It’s always a good sign when a pianist’s best-performed pieces onstage are by Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the sonically superb auditorium at Temple Emanu-El just off Central Park, Mackenzie Melemed played a diverse program spanning from baroque to modern and excelled at all of it. There are other good eighteen-year-old pianists out there; what distinguishes Melemed from his peers is how attuned he is to emotional content. That, and blazing technique.
Melemed bookended the highly ornamented animation of Bach’s Aria Variata alla Maniera Italiana, BWV 989 with opening and concluding statements that were downright elegaic. After making his way through the alternately elegant and torrentially waltzing initial movements of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 26, Melemed sensed the proto-Chopin in the murky third movement and brought that plaintive foreshadowing into the dirge. And he gave a saturnine, deeply felt reading to Brahms’ Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. These are late works, in fact the last that the composer wrote for solo piano, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder narrative that finally reaches to a heroic overture, giving Melemed a chance to air out a blazing fortissimo. Obviously, there are dynamics in all but the Bach that suggest specific emotions. But Melemed clearly didn’t just have those works in his fingers (he played from memory); they were in his head.
A brisk, precise take of a Scarlatti sonata was the curtain-lifter. Melemed established a similar upward trajectory after the intermission with a matter-of-factly crescendoing and eventually wrenching, emphatic take on Liszt’s Funerailles, then four Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux. These little preludes are brief but extremely challenging: Melemed charged through diabolically difficult, lightning-fast chromatics, a vivid two-handed conversation or two, stygian spaciousness versus twilit glitter and seemed to be having a ball – you would too, if you had the technique to play them. He wound up the concert with similarly acrobatic romps through Avner Dorman’s recent, equally knotty, picturesque Three Etudes. Melemed speed-painted Sundrops Over Windy Water, let the spacious, jazz-tinged block chords of the Funeral March linger and concluded with Snakes and Ladders, a showstopper with its rumbling low lefthand, crazily dancing motives and machinegunning chromatics. Sensing that the need for more fireworks was in order, he encored with a magnificent, express-train coda, Chopin’s famous Winter Wind Etude, Op. 25, No. 11.
The Sunday concert series here features a lot of similar first-rate, up-and-coming talent. The next concert is January 19 at 3 PM with pianist Hannah Sun.
Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.
Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”
The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.
They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.
After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.
Composer/pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn’s lively, eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra play indie classical party music. Wayburn’s kinetic compositions draw from a vast array of global traditions. She employs interesting arrangements, unorthodox voicings and an ever-present element of surprise which is a good thing considering the hypnotic groove that anchors most of the intriguing tracks streaming at the ensemble’s Soundcloud page. Alongside Wayburn, the ensemble (whose lineup rotates from concert to concert) includes Jeff Newell on flute, Adam Matthes on viola, Dara Hankins on cello, John Murchison on bass, Bert Hill on french horn, Spencer Hale on trombone and Yonatan Avi Oleiski on percussion. They’re at the Gershwin Hotel on 12/19 at 8 PM; cover is $10.
Pizzicato cello often provides the bassline or joins it on Wayburn’s looping rhythms, harmonies among the instruments growing more complex as the pieces go on. Check out Forest Conversations, a sort of Carnival of the Animals for the teens. It kicks off with a droll reggae groove anchoring muted pizzicato strings and then evolves to the point where all the happy woodland creatures are swirling, cavorting and marching around each other.
Labonie begins with a rather skeletal trance-dance minor-key groove and fleshes it out, trombone and flute in tandem leading the way to a cinematic sweep. Mendiani works a tricky, Ethiopian-flavored rhythm with airy harmonies overhead…and then the ensemble digs in for a big crescendo. The best number that the group has up now is Tango 2, which is actually closer to flamenco. Trombone solos alternate between mournful and more upbeat, the cello takes a bluesy solo, the horn goes into the baroque and eventually the percussion adds droll reggae flavor. Tbe last of the tracks that’s streaming right now is Tiriba, a dizzying, circularly polyrhythmic African-tinged piece that sets gleaming, resonant brass and wind harmonies over the tricky metrics.
Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio is well-named. The pyrotechnic, perennially soulful pianist and his longtime drummer Sameer Gupta share a close cameraderie – Gupta’s reliance on toms where other drummers would use cymbals underscores Cary’s relentlessly rhythmic drive and gravitas. Yet for all Cary’s hard-hitting, magisterial intensity, he has an unexpectedly wry wit. Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard he juxtaposed that good-natured humor with the spine-tingling power he’s best known for. Despite the gloomy skies overhead, it was strange to see that the club wasn’t sold out, although there were plenty of A-listers who’d come out to enjoy the ride, Joe Locke and Renee Rosnes among them.
It didn’t take Cary long to go deep into the music and get completely lost in it, to the extent of forgetting song titles and losing track of time. At the end of the early set, realizing he’d gone past curfew, he did a closing number anyway, a characteristic blend of grit and blues-infused lyricism in 10/4 which he said was inspired by repeated visits to the Chappaquiddick Indian reservation in Massachusetts: “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!”
