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.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without a tip of the hat to some of the groups who’ve received ink here before, and continue to play concerts that range from the rapt to the exhilarating. Self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (a..k.a. ECCO) seem to have a special place for edgy, emotionally resonant music. Their previous appearance at the wildly popular Upper Westside Music Mondays series featured Shostakovich’s Sinfonia, Op. 110 (based on the String Quartet No. 8, a requiem for victims of the Holocaust, World War II and fascism in general), along with Ginastera’s Concerto Por Corde, which rose from delicate atmospherics to a scream. Their most recent concert here opened with a matter-of-fact take on Mozart’s Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K. 138. From there they aired out the strikingly forward-looking, modern tonalities in a couple of Purcell fantasias, following with a stormy, slithery, darkly dancing, minutely detailed take of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. They took it out on a high note with a menacingly dancing, sweepingly intense, enveloping version of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, its many voices alternating murmurs within an incessent, brooding tension.
Austria’s Minetti Quartett made a couple of Manhattan stops last month, including one downtown at Trinity Church. While the obvious piece de resistance was a steady but nuanced performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major with Andreas Klein at the piano was an unexpected treat. The second movement, reputedly a requiem for Bach, doesn’t make much of a segue with the rest of the piece, but in this group’s hands it got a spacious, vividly intense workout and was arguably the higlight of the concert. It’s always refreshing to see an ensemble go as deeply into a piece of music and pull out as much raw emotion as this group did here.
Wadada Leo Smith has gotten plenty of press here, most recently for his magnum 4-cd Civil Rights era -themed opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year for 2012) and for the opening night of his three-night stand at Roulette last week. Having seen all three nights, it’s an understatement to say that this series of concerts was a major moment in New York music history. Smith took considerable pride from the visceral reaction on the part of several key players of the movement to the live debut of these works earlier this year in California, where the Mississippi-born trumpeter and composer now resides. A finalist in this year’s competition for the Pulitzer Prize in music, it’s probably safe to say after seeing this that he has an inside track. Of the other finalists, Aaron Jay Kernis has won before, and there isn’t much precedent for multiple winners, and Caroline Shaw, talented as she may be as a violinist, composer and singer, is still in her twenties. And Smith has almost a half a century on her.
Much as Smith can be playful and great fun in an improvisatory context, his compositions are rigorously thought out. He told the crowd this past Thursday night that “a lot of White-Out” went into the suspensefully sweeping, dynamically rich, spectrally influenced string quartet premiered with a knife’s-edge sensitivity by Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello. While his suite portrays considerable struggle, the triumphant moments took centerstage on the second and third night of the stand, from the eclectic, spacious. blues and gospel-charged vistas of America, Parts 1, 2 and 3 to the stalking, shatteringly explosive Martin Luther King tableau that wound it up, with alternately soaring and elegaic tributes to the Freedom Riders, Medgar Evers and the crusaders who walked for miles to their voting stations during the early Missisippi voter registration drives. “Freedom isn’t when you’ve strugged and reached here,” he pointed, chest-high. “Freedom is here,” he pointed to his heart, “Knowing that you have the power to act.” The triumph was bittersweet, and as Smith made clear, this struggle is still ongoing after all these years.
Over the years, with his long-running quartet Sexmob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra and elsewhere, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has made a career of reinventing repertoires to suit his distinctive, livewire style, veering from the sunnier side of the street (Sly Stone) into the shadows (John Barry’s James Bond scores). One of Bernstein’s more ambitious and wildly successful efforts with Sexmob, a collection of Nino Rota themes to Fellini films titled Cinema Circus & Spaghetti, is out now. It’s anteresting coincidence that of all the jazz albums that have come out so far in 2013, the two that pack the biggest wallop are both collections of film music from trumpeters: this one, and Ibrahim Maalouf‘s Wind (itself a homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.) What makes this one so good? Bernstein takes Rota’s themes and strips them to the bone, pulls out the inner noir menace and then brings it centerstage, dripping and lurid. Although some tracks on the album are considerably brighter than that, a gleeful macabre resonance pervades this album. One can only think that both Rota and Fellini would be proud. Hubristic as this sounds, the album is as good or better than the source material. While Bernstein is about a lot more than just menace and rage against the dying of the light, if there’s anybody who gets what noir is all about, it’s him.
