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Tales from the Lower East Side by Stephen Gauci and Andrew Greenwald

Manhattan island’s Lower East Side, much like so-called "free" jazz, is a territory that attracts newcomers primarily based on a reputation built up in its early years: a restless individuality that welcomes with intransigent, often hard-won, open arms, amidst boundaries pock-marked by dangerous side-streets and seething side glances. In both places, the usual suspects might mutter with grim pride that the rents are cheap, but the price of life is immeasurable. But in both cases, the notoriety of such hard-luck reputations has withered away much of the vibrancy and originality that lay behind such claims - often, in recent years, the bark of the names is significantly more imaginative than the bite of reality.

Perhaps, then, it is with a sly sort of smile that Steven Gauci and Andrew Greenwald tell these Tales from the Lower East Side in the form of free-form drum-and-tenor duets. Certainly, this format is bound to draw comparisons to the John Coltrane-Rashied Ali duets of the late 1960s, but such statements are rather off the mark here. Gauci, who sticks to tenor throughout, brings along a similar sense of rhythmic/melodic insistence (sans harmonic interruptions) as Greenwald is clearly more interested in his kit-as-palette rather than holding down a steady backbeat, but that is really where the similarities end. Like recent gentrification programs on the Lower East Side, decades of stagnation have brought formalities to old free jazz stomping grounds, which (it must be admitted) make for a more comfortable experience for the casual visitor.

As Gauci himself has stated in an interview with John Ewing, "There’s nothing to be free from anymore. You’re either an artist or you’re not. The only things you need to free yourself from are personal limitations you place on yourself." And there is something in the hardened Joe Henderson handles attached to the burly, Ben Webster bear that flies out of Gauci’s saxophone that labels him without much of a stretch as an artist. Drummer Greenwald moves effortlessly back and forth between brushed ripples of cymballic interference and thunderous explosions on the toms and snare, never allowing Gauci to get too comfortable in the fireside corners of his confessional melodic streak. These Tales amount to a suite of eight untitled tunes, quite a few of which boast surprisingly hummable heads before and after leaping into the Interstellar Space expected of the sax-drum duo. The variety is impressive as well, Gauci’s fertile melodic imagination shuttling back and forth between sinewy smoke-trails that weave slowly through the air and wild firework-explosions of notes that dot the landscape with furious abandon. When Gauci rests on whole notes, savoring their flavor, Greenwald responds with relentless snare rolls; if he crests on a wave of sonic fury, Greenwald backs off to give him rhythmic room to breathe.

Any reviewer of this disc is probably supposed to mention the fact that Gauci suffers from such severe hearing loss that he wears hearing aids in both ears, or that Greenwald is only a twenty year old student at NYU, but the former’s control of volume and dynamics and the latter’s deep-bottomed bag of tricks make both facts seem rather irrelevant. If there is a complaint, it is simply that the music overstays its welcome a bit; by "Part 8" the listener’s ears are more than a little tired and begin to search for a well-deserved diversion. Still, that comes more from an ambitious attempt to simply stick everything on this debut CD rather than pare it down to an essential statement of the facts; this is certainly more tolerable than the paltry, all-star laden, line-up switching sinkers the major labels tend to release these days. If this Lower East Side is a little less dangerous than its 1960s predecessor, then it is still a fascinating place to wander for the afternoon. Whether they stick to the unhinged daring of this format or move forth into more expansive harmonic territory, it will definitely be interesting to watch these two progress.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stephen Gauci and Andrew Greenwald
  • CD Title: Tales from the Lower East Side
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Gauchtime
  • Musicians: Stephen Gauci (saxophone), Andrew Greenwald (drums)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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