The Puppeteers‘ debut album is packed with the kind of fun you would expect a bunch of guys to be having at their local. Which is where the band came together, and where they got their name, from the now-defunct South Slope, Brooklyn jazz bar. The ringleaders of the band are polymath pianist Arturo O’Farrill and Jazz Passengers vibraphone powerhouse Bill Ware, with Alex Blake on bass and Jaime Affoumado on drums. It’s a wild, adrenalizing, tuneful ride.
Ware sets the stage with an impossibly machineguning solo that O’Farrill just has to match, and he does, and then he leaves it to the rhythm section. That’s the lickety-split swing tune, On the Spot, that opens the album. Another tune by Blake, Jumping, puts O’Farrill in the driver’s seat, and he owns it all the way through its clenched-teeth noir swing to a crash of an ending. In Whom is a distinctive, chromatically-charged O’Farrill tune, and another blast of adrenaline from the pianist. He gets plenty of high-fives for his role leading the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a unit that doesn’t give him as much room to cut loose and show off his blazing chops like he does here.
Ware fuels the agile, waltzing Peaceful Moment (peaceful, yeah, right!) with a tightly wound baroque-tinged intensity, O’Farrill’s sizzling righthand spirals contrasting with the minimalist bass solo and then the vibraphone-driven ballad that the song morphs into. Bio Diesel, by Ware, has a lively, bracing offcenter sway, as if to say, “We’re fueled by something weird, but it’s working.”
O’Farrill elevates Affoumado’s ballad Dreams of Dad with rapidfire, bluesy spirals that keep going even as the drums drop out: the adrenaline just won’t stop. Likewise, O’Farrill’s jackhammer lefthand propels Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now up to a clever, intricate interweave of upper righthand bustle in tandem with the vibes. Then Ware’s latin-tinged Lonely Days Are Gone (a Box Tops reference) contrasts O’Farrill’s spins and dips with Ware’s tersely swinging lines. They wind up the album with another Ware tune, The Right Time, with a similar dichotomy, Ware playing voice of reason to O’Farrill’s cyclotron pyrotechnics. Has the word “adrenaline” appeared here yet?
A word about the venue the band takes their name from: wrong place, wrong time. Situated about equidistant from Barbes and I-Beam (and now Shapeshifter Lab), Puppets had good sound, great food and the best veggie burger beyond the outskirts of Rastafarian Crown Heights. But they were never able to catch on with the youngish crowd that comes out to I-Beam for cutting-edge sounds and the latin-inclined acts favored at Barbes – or with an older neighborhood crowd that might have been into Puppets’ more oldschool postbop acts. Charging more of a cover than their neighbors probably had something to do with that too. Until tourists other than those who live there start to make the South Slope a destination – or the neighborhood is taken over completely by a Wall Street crowd – would-be impresarios should take notice.
Violinist Dana Lyn is as adept at Bach and Celtic dances as she is at searchingly acerbic string music. There’s a lot of the the latter on her latest album Aqualude. Last night at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, she and her shapeshifting band from that album – Clara Kennedy on cello, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – aired out some of the spiraling, entrancing pieces as well as a number of even more intriguing new compositions. One of those Lyn had just finished earlier in the day, but the group approached it with relish, Kennedy’s stark solo intro giving way to a lively balletesque theme that worked back and forth through all kinds of permutations, Goldberger hinting at skronk against an uneasy wash of strings.
Another began with an elegant eight-note clarinet hook that Lyn and Goldberger used as a springboard for lilting, dancing harmonies. One of Lyn’s main tropes is to loop a phrase and then use that to anchor an intricate interweave of voices. and the band did that often throughout an expansive set that went well over an hour. Lyn also has a fascination with the ocean and its creatures, carefully and wryly explaining how those often very strange beings influence her music. The guardedly explosive centerpiece of the Aqualude album, she said, was inspired by the hairy crabs who frequent the volcanic vents on the seabed. Another piece drew on the plight of the octopus, whose male and female basically go insane and die after they mate (does that remind you of another species?).
