Like a punk Joni Mitchell, singer/multi-instrumentalist Morgan Heringer’s latest project, Fayaway, evokes a late 70s/early 80s no wave jazz assault, with references to the noisiest side of early indie bands like Sonic Youth, plus some heavily reverbed-out paisley underground guitar thrown in for extra menace. Heringer’s arresting voice swoops and dives unpredictably from a high falsetto to a brooding alto as she voices the moody/angry/depressed stream-of-consciousness lyrics that characterize much of her solo work as well as her previous duo project, Rayvon Browne, with fellow chanteuse Cal Folger Day. Ben Seretan’s alternately nuanced, atmospheric and deliciously bludgeoning guitar joins and spars with Ethan Meyer’s similarly dynamic drumming. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t say!” is the chorus on the opening track, The Fix, the barely two-minute punk jazz number that opens the album, veering from rubato to spastic to a waltz. “That’s what I like about you, you’re not like the dumb ones,” Heringer muses on the similarly sardonic Good Credit, follows the same kind of roller-coaster dynamics, lingering guitar and piano contrasting with flailing, agitated rhythms.
Likewise, I Could Live Without You alternates drones and crashes, tumbling piano and reverb guitar riffage, Heringer running an exasperated verse until she’s literally out of breath. Joylock builds from a sarcastically gentle glockenspiel-and-vocal ballad to a noise-glam anthem and then balls back again, defeated. I Need a BF, a soul-jazz ballad in heavy disguise, sees Heringer insisting that “Everything’s constantly turning to shit, and I wanna be ready if I’m gonna get hit,” as the din subsides to wary and tenative before returning with a pounding, reverb-fueled vengeance…and then decaying to a slow-burning, lo-fi ambience. To say that it ends the album on a high note might be misleading, but sonically speaking, it’s a noisy treat. As is much of the rest of this angry, haphazardly captivating album.
While Marc Cary is one of the most distinctive pianists in jazz, he’s also one of the more eclectic. His new album Four Directions with his Focus Trio features longtime drummer Sameer Gupta, with the bass chair being shared, sometimes jointly, by Burniss Earl Travis and Rashaan Carter. Some of this is Cary at his steely, darkly majestic best, in the same vein as his richly vivid solo Abbey Lincoln homage, For the Love of Abbey, which came out earlier this year. But Cary is also a funkmeister, and there are slightly more lighthearted moments here too. But even the most off-the-cuff track, Todi Blues – which is basically a one-chord jam with layers of various electronic keys and twin basses – has a distant, nocturnally glimmering unease.
Waltz Betty Waltz, a Betty Carter tribute, is characteristically purist, broodingly magisterial Cary, a syncopated bounce that sets biting chromatics against Ellingtonian blues. Open Baby brings an Angelo Badalementi-esque apprehension to a disarmingly simple Rhodes tune. He Who Hops Around might just as well be called He Who Hops Around Forever, working gingerly wary allusions against a droll pogo-stick octave riff.
Terreon Gully’s Tanktified captures both the sternness and propulsiveness of gospel music, with a wry Bill Withers quote. Boom, one of the best tracks here, lets Cary hold the center much of the time with his hard-hitting block chords underpinning a slasher righthand attack, further spiced by polyrhythmic bass/drums conversations and a surprisingly calm outro. Ready or Not makes a good segue, the bass finally succeeding in pulling Cary out of the murk and getting him to bounce around, up to some wry rhythmic jousting.
John McLaughlin’s Spectrum gets remade as a pretty straight-up swing tune, albeit with Cary on Rhodes, and it works surprisingly well. They pick up the raging energy again with the swaying, hypnotically rhythmic Indigenous and close with Outside My Window, a sense of menace gradually and vividly emerging from the one extended passage where Cary indulges his well-known fondness for Indian classical music. It’s deep, it’s enigmatic and it’s everything you would expect from this lyrical powerhouse and his sympatico supporting cast.
