic respite that sounds like a piecing piece of music from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. "Oh, Lord, It's Nice to Sit on Your Front Porch Today" is proof positive that the commonalties in the works of Bernard Herrmann, Evan Parker, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are far greater than any differences.
As detailed above, Live at the Bunker fluctuates wildly in quality. The weakest parts are at "interesting" at best while the best cuts are superb. In the end, the good outweighs the bad but not by much.