It’s that time of year again when the Django Reinhardt Festival takes over Birdland, starting at 8 PM on June 25 and continuing through June 30. Fortuitously, the Django Festival Allstars have a new album out, Live at Birdland, recorded at last year’s festival. The sound quality is outstanding, as you would expect from this venue, and the playing is sensational, even by the rigorous standards of le jazz manouche. The track selection is eclectic and draws deeply on originals with contributions from several members of the band, rather than simply recycled Django Reinhardt classics. As timelessly enjoyable as the Django catalog is, it’s good to see this group pushing hard on the envelope at the forefront of the tradition.
There are three numbers associated with Django here. The band kicks it off with Swing Gitan, lead guitarist Dorado Schmitt adding a bluesy ominousness over the swirl of Ludovic Beier’s accordion, the two joining forces as the song winds out in flurry of tremolo-picking. Nuages, true to its name, builds a rich, Gil Evans-tinged reflecting-pool backdrop for Schmitt’s spacious hanmer-on work and guest Anat Cohen’s slinky soprano sax. There’s also Manoir de Mes Reves, essentially My Funny Valentine recast as a steady Romany jazz ballad. The other covers here are an accordion-fueled Beier arrangement of Caravan, with a droll new title, Camping Car, a feature for cellist Jisoo Ok, as well as an amped-up take of Out of Nowhere and a rather unexpectedly, hard-rocking, early 70s-tinged version of Them There Eyes.
But it’s the originals here that make this band what they are. Dorado Schmitt’s ballad For Pierre carefully sets up an austere feature for violinist Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard’s Balkanic Dance juxtaposes his biting lines against Beier’s nonchalantly sizzling chromatics. The plaintive Valse en Exil, another Blanchard tune, sets moody violin over elegantly dancing guitars, a lush backdrop rising and falling behind them. Schmitt’s El Dorado is a lively bossa in disguise, a rhythm they revisit as the album closes with Bossa Dorado, building suspense with a relentless intensity as they resist the urge to take it over the top.
The poignant, elegaic spaghetti western bolero Song for Etorre, another Schmitt tune, might be the album’s strongest track. The rest of the cuts include Pat’s Waltz, a bouncy Beier number built around rapidfire, clustering guitars; a hypnotically shuffling, Brazilian-flavored tune by co-lead guitarist Bronson Schmidt; and Dorado Schmitt’s funk-tinged Melissa. To call this one of the best jazz albums of the year seems almost unfair to the rest of this year’s releases, considering the sheer talent that this good-natured family bands bring to the material.
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.
This weekend, March 23 and 24 at Drom (85 Ave. A),there’s a jazz drum summit to end all jazz drum summits. An all-weekend pass can be obtained as cheaply as $20 or even $15 with student ID at the door. With as many generations of A- list drummers – the legendary Jimmy Cobb, Tain Watts, Billy Hart, EJ Strickland and others – leading their respective bands, early arrival is highly advised. Music begins each night at 7 PM. Revive Music’s Meghan Stabile put together the bill; Revive’s Eric Sandler took some time to share his insight on how exciting this is going to be:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First, congratulations on getting all of these artists together on the same bill. That was definitely not easy since they’re all so busy. How long did it take you to pull this together?
Eric Sandler: The Generations of the BEAT Festival is definitely an idea that has been on our minds for quite a while from a conceptual standpoint. As far as putting it together, it’s always fun from a scheduling standpoint, but throughout the years our team has become pretty great at making our live events happen to their greatest potential. All of these drummers immediately realized the historical significance behind the event, so convincing them was not a struggle at all!
LCC: You have several generations of drummer bandleaders represented, from Jimmy Cobb, to Tain, to the Cookers’ Billy Hart, to the up-and-coming EJ Strickland. Obviously you did your homework. Are you a drummer as well? What’s your agenda with this?
ES: It’s not so much doing our homework as being a part of the scene. Revive Music Group has become a staple in the live music scene both through our live events and our online journal, The Revivalist. Our agenda is really just to expose as many people as possible to the best music that is out there. It is absolutely incredible to have artists like Jimmy Cobb and Billy Hart still performing. As musicians and fans ourselves, this is not something anyone should miss. Moreover, with the Generations of the BEAT Festival we are bringing together different generations of artists, an integral aspect of progressing the music and fostering innovation.