How adorable is Zeena Parkins‘ album The Adorables? Not particularly. But it is very trippy, and often very creepy, and a lot of fun. In addition to her gig as Bjork’s harpist, Parkins has been a denizen of the downtown scene for a long time, beginning with the Knitting Factory and then moving on to Tonic and the Stone. This album – with Shayna Dunkelman on vibes and percussion, Danny Blume on guitar and Deep Singh and Dave Sharma on percussion, sounds like a live recording from the Stone and is best appreciated as a whole.
A syncopated trip-hop beat with echoey Rhodes, skronky guitar and electronic blips and bleeps sets the scene, creepy and tinkling. Parkins eventually emerges along with what sounds like a mellotron. Signaled by a jaunty percussion break, the ensemble rises to a hypnotically dreamy, twinkling groove. That’s the first number. The second builds along similar lines as textures grow more dense, Parkins’ insistent crashes against woozy synth; the third builds from sardonic vocals to a rattling interlude (is that a cimbalom?!?), to loopy anthemics.
An unease sets in at that point and pretty much never leaves, beginning with Parkins’ tritones conversing with weird, robotic effects (talking with a robot would make anyone uneasy, right?). From there the band takes it into whooshing Bernard Herrmann atmospherics, to skronk, and then back with a mechanical shuffle, Dunkelman’s distantly menacing vibes solo looming in from the great beyond. Parkins’ spiky, noir melody against the lingering resonance of the vibes and the jungle of effects is arguably the album’s high point.
From there, wry early 80s-style synth fuels a Halloweenish take on P-Funk in 6/8. Twinkles and booms rise to an uneasy, dancing doublespeed that eventually loops with a West African rhythm. And then it’s over. The album is out from Cryptogramophone; Parkins’ next New York gig is an especially intriguing one, on Dec 5 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre, where she joins a chamber ensemble playing percussively hypnotic works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
Doug Webb‘s new album Another Scene ranks among the best from Posi-Tone, including Jared Gold’s organ albums, the Captain Black Big Band album and Ralph Bowen’s awesome Power Play from a couple of years ago. This one puts the LA tenor saxophonist out in front of a New York rhythm section with energy to match – you want intensity? You got it. Bill Frisell keeps Rudy Royston in his band because he is what he is, but this unit gives Royston the chance to cut loose in the studio like he does onstage in JD Allen‘s trio. He makes bassist Dwayne Burno‘s job easy. Pianist Peter Zak also gets plenty of opportunities to raise the voltage.
The opening track, Mr. Milo, is a briskly biting, syncopated Miles homage, Webb burning through the whole-tone scale, Zak hitting a similarly highwire intensity as he charges downward. One for Art – a homage to Webb’s late bassist bandmate Art Davis – is a launching pad for a long, absolutely blistering run by Webb, Zak’s solo over impatient drums that turn loose explosively- and then the band goes back to swing as if nothing happened. OK…for a little while, anyway.
Kenny Wheeler’s Smatter gets a clenched-teeth, scurrying swing and more Royston being Royston – it calms, or at least focuses, from midway on. They do Dave Brubeck’s Southern Scene as a warmly cantabile ballad, Zak rippling over almost wry Royston cymbals, keeping it lush, Webb’s warm solo echoing a Paul Desmond dry martini elegance. Another Step sets Webb and Zak’s energetic hard-bop moves over a disarmingly simple swing; Jobim’s Double Rainbow works the tension between Webb’s balminess and the raw intensity of the rhythm section for all it’s worth. Royston’s cascading waves in tandem with Zak’s solo are absolutely luscious.
Eulogy takes awhile to get going, but springboards an absolutely haunted, wrenching tenor solo from the bandleader, contrasting with the lickety-split romp Rhythm with Rudy. The version of What Is There to Say here is a predictably long feature for Webb, while Verdi Variations playfully pilfers the opera book, both Webb and Zak attacking the themes with more agitation and fire than you would expect. They follow that with a sly, bouncy excursion through Thad Jones’ Bird Song and conclude with a warmly steady take of Benny Carter’s Trust Your Heart. Webb has come a long way since his days voicing tv characters.