Kennedy opened the show with a stark intro that grew into a metrically tricky loop in tandem with the guitar, McGinnis adding counterrythmic staccato accents as Lyn’s violin wafted overhead. Sperrazza – who felt the room’s sonics instantly, keeping his masterfully counterintuitive accents and colors low-key with his brushes and sometimes just his hands – kicked off the next one as loudly as he’d go, with an almost baroque counterpoint from the clarinet and strings.
Along with the web of melodies, there’s a lot of contrast in Lyn’s music, and the band worked those dynamics with a comfortable chemistry: hazy atmospherics versus a kinetic drive, loud/soft and calm/agitated dichotomies, Goldberger hitting his pedals for an unexpected roar or McGinnis leaping from the murk of the bass clarinet to the top of his register. Lyn also counters the pensiveness and gravitas of her music with a surreal sense of humor. It was her birthday, so she supplied paper and pens so that everyone in the crowd could draw a cadavre exquis. Some of the audience came up with intriguing or amusing stuff; from an artistically-challenged point of view, it was impossible to concentrate on drawing for very long because it was such a distraction – and a lot more fun – to watch Lyn’s magical sonic tableaux unfold.
Mexican singer Magos Herrera reaffirmed her presence as one of the most eclectically compelling singers in any idiom in an intimate duo performance with guitarist Javier Limon for media and a select group of friends at a Chelsea gallery Thursday night. Her previous album Mexico Azul celebrated the African roots of much of Mexican music and culture. Dawn, her new collaboration with Limon, she said, made the connection between Mexico and Spain seem “perfectly natural,” a rather brave assertion for someone whose career has advocated so strongly for the people of her native land. But it’s a quietly stunning move for her: throughout an all-too-brief, set, she and Limon enjoyed a casual chemistry but also an intense focus and commitment to finding the most subtle shades in the music.
Herrera sang in her signature, minutely jeweled contralto until finally going way up, further than you would expect someone with such command of her low register would be able to. Limon played sparingly and judiciously, letting his phrases breathe, matching the singer’s penchant for not wasting notes, which made his occasional flamencoesque flurry all the more intense. They opened the set with a syncopated tango of sorts, Herrera’s delivery managing to be both misty and disarmingly direct at once. Then they reinvented Skylark as a richly suspenseful, spaciously contemplative mood piece with hints of both flamenco and Andalucian music.
Throughout the rest of the set, Limon would sometimes shadow the vocals, following Herrera’s crescendoing, upward ascents with his own. On occasion, he’d light up a slowly swaying theme with a sputtering crescendo much in the way that Herrera would add gracefully scatting accents to bring a chorus to a gentle peak, singing in both Spanish and English. This approach maintained the flamenco influence without the cliches that so many acts who didn’t grow up with the music employ for over-the-top affect. They ended with a number that began with a rainy-day theme that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sade catalog and then took it out almost as a march, with a series of hypnotically shifting vamps.
And speaking of Sade, there’s been a void where that singer once reigned as the queen of artsy, sophisticated romantic chanteuses. Which would give Herrera room to take over that role, if she wanted. Obviously, she might find that limiting: she’s a more subtle and diverse singer than Sade, and her interests run far beyond romantic balladry. But she’s got the torchy delivery, plaintiveness and sense of longing. What if Herrera – or someone like her – decided to take the Mexican bolero and reinvent it as American torch song? Wouldn’t it be cool if the default boudoir music of the west was a style refined and brought to its pinnacle by Mexicans? Forget about Obama’s lip service about immigration reform: there are an awful lot of places in this country where Mexican-Americans are under fire. What a pleasant and subtle way to fight back against all that repulsiveness – and to jumpstart the reconquista. Just a thought…
It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the thrilling, chromatically charged sounds of Armenian music than Richard Hagopian. During his sold-out show Sunday night at Symphony Space, the virtuoso oudist took a moment to proudly reflect on how just about every household in the global Armenian diaspora had at least one of his longtime band Kef Time‘s albums. Otherwise, Hagopian’s sense of humor was more self-effacing. As he explained, he joined his first band at age nine: “We weren’t very good, but the older people thought we were,” he grinned. His next gig came at eleven, playing with a group whose members were about seven decades older, an early immersion in the kind of obscure treasures that he’d bring to a global audience over the decades to come.
