Venues can be a boon to a jazz show, or a detriment. Seeing Andy Milne and Dapp Theory in the moderately upscale (yet warm and inviting) digs at South turned out to be a huge plus for the evening, but initially, skepticism loomed. Places this nice, with food this good, often book jazz more for ambiance than musical substance. If this was the case and they were unknowingly going to get a huge helping of the latter, (as only Dapp Theory can serve up), it could make for an awkward atmosphere. The skepticism quickly abated however when it was learned that the Wednesday series at South is curated by Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans. South evidently knows what they are doing putting Evans in charge and Evans clearly knows what Andy and Co. bring to the table.
And bring it they did.
In following Andy Milne from his days with Steve Coleman's Five Elements, to the genesis of the original Dapp Theory and through to the present, his growth as an artist, composer and bandleader has been evident and was on full display here. But having seen virtually this same line up in 2009, what was obvious about the evening's proceedings was how the band had grown beyond being a list of young, talented A-List players and into its own formidable, organic entity.
From the opening strains of "In the Mirror, Darkly" to its impromptu yet seamless collective veer into an unreleased Milne composition, it was obvious this was a different Dapp Theory. One capable of the all-too-rare feat of not just playing complex material, but internalizing it and interpreting it in a spontaneous, reactive manner. Milne's increasing ability as a bandleader is praise-worthy here. Not only for fostering the growth in his younger accomplices so well over the years but for his simpatico for their unique abilities as players. This perhaps has been enhanced and exemplified by his recent work on the yet-to-be released "Seasons of Being," project, in which Milne draws parallels between the ideas of custom tailored, patient driven approaches in homeopathic medicine and custom tailored player driven approaches to musical composition and performance. And, in terms of the players that drive this band, the night showed that Milne certainly has a lot to work with.
Bassist Chris Tordini, (who has also worked with keyboard wizard Tigran Hamasyan), split his time on basses, initially on acoustic and then electric. Unlike some other players, the pouch on Tordini's upright that brandished a bow contained an artfully used tool rather than a glorified hood ornament. This was beautifully proven by his augmentation of the tunes "Katharsis" and "Capturing The Castle" with inventive uses of bowed harmonics and string attack. Some straight up great acoustic playing ensued as well on the tune "Ancestry" (which was Milne's Tordini-centric composition on the "Seasons" project). Switching to electric bass, Tordini invaluably locked in with drummer Kenny Grohowski on everything from the irregularly spaced rhythmic minefield of "Search Party," to the insanely muscular groove of "Hopscotch."
Milne was calling the sequence of tunes on the fly but emerged with a nicely ordered set that really underscored his expanded compositional range of late. This also allowed for an effective display of Kenny Grohowski 's huge versatility as a drummer. Though this is apparent from reading Grohowski's resume, it has never been more apparent within the sole context of a Dapp Theory show. From a modest kit Grohowski brought forth an ever-pertinent rhythmic musicality with which to underpin the band. Sometimes this was necessarily understated (as on the chamber ensemble-type playing required on parts of "Three Way Mirror" and "Ancestry"), and sometimes appropriately forceful (as on the deftly executed odd-metered pockets produced for tunes like "Hopscotch" and "After The Fact"). Perhaps his biggest achievement though lies in his ability to maintain space while still driving the band hard. That's a great asset in a band with so many layers sometimes being conveyed at once and it was especially apparent this night.
The one member of the group that was not in the 2009 line up, reedman Aaron Kruziki, proved to be a valuable addition. He unenviably fills the spot in Dapp Theory once occupied by greats Gregoire Maret and Loren Stillman, but Kruziki's multi-instrumentalism broadened the palette of the already expansive sound wafting through South this night. Switching between clarinet, soprano sax, doudouk and bass clarinet, Kruziki contributed textures and sounds that represented a whole microcosm that would have gone missing had he been confined to a single woodwind. He lent essential ethnic flavor to "Azerbaijani Folk Song," and just when he gave the impression of being a texturalist and spare soloist, he would rip an impressive, anarchic line over a difficult change that left the room tingling.
But of all the things that has set Dapp Theory apart, the most notable is their infusion of the spoken word into the mix. In the band's earlier days, the effect was novel—jazz + rap = new. All good and fresh but over time perhaps that very novelty caused the rap to take on the character of being an addendum. This night however, and perhaps as continuing evidence of the group's evolution, John Moon's poetics went from being the add-on cherry on top of the sundae to the quintessential secret spice that was the magic in the musical stew. From his more structured and sparse contributions to his full blown free associated lyrical collages on the tunes "Search Party' and "SOS," his effect this night on the music imparted a wholly cinematic quality that drew the listener in, breathlessly.
With all of the superlatives that the audience at South was absorbing, Andy Milne's brilliant performance as a player that night could be unjustly glossed over. His facility on the keyboard made this truly challenging music sound easy. As for his soloing, as in his compositions, so many things came to bear. Classical flourishes, shades of Coleman's influence, a dose of Monk-ish harmony and even hints of a folk populism all emerged. But what was most engaging about his playing was his steady push into where he (and we) had never gone before -executed with sure-footed abandon and authentic wonder.
The modest crowd in attendance was treated to something wonderful, substantive and all too uncommon. Thanks to Andy Milne and Dapp Theory and kudos to Orrin Evans and South for bringing them back to Philadelphia.