Lots of vivid, frequently edgy, tuneful straight-up New York portraiture on alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker‘s new Posi-Tone album Action City – streaming at Spotify - with Mike Eckroth on piano, Daisuke Abe on guitar, Yoshi Waki on bass and Brian Fishler on drums. They’re playing the album release show on Oct 29 at 8 PM at the brand new Room 53, 314 W 53rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves.
Everything here centers around a tight piano/sax/bass/drums pulse. The first tune, Times Square is an interesting one – it seems to offer some shelter from the bustling rush hour crowd outside, Eckroth spinning an intricately enticing web away from the driving latin groove until Shanker brings it back with a similarly swirling but more angst-fueled intensity. It paints a good picture, albeit without the sketchy life-size Hello Kittys.
Another Morning is all about urbane chillout swing, Shanker’s carefree vibrato sailing over Eckroth’s precise, purposeful chords and spacious tradeoffs with the drums. This seems to portray the kind of stainless steel counter place where they break out the martinis starting at around noon.
Summer Siesta is a deliciously catchy, biting cha-cha, and not the least bit sleepy. The title track is a brisk stroll, everybody in the band occasionally stepping out of time as we do from time to time on a busy sidewalk: Eckroth’s bluesy, stride-inspired solo is especially choice. Punch isn’t the smackdown you might expect, but a very attractive slow soul groove, Eckroth firing off some tasty blues/gospel licks. Donald Fagen would kill to have written this.
Eckroth stays in the spotlight through the spacious, stately, neoromantically marching Prelude, which gives way to Shadow Dance, a cool jazz waltz where the sax does exactly that to the piano. The most striking track here is Midnight, crescendoing on the wings of some blue-flame eights from Shanker until Eckroth takes it back into the back of the bar where everybody’s still hanging after closing time. Marble Hill offers a no-nonsense but warmly congenial, nocturnal North Bronx tableau – it would have made a good nostalgic tv theme back in the 70s. Tortoise & the Hare scampers along as Shanker and Abe flurry and bob, a contrast with the balmy boudoir ballad Riverbank at Dawn: hey, outdoors is cooler in the summer. Interestingly, Shanker winds up the album with a catchy, dynamically-charged Philly soul groove titled Snow Paws. You don’t have to be a New Yorker (Shanker’s not) to appreciate this. But it helps.
As obscure subgenres go, accordion swing is pretty close to the top of the list. Accordionist Richard Galliano tackles that methodically and animatedly on his latest album, Sentimentale. He’s celebrating the release with a four-night stand leading a quintet at the Jazz Standard,Oct 23-26, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25, $30 on the weekend, Galliano is known for his ability to effortlessly leapfrog between idioms, from the baroque to tango to Romany jazz without missing a beat. This time out, he leads a pretty straight-ahead jazz session with Tamir Hendelman (the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra pianist, who wrote most of the arrangements), guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassist Carlos del Puerto and drummer Mauricio Zotarrelli.
Much of it is a 21st century update on how French and Belgian musicians were mashing up American jazz with their own vaudeville and barroom folk sounds back in the 20s and 30s, notably the opening track, Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rumba, which puts a continental spin on a song that was already a bit outside the Afro-Cuban tradition. The group immediately brings it down from there, adding an organic touch to Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour’s Canto Invierno, then tackling Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood with a lilting rhythm yet also with a similarly distant pensiveness – the accordion is one of the alltime wistful/bittersweet instruments, and Galliano owns that feeling when he chooses to go there.
Galliano’s take of Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind draws less on the original than Dee Dee Bridgewater’s boisterous version; likewise, the Broadway ballad Why Did I Choose You follows Bill Evans’ coloristic reharmonizations. There are two originals here, the jazz waltz Balade Pour Marion and the closing cut, Lili, a tender ballad dedicted to Galliano’s granddaughter and done as a guitar-accordion duo. Hendelman’s arrangements are remarkably contiguous, more than just a platform for soloing, which there isn’t a lot of here.
