Musicians on jazz’s vanguard usually ply their trade in dark, cramped rooms — albeit no longer as smoke-filled as they once were — so it came as quite a surprise to see Central Park’s annual Summerstage series kick off with this adventurous four-act booking.
The artists assembled for Nu Jazz Today!, all affiliated with the Connecticut-based Thirsty Ear label, share a vision that balances serious-minded envelope-pushing with a strong sense of play but approach it in decidedly different ways.
Pianist Matthew Shipp opened the proceedings with a reflective solo set that required considerable work on the part of the aud. While equally capable of exhibiting brain and brawn in performance, Shipp stuck largely to the former here, weaving gossamer melody lines that occasionally touched on standard bop structures. More frequently, however, he chiseled out icy lines that glistened dazzlingly, if sometimes a bit harshly, in the twilight.
Groundtruther followed Shipp’s stark perf with a daunting array of guitar feedback and lurching rhythms. The trio teamed guitarists Charlie Hunter and Elliott Sharp — both of whom have roots in improvisational music’s rockier realms — with drummer Bobby Previte in an alignment that proved both fractious and fascinating.
Hunter and Sharp occasionally seemed to be working at cross-purposes — the former courting convention with blues-based riffs and the latter looking to upset the apple cart via purposeful noise blasts — but they ultimately came together with the precision of a pro-wrestling tag team.
Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer was a bit less successful in uniting his ensemble, which was anchored by a pair of DJs, each with a distinct role in the mix. Molvaer’s playing, prickly and precise, is well suited to enmeshment in a sea of electronics, but at this perf, he seemed to lose his footing occasionally and got sucked under the waves.
Sex Mob’s headlining set had its share of off-balance flailing, but that’s part of the free-floating aggregation’s appeal. Led by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who’s one part musicologist and one part post-modern Cab Calloway, the quartet honked and squealed through nuggets of klezmer-funk, psychedelic soul and straight-ahead Duke Ellington, tickling the funny bone and the gray matter with equal aplomb.