Drummer-composers seldom write as intricate, elaborate, or haunting music as Sean Noonan does. The powerhouse drummer draws equally on Bartok, early Can, jazz, Balkan and avant garde theatre music. Thematically, he’s drawn to mythology and in particular the archetypal imagery of his Celtic heritage. His latest album, Memorable Sticks – streaming at Bandcamp – is a twisted, phantasmagorical trio suite with Alex Marcelo on piano and Peter Bitenc on bass, the composer himself often adding surrealistic spoken-word or sung interludes. The storyline involves a treasure buried deep in an Eastern European salt mine, a magic wand channeled by the drummer’s sticks, and a seemingly happy ending brought about by an African teleportation rescue mission. He and the band are playing the album release show tomorrow night, July 20 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15.
The opening track, Miala Baba stalks along with carnivalesque variations on an emphatic chromatic riff, then goes out into the stratosphere, Noonan’s breathless spoken-word interlude adding surreal menace. It wouldn’t be out of place on pianist Frank Carlberg’s marvelously creepy Tivoli Trio album. The second number, Hidden Treasures, works off an uneasily coy, Errol Garner-like riff into chugging postbop, then clenched-teeth circularity, up to a macabre, drum-fueled peak.
The title track edges toward a Monk-like stroll out of horror-film music-box harmonies, awash in Noonan’s coloristic cymbals and jagged bass drum attack, shifting in and our of focus, up to a funhour-mirror playground jump-rope theme of sorts. With its carefully waltzing groove, White Lady Bieliczka is more delicate, a blend of elegant bluesy phrasing and otherworldly chromatic vamps, Tolkien’s Galadriel in Jason’s hockey mask. The trio pick up the pace with the briskly shuffling Zabka, Bitenc adding the occasional blackly amusing phrase as the piano circles and stabs in an elegant duel with the drums – with a brooding art-rock interlude straight out of Procol Harum.
Marcelo switches to Rhodes electric piano for Nangadef, a detour into psychedelic soul, like Roy Ayers at his most darkly cinematic.“No reverb to that nation,” Noonan intones drolly at one point. “How are you? I’m partially free.” They wind up the suite with Shaka, winding in and out of altered latin funk. What’s most impressive, and enjoyable about this album is that as far outside as some of the trio’s improvisations go, nobody in the band overplays. The commitment to overall ambience, and mystery, and dark intensity is unwavering. Has there been an album so nonchalantly creepy released this year? That would be hard to imagine.
The Kepler Quartet – violinists Sharan Leventhal and Eric Stignitz, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine – first joined forces to play some of the most amazing, extraordinary music you probably have never heard: the string quartets of microtonal composer Ben Johnston. It’s full of some of the most otherworldly riffs and hooks you’ll ever hum to yourself. The now-nonagenarian American composer should be vastly better known than he is, someone who was decades ahead of his time when he wrote his first string quarter in 1959. Few other composers use microtones – the intervals between the notes in a particular scale – as tunefully, and memorably, and impactfully as Johnston. The work of Per Norgard comes to mind, but Johnston is even more adventurous. A better comparison would be a similarly cutting-edge composer in a completely different idiom, the extraordinary “post-chromodal” jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.
The ensemble have recently released a three-quartet album comprising Johnston’s Quartets Nos. 6-8, completing the group’s epic cycle of the composer’s ten quartets. The entire project is an astonishing achievement. It’s one thing for a string player to get the western scale into muscle memory on a particular instrument; those who play Middle Eastern or Asian music, or jazz, have the additional challenge of halftones and quartertones, and blue notes. Johnston’s music requires a vast spectrum of variations per pitch, and the quartet have mastered all of them – and the meticulousness of these recordings bears that out.
Not all of these pieces are strictly microtonal: Johnston’s earliest work here draws on the Second Viennese School, and the playful spaciousness of John Cage, but with more dense, disquieting close harmonies. He also has a thing for English folk themes and Gershwin, both influences you would hardly expect to hear in this context. Johnston’s music can be as ethereal as it is rhythmic and balletesque: jaunty waltzes juxtapose with airy, horizontal interludes. He has a penchant for labeling sections as “impetuous,” “nervous, diving” or “vigorous, defiant” and then making good on those themes. Another of his favorite tropes is to diverge very slowly and almost imperceptibly from traditional western harmony, as he does most vividly in String Quartet No. 9, building an atmosphere that becomes grotesque and sometimes downright macabre. The ensemble tackles all of this with expertise, and verve, and gusto: they are clearly having a ball with this stuff, especially when his sense of humor is going full force.
