A little over a year ago, Posi-Tone put out Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen’s Upper West Side, a duo set of standards with a comfortably sleek, old New York sophistication. Now the pianist and tenor saxophonist have taken their act downtown with Lower East Side. Does this new album evoke superannuated wannabe prom queens stuffed into tacky dresses, passed out and pissing themselves on the sidewalk while their stretch limos block the crosswalks? No. This is a LES of the mind, one that goes back close to a hundred years. Asherie’s specialty is stride piano, a strength he downplayed on the previous album; here, he cuts loose with a mix of meticulousness and high spirits. Allen’s smoky charm is pretty much the same as it was before, although he gets more boisterous as he goes along. That the album swings as hard as it does despite the absence of bass and drums testifies to the inspiration of the playing: much of this is like stumbling into a club at four in the morning and slurring, “Can you play this or that?” and the band indulges you hetter than you could imagine.
Andy Razaf’s S’posin sets the tone with its jaunty combination of ragtime and torch. With its almost furtive, scampering groove, Vincent Youmans’ Hallelujah throws the church doors wide to let in some street flavor. Jobim’s Portrait in Black and White changes the mood with a potent turn into noir, Asherie hovering uneasily behind Allen’s overcast lines.
They go back to coy and a little devious with their take of the old Rosemary Clooney chestnut Hey There, then give Richard Rogers’ Thou Swell a blithely scampering jump blues treatment. The up/down tangent continues with a breathy, allusively lurid take of Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time folllowed by the hazy yet perfectly precise happy hour version of Thanks a Million, a vibe they maintain on Loads of Love. Irving Berlin’s Always gets reinvented as a lush jazz waltz – who knew how much sheer fun this song could be? The album winds up with the easygoing, casual sway of When I Grow Too Old to Dream, Allen building from boudoir smolder to understated triumph over Asherie’s steady, carefree strolling pace. This one’s going to get a lot of play in bars and bistros: it should come with a parental advisory sticker because it makes you want a drink.
Most club owners who play music usually suck at it. The reason many of them open a venue is to have a place to play since nobody else will give them a gig. But once in awhile, you find a club owner who not only isn’t an atrocity exhibition, but actually has talent. Case in point: pianist Spike Wilner, impresario of Smalls, the well-loved downtown New York jazz institution. Wilner has a vivid, impressionistic third-stream style that draws as deeply on ragtime as it does on classic jazz, and on his latest album La Tendresse – out now from Posi-Tone - there are some genuinely breathtaking moments. He’s got a fast, liquid legato that can keep up with pretty much anybody in either jazz or classical, something he proved beyond reproach on his previous solo album, recorded live at the club. Here, his ragtime roots are in equally full effect: he covers Solace, and while he doesn’t try to put an original stamp on Scott Joplin, he also doesn’t embarrass himself. And the album gets even better from there.
He opens the title track, one of three original compositions here, with a rather stern passage featuring a lot of block chords that slowly develop outward into shuffling ripples that grow unexpectedly chilly and chromatic: if this is tenderness, then tenderness is scary. The second original, Silver Cord, also works a neoromantic vibe, slowly unwinding from tensely rhythmic to more cantabile, with a bit of wry Donald Fagen in the chords toward the end. Wilner reinvents Leonard Cohen’s – woops, Irving Berlin’s Always as a jazz waltz, building intensity with a delightfully vivid, ringing series of raga-like chords. He puts his own mark on Lullaby of the Leaves slowly and methodically, solo, from an expansive rubato intro, to a casual ragtime-fueled stroll and a playful classic rock quote at the end. Then he, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor – who stay within themselves as supporting players throughout the album – scurry their way through a lickety-split take of After You’ve Gone, a showcase for sizzling, precise chops.
A couple of other tracks are far more pensive, notably purist takes on Ellington’s Le Sucrier Velours and Monk’s Crepuscule with Nellie, along with a nocturnally bluesy, wee-hours version of Richard Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue. I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together gets a skeletal, practically minimalist interpretation that’s over all too soon in well under three minutes. There are a couple of short tracks here that could have been left on the cutting room floor and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it, especially a song from the Wizard of Oz, that – it’s awfully hard to resist a bad pun here – if they’d only had a clue, would have given up trying to redeem as ragtime. Speaking of the Wiz, there are several other quotes here from that soundtrack that are as mystifying as the inclusion of that particular cut. Otherwise, this is something that ought to bring together fans of ragtime, jazz and the Romantic repertoire, who will probably unanimously enjoy a collection by a musician who probably doesn’t need any more fans (club owners always draw hugely at their gigs, if only because the artists they book make sure to come out and be seen there) but deserves them anyway.