They make the Amarcord theme a dirge, maxing out the original’s underlying angst, opening with drummer Kenny Wollesen’s gongs before Bernstein whispers in with a quavering microtonal Peter Lorre unease, Tony Scherr’s magnificently precise, purposeful bass guitar kicking off a slow processional as Briggan Krauss’ tenor sax joins the harmonies. It finally resolves in a menacing minor-key explosion: one of the most deliciously dark pieces of music to come out this year.
Juliet of the Sprits manages to simultaneously be a creepy shuffle and a lively dance, Krauss and Bernstein switching good cop/bad cop roles – and is there a bassist anywhere in the world who gets as juicy and incisive a tone as Scherr does? They strip the La Strada theme down to the underlying tension, first with a reggae pulse, then with a fluttering bop edge. Volpina (also from Amarcord) counterintuitively has the bass doing the lively introductions, then they take it to church with a New Orleans flair. The pararazzo theme from La Dolce Vita juxtaposes jaggedly rhythmic knife’s-edge intensity with a rather sarcastic interpretation of the original’s jaunty swing, Wollesen leading the charge. Toby Dammit’s Last Act reverts to the dirgey ambience, a long workout in downtown Asian inflections and moody reggae lin lieu of monster psychedelia.
The La Dolce Vita main theme strolls acidically along with a shivery bass pulse, a look back to Bernstein’s Lounge Lizards days. Zamparo (from La Strada) brings back the skin-peeling PiL dub vibe, while Nadia Gray (another La Dolce Vita interlude) and The Grand Hotel (from Amarcord) each get ripped to shreds in a merciless circus-punk frenzy, the latter reverting once again to hazy Asian dub. Scherr does Gelsomina solo, with lots of warmly rubato chords, a prelude to a sarcastically marching remake of I Vitelloni. There’s also an epic, bitingly bittersweet bonus track, Spirits of the Dead, Wollesen’s vibraphone and Krauss’ stately multitracking up against Bernstein’s leaps and bounds. Those who aren’t already aware of it may also be interested in Hal Wilner’s 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album, which gave Bernstein his initial inspiration for this one. Best jazz album of 2013? One of them, without a doubt.
It’s a story straight out of Hollywood, except that it’s true. Jaap Polak survived the Nazi death camps with his wife and his girlfriend – barely. Tuesday night at the Jewish Theological Seminary auditorium, their improbable story was brought to life in chilling detail in a semi-staged performance of the new opera Steal a Pencil for Me, with music by Gerald Cohen and book by Deborah Brevoort. The narrative, vividly portrayed via both music and dialogue, is rich with cruel irony and grim humor but also the irrepressible joie de vivre that kept Polak, his wife Manja and girlfriend Ina alive despite staggering odds against them. It has a happy ending, which at this performance moved several audience members to tears.
Jaap Polak, now 100, and his wife Ina, now 90, reside in Scarsdale, and attend the congregation where Cohen is cantor, a connection that springboarded the opera. Both husband and wife were in the audience, and remain sharp as a whistle. Two years from now, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. That such a thing would be possible considering that the former Amsterdam residents were kidnapped by the Nazis, first sent to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 defies the imagination. Beth Greenberg’s stage direction was understated and fit the material – one doesn’t expect dancing in a piece about the Holocaust. Baritone Robert Balonek was fervent and winningly steadfast in his portrayal of the irrepressible Jaap. Soprano Ilana Davidson radiated hope against hope that transcended the aptly drab costuming (everyone has a yellow Star of David pinned to their coats). Among the supporting cast, soprano Cherry Duke brought a sardonic edge to her role as semi-reliable interlocutor, passing furtive love notes between Jaap and Ina.
Cohen’s music follows a natural, conversational rhythm, and because of that, must be murderously difficult to play. Perhaps with a nod to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble Cohen pulled together – clarinetist Vasko Dukovski, cellist Chris Finckel, violinist Sasha Margolis and pianist Lynn Baker - rose to the occasion, nimbly conducted by Ari Pelto. The vocal melodies are not particularly cantabile, which makes sense considering the overwhelming sense of impending doom that settles in with the opening scene in Amsterdam, a party that quickly goes to hell when the Nazis show up and abduct Ina’s boyfriend Rudi (portrayed by baritone Nils Neubert as a comforting figure who recurs to Ina in surreal, dreamlike interludes) and take him off to be murdered. For the most part, Cohen eschews fullscale horror in favor of a bleakly monochromatic, relentless unease, waiting until the cast arrives at Belsen to let the strings rise with a Bernard Herrmann-esque, shivery terror. Cohen’s cantorial background informs and enriches the larger-scale choral segments, notably a mesmerizingly hypnotic, intricately contrapuntal crescendo toward the end which interpolates a triumphant Passover theme within murky, brooding, enveloping sonics. His characterization of the Nazis works mechanical, coldly monotonous circular motives: the banality of evil captured in sound.
