Mark O'Leary - g (website)
Mats Eilertsen - b (website)
Teun Verbruggen - d (website)
Joachim Badenhorst - ts (website)
Before the start of the concert, Teun warned me: "It's rock 'n' roll." In hindsight, he might have meant that more in a flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants sense than as a genre description: although Mats Eilertsen and Teun had played together a few years earlier with pianist Alexi Tuomarila, the group was created specifically for this four-concert tour (the Hopper was their last stop). And, with an acoustic double bass, how rock could O'Leary/Eilertsen/Verbruggen be, anyway?
As it turns out, rock enough for it to be tempting to compare it with Teun's Othin Spake, but they're quite different. OS is characterised by a thick mesh of guitar and Fender Rhodes, its melody-out-of-noise-and-back outlook and an overall danceable ruckus. O'LEV was a little more cerebral, covered a wider stylistic ground and relied on a somewhat more traditional separation of roles, as O'Leary was often the clear soloist.
The music seemed 100% improvised and displayed some of total improv's conventions: elastic tempos and shifting rhythms, murkily indeterminate harmony and rubato, periods of rambling and others of cohesion, stuttering fill-the-gap exchanges between guitar and bass, arco groans. This was tempered with injections of Teun's characteristically rumbling grooves, that might land firmly on the one, but roll around everywhere else before doing so.
On the opening piece, Mark O'Leary used a clean, self-effacing tone over a diffuse rhythm section to create a textural feel despite his fast, linear playing. Later, he did something similar with a louder, heavier rock sound, that led to a shredding so blurred as to become almost equivalent to a noisy layer of strummed static.
While the trio regularly flared up into engaging maëlstroms and clanging energy playing, more meditative spaces were opened up by Eilertsen's intros and O'Leary's use of the volume pedal and e-bow on the last piece of the first set. From a skeletal beat and eery, distressed harmony, they progressed to a jittery kind of jazz where the bass wandered rather than walked and then, surprisingly, some easy-going, medium tempo swing.
It's during the second set that the trio really came together and found common rhythmic ground. In the middle of the first piece, O'Leary switched from his jazz tone to an obnoxiously loud rock one and the trio collapsed into its most joyously noise-rock moment. While the guitarist's runs had often been cutting yet detached, slightly above the fray, here he tore away from the centre of the music, bringing the group together as one solid bloc.
Joachim Badenhorst sat in for the very long improvisation that ended the concert. He was still visibly elated from his recent 3 week stay in New York, a highlight of which was being invited by Han Bennink to play at Tonic in shifting ensembles that included Anthony Coleman, Ellery Eskelin and Dave Douglas.
The newcomer sounded the starting note and O'Leary immediately seemed to enjoy having a foil, as he elaborately knitted intricate constructions around the saxophone's lines. Joachim brought a kind of dry, quasi-melodic poise and a way of placing the saxophone in the very middle of the group sound that was somewhere halfway between Chris Speed and Ellery, allowing the group to sound relaxed even when the sound swelled. Whereas earlier, O'Leary's forward rush, Eilertsen's rugged thrums and Teun's backbeat-oriented playing hadn't always pulled in the same direction, it all just seemed natural when the guitarist held down a little riff for Badenhorst to howl over.
When the quartet sped up, they tended to spin away from each other and have to slow down to regroup, but towards the end they struck up a fast swing for a guitar solo that precluded the kind of front-line collaboration that had been going on. Therefore, I was a little disappointed that when Joachim returned, they collectively slowed back down: as that seems to be his natural pace, I was curious to hear what he would have done at a faster one.