Darkly surreal and often quirkily charming, Rosler’s Recording Booth is one of the most original album concepts in recent months. Rosler’s narratives, sung by a diverse cast from the worlds of both music and theatre, trace what could be a day in the life of an Audiola or Voice-o-Graph, the lo-fi coin-operated recording booths of the 1940s and 50s where for as little as a quarter, you could make your own five-minute single. Rosler’s eclectic career has spanned the world of film music, choral music and jazz, including a 2010 collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, so it’s no surprise that the songs here bridge several styles. In keeping with the vintage concept, many of the tunes have an oldtimey feel: Lee Feldman’s similarly eclectic work comes to mind.
You’ve probably at least heard of the hit single, Doris From Rego Park, sung by Rosler himself – it’s a youtube sensation. For several years the late Doris Bauer was a frequent caller to Steve Somers’ postgame show on the New York Mets flagship station, WFAN. While there have been more articulate baseball fans, like all Mets fans in recent years, she suffered, her suffering made all the more obvious since she had respiratory problems that made it difficult for her to complete a sentence, and seem to have curtailed much of any hope for a social life. Rosler sings to her gently over a hypnotic, new wave pop-tinged keyboard lullaby, almost as one would to a child. As sympathetic a portrait as Rosler paints, it evokes a crushing loneliness.
The rest of the album ranges from upbeat to downright haunting. Spottiswoode lends his rich, single-malt baritone to two cuts: a garrulous, ragtime-flavored number sung by a construction worker to his absent girlfriend in a New York of the mind, decades ago, and another considerably more angst-driven, also vividly depicting an old New York milieu. Tam Lin sings a pensive 6/8 ballad, a childhood reminiscence with Irish tinges. Terry Radigan takes over the mic on a jauntily creepy circus tune, an understatedly chilling account of homelessness through a little girl’s eyes, and a quietly optimistic wartime message home from a young woman to her family – it’s never clear what exactly she’s doing or where she is, which makes the song even more intriguing. Kathena Bryant brings a towering, soulful presence to the September song Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Done, Jeremy Sisto sings a broodingly psychedelic criminal’s tale, and Rosler himself leads the choir through a deftly orchestrated reminiscence…of singing in a choir. Behind the singers, a rotating cast of musicians includes Chicha Libre’s Josh Camp on keys, Deoro’s Dave Eggar on cello and Mojo Mancini’s Shawn Pelton on drums.
In the leaps from the past to the present and then back – not to mention between styles and singers – the unifying concept of the recording booth sometimes disappears. And a few of the songs are duds: quality songwriters typically have a hard time dumbing themselves down enough to write easy-listening radio pop, and Rosler is no exception. But that’s where the ipod playlist comes in: all together, this makes a really entertaining one.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #588:
Art Tatum – The Chronological Classics 1932-34
If Sergei Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist did a lot of composing, the historical record doesn’t reflect it: his favorite pastime was shredding his way through the hits of the day. Which he did with equal amounts precision and power: don’t listen to this if you have a weak heart. Most of his recordings are solo, no wonder since there were few players out there who could keep up with him. The genius of all this is that Tatum wasn’t all cold and mathematical: this digitized singles collection is a Depression-era party album. The number that raises the bar for every historically aware hotshot keyboardist is Tiger Rag; the purist favorites here are St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone and Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust. But Tatum also ratchets up the adrenaline with ballads like Strange As It Seems, I’ll Never Be the Same, a surprisingly visceral Tea for Two, Emaline and I Would Do Anything for You among the 25 brief, barely three-minute tracks here. Here’s a random torrent via Paging Mr. Volstead.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #618:
Blind Blake – Ragtime Guitar’s Foremost Fingerpicker
The album title doesn’t do justice to this kick-ass guitarist who pushed the envelope and mixed blues, country, ragtime and early swing into a catchy, tuneful, inimitably original style. This album collects many of his best 78 RPM singles from 1926 through his last dates in 1932. A lot of the British blues guys from the 1960s took a stab at Diddie Wa Diddie, but the original still beats all of them; the one that Albert King, Jimmy Reed and a lot of their contemporaries picked up was Early Morning Blues (which actually isn’t on this album). The rest of this is as ghetto as ghetto gets: songs about raising hell, going on the lam, police brutality, an execution, illegal gambling, domestic violence, drugs, unfaithful girlfriends, and lots and lots of sex among the 23 tracks. Their rustic charm and defiant energy still resonates eighty years later. Here’s a random torrent.
