Singer Dorian Devins occupies a pretty unique place in jazz. She doesn’t just sing standards and the occasional obscurity: she reinvents instrumental numbers from across the years by penning her own pensive, tersely crafted, often subtly amusing lyrics. She sings in a cool, unadorned mezzo-soprano that harks back to golden age songbirds from June Christy to Peggy Lee, and like those singers, works the subtlest corners of her repertoire. For the past few years, she’s led a succession of trios and quartets and the occasional larger ensemble, gigging constantly from the West Village all the way out to deep Queens. Her latest album is titled The Procrastinator, parts of which are up at her webpage and at her youtube channel. Her next gig is out in front of a trio with her longtime pianist Lou Rainone and bassist Paul Gill at the Bar Next Door on Dec 5, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM. Cover is $12.
The album’s opening number, Let’s Get Lost benefits from Devins’ low-key, enigmatic delivery – Karrin Allyson might have remade it this way. It’s about getting really lost, not just half-lost. Devins’ interpretation is a perfect match for the lyrics: “Let’s defrost, in this romantic mist.” Richie Vitale takes an animated, brightly toned trumpet solo followed by a bustling piano solo from Rainone.
A plush, balmy take of Wayne Shorter’s Deluge – retitled as Momentum – is next. Peter Brainin’s wary soprano sax adds welcome acidity, Rainone’s gracefully bluesy rainy-day lines matching the gritty mood. Kenny Dorham’s La Mesha gets an opiated, wary vocal echoed by a long, resonant, judicious Vitale solo, Rainone and the rest of the rhythm section – bassist Karl Kaminski and drummer Steve Johns – taking it into more jaunty territory.
I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry, done here with equal parts steadiness and Rainone’s wee-hours glimmer, is a great choice of cover: Devins loves the surreal, and her deadpan approach to this one fits it to a T. Bob Dorough’s Better Than Anything, a jazz waltz, gets an unexpectedly emphatic treatment, and the ordinarily low-key Devins pulls it off, Brainin’s flute hovering in a Frank Wess vein, Rainone reaching an unexpected crescendo with his volleys of triplets.
The album’s title track, a Lee Morgan tune, gets reinvented with a neat intro where Kaminski shadows Devins’ wry 99-percenter lament, which she picks up with deft flights of chromatics. She invents Kurt Weill’s Speak Low as a nocturnal samba; Vitale’s sunny flugelhorn adds vivid contrast with Rainone’s darkly majestic, chromatically-charged attack. Likewise, Devins does Night Bird as tiptoeing, late-night swing, much more darkly than the famous Anita O’Day version, Vitale adding distant, steady unease. Devins’ devious little curlicue on the final “I still fly by night” is priceless.
Devins takes another Lee Morgan tune, Lament for Stacy, back in a grim St. James Infirmary direction, with a brooding bass solo. The final Lee Morgan number, Soft Touch. gets a surprising amount of oomph from Devins…and then she switches it up from a jazz waltz to flute-infused, latin-tinged swing.
Dreamer, better known as the Jobim tune Vivo Sonhando, has a hazy wistfulness and distant echoes of LA lowrider soul. The album closes with Time Was, best known as a Coltrane tune; Devins’ take gets a fondly nostalgic treatment, her calm delivery in contrast to the rhythm section, who are pretty much jumping out of their shoes.
Since this album came out in 2012, Devins reputedly has another on the way soon – maybe it’s time this blog was rebranded as The Procrastinator. Fun fact: Devins is not only a musician but also co-founder of New York’s Secret Science Club, a popular series that began as a WNYC program and predated the TED Talks by several years, covering all sorts of developments in technology, medicine and many other fields that will impact our lives in the near future.
“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.
“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”
“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.
With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?
First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.
To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.
They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.
Since Svetlana & the Delancey Five have made their home at the Lower East Side backyard-tenement hideaway the Back Room on Norfolk Street for the the past four years, you might expect their leader to play the role of mob moll in front of a band playing gangster favorites from the Lucky Luciano era. Instead, watching her is more akin to being at the Deux Magots in Paris ten years down the line, when Sartre and Beauvoir were hanging out til closing time. Svetlana has devastating wit, cosmopolitan sophistication and an amazing band behind her who are every bit as important to the music as she is. This isn’t just a bunch of guys chilling behind a charismatic singer: Svetlana will jump on a trumpet or sax or piano phrase, or a drum riff and go sailing through the stars, rising from misty bittersweetness to uninhibited exhilaration, just as the band will do when she throws a phrase their way. Yet as wild as these cats can get, they’re more subtle than most of the other oldtimey swing acts out there. They’re bringing that act to the Blue Note this Sunday, Nov 27 for brunch, with sets at 11:30 AM and also 2 PM for all you normal, i.e. night people. New Orleans powerhouse trumpeter/crooner James Williams is Svetlana’s special guest, meaning that they’ll probably be minding the Satchmo-and-Ella songbook that the band explores on their most recent album.
