Missy Mazzoli's new album, Vespers For A New Dark Age, last Thursday night.
The house band, if you will, was Victoire, the sleek chamber ensemble led by Mazzoli and featuring a versatile lineup of violin, clarinet, two keyboards and double-bass. This group has only grown stronger as a unit since I last saw them at the River To River festival three years ago.
At LPR they first took the stage in support of Noveller the nom de guerre of Sarah Lipstate, a guitarist and composer. Noveller's loops and layers, played on a gleaming Fender Jazzmaster with a full assortment of pedals and boxes at her feet, interleaved seamlessly with Victoire's rich palette of sound. The collaboration had me paying full attention immediately, shaking off what my daughter calls "Thursday tired" without a thought.
The real fireworks began, however, when Victoire exited stage right and left Noveller to her own brilliant devices. Each piece, many from her recent album, Fantastic Planet featured precisely assembled components adding up to monoliths of extreme beauty. A fuzzed chord progression would become the underpinning for a diamond-etched light show of arpeggios, which would in turn support a soaring melody, sometimes played with a bow.
Naturally, I couldn't resist mentioning Jimmy Page in a Tweet. Let's face it, he is the icon when it comes to bowing an electric guitar. But we also have to face the fact that much of the mileage he got from breaking out the horsehair was due to a certain transgressive thrill in addition to the suitably evil sounds he made. By contrast, Noveller's use of the bow is both technically more solid and musically more purposeful. Not the first time a student has overshot the master, if only in this one aspect.
Other reference points in her music are the classic albums by Fripp & Eno - No Pussyfooting came more readily to her mind when I chatted with her after the show. She also mentioned Glenn Branca, although thanks to technology and her skill she only needs one guitar and some boxes to sound like an orchestra. Good thing, too, because when I saw Branca at the Mudd Club back in the day, I worried one of his many guitarists was going to fall off the tiny stage. I heard echoes of Bill Nelson's more abstract side in her music but she hadn't heard of him. His stuff is just in the air these days, I think. Although Noveller is more than happy playing on her own, she could also probably sit in for David Torn in Bowie's band should the need ever arise.
Noveller has been honing her craft since 2007 and it showed in her precise touch and command of electronics, which combined with an assured flair for rock rhythms (and rock moves) made for a consistently exciting and involving set. Unlike some other recent artists who started out as "solo loopers," she seems to have no eye on the pop prize, which is refreshing. Needless to say I bought her last copy of Fantastic Planet and highly recommend that you find a way to hear it as well.
Mazzoli and Victoire had been watching, rapt, as Noveller dazzled the crowd and returned to the stage with barely a pause, along with three singers from Roomful of Teeth, to perform pieces from Vespers. While Mazzoli described the eight movement work as "irreverent," the result of her fine-tuned compositions and the rich billows of sound created by Victoire was moment after mesmerizing moment of rapturous sounds, often producing sensations of soaring and falling. In short, it was transcendent, which is what religious music was supposed to do in the first place.
Instead of any traditional Latin or hymnal text, Mazzoli has used poems by Matthew Zapruder for the words of her vespers. However, without the poems in front of us, this was a purely musical experience. The vocals were often in a style derived from plainchant and the words were not intelligible. I'm looking forward to enriching the experience with the poetry at a later date. The singing was virtuosic, in any case - bell-clear and impassioned. All of the players were fantastic, but special note must be made of Olivia De Prato's violin work, which was outrageously good. She's also a member of the Mivos Quartet and Ensemble Signal, so there are plenty of opportunities to hear her.
The album features Wilco's Glenn Kotche on percussion, although he was not present at LPR and no attempt was made to recreate his contribution. Nothing felt lacking, however. Note must also be made of Lorna Dune's role in Victoire, as keyboard player and all-around electronics whiz. Dune produced the Vespers album, which ends with her remix of Mazzoli's A Thousand Tongues, an older work originally for solo instrument (viola or cello), vocals and electronics. Dune's take, which also closed Victoire's set, is wonderfully fleshed out with layers of pulsing keyboards and somehow achieves an effect of featherweight gravitas. Watching Dune and Mazzoli performing it, one couldn't help but be moved by what appears to be a deep collaboration - long may they reign!
There was a welcome pause in the proceedings after Victoire left the stage, giving me a chance to collect my thoughts after all the intense music we had heard thus far. The stage was reset and Glasser was soon before us. Glasser is Cameron Mesirow, a phenomenally talented singer, producer and dancer who has been making records since 2009. While her albums have done well on the Billboard Dance charts, they are a far cry from the EDM that makes up most of that list. Her music is highly rhythmic, but also seeks to do more than just provide uplift or move the crowd.
She started her performance on the contemplative side, singing in her clear soprano to a backing of koto and clarinet, which somehow managed to be simultaneously spare and richly atmospheric. Her movements were precise and provocative, emphasized by her well-designed costume of a form-fitting sweater and a skirt slit almost to her waist. There was no hint of burlesque, however: this was artistry of a high order and almost entirely devoid of kitsch. She seemed sweetly surprised by the audience's explosive reaction and quickly nodded to the sound engineer to start the next track.
Song after song followed, all with beats that could compete with the best out there and singing that sounded effortlessly beautiful. It was hard to sit still, but I don't think my neighbors at nearby tables would have appreciated me standing up. In any case, Glasser was the star and I was riveted. An appearance by her would be an event under any circumstance, but this was Missy Mazzoli's night and we were eventually treated to another collaboration when Victoire came back and supported Glasser on a couple of new songs. Just as when they joined Noveller, it was a perfectly beguiling combination and those on stage seemed just as pleased as we were.
The overwhelming impression of the evening was of musicians at the peak of their talents, supporting each other and exploring all the ways highly structured compositions and richly orchestrated sounds can create music that satisfies on a number of levels - emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually.
Perhaps all of these joint efforts will appear on future releases. I'm especially eager to hear what Glasser does next as her last album was in 2013, and she seems to have even advanced since then. But these are all protean artists and where they go from here will no doubt be a complete adventure. For now, the lucky people of Minneapolis and Cincinnati will be the only others to hear what we heard at Le Poisson Rouge. If I could defeat the time-space continuum, I would sign up to do it all again in both cities.