Isn’t it funny how some of the subtlest jazz musicians – Noah Preminger, Monty Alexander and Erica Smith among them – are also boxing fans? For those who misssed Preminger’s album release show for his new one, Haymaker, last night at the Jazz Standard, he’s playing two sets there tonight, May 22 at 7:30 and 9:30, a chance to hear one of the fastest-rising stars in melodic jazz at the top of his nuanced game.
Preminger was in an unexpectedly talkative mood, the house manager needling him to “play some jazz” as the possibly former pugilist explained why his ring career was at a standstill. “She hit me, so I hit her back, hard,” he deadpanned: the punch that landed on his female boxing coach was unintentional. Much as has been made about Preminger being a hard-hitting force on the tenor sax, what’s most remarkable about his playing is how effectively he uses space. Onstage with the crew from his album – Ben Monder on guitar, Matt Pavolka on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums – Preminger was more Ali than Foreman, taking his time, landing everything he threw, casually and expertly. There was one brief free-for-all during a roaring Dave Matthews cover, of all things: otherwise, tunes took front and center for the duration of the evening’s first set.
They opened with the album’s title track, Stranahan’s elegantly ornamented shuffle setting the tone for much of what would come later, rhythmically speaking, Monder’s chords cool and resonant until one of his signature shredding solos, Pavolka maintaining a terse modal pulse as Preminger chose his spots. They followed with another track from the new album, the balmy, gentle 6/8 ballad My Blues for You, Preminger’s marvelously misty, low-register outro more than hinting that the individual who inspired the song is no longer in his life (or maybe he’s not in hers).
The high point of the set (no pun intended) was 15,000 Feet, inspired, Preminger said, by his first skydive, from almost three miles up, over New Zealand (ostensibly the only place on the globe where it’s legal to leap out of a plane from such an altitude). Monder and Pavolka built a Hendrix-like propellerplane roar over Stranahan’s clenched-teeth insistence, Preminger leading the procession (metaphorically speaking) out into airier and ultimately more confident terrain: in Preminger’s hands, the view from three miles high is rather relaxing. Alison Wedding came up to sing harmonies on a gorgeously bittersweet take of Dave Douglas’ Blues for Steve Lacy, then led Preminger and Monder through a plaintive, elegaic original dedicated to an Australian pianist collaborator of hers who died young. After the digression into a different Dave (which could have cleared the room if they hadn’t done it so straightforwardly and confidently), Preminger chose the closing spot to send a brief, characteristically lyrical ballad out to his parents, who were in the house celebrating their anniversary.
You typically don’t expect someone who’s been been a presence in the New York jazz scene since 1985 to wait until now to make the best album of his career. But not only is Leif Arntzen’s new album Continuous Break a career high-water mark, it’s also one of this year’s best. The brilliantly individualistic trumpeter plays the album release show this Saturday, May 25 at Nublu at around 10 with the players on it: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. It’s an intimate space and the band hasn’t played in awhile, so early arrival is advised. Arntzen graciously took some time away from rehearsals and pre-concert logistics to answer a few questions:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: In my opinion, the new album is your best ever. Do you agree? It’s definitely your most eclectic…
Leif Arntzen: This record was the hardest I’ve ever done, but at the same time I felt the most at home with the process. I didm’t feel any limitations to play anything in particular or stick to one sound or musical direction. Anything we played became fair game, and that created a lot of intensity from all of us, to make whatever we played count for something. It was our special moment in time, and we played that way. I think we got what we were looking for.
LCC: I understand all the tracks are live, continuous takes, oldschool style. Is that true?
LA: Yes, it was live off the floor crowded in a small studio playing next to each other. There was a lot of sonic bleed, so overdubs were not an option.
LCC: I also understand that the tunes came together in an unusual way, in bits and pieces rather than either fully formed compositions or flat-out jams. Can you explain that?
LA: When everyone is so capable of so many things, of playing anything, for me it seemed more important to give the group simple ideas that made each of us have to dig…for something that brings us together, moves us forward. It was like we each showed up with our paintboxes, but only one big canvas to lay it down. I tried to simplify the starting point with simple melodies as much as possible…I think that gave us a wider horizon.
