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Free association: Ras Moshe in the Sanctuary.

Photo: Julia Zave

Off the Charts

By Josh Potter

Ras Moshe

Sanctuary for Independent Media, Nov. 22

Despite a pervasive stigma of noise, abstraction and inaccessibility, the “freer” modes of jazz are really nothing more than the budgeting of silence. It’s the silence of one instrument dropping out mid-conversation that makes an improvisation economical, and it’s the silence between notes within a single passage that gives the idea its shape. The best improvisational musicians are successful not because they can frantically exhale a bounty of ideas, but, paradoxically, because of an inner silence that frees these ideas of their own volition. When saxophonist Ras Moshe and his quartet stepped onstage Saturday night, it was as if the performance already were underway. When the first notes were eventually issued, they seemed to come as an extension of a mindset that pervaded these musicians’ lives.

Moshe is a large man with long dreadlocks and watchful eyes. A music stand with charts stood before him, but never once throughout the evening’s performance did he flip a single page. It was with horns (alto, tenor, and flute), eyes and occasional words that he led his band. Before each song he’d turn to his sidemen (Dave Miller on drums, Cliff Jackson on upright bass, and Tor Snyder on guitars) to instruct them on who was to enter at what time. In the second set he even called (in a way that was audible to the audience) for the piece to end with a “Ka-boom!”

Each voyage began one of two ways: with Moshe issuing a declarative introduction on his horn before the band fell in behind him, or by building the whole thing up from a brisk clip in the drums. The first set was still young when each instrument’s duties became clear. Miller offered the momentum, pulsing as best a percussionist can in the absence of any discernible time signature. Jackson offered the incantation by sticking to relatively simple, repetitious motifs on his bass without ever walking it outright. He could even be seen occasionally mouthing inaudible syllables along with his lines. Snyder provided color with confounding spontaneous chord progressions. He split his time between a conventional acoustic guitar and a strange electric one with no headstock and a feathered fret board. Instead of supporting Moshe’s solos with linear harmonies, he strummed oblique chords with a fingerstyle technique common to harp or flamenco guitar, incorporating percussive elements with gentle, mournful feedback.

Proving to be the most adventurous of the four, Moshe followed this rule of twos in his use of the sonic canvas. In a responsive manner, he would often climb Snyder’s lamentation and Miller’s rhythmic punctuation to climax. Just as often however, he seemed to be directly defying all notions of pattern and cohesion by playing a sort of anti-pattern against what the other musicians were doing. In the most successful moments, this system would gradually bring each musician into incidental orbit with one another and then resolve the piece around the same tonal center. At other times, however, ideas seemed to cloud each other. This is not to diminish the ideas themselves; each was simply prevented from being simultaneously apprehended and appreciated. Indeed, much of the quartet’s music demanded active engagement. This was the band’s price of admission. The payoff came, though, when Moshe would arrive at his manic peak, spraying fleet arpeggios across the audience like a sweep-picking heavy-metal guitarist.

Before performing his final piece, Moshe stopped to thank the audience, the venue and his band. For most, this would stand as a musical formality, but in the context of Moshe’s music—the kind that is not possible without acute synergy—the sentiment bore true gratitude. Similarly, when Moshe described the space (literally a small sanctuary) as having “the right vibrations going on,” the statement traded cliché for acoustic prognosis.

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