Live: Buffalo Collision

Live: Buffalo Collision

Ethan Iverson (piano), Tim Berne (alto saxophone), Hank Roberts (cello), Dave King (drums) / The Sugar Club, Dublin / 28 January 2009

What happens when buffaloes collide? A lot of dust and thunder. Or, musically, an improvised, conversational clash of sounds and ideas that, though it does indeed have seismic moments, also surprises with quiet beauty and subtle revelation.

The four musicians who make up this aptly named band have redefined the boundaries of improvised music across two generations. Woody Herman this is not. Iverson and King are two-thirds of the Bad Plus, a young American piano trio that burst onto the scene at the turn of the century with an intricate approach to improvisation wrapped inside a rock sensibility. Berne and Roberts are part of what is rapidly becoming the old guard of jazz innovation, downtown-scene veterans who have been recording together since the days when the Bad Plus were in short pants. Berne in particular is a major figure, a keeper of the flame for the uncompromising musical path of his mentor, Julius Hemphill, whose intense compositions always defied labels and whose exploratory spirit was present throughout this evening of consistently thrilling music.

Concluding a European winter tour before a rapt Dublin audience, Buffalo Collision played three totally improvised pieces that bristled with energy and intelligence. Moving from impressionistic interplay to furious grooves, breaking off into different duo and trio combinations, exploring novel tones and textures, the band played free music of the highest standard – not just fresh and engaging, but rigorous and, when it needed to be, thoughtfully restrained.

Berne occupies the aesthetic centre of this project. Like Hemphill, he likes to set his lean alto style against the alternative harmonic voice of the cello, and he and Roberts had some sublime exchanges. But it was Iverson who offered the most compelling improvisatory explosions. As well as being a fine pianist, Iverson is a writer and jazz historian whose blog, Do the Math ( is essential reading for anyone serious about improvised music. He has written lately about the stride piano tradition of, among others, James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, an exploration that has found its way into his own playing – and how wonderful it is to hear the influence of the Harlem stride style refracted through the strange prism of this group’s free playing.

But the concert was a collective enterprise and a collective success. King’s enthusiasm and focus behind the drum kit created a more sensitive presence than he usually displays in the Bad Plus. Roberts’ sonic excursions were always interesting, though his contribution was sharpest when he was working the lower registers. And the titles of these pieces? When I asked for a set-list the band just replied: ‘Call them Buffalo Collision Dublin One, Two and Three.’ Or, you could say, four guys having a series of intense, resonant musical conversations.

Published on 1 April 2009

Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.

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