LCC: On the new album, it seems to me that you’ve thrashed a bunch of defiantly individualistic, outside-thinking guys into shape. Or is this them jumping at the opportunity to play lyrical, tuneful, memorable, composed or at least semi-composed music?
LA: As a horn player, I want to clear a way forward somehow through all the sound. I want to be playing outside too…but if there isn’t a melodic and rhythmic home, then being outside loses its meaning. I don’t have the luxury of playing more than one note at a time, so I have to imagine whatever I can to make my choices meaningful. I think everyone in the band is doing that in their own way, in their own voices. Maybe that’s why the music sounds more composed than it actually is.
LCC: Obviously there’s all kinds of improvisation on the album. I usually can pick up on where people are putting their own personalities, but this one is hard to figure out. For example, on your version of My Ideal, I love how Jeff adds an edgy contrast with his brushes against the lyrical gentleness of the melody line. His idea or yours?
LA: That’s Jeff. He has such a voice. He comes up with colors and shapes in the strangest ways…that made it easy for me to just play with the time and space…because I felt like that was all I needed to do to get something beautiful. It’s easy when all of us are after the same thing.
LCC: One of my favorite tracks is Tired, a laid-back funk groove that hits a big, explosive pastoral crescendo on the chorus. Are you into the Americana jazz thing that’s steamrolling these days, Bryan & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden, Bill Frisell?
LA: I really admire Bill’s version of Shenandoah on one of his recent albums. I love American classic melodies, folk and country music storytelling…I loved the Gil Evans Orchestra when they hit a big sonic full band stride. My son Miles [the brilliant drummer in Antibalas and leader of Emefe] wrote a bass line and guitar riff inspired by his love of Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk…He called it Tired. When I heard the line, I heard so much of deep America in it, jazz rock pioneers, funk masters and delta blues, and came up with the melody….and so we just took it to our own place.
LCC: Another one I like a lot is The Call, where you take what could be a totally generic, lickety-split swing shuffle and introduce all those conversations, and good cop/bad cop dynamics, and rhythmic push-pull even though the bass is always holding the center Was that planned?
LA: The Call is not planned, and intended to allow us to go anywhere…it’s fast and we each just hitch aboard and see where we wind up, try to get there and back in one piece, together.
LCC: I hope you can forgive me for having discovered you not from your original music but from your Channeling Chet project. I never got to see Chet Baker in concert, so seeing you do his music – which seemed to me to be as close to channeling as anyone can get – brought me full circle with it in a sense. I think that speaks for a lot of other listeners. Looking back, how did that impact your career? By exposing you to a lot of people who might not have discovered you otherwise…or did it become a millstone, you being associated so closely with Baker’s work instead of your own compositions?
LA: I grew up listening to my dad’s Louis Armstrong recordings, and he was my favorite. After Louis it was Miles and Freddie and Coltrane. Chet came along much later in my own experience. It happened after singing a cameo in a New York show, where I sang and played Days Of Wine And Roses as a band feature while the name stars took a break. The New York writers wrote about it, with comparisons to Chet. When that happened I went back to better understand his music and playing. That’s when I became a diehard Chet fan. Eventually I paid homage to him in my own way on the Channeling Chet recording. His sound production adn technique were really something else, such a beautiful melodist. For awhile there it seemed like the Chet thing overshadowed a little, but mostly I didn’t worry about it.
LCC: You have a rep as a purist. What’s up with the Wurly? Did you write this stuff with electric rather than acoustic piano in mind? Or just the confidence that Landon Knobloch wouldn’t clutter the songs with it?
LA: I’ve been thinking more electric for some time. I grew up with rock, I like the Wurly, a Wurly was handy, and Landon just sounds great on it, gets a real swirly thing going on, and especially with Ryan too…Rock is a part of what this band is about, and I feel at home.
LCC: On the new album, as far as influences are concerned, I definitely hear Miles as far as space and pacing is concerned, and Freddie Hubbard as far as perfect articulation and weightlessness of the notes. Am I on to something or not? What other trumpeters inspire you these days?