The group gently bounce their way through The Island and Verbos de Amor, adding some bulk to the songs’ tropical balminess, then pair hard-charging swing with more pensiveness on Plus Fort Que Nous. They do the Coltrane classic Naima as surprisingly weird psychedelia with a guitar sitar (?!?), then go back to the tropics with Mantiqueira. All this is a good indication of what the band will sound like here, maybe allowing for a little more guitar, which won’t be a bad idea since Peter Bernstein will be filling that spot.
For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify - is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.
It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.
Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.
The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.
There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.
Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.
The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.
The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.
On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.
Before the world premiere of his new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells last night, guitarist Grey McMurray encouraged WNYC’s John Schaefer to take a few slugs from the hip flask that he’d just flashed to the audience. The joke was that the original album was ostensibly fueled by a lot of alcohol (and obviously a lot of other stuff – it was 1973, after all). What was it like to experience McMurray’s new version without the help of any of that? It was definitely an improvement on the original, worthy of Brian Eno in places. The question is whether or not the original merited as much. Running late to get to the early afterwork show, there wasn’t time to hit the wine store beforehand, something that might have been a good idea.
Seriously: beyond the prog-rock/mathrock cult, who’s ever listened to side two of the album, let alone the sequence of tracks after the iconic tune in 15/4 time that was cut-and-pasted into the theme to the Exorcist? That hit single has been a staple of Halloween playlists for four decades. How Halloweenish did it sound, as played by McMurray and the Wordless Music Orchestra? Not very. The main theme wasn’t even played on tubular bells: drummer Qasim Naqvi introduced it by plinking it out on glockenspiel. From a listener’s point of view, it was harder to defamiliarize, and experience that deliciously eerie theme with fresh ears, than it must have been for McMurray and the group to recontextualize it. He’d explained beforehand that he’d discouraged them from listening to the original for inspiration: smart advice.
What is the rest of the album like? The original, mostly overdubbed by Oldfield himself on a large studio’s supply of instruments, is showoffy, endlessly vamping and not particularly substantial. It’s short of second-rate Pink Floyd. For that matter, it’s not second-rate Jethro Tull, another obvious influence, either. Yet McMurray found beauty and elegance in it, building a joyously Enoesque, clear-sky gleam that lingered until the piece took a detour into secondhand Americana. Violinist Caleb Burhans, acoustic guitarist Aaron Roche, keyboardist/singer Olga Bell, pianist Justin Carroll and cellist Clarice Jensen reveled in those expansive textures.
Sound engineer Richie Clarke was given a shout-out in the program notes and earned that many times over: the World Financial Center atrium, where highs spin off the walls like electrons from what’s left of the Fukushima plant, is hardly conducive to rock bands, even an elegant art-rock band like this one. But he made it work, and McMurray gets credit for much of that because he also felt the room and kept his amp down in the mix so that the strings in particular could be heard. The lone shiver-inducing moment belonged to Jensen, whose sinewy, raspy reprise of the horror movie theme came completely by surprise about a third of the way through the suite. Bassist Chris Morrissey, like McMurray, looked like he was about to jump out of his shoes at times, resisting the urge to stand up and blast out his loopily propulsive groove. And Schaefer himself supplied the deadpan spoken-word introduction of the instruments, unable to resist a grin as he did so: by then, maybe he’d gotten into the sauce.
What it is like to listen back to it after having a few? It sounds better. You can decide for yourself when the concert airs on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s New Sounds program on November 20: you might want to make it a party night. Memo to the band: release this album on vinyl and you stand a good chance of topping the Billboard charts. No joke. If Leonard Cohen could do it, so can you. There’s an awful lot of old people, and young people too, who will buy it.
John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.
Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.
Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.
Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.
Spectrum was packed last night. Granted, composer/guitarist Denise Mei Yan Hofmann used to be in a popular rock band, the wickedly catchy, lyrical Changing Modes, but all the same it was awfully cool to see a venue filled to capacity with young people listening intently to serious composed music. A tantalizingly brief program of new chamber works revealed that Hofmann is a young composer who’s already developed a distinctive and thoughtfully compelling voice. Her harmonies transcend the tonal/twelve-tone dichotomy; her narratives are vivid, she doesn’t waste notes and is rather meticulous about that.
