Go Metric

The other Night at Quinn's - The Welf Dorr Unit

The centerpiece of the stage at Quinn’s is the lava lamp Christmas tree.  It’s tall and plastic and illuminated, lights slowly changing, rising and falling, undulating like a jellyfish.  The consensus is that it needs to stay up year round.  I’m not saying I want one at home, but here it belongs and there’s something about that tree that fits with the Welf Dorr unit.

Welf Dorr is part Johnny Carson, part Rick Wakeman.  He’s a jovial host, grinning beneath his pork pie hat, genuinely amused and motivated by those with whom he shares the spotlight.  He’s also fond of his effects, delay and phaser.  Watching him hold his alto sax with one hand, twiddle and modulate with the other, brings me back to my prog rock days.

I heard something about the Welf Dorr Unit has me ready for sharp sounds, jagged sounds that jut out, get caught on anything that happens by.  I expect sounds that don’t leave an easy-to-follow path.  That will come later.  Right now Dorr and guitarist Dave Ross surf whole notes.  Ross is Dorr’s wingman.  Maybe co-pilot is more apt.  Ross has dozens of credits on his website.  He lists the numerous types of music he’s played over the years, among them punk and hardcore.  It’s a subtle distinction but it merits bonus points.  (Kind of like that line from The Blues Brothers: “We have both kinds of music, country and western.”)  Just to be clear, Ross is certainly more Doc Severinsen than Ed McMahon.  Together Dorr and Ross sustain ideas that ease against the grain of the rhythm section, awash in the sounds of those effects boxes.

Dorr breaks out a bass clarinet for the next number, “Dixie,” which increases the sonic distance between he and Ross and points the band in a different direction.  Drummer Joe Hertenstein swells on the cymbals, rising but not bursting.  Along with the traditional line up of cymbals—hi-hat, crash, ride—he’s added some unusual characters.  One is a 5” mini-cymbal mounted on his hi-hat stand.   Dangling from an unused rack tom mount is the other, the remains of a battered and torn (crash?) cymbal.  The thing looks like a chunk of shrapnel.  I don’t know how he avoids slicing himself every time his arms pass near it.

I flash back to yesterday, when I took my daughter to Dia:Beacon.  It was her first museum visit.  She was amped up.  She wanted to draw everything she saw and write captions and copy down the artists’ names.  This was all her, no prodding—or even hoping, initially—on my part.

I followed her lead most of the afternoon.  Until we came to Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis).”  That’s when I wanted to rush her along.  As the title implies it’s made of broken glass.  What the title leaves out is that the glass is laid out on the floor and piled high, a good foot, foot and a half, with an area of twenty by fifteen, just lying there.  It’s meticulously crafted and, no doubt, reflects ample deliberation.  But it’s still broken glass on the floor.  A trap ready to spring.  There’s no border, no barrier.  It’s you and the glass.  The late Smithson claimed “map.”  I say “menacing mound.”  It creeped me out.  Maggie maintained a level head.  She took her time, laughing and sketching.  She wrote, “Glass!  Glass!  Run away!”

I did my best not to urge her along—model patience, man, model patience!—but even when we moved on I kept looking back.  I knew the mass wasn’t going to mobilize.  I assumed that no one trip and fall.  Still, I looked back just to check.     

Hertenstein dodges tragedy time and again, avoids clashing with that cymbal.  He locks in with bassist Dmitry Ishenko.  I expect Dorr and Ross to follow suit, succumb to the rhythm section’s gravitational pull.  But they don’t.  I should know by now.

“Dixie” gives way to “Sympaticus,” flows so smoothly that I’m unclear whether it’s one song or two.  If the first part of the set was “Songs That Echo,” then we’re now in the midst of “Songs That Swell.”  The rhythm section builds tension while Dorr and Ross resist, persist with their cough syrup ways.