Brevoort powerfully evokes the sheer surrealism and the increasing sense of dehumanization and despair that befalls the cast, but also moments where humanity emerges triumphant when least expected. Lisette, who at first betrays the burgeoning affair between the two lovebirds, has a change of heart and becomes their ally again, enabling Ina, who’s been given a menial job in the commandant’s office, to steal a pencil for Jaap so that he can continue to write her clandestine letters. The affair between them unwinds with not a little suspense, especially since Jaap’s wife and Ina’s father are both in the camp and prove to be a considerable impediment. In particular, the character of Manja is underwritten. The implication that she was a shrew with a wandering eye doesn’t go very far, and the reality – as Jaap Polak emphasized in a brief address to the audience afterward – is that she was the unsung heroine of this twisted adventure, nursing him back to health from a near-fatal bout of typhoid fever and then handing him off to Ina to live happily ever after. She deserves better. Somewhere there’s a circus rock band who ought to do the song “I Lost My Husband to a Rich Younger Woman in a Nazi Death Camp.”
As far as getting the message of this piece across, it would work better as a musical than an opera, which is not to say that Cohen should rewrite it as Springtime for Hitler. As it is now, the lyrics are likely more easily understood by regular operagoers than by general audiences: all too often, a particular nuanced moment, a shift in the plotline or even a punchline get lost in arioso vocal pyrotechnics. Considering the talent of the cast onstage, it’s a good gamble that they’d be equally capable of rendering the story in a more musically accessible, less stylized manner. Those who buy into the argument that in the age of microphones and vocal individualism, the bel canto style of singing has reached the end of the line, will probably agree with that statement. Those who don’t probably won’t. And it’s an argument that’s probably academic, anyway, since where this is ultimately bound is most likely the big screen. Steven Spielberg, are you out there?
Wadada Leo Smith isn’t always in a dead serious mood. After his spine-tingling show last night at Roulette, the New York debut of material from his 2012 magnum opus Ten Freedom Summers (rated best album of the year here), the trumpeter/composer treated the audience to a brief Q&A. Smith winkingly related that when a representative from Chamber Music America was scheduled to pay him a visit to finalize a deal for a single commission, he’d made sure to leave “Scores all over the house, on the floor, on…what’s that thing you put on top of the record player?” Three hours later, the CMA rep left, overwhelmed, and Smith had a deal in hand for several additional works.
Smith also explained that he and Emmett Till were both thirteen years old when Till was murdered. Smith was then living in Leland, Mississippi, about 250 miles from the crime scene. “It was kind of a time of fear,” he averred. Ten Freedom Summers traces the history of the civil rights movement through key moments like that – “One that might have something to do with what you call change,” Smith hinted caustically. The idea for the suite, Smith explained, was jumpstarted by his association with August Wilson (Smith’s trumpet was featured in the debut of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Opening the first night of Smith’s three-night stand that continues here through Friday, Smith’s long-running Golden Quartet was bolstered by the austere, often plaintive strings of Pacifica Red Coral. On one hand, given the gravitas and sheer heft of the suite (a four-cd set recorded mostly during a marathon seventeen-hour session), it was surprising that the show wasn’t completely sold out. Then again, there have been other major moments in jazz – at Massey Hall, for one – that weren’t sold out. When word gets out about how powerful, and intense, and matter-of-factly transcendent this one was, the sets tonight and tomorrow night, both at 8 PM, certainly will be. As of this moment (wee hours of May 2), there are still tickets available.
Smith’s music is grounded in the core values of the blues: economy of notes, a narrative arc and multiple levels of meaning. Even while the ensembles onstage in more than one instance were reinventing the material, it was with a thousand yard stare and a white-knuckle intensity, a common sense of purpose that never wavered. Had Smith schooled them beforehand about the topics the works were written to address? No, Smith told one interested concertgoer. The players simply felt the music. Characteristically, Smith chose his spots judiciously, intently bent over his horn, more inclined to brief resonant accents or tantalizing, allusive hints of chromatic menace than rapidfire cadenzas. Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff shadowed him early on, making rich, emphatic, sometimes portentously ornate, sometimes murderous use of his cymbals and toms. Bassist John Lindberg alternated between tersely incisive accents, stark bowed lines, and a moodily hypnotic blues/gospel groove in the long, increasingly agitated vamp illustrating the Brown vs. Board of Education case.