Hofmann performed the opening diptych, a more-or-less steadily strolling miniature featuring lots of close harmonies and flitting exchanges between her terse, minimalist guitar and Salome Scheidegger‘s piano. Hofmann described it afterward as “harsh” – as a depiction of push-pull, lost in the wilderness, randomly searching and then very purposefully seeking a way out, it hit the mark.
Scheidegger played Hofmann’s Dear Son of Memory solo, an aching and dynamically rich depiction of letters never sent. It turned out to be a considerably challenging work. Scheidegger didn’t shy away from it, beginning almost as a march and then negotiating through starlit austerities, flitting sort-of-segues and then a rather violently percussive crescendo before finding home in the calm beyond it. One of Hofmann’s signature tropes seems to be working tension against a central point, raga style, a prominent and effective device here.
The final piece was a triptych for string trio, Deep Calls Unto Deep – another 2014 composition – performed elegantly by violinist Francesca Dardani, violist Yumi Oshima and cellist Xue Yang Liu. With a little editing, this could be something really special. At the core, it’s a rondo, a carefully articulated exchange of voices which began with a rather wounded, austere tone, picked up the pace with a precise, balletesque pulse in the second movement and then with a more resonant, angst-fueled quality in the third even as the rhythm came back to the forefront. The Debussy String Quartet seems to be an influence.
If there’s any criticism of what Hofmann does, it’s that she needs to work on her transitions. There were places throughout both the solo piano and trio pieces which came across as momentary lapses. Full stops would have been one answer; fleshing out those fragmentary segues to eliminate jarring with what came before and after would also be an option. So would nixing them completely. But those are minor quibbles. Here’s looking forward to what this individualistic and auspicious new voice has in store.
Matt Ulery Brings His Cinematically Sweeping, Richly Melodic Art-Rock and Instrumentals to Littlefield
If bassist/composer Matt Ulery‘s lavishly cinematic new album, In the Ivory was in fact the soundtrack to a film – which it really ought to be – it would be an Orson Welles epic. That, or a Victorian horror film. Devil in the White City, maybe? Ulery’s elegantly aching theme and variations draw on both neoromanticism and mimimalism – Philip Glass in particular – as well as the ripe rises and falls of Hollywood film music from the 30s and 40s. It’s an unselfconsciously beautiful, poignant, lavish double-cd suite – streaming at Bandcamp – and one of the best albums of the year. Ulery and the ensemble from the album are playing the release show on Oct 14 at 8 PM at Littlefield; cover is $12, dirt-cheap for music this meticulously composed and played.
The initial theme, Gave Proof pretty much capsulizes what’s in store the rest of the way: a rippling piano tune that more than alludes to Glass’s Dracula soundtrack; velvety strings; acerbic woodwinds, and a pervasive angst amidst the sweep and grandeur. Ulery is also a solid lyricist: Grazyna Augusczik sings his allusively imagistic, sometimes crushingly embittered songs with wounded clarity that at its most affecting evokes Sara Serpa. The ensemble plays with grace and sensitivity: the core group includes Rob Clearfield on piano; Zach Brock and Yvonne Lamb on violins; Dominic Johnson on viola; Nicholas Photinos on cello; Timothy Munro on alto flute; Michael Maccaferri on clarinets; Gregory Beyer on vibraphone, marimba and percussion and Jon Deietemyer on drums.
The second track, There’s a Reason and a Thousand Ways brings to mind My Brightest Diamond in low-key ballad mode, then morphs into a pensive pastorale. Ulery works nimbly dancing permutations throughout the ensemble, from tense pizzicato strings to big rises and falls and finally a hint of jazz from the piano.