Dorr holds for a bar here, two there.  He adjusts the effects boxes, though less often now.  Ross leans back and into the sound.  This is where he and Dorr dive in, right?  Not yet.  Instead they remain the relative calm at the center of the storm, reveling in the subtle, unresolved tension.  This could go wrong—easily, horribly.  But it’s less like a ballgame that ends in a tie and more like a short story's ambiguous ending; there’s work to do, things to sort out.  It’s a welcome process.

The next number is a different tale.  Dorr introduces it as a “free take on Mal Waldron’s ‘Left Alone.’”  Despite the tune’s keyboard origins this version belongs to Ross.  In short order he renders it a “Song That Rocks” ramping it up and sailing a sea of pyrotechnics, pulling the room together in “Holy crap!” awe.

Dorr smiles, laughs.  He looks for someone to revel with.  He turns to Ishenko but I think his eyes are closed.  Dorr scans the crowd, seeking a “Can you believe this?” connection.

Between songs Dorr introduces the band.  He lingers on Ishenko, and deservedly so; he’s a remarkable talent.  His style is easy going, from his right hand resting on the body of his bass to his eye glasses/ beard/Chaucer-thesis-brewing-in-the-back-of-the-brain appearance.  Some take life in stride.  Others, like Ishenko, do so standing still.

“We thought he was Russian, but he’s Ukrainian.  We seriously thought of renaming the band Free Ukrainia.” (Too soon? Is Dorr on pace to be the Gilbert Gottfried of the free jazz world?)

The band’s best comes last, in the second set.  (How often does that happen at Quinn’s, the first set paving the way for the second?  Onset and rhyme.  Set up and punch line.)  There are fewer effects in “Flowers for Albert,” more traction, more grit, less grease.  It’s a more conventional funk and it’s great.  Ross accents.  Hertenstein thumps a cowbell.  “Flowers” is treated to a slow, gradual landing, getting better as it downshifts, the music mixing with clinking pint glasses and laughter.

“Out Cry” offers a different kind of contrast.  Ishenko motors on.  Hertenstein swings.  They seemed headed for the conventional but Ross counters with an angular approach, launching shards of guitar Sonny Sharrock style.  The dude next to me simply says, “Wow.”

The Welf Dorr Unit brings a similar game plan to the closer, “Blood.”  Hertenstein places that menacing sword of Damocles of a cymbal on the end of a stick and spins it, twirls the damn thing.  It sounds cool, but I’m relieved when he tosses it to the floor and the band clicks into another funk tune.  Hertenstein and Ishenko outline.  Ross provides the details and Dorr finishes with the text features—title, photos, captions, etc.  Meanwhile the tree pulsates.  It’s another night at Quinn’s.

All About Jazz

Welf Dorr: Flowers For Albert

In 1905 Albert Einstein published three monumental papers. His theory on Brownian motion showed that minute particles in liquid move randomly; the photoelectric effect said that light can exist as either a wave or a particle; and special relativity states that the speed of light is constant, regardless of the observer's velocity.


A hundred years later the United Nations declared 2005 the World Year of Physics and German-born alto saxophonist Welf Dorr played "Flowers For Albert, a play on the title of David Murray's 1976 Hatology tribute to Albert Ayler, at the German House in New York. That night Dorr's piece honored the great German physicist while perhaps subtly hinting at the other great Albert.

Bridging nations and styles with a group that included drummer Kenny Wollesen, Ethiopian bassist Henock Temesgen, Japanese pianist Shoko Nagai and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, Dorr, who most regularly plays in New York with his trio and his hip-hop/jazz group Funk Monk, created a strikingly eloquent live album that variegates between periods of full jubilation and quiet discovery.

The group immediately dons a vibrant conviviality on the title track. Wollesen sets up a fresh, free atmosphere with a quick, breezy drum solo before Finlayson's steady trumpet line picks up the pace, prepping the space for Dorr to take charge on saxophone. Airy cymbals and piano add lightness to the long, deep sax tones, and soon all partake in the communal activities, conceding to each other in a space devoid of doubt. Soon the sound breaks down to elemental structures. Particles of plucking noise team with silent voracity. The piece builds again to catchy, horn-led melodies then echoes away with shards of trumpet and quivering drums.