Each of the string quartets here is worth hearing: the two pieces de resistance here are No. 5, from 1979, and No.10, from 1995. The former slices and dices an allusive Scottish folk-tinged ballad theme. Pitches and their doppler doppelgangers go further and further outside, taking on the ambered quality of a brass section. Flurries of pizzicato alternate with calmer gestures that remind of Gershwin more than, say, Beethoven, up to an intense, menacing coda and then a very subtly twisted cello-fueled outro.
The latter is a real stunner, with an ending that’s just the opposite of all the foreshadowing Johnston goes through – it’s far too good to give away here. Otherwise, it’s packed with neat touches: hints of medieval folk tunings, a lustrously dirgey canon, latin-tinged counterpoint, a long, thorny tumble through thickets of pizzicato and an ending that quietly packs more of a wallop than the loudest, most horror-stricken segments here, of which there are many.
Of the quartets on the new album, No. 6 is the most enigmatic, most statically hypnotic and least dynamic – and hardest to pin down – of the lot. A circling, Reichian, hypnotic sense gives way to starkly swaying unease and then a final segment with some ominous narration: “Your way begins on the other side,” Johnston intones. No. 7 opens with a shivery menace, shifting to an extremely devious, dizzyingly waltzing, pizzicato palindrome, then a series of variations, Johnston’s tonalities expanding with characteristic delicacy and a matching, offcenter menace.
No. 8 moves from a twisted minuet to a woundedly steady, canonical march and a scherzo that hardly seems funny, with a hazily swaying conclusion that shifts with somberly cello-fueled counterpoint to an austere, still outro. Much of this can be found on New World Records’ album page.
The cycle also includes dynamic performances of String Quartet No. 1, in a Schoenbergian vein; the stark, sobering, angst-ridden No. 2, a quantum leap in Johnston’s work and otherwise, No. 9, which warps elements of folk, Stravinsky and the neo-baroque; the brief No. 3, balancing spacious horizontality and more jaunty melody; and the windswept, stunningly echoey, harrowingly challenging No. 4. It’s safe to say that its own elegant way, there won’t be anything this wild or individualistic released in 2016, quite possibly for the rest of this decade.
Adventurous violinist Francesca Anderegg has a richly eclectic new roadtrip-themed album of mostly brand-new indie classical works, titled Wild Cities, just out and streaming at WQXR. She’s playing the album release show with pianist Brent Funderburk on July 12 at 8 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are a good idea and are $25.
The first track, Remix, by Ryan Francis, opens with a maddeningly repetitive, syncopated violin riff that eventually shifts to the piano. It would have been impossibly easy for both Anderegg and Funderburk to loop it and take their time playing karaoke against it; to their credit, they don’t, as it winds down to an acerbic, purposeful spaciousness. Uh oh, then they’re off again! It has the same kind of high-voltage playfulness as Todd Reynolds’ recent work.
The album’s masterful centerpiece, Hannah Lash‘s achingly plaintive nocturne Adjoining, sets Anderegg’s emotively resonant, subtly vibrato-laden lines soaring over piano that blends Chopin prelude angst with more austerely starlit tonalities. Clint Needham‘s Kerouac-inspired diptych, On the Road builds quickly from a purposeful stroll to a jauntily skipping interlude that stops short of blithe; then the two voices reconfigure, pensively, down to still, mysterious ambience. The conclusion scampers and bustles with uneasy anticipation up to a surprise ending.
