Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Classical Pianist Ruth Slenczynska Releases a Thoughtfully Lyrical New Album With a Record-Breaking Backstory

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska’s new album My Life in Music – streaming at Spotify – is an attractive and individualistic mix of standard repertoire and a handful of surprises.

She opens with a thoughtfully opulent take of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies, from his Romances, Op. 18 and follows with his Prelude No.5 in G major with its dancing, glittery righthand clusters. She plays Samuel Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field) with a considered, brooding simmer. She gives a deadpan steadiness but also a determined grit to a considerably different, ragtime-tinged Barber tune, Let’s Sit It Out and Wait, from his suite Fresh From West Chester.

Slenczynska opts for a balletesque grace in Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in Eb, op. 18, eschewing the floridness so many other pianists give it, an approach that works equally well a little later in Grieg’s Wedding Day in Trodhaugen. And in her hands, her tenderly yet playfully articulated version of Chopin’s famous Berceuse is a revelation: those echo effects are irresistible. As is her generous use of space in an unselfconsciously unhurried interpretation of Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.

The other Chopin pieces here have similarly distinctive insights. There’s a lowlit Etude No. 3 in E Major, and a cheery, strolling Prelude in G Major, Op. 18. The longest and most energetic work here is the Fantaisie in F Minor: Slenczynska slows much of it down practically to dirge speed and volume, an effect which is both comedic and enlightening, as she picks up a remarkable amount of detail and dramatic contrast. She closes the album with a methodically articulated version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C# minor, BWV 849.

Now for the punchline: Slenczynska is 97 years old. It is astonishing how undiminished both her chops and her ideas are.

She made her stage debut at four, her European debut at five. Every major pianist of the 1930s including Sergei Rachmaninoff was eager to coach her. She is his last living student; she treasures the Faberge egg necklace he gave her. She would go on to record ten albums and tour the world, earning a reputation as a very colorful, entertaining performer. This new album is her first in sixty years, undoubtedly a record-breaking achievement. Let’s hope she got at least a two-album deal out of it.

May 7, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The London Symphony Orchestra Return With an Epically Efficient Double Live Stravinsky Album

The London Symphony Orchestra‘s live recording of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Sixth Symphonies topped the list of the best albums of 2021 at Lucid Cuture’s sister blog, across all styles of music. Released at a moment when it was not clear whether they would ever play again, these harrowing, impassioned, often violent performances captured the state of the world in the months following the fateful events of March 2020 better than any other record last year.

So how beautiful is it to know that the orchestra are back together, performing again and releasing more live albums from their seemingly inexhaustible archives? Their latest is an epic double live album from two September, 2017 dates at the Barbican featuring Simon Rattle conducting Stravinsky’s three iconic ballet scores: The Firebird, Petrouchka and the Rite of Spring. While the 1961 Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky studio recordings by what was essentially a pickup orchestra of A-list New York musicians remains a favorite, this one – streaming at Spotify – is distinctive and individualistic, and rewarding for many different reasons.

The Firebird is pillowy and on the brisk side. A dance troupe would get quite the workout spiraling across the stage to this. From the almost imperceptible fade up, Rattle makes it clear that this defining work of what would become noir cinematic music is first and foremost a nocturne. The pulse is stiletto-precise, especially in the few minutes leading up to the lush, starry capture scene. The exchanges between Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe and Bryn Lewis’ harp are ghostly and fleeting, as are the high woodwinds in the scene with the princess and the golden apple. And yet, Stankiewicz’s approach is strikingly blunt in the famous interlude barely a minute later.

As Rattle saw it that night, the devil in the even more famous diabolical dance seems to be a mathematician, although those numbers are pixelated rather than crunched. That the orchestra manage to keep such a meticulous balance at this speed is breathtaking, although this version is several steps short of the blunderbuss attack Leonard Bernstein would follow in its most explosive moments.

The second work (spelled “Petrushka” if you’re looking to pull it up as a stand-alone piece) has welcome bluster in places, although Rattle also goes for lushness and precision more than febrile intensity: for all we know, a ballet company really could be pirouetting and leaping in front of them. The “Russian dance” is far more scintillating than rustic, but the scene after in the protagonist’s cell is as cinematic and majestically frantic as you could want. Mutedly striding mystery, clamoring brass, portentous low strings and devious winds all shine in this very high-definition portrait.

An enigmatic, mysterious sensibility lingers in the rare calmer moments of The Rite of Spring, an uncommon, welcome touch. There’s Slavic ruggedness but also a steely precision: f you want a fullscale bacchanal, sink your teeth into the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s live recording from 2015 – whoomp!