A record-setting two-year run with Buddy Sarkissian’s showband on the Vegas strip led to the birth of Kef Time and endless touring: meanwhile, Hagopian ran a music venue in his native Fresno. This concert also featured his son Harold, an equally brilliant musician, doubling on kanun and violin and served as emcee, giving his dad a chance to reflect on his career and explain the songs both for the Armenian and English speakers in the audience. Ara Dinkjian played guitar, sometimes doubling the melody line, other times supplying what were essentially basslines when he wasn’t anchoring the music with brisk chordal rhythm. Percussionist Rami negotiated the songs’ tricky 9/8 and 10/8 time signatures with a hypnotically kinetic aplomb, playing both goblet and frame drums.
Considering how much Turkish-language material there was on the bill, Harold Hagopian reminded that there’s no more cognitive dissonance in an Armenian listening to Turkish music – or vice versa – than there is for a Jew to listen to German music. The quartet opened with a couple of lush, windswept classical pieces, the first by blind oudist Udi Hrant Kenkulian, the group often playing the same lickety-split, spiky, microtonally-spiced phrase in unison. Being on the Silk Road and culturally diverse, the music of Armenia is something of a cross between Arabic and western sounds - while in Arabic music it’s usually the microtones that make it so haunting and otherworldly, in Armenian music it’s often the passing tones, neither major nor minor in a western scale, which enhance its enigmatic magic.
Hagopian opened a couple of later numbers with pensive improvisations – otherwise, he fired off wild flurries of tremolo-picking, flying joyously through the songs’ bracing modes. His son has a similar, wickedly fast, precise attack on the kanun, switching to violin for the later part of the show and getting to show off his command of tersely resonant, atmospheric lines. Several of the vocal numbers had an ironic humor: Hele Hele, a folk song – about “a guy who likes a girl but who can’t get to first base with her,” as the senior Hagopian put it – along with an insistent “dragon dance” inspired by Indian music, and Her Hair Was Blonde, the sadly swaying lament of a New Jersey immigrant whose first choice of fiancee has just been promised to another guy with more money.
Nane Suyu, an elegant tribute to one of the first jazz oudists, Chick Ganimian, was more subdued. After that, the band picked up the pace with Nihavent Longa, a tribute to to another legendary oudist, George Mgrditchian. They ended with Drumsalero, a vaudevillian fanfare of sorts in tribute to Sarkissian – an innovator known for employing a full kit’s worth of goblet drums onstage – which gave Rami a chance to cut loose in between jaunty riffs from the rest of the band.
The World Music Institute, who put this bill together, has a similarly enticing program coming up at Symphony Space on May 7 at 7 PM. Titled Strings of the Black Sea, it features Crimean Tatar violinist Nariman Asanov, Brooklyn accordionist Patrick Farrell, Cherven Traktor’s Bulgarian gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev and Christos Tiktapanidis on the pontic lyre. Tickets are $30 and available both at the box office and through the WMI. Here’s what most of this cast of characters sounded like playing this same program four years ago.
[republished from Lucid Culture's Americana-fixated sister blog New York Music Daily]
What’s become clear from the past decade’s Americana explosion is that whether people admit it or not, pretty much everybody likes country music. And more and more musicians, whether they genuinely enjoy it or not, seem hell-bent on trying to capitalize on that. Groups that would have been stone cold top 40 or Warped Tour punk-pop back in day have traded in the drum machines and Strats for banjos and mandolins. And a lot of jazz people are following suit. Some of it’s good to hear – and some of it’s pretty dubious.
When you consider an artist from a previous era like Bob Wills, it’s a reminder of how much less of a divide between jazz and country there used to be. What trumpeter Dave Douglas and reedman Chet Doxas are doing on Riverside, their turn in an Americana direction, is as much a toe-tapping good time as it is sophisticated. But it’s 2014 jazz, not western swing. They take their inspiration from reedman Jimmy Giuffre, who was jazzing up riffs from country and folk music fifty years ago. And they’re not afraid to be funny: there’s only one aw-shucks cornpone number on the new album, but there’s plenty of subtle, tongue-in-cheek drollery throughout the other tracks. The group, which also includes Doxas’ brother Jim on drums and former Giuffre sideman Steve Swallow on bass, kick off their North American tour for the album at the Jazz Standard Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15 and 16 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is 25 and worth it.