LCC: Drummer-led bands are usually especially good, in my experience. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
ES: Drummers have a very unique perspective, compared to everyone else in the band. They tend to think in shapes, colors, forms, and rhythms in addition to harmonies and melodies. In short, they are generally more focused on making the music feel good than anything else. A great drummer can really make a band. Conversely, a bad drummer can really ruin one too. It is very interesting that drummers tend to make incredible bandleaders as well as producers. I have to think it has something to do with how they hear music.
LCC: I’ve got a much easier explanation: everybody needs a good drummer! Drummers always have the deepest address books – because the good ones play with so many other great artists. Now – do you have a list of the supporting musicians? I know that up-and-coming bassist Michael Feinberg - who recently put out an intriguing Elvin Jones tribute album – is playing with Billy Hart, one of the few guys I would trust to do justice to Elvin…
ES: Michael Feinberg’s tribute to Elvin Jones with Billy Hart will most certainly be one of the most exciting parts of the BEAT Festival. Funny enough, when we interviewed Michael about the festival, he told us that he was a little nervous to perform for so many amazing drummers both onstage and in the audience. I think being a bass player in a drummer’s festival is a tough role to fill, but Michael and the other bass players are surely up to the task — otherwise they wouldn’t be performing at the festival. You can check out more info on the bands that will be performing on The Revivalist. In addition to putting together these live events, we also strive to educate audiences about the music. For the Generations of the BEAT Festival we also launched an online Drummer’s Issue to feature the artists in interviews and analytical profiles.
LCC: No Roy Haynes on the bill, I see. Too busy? Did you ask?
ES: We have something very special planned for Roy Haynes on the horizon. For now that’s all I’m going to say.
LCC: Are these two concerts basically repertory material, or are they focused on original compositions from the artists involved?
ES: A mix of both actually. A lot of the drummers are bringing original compositions to perform with their groups, but there will also be many tribute pieces within the sets as a nod to the drummers who influenced the performers. Keep your ears perked for a lot of surprises.
LCC: Are there any $15 two-day passes left? If so, how and where can you get one?
ES: $15 festival passes are available all weekend for any students who can present a valid student ID at the door. Presale tickets are also available.
LCC: This is an exciting bill. Is there going to be room on the floor for people who want to get up and dance?
ES: There’s always room to dance!
This blog doesn’t spend much time in the past these days: if you’re just getting into jazz and discovering the classics for the first time, there are plenty of places to do that and this isn’t usually one of them. For that reason, coverage of recordings here typically focuses on original material by artists who are usually if not always flying a little under the radar. But every so often an album appears that offers a fresh take on older sounds. Tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s recent quartet album, Mary Lou Williams – The Next 100 Years is a delightful example.
For starters, just the idea of doing a Williams homage without piano is intriguing. But maybe it’s just as well – it saves some piano player from cruel comparisons. This album also gives guitarist Ed Cherry - who explores a whole ‘nother side on his jaunty new B3 record, It’s All Good – a chance to go deep into moody blues. Williams’ long career spanned from the hot jazz era of the 20s to the avant garde of the 70s; like Williams, Mayhew is comfortable in diverse milieus from inside to out. Rounding out the group here are bassist Harvie S and drummer Andy Watson, plus contributions from Wycliffe Gordon on trombone.
The songs here are often disarmingly beautiful: Williams had a rare command of the blues and a laserlike, uncluttered sense of melody, which the band grasps impressively. They take their time getting into J.B.’s Waltz – one of a number of jazz waltzes here – and work there way up to an absolutely gorgeous, chordally-infused Cherry solo. Medi II follows a moody chromatic trajectory to some wry, almost vaudevillian fun from the rhythm section. By contrast, Medi I, a 1973 piece alternately titled Searching for Love is a nonchalantly intense soul/blues tune – it sounds a lot like Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue – dark stuff lit up with vivid and spacious Mayhew and Cherry solos.
The 1954 tune O.W., inspired by Don Byas, swings a minor blues with incisive, staccato work from bass, sax and guitar in turn, followed by the richly suspenseful Cancer, from Williams’ 1945 Zodiac Suite, twelve minutes of judicious chromatic intensity and a fleet-footed, terse Mayhew solo. What’s Your Story Morning Glory – the original version of the standard Black Coffee, for which Williams was never credited -sounds here like it’s the prototype for One for My Baby. Mayhew does this as a story for two voices, first wistful in the wee hours with the sax and guitar and ending by contrasting against Gordon’s completely unexpected, comedic lines.