This is all about clarity and distinctive voices: hostages are seized, but with nimble choreography. Likewise, the series of string swells and pulsing low brass are revelatory late in the first movement, such that it is. Rattle’s attention to detail brings out unexpected humor in the occasional quirky curlicue or offbeat percussion riff: there are innumerable levels of meaning that may be new to a lot of listeners

The London Symphony Orchestra’s next symphonic performance is May 8 at 7 PM at the Barbican in London with Dima Slobodeniouk conducting Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium and Sibelius’ Symphony No 2. Baiba Skride is the violin soloist; you can get in for £18. The orchestra also offer what they call a “wildcard” option for last-minute rush tickets for even less in case the concert isn’t sold out.

May 4, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Gem From the Golden Age of Jazz Returns to a Favorite Outdoor Midtown Spot This Week

In more normal times, during the warmer months there’s been a long-running weekday series of solo jazz piano performances on the back terrace at Bryant Park, right behind the library. Typically, there are two sets starting at about half past noon. The quality of the musicians is all over the place. Many are relative unknowns, and some of them can be quite good, bringing Asian and latin influences to the music.

Over the years, a few big names have performed here, as have a lot of hacks who have weaseled their way into the good graces of whoever programs these things around town. Because the piano is an electric model, it can have a humbling effect on world-class performers. Interestingly enough, one of the pianists who has figured out how to make it sing is an unlikely candidate: Bertha Hope. She’s playing there every day for the rest of this week through Friday the sixth.

Hope’s thing is songs without words. She’s in her eighties now, still vital, and plays with an unhurried, uncluttered style. She typically plays chords and riffs in the lefthand rather than walking the bass. Her sound draws more on ragtime than blues or swing. As you would expect from someone with her experience, there’s both warmth and a casual gravitas in her songs. This blog most recently caught one of her park shows on a hazy Friday afternoon in July of 2019, where the heat didn’t wear her down and she seemed determined to take advantage of every minute of time she’d been given onstage. Casually and methodically, she made her way through a mix of originals and a few early swing tunes going back to the 30s.

Hope got her start in the 1950s alongside her pianist husband Elmo, who died young in the following decade. She eventually made her way east from her native Los Angeles, put out a respectable number of albums and earlier in this century was rediscovered as one of the attractions at a wildly popular weekly Harlem musicians union jam session. Her records, if you can find them, are worth a listen; she is underrepresented on the web. If the undeservedly obscure fringes of jazz are your thing and you have some time to spend in midtown this week, you will be rewarded if you listen closely.

May 4, 2022 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Poignant, Rapturous, Gorgeous Armenian Classical Album by the Aznavoorian Duo

The most rapturously poignant album of the year so far is Gems From Armenia, by the Aznavoorian Duo, streaming at Spotify. Sisters Ani and Marta Aznavoorian – cello and piano, respectively – draw on their heritage for a lyrical playlist of material that spans from the 19th century to the present. It underscores the disproportionately rich influence this tiny nation’s music continues to make around the globe.

They open with a steady, spare, pensive theme, Chinar Es by foundational Romantic-era composer and musicologist Komitas. As she often does throughout the album, Ani plays in the high midrange, with a stark vibrato that sometimes evokes a kamancheh spike fiddle. A second Komitas tune, Tsirani Tsar comes across as a more nocturnal variation, lowlit by Marta’s distantly starry piano. The third, Garoun A, is a gorgeous solo piano work, more mysteriously modern and practically furtive in places. The duo continue with a balletesque grace in the fourth, Al Ailux, both hypnotic and pulsingly rhythmic.

The fifth, Krunk is not a drinking song but an achingly beautiful love ballad and a launching pad for some of Ani’s most incisive, soaringly lyrical work here. The best-known in a long line of great Armenian composers, Aram Khachaturian is represented first by the emotive miniature Ivan Sings and then his lively, pointillistic tribute to his hometown of Yerevan.

Marta plays Arno Babajanian’s Elegy with restraint but also close attention to ornamentation that mimics the microtones of Armenian folk music. Ani returns for his Aria and Dance, a fondly reflective ballad and variations.

The duo make their way methodically from a stern, tightly clustering intensity through more sparsely lyrical passages in the first movement of Avet Terterian’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. They let the allusive chromatics and poignancy speak for itself, understatedly, in the second movement and romp with a triumphant, acerbic glitter through the conclusion.

The two bring out High Romantic passion in Serouj Kradjian‘s arrangement of the traditional ballad Sari Siroun Yar and follow with Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu, a dynamic mashup of a levantine dance and Rachmaninovian lustre.

Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance, an elegy for Armenian soldiers, is the most subdued and vividly sepulchral work on the program. The sisters conclude with the world-premiere of Peter Boyer’s Mount Ararat, climbing from a portentous cello melody to a syncopated gallop up the slope, with stunning, chromatically bristling breaks to view the scenery. This unselfconsciously beautiful collection deserves a second volume. For that matter, the Aznavoorians could have a franchise here if they felt like it.

May 3, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy, Spare, Purposefully Playful New Jazz From Ember and Special Guest Orrin Evans

Ember play a very individualistic, catchy style of original jazz. It’s riff-driven, but it’s not toe-tapping oldtimey swing. Chordless jazz trios tend to busy up the rhythm section – which isn’t such a bad thing if they’re committed to saying something beyond self-indulgence – but saxophonist Caleb Curtis, bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza are purposeful to the point of being minimalist. If you’re looking for jazz you can hum along to at a comfortable midtempo pace, this is your jam. Their debut album No One Is Any One is streaming at Sunnyside Records.

A slinky, funky, loopy bassline anchors a sparse, airily cheery melody in the opening track, Reanimation (Zombie Tune). Sperrazza opens that one with a simple beat that’s practically trip-hop. Garabedian is the one to introduce the second tune, Josephine and Daphne, with his steady, pulsing, syncopated chords before Curtis enters, cautiously building s allusively chromatic tune like a low-key JD Allen as Sperrazza colors the sound with his rimshots and frosty cymbals.

The trio step lightly through a stark minor-key oldtime gospel riff and variations in the title cut, Curtis again echoing Allen’s most successful, incisive adventures in the blues. Moody sax drifts over minimal bass and drum accents as the group make their way into the wryly and aptly titled Pilot Light, then Sperrazza signals that the kettle is on the boil and in a second the band bubble and the steam starts to rise.

Likewise, the drummer stirs up a slightly restrained, spiraling rumble in Glass House: Curtis’ irrepressible sense of humor is priceless here. Peace of Deoxygenated Sleep is not a sinister Covid hospital protocol metaphor but an unselfconsciously gorgeous undersea nocturne, Curtis echoing guest pianist Orrin Evans’ spacious, lingering. distantly Indian-tinged lines

Evans takes his time before he gets his sprightly clusters underway in Thomas, a Thomas Chapin homage, Curtis and Sperrazza driving the uneasy modalities as a polyrhythmic intensity simmers and then boils over. A Sperrazza composition, Graceful Without Grace reflects a Christian spiritual concept that serendipity is ours for the taking, a prescient observation in these apocalyptic times. It turns out to be a cheerfully swinging, playful number with stairstepping riffs and a droll game of hide-and-seek.

The next-to-last track, Chia-Sized Standing Desk is actually the furthest thing from cartoonish: this moody rainy-day improvisation is the album’s darkest interlude. They bring the album full circle with a cheerfully strutting shout-out to American Splendor legend Harvey Pekar.

Fun fact: the trio worked up much of the material on this record in Prospect Park. This no doubt would have been more fun if the decision to work alfresco had not been forced on them by the shuttering of indoor rehearsal spaces in the mass psychosis following the March 2020 global coup attempt. Desperate times, etc.

Ember’s next free-world gig is May 13 at 7:30 PM at the Other Side Gallery, 2011 Genesee St in Utica, New York; cover is $20/$10 stud. And Evans is playing a rare trio gig with Matthew Parrish on bass and Vince Ector on drums tonight, April 28 at Mezzrow, with sets at 10:30 and midnight. Cover is $25 at the door. It’s an intimate space: if you’re in the neighborhood, you might want to peek in and see if there’s room (the club doesn’t have a phone).

April 28, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare, Distinctive Male Jazz Vocal Record From Michael Stephenson

Michael Stephenson is a rarity: an individualist male jazz singer. In a world that’s probably about 95 percent women at this point, he distinguishes himself with his no-nonsense baritone and devious sense of humor. You would think that more dudes with his talents would have gone into the field, but at the moment Stephenson pretty much has the floor to himself. And he’s a competent tenor saxophonist as well. His latest album Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio is streaming at Bandcamp.

This is jazz as entertainment. He and the group – Claffy on bass, Julius Rodriguez on piano and Itay Morchi on drums, with special guest Benny Benack III on trumpet – are often a party in a box. They open the record with a mostly bass-and-vocal duo version of Sweet Lorraine: Stephenson shows off that he can cut loose on the mic in a split second, and that’s about it. Then things get really amusing with a slyly swinging take of Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, which as Stephenson sings it, are coated in chlorophyll…or maybe something else. No spoilers. Stephenson and Benack’s solos give it a muscular midsection.

