From Miles in space to Jazz for the Deaf: Ben Neill and Mörglbl

Two distant jazz mutations from opposite directions when Ben Neill and Mörglbl hit Philadelphia.

Ben Neill @ The Gatherings (photo: Jeff Towne)

Ben Neill @ The Gatherings (photo: Jeff Towne)

I caught two very disparate shows in Philadelphia this weekend, both drawing upon elements of jazz, but ultimately having little to do with jazz at all.  First up was Ben Neill, performing at Saturday, May 16 at  The Gatherings concert series.  He’s released several recordings including Green Machine, Tryptical, Goldbug and Automotive.  A new CD is slated for the fall.

Neill doesn’t make it easy on himself.  He wrestles with his “mutantrumpet” a Rube Goldberg contraption with 3 trumpet bells, one of them muted, 2 sets of valves, a mini-trombone slide and electronics that trigger other sounds.   He creates a layered, realtime performance with trumpets sometimes having contemplative inner dialogues and sometimes shout out call & response exchanges.  All the while,  electronic sounds  swirling to the rafters on waves of synth pads.  As near as I can tell, he was controlling everything in real time with rhythm loops triggered in Ableton live.  Even the screen images were being manipulated via his trumpet, pulsing and warping in sync to what he was playing.

Ben has roots in the usual sources, notably Miles Davis and Jon Hassell, but he’s staked out his own terrain in the sonic landscape, mixing fractured jungle loops under his free-form improvisations.  His music is like a digital river, with a different fractalized scene around every corner, the constant being Ben Neill greeting you on your way.

As usual at Gatherings shows, it could’ve been a lot louder.  The opening act, Soporus, especially suffered from low volumes.  A guitars and bass quartet, they play melody and rhythm free textural drones soaked in reverb. Immersion is the key, but their volume was so low, you could hear the acoustic sound from their electric guitar strings when they tuned up or strummed their strings before a volume swell.  Note to The Gatherings, turn it up as loud as “you” think it should be, then put another 5db on it.

Jazz for the Deaf At the other end of the spectrum was Mörglbl, the French power trio that features shredding guitar playing from Christophe Godin.  Ben Neill makes you want to stop and ponder things.  Mörglbl doesn’t let you catch your breath in a nonstop delirious charge, punctuated by pulled faces, devil horns and mock-crotch symbolism.

They appeared Sunday, May 17 at The North Star Bar, a return to the area after their triumphant showing at NEARfest in 2008.  Their new CD is called  Jazz for the Deaf and that title says a lot about both their humor and their music.  Godin is a formidable player ripping off fret-defying runs, squonks and squeals, all while mugging for the audience.  He has self-deprecating wit, simultaneously mocking guitar hero mannerisms, while also embracing them.  Yet, no matter how fast he plays, or how often he strikes a Spinal Tap pose, every note is crafted with the perfect inflection, then slammed and twisted with more whammy bar than I’ve ever seen used in a concert.

Godin’s bandmates are with him all the way through heavy metal riffs to lightning rhythm shifts.  Mörglbl seems so tightly wound as a band that I was surprised to read that they claim most of their music is improvised.

“All the solos on stage are all improvised. In fact, the only written things are the riffs,” said Godin in an article from

But they sounded completely tooled within razor thin tolerances.  Except for some bass solos by Ivan Rovgny, it didn’t seem like they were ever winging it, to the point that things got a little predictable over the course of nearly two hours.  “Our next song is going to be a ballad.  No really!” they quipped in a running joke.  Then they’d lay into another rip-your-head off tune, with Godin filling every available space with a flurry of notes.  But in fact, a few slower, more pensive tunes would’ve provided a bit more dynamic for the show.  I’m sure they’ve got one somewhere.

Mirthrandir opened for Mörglbl.  They sounded like you’d expect from a 3rd tier prog band who takes their moniker from the Elven name for Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.  That is, stylistically accurate symphonic prog ala Yes circa 1972.

You can hear Mörglbl on their new CD, Jazz for the Deaf due out June 2.  And they still have a several dates left in their North American tour.   Catch them if you can.  Ben Neill’s new album is due in the fall.

For Philly readers/listeners, if you want to get a mostly-weekly update of Philadelphia concerts like these, email us Philly Concerts in the subject line.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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