The New Monkey Knife Fight Improvisatory Struggle: April 2nd at the Redlight

Wander into the Redlight for the intriguingly named New Monkey Knife Fight Improvisatory Struggle. Gathered into the corner are Lyman Lipke on bass, Josh Cook on tenor sax, Blake Angelos on piano and Julian McDonough on drums. Julian thanks the capacity crowd for coming out to hear jazz on a Monday night and says “This is not your ordinary wedding set jazz. You might not like it. That’s ok. We love you.”

They kick everything off with Brandford Marsalis’ Impaler. Walking bass, rolling sax. Starts off swinging like a beautiful gate, getting louder, perfectly rough around the edges like a Zen rock garden. Josh’s sax arpeggios rolling off each other, stacking up within the music, dropping into Blake’s piano solos, burning up the keys. Lyman’s bass and Julian’s drums steady as a clock at this point, fast and with sharp attack. Julian looks happy as the sound gets more aggressive, drumming with obvious joy.
This music is exceptional, like nothing you have heard in Bellingham, intricately structured Jazz played with tremendous talent and passion. By the time they get to another Marsalis piece called Wolverine, there is a sense that the band getting to know the ground: comfortably walking around, talking to each other, stepping away from the center, Julian breaks into a solo. There is a blue electric energy pulsing in the room. Lightning barely contained. You feel the ground has cracks it. Volcanic.
By the time the group breaks into a George Garzone song, what is most evident is how much joy and sheer delight they have with their relationship to the challenging and difficult – but beautiful – music. When someone in the crowd yells out “knife fight” and the band erupts into a sudden musical chaos followed by a swinging elevator ride on LSD version of The Girl From Ipanema. Halfway through that someone else yells out another knife fight and more chaos, followed by a smoking version of Satin Doll. Thus the mystery is revealed behind The New Monkey Knife Fight Improvisatory Struggle.
The next piece is Brandford Marsalis Jabberwocky. Josh’s Sax kicks the bed off the frame. The music driven by an eccentric pulse, staccato riffs knifing through the room, Julian’s drums working through difficult sentences with odd punctuation. The group fills in exclamations and interrogatives that are seemingly misplaced, commas and dashes, then run ons and every participle is dangling and ing ing is going on and on in a beautiful spasm of the sheer joy of unbounded music. The meaning is between thought and expressions, always somewhere beyond, always elusive but tied down to the mast of an occult melodic structure known perhaps only to the musician, evocations of the sublime. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.
Into the second set. Humpty Dumpty. Josh’s sax is on fire. Molten. There is a synchronistic synergy between drum and bass. Blake’s piano is rolling down the scales like a pachinko ball, always bouncing into the unexpected, attacking the complicated piano structures with a sweet nonchalance. Breaking into a Julian solo with uncanny syncopation, erupting into virtuoso displays of rhythm before they all come back around into the “normal.”
Segue into the Thelonious Monk standard Well You Needn’t. An amazing bass solo by Lyman. Beautiful. Hands hitting the strings like swallows over a telephone line. Flutterings and snaps. Then Julian with the mallets on the drums. Just perfect. The essence of musical wit: brief like a broken haiku. Each player seems to be positing musical questions to the others, riddles, weird musical propositions, inside jokes.
Outside of the Blue Horse, it has been hard to discover great jazz, challenging jazz; true to its roots in that it is improvisational, spontaneous, alive, cut loose; but this is it. Here’s to hoping the Redlight keeps up The New Monkey Knife Fight Improvisatory Struggle every Monday night.