Rodriguez and Morchi spiral around, building symphonic intensity to introduce a tightly pulsing version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Happening Brother?, giving voice to indomitability in the face of unrest. How times change, huh?

The group reinvent When a Man Loves a Woman as a straightforward midtempo swing tune: Rodriguez adds judicious gospel touches, with an exuberant solo from Benack. Stephenson and Claffy build intensity with a rubato-ish intro to On the Street Where You Live. then they swing it with a low-key simmer, Rodriguez’s hard-hitting solo giving way to Claffy’s balletesque break.

Stephenson resists reaching for the rafters in a slowly crescendoing take of the Tennessee Waltz, Rodriguez reinventing it with a neoromantic gleam. Stephenson’s smoky, purposeful tenor solo gives Benack a springboard to go for broke with his mute in Ain’t That Love, then he moves to the mic for an emphatic last chorus.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams is probably the last number you would expect a guy to sing: the band give it a lush nocturnal atmosphere, but this is a tough sell, and it’s out of place on what’s otherwise a good party record. On the other hand, the group’s cascading cover of Dionne Warwick’s Can’t Hide Love is a smashing success, Rodriguez fueling the inferno.

The group have fun with Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today?, keeping it stealthy until Benack’s trumpet pierces the surface like a missile from a submarine. Stephenson saves his most emotive vocal for his closing duo take of For All We Know with Rodriguez. It’s anybody’s guess where Stephenson is playing next – he’s quite the mystery man on the web – but Benack is leading a quintet at Smalls at 10:30 PM and then hosting the midnight jam session afterward on April 27. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

April 25, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ayumi Ishito Brings an Adventurous, Outside-the-Box Trio to Chinatown

Even in communities that support the arts, jazz musicians often get pushed to the fringes. The last two years’ insanity in New York has exponentially increased that marginalization for artists in general. Tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito has been one of the more resourceful players in town: she was one of the first to resume performing during the brief window of opportunity in the summer of 2021, and she’s maintained a steady schedule in recent months playing a lot of out-of-the-way venues as restrictions have been dropped. Her next gig dovetails with both her adventurous improvisational sensibility and her most recent album as a leader. She’s opening a twinbill on April 26 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery with soundscaper Damien Olson and Nebula and the Velvet Queen on theremin. They’re followed by a second trio with Aaron Edgcomb on percussion, Priya Carlberg on vocals and David Leon on sax. It’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

Ayumi Ishito & the Spacemen Vol. 1 is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her most experimentally ambitious release to date, a mix of trippy electroacoustic pieces featuring Theo Woodward on keys and vocals, Nebula and the Velvet Queen on theremin. Jake Strauss doubling on guitar and bass and Steven Bartashev on drums.

Squiggles quickly give way to a collective shimmer and fragmentary acoustic and electric guitar riffs as the first number, Looking Through Ice drifts along, Woodward adding Indian inflections with his vocalese. Beyond the guitar and vocals, it’s hard to distinguish the rest of the instruments – Ishito using her pedalboard here – until Strauss introduces a gently swaying, Grateful Dead-like theme and Bartashev picks up the clave with his echoey tumbles.

Shifting sheets, dopplers and warpy textures drift through the mix in the second track, Hum Infinite. Strauss finds a center and builds around it, on bass; Ishito’s wry, dry bursts evoke a EWI. The group slowly reach toward an organ soul tune, then back away as Ishito emerges acerbically from behind the liquid crystal sheen.

Track three, Misspoke is irresistibly funny, Ishito and Woodward chewing the scenery, impersonating instruments real and imagined. Strauss’ blippy bass and Bartashev’s tightly staggered drumming propel Folly to the Fullest to tongue-in-cheek hints of a boudoir soul tune, Ishito floating overhead,

Night Chant is an entertaining contrast in starry, woozy electronic textures and goofy wah-wah phrasing from Ishito: stoner electro-jazz as fully concretized as it gets. The final cut, Constellation Ceiling, is a launching pad for Ishito’s most amusing indulgences with the wah,, eventually coalescing into a bit of a triumphant strut, We need more unserious improvisational music like this.

April 24, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leonor Falcon Plays Bracing Violin Jazz For a World on Edge

The title of violinist Leonor Falcón‘s new album Imaga Mondo Vol. II – streaming at Bandcamp – is Esperanto for “imaginary world.” Some of her alternate universe is on the rhythmically free, imaginatively improvisational side; the rest is often vividly cinematic and has considerable bite.