Pianist Anthony Davis, though he played with a similarly characteristic minimalism, might be the key to the entire unit, maximizing his presence with a glimmering, eerie upper-register resonance balanced by a murkily ominous lefthand. The strings – Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian on violins, Andrew Macintosh on viola and Ashley Walters on cello – ramped up the intensity and suspense with anxious close harmonies that often fueled a sense of pleading or despair, other times exchanging deftly flitting harmonics or tensely swooping motives. Concert harpist Alison Bjorkedal punctuated the apprehensive opacity with an incisive steadiness, occasionally in tandem with the bass. Interestingly, Smith chose to open his stand by including the suite’s two quietest segments: an airily ghostly tone poem depicting the Washington, DC Vietnam War memorial wall, and what turned out to be an absolutely chilling, morose take of Black Church, an acidic piece for strings that might possibly be meant to evoke the horror in the wake of a church bombing.
Smith explained afterward that his portrait of Emmett Till – which hauntingly recycles a riff from Black Church – drew from how the blues can convey a feeling of simultaneous joy and anguish. The rich, briefly majestic portayal of a fearless young man quickly gave way to a corrosive, frantic string interchange and then a somber, elegaic mood, almost rubato but never left to collapse into chaos. The two ensembles wound up the show with an expansive, revealingly bare-bones version of the final track on the album’s first cd, a dignified, allusively neoromantic depiction of John F. Kennedy’s final ride in a horse-drawn hearse. If just that idea alone doesn’t get you out to the shows tonight or tomorrow night, you obviously have no need for transcendence.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington classics from 1930 through 1971 yesterday at JALC’s Rose Theatre was like being invited to the meeting of a secret society all too eager to let you in on the biggest secret of all. Anybody who dismisses the later Ellington needs to see this band play it. Although this was a rare early-afternoon show, as Wynton Marsalis went out of his way to mention, he was in top form both on the horn, and as raconteur and Ellington advocate.
Marsalis underscored what was on the bill by reminding how Ellington took the blues further than anybody else – and that the composer remained such a fan of the blues that when Count Basie saw Ellington in the audience, he’d keep an eye on him; when Duke would get up to leave, Basie would lead the band into a blues to keep Ellington in the house, which apparently worked every time. Marsalis reminded that Paul Gonsalves’ famous long solo on Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue (a piece not on the bill, actually) wasn’t a concession to hard-bop convention: it was an attempt to make Gonsalves break a sweat and sober up a little. Introducing a particularly harmonically challenging arrangement for the saxophone section, Marsalis quipped that “Tf there’s an entrance exam for Hell, this is it,” And in going back and reading the corrosively critical jazz press that followed the Carnegie Hall debut of Black, Brown and Beige, Marsalis acknowledged that “There’s such a pervasive and deeply held ignorance about Duke Ellington that I found myself getting upset.” And he’s right: how anyone could mistake that masterpiece for anything other than what it is makes no sense.
It’s amazing how fresh and new this ensemble makes the music sound. They played two numbers from that iconic suite, a boisterously joyful take of Emancipation, trumpeter Kenny Rampton using a floppy hat for a mute at one point, and closed the show with a version of Symphonette and its serpentine exchanges of voices over ultraviolet lustre. The biggest “oooh” moment of the set was a rapt, simmering, low-key purist septet take of Mood Indigo; then again, Marsalis’ own rapidfire, register-expanding, subtly polyrhythmic solo on Braggin’ in Brass right before that was pretty sensational. The lushly sophisticated Lady of the Lavender Mist, as Marsalis noted, wasn’t written as a baritone feature, but this version put bari saxophonist Joe Temperley front and center with his nuanced tremolo buildling to a tenderly lyrical crescendo. The orchestra sank a collective set of fangs into the gritty minor-key triplet riff of Portrait of Wellman Braud – an early Ellington bassist and distant Marsalis relative – as it percolated through the arrangement. They picked up Island Virgin and quickly moved it from lighthearted calypso jazz to baroque swing, pulsing with misty colors and a lively Ted Nash clarinet solo.