NME – short for New Musical Express – draws inspiration from Byas and also the Ellington band, a vividly flurrying swing tune. The last of the Williams numbers is Waltz Boogie, one of her catchiest. Mayhew also includes two inspired originals. The first is the nebulously Monk-ish One for Mary Lou, which the saxophonist builds to an allusive triumph – to swing it would be too obvious. The album closes with the warmly bluesy, relaxed 5 For Mary Lou. Beyond what they offer musically, albums like this serve other purposes - they make you want to revisit the originals as well as to go deeper into the works of a bandleader who completely gets what this music is all about: soul.
Mayhew is also featured on another soulful recent revisitation of vintage material, the Duke Ellington Legacy’s Single Petal of a Rose.
Phil Kline has been at the forefront of cutting-edge composition since the 80s. His eclectic work ranges from the shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound paintings for which he’s best known, to art-song, to orchestral pieces and edgy rock (he played with Jim Jarmusch in the early 80s, and toured the world as a guitarist in Glenn Branca’s mighty ensemble). And his 1992 processional “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night - which took shape against the backdrop of the Bush I Gulf War – grew from an underground New York attraction to a global phenomenon. At this year’s BAM Next Wave Festival, there’ll be an important moment in New York music history when adventurous ensemble ACME and crooner Theo Bleckmann premiere Kline’s new arrangement of his powerful Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs – which haven’t been staged in this city in eight years -, along with the composer’s Rumsfeld Songs, and selections from his new cycle Out Cold, inspired by the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle collaborations of the 1950s.
One consistent trait that runs throughout Kline’s music is his wry wit, which comes through in the man himself. Kline generously took some time out of the usual pre-concert havoc to share some insights on his career and what he’s up to lately:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’ve made a career out of writing important, socially relevant music. Yet – as I ask myself all the time – to what degree do you find yourself preaching to the converted? Isn’t BAM Next Wave a progressive crowd anyway? Is there an aisle, or some other kind of border we have to reach across to really make a difference?
Phil Kline: I’m not convinced that music can convert one to another political viewpoint, at least not directly. But it has the ability to arouse strange, untranslatable impulses within us, and that might possibly lead one to states where the mind is open to change.
If everyone who likes my music is already converted, that’s OK. The people in the choir need a little comfort, too.
LCC: If there’s any work that humanizes the life of a soldier, it’s the Zippo Songs. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan – and wars in Syria and Mali, ad infinitum – do you think that the suite has greater relevance today than when you wrote it?
PK: I think it remains constant because the focus is not on the war but the individual.
LCC: You’re quoted on the BAM event page as saying that you often have doubts about yourself as a composer but not as an arranger. Which made me laugh: to my ears, your music is extremely meticulous, the exact quality you’d want in a good arranger. Don’t the two skills go hand in hand? Ellington and Strayhorn, for example?
PK: It’s a little joke I tell myself to avoid getting psyched out when I begin a piece. There is some truth in it, though. I am a good editor and arranger, and I use that skill to straighten out whatever mess I might start out with.
LCC: A lot of people are less aware of you as a lyricist than a composer, although lyrics have continued to play an increasingly important role in your work. Your new song cycle, Out Cold, explores songcraft in a 1950s Frank Sinatra-Nelson Riddle vein. As someone who’s made a career in far less constricting, less stylized music, how do you approach the constraints of verse/chorus and rhyme schemes…or are these songs an attempt to push the envelope with the genre?
PK: Actually, I like to embrace different styles as I go along, like the allusions to Renaissance music or barbershop or the Beach Boys in John the Revelator. To me it’s a bit like falling into the voice of a character as you tell a story. But Out Cold really does engage one genre, which is the so-called standard song, especially torch songs and ballads. The whole idea was to emulate the craft of that genre, the elegant tunes and lyrics of the great 30s-40s-50s songwriters. I suppose in a way I felt I could reveal myself best by wearing a costume.
LCC: How about the new arrangements of Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs for ACME? Was that a challenge for the arranger/transcriptionist in you?