Getting to that point was a rich and stormy experience. Most of the trio’s material drew on the group’s new Four Directions album, bassist Rashaan Carter sometimes locking with Cary’s piledriver lefthand, other times – especially when Carter switched to Fender bass – coloring the material with a dancing, trebly timbre. Cary’s fiery volleys of block chords alternated with spacious passages where the pianist would back off a bit and then add a little texture or a gentle phrase from the synth he’d perched on top of the piano. And most of the time the effect, whether a wash of strings or a hint of organ, enhanced the intensity rather than adding a comedic effect – although there were a few moments like that, one where Carter took the idea and flew with it on the Fender through a long series of woozy, tremoloing chords.
Cary prefaced a Jackie McLean tune with an anecdote about eavesdropping on McLean and Arthur Taylor grousing about how to get their new-jack supporting cast to take their game to the next level. He brought up rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to guest on a raga, a tough assignment since she was limited to jamming out on a single mode, but she signaled in on Gupta’s elegantly flurrying tabla and added a jaunty, crystalline-toned flair. They turbocharged He Who Hops Around – which nicks the bassline from Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca – juxtaposing lickety-split swing with leaping piano and bass motives and then an unexpected clave groove from Gupta, and also ramped up the energy on Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from the new album. Cary’s steely chordal assault anchoring an expanding melody that was as plaintive as it was powerful. It is never safe to say that any one player is the best on any particular instrument, but this show left the undeniable feeling that there is no other pianist who employs virtuoso chops to deliver emotional impact more effectively than Marc Cary. One final thought: have he and Kenny Garrett ever shared a stage? That could be really electrifying.
Thursday night at the Miller Theatre, chamber ensemble Either/Or delivered a rapt, riveting performance of recent works by hauntingly individualistic Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as part of Miller director Melissa Smey’s eclectically fascinating Composer Portrait series. To characterize Thorvaldsdottir’s work as stillness punctuated by agitation is overly reductionistic, but that’s part of the picture. Her austere, earth-toned vistas often evoke the work of both Gerard Grisey and Henryk Gorecki, but with an even more stripped-down focus. The ensemble opened the concert with a site-specific work, the American premiere of the new 2013 piece Into – Second Self with kettledrums to the right and rear of the audience as well as onstage with twin trombones, a smaller drum kit perched on the left balcony, horns in back. It was tremendous fun, in the best way a surround-sound piece can be, but grounded in Thorvaldsdottir’s signature juxtaposition of quiet and disquiet. Close harmonies from the trombones hovered and lingered, the drums’ simple rhythmic motives leaping from one unexpected corner to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a droll touch, sometimes menacingly.
One, from 2008, a duo piece for piano and percussionist, worked an Art of Noise spy movie minimalism, pianist David Shively alternating feverishly between the keyboard and the inside of the piano, long resonant tones giving way to a walk or two, harplike versus sustained timbres steady and then reaching a calmer plateau. In this story, the spy slips away.
Ro (“serenity” in both Icelandic and Chinese) seemed sarcastic early on as the strings and low winds bustled apprehensively before it reached a similarly calm plateau and remained there, lush and enveloping. Tactillity, for percussionist and harp, featured Zeena Parkins snapping menacing, spaciously placed low notes that anchored ambient washes from bowed crotales, developing to a pointillistic series of what seemed to be loops, stately and steadily rippling from Parkins’ custom-made electric harp. The concert concluded with the full twenty-piece chamber orchestra playing Hrim (Icelandic for the transformation of ice crystals, or, in British English, hoarfrost), from Thorvaldsdottir’s debut US collection, Rhizoma, from last year. It was the most animated piece on the program, swirls of glissandos from the reeds and gusts from the brass interchanging with an insistent, occasionally menacingly percussive drive that alternated jarringly with the calm atmospherics.
Following the intermission, conductor Richard Carrick led an enlightening Q&A with the composer. Trained as a cellist, she embraced composition fulltime when she realized that she “could not live without writing music.” As cellists tend to, she finds comfort in the lower registers, a trait that resonates throughout her work. Her compositions do not specifically depict nature but are influenced by it and its patterns. The process of composing for her involves a lot of pre-composition, “dreaming on the music,” as she put it. While she notates her scores, she only does so when a piece is ready to go. She doesn’t compose on an instrument: the music is all in her head until it hits the staves. There’s also an aleatoric component to her work, no surprise considering how much extended technique is required to play it. The Composer Portrait series at the Miller continues next February 22 at 8 PM with Ensemble Signal spotlighting the works of Roger Reynolds.