LA: Miles recordings have been a constant for me in my life. In terms of the horn, Miles and Freddie pioneered the sound of the horn, probably the biggest influence for me. But I can’t set aside Kenny Dorham, Chet, and of course Louis Armstrong perhaps most of all. Louis paved the way for all of us for just everything. I still listen to him all the time, hoping one day I could ever move an audience like that. There’s a recording of him touring in Europe in 1935, you’d think it was the Beatles, people are getting so crazy. Also his small group recordings with Duke Ellington are masterpieces.
LCC: Any plans to take this band on the road?
LA: Well, in the coming years I plan to work this band at every opportunity. I believe in this band, best one I ever had. We’ll do some touring around the east coast, maybe up to see my Canadian brothers and sisters…also working on a Spain tour for later this year.
What’s the likelihood of walking down into a random bar late on a Sunday and hearing an absolutely shattering version of one of the saddest songs ever written? If the bar is the Village Vanguard and the artist onstage is Miguel Zenon and his quartet, there’s your answer. That was how the Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist began the final set of his most recent weeklong stand there, with an angst-riddled version of the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero Alma Adentro (Deep in My Soul). That the songs after that one weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the ability of Zenon and the rest of the group – Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Eric Doob on drums – to maintain a mood.
For someone as expansive as Zenon can be – the guy likes to stretch out, and is very generous with solos – he’s incredibly purposeful. He didn’t make an entrance until Perdomo had established a morosely glimmering ambience, pedaling the opening minor chord in tandem with the bass. Zenon then chose his spots, at one point lowlighting a particularly creepy Perdomo glissando with his own equally macabre, murky modalities. They brought the intensity to redline slowly, in clusters, from there, fueled by Doob’s hypnotically circular phrases, hitting hard but carefully articulate.
They kept the moody gravitas going with another Rexach hit, Olas y Arenas (Waves and Sand), matching the longing and alienation of the legendary Puerto Rican chanteuse’s original, Zenon establishing a suspenseful but vivid push-pull, Perdomo’s chenched-teeth, percussive attack contrasting with Zenon’s calm beachfront evocation, Perdomo quoting from Riders on the Storm before finally rising to a crescendo and a false ending. They lightened just a bit, reaching torward straight-up clave with a memorably rippling take of Rafael Hernandez’ slightly less angst-ridden Silencio, then worked a haunting sax/bass intro into a minor-key ballad that sounded like it was going to be yet another Rexach tune, or maybe Sumemrtime, but turned out to be neither. Artful polyrhythmic tradeoffs between Zenon and the rhythm section followed an expansive upward trajectory to a leaping, triumphant sax solo on the next number, they closed with an edgy, dancing number in 9/4, Zenon’s jaggedly terse lines handing over to Perdomo, who took it into the wee hours (literally) as Doob finally seized the role of one-man salsa rhythm section, firing off wry timbales and conga lines.
Zenon also has a strongly evocative new album out, recorded last year, which is somewhat different. Titled Oye! Live in Puerto Rico, it works an energetic yet restrained vibe. Culled from a two-night stand in Rio Piedras, it has an immediacy that gives the sense that those sitting under the air conditioner might have been especially grateful, even if if was dripping on them (which happens sometimes down there, Puerto Rico not being a particularly seasonal place). Bookended by a brief, rather joyous intro and outro, Zenon makes his way through an allusive, long-form take on Oye Como Va before expanding on four numbers which are almost as long (the shortest is almost nine minutes), teaming up with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin plus drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesus.
The heavy percussion in tandem with the bass evoke a piano in many places: Valentin is the rare electric four-string jazz guy who doesn’t try to Jaco it. Zenon evokes the haunting timbre of a Middle Eastern ney flute on his own Hypnotized, with a wary/lively dichomtomy; the band take their time with Silvio Rodriguez’ El Necio, then romp through Zenon’s catchy, hypnotically insistent JOS Nigeria and then a long, simmering take of his Double Edge, the bass and then the sax jabbing at Escapa as the drums break loose. And in a wry nod to where the album was recorded, the photo under the album’s cd tray shows an old AC unit which seems to be mounted somewhat less than parallel to the floor and ceiling. Whether or not it was dripping is anyone’s guess.