Leif Arntzen’s latest abum Continuous Break takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. That all this sounds as good as it does, and as thoroughly composed as it does, is credit both to the band’s chemistry and the hooks that Arntzen tossed into the brew. One of the most individualistic and consistently original trumpeters to emerge from the New York scene over the past 25 years or so, Arntzen may be best known for his his scarily evocative Chet Baker project, Channeling Chet, but he’s also an extremely eclectic, first-rate composer. Recorded live in the studio, this mix of purist, in-the-tradition renditions of standards and out-of-the-box originals is the best album Arntzen’s made to date, and a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. Arntzen is joined here by regular band since 2010: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. The whole thing is streaming at Bandcamp.
The opening track, Beautiful Mind starts as a tone poem and becomes a deviously mysterious, nebulously bluesy, atmospheric game of hide-and-seek, Blotnick’s resonance and bubbles eventually taking centerstage as the rhythm congeals into something of a funky shuffle. Then Arntzen comes in and takes it in a mid-60s Miles direction. Psykodelic Divide is a bustling misterioso urban nocturne a la Taxi Driver, trumpet and Wurlitzer neon-lighting a bass groove.
The picturesque Pretending I’m a Bird works long, floating, dreamy passages gently ornamented by the bass and guitar. The best and most haunting track here might be Tired, inspired by a riff Arntzen picked up from his son Miles (drummer for Antibalas and leader of the similarly edgy Afrobeat jamband Emefe). Dark gospel trumpet rises over a haunting psychedelic rock groove over a killer Bates bassline, the band shifting in a pastoral direction before Arntzen goes machinegunning his way out. Likewise, Arntzen’s laser-surgical precision, rising over the bubbly Wurly on Vain Insane, will give you goosebumps.
The first of the standards, My Ideal, juxtaposes Davis’ edgy brushwork against Arntzen’s trademark lyricism. The most animated and intricate number is The Call, replete with conversations, good cop/bad cop dynamics and a simmering tension as Bates holds the center. Street Dog sets a wryly blazing Blotnick slide solo over slinky funk as Bates references Albert King…and then Arntzen turns it into a beautiful ballad. Their closing take of Bye Bye Blackbird blends Blotnick’s resonantly enigmatic, judicious lines with Arntzen’s balminess, Bates once again holding it all together.
Great tunesmiths never have to look far to find good musicians. Wednesday night’s late set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard may have been a clinic in cutting-edge writing for large ensemble, but it was also a summit meeting of some of New York’s edgiest jazz talent. Schneider and this awe-inspiring cast are here through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30, an annual Thanksgiving week tradition that, if you haven’t already joined the cult, is waiting for you to discover and be hooked by it forever.
The most unforgettable solo of the night was when pianist Frank Kimbrough segued from the slinky, suspenseful soul groove Night Watchman into the more sweepingly lush Sailing, adding a menacingly glittering noir coda packed with chromatics and macabre major-on-minor riffs before the bright, buoyant atmospherics set in. Or, it might have been tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s droll, mischievous portrayal of hijinks out on a Minnesota lake, Schneider looking back on hanging with friends during her formative years. There was also a slowly unfolding, enigmatic but warmly chordal solo from guitarist Lage Lund, an even more ambient and plaintive one from accordionist Gary Versace. an allusively microtonal Steve Wilson alto sax solo; a thoughtfully considered, spiraling trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes and a more spacious yet also more rhythmically adventurous one later on from Ryan Keberle – and there were others. Ironically, this big band relies less on soloing than any other. It’s Schneider’s compositions that people come out for: contributions from the rest of the personalities are the icing on the cake.
A couple of the set’s early tunes were the bluesiest and most in-the-tradition, but also less of a showcase for the sweeping colors and epic majesty that characterizes so much of Schneider’s more recent work: it was as she was saying, “So you think I was good then? You should hear me now.” A new one, dedicated to the late Brazilian percussionist Paolo Mora, was inspired by the time he took Schneider out to see a performance of one of his massive student ensembles: “It was like being shot out of a cannon,” Schneider explained, being surrounded on all sides by all the percussive firepower. And this piece, with its swirling, hypnotic midsection, had the same effect, bolstered by her signature melody and sweep. But there were just as many hushed, rapt moments, as in the closing number, a bittersweet, pre-dawn Great Plains tableau (from Schneider’s recent Dawn Upshaw collaboration, Morning Walks), or when bassist Jay Anderson built elegant, plaintive pointillisms with guitar voicings as swells subsided to whispers.