On April 1 at 7:30 (no joke), Portland, Oregon acoustic guitar goddess Mary Flower plays the Good Coffeehouse series at the Ethical Culture Society at 53 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. If guitar is your thing, she’s inspiring. Her latest album Bridges is a mix of characteristically fluid yet precise Piedmont style blues playing as well as some delicious ragtime and lap slide work. First and foremost, this is a guitar album – Flower keeps her vocals unaffected and nonchalant and lets her fingers do most of the talking. They’ve got a lot to say and say it memorably.
The best songs here are her original instrumentals – while everything here draws on different Americana roots styles, Flower isn’t afraid to add her own more complex, modern melody lines. Temptation Rag is absolutely gorgeous, Flower’s twin ascending lines against Robin Kessinger’s flatpicking and Spud Siegel’s mandolin shifting to a gypsy jazz vibe. Slow Lane to Glory imaginatively takes a gospel tune and makes midtempo swing blues out of it, played richly and tunefully on lap slide guitar. The bittersweet Piedmont blues number Daughter of Contortion eventually works in a playful circus motif, and the concluding track Blue Waltz artfully intertwines her guitar lines with Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and accordion from Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso.
A couple of the vocal numbers have a jaunty Roulette Sisters feel, most memorably the darkly simmering Big Bill Blues, lit up by some edgy, incisive piano from Janice Scroggins (whose contributions throughout this album are consistently excellent). The opening track, featuring Tony Furtado’s bottleneck in tandem with Flower’s densely intricate fingerpicking, evokes Jorma Kaukonen’s early 70s work. There’s also a version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that builds from hypnotic to steady and swinging; another first-rate ragtime song, Columbia River Rag, and explorations of country gospel, New Orleans blues and a cover of There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears with more biting blues piano from Scroggins. In addition to her April 1 gig, Flower is teaching a workshop on Piedmont style guitar at noon at the Jalopy on April 2.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #702:
Steve Nieve – Playboy
This is a hard one to find. Originally issued on vinyl in 1987 and out of print since not much later, Elvis Costello’s keyboardist’s second solo album is a characteristically droll, witty, sometimes hypnotic series of miniatures. Nieve likes to improvise silent film scores, and his originals here, including Pictures From A Confiscated Camera, A Walk In Monet’s Back Garden, the 9.4 Rag and Once Upon A Time In South America share a cinematic feel. He quotes liberally from Debussy, Morricone, Satie, Chopin and probably dozens of others, then covers the Specials’ Ghost Town with the same matter-of-fact, deadpan intensity as his genuinely moving version of Bowie’s Life on Mars. He finds the plaintiveness inside George Michael’s Careless Whisper and turns White Girl by X (dedicated to Exene’s dead sister Mirielle Cervenka) into a downcast mood piece. An extensive search didn’t turn up any torrents: we’d upload our own except that ours is the vinyl version. If we find a digital one, we’ll give you a link.
On his new solo album Second Childhood, Minnesota pianist Matthew McCright (who’s at Merkin Hall on 9/25) plays with nuance, fluidity and counterintuitivity on a diverse and eye-opening collection of new works by midwestern composers. He gives these pieces plenty of breathing room: it’s an album of melody and subtleties rather than overt technical prowess (although McCright has plenty of that). His presence is unobtrusive except when it needs to be more aggressive, and then it is, sometimes when least expected yet very welcome. Bruce Stark’s Five Preludes for Piano opens it: moody echoes of Satie with occasional jarring upper register atonal accents; an austere (one is tempted to say stark) moonlit miniature; a rippling, circular work that straddles calm and apprehension; a not quite heroic theme and a rapidfire passacaglia of sorts.