Saturday at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, clarinetist Tom Piercy joined forces with pianist Mika Tanaka and special guest shakuhachi player Elizabeth Brown for a fascinatingly eclectic, virtuosic program of new chamber works which contrast Japanese composers’ views of New York with their New York counterparts’ views of Japan. Those who missed the show have a second chance to catch it this coming June 2 at 3 PM at Spectrum on Ludlow Street. Although most of the works are relatively short, assembling a bill comprising 22 composers – several of whom were in attendance at Saturday’s show – was no small feat, and the ensemble tackled the music’s wide range of demands with verve, insight and sensitivity.
Piercy has made a name for himself as a first-rate interpreter of nuevo tango and Astor Piazzolla, but another specialty of his is contemporary Japanese music. He had commissioned several of the works on the bill, and it’s no wonder that so many composers jumped at the opportunity. While Piercy is not a showy player, his extended technique is subtly spectacular: thoughout the concert, he exhibited misty overtones, eerie polytonalities, perfectly sinuous glissandos and command of the lows and highs beyond the reach of most clarinetists. Likewise, Tanaka varied her approach from warm neoromanticism to jaggedly percussive on some of the more atonal, harsher numbers, while Brown vividly evoked the nuances of birdsong, particularly during a solo piece of her own toward the end of the bill.
Piercy began the program solo on a small but lower-register Japanese wood flute, with a resonant but ghostly solo piece of his own. The trio closed with the American premiere of Hifumi Shimoyama’s Alamgam-A, a theme and variations that hypnotically morphed between airy traditional Japanese folk themes and more austere, modern tonalities voice mainly by the piano. Tanaka got to diversify herself on the starlit, distantly Satie-influenced Toro Nagashi, by Masatora Goya, as well as with Kento Iwasaki’s Autumn Festival, which shifted abruptly from a jaunty tango-flavored celebration to bittersweet neoromanticism, and the apprehensively crescendoing mood swings of Ippei Inoue’s Nostalgia.
A series of miniatures followed a lingering solo piece by Brown. Highlights included an otherworldly, microtonal dance by Daniel J. Thompson; Armando Ayala’s Sakana, which packed a sonata’s worth of ideas into barely a minute; brief pastoral tableaux from Greg Bartholomew and Andrew Davis; and resonant, spacious austerity from Andy Cohen and Michael Frazier.
The most gripping work might have been Tanaka’s own somber, plaintive, unexpectedly gritty In the Garden. Surprisingly, the majority of the program for the most part eschewed traditional Asian scales, save for Yohei Kurihara’s Yuu. A bit later, a rapidfire, tongue-in-cheek piee incorporating droll spoken-word interludes by Yuichi Matsumoto gave Piercy a workout, poking fun at the annoying and usually unncessary interruptions the online world makes in our daily lives. Not only was this a diverse and entertaining introduction to up-and-coming composers, it also made for a rare opportunity to hear works seldom played outside Japan. That becomes all the more important in a post-3/11 world – other than playing great music, Piercy is doing crucial cultural preservation work here.