From there the bittersweetness builds to a peak: lush strings, a moody waltz, washes of jazz and a purposeful, swinging, hard-hitting stroll. The hero, or heroine hit their stride. Singer Sarah Marie Young joins Auguszik to deliver the first disc’s concluding chamber pop number, The Farm, with a lively flair, understating its corrosive portrayal of rural hell:
All for nothing nearly by…
The second disc contemplates mortality and the hope for something better in the interim. The Dracula-like theme returns and picks up with a dancing intensity. Augusczik sings the mutedly kinetic but hypnotically circular When Everything Is Just the Same, her distant angst matching its tightly wound ache to break free. A big, crescendoing overture and another waltz eventually wind their way to Visceral, where Ulery manages to mash up the horror movie cinematics, balletesque minimalism and an unexpectedly bubbly parade theme from the winds.
The drums fuel a Chopinesque piano concerto interlude; after a suspenseful lull, Brock and Deietemyer hit a biting, dancing peak. The group winds its way out with a blend of towering, anthemic orchestration, switching up creepy Glassine circularity and stark strings. The sonics at Littlefield are especially suited to this kind of thing.
Last night’s music and dance extravaganza at the 92nd Street Y, the centerpiece of the Shall We Tango festival – a celebration of global tango and tango-influenced sounds – started at 8, and there was still a floor full of dancers by the time the final band wrapped up at half past eleven. Organizer/pianist Polly Ferman created her own Histoire du Tango (to steal a title from the Astor Piazzolla book, richly and eclectically represented here), and this was a sweeping survey of every kind of tango. Tango as gangster music, boudoir music, serious concert music, ballet soundtrack, as part of the jazz spectrum, the classical repertoire and, arguably, the root source of all things noir: this show had it all.
There was graceful and often spectacular dancing by pairs assembled by the festival’s dance director, Karina Romero. Sometimes simply graceful, often sensationally athletic, the dancers showed off moves that would have been at home on an Olympic ice rink. Are the Olympians stealing those spirals, upside-down catch-and-release tactics and slinky motives from the tango world, or vice versa?
Ferman, a brilliant, witty, fiery performer and interpreter, played with a wicked precision and a cascading, volleying, relentless intensity in tandem with bandoneon legend Daniel Binelli, a frequent collaborator of hers. A little later, she brought out a quartet version of her all-female group GlamourTango, who celebrate women’s contributions to tango over the decades. The piano/bass/bandoneon/violin ensemble ranged from lively neoromanticism, to brassy swing behind a succession of singers, to balletesque themes and a little jazz, Ferman and her crew shifting through the idioms with effortless expertise. GlamourTango don’t seem to have any NYC gigs lined up, but lucky Milwaukeans can catch them at Latino Arts, 1028 S. 9th St. in Milwaukee on Dec 4 and 5; tix are $15/$10 stud/srs.
Bogota-based Quinteto Tango Leopoldo Federico – who take their name from the Argentine legend – aired out the Piazzolla songbook and other iconic material with a viscerally spine-tingling focus. Pianist Alberto Tamayo, violinist Miguel Angel Guevara, bassist Kike Harker, electric guitarist Francisco Avellaneda and bandoneonist Giovanni Parra stunned the crowd with a remarkably serious, moody, meticulous approach, Guevara taking the spotlight and making the most of it. The crowd gave them a standing ovation and wouldn’t let them leave without a couple of encores, the first of which sounded like a droll tango arrangement of the 1950s Big Bopper hit Chantilly Lace.
After a milonga which drew much of the audience out onto the floor to pair up while vintage, orchestrated 1950s sounds played over the PA, sizzling Venezuelan violinist Eddy Marcano and his seven-piece group leaped and bounded through a joyously animated set of folk-inspired jazz themes, bookending a darkly majestic take of Piazzolla’s iconic Libertango, anchored by the pianist’s haunting, hard-hitting, murky lefthand attack. The festival continues through Oct 15, with dance classes, milongas and a couple of shows at the Queens Theatre in the Park in Corona, across from where Shea Stadium used to be. The rest of the New York schedule of events is here.
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