It takes awhile to get a handle on what she does. The first time this blog caught her act, the band was cooking and so was she. The second time out, a rainy night at the Back Room, was much more melancholy and misterioso: she didn’t allow a hint of vibrato into her vocals until the closing cadenza of the last song of the set. Most recently, she charmed an all-Manhattanite audience, fronting the Seth Weaver Big Band at Zinc Bar earlier this week. Svetlana polled the crowd to see where everybody was from, and was reassured that there are still diehard jazz people on this island. And as vividly as she channeled the deadpan vindictiveness of Ellington’s Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and balanced that with an exuberant take of It Had to Be You, it was her original, It’s All Good, that made for the best song of the night. It’s an update on classic 30s swing for the here and now. As she hit the chorus, she suddenly rose from a warmly enveloping calm to an eye-opening leap: “When you hear the BIG NOISE, it’s not thunder or storm.” Then she took the audience groundward again: “It’s just the sound of my heart breaking.” The song ended on a characteristically enigmatic note, a little defeated, a little defiant.
Fun fact: Svetlana is a frequent Wycliffe Gordon collaborator, and makes extensive use of his playful, wit-infused charts for jazz standards. She’ll be his special guest this Friday night, Nov 25 at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center for his 7:30 PM set with his energetic quintet.
Fun fact #2: Svetlana & the Delancey Five often open with the Gerry Mulligan classic Bernie’s Tune. To be fair, they were doing this long before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But it’s still cool.
In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.
Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.
The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.
Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.
From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.
The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.
In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.
The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.
Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.
Pianist Orrin Evans is in the midst of a weekend stand at the Jazz Standard, with shows tonight and tomorrow night, Nov 19 nnd 20 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.. The captain of the epic Captain Black Big Band also has a fantastic new album, Knowing Is Half the Battle, just out and streaming at Spotify. What’s new is that it’s a two-guitar record, Kevin Eubanks and Kurt Rosenwinkel joining Evans,bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. And what’s most impressive about it is that even though it’s one of the most highly improvisational albums of Evans’ career, nobody gets in anybody’s way. The twin-guitar attack follows much the same bad cop/good cop dichotomy as Marc Ribot’s live album with Mary Halvorson – Eubanks employing a round, sustained tone with frequent EFX, Rosenwinkel with more of a clean tube amp sound that burns with distortion when he wails on his chords. Although Eubanks’ most woozy textures hark back to fusion, this isn’t a fusion record
Don’t let the weird, trippy, techy intro put you off: it’s the setup to the punchilne that ends the album, which is way too good to give away. It opens slowly as Calls coalesces – one of the freest numbers here, it’s a floating platform for carefree exploraion that sets the stage for the guitar dynamic. The way Whitfield just blasts through the stoplight and keeps going is one of the album’s most irresistible moments.
When Jen Came In is a cool modal latin thing, romping along in 6/8 with Evans and Whitfield throwing elbows in the paint, the guitars shadowing each other up to one of those lustrously poignant peaks that has become an Evans trademark. The pensive, expansive jazz waltz Chiara (Italian for “clear”) – gets a purposeful belltone chord intro from Rosenwinkel, Eubanks taking a horn role; then it goes in a similarly impactful, moody direction fueled by Evans’ sunshower lines. These two numbes make a good diptych.
The take of David Bowie’s Kooks rises out of peekaboo piano-drums drollery toward tropicalia, with a soulful vocal by songbird M’Balia, who makes a return on a trip-hop ballad toward the end of the record. The funky, pulsing You Don’t Need a License to Drive gives Rosenwinkel a launching pad for some of the album’s most bristling work, Evans working a more playful tip. Whitfield’s insistent cymbals and prowling attack on the toms fuel Half the Battle, much like he does on most of the other numbers: it’s a classic hard-hitting Evans mood piece brightened with Eubanks’ high-flying, sustained lines.
