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Cinematic Orchestra

(2 Jul 2003: Bowery Ballroom — New York)

The Cinematic Orchestra Live—great, but remind me why I care? The Cinematic Orchestra’s show at the Bowery Ballroom was more than a little flat—but I’ll expound on that later. First, just a brief comment on opener DJ Karsh Kale, who wasn’t any better. He spun a listless and seated set that evoked an idiot A & R’s vision of Jackson Heights and Basement Bhangra laced with overpriced falafels and bad ecstasy.


As Cinematic Orchestra took the stage, I noticed it was already draped with more electronics than NORAD in the 1970s. This couldn’t be a good sign, as one of the things that make the Cinematic Orchestra’s recordings so excellent is their reliance on rich orchestration. Thus the name the Cinematic Orchestra. Leaving behind the strings and other real instruments was a big mistake. Something was definitely lost, even though I’m sure that all the samples were taken from the masters.


For the first part of the set, the Cinematic Orchestra’s gangly white Brits were joined by Niara Scarlett, a voluptuous black female who provided a vocal center. Just like her colleagues, she hit all the right notes, and just as with her colleagues, I strained to care but couldn’t. The line-up was a drummer, bassist, a saxophone player who wielded a tenor and a soprano, a keyboardist, a DJ, with mastermind J Swinscoe working a sampler and a second keyboard. All band members switch-hit on some sort of acidy bass synth. The best part of the band was the keyboardist. Great chops and wonderful tone, and his understated style, although jazz-heavy, had a welcome tastefulness.


As the band played on, I was troubled. Here was a group that I really enjoyed listening to, but could care less about live. So I tried to work backwards from other music I loved. Were the lush grooves that occasionally snapped into focus analogous to Miles Davis and his group on Evil Live or Bitches Brew? No, this was too practiced. Despite the jazzy technique of the group that seemed suspiciously hired, that wasn’t it. Maybe it was more like Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled recording. No, that was just me trying to place the soprano saxophone. Holy shit! It suddenly dawned on me: this is my generation’s Kenny G, our easy listening. Fuck.


The only thing that might save the Cinematic Orchestra is they lack the all-too-familiar noodley quality of over-played jazz. Or maybe that just makes it worse. Could it be that my peers can’t handle a real solo, that A.D.D. and the Ritalin to cure it has left them only able to appreciate a banging rhythm section? And when that rhythm section has a, god forbid, live drummer with heavy jazz chops, the group is mistakenly thought to be playing real music. That’s it. All those chill-out comps marketed so heavily to our generation and left on repeat in loungers and Banana Republics everywhere are no better than lite jazz.


But what the hell. I’m a sucker for the familiar, and appreciated songs I recognized. This held true with the exception of “Evolution”, where PC, the DJ/turntablist, juggled a beat and the drummer played along. It really fell apart towards the end, but was saved from being a total train wreck by a well-placed backspin.


But this was all just a warm-up for the grand finale. The Cinematic Orchestra closed their just-over-an-hour set with the title track off their new album, The Man with A Movie Camera. This sprawling piece was peppered with a DJ-scratched hook taken from Jimmy Castor’s B-boy classic “It’s Just Begun”. The massive break from this monster jam was used to great effect, with the DJ and drummer repeating their juggled and doubled duet heard earlier in “Evolution”. Here they nailed it. And with the drummer forced to double a tight funky beat, he was kept away from the previously over used cymbals of his drum kit, which only a second kick, roto-tom, and rotating cage away from a kit Tommy Lee might be seen behind. Unfortunately, his always expressive style became even more so. Hunching his shoulders and hamming it up, our little drummer boy made it seem like he hammering out a drum solo second to none, not even “Moby Dick”. Not that every drummer needs to behave like Charlie Watt, but no drummer should look like Sting, grimacing in full Tantric glory.


As a headliner is prone to do, the Cinematic Orchestra did an encore. I elected to beat the crush of grown-up ravers who now like so-called real music and their friends who love anything European.


I’ll still listen to the Cinematic Orchestra when I’m cleaning the house, need to mellow out, or want to impress some shallow girlfriend with my impeccable musical taste. But you won’t find me at any of their shows. They are, unfortunately, another example of a great studio concept that should have stayed there.

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