Although the grooves on the album are more straight-up than you might expect from your typical current-day jazz outfit, the band doesn’t always stick to a 4/4 beat and Jim Doxas finds plenty of wiggle room when they do. The two-horn frontline will typically harmonize and then diverge, both Douglas and Chet Doxas approaching their solos with judicious flair: as is the case with every Douglas project, this is about tunes rather than chops. Swallow is the midpoint, sometimes playing chords like a rhythm guitarist, other times grounding the melodies as the drums or horns will go off on a tangent. And he opens the warmly wistful, aptly titled jazz waltz Old Church New Paint with a solo that begins as swing and then segues into the old folk song Wild Mountain Thyme.
A handful of tracks, like the shuffling, ragtime-tinged Thrush and the joyous song without words Handwritten Letter, blend New Orleans and C&W into contemporary themes. The lone Giuffre cover here, The Train and the River mashes up bluegrass, gospel and jazz, while Big Shorty is a swinging platform for high-energy soloing from the horns. Front Yard and Back Yard are a diptych, the initial warmly summery tableau giving way to a devious party scenario with all kinds of lively interplay among the band. There’s also a tiptoeing blues number, Travellin’ Light, Douglas playing with a mute to raise the vintage ambience. The album closes with a brooding, hauntingly bluesy, shapeshifting tone poem of sorts. In its own quiet way, it’s the album’s strongest track and most evocative of the clarity and directness that Douglas typically brings to a tune, and Doxas’ sax is right there with him. The whole album isn’t up at Douglas’ music page yet but should be as soon as the album releases tomorrow.
If you’re in a quirky mood, or want to jumpstart your brain, you can always resequence album tracks. And if you’re tired, or just lazy, you can always hit “shuffle play.” But would you consider reversing the order of the movements of, say, a Beethoven symphony, in concert? As a joke, maybe.
But what if rearranging the order of an iconic suite brought a hidden meaning to light? That’s what baritone Ulrich Hartung did with Schubert’s Winterreise suite Friday night at the Liederkranz Society, revealing it as not only a classic of proto-existentialist tunesmithing but also as a thinly veiled political broadside. Over the years there’s been a tempest in a teaspoon over how the suite should be performed: in the order that Schubert followed (the traditional way), or in the original sequence of Wilhelm Muller poems that the composer set to music? Hartung chose the latter and let the songs validate his claim, in the process raising the suite’s already haunting intensity several notches. What became inarguably clear only a few songs into it was that Schubert’s music follows precisely the same trajectory as the lyrics.
We often forget the brutal repression that so many classical composers toiled under. In the extensive program notes for the concert, an excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, Hartung reminded that both Schubert and Muller were subject to routine censorship under the pre-1848 dictatorship. Was it possible that Schubert shuffled the deck a little to get it past the censors? It would seem so. Schubert hasn’t been remembered as a freedom fighter: one simple move by Hartung, and the numerous others in his camp, changes that view considerably.
The suite has come down to us tagged as a Herrmann Hesse-like depiction of alienation and lovelorn angst, and that’s how it reads on the surface. “Fremd bin ich einzegogen, Fremd zieh ich wieder aus [I arrived a stranger, I left a stranger]“, Hartung sang with elegant restraint but also haggard bravado to open the suite. By the end. he’d reached the point where Muller’s protagonist is out on the ice with the hurdy-gurdy man, pondering if he should beseech the guy – who’s probably drunk and homeless – to play these songs. Awash in moody nocturnal ambience, Hartung maintained a steely, resolute calm that he only rose from occasionally during the performance, singing and then playing crystalline, resonantly measured lines on alto sax at the end. The cruel surrealism was shattering.
