Marc-Andre Hamelin at 92nd Street Y
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Perform Beethoven at Carnegie

James Carson and Lyndon Rochelle at Rockwood Music Hall

by Nicholas Fernandez


Photo credit: James Carson

Pianist James Carson and drummer Lyndon Rochelle poured their hearts into a set of original compositions and improvisations at Rockwood Music Hall on Friday. Between Carson’s dancing at the piano and Rochelle’s constant wiping of sweat from his brow, the physical and emotional energy the duo devoted to the performance was palpable.

Carson is far from your typical up-and-coming artist—a man with a feature documentary scheduled for release in the coming year, but no Wikipedia entry; a prodigy who designed and built a clay cabin in the isolation of rural Canada to spend countless hours practicing, accompanied only by a wood-burning oven. Carson’s quirks, however, are not without purpose. While attending New England Conservatory, Carson had an epiphany and realized his goal was to create a completely new musical conception that expressed the sound of earth and nature.

Carson is adamantly opposed to labeling his music, instead comparing it to bird songs or any other natural expression. It does not need a name to exist; it just is. Still, the repetitious melodies, shimmering piano flights, and trance inducing ostinatos came as close to John Adams minimalism as any jazz performance I’ve heard. Rochelle, of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society band fame, added hypnotic hip hop and jazz-influenced beats that drove the music with a passionate pulse and grounded Carson’s agile dashes across the keyboard.

Upon hearing “hip hop,” many listeners may expect formulaic drum patterns that lack dynamic range and nuance. But this is only an unfortunate outgrowth of the gross commercialization that has enveloped the style. Carson and Rochelle presented all of the groove, repetitive structures, and additive orchestration we have come to expect from the genre with none of the simplicity. The performance reiterated the concept that nothing that repeats is ever the same, even if only because we have changed in the intervening moments.

Carson split his time between Wurlitzer organ and acoustic piano, the nebulous attack of the lightly fingered organ often better fitting Carson’s shimmering arpeggiated figures, which he played with such speed as to invoke Coltrane-esque “sheets of sound.” Rochelle complemented Carson with a constant rumble, articulated with sharp accents and gaping silences, resulting in a heavily nuanced performance with tremendous dynamic range.

Most of the songs were preconceived, but they were only composed in the sense of having developed over time through improvised performances. Carson and Rochelle let the audience witness the process midway through the set, taking time for an extended, unplanned improvisation. The similarity between the ad-lib performance and the finished products revealed the artists’ level of mastery; the only difference between the two was that the duo was less coordinated in ending the improvisation, resulting in a few false finishes.

Whether Carson has indeed created a new musical form is not of any matter. Hints of Jazzanova, Dave Matthews Band, John Adams, Bud Powell, and the Roots are all present, but the music does not sound like an amalgamation. It is coherent, pure, and thrilling. Carson has a clear vision and has found a kindred spirit to articulate it in Rochelle.