Ted Hearne‘s Nobody’s, for violin and percussion, starkly blends hints of Appalachian stepdancing music and insistent minimalism with challenging leaps to comet-trail harmonic cadenzas. Reinaldo Moya‘s four-part suite, Archipelago Imagined opens with darkly modal allusions – which could be Slavic, but actually draw on Andean music – and then weaves in and out, Anderegg’s violin bright and anxious over uneasily glitttering, waltzing piano. Part two subtly builds longscale, circling, Debussy-esque phrases within a predictable neoromantic rhythmic framework. Puckishly tongue-in-cheek, mathematically bouncing circular variations dominate the third movement, while the conclusion brings the piece full circle, a synthesis of the segments in turn. This is not an album about grandiose pyrotechnics but about camaraderie, and teamwork, and acerbity, and tunefulness, and ultimately good fun, all of which ought to translate live in National Sawdust’s magnificent sonics.
Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra blend art-rock and classical music into their mighty big band jazz sound. They sound like no other group around: as the name implies, while they have the standard brass, reeds and rhythm section that you’d find in just about any other large jazz ensemble, Saulnier’s hefty arrangements drift toward the classical side. As a plus, a strong political awareness factors into his music. Economies of scale being what they are – they’re supported by the Midwest Composers Forum and its recording arm, Innova Records, one of the very few labels that still matter – the group rarely plays live. That’s why their upcoming show on July 14 at 7:30 PM at Shapeshifter Lab – where they’ll be continuing Saulnier’s ongoing 2016 election year-themed suite, a work in progress – is the place to be if powerful, enveloping sounds are your thing. As a bonus, eclectically tuneful pianist Fabian Almazan – who has a thing for Shostakovich – plays with his Rhizome ensemble afterward. Cover is $10.
The Awakening Orchestra’s most recent, 2014 debut release, Volume 1: This Is Not the Answer (streaming at Spotify) opens with Saulnier’s vampy, pulsing prelude and muted fanfare of sorts. From there they remind how aptly suited Radiohead songs are to mammoth orchestral interpretaiion, with a mighty version of Myxomatosis that uses the entire sonic spectrum, from towering heights to whispery lows; with a wispily mosterioso tenor sax solo from Samuel Ryder in the middle.
The epic The Words, They Fail to Come builds around the theme from the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, an even mightier, dynamically shifting epic featuring a vividly uneasy, epic solo from baritone saxophonist Michael Gutauskas, handing off to trombonist Michael Buscarino, who finally slam-dunks it. Then the band thunders through an Olympic stadium-sized reinvention of the old jazz standard Alone Together, lit up by Michael McAllister’s searing guitar and Felipe Salles’ surrealistic tenor sax.
Saulnier’s original, Protest rises from horror atmospherics, through an insistent, powerful pulse, to a glittering Mulholland Drive noctural interlude and then a frantic coda where all hell breaks loose. The first cd ends with a bulky chamber-jazz arrangement of You Still Believe in Me, by Wilson and Asher, whoever they are.
The second disc opens with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which Saulnier has arranged very cleverly to seem as if it’s a prototype for Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. It’s not, but Saulner gets props for having the ears and ambiiton to connect the dots as far as they go, and them some. The orchestra follows with Saulnier’s four-part suite, This Is Not The Answer, opening as a suspenseful tone poem and then rising to a circular exchange of sheets of sound over the rhythm section, Rob Mosher’s warily bubbling and then hazy soprano sax at the center as the backdrop descends into the murky, creepy depths. A sardonically swinging march beat and Middle Eastern allusions from David DeJesus’ alto sax offer equal parts relevance and menace.
Then the group completely flips the script with a balmy nocturnal theme lit up by Nadje Noordhuis’ deep-sky flugelhorn. From there the band shifts into the final section, The Hypocrite and the Hope (an assessment of the Obama administration?), an enervatedly bustling neo-70s Morricone-ish crime jazz theme and variations, with funhouse-mirror James Shipp vibraphone and some psychedelically unhinged McAllister shredding, As cinematic, electric crime themes go, it ranks with Bob Belden as well as with the aforementioned Italian guys.
Saulnier has the orchestra follow with a lush take of Murderer, by Low, the dancing twin trumpets of Noordhuis and Philip Dizack contrasting with its looming atmospherics. Kevin Fruiterman sings the album’s final cut, Hi-Lili, Hi Lo, reinventing a cheesy early 50s Dinah Shore hit as Alan Parsons Project orchestral pop. Considering how much new material the band will be unveiling, it’s uncertain if they’ll be playing any of this live, but if so, that will be a plus.