Heavy Hangs the Head That Wears the Crown, a tone poem awash in keening guitar textures, builds toward uneasy, clustering chaos and then back. The considerably more upbeat Doc’s Holida, opens with guest saxophonist Caleb Wheeler Curtis in unison with the guitars and then goes strolling, one of ghe few instances where the bandleader takes the spotlight, his restlessly crescendoing intensity over Curtis’ leaping, growly bass.
The swinging Slife is a vehicle for some deliciously slippery, slamming guitar from Rosenwinkel and contrastingly tight, jaunty piano from Evans. The final cut is a gently funky lullaby of sorts. It says a lot that what’s probably the most lighthearted album of Evans’ career is anything but lightweight.
Rivers of Sound offers a captivating glimpse into Amir Elsaffar’s artistic journey and contributes a distinct sonic perspective to the body of creative music. Within the piece Elsaffar molds a soundscape out of colorful improvisation, shifting momentum, and inventive orchestration. The score is brought to life by a core ensemble of seventeen improvisers playing an array of instruments that include bass saxophone, mridangam, and ney flute. The music has a sense of spontaneity as Elsaffar assesses the sounds of the moment, cues in solos, and orchestrates new densities on stage. Rather than experiencing a work frozen in time by strict notation, the audience journeys with Elsaffar as he listens and makes intuitive decisions about the music. The result is an unforgettable event where the listener is able to traverse the imagination of this dynamic composer.
Meera Dugal curated the Brooklyn premiere at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on Ocobert 14. Dugal often partners with artists to construct narratives that advance identity and social inquiry though the medium of sound. This esthetic resonated beautifully with the venue’s mission to harbor new and adventurous music. The room’s high ceilings, brick walls, and modular performance space offers composers a blank canvas for collaboration, experimentation, and creative statement. This form of grassroots partnership between curator, venue, and artist is an important aspect of Elsaffar’s creative process.
Elsaffar’s sound emanates from musical experiences that include performing with Cecil Taylor, studying Baghdadi maqam, and playing in the Chicago jazz scene. Yet Elsaffar never gets bogged down with the “burden of representation” that can befall an artist. Rather, he employs the timbres of instruments such as buzuq, vibraphone,and English horn to engineer imaginative orchestrations. Early on in the piece there was a moment where Zafer Tawil’s oud, JD Parran’s bass saxophone and Naseem Al Atrash’s cello sustained a rich harmony. The buzz of the saxophone reed augmented the viscosity of the oud and cello timbres. A sonic color emerged from the texture that contained both a palpable tension and a beautiful dissonance.
At other times, Elsaffar held the audience’s attention through shifting momentums and layers of rhythmic punctuation. Within minutes of the piece’s opening, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa ignited a torrent of energy. Shortly after, Parran’s improvisation erupted, the saxophonist’s dense melodic lines resolving to an almost spectral altissimo melody within the rhythm section’s driving pulse. Following this deluge of sound, the texture evaporated and the audience was left with the ethereal resonance of Elsaffar’s own santur and Naseem Alatrash’s cello. Elsaffar’s improvisation began to imply time as he built an infectious rhythm with the modular sound created by mridangam artist Rajna Swaminthan. Then Tawil and pianist Aruan Ortiz joined the musical conversation with their complementary phrasing. The resulting tension was magnetic, compelling the listener to lean in and move with the beat.
Once the groove was established, Amir led the ensemble with melodically intersecting shapes and angles. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen joined oboist Mohammed Saleh and alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol in contributing intervallic leaps to the texture; cycling rhythms melted and reformed, continuing for a full ninety minutes. Tempos ranged from the thrill of a blistering free-fall to the slow purposeful weight of ritualistic footsteps. Throughout the work, a pulsing ebb and flow emerged from the creative design of genuine experience.
