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CP at SXSW: San Fermin blend contemporary art music and Brooklyn indie-rock

March 17, 2014

10015001_666735090030101_987239742_oThe South by Southwest Music Conference does a pretty good job of incorporating other genres into its rockcentric extravaganza; in recent years hip-hop and worldbeat especially have become major presences. But the conference has never quite known what to do with jazz. They always showcase a few jazz shows at the Elephant Room, but the booking is always so uneven and underwhelming that it doesn’t draw jazz fans to the conference nor rock fans already in town to the shows.

Nonetheless jazz pops up at SXSW in unexpected ways. For example, when the Brooklyn chamber-pop band San Fermin (who play Metro Gallery March 22) performed at Latitude 30 Saturday night, Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s compositions were so demanding that they almost required musicians with jazz and/or classical chops. Ludwig-Leone is classically trained himself, and he needed horn players who could execute the unconventional parts and then improvise on top of them.

Baritone saxophonist Stephen Chen and trumpeter John Brandon fit the bill. Their jazz training enabled them to improvise on the same level as the ambitious compositions and thus inject a wild spontaneity in San Fermin’s unusual blend of contemporary art music and Brooklyn indie-rock. The result was one of the best shows of this year’s SXSW.

Ludwig-Leone had a microphone at his keyboards on stage, but he used it only between songs to address the audience or give cues to his musicians. The actual singing was handled by baritone Allen Tate and soprano Rae Cassidy, working the very bottom and very top of the vocal scale. The songs form a dialogue between two possible lovers—an over-eager man and a wary woman—and the gap between the vocalists’ ranges was filled with the jazz-inflected turbulence of any uncertain romance.

Cassidy was a substitute for Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who recorded last year’s terrific album San Fermin, but then went back to their full-time band Lucius. Though a little weak on enunciation, Cassidy was a brilliant vocalist in terms of pure, keeing sound, most notably on the album’s standout track, “Sonsick.” She was buoyed by Chen’s and Brandon’s equally exhilarating parts.

A few minutes later up the street, the Wood Brothers were playing at St. David’s Church. The lead singer and chief lyricist is Oliver Wood, the taller brother with the long, straight brown hair and guitar. But the group’s secret weapon is Chris Wood, the shorter brother with curly, sandy hair and a big, upright bass. Before the Wood Brothers had ever released a recording, Chris had already achieved stardom as one-third of the jazz trio Medeski Martin Wood.

Percussionist Jano Rix makes the Wood Brothers a trio, and one’s first impression of their songs is of high-quality Americana music. But there’s a well defined thump to the sound that’s unusual in singer-songwriter circles, and Chris’s inventiveness and sheer physical strength on the upright bass derive directly from his jazz background.

This strong, slippery foundation was obvious on last year’s fine album, Muse, produced by Buddy Miller, but it was even more apparent in this live situation. From the wooden pews in the St. David’s sanctuary, one could see Oliver, standing in front of the altar, responding to the big bottom beneath him with a confidence and freedom that made his smart/funny/cathartic lyrics pierce a bit sharper. And it was jazz that drove those country-blues darts a little deeper.