by Nick Stubblefield
Applying genre labels to music and musicians can be a tricky business -- it sells a product, but is often at odds with the art itself. The Sketchy Orkestra, brainchild of pianist and artistic director Misha Piatigorsky, is a group dedicated to defying labels and convention, and the result is a unique, fun, and energetic ride. Their performance this week at New York's le Poisson Rouge served listeners a hearty helping of genre-defying tunes. There were elements of jazz, rock, hip-hop and even Russian folk-song in a single program, and it was raucous energy bobbing and weaving through the tapestry of lush texture and color.
To stage right, we saw a traditional jazz set-up. The rhythm section included Piatigorsky at a Yamaha concert grand, the bassist switching between electric and standup, and an auxiliary percussionist on the cajón -- a box drum I happen to personally favor for its Earthy timbre. To their right, a trumpeter and saxophonist. Dominating center stage, appropriately, was the twelve-piece string orchestra, the strings delivering a cinematic richness to each composition.
But the question was -- "could they groove?" In fact, they could, and they could groove hard. The arrangements, while diverse stylistically, were often filled with fun surprises. Sudden bursts of energy, jumbo-sized ranges in dynamics, and elongated sectional solos kept the audience engaged throughout. Piatgorsky's piano touch, plus the arrangements and compositions themselves, evinced the ensemble's classical training. "17 Rooms" evoked a Khachaturian-esque waltz; its folksiness gave the string soloists plenty to work with, and they were allowed to explore their full-range of abilities. In contrast, "Somewhere in Between's" heavy groove reminded me of a classic mo-town rhythm section.
Violinist Frederika Krier
One of the group's strengths was its ability to showcase its soloists. Singer Emily Braden brought a stunning, smokey soulfulness to her songs. Tenor saxophonist and New York mainstay Joel Frahm delivered some tasty adrenaline-fueled licks to the rockier numbers, and violinist Frederika Krier shredded an extended jazz improv with all the flashiness and fun of a classic rock guitar solo. Another standout included singer and beatboxer Anthony Flammia's tune "See You Again." Flammia, or just "Flamm" utilized a looper to slowly build a densely layered bed of beatbox, and proceeded to sing atop of it with a smooth and soulful croon.
The marriage of the string section to the traditional jazz group might seem an unusual idea, and it wasn't completely without the occasional drawback. It was difficult at times for the string section to match the sheer volume of two drummers at times, but they certainly did their best. They sounded their lushest and most emotionally powerful during their sectional solos.
In a medium as free as jazz purports to be, it can sometimes sound boxed in. It's great to see a group offer up something fresh. I'm putting my hands together for The Sketchy Orkestra as they do just that.