It also happened to be Schneider’s birthday, and she was overcome both by the band’s affection – not to mention their blend of meticulousness and titanic, Gil Evans-inspired power – and by her memories of the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, an important part of this ensemble for several years. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Schneider would wear her heart on her sleeve, considering how emotionally direct her music is. If you’re in town this weekend, go see her.
Saturday night in the sonically exquisite downstairs digs at SubCulture, vibraphonist Chris Dingman‘s The Subliminal and Sublime previewed what might be the best album of 2014. It takes a lot of nerve (or cluelessness) to characterize your music as sublime, but Dingman’s obviously aware that he’s caught magic in a bottle with his new five-part suite commissioned by Chamber Music America. “You’re going to have to figure out where one part ends and the next one begins,” he told the crowd before giving it a Manhattan premiere. The band – Fabian Almazan on piano, Ryan Ferreira on guitar, Loren Stillman on alto sax, Linda Oh on bass and Justin Brown on drums – was clearly amped to begin recording the following day. In about an hour onstage, dynamics rose and fell in glistening, twilit waves with echoes of Brian Eno, Pat Metheny and the Claudia Quintet as well as Bryan and the Aardvarks, a group that Dingman contributes to as memorably as this one.
The suite began with lingering, airy motives, Dingman bowing his notes, Ferreira deftly twisting his volume knob, a still, spacious wash of minimalist high harmonies. Tempos varied from spacious and seemingly rubato, to straight-up four-on-the-floor, to more knotty, as the arrangements rose and fell through cinematic, anthemic themes fueled by Brown’s majestically emphatic cymbal and tom-tom work, back to hypnotic, minimalist washes of sound. The conversational rapport between Almazan and Dingman mirrored their approach in Bryan & the Aardvarks – half the time, it was hard to tell who was playing what, making that distinction pretty much beside the point. Oh’s one solo of the night was was an elegantly precise, tensely climbing lattice; later in the night, she kicked off a thematic shift with a plaintive series of bell tones that the rest of the band picked up hauntingly. Ferreira alternated between lingering, airy motives and precise, minimalist picking as Dingman – one of this era’s most consistently interesting and individualistic vibraphonists – spun a richly echoey vortex illuminated with glistening cascades, insistent two-handed rhythmic figures and poignantly whispering passages that at least seemed to be natural markers between segments. The sheer hummability and bittersweetly resonant quality of the melodies are signature Dingman traits. It was good to see this show being filmed; let’s hope that at least some of it makes it to the web.
One-man or one-woman theatre pieces are usually to be avoided at all costs. Former sitcom stars recounting every anxious second of a struggle to adopt a Chinese baby…addled old men doing standup about their time in rehab as a condition of their probation…you know the drill. The famous exceptions to the rule – Krapp’s Last Tape, Eric Bogosian in general – give the genre a better reputation than it deserves. Vickie Tanner‘s nonchalantly incendiary solo show Running Into Me, which ended last month at LaMaMa, rises to the level of the latter category and deserves to be brought back in a larger room, especially considering how explosively audiences responded during the run’s final performances there.
With a nonchalant gleam in her eye and a disarmingly direct delivery, Tanner employs her stilletto wit throughout an autobiographical narrative that in many ways is a metaphor for racial relations in American in the here and now. Director Bruce McCarty doesn’t wait ten seconds to set up a clever device that amps the suspense to fever pitch, leaving an unresolved question and its potentially ghastly answer to linger until the very end of the show. In between, Tanner lets her story speak for itself. While an ironclad logic fuels her acerbic humor – her bullshit detector is set to stun as far as hypocrites and cognitive dissonance are concerned – she doesn’t preach.