The foreshadowing on the way there made that conclusion all the more powerful. Especially during the opening songs, a subtly sarcastic, anthemic sensibility rose to the surface, pianist Juan Pablo Horcasitas playing Stefan Kozinski’s arrangement with a gracefully deadpan matter-of-factness, joined by Eric Lemmon on viola, Lenae Harris on cello, Lis Rubard on horns and Shelly Bauer on reeds. A handful of suspiciously jaunty waltzes are interspersed among Schubert’s lustrously terse balladry, Hartung and Horcasitas teaming to raise their sardonic edge, letting the subtext and symbolism speak for themselves. Antiwar and antifascist imagery appeared everywhere, Hartung’s precise, cantabile diction especially helpful for those in the audience with limited command of German. In so doing, he gave every reason for reading the traveler’s exhaustion and emotional depletion as an exhile in his own land railing against the occupation. The brief, next-to-last song in Muller’s sequence is Mut (Courage): on the surface, it reflects on abandonment, but on a political level it’s a call to arms. So many composers from throughout the ages have had to battle with repressive regimes: it’s time to acknowledge Schubert for his contribution.
The high point of the Mozart Requiem, as generations of concertgoers and fans of biopics know well, comes midway through the mass where Mozart realizes that he’s going to die. A cynic would say that Mozart, ever the egotist, saved his best for a self-penned obituary, but the music transcends that. It’s horrifying without being macabre, one of the most chilling existential moments in the classical repertoire. Wednesday night, in the wondrous sonics of their Upper East Side home base, the massive Choir and Orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola left the audience literally gasping when they reached that moment. Getting there was almost as intense and thrilling. Despite the fact that much of the crowd was obviously familiar with the work, people were exchanging stunned glances in amazement at its angst-ridden power and the ensemble’s pinpoint, precise command of it.
Hearing the orchestra and 37-piece choir up close reminded what a hodgepodge it is – and how difficult it is to perform, with all the dynamic shifts, Mozart’s shivery strings and elegant foreboding up against Franz Sussmayr’s pedestrianly pleasant passages added after Mozart’s death to complete the work as a fullscale Catholic mass. But music director K. Scott Warren and his mighty group were up to the challenge, the explosive vocal bursts of the towering Dies Irae passage giving way to the pensively dancing Andante and then the ever-present, achingly imploring Rex Tremendae section on the way up to the central crescendo. The soloists – soprano Tami Petty, mezzo-soprano Sara Murphy, tenor John Tiranno and bass-baritone Kevin Deas all stepped up with power and steely focus when their moments arrived.
Getting to the Mozart was a lot of fun too. The concert opened with baroque composer Heinrich Schutz’ remarkably forward-looking, tersely elegaic Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ, a partita for chamber ensemble and fifteen-voice choir plus soloists. Standouts among the performers included but were not limited to baritone Elliott Carlton Hines, with his gretty, plaintive edge; Elisa Singer, whose soprano delivered spine-tingling range and power; contralto Heather Petrie, who dazzled with her split-second ability to shift between registers; and tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, who raised the ante with equal parts color and poignancy.
And the fun maxed out with an unrestrained, joyous performance of Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude, BWV 227. This piece is a little more straightforward than the typical Bach cantata, which allowed for the group to make an unselfconsciously dancing hymn out of it; that might sound like an oxymoron, but in this group’s hands it seemed perfectly natural and impossible to resist, through a stiletto staccato fugue, lilting sways, mellifluous volleys of arpeggios, a bit of a bittersweet nocturne and then its concluding ode to joy. Throughout this piece and the rest of the concert, the sound was seamless yet balanced to a minute degree, keening highs against brooding lows, awash in lustre and rapture, further enhanced by cathedral’s magnificent sonics.
The American Composers Orchestra’s main mission is to whip new material into shape so as to entice other enterpising orchestras to play it. A daunting task, but one they’ve tackled gamely since the group’s inception back in the 90s. The group’s appeal is bittersweet: along with many tantalizing premieres that other orchestras will pick up, the ACO also plays a lot of material that you’ll never hear again. And that they’ll never play again, which makes their job so much harder considering that they have to learn so much of their repertoire, such that it is, from scratch. Friday night’s Carnegie Hall performance was typically eclectic and more historically-infused than usual, featuring an old standard of the avant garde that’s lived to claim its place, more or less, in the standard repertoire; a rarity from Mexico; two new works utilizing wavelike motives, the second much more successfully than the first; and a suite of new songs by the orchestra’s main man Derek Bermel.