PK: Actually, I was surprised by how easily they translated to strings, percussion and piano. The originals are very spare and the main challenge is not to add too much. It’s easy to feel a bit apologetic when you ask ace players to do whole notes for a half hour, but that’s what is required sometimes. Bruckner sometimes holds notes for pages!
LCC: Ha, so does Messiaen for that matter. Now this is a reunion of sorts with you and Theo Bleckmann – if I’m correct, this is the first time the Zippo Songs have been performed in New York in eight years. What specifically aboutt him made you say, yup, he’s the one to put these across?
PK: It’s his inner Sinatra, the beautiful flow of legato and smart timing. I’d been thinking about writing him a group of orchestral love songs for several years.
LCC Do you still actually participate in Unsilent Night every year? And back in, I think 1993, when you led the first parade of boomboxes through the Village, did it ever occur to you in your wildest dreams that this would become a worldwide phenomenon?
PK: A – yes, B – no! I sort of dread it when I realize the season is coming, like “oh boy, another sleet-filled night,” but when it’s over I’m always glad we did it. At least one of the Unsilent Nights every year has something amazing happen in it.
LCC: You’ve gone on record as saying that you’re simply following a tradition of American transcendentalists: Charles Ives, et al. Yet your music, as abstract-sounding as some of it is, especially your earlier work, is very specific. To what degree has your career been simply doing what you love, and connecting the tradition of the composers who’ve obviously inspired you with a new level of social commitment and awareness?
PK: I would say that’s exactly what my career has been.
LCC: Jim Jarmusch is an old college friend and bandmate of yours. Tell us about your latest, forthcoming collaboration with him.
PK: We actually met in the 6th grade! Tesla in New York is an operatic fantasy of the inventor Nikola Tesla’s exploits over the 50 years he lived and died in New York City. Most of his glory days were spent in the general vicinity of SoHo.
LCC: Around the World in a Daze, your DVD from 2009 is a favorite – and I think one of amazon’s bestselling releases on DVD if I remember correctly. The Housatonic at Henry Street, one of your “boombox symphonies” which opens the DVD, depicts an evening scene. Yet the corner of Henry and Madison Street where it was shot has a bus stop, and the projects, and a McDonalds since a few years back. I’ve always wondered how you managed to get such tranquility at that location…
PK: You’re one block away. I made the field recording on my corner, Henry and Rutgers. Not as quiet as it used to be, but not quite as bustling as Madison Street. I’m on the 5th floor and I was responding to that moan the city has when you listen from above. It’s a soft roar comprised of a thousand little things going by and echoing in the concrete pond below. I guess I thought of the parade as a river of life, just as the Housatonic was Ives’ river of life, flowing by inexorably. Come to think of it, the Ganges isn’t exactly clean and quiet, either.
ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), Theo Bleckmann and Phil Kline present the Zippo Songs, Rumsfeld Songs and Out Cold -produced by American Opera Projects – at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival at 7:30 PM, Oct 25-27. Tickets are $20; the October 26 show includes a post-performance chat with the composer and ensemble.
In linguistics they call it code-switching: Me gusto this crazy band. Alto saxophonist David Bixler does this all the time throughout his new album The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head. The language inside his head, as becomes clear right from the opening track, is hard bop. Over and over, he defiantly resists any kind of resolution to a consonant major or minor scale. And yet, his harmonies in tandem with trumpeter Scott Wendholdt are meticulous, and often exquisitely attractive. There’s also a definite harmonic language to what Bixler is playing: it just happens to be his own. The tension between the two idioms pretty much defines what he does here, along with the rest of the band: guitarist John Hart, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Andy Watson.
Those vibrant horn harmonies fuel the lively opening track, Perfected Surfaces. They follow more pensively on Vanishing Point, Okegwo’s terse, bouncing lines trading with Bixler and Wendholdt before it morphs into a jazz waltz with an unexpected crescendo. The briskly swinging Vida Blue – a homage to the legendary bon vivant baseball pitcher – looks back twenty years prior to Blue’s 70s heyday for its purist, blues-infused hooks, pulled off with considerable exuberance by Wendholdt and Bixler. Like he does several of the tracks here, Hart absolutely owns the thoughtful Three Dog Years – his matter-of-factly crescendoing solo weaves back and forth from oldschool blues and soul, always swinging back to grab hold solidly when it threatens to fly off into never-neverland. Latin allusions, gritty staccato guitar and animated yet pensive trumpet dominate throughout the title track, while Okegwo’s tense solo bass hands off to yet more soulful guitar, and then a potently misty Bixler solo on the next cut, Arise.
