“Jazz guitarists … tend to do more mysterious work” than most six-stringers, wrote the Washington Post‘s Chris Richards in May. It was a thoughtful, penetrating examination of works by three contemporary guitarists—Mary Halvorson, Rafiq Bhatia, and Steve Tibbetts—each completely unique; each refusing to be bound to expectations that the “jazz” classification might suggest. (It was and is indispensable criticism; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go find it.)
Halvorson, Bhatia, and Tibbetts are hard to argue with one at a time, let alone en masse. Yet in writing the piece, Richards (who, full disclosure, is an editor of mine at the Post) nonetheless catalyzes a crucial question: Need we turn our ears to Brooklyn, or Minneapolis in Tibbetts’s case, to hear “jazz” guitarists who resist such pigeonholing? Aren’t there perhaps at least three genre-busting sonic spelunkers who aren’t further away than a Metro trip?
Along the Green Line, one can easily and frequently find Dave Manley—who, in promoting his stand a few weeks back at the Monday Mixtape session at Petworth’s Homestead Food & Bev, credited himself as “sounds n stuff.” (He’s also a frequent presence on the bandstands at Marvin and Sotto, both on 14th Street NW near the U Street Metro stop—not long ago he also appeared at District Distillery on U.)
Let it be said that, on the one hand, that Manley’s foundational guitar sound is very much in line with the tradition. He’s got the crystal-clear, round-droplet tones that Charlie Christian once upon a time made the lingua franca of the jazz guitarist’s art; the tones that Wes Montgomery voiced in octaves. Like any foundation, however, it’s only the bottom, supporting layer, and gives only the barest hints of what form the final structure will take.
For one thing, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Manley perform a jazz standard, either from the Great American Songbook or from the jazz composers’ repertoire. This is not to say that he doesn’t do so; of course he must. It’s only to point out that he doesn’t have a monogamous relationship with the Real Book. He certainly has a serious dalliance with funk, for one thing. On a recent night leading a quartet at Marvin, Manley was playing changes over a light go-go beat from bassist Eliot Seppa and drummer Dana Hawkins. Many, perhaps even the bulk, of his harmonic and melodic ideas came right from that Christian/Montgomery tradition, with logical developments proceeding through an alternating current of single-note lines and dense chords, all articulated in the aforementioned round tones.
But get real: Melody and even harmony take a backseat to rhythm. Manley’s music lived inside the crunching go-go accents, and he hit them hard whether he was soloing or not. Still, near tune’s end, when trading improvised phrases with tenor saxophonist Elijah Easton, Manley dropped breadcrumb trails of undulating blue notes, each ending with a piercing chord on the heavy beat. All that was just one number. Attempting to unpack what he did later in the set, with a bewitching and bewildering tapestry of polyrhythms that would do Fela Kuti proud, would take the whole column.
It would also take away from Anthony Pirog, surely the least surprising D.C.-based name to appear in a piece like this one. Nor can anyone dispute his independence from genre restraints: Pirog keeps busy right now as the guitarist for The Messthetics, the power trio that also features the bassist and drummer from Fugazi. He punk-rocks; he surf-rocks; he indie-rocks. He freeform freaks out. He… namelessly aurally experiments.
Yet there he was, on a recent Monday night stand at Blues Alley, with the likes of tenor sax man Brian Settles and Baltimoreans Jeff Reed (bass) and Mike Kuhl (drums) in the rhythm section. One step inside the storied Georgetown jazz club and one was surrounded by a brume of long-note, minor-key ambient sounds. Pirog has a warehouse of processing effects that he applies the way Bob Ross applied wet paint: broad strokes here, tiny lines there, one layer on top of the other so that blends and contrasts aren’t always easy to tell apart.
That combination of ingredients made for a sound more like droning post-rock, which Kuhl’s hypnotic cymbals and kick drum reinforced even when Pirog played a snarling, single-note improv line with echoes of (of all people) Joe Satriani. This particular tune, however, segued into a chattering four-way dialogue in which Pirog, Settles, Reed, and Kuhl fired off quick jumbles of notes, less phrases than sound bites, in what was nearly a round. It could be described as free jazz—even if it lasted less than two minutes before swerving into a melodic set piece—through-composed unison lines for Settles and Pirog on top, overlapping ostinato for Reed and Kuhl underneath—that almost immediately dissolved into dreamy guitar streaks and defiant sax eructations against yet another Reed ostinato. From there, the immediate progression was something like a medley, patterns of melody and harmony that shifted frequently, but with the rhythm section acting as a through-line. Afterward came a noir-like shuffle of a tune, with Pirog flexing some Frisell chops and Settles adding dark commentary.
It wasn’t quite a melting pot of influences—but it wasn’t a buffet, either. Pirog neither makes his ingredients insoluble nor compartmentalizes them. What’s the word for that?
There is, however, a definitive word for what Pete Muldoon is up to at the moment, and it’s a word that serves absolute notice that he won’t be put in a box. The word is opera.
That word comes with all the ambition it implies, too. The Beast and Dragon Clash is to be a multimedia affair, with visual effects (digital, video, and practical); elaborate costumes; choreography; and music both vocal and instrumental. It’s elaborate enough, in fact, that Muldoon wasn’t able to deliver the planned full performance of it at the Anacostia Arts Center on August 11; it was reduced to a highlights preview.
Unfortunately, that made also-ambitious the plot and characters of the thing difficult to untangle. There’s a world-controlling, natural-resource-engulfing machine (“The Beast”); there’s a resistance (“The Dragon”), alternately represented by individual actor-dancers and by a collective dragon costume; there’s a state-sponsored, dress-your-best suicide party; there’s also an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in which “Alicia” chases a butterfly and takes a magical, possibly hallucinogenic brew.
Befuddled yet? Alas, at the moment there is no coherent story to put those puzzle pieces together. (At least, not one available for public consumption.) There are, however, numerous reasons to be tantalized. Yaya Balbed, who plays Alicia, has a beautiful, even otherworldly singing voice; the digital animation and costumes, such as we could see of them, were beguiling. And the music, performed by a sextet with drummer Dante Pope as musical director, was heavenly.
It was often the most overtly jazzy of the three guitarists described here, with at least one instrumental passage taking on a straight-up hard bop form with sublime solo work by Easton on tenor sax, Joe Herrera on trumpet, and Muldoon himself. On the other hand, there are also passages of stomping soul and R&B, a great deal of psychedelic coloring, some suggestions of rock, and, well, musical theater, complete with a rousing chorus: “Come with us to kill the Beast!”
How (and indeed whether) it will come together? That’s yet to be determined. But the preview is enough to whet the appetite…if for no other reason than to find out firsthand what the hell Muldoon is trying to accomplish. Of course, to a large degree, that’s what all of these three D.C. guitarists ask from us.