Four brilliant and individualistic musicians brought a riveting confluence of very disparate traditions to the cutting edge of 21st century Middle Eastern music Saturday night at the Asia Society. The world premiere of Sound: The Encounter featured Iranian bagpiper/reedman Saeid Shanbehzadeh played wry extrovert to Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub‘s unwavering intensity while percussionist Nagib Shanbehzadeh (son of Saeid) served as linchpin for the project, supplying grooves that were alternately slinky, stately and downright funky. Eclectic Philadelphia-based oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi also made intricately ornamented and sometimes haunting contributions throughout the show. The material was a fascinating and esoteric mix of traditional vamps, pulsing original jazz and a lively, intoxicatingly swirling blend of the two.
The backstory is that Rajoub and the elder Shanbehzadeh first encountered each other at the 2011 Shanghai World Music Festival, where each checked out the other’s show and realized that they should collaborate. Another random encounter on a Paris street jumpstarted a series of rehearsals, which followed over Skype. In developing their material, the bandleaders found considerable common ground, especially that each of their styles has a Bedouin influence, although that nomadic people’s music is sung in Farsi in Iran and in Arabic in Syria.
The players’ individuality rapidly emerged: Shanbehzadeh senior danced, cavorted, whirled and played his bagpipe (which looked like a headless, inflated sheep) on his head, Hendrix style. Rajoub’s steely focus and steady gravitas matched with the sometimes somberly booming, sometimes hypnotically undulating, sometimes rapidfire percussion. Rajoub spent much of the show in the moody low registers of his tenor sax, playing what were essentially baritone lines with a spare, sober clarity while his reedman partner switched from bagpipe, to double-reed flute, to goat’s horn on the last number in the set with a shivery, trilling microtonal approach that brough to mind Moroccan jajouka music. His instruments supplied the lion’s share of the microtones that typically define Middle Eastern music; Rajoub’s attack was typically limited to the occasional bluesy, jazzy melisma.
The Shanbehzadehs hail from the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, so it made sense that they’d open with a traditional fisherman’s song, which they turned into a subdued go-go groove with the bagpipe keening over it. Rajoub brought an absolutely noir slink to a brooding Rumi love poem; a bit later, they juxtaposed cool tenor sax against ecstatic flutework for an even more stark contrast, to illustrate another Rumi poem that could loosely be translated as “drunk on god/drunk on love.” Rajoub and Adnawi teamed up for an intricate, lively, conversational duo improvisation for soprano sax and oud. After inspiring plenty of spontaneous clapping and singing along, the trio encored with a rather radically reanimated but no less swinging take on the opening number, encompassing what were doubtlessly centuries of music while adding their own devious wit and energy.
Drummer Alex Cline‘s recent release of his 2011 large-ensemble concert reworking of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1969 cult classic improvisational suite For People in Sorrow begs the question, why bother? Maybe because the original left such a mark on Cline. For the concert, he assembled an all-star, mostly West Coast group: Oliver Lake on reeds, Vinny Golia on woodwinds, Dan Clucas on cornet and flute, Jeff Gauthier on violin, Maggie Parkins on cello, Zeena Parkins on harp, Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, G.E. Stinson on electric guitar, Mark Dresser on bass, Dwight Trible and Sister Dang Nghiem on vocals. This crew does it less as a theme and variations than a long, dynamically and sometimes radically shifting tone poem. Those expecting a close approximation of the original won’t find that here, although the ensemble’s commitment and attention to the overall mood is very similar. Much of the piece is up at youtube.
There’s a lot of pairing, conversations and outright duels here: bass and percussion, piano and cornet, vocals and gongs, guitar and bongos, sax and bass drum and a whole lot more, Cline perhaps by necessity as bandleader being up to his elbows in most of the sparring. High/low contrasts maintain a sense of tension, agitated flutes or harp against nebulous, Braxton-esque washes of sound. Cline engages with the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from the whisperiest of temple bell tones, to Hendrixian guitar wails and bunker-buster gong hits. Vocals, other than Nghiem’s – who sings religious invocations in Vietnamese – are mostly wordless but no less vivid.
Fullscale solos here, other than a trio of absolutely frantic ones from Lake, are few and far between. Brief spotlights on harp, cello and harmonium are slashingly effective, and arguably the high points of the performance. The long, all-enveloping series of crescendos at the end prefigure Wadada Leo Smith‘s more rambunctious orchestral works.The hippie-dippie poem that serves as the intro – added for this performance – adds nothing. The cd (out from Cryptogramophone) also comes with a dvd of the concert whose sound quality impressively matches that of the cd. What does it mean, that this turbulent Vietnam War-era reflection still resonates as strongly as it does? Is it testament to the universality of Mitchell’s vision, and this group’s sense of it…or that people are just as barbaric, yet just as much in need of a respite from that barbarity, as they’ve always been?
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 delivers 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, a barely two-minute punk jazz number, 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, which 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 falls 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 tentative 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 well before 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, Deep Singh and Dave Sharma on percussion and Preshish Moments on electronics, 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.
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