Annie Chen sings with a resolute, purposeful alto voice, often with a sense of suspense. But her greatest strength right now, as she becomes more comfortable with her adopted English language, is as a composer. Singer/composers in jazz are rare; those as ambitious, and fearless, and have as much of a gift for melody as Chen are rarer still. She has no issues with leapfrogging from one influence to another, whether that’s vintage soul, the folk and classical music of her native China, purposeful American postbop or more epic larger-ensemble sounds with intricate and unpredictable charts. There’s a sense of the surreal, even a dream state, that permeates much of what she writes, and it draws the listener in. She’s got an auspicious gig coming up on July 10 at 7 PM at Club Bonafide, leading a septet with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Alex Lore on saxophone and flute, David Smith on trumpet, Marius Duboule on guitar, Desmond White on bass and Jerad Lippi on drums, with special guest violinist Tomoko Omura, who’s collaborated vividly with Chen in the past. Cover is $10.
In the time since Chen’s 2014 sextet album Pisces the Dreamer, she’s grown considerably as both as a singer and as a writer. While it’s worth a spin if imaginative postbop arrangements and tunesemithing are concerned, Chen’s most intriguing material right now is recent, and it’s up at her audio and video pages. Check out her septet gig at Flushing Town Hall earlier this year. There’s Orange Tears Lullaby, with its suspenseful pizzicato violin intro into to a lush, vampy verse and eventually a balmy, crescendoing coda over a determined triplet groove. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning mashes up an Asian folk-tinged theme over a balletesque pulse as Chen scats the blues, alto saxophonis Alex LoRe spiraling optimistically over Jarrett Cherner’s incisive, low-key piano.
Leaving Sonnet is more enigmatic, moody and introspective but with a solid groove as well, trumpeter David Smith slowly and methodically following Chen’s countours as the theme grows more energetic and optimistic, a door closing while another one opens. She also covers Nirvana and a Mongolian folk tune that she turns into a bittersweet tone poem.
And if you have the time, contrast the gritty 2014 Shapeshifter Lab take of another, older original, the latin soul-inspired Things I Know with the much more confident and dynamic version she and the group delivered onstage in Queens earlier this year. Since her arrival from Beijing, Chen has really grabbed the tiger by the tail and hasn’t looked back. Let’s hope she sticks around.
Big band jazz composers may be the most pure artists in all of music. These people do what they do strictly out of love. When you’re done paying the band – if in fact there IS anything to pay the band with- there is absolutely no money in writing original big band jazz. Even the universally respected Maria Schneider survives on Chamber Music America grants. So it would be a little misleading to say that the last time this blog caught a show by the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, it was in late summer 2014 at a now-defunct Park Slope coffee emporium/wifi hotspot. The mighty ensemble might have played a couple of gigs since then. But what a fantastic show this one turned out to be! Considering how much of an individualist the bandleader is – his axe is the alto flugelhorn, sort of a higher-pitched valve trombone – it was no surprise to hear how distinctive his music for large ensemble is, a stormy, brassy blend of old and new, with a nod to the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans records of the late 50s and early 60s. He’s pulling the group together for a 4:30 PM gig on July 10 at Smalls; cover is $20 and includes a drink.
That Brooklyn show – at the old Tea Lounge, which for quite awhile was booked by a similarly estimable big band composer, JC Sanford – opened with deliciously bustling noir 50s crime jazz riffage and quickly hit a latin-infused swing fueled by an indomitable baritone sax solo, the brass punching in like a heavyweight with his nemesis on the ropes. A steady, apprehensively fiery trumpet solo handed off to sparsely dancing bass and eerily modal piano until the band rose again. It was like being at a Gil Evans show half a century ago, albeit surrounded by North Slope kids absorbed in their laptops and tablets.
Reeves kept the latin flavor going through the vampy second number, a brassy blaze finally interrupted by a wryly garrulous bari sax break, the composer taking a judiciously enigmatic, uneasily bubbling solo as the rhythm section crashed and burned. Catchy call-and-response between high reeds and brass dominated the trickily syncopated number after that, lit up by a tantalizingly moody alto sax solo.