Finlayson breaks out a swinging lyricism on "Outcry, held brightly aloft by the vivacious rhythm section. Fantastic solos spring up throughout the track. Nagai's spirited convolutions around the keys evolve into extreme counterpoint as her left hand takes on brooding chords that dissolve into a liquidy marsh of spooky bass notes, which in turn evaporate in the end into Wollesen's diligent drum solo. His progression follows the natural flow of motion created as the drums crash then fade, or beat after one another, barely leaving room between without treading on the next.

"Just 4 Us features a scrupulous bass solo by Temesgen. He scurries around the neck of his instrument, teetering serendipitously upon key notes before idling away. Dorr plays flute on several tunes, adding a soft tone to the album with tracks like "Deep In. His compositions are rich in substance, introducing new textures into traditional constructs. The last track, "Swept Away, mixes free jazz with the big brassy sounds of a big band, incorporating a contrapuntal nature that mimics the combination of careful symmetry and natural chaos that is science.

Personnel: Welf Dorr: alto saxophone, flute; Kenny Wollesen: drums; Henock Temesgen: bass; Shoko Nagai: piano; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Self Produced | Style: Modern Jazz

 

New York City Jazz Record

Big Beat, Underground Horns


An unapologetic party band with brains, Underground Horns is a melting-pot aggregation only possible in a big city: its chief composer, reedist Welf Dorr, is a Munich transplant who participates in Butch Morris conductions; one of its trumpeters is Japanese-born Satoru Ohashi, who moved to New York from New Orleans while the rest are veterans of local jazz, Latin and reggae bands. The 10 selections pop with relentless rhythms and with four brass players, a saxophonist/clarinetist and three percussionists, tonal inflections from the Big Easy, central Africa, the Maghreb and the Baltic states make their way into the mix.
   Tubaist Nate Rawls multi-rhythmically pumps out an ostinato underneath nearly every track, although any similarity to marching bands is scotched when the soloists appear. Dorr’s obviously-titled “Arabian Flavor”, for instance, features snake-charmer-like alto saxophone trills mixed with a stentorian brass crescendo, plus interjections from a disco whistle and resonating Berimbau-styled scratches. In contrast, trombonist Kevin Moehringer’s usual tailgate slurs are put aside on a tune like Dorr’s “La Luciernaga” for a solo that’s half-Willie Colón salsa and half-Rico Rodriquez ska. Eventually the vamping theme gives way to stop-time breaks involving the drummers.
   If there are drawbacks to this game plan, it’s that the constant beat is omnipresent during every tune’s exposition, turn around and finale, no matter how many half-valve trumpet solos or altissimo reed trills break it up. Perhaps the band realizes this. Although brassier and more percussive than usually played, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Dorr’s “Tranquility” are taken midtempo and moderato. The latter is defined by bass clarinet growls, smears and reed bites while the former melds tuba burbles, hand-slapped drumming and one trumpeter’s descriptive grace notes.
   Big Beat isn’t the sort of CD to be intently listened to in one sitting. But heard a few pieces at a time, or used as a festive soundtrack, it’s sure to impress.

New York City Jazz Record

Almost Blue, Underground Horns

Literally NYC’s Underground Horns, these musicians began as subway performers. A potent horn section led by Welf Dorr’s alto saxophone includes Patriq Moody’s cornet, Kevin Moehringer’s trombone and Andrew McGovern’s trumpet. Drummer Kevin Raczka, djembe player Okai and tuba player Chanell Crichlow remind how exciting and integral a live rhythm section can be; they are up in the mix with a crisscross rhythmic sound, which interacts with the frontline, providing all the broad organic support that these horns need.
Almost Blue’s AfroBalkan-Creole musical core also incorporates Latin and funk with a healthy appreciation of Monk, Mingus and Miles. A revved-up “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” leads off over a pulsating African rhythm while the band also injects trumpeter Don Cherry’s “Mopti” with additional exotic cultural influences, serving as an apt closer. In between the band goes on a sonic world tour that begins with “Ethio”, a catchy melody whose hypnotic beat serves as a platform for individual soloing and Moehringer’s funky trombone.
New Orleans is visited during “Mardi Gras” with a superb Second Line soundtrack followed by “Creole”, a trip to Haiti written and sung by Okai in local Haitian patois. AfroLatin jazz is given its due with a sweet ensemble send-up of the great Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke’s “Cha Cha”. Four originals from Dorr round out this release and stretch its boundaries: “Full Moon” is an almost breezy piece of funk; “House Song” has the band straying into an organically repetitive take on techno; “Rag A Tone” cleverly works off of a dembow reggaeton beat; and the title cut is a surprisingly elegant statement with Dorr adding bass clarinet to the sonic palate. Almost Blue, while true to the band’s formula of brassy danceable music, stretches out stylistically with excellent results.

