What is jazz? The question is posed — although not really answered — in the program given out at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, which brought this avant-leaning perf to lower Manhattan on Saturday evening. Was this jazz? The sounds imparted would suggest not — but the spirit of the musicians involved fit the bill well enough to make the answer a qualified “yes.”
Yoko Ono’s brief opening set — during which she teamed with Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and peripatetic turntablist DJ Spooky — furthered the notion that context has a lot to do with a performance’s success. In a small club, Ono’s vocal acrobatics would have been primal, piercing and perhaps riveting: Allowed to drift into the open air, they came across as ineffectual, even a trifle cartoonish.
Perhaps in deference to Ono, Moore sublimated some of his more abrasive tendencies in order to lay down a wiry, textural carpet of sound — an element that contrasted well with the loops conjured by Spooky, who was at his most linear for this perf. Still, the three pieces presented by the trio were far too insubstantial to take root with anyone not predisposed to unconditional Ono worship.
At the onset of their prolific career, Stereolab confronted audiences with a heady, complex melange of sounds, drawn from the driving motorik rock of Neu! and Can as well as the frothy sounds of mid-’60s Euro-film soundtracks. On the band’s most recent works — as at this poised, powerful set — the emphasis has shifted to the latter element, all the better to showcase co-leader Laetitia Sadier’s velvety vocals (not to mention her way of making a Marxist screed connect on the same level as “The Girl from Ipanema”).
The easygoing demeanor manifested in songs like the vaguely tropical “Intervals” and the delicately percussive “Infinity Girl” made for a pleasant, if not altogether absorbing, perf. Sadier’s synthesizer structures and Tim Gane’s gently tugging guitar lines did elevate most of the songs beyond easy listening, although sometimes just barely.
Not all of the band’s scenes were presented in soft-focus, though. A truncated version of the epic “Jenny Ondioline” chugged along purposefully, picking up a terrific head of steam as it advanced, as did the musky “French Disko.” By the end of the lengthy set, Stereolab had divined the correct balance between spoonfuls of sugar and avant-rock medicine — and that went down in the most delightful way.