In addition to being a composer, Elsaffar performs in a number of ensembles as a trumpet player, santur player, and vocalist. While all of Elsaffar’s projects are dynamic, creative, and deserve mention, Rivers of Sound is significant because it embodies his journey and the community he has built over the past 18 years. Each of the ensemble members hails from a unique time in Elsaffar’s life. Oboe and English horn player Mohammad Saleh started playing with Amir eighteen years ago in the West-East Divan Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim, when both musicians were undertaking a deep study of western classical technique. During a sequence of collaborative trips to Europe starting in 2013, Amir began to work with Cassol, who was featured with an electrifying solo of descending shapes and lines at the Pioneer Works concert. Elsaffar began playing with Tawil (who is also featured on percussion) and his fellow oudist George Ziadeh in 2001 in New York City.Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki have worked with Elsaffar within Swaminathan’s project Rajas. Elsaffar’s multi-instrumentalist sister, Dena Elsaffar co-leads Salaam, an Iraqi maqam ensemble with Amir, in addition to contributing her lyrical viola improvisations to Rivers of Sound. Each artist in the band has an equally unique relationship to Amir’s story.
Rivers of Sound immersed the Pioneer Works audience within visceral rhythmic layers and transcendent melodies. Nearly two decades of Amir Elsaffar’s artistic experiences, diverse collaborations, and creative thoughts join together to add this luminous musical journey to the canon of creative music.
Manhattan was like a mausoleum yesterday evening, where most likely the smallest crowd ever to witness a Ken Thomson album release show gathered under low, somber lights at the Poisson Rouge. Between the steady downpour outsde and the sobering news that defied the exit polls, New Yorkers were stunned, processing, asking themselves and each other some gravely fundamental questions – such as, should we stay or should we go?
On one hand, the two suites on Thomson’s darkly compelling new vinyl release made an aptly elegaic soundtrack for post-election shock and horror. On the other, both pieces are imbued with a sardonic, even playful wit along with plenty of gravitas. Thomson took a couple of moments onstage as emcee for the night, himself in something of a state of shock. The night’s opening triptych, Me Vs., was played with dynamism and a vivid austerity by pianist Karl Larson, Thomson explained that it had taken on new meaning as “We Vs.” and that he was perfectly ok with that.
Larson gave meticulous attention to its broodingly colorful details. Emphatic, trickily polyrhythmic, exasperatedly minimalist insistence early on gave way to an achingly overcast Satie-esque resonance and then a return to a steady, ominously rhythmic drive, a sort of mashup of Mompou belltones and the outro from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The acidically climactic final movement alluded to the baroque, shifted to stormy neoromantiv cascades, then through more subtly shifting polyrhythms, with a triiumphant coda.
Cellist Ashley Bathgate joined Larson for the second half of the program – and the album – the four-part, aptly tilted Restless. As the moody, low-register first moment slowly brightened and picked up steam, there was a subtle change of roles, the cello taking on more of a rhythmic propulsion while the piano moved futher toward lowlit background color. The duo wove a tight, balletesque lattice, with lots of friendly chemistry and interplay throughout the second movement, then took an uneasy, syncopated stroll that dipped into creepily clustering, murky depths in the third. Bathgate returned to the wounded vibrato she’d employed strongly in the opening movement over Larson’s eerie, close-harmoined chimes, winding up the suite with some enigmatically energetic glissandos, an unexpected end to a rather harrowing journey.
“Enjoy yourself,” Gil Scott-Heron would tell people. “If you can’t enjoy yourself, what the hell CAN you enjoy?” Pianist Ron Stabinsky seems to be doing exactly that on his new solo album, Free for One, streaming at Spotify. Being a Pennsylvanian with a sense of humor, it’s only logical that he would fall in with the Mostly Other People Do the Killing crowd (“We’re not satirists” – yeah, right). He’s playing the album release show at 8 PM on Nov 15 at Roulette, with bassist Tom Blancarte opening the show solo. $20 advance tix are recommended for those who gravitate toward similarly vivid, classically-inspired improvisers like Jean-Michel Pilc and Kris Davis.
Or Monk – who Stabinsky resembles in terms of judiciously and purposefully expanding on a theme, if not necessarily melodically – throughout the sardonically titled opening number, After It’s Over. The album’s second cut, 31, has Stabinsky setting playfully clustering, rapidfire upper righthand spirals against a sort of altered stride in the left. On one hand, Viral Infection sounds like a sketch for a brooding ballad; on the other, it’s a pastiche of wry quotes and allusions that Stabinsky alternates with a spinning, slice-and-dice attack.
Gone Song follows a desolate, somber, stygian tangent that looks back to Rachmaninoff: searching righthand, coldly anchoring lows in the left. Then Stabinsky flips the script with For Reel, its droll Flight of the Bumblebee references and rapidfire game of leapfrog. It’s over in less than two minutes. From there, Stabinsky doesn’t waste any time launching into the album’s most epic improvisation, Not Long Now Long Now: tasty, emphatic, uneasy close harmonies and oddly knotty rhythmic loops give way to more darkly spacious explorations.