All About Jazz

Underground Horns: Funk Monk (2009)

Alto saxophonist Welf Dorr has spent the last several years putting his own unique spin on the brass band, an instrumental lineup that is usually found in NYC crossing jazz with Balkan music. Although Dorr does look to Serbia for part of his musical muse he also draws heavily on a host of things including Afro-Cuban rhythms, funk and Thelonius Monk; thus the title of this release from his Underground Horns.Tubaist Joe Keady, who must have listened to a lot of bassist Bootsy Collins during his musically formative years, more than makes up for the latter instrument's absence on this session with up-in-the-mix lines. Dorr draws on the power of a lineup that, along with his alto, includes drums, conga, tuba, trumpet and trombone to produce kick-ass dance music but doesn't devolve into parody. This is really wonderful new brassy jazz fusion music that even brushes up against psychedelia with the superb epic jam "Sympaticus" that features Keady, conguero Enrique Arrosa and drummer Kevin Raczka laying down a complex percussive background.
   Alternate funky takes on Charles Mingus' homage to saxophonist Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," appropriately begin and close this program while the title cut achieves its stated aim as Monk's stylistic quirkiness is given a funky presentation. John Coltrane's "Miles Mode" and Monk's own "Evidence" are given similar shots of funky brass juice while the remainder of the program is stylistically diverse. "Ethio" is the most overtly Balkan sounding of the bunch and as such is an infectious charmer while Don Redman's nugget "Gee Baby (Ain't I Good 2 U)" is a slow blues burner. "Cherry" uses an infectious tuba hook to allow the musicians plenty of room to improvise and this version of bassist Tony Scherr's beautifully subtle Mid-Eastern infused "Almost Believe in Everything" amazingly maintains the tune's delicate intent.
Track Listing: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Funk Monk; Ethio; Gee Baby (Ain't I Good 2 U); Cherry; Almost Believe in Everything; Miles Mode; Evidence; Sympaticus; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (alt take).
Personnel: Welf Dorr: alto saxophone; Mike Irwin: trumpet; Kevin Moehringer: trombone; Joe Keady: tuba; Kevin Raczka: drums; Enrique Arrosa: conga.Record Label: Self Produced | Style: Funk/Groove

All About Jazz

Winter Jazzfest, New York City, Day 2: January 8, 2011


Underground Horns started its set with some Latin/New Orleans fusion and a Bo-Diddley beat propelling a 12-bar blues structure. Trumpeter Mike Irwin laid down a down-home funk line to a honky-tonk refrain, backed up by trombonist Kevin Moehringer. Welf Dorr then played a hot sax solo, after which percussionist Okai's djembe took over, along with Ibanda Ruhumbika's big and brassy tuba.
Uptown funk plus klezmer characterized the next number, with overtones reminiscent of John Zorn's Masada. More Latin inflections followed, bringing to mind a rainforest full of tropical fruit, an image bolstered by the tuba's perpetuated ostinato. A hard-bop trombone broke into more tropical percussion and marching band brass, like an acid-rock Big Ten halftime show. Irwin's trumpet solo was creative and filled with verve, mixing and matching curls, twists and turns. A very cool quartal vibe took the set out—and, with a few luminous, late-night exceptions, the 2011 Winter Jazzfest.