A brooding midtempo clave number was next, Reeves soloing resolutely and steadily as the rest of the brass shivered, up to a neat if similarly uneasy round-robin brass chart, The band sank their collective teeth into a blustery early space-age Ellingtonian shuffle after that, And the trumpet solo on the eerily triplet-infused number that followed, wow. If memory serves right, the band also made their way through an Ellington tune late in the set (when you’re multitasking and letting your recorder do the heavy lifting, details like this grow exponentially elusive over time).
Oh yeah – one more thing – Reeves loves false endings as much as he loves noir latin grooves. There’s nothing more fun than getting the crowd to believe that every single one of the eighteen or so people onstage is finished, when in fact they’re not. At this late date, it’s impossible to remember who was in the band – Sanford might have been on trombone, maybe Ben Kono – a fortuitously ubiquitous presence in big band circles in this city these days – on alto sax, possibly Carl Maraghi on bari sax and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, among the group assembled back behind the couches along the space’s northern wall. What’s coolest about the Smalls gig is that whoever’s on piano gets to play the house upright rather than the electric piano the band was forced to make do with in Park Slope.
Svetlana and the Delancey Five Salute Ella and Satchmo and Put Their Own Sophisticated Stamp on Classic Swing
It figures that drummer Rob Garcia would grab the opportunity to kick off Svetlana & the Delancey Five‘s show at Lucille’s Friday night with a counterintuitive series of offbeats into a hi-de-ho intro, Mike Sailors’ spiraling trumpet solo rising to carnivalesque heights and foreshadowing a darkly lustrous, unselfconsciously erudite show. Why has swing jazz become so enormously popular again? Sure, you can dance to it, and many couples – as well as an exuberant, octogenarian tapdancer – were cutting a rug at this show. But swing is also escapist, and frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian makes no secret that this is her her vehicle for finding solace and transcendence, and that everybody is welcome to get onboard. But what differentiates this band from the hundreds of others working territory that’s often been done to death over the years is that this group isn’t just a vehicle for vocals. In over four years together, this semi-revolving cast has built a cohesiveness, a camaraderie and a distinctively sophisticated sound largely unrivalled in their thriving demimonde.
For example, Blue Skies is a swing staple, but Shmulyian didn’t sing it as straight-up exuberance – and essentially warned the crowd that she wasn’t going to. And then made good on that, with an uncluttered, balmy optimism grounded in the sense that there definitely had been a storm before the calm. The rest of the program was thematic, a characteristically ambitious celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the mid-50s Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations. A potential minefield, but Shmulyian and special guest trombonist/singer Wycliffe Gordon rose to that challenge, indomitably and with a deeply bluesy edge echoed throughout the band.
Pianist Ben Paterson spiced his purist riffs with the occasional gracefully adrenalizing neoromantic cascade, while Garcia delivered grooves that roamed far south of the border, as well as from Buddy Rich splash, to a more chill, vintage Harlem pulse. And his arrangement of the Beatles’ Because brought out every bit of angst in Paul McCartney’s moody ballad, reinvented as a darkly bristling tango. Bassist Scott Ritchie kept his changes purposeful and low-key, and was having more fun than simply walking the changes. Saxophonist Michael Hashin alternated between sailing soprano and dynamic yet terse leaps and bounds on tenor.
But it was the chemistry between Shmulyian and Gordon that hit the highest points of the night, whether his masterful and deceptively subtle plunger work, or his droll, tongue-in-cheek vocals and effortless shifts into falsetto, or the night’s most hilarious moment, at the end of a solo toward the end of the show. As obvious and vaudevillian as that was, Gordon waited patiently to make that moment as ridiculously amusing as it was. And the reliably dynamic, eclectic Shmulyian was pretty much jumping out of her shoes from the git-go, rising to the very top of her register, vibrato going full blast. Yet it was a simmering take of the midtempo ballad Under a Blanket of Blue that arguably carried the most impact.