Moist Paula Henderson (whose nickname stems from her longtime leadership of legendary instrumental trio Moisturizer) has been the standout baritone saxophonist in the New York downtown scene for several years. Her own work has an irrepressible joie de vivre and wry humor; her new album with her latest project, Tzar, recorded live at the Stone this past February takes a turn in a considerably different, much darker direction. Here she’s joined by Ithaca, New York musicians Brian “Willie B” Wilson on drums, electronics and bass pedals (who really gets a workout, playing everything simultaneously, it seems) and Michael Stark on keyboards. Their intriguing multi-segmented pieces blend elements of trip-hop, downtempo, noise and the edgy jazz that Henderson has pursued more deeply in recent years. It’s a deliciously mysterious, eclectic ride. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
The first track, There’s a Prayer for That opens with a raw, bitter piano theme and variations against rumbling drums, Henderson’s stark, biting swirls enhancing the smoky ambience. Funereal organ then replaces the piano and the piece morphs into creepy trip-hop. Begin At Sunset maintains the vibe, sax mingling suspensefully with layers of uneasy synth and squiggly eleectronic EFX, then takes an unexpected turn into dub reggae. The most improvisational-sounding number is Ambient Subtraction, Henderson’s otherworldly, harmonically tingling polytonalities blending into a morass of textures as the storm builds to an ominously insectile rumble. By contrast, the cheery go-go theme Hibachi Sushi Dance sounds like a Moisturizer outtake, but even more minimalist. The album winds up with Knuckles & Milk, juxtaposing surreallistic, mechanical menace a la Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine with noisy, paint-peeling synth squalls over a martial beat, Henderson raising the tension with a marvelously terse, chromatically-charged interlude before turning it over to Wilson. Play this one with the lights out. Recommended equally for fans of jazz, psychedelia and dark rock.
Isn’t it a good feeling to be witness to history – and be aware enough to realize in the moment that it’s something you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Like Wadada Leo Smith’s stand earlier this month in Brooklyn, the Gil Evans Project‘s ongoing weeklong residency at the Jazz Standard is an important moment in New York jazz history. Last night, midway through the big band’s first set, conductor Ryan Truesdell received the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s awards for best album of 2012 and for best big band. Truesdell had known about this for a few days but clearly, the impact hadn’t sunk in. He searched for a place in front of the band that wasn’t covered in scores. “I’m all discombobulated up here,” he groused. If that’s discombobulation, the rest of us are in trouble.
Throughout the week, Truesdell – one of the world’s most passionate and insightful Evans scholars – has been focusing on different parts of the iconic composer/arranger’s life. This evening’s centerpieces were works from the 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. “It changed my life,” Truesdell explained, and no doubt there were others in the crowd who shared that feeling: practically fifty years later, the pull of its dark, burnished colors is no less magnetic. He and the band repeat the program – no doubt with plenty of surprises - tonight, and then revisit Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess on Sunday to wind up the week with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Needless to say, reservations are recommended.
Rather than playing the whole album all the way through, the ensemble teased the crowd, alternating numbers from it along with some unexpected treats. This set’s highest point of many was a slow, towering, ornate, angst-fueled ballad that Truesdell had just recently discovered among Evans’ papers, a fragment simply titled Blues, which was getting its world premiere. You don’t expect a fragment to turn into fifteen minutes of lingering, resonant intensity, but that’s what this one was. Blues in this case meant pianist Frank Kimbrough’s big block chords leading up to a characteristically rich cloud of sound big enough to block out the sun. Alto saxophonist Dave Pietro made his way carefully and moodily through a modally-fueled solo before trombonist Marshall Gilkes went in a more trad, upbeat direction. When the piece threatened to collapse under its own weight at one point, Kimbrough was there in a split second with an absolutely creepy upper-register riff; and then they were back on track.
They’d opened with a deliciously fluid, resonant take on Nothing Like You, if anything more fully fleshed out than the tiptoeing swing of the album version, Kimbrough scampering and then turning the spotlight over to Tom Christensen’s hard-hitting tenor sax. Truesdell acknowledged that the version of John Lewis’ Concorde on that album is one of the most difficult pieces to play in the entire jazz repertoire, but the group was up for it. “We have the best tuba and bass trombone players in the universe,” Truesdell bragged, and Marcus Rojas and George Flynn held up, digging into the groove as the cha-cha built to a dazzling, fugal exchange of licks percolating through the group as the song reached final altitude. Meaning of the Blues took the Miles Ahead arrangement and expanded on it, a lush, slow forest fire lit up further by another pair of methodical, minutely intuitive Gilkes and Pietro solos, drummer Lewis Nash weaving subtly back and forth between time signatures as the piece shifted from somber to animated and back. They closed the set with an arrangement of Greensleeves – which Evans had originally written for Kenny Burrell in 1965 - taking the world’s most innocuous melody and made noir folk out of it, Kimbrough leading the way this time with a distant menace.
