At the New England Conservatory these days, "improvisation"
means all kinds of things, not all of them jazz. You need have looked no
further than the performance by Rabbit Rabbit at the Regattabar Wednesday
night. The band is the duo project of the violinist/composer/singer (and NEC
faculty member) Carla Kihlstedt and composer-multi-instrumentalist Matthias
Bossi. The R-Bar show (which also included the Kombucha Trio) was one of a
series of concerts this season celebrating the 40th anniversary of
the NEC's Contemporary Improvisation department.
So what is Rabbit Rabbit like? Kihlstedt has earned a
reputation for instrumental virtuosity as well as for an omnivorous polyglot
musical curiosity in projects ranging from Rabbit Rabbit, Tin Hat, 2 Foot Yard,
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,
and many more collaborations of all stripes. In her music you can hear jazz,
rock, European classical, American folk, and various streams of world music. At the
Regattabar, Rabbit Rabbit often evinced an Americana strain, enhanced by the
spare poetry of their lyrics. Bossi played acoustic piano, a variety of
percussion including cajon, a samba surdo drum and a snare, a bass harmonica,
and a keyboard he identified as a Civil War field organ ("it's been rebuilt,
but the guts are authentic"). They were also joined by regular collaborator Jon
Evans on electric and acoustic basses as well as guitar and lap-steel guitar.
Kilhlstedt was the charismatic focal point. Her violin playing alternated
delicate rhythmic grounded figures with slashing bravura displays. She often
sang in hushed tones or in high pianissimos, dead on pitch. Her mid-range was
earthy and commanding. The first piece was called "Hush Hush," and it went from
a whisper to a scream, both in instrumentation and in the power and range of
Kihlstedt's voice, Bossi moving from tinkling piano figures to slamming his
mallets across surdo and snare.
There were some homespun country-waltz grooves and a tune that
matched great whistling and vocals. On one piece, whose lyrics were adapted
from Gunter Grass's Dog Years,
Kilhstedt conjured Eastern Europe with a minor-keyed tune played on a trumpet
violin (exactly what you'd picture) while Bossi hummed away on his field organ
before the tune shifted to a mid-section medieval waltz with Bossi thumping
time on the surdo.
Kihlstedt's voice - and the tunes - evoked that strain of pop
singing that seems to come down from Kate Bush: tuneful pyrotechnics with
expressive breaks and wisps of dissonance. Meanwhile, Bossi sang one song all
on his own- a simple diatonic ditty dedicated to Randy Newman, Hankus Netsky
(of NEC) and "the voting public." Called "Ballad for No One," it was all about
absences. Bossi sang it in a pliant, smooth-grained baritone, and he was