Likewise, the best song of the night might well have been a brand-new Shmulyian original, a bittersweetly swaying, guardedly optimistic New York-centric ballad allowing for a flicker of hope in the face of omnipresent bad news. Although she also grinningly acknowledged the results of the Brexit referendum, drawing some pretty wild applause from throughout the club. Grounded in the here and now, Shmulyian and her band played a show to get lost in: not bad for somebody who grew up in Moscow spinning Ella Fitzgerald vinyl on her family’s turntable and arrived in New York without knowing a soul here. The band’s next New York gig is a free show on July 23 at 8 PM at the auditorium at Kingsborough Community College, 2001 Oriental Blvd. in Manhattan Beach; the closest train is the Q to Brighton Beach.
Stephanie Layton stood tall and resolute, a tinge of mist in her voice, in front of her jazz combo Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi late last month. “If it was up to me, I’d only sing sad songs,” she told the crowd, concise and to the point – and half of them roared their approval. If there ever was a market for depressed music, New York in 2016 is it.
“But that wouldn’t be well-rounded,” she explained gently. As you would expect from a vocalist who’s in demand as much as she is, Layton is actually very well-rounded. And one suspects that her similarly well-rounded bandmates in the Tickled Pinks – arguably New York’s most irrepressibly fun swing harmony trio, who will be on West Coast tour this August – share her preference for dark material. Karla Moheno leads one of this city’s most mysteriously cinematic, haunting bands, Karla Rose & the Thorns, while Kate Sland sings and plays bass in uneasily swirling rock group Merit Badge. Layton’s other gig is playing piano alongside her singer sister Susanne in honkytonk power trio Dylan Charles & the Layton Sisters. And in a stroke of serendipity, Layton is bringing Eden Lane back to Caffe Vivaldi on July 29 at 9:30 PM.
Last time out at that venue, Layton was in her element. In her auburn bangs, retro red-framed glasses, black top and smart vintage print skirt, she had the David Lynch ingenue persona down cold, a perfect match for her blue velvet vocals. Her purist, inspired backing unit also included Charles on guitar along with bassist Larry Cook, tenor saxophonist Janelle Reichman and pianist.Yan Falmagne. They slowly made their way into My Baby Just Cares For Me, Layton giving it an understated nuance with a nod back to Nina Simone, Reichman’s sax matching Layton’s understatedly pillowy delivery. Then she completely flipped the script with the first of two state-specific songs, a coyly shuffling, wordy rarity from the Blossom Dearie catalog, Rhode Island Is Famous for You, Charles plinking wryly through a verse when Layton threw one his way.
Then she went back to disarmingly direct, bittersweet mode for Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe, less Peggy Lee ballad than angst-ridden wish song lowlit by wee-hours piano underneath Reichman’s long, moodily spiraling solo. Layton duetted with Charles on a briskly swinging, almost defiantly contented take of Mississippi Mud,. then went back to geographical jazz with a vividly affecting New York-centric number. Eight million hearts just can’t be wrong, and she gave voice to every one, hoping they won’t lose their apartments to speculators looking to make a quick flip before the market crashes.
The band kept the wistful, grey-sky mood going, with a knowingly wounded, mentholated tropical tinge, Falmagne leaping in to keep the volume up when Charles added an aptly stark solo. Layton’s resigned interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue was just plain shattering: her “Just sit here and count your fingers,” was enough to get tears from a stone. Likewise, their bittersweetly swaying take of When Sunny Gets Blue echoed the classic Jeanne Lee version, emotionally if not rhythmically. From there they picked up the pace, bouncing their way through No Soap, No Hope on the wings of Reichman’s rapidfire riffage.
Layton matched an anxious, brittle vibrato to her opaquely enveloping low register in an enigmatic take of When the Sun Comes Out, Charles’ rain-off-the-roof solo capping it off. Julie London’s Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast was next, keeping the heartbroken mood front and center over Falmagne’s judicious phrasing. They closed with a tongue-in-cheek, hungover Sunday pancake afternoon version of Give Me the Simple Life. Some laughs, plenty of goosebumps and enough empathy to pull just about anybody out of the abyss. Dare you to go to Caffe Vivaldi on the 29th and find out for yourself.
The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.
Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.
On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.
Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.
Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.