No identity crisis

By JON GARELICK  |  February 8, 2010

It helps that the rest of the trio is so equally adept. For most of the album, that would be bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding (singing wordlessly on several numbers) and drummer Richie Barshay. Michelin met Barshay playing in a band led by Argentine bassist Alejandro Cimadoro, and Spalding — a prodigy at Berklee whose star was rising fast — at a gig in a Brazilian restaurant. "It's very important for me to have someone who understands South American rhythms," he says. What's equally important is the intuitive virtuosity of his partners. On, "Kekume," for instance, Barshay isn't adhering to a strict candombe. "He's doing his thing," says Michelin. "That's one of the most powerful things about Richie — he can imply anything in two strokes." The three of them maintain the same kind of cohesive independence you can hear in Michelin's two hands, background and foreground merging and shifting, Spalding's voice an extension of the piano melody, her bass running counterlines, Barshay picking up everything and feeding it back to the other two players.

Reencontro is something of a valedictory, since it was made after Spalding and Barshay both moved to New York. A few tracks are filled out with Michelin's son Tiago in the drum chair and Leala Cyr singing. At the Beehive on Tuesday, Michelin will be joined by Tiago and the Israeli bassist Tal Gamlieli. At Berklee, Nando, Tiago, Gamlieli, and Koutsovitis will be joined by the Peruvian percussionist Jorge Pérez-Albela in a new project, Nando's settings of texts by the Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti. "Being older, I'm at that point where I don't have to prove that I can play Brazilian music or bebop. I can just be myself."

In the late '90s and early '00s, Dead Cat Bounce were one of the more exciting young outfits in town — bass, drums, and four saxophones suggesting the bluesy, riff-based counterpoint of the World Saxophone Quartet and Charles Mingus combined. They released albums in 1998, 2001, and 2004 and regularly played all the usual places in town. In 2003, saxophonist/leader composer Matt Steckler moved to New York, eventually pursuing a doctorate in composition at NYU, and the band's local profile dropped. But they did reappear in a concert with guitarist Eric Hofbauer's Infrared Band at the Cambridge Y back in September, and now they're returning to the Regattabar for their first show at that venue in years.

So, what's Steckler been up to? "Going back to school, teaching a bit more, learning from what my students produce," he tells me over the phone from New York. Dead Cat Bounce, he says, "had been my baby since right out of undergraduate school, and I hadn't been formally trained in composition. I was more of a player at that point." So he's worked with other ensembles and other instrumentations and experimented with electro-acoustic combinations.

And what has he learned? "I'm a jazz person first. I come out of that tradition, and that's the identity I feel comfortable ascribing to myself." His other projects, meanwhile, have broadened his horizons and informed his jazz writing.

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