Ambrose Akinmusire (The Stone 01.17.18)
If “New York” were an adjective, then I think The Stone might be the most New York place that I’ve ever been. It’s in the Alphabet City section of the East Village that, though gentrified quite thoroughly, still doesn’t look the part.
On the corner of E 2nd St. and Avenue C is a nondescript gray brick building. Rather than a hard corner, the building is flattened off to make one side of a hexagon. On the flattened corner is a door with blacked out windows. Faintly visible above the metal door-handle, in letters no more than two inches high – the stone. Inside is a wood floor, brick walls, perhaps two dozen rows of black plastic folding chairs, and a rickety looking white door with a sign that says “PLEASE DO NOT USE RESTROOM DURING PERFORMANCES. According to its website, The Stone is a “not-for-profit performance space dedicated to the EXPERIMENTAL and AVANT-GARDE.”
I stand in the doorway, beyond the reach of the street lamp waiting for the doors to open as a line slowly grows behind me and puffs of cigarette smoke mingle with the bursts of frigid breath. Even twenty minutes later, sitting on the far right of the front row away from the door, the blue chill remains, swirling around the chipped wood floor and biting ankles.
Arranged in the center of the room are three chairs, two music stands, a grand piano, a frayed amplifier, an empty trumpet stand, and an odd assortment of effects pedals. The lights dim, the buzz of conversation and rattling chairs begin to quiet, and a door to the right of the stage opens with a creak. Out walk Craig Taborn, Mary Halvorson, and Ambrose Akinmusire.
Taborn takes his seat at the piano. Halvorson, in a chair amidst the cables and effects. Akinmusire, clad in a black shirt and brown herringbone blazer, stands in front of the remaining chair and motions to his right. Craig Taborn Mary Halvorson. He begins speaking abruptly, does not pause between names, and says nothing more. He sits, puts his trumpet in his lap, and closes his eyes as Taborn and Halvorson begin to play.
Mary Halvorson is slight, just over five feet tall, and peers over the enormous bout of her weathered archtop guitar through green-rimmed glasses at the dimly lit music stand in front of her. Her guitar playing is outlandish. She sits with both feet propped against pedals; one used for drastic volume swells and the other for warbly surreal slides and dives in pitch. Her foot leaves the volume often to click switches on a green plastic box to her right that initiates spinning and tumbling echoes that swirl around her in layers.
But with everything, her guitar is coarse and dry. Her sound is bright and brittle. Each stutter of her pick or slide of her fingers audible through the amp; metallic clicks and scrapes that, in turn, repeat ad nauseam and flit about the room like gnats. Her bursts of notes interspersed with leaps and turns and the clank of open strings, each note struck forcefully with her pick. No slurs. No shortcuts. Nothing to smooth the jagged edges or round the hard angles.
Around her frenetic swarms, the piano builds worlds behind the blackened glass on Avenue C. Bursts of dissonance clawing at the walls and scrapes of taut wire behind the hammers. Over it all, the trumpet. Long cries and lips bending the pitches against the echoing scramble of guitar. Shouts and gasps bouncing off the dusty brick walls. Pulling pitches from the maze of noise and counterpoint and bending them, stretching them, playing the space around them, and tossing them away as the cacophony grows huge in the small room.
The explosion of racket sinks like a tower collapsing in slow motion until all that remains is the trumpet; muscles flexing in the cheeks as the pitch wavers slightly and the breath dies. As the stream of brass fades into cracking, the breath itself becomes audible.
The Stone, on the corner of Avenue C and E 2nd St, is a place that has no address. It’s a place that hides on a cold night in Alphabet City with two-inch letters against a blacked-out door the only sign of its existence. It’s a place where people cram into a drafty room to listen as a pianist rakes his fingers over the strings inside his piano. Where on a Wednesday night, a full house sits in reverent silence and strains to hear the spit whistle from a trumpet mouthpiece. There is certainly some competition but I think The Stone is the most New York place I’ve ever been.