Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Luscious Noir Atmosphere in Alphabet City Last Night

An icy, distantly lurid, reverbtoned mist of sound began wafting through the PA moments after keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s haunting House of Echo quartet took the stage last night at Nublu 151. Slowly and methodically, guitarist Marc-Antoine Perrio added thicker washes to darken the fog, finally introducing a few portentous, lingering chords from his Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Simon Tailleu added subtle pitchblende textures, then Carniel’s Fender Rhodes finally entered the picture with a brooding, echoey minor-key riff. There hasn’t been music this profoundly noir made anywhere in New York this year.

Which makes sense; Carniel and his group hail from the part of the world that invented noir. The rest of their set was every bit as Lynchian as their opening Twin Peaks tone poem. It would be at least ten minutes before drummer Ariel Tessier made an entrance, trailing the music as it unspooled slowly on its path of no return. As the set went on, it was somewhat akin to Sun Ra playing Bill Frisell…or Anthony Braxton disassembling Angelo Badalamenti film themes at a glacial pace.

Carniel stuck mostly to blue-neon arpeggios and rippling riffs, often making live loops out of them: there were places where minimalist 20th century composers like Ligeti came to mind. Tailleu could easily have put much of what he played into a loop pedal, but instead he ran those slowly circling motives and greyscale shades over and over without tiring. And when he finally went up the scale for a tersely bowed solo, Carniel took over and ran the riff.

Perrio’s role grew more and more demanding as the hour grew later and the temperature fell outside, shifting with split-second precision between stompboxes, resonantly pulsing Fender licks and echoey phrases looped via a mini-synth. A guest tenor saxophonist joined them for a few numbers, adding wary, astringently enveloping phrases, at one point becoming the trailer in an intricate five-piece rondo. Tessier’s spaciously echoing work on the toms gave the music additional grim inevitability.

Perrio’s emphatic, enigmatic series of minimalist chords around a central tone in the last number echoed 90s shoegaze acts like Slowdive as well as cinematic indie soundscapers like the Quavers and Aaron Blount. It was a real surprise, and practically funny how they made a resolutely triumphant anthem out of it at the end, hardly the coda you’d expect after such a rapturously dark buildup.

After House of Echo, tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart completely flipped the script, leading a spirited quartet – Aaron Goldberg on the Rhodes plus bassist Or Bareket and drummer Ari Hoenig – through a series of jazz variations on well-known Shabbat themes. Goldberg really made that Rhodes sing with his robust neoromantic chords and cascades in the opening number, which Schwarz-Bart had obviously written for acoustic piano.

The saxophonist’s duet with Hoenig on Adon Olam was as poignant as it was propulsive; it was also the only other moment in the set where Schwarz-Bart’s reinventions of these old Jewish themes took on a particularly solemn tinge. Where John Zorn and his posse, or Uri Gurvich will take ancient cantorial melodies to similarly otherworldly places, Schwarz-Bart’s shtick is to make catchy, toe-tapping, early 60s Prestige Records-style postbop out of them.

Oseh Shalom was almost unrecognizable until he backed away from a sizzling, perfectly articulated, Coltrane-esque series of arpeggios to reveal the theme. He prefaced his version of the foundational Passover litany Ma Nishtana with similarly apt commentary on migrations, forced and otherwise, happening around the world in this era. Much as there was plenty of relentless good cheer in the rest of the set, it would have helped if Schwarz-Bart had stayed away from the pedalboard and the cheesy octave and pitch-shifting patches that only ramped up the schmaltz factor.

The show was staged by Paris Jazz Club, the indispensable website which maintains an exhaustive concert calendar for Paris and the surrounding area: it’s absolutely essential if you want to find out what’s happening, especially off the beaten path. House of Echo continue on tour tomorrow night, Jan 17 at 8 PM, opening for pianist Florian Pelissier’s quintet and then psychedelic Afropop bassist Bibi Tanga & the Selenites at L’Astral, 305 rue St.-Catherine Ouest in Montreal. Cover is $28.

