by Ron Netsky
If I had to pick just one word to describe Youn Sun Nah & Ulf Wakenius it would have to be “otherworldly,” because they made sounds I hadn’t heard before in this one.
Nah came out alone to begin the duo’s first set at the Lutheran Church. With only a thumb piano, she proceeded to sing “My Favorite Things.” If John Coltrane reduced the song’s verse down to two chords in his famous modal rendition, Nah reduced it further, down to one chord -- and somehow made it work.
She could do this because she had one of the most remarkable voices I’ve ever heard. She was capable of everything from operatic high notes to Björk-like punk histrionics. When she sang she used her hands and arms in an evocative upper-body ballet that accented everything she sang. And her uniqueness went beyond her voice. At one point she soloed on kazoo, but somehow converted it to a muted trumpet.
While Nah was reinventing the human voice, Wakenius was doing the same thing with a simple, six-string acoustic guitar. He played percussive rhythms and lightning-fast leads and kept a bass going --- all of this at the same time.
During one solo he picked up an empty plastic water bottle and began beating his guitar strings with it. Then he started beating out tunes, venturing into absurd territory with the opening riff of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” But usually his playing --- whether minimalistic or overflowing --- served as the perfect complement to Nah’s vocal gymnastics.
The whole set was a high point, but I especially liked their rendition of Trent Reznor’s strangely beautiful song, “Hurt.” The church was as full as I have ever seen it and very few people left before the end of the concert.
Earlier in the evening, I caught Gregory Porter, the new jazz vocal sensation, at Kilbourn Hall. Porter has come up through the ranks quickly, taking second place in the Male Vocalist category and first place in the Rising Star Jazz Artist category in this year’s just-released DownBeat Critics Poll.
One reason for Porter’s success is obviously his rich tone and his large vocal range. But a more important reason might be the fact that he doesn’t specialize in standards, but instead writes tunes that come out of his own life experience.
For instance, in “Painted On Canvas,” his opening tune, he uses the process of art as a metaphor for respecting individuality. “On The Way To Harlem” reflects his excitement at being part of the vital soul/jazz tradition. And “1960 What?” is reminiscent of the protest spirit of Eugene McDaniels’ “Compared to What?”
Porter’s group was full of excellent instrumentalists; every solo was superb. Porter himself reached a peak while singing Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” If you’re wondering about the hat and the balaclava wrapped around his head, he says the look is a way of setting himself apart.
Phronesis, the Scandinavian and British trio, was a refreshing change from many of the groups I’ve heard at the festival. Instead of going full throttle from beginning to end at Christ Church, this music ebbed and flowed. The drummer seemed especially aware of the pitfalls of the acoustically echoing architecture and at times played softly enough to almost disappear.
Of course, the group could still build to a crescendo, as it did in its last and, in my opinion, best tune, “Economist.” I’m not sure how evocative of the title the composition was supposed to be, but the song was full of nervous energy and got particularly frantic during a wonderful drum solo.
On the last night of this year’s festival I will take in Fiveplay at Max of Eastman Place. Then I’ll head over to the Lutheran Church to hear Torben Waldorff and to Christ Church to hear Gwilym Simcock.