Mid-Atlantic Regional Report
Edited by Anthony Coloneri
June 29, 1999 - Nuyorican Poets' Cafe, New York City
by Lawrence Duarte.
When the flyer was handed to me at the Gathering of the Vibes, I just shoved it into my back pocket and forgot about it. When I returned to New York City, dazed and tired, I threw my clothes into the washer machine and forgot about them for a while, too. But a week later when I put my jeans on I found a crumpled piece of paper in my back pocket. The same flyer that was handed to me at the vibes. Partially destroyed, I was still able to make out the day and time of the event. Octopoet? What's Octopoet? Hmm, featuring members of Max Creek, Spin Doctors, Gil Scott Heron Band, Joe Gallant, spoken words by Frank Messina? Sounds interesting. Only $8.00, hmm. I'm there.
I've heard of Frank Messina and saw him perform his spoken word gig at the Vibes briefly, but I never knew this cat packed so many goods into one basket. When I entered the club, I instantly noticed Cecil Taylor in the audience. After a beer, I got the nerve to approach him and ask him when he's going on tonight. "I'm not playing, man, I'm here to see the show. What about you?" At that moment I knew I just better shut up and see the gig for myself and ask questions later.
The lights go down and the stage brightens with the presence of Mark White of the Spin Doctors and Joe Gallant doubling up on bass, Brian Jackson, the long time collaborator with Gil Scott-Heron on piano, Max Creek drummer Scott Allshouse, sax gurus Elliott Levin and Erik Lawrence, Jamaican master percussionist Larry McDonald, Phil Kramer on guitar, three back-up vocalists and wordman Frank Messina at center stage. From the moment the band started, I felt at home. My apprehensions and curiosities went out the window and my ears easily absorbed the candy that Octopoet was dishing out to me. Although this was booked as a jam session, the "tunes" were orchestrated beautifully, never losing the dynamic groove that Mark White, Gallant, Allshouse and McDonald had established. The three female back-up vocalists, Lucy Woodward, Laura Berman and Marya Lawrence seemed to grab hooks off Messina's words and embellish them very well. Messina's delivery was exceptional. Although I've seen several spoken word gigs before, I knew that this particular collaboration wasprobably unprecedented. The band was grooving over Messina's words like butter. Of course, the bar being close by helped with the lubrication of my ears. But I knew this was serious stuff. The fusing of poetry and music has long been a testy genre. While most spoken word artists lean on catchy licks or loud, crashing guitar riffs to back up their thin metaphors, Messina is clearly a cut above the rest. His poetic content varied from tales of travel and love gone astray to pure celebration of poetry and the muse. In effect, Messina celebrates the human condition in all its joy and misery. Messina is clearly a pro and it's no wonder he gains respect from the best musicians in the jazz and rock worlds. He's got several books and three cd's out at the moment. But I had to remember, this was a jam session with no real tunes being played. There were a few hints of Miles Davis's "In a Silent Way" and a few chords of "Dark Star" in the second set I think. But overall, this was pure jamming without one piece getting thrown out of proportion. Messina's recitation kept the jams solidified with very tight resolves. Frank invited Brooklyn hip hopper Pauley Ethnic on stage for a super high energy rap and another poet, Cherie, in the second set. I have to give a lot of credit to Messina for rounding up these cats and making one hell of a party at the Nuyorican Cafe'. A real treat to any fan of jam band music. Let's hope this best kept secret stays accesible, for the word is already hitting the streets like hard rain. The Octopoet series continues Tuesday, July 27 and Tuesday, August 31.
Lawrence Duarte is a freelance columnist for Down Beat, New York Press and many fanzines across the planet.
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