Evening Air, by Gregory Hutter is an insistent nocturne: McCright’s extra-precise articulation and deft sense of dynamics downplay its occasional ragtime flavor. The real gem here is Constellations, by Kirsten Broberg. This delightfully evocative partita artfully introduces icy, nebulously related clusters and after some otherworldly upper-register explorations watches the universe expand and cool down even further. John Halle is represented by two pieces, a ragtime-flavored lullaby and a straight-up rag that cleverly interpolates other, darker styles. Daniel Nass’s Dance Preludes expand, often eerily, on tango, ragtime and a heavily camouflaged waltz. The most playful material here is by Laura Caviani: her jazz etudes include an inventive series of variations on a saloon blues theme; an understatedly intense, chromatically charged tango and a boogie-woogie number, the only one of this vast range of styles that seems to be unfamiliar terrain for McCright. In its own subtle and emotionally attuned way, it’s a real tour de force. It’s out now on Innova.
Katzenjammer’s new album Le Pop is pretty amazing, a strong contender for best of 2010. With their gorgeous harmonies, old-fashioned instrumentation and frequently lush production, the accordion-driven all-female Oslo quartet sound like the Dresden Dolls but better (more energetic, less cutesy and a whole lot darker as well). The self-styled “queens of sultry sound” balance an eerily rustic noir edge with tongue-in-cheek humor, and lyrics in English. On the new cd, multi-instrumentalist Solveig Heilo, accordionists Anne Marit Bergheim and Marianne Sveen and bassist Turid Jørgensen – who plays the largest four-string instrument in all of rock – bounce, scamper and blast their way through a mix of tempos and styles that evoke such diverse acts as the B-52s, Gruppo Sportivo and Gogol Bordello.
The album opens on a surprisingly pensive note with an instrumental “overture,” followed by the scurrying Keystone Kops vibe of A Bar in Amsterdam, which amusingly morphs into a Pat Benetar-style power ballad on the chorus. With its jaunty gypsy swing, Demon Kitty Rag evokes satirical New York trio the Debutante Hour. Tea with Cinnamon is an absolute delight, a vintage Toots and the Maytals-style rocksteady number with accordion and a surprisingly wistful lyric. The title track, a snidely exuberant Gruppo Sportivo-style satire of American corporate music is great fun, and the outro is absolutely priceless.
The darker material here is just as captivating. Hey Ho on the Devil’s Back sets charming harmonies and barrelhouse piano to a Nashville gothic arrangement with a funny but disquieting edge, and a series of trick endings. The big, anguished crescendo on the lushly orchestrated suicide anthem Wading in Deeper packs a visceral punch; the violin-driven To the Sea showcases the band’s harmonies at their most otherworldly, with an off-center, Icelandic vibe. There’s also the sternly tongue-in-cheek Mother Superior, with its eerie carnival organ; Der Kapitan, a macabre-tinged surf instrumental done oompah style; the coy country bounce of Play, My Darling; Ain’t No Thang, an oldtimey banjo tune; and Virginia Clemm, a sad, eerily atmospheric waltz. The depth and intelligence of the songs matches their good-time appeal: it’s been a long time since we discovered a band who could do that as consistently as Katzenjammer do. The group are currently on US tour (at Milwaukee’s Summerfest on July 3 and 4, opening for Elvis Costello), with a date at the Mercury Lounge on July 6.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #68:
Phil Ochs – My Life
The blitheness of the song’s ragtime-pop melody contrasts savagely with Ochs’ lyric about being harrassed by the Nixon gestapo: “Take your tap from my phone, and leave my life alone.” That’s Lincoln Mayorga on piano – his 2010 album of Gershwin would raise the bar for anyone wishing to play An American in Paris. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1968.
- avant garde music
- blues music
- classical music
- experimental music
- folk music
- funk music
- gospel music
- gypsy music
- irish music
- latin music
- Lists – Best of 2008 etc.
- Live Events
- middle eastern music
- music, concert
- New York City
- NYC Live Music Calendar
- organ music
- Public Health
- rap music
- reggae music
- rock music
- ska music
- small beast
- soul music
- The Blahgues
- world music