Arturo O’Farrill - a frequent Bixler collaborator, who provides extremely detailed and insightful liner notes that are hard to resist nicking verbatim – describes Thinking Cap as “quirky swing with great independence between the voices,” which is spot-on: Bixler’s acerbic, Charlie Rouse-flavored lines into Wendholt’s seamless trumpet make for one of the album’s high points. Another high point is Hart’s alternately spiraling and chordally-charged solo on The Darkness Is My Closest Friend, which actually is far less moody than the title would indicate. The final, funky cut, Goat Check – ostensibly a study in orneriness – once again showcases Hart’s irrepressible melodicism against Wendholt’s jauntiness and Bixler’s more opaque lines. Who is the audience for this? The hard bop crowd, to be sure, not to mention fans of guitar jazz, who will devour this thing. It’s out on O’Farrill’s Zoho label.
From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.
They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”
The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.
The New York composer/performer collective Counter)Induction has an intriguing collection of new and relatively new chamber works, Group Theory, just out. The quintet of Steven Beck on piano, Miranda Cuckson on violin, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet, Sumire Kudo on cello and Jessica Meyer on viola tackle an ambitious and challenging series of works and pull them off with flair and conscientious attention to emotional content. The most unabashedly atonal of the lot is a piece by Salvatorre Sciarrino which is more of a study in textures and waves of shifting dynamics than melody. The real knockout here is Kyle Bartlett’s Bas Relief, a grimly resolute diptych unexpectedly juxtaposing twisted boogie woogie piano bass, icy upper register piano glimmers, apprehensively fluttering strings and a chilling crescendo anchored by an ominous bass clarinet drone. It’s avant noir in the best possible sense of those two words; as with many of the works here, the quintet’s somewhat unorthodox instrumentation enhances its plaintive edge.
Right up there with it is Douglas Boyce’s triptych Deixo Sonata. Spacious fugal tradeoffs between voices lead to a creepy dance of sorts that quickly descends to a furtive sway, rises to a crescendo with hints of ragtime and old-world Romanticism and then a neat false ending. Ryan Streber’s Partita, for solo cello utilizes a similar architecture, sostenuto forebearance versus insistent staccato, steady arpeggiated cadences punctuated by the occasional dramatic flourish or chordally-charged crescendo. Lee Hyla’s rather minimalist Ciao Manhattan is considerably less sad than the title might imply: pensive hints of the baroque and graceful, sustained layers of strings shift to a simple but affecting piano/violin duet that ends on a surprise note.
Eric Moe’s Dead Cat Bounce (Wall Street slang for a stock on the way down that’s recovered for just a second) follows a jauntily bittersweet trajectory, from a rondo to a sort-of-tango to a fullscale dance, the entire ensemble in and out of the melee, winding out on a puckishly ironic note. The longest work here, Erich Stem’s four-part suite Fleeting Thoughts juxtaposes a terse, balletesque pulse with icily moody piano-and-string interludes that eventually leads to a richly satisfying noir bustle on the way out. Frequently dark, challenging, compelling music utilizing an imaginative mix of devices and genres from across the decades to the present: watch this space for upcoming NYC concerts.
The new album Nu World Trash by SoSaLa a.k.a. Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and his brilliantly assembled ensemble is so eclectic and trippy that it defies description, a woozy blend of dub, Middle Eastern music and American jazz. Producer Martin Bisi expands his own inimitable vision with dark, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired psychedelic sonics as the group slips and slinks through grooves with roots in Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan and the south side of Chicago circa 1963. That’s just for starters.
The opening track is characteristic. Titled Ja-Jou-Ka, it’s ostensibly Moroccan, but it could also be Ethiopian, right down to the biting, insistent, minor-key riff and galloping triplet rhythm that emerges from A swirling vortex of low tonalities right before the song winds out with echoey sheets of guitar noise, Ladjevardi’s elegantly nebulous tenor sax lines managing to be wary and hopeful at the same time. Ladell McLin’s guitar and Piruz Partow’s electric tar lute combine for a distant Dick Dale surf edge on Nu Persian Flamenco, a catchy, chromatically-charged surf rock vamp with echoey spoken word lyrics by Ladjevardi. Classical Persian music is inseparable from poetry, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to add his own stream-of-consciousness hip-hop style: “Work like a dog, what for? I need something to cheer me up,” this clearly being it.