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January 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Enigmatically Dancing Album and a Chelsea Show by Individualistic Vibraphonist Yuhan Su

Vibraphonist Yuhan Su plays with a terse, riff-driven sensibility, a persistent restlessness and a frequently wry sense of humor. Her latest album, City Animals – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a study in contrasts: urban vs. rural, action vs. stillness, agitation vs. contentment. Su has done a lot of work with dance companies in recent years, so it’s no surprise that there’s an especially lithe quality to a lot of the tunes here. Unlike a lot of vibraphonists, she likes to hang out in the midrange rather than working a bell-like attack way up the scale. She’s playing the Cell Theatre on Jan 19 at 8 PM with her quintet; cover is $15.

The album’s first track, El Coche Se Murio, was inspired by an untimely breakdown on a Spanish highway, four hours from a gig. There’s a coy solo vibraphone intro where the vehicle loses it, an insistent I-can’t-believe-this-happened passage, bustling Alex LoRe alto sax against balmy Matt Holman trumpet, a scampering Su solo and then what seems to be disaster averted.

Sax and trumpet flutter uneasily against each other in Viaje, as Su leads the rhythm section – bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – with a lingering unease as the segments coalesce in turn, yet never fully resolve. Immigration and similar big journeys are like that.

The surreallistically titled Feet Dance has a steady, almost stalking pulse underpinning bright unison playing and sax-trumpet harmonies. As is frequently the case in Su’s music, those harmonies remain a tantalizing hair away from any kind of traditional chromatic scale, raising the unease factor.

Poncho Song, a jazz waltz, is similar but more wistful, with an expansively stairstepping vibraphone solo at the center and a tasty, nebulous outro that’s over too soon. The album’s title track contrasts fluttery urban bustle with lustrous, lingering phrases, Holman and LoRe bobbing and weaving.

Kuafu, the album’s centerpiece, is a triptych inspired by a Chinese myth about a titan of sorts hell-bent on running down and catching the sun. The first section has Su’s restless resonance paired against LoRe’s animated sax, the rhythm section entering with the hint of a second-line shuffle. Then it’s Su’s turn to go in a carefree direction as the horns converge.

The second part, Starry, Starry Night is the high point of the record, and also its most vividly melodic moment, a bittersweet anthem that diverges to a starry/dancing vibes-sax dichotomy and then a moody rondo. The metrically tricky coda has some irresistibly funny, over-the-top moments from Ellman-Bell and jaunty Indian allusions from LoRe.

The languid ballad Tutu & D – inspired by The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – has cleverly spacious counterpoint between all the instruments and an expansive, lyrical Holman solo. The album’s final number, Party 2AM is more genteel and conversational than the title would imply. Refreshingly distinctive, purposeful stuff from someone who’s really found a sound of her own. 

January 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

January 13, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

January 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

January 9, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Broodingly Catchy, Lithely Orchestrated Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Pianist Edward Simon

Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.

The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.

The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.

The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.

With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.

The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?

Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.

Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.

January 4, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Fred Hersch Brings an Unexpected Album Back to the Vanguard

When pianist Fred Hersch got his first stand as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard – after innumerable gigs there as a sideman – he decided to record the first night. Almost twenty-two years later, he edited three sets worth of material down to a digestible eight numbers, a couple of originals mixed in with some animated standards.

How does The Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard – streaming at Spotify – compare with Hersch’s more recent work?  This is party music. There’s less gravitas and more humor – although Hersch’s wit has hardly dimmed over the years, as his recent duo album with Anat Cohen bears out. The sonics here are a little on the trebly side, although the separation between instruments is good, and the ice machine doesn’t factor in.