Tanner is straight outta Compton…originally, that is. But her easygoing if exasperated account of her younger days on the playground in Ice Cube’s old turf quickly takes on a series of ironies, most drastically when she goes to live with her drug dealer dad. And suddenly…she’s transformed from ghetto girl to comfortable suburbanite, with a car of her own, a guidance counselor who assumes college is in everyone’ s plans, and a big-screen tv where she can get lost in whatever’s playing on Turner Classics. This is the first of many implications offered obliquely throughout the show, that people will follow their own compass no matter what their ethnic or economic background, especially if given the opportunity. Without stating it outright, Tanner’s point is that her story could be pretty much anyone’s: what makes hers different is that people make assumptions about her that they shouldn’t.
Over and over, what makes Tanner’s narrative so appealing – and its occasional disquieting detail so appalling – is how universal it is. College girl/party animal with no idea of what she wants to do afterward suddenly gets the epiphany that New York is where she belongs…and the race is on. From there it’s a whirlwind trail of absurd dayjobs – one particularly heartbreaking one in the New York City public schools – bad apartments and one obstacle after another. What gets Tanner over the hump, and gets her over with the crowd as well, is her dedication to her muse and the unlikely places it leads her, the intimation being that not that many young African-American women from Compton are unlikely to find their niche in the world of New York experimental theatre. Throughout what may seem to be an unlikely success story (though certainly not to Tanner herself), she slings the occasional bullseye at preconceptions on every side of what could be called a racial divide. The media takes the most direct hits; in one particularly casual but poignant moment late in the show, she muses on her experience working a college fair for a mostly black crowd of high school kids uptown. And whatever deprivation they may have faced, Tanner marvels, “They’re just like me.” These kids aren’t thugs, they’re just looking to get ahead like anybody else. Balanced against that ultimately triumphant conclusion, the denouement packs quite a wallop and puts those hopes in very, very clear perspective. California-bred though she may be, Tanner is ours now and we’re better off for it. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.
Who’s the best symphony orchestra in the world? Most orchestral players will quickly suggest the Berlin Philharmonic. And pretty much everybody agrees that the Mariinsky Orchestra makes the best albums. But talk to someone who sees a lot of concerts, even a cranky critic, and they’ll tell you without hesitating that a performance by a lesser-known orchestra can be every bit as amazing as one by a brand-name ensemble. While the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s neighborhood has changed vastly over the past fifteen years, they haven’t. They’re oldschool, in an edgy East Village sense, premiering new works, showcasing up-and-coming soloists before the big orchestras get hip to them, and trotting out spirited versions of old standards. This Sunday’s concert was typical.
With Barbara Yahr on the podium, they began with the world premiere of the new orchestral version of Israeli composer Moshe Zorman’s Galilean Suite. It opened with an easygoing, easy-to-like overture on a biting Yemeni folk tune and ended with an acerbically modernist take on the traditional Jewish hora dance, which in this case was completely free of schmaltz, conductor and ensemble clearly having a ball with it. In between, there was a circular, Reichian theme that seemed to holler “I can write indie classical too,” and this particular one happens to be overwritten and overwrought. Half the group, or maybe the string section alone, would have sufficed. The orchestra did with it what they could, but even the energetic percussion features were simplistic and beside the point. Memo to other orchestras: do this as a diptych and crowds will love you for it.
The crowd went crazy, giving featured violinist Itamar Zorman (Moshe’s kid) two impromptu ovations for the first couple of movements of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The GVO discovered him four years before he won the 2011 Tschaikovsky Violin Competition in Russia. Much as every orchestra plays this warhorse, it’s cruelly difficult for a soloist, but with a spun-glass legato matched to a searing, rapidfire attack, Zorman made it look easy. Having seen another orchestra recently having to suffer backing another violinist who was not up to the challenge, this was all the more rewarding. And while it’s the famously aleatoric violin parts (Brahms let his violinist pal Joseph Joachim come up with the famous final cadenzas) that the crowds come out to see, this was done as classic, luminous, pilllowy, hard-to-resist, peak-era Brahms, complete with vivid cameos from oboeist Shannon Bryant and harpist Andre Tarantiles.