With a rather cruel juxtaposition between gentle guitar/flute sonics and samples of agitated crowd noise (and a crushing assault by the gestapo a little later on), Welcome New Iran looks forward to the day when the Arab Spring comes to the Persian world (it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the U.S., too!). A traditional song, Kohrasan begins with a pensive taqsim (improvisation) on the tar and then launches into a bouncy modern gypsy-jazz vamp: it seems to be an illustration of a fable. Vatan Kojai (Where Is My Country) morphs from a swaying, soaring rai vamp into a wailing guitar dub interlude, while Happy April Fool’s Day veers from off-kilter jazz, to Ethiopiques, to biting contrasts between McLin’s abrasive noise and Sylvain Leroux’s fula flute.
The onomatopoeic (say that three times fast) NY’s Sa-Si-Su-Se-So sets Massamba Diop’s hypnotic talking drums agains swirling sax effects and wah funk guitar over a hypnotic Afrobeat groove driven by bassist Damon Banks and drummer Swiss Chris. Sad Sake makes atmospheric acid jazz out of a Japanese pop theme; the album ends with the swaying, funky Everyday Blues, a gritty workingman’s lament: the guy starts every day with a coffee and ends it with a “small bottle of beer,” and he’s had enough (although a bigger beer might help). Eclectic enough for you?
American String Conspiracy’s new album Help the Poor has pretty much something for everybody, if you like Americana roots music. Whether they’re playing bluegrass, or oldschool soul music, or blues, or rock, it’s a smartly produced, rich feast of good guitar from frontman Gary Keenan and brilliant, eclectic lead player Shu Nakamura. Longtime standouts on the always fertile New York roots music scene, their colleagues on this album include Ernie Vega on electric bass, Suzanne Davenport on violin and cello, and Charlie Shaw switching between drums and upright bass.
Keenan’s laid-back baritone kicks off the opening, title track (a witty original bluegrass tune, not the old blues song) with his former mates in the haunting, excellent Nashville gothic band Bobtown – Jen McDearman, Karen Dahlstrom and Katherine Etzel – on backing vocals. “Whether by the will of god or your maxed-out credit card, that could be you someday,” Keenan offers, a friendly rebuttal to those NYC subway posters discouraging passengers from handing over a buck or two to those in need.
The first of the rock songs is Never Too Late. Like the others, it’s got tasty layers of electric guitar and a spiky solo from Nakamura, and a nice instrumental out, everybody – violin, guitars and Shaky Dave Pollack’s harmonica – firing on all cylinders. Freddy’s King, a tribute to the great Texas blues guitarist, is a spot-on shuffle instrumental, Davenport’s stark, memorable solo followed by an exuberant Freddy K. seance by Nakamura, who really nails the style, going all the way up the fretboard with some joyously slashing tremolo-picking.
My Guitar is a successful detour into countrypolitan, while Wrong Road is straight-up country and pretty hilarious: it’s amazing the things people will do after too much Jim Beam and V8. Keenan’s mandolin lights up Cherry Pie, a salute to the kind of food that really hits the spot after smoking a little weed. Crawl, a slow, bitter rock ballad, has the women from Bobtown again, an ominous violin-driven outro and a starkly chiming, simple guitar lead over lush, jangly Telecaster. They go into country gospel with Little Hymn, then back to the secular stuff for Leave It Alone, another wryly funny song, this one for the smokers: “There’s far too many ways to get stoned – just stick with reefer, it’s a whole lot cheaper.” N.O. Blues, a biting, funky minor-key number, bitterly references the Katrina disaster. “Singing Nearer My God to Thee on the banks of Ponchartrain,” Keenan intones, with Trailer Radio’s Shannon Brown guesting on a verse. They mix country, Beatles and Tex-Mex into Maybe, a duet between Keenan and Brown, and echo that vibe more quietly on the slowly swaying ballad that closes the album. It’s yet another excellent, cross-pollinated hybrid to sprout up in the greenhouse of the New York country scene. American String Conspiracy are at 68 Jay St. Bar on Jan 4.
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