The waltzing Paris Steps reveled quietly in this same kind of luminosity, with an optimistic Sherman Irby alto sax solo. Two Trains that Pass in the Night, a droll exercise in stereo effects, was Ellington at his most wryly vaudevillian. And a vigorous romp through Harlem Airshaft – a sardonic depiction of neighborhood chatter – gave voice to the Facebook of the 1930s, i.e. real life. There’s nothing better than some Ellington in the afternoon to send you flying, completely blissed out into the street afterward (OK, maybe some Ellington at night). A shout out to the rest of the cast, whose intricate and inspired contributions were too numerous to count: Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup on trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Elliott Mason and Chris Crenshaw on trombones; Victor Goines and Walter Blanding on tenor saxes; James Chirillo on banjo and guitar; Dan Nimmer on piano; Ali Jackson on drums; and bassist Carlos Henriquez, who on the spur of the moment led the remaining crew onstage through a few triumphant walk-off bars of Take the A Train.
A special shout out was also earned by the crew at the box office and the unexpectedly affable house manager, who graciously fixed a ticket snafu which for a second threatened to derail this review. Thanks guys!
Kathleen Supove, the go-to pianist of the New York underground, debuted her most recent, hauntingly surreal theme program, modestly titled Digital Debussy, last night at the Flea Theatre in Tribeca. It continues with shows tonight, April 26 at 7 PM and two on Saturday the 27th at 3 and 7 PM. If cutting-edge piano music is on your agenda, don’t miss this. Supove, who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, put herself in the position of having to play along to a collage of keyboards mixed with found sounds of storms and god knows what else, and she was up for it, even though that meant taking cues not from melody but from stormclouds and seemingly random, possibly backward-masked sonic markers.
And she nailed it! Supove – who is always great fun to watch, opening the show decked out all in white with a white piano along with watery film projections – began by negotiating her way through the rain-drenched, hauntingly immersive, deceptively minimalist funhouse mirrors of Joan LaBarbara’s Storefront Diva: A Dreamscape. Inspired by Joseph Cornell’s dreams of Debussy playing in a storefront window, it was like being transported to a sonic Cornell box. Supove chose her spots As much fun as this was to witness, it would be fantastic to hear on album (reputedly there’s a DVD in the works). There’s a visual aspect that gives Supove – a very physical performer, albeit a lithe, graceful one – lots of room for balletesque movement. Throughout LaBarbara’s otherworldly, Lynchian resonances, Supove played Lynch Girl at the keys to the hilt, exchanging melodies between hands whether or not she was playing them. The surrealism of it all hit hard, a hurricane tableau as seen from a safe interior, resonantly comforting despite itself.
Annie Gosfield’s Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind – like all of the pieces on the program, a new commision from Supove, this being an update on Debussy’s What the West Wind Saw – seemingly illustrated a triumphant human spirit in the face of cruel distractions. Ostensibly, the sound collage that Supove played against reimagined Debussy fragments along with samples from Hurricane Sandy. Aside from a gusty, swooping interlude late in the piece, it was hard to tell what was organic and what was machine-made. Perhaps that was intentional. Throughout it all, beauty triumphed amid chaos, Beatles quotes and endless, hypnotic circularity.
Up to this point, Supove hadn’t been able to indulge in much humor (give her an inch and she”ll take a mile or two: she can be hilarious). So it was fun to watch her tackle her longtime Dr. Nerve art-rock bandmate Nick Didkovsky’s Triumph of Innocence, a sarcastic title if there ever was one. Supove played hypnotic, distantly Indian-tinged cascades and circular motives while narrating fragments from a Bette Page memoir, actress Georgia Ximenes Lifsher acting out the stripper’s deadpan, seemingly innocent recollections of Estes Kefauver’s foreshadowing of the Meese Commission, Page’s fondness for her photographer/pimp Irving Klaw (what a name, huh?) and her terror of growing old and losing her looks. As it crescendoed, Supove’s breathless narration channeled an increasing violence to match her rapidfire work on the keys. It was enough to make you forget that there was, at least ostensibly, a stripper onstage, no mean feat. Tickets for this explosive and entertaining show are still available as of now. Supove also books the intriguing, vastly cross-pollinational annual Music with a View series here: watch this space for a series of June concerts that promise to match this kind of excitement.
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