susie ibarra (and trio)

after listening to a couple of ibarra’s cds on the tzadik label i wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. she has some mainstream sensibilities (‘azul’ is a crowd-pleaser that i’m nearly sick of now), but focuses primarily on an improvised jazz sound. we had the chance to catch her at a jazz workshop at this years jazz festival here in vancouver, and it was insightful into her technique and philosophy.

susie’s roots are in piano, which she played for years as a small child. later on she played drums in a punk band. then she moved to new york to be a painter, but saw sun ra play and was converted to jazz. i read somewhere she played under milford graves, something that comes through in her sound. she perceives percussion as a melody, and after hearing her say that it shifted the way i listened to her albums. i’m no jazz aficionado, nor am i particularly musically trained, so it’s always fascinating when i pick up some conceptual background for how to listen to music. susie had a bunch of other percussionists in the room come up and get a bit of a lesson. she is a warm person, though seriously shy. her voice is barely more than a whisper.

the first time we saw her on stage was with her trio as an opening act out at the vancouver east cultural centre. she was quieter, more nervous, and exhibited several disturbing obsessive compulsive ticks: constant tucking of hair behind ear, though there was no hair to tuck. rubbing of forehead. fidgeting with clothing. incessant tightening of same cymbal.

besides the strangeness, susie is a hummingbird percussionist. force, precision, and swiftness. she’s engrossing, her arms moving at a blur pace. the appearance of mastery.

as a trio, however, they are lacking something. i’m not positive i know what it is, but there is an element not quite right. one of the factors i think affecting them is that they often play from a score. they don’t look comfortable with this, and any improvised moments feel dangerously controlled. i think susie might be a bit of a control freak, something that makes her studio recordings sound so good. jennifer choi can throw out the tunes with flash, though showy violinists kind of irk me because they feel very pretentious (showy fiddlers, conversely, are stylish). craig taborn is good on the piano, but he looks very restrained by the parameters of this trio. he looks as though he wants to explode into moments of complete freeform.

we had a chance to watch them play again the next day. same thing. this time we had bad seats and spent most of the show watching taborn pull his pants up. this time round, however, i could appreciate the sound of the performance better. they’re a band i’d rather not see live. i spent most of the first show wanting to bearhug susie so that she’d relax a bit. that said, i’d happily dish out for their next album. i think they’ll get better on stage with experience.

june 28 & 29, 2003, roundhouse
june 28, 2003, vancouver east cultural centre