Also on the bill was Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The story may be Italian, but this emotionally raw, minutely detailed performance left no doubt that it was written by a Slavic composer, its wounded wintriness evoking the chill of snowflakes drifting under the door. Maybe it was the gloomy day outside; more likely, Yahr sought to portray the sadness that lept out from the mournful, introductory brass and winds and signaled that while this might end energetically, the story was not a happy one. Again, having seen another orchestra play a perfectly satisfying, lushly Mahlerian version (isn’t it amazing how differently orchestras play this same repertoire?), this hit a lot harder, emotionally speaking. Then again, that’s the GVO in a nutshell. Their next concert is their very fun, lively annual family concert – where kids get in free, and can march behind the orchestra – plus an “instrument petting zoo,”plus reception afterward, on Sunday, Dec 8 at 3 PM featuring music of Rossini, Beethoven, Ravel and more at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 40 Irving Place at 17th St.. just off Union Square.
“So many moments,” murmured one concertgoer to his friend after watching Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard play a shattering version of their duo suite I Will Not Stand Alone to a sold-out audience at the Asia Society Saturday night.
“The Jimi Hendrix of kamancheh!” his friend exclaimed. Actually, the instrument that Kalhor, the iconic Iranian composer and string player, had been using was a custom-made “shah kaman,” which combines elements of the Turkish tanbur, Chinese erhu and the Persian kamancheh fiddle. Fard also played a modern instrument, a bass santoor, which is tuned an octave lower than the traditional Persian hammered dulcimer and delivered a spine-tingling, richly resonant sound akin to the lower midrange of the piano mingling with a distant meteor shower of microtones much further up the scale. And while Kalhor’s compositions draw deeply on Persian classical music, this work is completely in the here and now. The Asia Society has been celebrating the music of Iran this fall, with a final concert this coming December 7 at 8 PM with the prosaically titled but exciting, jazz-inclined Iranian/Syrian ensemble Sound: The Encounter.
I Will Not Stand Alone portrays profound sadness, but also profound resilience. The people of Iran have suffered greatly under brutal repression since the late 70s (and before then, life under the Shah was no picnic for a lot of people, either). Kalhor’s program notes spoke to how music gave him and his fellow citizens hope throughout the darkest hours of the Khomeini regime. But this enigmatic, dynamically-charged theme and variations resonates beyond any borders: as an account of suffering and transcendence, it ranks with the most powerful works of Shostakovich or any western composer. And while the two musicians followed the arc and movements of the recording of it they released last year, this was hardly a rote, note-for-note rendition, each player following the other’s improvisations closely as it went along. It began elegaically, Kalhor using the shah kaman’s cello-like low register for a misty, opaque tone as Fard played hypnotic, rhythmic ripples or gentle, austere accents. But the shah kaman, and the kamancheh, can also evoke weeping, and there was no absence of that once the work got rolling, Fard’s elegant volleys and understated, artful variations on a recurrent chromatic vamp propelling it until then.
The musicians’ cameraderie was so tightly aligned it was often as if they were one and the same instrument; despite the sonic differences between the two instruments, it was often hard to tell who was playing what, not that it really mattered. Once they reached about the midway point, Kalhor took centerstage, much more animatedly than he usually does, quite possibly because this work is so autobiographical and close to his heart. He swirled through a circular theme for Fard to ornament, threw off a handful of lightning, spiraling descending motives and angst-fueled, leaping cadenzas, then finally backed away. Fard then moved in with a glimmer that was as precise and sonically exquisite as it was distantly menacing. A lively, even wryly amusing country dance fueled by Kalhor’s rapidfire bowing quickly got twisted out of shape and took on a macabre, maimed character. Leaping flourishes from Kalhor on the way out ended the concert with an exhilarating display of chops that still left a lingering note of disquiet. It is hard to think of a composer or a soloist who so vividly captures the state of the world in 2013 as Kayhan Kalhor, and Fard matched that intensity as well: this was as state-of-the-art as music gets these days.
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