Rapture begins as a study in trick intros. A swing shuffle? Ragtime? Neither. Persistence, maybe, at least as far as low, loopy lefthand is concerned. Stabinsky closes the recording with Once But Again, the closest thing here to a more-or-less straight-up ballad. The esthetic is much the same as the intro to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is essentially a field recording, . “Aw, we were just noodling around,” one of the musicians captured by Gaye’s stealth recorder tells him. “Well, you noodle exquisitely,” Gaye answered.
“This is extremely sarcastic, cynical music,” conductor Barbara Yahr explained, introducing the selections from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije suite that she’d chosen to open the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert last night. “Particularly apt for our time, I think,”she added, alluding to the upcoming events this Tuesday. The crowd chuckled knowingly. Beyond simply bringing the music to life, Yahr usually has a way of focusing on its most relevant aspects.
The five segments she’d chosen illustrate something completely different: the ineptitude of of the Soviet army and its bureaucracy. The joke is that the officer in the suite’s title doesn’t officially exist, and his eventual death has to be covered up: otherwise, there would be paperwork to deal with, and who really wants to fill out a death certificate, anyway? Yet as broad as the satire is, the music came across as surprisingly subtle – other than a completely over-the-top passage from the high woodwinds, portraying the army as a ragtag little regiment that can barely keep up with itself. Which was a stretch for this ensemble: ragtag is not their thing. Sleekness and formidability are more like it.
Both of which came to the forefront during the phony pageantry that followed: taken out of context, absent a few funny cadenzas from the trumpets and a little little over-the-top squonkiness from the bass trombone, the music almost could have passed for a particularly sophisticated soundtrack to a Thanksgiving parade making its way down Central Park West. Then there’s that silly, famous sleigh ride scene, as pointillistically precise and deadpan funny as it could have been.
Next on the program was a similar mini-suite taken from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Yahr introduced the selections as a sort of synopsis of the plot. Does a more venomously emveloping introduction – illustrating the bad blood between the Montagues and the Capulets – or a more lushly sensual interlude – the two lovers on the balcony – exist in classical music? Maybe not. Yahr had the ensemble working every inch of the sonic picture, from top to bottom, as she typically does.
Although she did just the opposite with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which came across as lush and luscious rather than static. A lot of orchestras play it like an early classical piece, or like chamber pop: piano backed by a string section, more or less. But it’s actually the opposite of that, and Yahr seized the opportunity to meet the towering, glittering angst that soloist Imri Talgam was channeling, from his first harrowing, haggard steps out of the shadows. As stormy as the symphonic arrangement is, most of it is pretty straightforward and simple, as opposed to the rapidfire virtuosity required of any pianist with the nerve to tackle it in public.
There’s a slithery cascade downward early in the second movement where the composer basically says, “OK, pity party is over, it’s time to party for real.” If you know the piece, you know the backstory: it’s as good advertising for the benefits of therapy as anyone has ever written. Basically, Rachmaninoff’s therapist told him, “Repeat after me, ‘I’m gonna write something great!’” And a pretty full house got to revel in that epic sweep and rewarded both orchestra and soloist with several standing ovations.
The concerto is about being hurt – to the quick, to the core – and eventually being pulled off the ledge. Or maybe pulling oneself off the ledge. Which goes a long way in explaining its perennial appeal. Talgam played the most poignant passages with an intuitive restraint, often with a genuine tenderness, acutely attuned to context. As a young composer, Rachmaninoff was regarded as erratic, if capable of moments of brilliance; the dismissive critical reaction to his Tschaikovsky-esque First Symphony, which is actually a decent if derivative piece of music, crushed him. This was his big comeback, after which there was no looking back for the man many consider to be the greatest classical pianist of all time and the unrivalled king of Russian Romanticism. Talgam kept a steely focus through one challenging stampede and cadenza after another while Yahr kept the orchestra front and center in tandem with the piano, a welcome and ultimately exhilarating change from how this piece is so frequently performed.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is their annual family show December 4 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 17th St. and Irving Place featuring some of the talented youngsters from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Suggested donation is $20/$10 stud/srs, reception to follow.