They opened with a rather twistedly fascinating rarity, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ 1932 suite, Alcancias (literally, the title means “piggy bank;” figuratively, it can also mean “bullet” or “pimp”). The middle section was an uselfconsciously pretty pastorale lit up with a lyrically panoramic solo by oboeist Kathy Halvorson. On either side of it was a frantic, Keystone Kops pastiche of snippets of folk tunes, ragtime and vaudeville, so blustery that the pageantry seemed suspiciously forced. A satire, maybe?
The evening’s piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Manchay Tiempo, a chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque depiction of waves of fear inspired by childhood exposure to a documentary about terrorism in 1970s Chile, where her mother grew up. Frank flaunts her multiculturalism fearlessly: no idiom is off limits. That fearlessness extends to subject matter and emotional content as well, in this case a series of slow, menacing glissandos and murderously creeping crescendos, a knife’s-edge depiction of terror in the night, noir in the purest sense of the word. The surreal, off-center, tone-bending “is this really happening” ambience finally faded down to an unexpected calm at the end, a terrorized child finally drifting off to sleep. It’s impossible to think of a more gripping piece of music performed on a New York stage this year.
Gunther Schuller‘s Contours was considered radical when it debuted in 1958. More than half a century later, the composer’s vision has been more than validated: it’s still pretty cutting-edge. Conductor George Manahan, poised on his heels, was clearly having a good time with Schuller’s long, suspenseful crescendos, jazzy rhythms and bracing post-Ives lyricism and so was the orchestra. The program concluded with Bermel’s new suite of Eugenio de Andrade songs, delivered guardedly and methodically in a cool alto by Luciana Souza, building tension and intensity almost imperceptibly through deft manipulation of a series of circular, often hypnotic, yet equally kinetic themes.
One upcoming ACO series of concerts that’s been regularly promising is their Underwood readings of new works by up-and-coming composers at the DiMenna Center this coming June 5 and 6.
For almost three decades now, the New York Festival of Song has staged many concert series around town that fall loosely under the category of art-song. Some of the material is on the operatic side, some veering toward cabaret, occasionally venturing toward art-rock or further to the edge of the avant garde. While the most recent one last week was staged at the National Opera Center, both the bill and the performance were characteristically eclectic.
Composition-wise, it was no surprise that the high point of the evening would be a triptych of text from Hamlet, brought to life with a vividly acidic austerity by Amy Beth Kirsten. Soprano Justine Aronson gave it an aptly grim, arioso rendition over brilliantly diverse pianist Thomas Sauer‘s haunting, bell-like resonance. The night’s funniest moment was a snarkily ridiculous portrait of a paparazzi (or someone who seems to want to be one) written by jazz piano luminary Fred Hersch, also performed by Aronson and Sauer. Aronson later brought richly nuanced, poignant vocalese to a setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by composer Russell Platt, pianist Michael Barrett adding a nocturnal lustre.
Harold Meltzer, who’d organized the night, was also represented by an unorthodox series of chamber ensembles featuring both acoustic guitar and mandolin: his circular, Reichian riffs and spacious phrases were the bill’s most modern elements. Aronson and Sauer delivered a dynamically-charged, crescendoing triptych by James Matheson whose idioms spanned from the baroque to the neoromantic. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger took a Scott Wheeler setting of Wallace Stevens straight into grand guignol. And toward the end, Aronson again teamed with Barrett for a droll litany of “ark luggage” (flea powder and champagne included on the list) by David Lang.
The next concert in NYFOS’ current season is at Merkin Concert Hall on April 14 at 8 PM, a Spanish-inspired bill with music of Shostakovich, Taneyev, Wolf, Schumann, Granados and others, sung by soprano Corinne Winters and tenor Theo Lebow, with Barrett or Steven Blier at the piano. There’s also a spring gala at Carnegie Hall and the more informal, theatrically-infused ongoing series uptown at Henry’s Restaurant at 2745 Broadway.
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