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Concert Reviews

The Paul Austerlitz Quartet – Live at The Stone



SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 2011

Performance Review by Tomas Peña

On Sunday March 29, Paul Austerlitz and his quartet transformed a performance space on New York’s Lower East Side into a house of worship. In a set that was short but sweet, the quartet showered the audience with a fusion of post-bebop, Afro-Dominican, Haitian and Nigerian rhythms, invocations, prayers and shades of Igor Stravinsky.

The event took place at The Stone, a community based, not-for-profit performance space founded by composer and saxophonist John Zorn. The performance was curated by Innova Records, whose unwavering support of artists “off the radar” is nothing short of remarkable.

Austerlitz is a jazz musician, Ph.D. ethnomusicologist and author. His specialty is Afro-Caribbean music with an emphasis on the music of the Dominican Republic – however, his “sound” defies the trappings of conventional labels or categorizations.

On this evening he was joined by the dynamic Venezuelan pianist, Benito Gonzalez, drummer Babatunde Lea and bassist, Eric Wheeler. “I am currently working with a quartet as opposed to a quintet,” says Austerlitz, “because I am aiming for a more streamlined, interactive sound which, while still based in Caribbean rhythms, also facilitates a hard swinging contemporary post-bebop sound.”

The set took flight with a Haitian-Creole invocation to the spirit, Papa Legba, titled Legba Nan Baye-A, or “Legba is at the entrance.” The band segued from the spirit of Papa Legba to the spirit of Sonny Rollins with East Broadway Merengue, a tune based on Rollins’ East Broadway Run, followed by One Peace, which is inspired by the works of composer, pianist and conductor, Igor Stravinsky. Oriki (a Nigerian praise song) is the first of two new works composed by Austerlitz with a grant from the Community Partners Program of the American Composers forum. The main composition was preceded by an unaccompanied introduction on electronic bass clarinet, where Austerlitz used electronic effects in order to expand his “timbral” palette. Prije djo, or Prayer of the Earth is a jazz arrangement of prayers (short songs) that are recited at the beginning of Haitian Vodou ceremonies. The set closed with Fret in the Open Fields, a swinging, interactive piece that appeared on Austerlitz’s CD, The Fret Cycle (with poet, Michael S. Harper).

“I really enjoy playing with these cats!” says, Austerlitz, “Benito is truly inspiring. His fiery and open hearted playing is an extension of his warm personality. Babatunde’s simultaneous playing of congas is not only virtuosic, but a fantastic boon for my band. Eric Wheeler is an outstanding young player who knows my repertoire and adds a supreme funky swing to the sound.”

As I watched the band and took in the atmosphere I was reminded of the New York Loft Scene circa 1970s, a time when music lovers and artists gathered in a spirit of curiosity, experimentation and innovation. Due to time constraints the set was cut short. Nonetheless, it was a rare opportunity to catch up with Paul Austerlitz, whose intrepid and innovative music never ceases to amaze me.

Listening samples of Paul Austerlitz are available on his website:

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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