It’s not easy to keep track of everybody in this band, considering that Truesdell had contracted for 34 players for the week. Contributors to this scary/beautiful evening included but were not limited to trumpeters Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; saxophonists Alden Banta; Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin; french horn players Adam Unsworth and David Peel, Lois Martin on viola and Jay Anderson on bass.
We know that we’re in a depression when Falu is onstage singing, trading licks with JD Allen and the club isn’t sold out. Tuesday night at Drom, there was a good crowd in the house for the album release show for percussionist Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence. But Allen routinely packs the Village Vanguard when he does a weeklong stand there, and Falu is playing her album release show at the Highline on the 29th with a whole slew of great bands including Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, Ellingtonian Balkan horn band Slavic Soul Party and the Toomai String Quintet.
In a roundabound way, Brown explained how his excellent new album (reviewed here) reinvents the cult classic album How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend by the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Over samples of choirs and piano/vocals from the two recorded volumes by that rural Alabama community ensemble (spanning half a century), guitarist Chris Sholar played tersely and meaningfully, even when he got to the Hendrix licks. Much as that endless series of classic rock quotes grew tiresome, his sampler got old even faster. On one hand, to play drums against a tape is cruelly difficult: that Brown was able to match his intricate and sensitive ornamentation to a recorded backdrop testifies to his strength as a timekeeper. On the other hand, the karaoke aspect was superfluous at the beginning – name a singer who wouldn’t want to trade licks with JD Allen, they’d be lined up around the block – and exasperating at the end when the mp3s or whatever they were drowned out the sax.
Getting to that exasperating point was a lot of fun. Falu heard Allen’s snarling modal intensity and realized that she could conjure even more magic out of him, and she did. It didn’t take a minute before the two were duelling and then matching up note for note in a raw, plaintive duet as Brown built a storm of sparkles with his cymbals behind them. Allen took the dark African modes of the rustic gospel licks that appear early on the album and spun cruel, sharp amber glass spirals against them: to hear both the sax and voice reach for an emotion and nail them in a few notes, succinctly, again and again, was exhilarating. Falu began and ended utilizing her powerful lower register singing ghazals against a sweeping, cymbal hailstorm groove with a seemingly endless series of playful tradeoffs with Allen midway through. That the crew onstage were able to to have so much fun and evoke such a panorama of feeling over the course of practically two hours of playing to a backing track testifies to their singleminded focus.
Bassist Bryan Copeland’s Lynchian nocturnes are one of the most consistently enjoyable things happening in jazz right now. Tuesday night at Subculture’s comfortable, sonically enhanced basement space, Copeland led his group Bryan & the Aardvarks through a lush, glimmering, often poignant set of mostly new material. The keyboard-and-vibraphone pairing of Fabian Almazan (on piano and occasional electronic keys) and Chris Dingman draws some imnediate comparisons to the Claudia Quintet, but Copeland’s music is more cinematic and atmospheric. Drummer Joe Nero nonchalantly livened the band’s usual straight-up tempos, sometimes adding an undulating funkiness, other times weaving in a subtle polyrhythmic edge. Copeland has an intricate sense of harmony to rival Philip Glass, a composer he sometimes resembles, if in a considerably more ornate way.
The evening opened with a wistful, brooding chromatic theme that stubbornly resisted resolution, building tension through a long, methodically glistening Almazan solo, guitarist Jesse Lewis working his way up from spacious early Pat Metheny-style waves of melody to an unexpectedly wild flurry of Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking whose violence could easily have ruined the mood, but with the meteor shower filling the picture behind it, made a raw, rewarding coda.
Midway through the apprehensively hypnotic, chromatically-charged second number, The Sky Turns to Grey (bringing to mind Glass’ creepy In the Summer House), Copeland surprised everyone except his bandmates by beginning a solo in the middle of one of Almazan’s. Except that this bass solo turned out to be catchy, judiciously incisive variations on a guitar riff rather than a free-form excursion into uncharted territory. And when it seemed that Copeland would pass himself off as a rare bassist who limits himself to terse, memorable string motifs, toward the end of the set he surprised with an allusive, unexpectedly carefree solo that mimicked a horn line, something akin to Pharaoh Sanders signifying that it might be time to peel off the suit and knock a few back after a hard night at work.