Chronologically, this is the first live recording of Hersch leading a band, and the only one with this trio, Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. Hersch is bringing his current trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson back to the Vanguard, which over the years has become his home away from home. The trio are there on New Year’s Day through the third of january, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is now $35. Then the pianist leads a quartet with the great Miguel Zenon on alto sax through the 6th.

The group work tightly shifting syncopation, latin allusions, a little coy blues and an even more puckish doublespeed crescendo in the album’s kinetic, practically ten-minute first number, Easy to Love. Gress’ amiably tiptoeing solo sets up a chugging one from Rainey. Hersch’s own righthand/lefthand conversation winds it up deviously. 

Hersch’s raindrop intro to an even more expansive My Funny Valentine is similarly choice. Rainey develops a tongue-in-cheek clave; Gress pirouettes, then dips into the shadows, a signal to Hersch to reemerge and quickly toss aside caution: a genuinely amusing valentine.

Three Little Words makes an aptly lighthearted, briskly swinging segue, followed by the dancing, Bill Evans-inspired original Evanescence, Gress leading a cleverly triangulated intro. There’s a subtle fugal quality to this dynamically shifting, Brazilan-tinged song without words.

Andrew John, a Gress ballad, could be a more spacious Donald Fagen, with some richly airy Rainey cymbal work. The take of I Wish I Knew has a loose-limbed swing and glisteningly dancing lines from the bandleader, while Swamp Thang –  the second Hersch tune here – opens with a deadpan strut that gets more evilly cartoonish. To close the album, they shift their way warily but energetically their way through You Don’t Know What Love Is, capped off by a ridiculously funny Rainey solo.

December 30, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.

December 27, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

December 25, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bracingly Majestic Double Concerto and a Couple of Classy Museum Mile Gigs From Bandoneon Innovator JP Jofre

JP Jofre may be known as one of the world’s foremost soloists on the bandoneon, the little accordion that Astor Piazzolla catapulted to fame. But Jofre is also a brilliant and pioneering composer whose work transcends nuevo tango to encompass the neoromantic, indie classical and jazz. His latest and most ambitious project yet is the first ever Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Violin – streaming at Spotify – which he performs along with violinist Michael Guttman and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This won’t be on the bill at the Argentine-born composer’s next New York performance; instead, he’ll be leading his Hard Tango Band at the ongoing series of free 5:30 PM shows at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec 28 and 29.

Throughout the Double Concerto, there’s a great deal of conversational interplay between the bandoneon and the violin; reduced to lowest terms, Guttman is typically the good cop. Jofre, as usual, gets extraordinary dynamic range out of his instrument, from ominous low drones to chirpy flourishes at the top while the orchestra follows similarly challenging trajectories. Rhythmic shifts are constant and counterintuitive, and the whole unit follows them seamlessly, hardly an easy task.

Jofre opens solo before Guttman sails in overhead, building steely, unresolved intensity to usher in the explosively pulsing allegro movement. The orchestra tackle it with a meticulous but vigorous pulse, its bursts of counterpoint blending such disparate elements as orchestral Piazzolla, Debussy and the baroque. Guttman resolutely answers Jofre’s creepy chromatic loops, then the mighty dance ensues again.

Brooding Jofre atmospherics contrast with wistful Guttman violin, the orchestra and piano adding Tschaikovslan lustre in the adagio. An astringently leaping solo violin cadenza introduces the milonga and its impassioned pulse, rising and falling with Persian-tinged echo effects.

The album’s final three pieces, all duets, have specific titles beyond tempo indicators. Jofre’s rainswept washes and subtle insistence give Guttman a launching pad for his plaintively soaring lines in the elegaic Before the Curtain. Como El Agua maintains the mood with its slow tidal shifts and La Vie En Rose allusions, while Sweet Dreams is a more impassioned lullaby than you might expect. Whether you call this nuevo tango or classical music, it’s characteristic of the ambition and brightly focused melodicism that have defined Jofre’s career up to this point.

December 24, 2018 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment