[live review] Rabbit Rabbit at the Regattabar

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 heartbreaking.

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