The singlemindedness of this band is amazing, Dingman’s resonant waves rising and mingling with Almazan’s meticulous blend of energy and precision, towering High Romantic angst shifting in and out of the shadows, a soundtrack for any candy-colored clown who might have been waiting for the chance to pounce from out of the footlights. A dusky pastoral waltz followed a cinematic tangent, like a jazzier Dana Schechter tableau luridly swathed in Angelo Badalamenti velvet; a second waltz came across as a more rustic, gently bittersweet take on Bill Frisell-style blue-sky jazz, an appreciative nod from Copeland to his Texas roots. A later number worked from neon lustre up to agitation over an altered bossa groove. They wound up the night on a long, anthemically vamping swell fueled by Lewis’ uneasily insistent accents. Music this intricate and disarmingly beautiful is seldom played with as much energy as this individualistic group puts into it.
Saturday night at a house concert on the Upper West Side, pianist Nancy Garniez treated a hushed, intimate crowd to an eye-opening performance of miniatures from Bartok’s Selections for Children, Vol. 2 and followed with an even more fascinating trio of Haydn pieces. Garniez, a musicologist as well as a pioneer in sonic science, is all about context. She reminded that 250 years ago, piano music wasn’t written or typically performed for public spectacle but for gatherings of friends: after all, that’s how small-ensemble or solo works came to be known as chamber music. Her method for performance is to go deep into the music to reveal its meaning, trace its narrative and bring its humor to the surface. Haydn isn’t the first composer most people would associate with humor, but Garniez dove in confidently and matter-of-factly, took her time and then romped through it, all the while carefully juxtaposing the composer’s contrasting unease and sometimes full-blown angst. The result was deep, and sometimes scary, but also great fun to experience. One suspects it was more historically true to form than most performances of this material staged in big concert halls.
Garniez – mother of the equally talented and individualistic songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez- got intuitive right away with the Bartok. The pianist emphasized how much the connection between performer and audience can impact the music. Likewise, her playing made it it clear how astute, even Montessorian an observer of children Bartok was. While some of the pieces she chose (on the spot, simply because she felt they’d fit the bill) had a carefree bounce, many went in a completely opposite direction, one tracing a little girl’s trajectory from laughter to tears, another methodically taking a taunting motif to its sociopathic extreme.
The Haydn was even more fascinating. Garniez’ interpretations were 180 degrees the opposite of the cookie-cutter approach most conservatory students are directed to follow, nonchalant but attuned to the most minute dynamics both in the storylines and the architecture of the music. She explained how Haydn was fascinated by the minute degrees of how piano notes can be changed or inflected, depending on where a finger strikes on the key – which explains the logic behind the way he let single notes stand naked, where other composers would add harmonies or ornamentation to flesh out the sound. She brought to life the ominous foreshadowing that eventually descends to a chilling sense of complete emotional destitution in the andante in the Sonata in G Minor, No. 44, and also the tongue-in-cheek teasing that finally bubbles joyously to the surface as the Sonata in D, No. 14 bounced its way out.
Nancy Garniez has also built an iconoclastic career researching what she calls Tonal Refraction, a holistic discipline that draws on color, acoustic science and psychology and has many uses that apply as much to music therapy as to concert performance, improvisation and composition. To top all this off, after the concert, there was ice cream, and cranberry brownies – and good conversation with a thoughtful gathering of people who had clearly come to take something away from this and ended up walking out into the night rewarded. Garniez plays the final segment in her survey of Haydn and Bartok this Sunday, May 19 at 7 PM: email for location and details. Later this summer, she’ll begin a new weekly series exploring the connection between J.S. and C.P.E. Bach and more modern composers.
What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.
Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?
Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.
Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come. At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.
Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.
What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.
And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.
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