You won’t hear anyone else like New York City’s House of Waters
at this year’s Jazz Festival. Singularly hypnotic, the trio features the hammered dulcimer playing of Max ZT, who takes what is primarily known here in America as an Appalachian folk instrument and turns it into a multicultural mashup of East meets West.
During the first House of Waters set at Max of Eastman Place, ZT ripped spellbinding runs that evoked the fluidity that the band’s name implies. Moto Fukushima showcased his melodic ingenuity and versatility on the six-string bass guitar with funky aplomb. And Ignacio Rivas Bixio kept the forward momentum going with measured intensity on the drums.
It would be tempting to call this music “easy listening,” but that would be too reductive, insulting even. Sure, House of Waters is the band I would choose to listen to on a spa day, but the group’s sound was too thoughtful and nuanced to be mere background fodder. That said, it wasn’t so cerebral that I couldn’t kick back and let go, either.
Stylistically, there were hints of Indian raga, pentatonic scales, and kora-inspired passages — African and Asian influences that the band then diffused through a smooth jazz filter. The synchronicity between the three players seemed the very definition of “snug.” Perhaps most impressive was ZT’s masterful control and dexterity, as he frequently kept a tremolo in the left hand while playing a roving, inventive melody in the right hand.
Simply put, House of Waters makes chill music for unhinged times and celebrates the universal human experience across numerous cultural traditions.
After the House of Water’s set, I quickly made my way to Christ Church to catch the London quartet Partikel
. After witnessing numerous festival artists whose sound embodied the physicality of their playing, it was refreshing to encounter some spacy, progressive jazz. The opposite of visceral, Partikel’s compositions were full of airy evocations: Duncan Eagles’s mercurial tenor saxophone percolations; Ant Law’s astral guitar swells; Max Luthert’s buoyant upright bass; and Eric Ford’s shuffling drums.
There was something contemplative about the music, even during more swift, blissed-out moments. The sounds were welcomingly heady and ponderous, a respite from the high-octane nature of the Jazz Fest. And still, Law’s psychedelic guitar chops stole the show when a solo briefly turned the concert into a jazzy acid trip.
Going into the evening’s headlining set from Béla Fleck & The Flecktones
, I knew that nothing was going to top it. The band has been a fixture in the music world for 30 years, combining the best elements of folk, funk, rock, and jam band aesthetics. The complete, original lineup is back — Fleck on banjo; pianist and harmonica player Howard Levy; bassist Victor Wooten; and his brother Roy “Futureman” Wooten on a synthesized percussion instrument known as a “drumitar.” The band is still inscrutable, bordering on mystical.
On this night in Eastman Theatre’s Kodak Hall, Victor Wooten was ever the rhythmic anchor, with his explosive slap bass style and legendary sleight-of-hand solos. There was something quizzical about Fleck’s banjo playing: the cascading melodies that slunk chromatically up and down the frets, the effervescent fingerpicking that leaves one feeling breathless. His textured harmonies and serpentine solos on the banjo gave the compositions profound depth, while Futureman’s indispensable syncopations added an aura of perfection.
But it was Levy who was the real revelation. Perhaps the best harmonica player I’ve ever heard, Levy possessed a melodic flexibility that was as expressive and inspired as anything played all week by supremely skilled trumpet players at the festival. His piano solos were every bit as satisfying, too. The best moment of the night came when Levy played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the harmonica. I like to think that Kodak Hall’s bust of J.S. Bach was beaming with pride from the shadows just then.
Were The Flecktones’ music not so enjoyable, the unadulterated talent highlighted on the stage might have been sickening. But hearing Fleck and company was one of those rare, “pure music” experiences. There was no ego, no pretension; just the love of making music. In fact, 45 minutes into the concert, there had been only one word of between-song banter, when Fleck simply said “Thanks,” before jumping into the next song.
My night was officially made when the quartet closed the set with “Sinister Minister,” my favorite Flecktones tune. There was nothing more delicious than hearing that tantalizing bass line, to which Wooten added his signature melodic finesse. For the encore, The Flecktones brought out a new song, a whirling, rhythmic monster called “Vertigo.” Needless to say, I went home happy, and I think the packed house at Kodak Hall did, too.