The band slowly coalesce into the first track, Episode 1. Falcon shifts around in search of solid ground, shadowed by Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet, guitarist Juanma Trujillo adding uneasy flares and squirrelly accents as drummer Juan Pablo Carletti stakes out his turf. The group follow a staggered rhythm on Para Emilio, a fondly bucolic theme dedicated to Falcon’s son, individual voices weaving toward the center and then pulling away before bassist Zachary Swanson breaks out his bow for some warm string harmonies at the end.

Cursing Parrots has Knoche’s biting alto sax lines and Falcon’s jagged incisions over Carletti’s loopy syncopation and Trujillo’s burning, sputtering chords. His sunbaked, resonant solo midway through recedes for Falcon’s stark, increasingly acidic washes and the rhythm section’s increasingly loopy insistence.

After that, Falcon completely flips the script with The Monks, a calmly strolling, hypnotically circling, attractive rainy-day tableau with an elegant, Philip Glass-ine intertwine, Knoche on bass clarinet again. The album’s fifth track, A, takes the listener on a disquietingly colorful ride on the A train, through bubbling conversations, a big LOOK OUT crescendo and a sinister swirl fueled by Trujillo’s burning distortion. As is inevitably the case on the New York City subway, all hell eventually breaks loose: the ending is too good to give away. Sana Nagano‘s incendiary recent work comes to mind.

Falcon’s somber viola filters over Trujillo’s stately acoustic guitar figures, Carletti’s muted brushwork and Knoche’s somewhat more lively alto sax in Ballad For a Hawk, inspired by the film The Maltese Falcon. Building out of skeletal flickers and pizzicato, Episode II drifts along in the same vein. Falcon closes the album with Nita, the most calmly inviting tableau here, Knoche’s sax and Falcon’s violin drifting in over Trujillo’s spare, lingering lines. Most of this album isn’t easy listening, but it’s rewarding for those who gravitate to music with sharp edges.

April 19, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colorful Environmentalist Playlist From Yolanda Kondonassis

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis is a force of nature. The author of The Composer’s Guide to Writing Well for the Modern Harp has wide-ranging and impeccable taste in repertoire, from Satie to Hovhaness and just about all points in between. Her new solo album Five Minutes For Earth – streaming at Spotify – is a sparkling, dynamically rich collection of new works inspired by nature and the need to preserve our world from manmade disasters. Most of these pieces are on the short side, commissioned from an eclectic mix of well-known and up-and-coming composers.

The first number, Takuma Itoh’s Kohola Sings, traces the migration of humpbacked whales through the desolate depths, to a convivial, intricately woven crescendo. Kondonassis begins Michael Daugherty‘s Hear the Dust Blow, an Oklahoma Dust Bowl tableau. with gentle guitar-like voicings in a ballad without words that dissipates in cascades and frenetic flurries.

With its careful cadences and occasional enigmatic close harmonies, Aaron Jay Kernis‘ On Hearing Nightbirds at Dusk seems to focus more on the dusk than the birds. Kondonassis gets to revel in her instrument’s wide expanse throughout the elegant trajectories and sudden bursts in Chen Yi‘s Dark Mountains.

There’s muted mystery as Maximo Diego Pujol’s Milonga para mi Tierra unfolds, to a graceful tango. Reena Ismail‘s Inconvenient Wounds balances murk and sudden smoky smudges against a delicate lattice, a striking cautionary tale. Gary Schocker’s Memory of Trees shares a dichotomy, in this case between the catchy baroque melody at the center, and more unsettled passages.

As Earth Dreams, by Keith Fitch is not a portrait of troubled sleep, although its starry milieu is definitely restless. Jocelyn Chambers packs a lot of catchy, broodingly strolling riffage into her miniature Melting Point. In The Demise of the Shepard Glacier. Philip Maneval balances spacious phrases and steady rivulets to illustrate the slow disappearance of the Montana ice formation.

Kondonassis follows a brisk series of eighth-note passages and feathery interludes in Patrick Harlin‘s Time Lapse. Green, by Zhou Long is a spare and allusively Asian-tinged piece originally written for pipa and wood flute. Nathaniel Heyder‘s Earthview portrays a descent to earth through the atmosphere, an imperiled planet coming into clearer focus via insistent anchor notes and eerie, Messiaenic tonalities.

The album’s most verdantly minimalist number, complete with wry woodland sounds, is Meditation at Perkiomen Creek, a Pennsylvania tableau by Daniel Dorff. The final composition is Stephen Hartke‘s Fault Line, with its stabbing phantasmagoria and close-harmonied disquiet: it’s a strong closer.

Happily. greenwashing doesn’t seem to factor into Kondonassis’ agenda. She’s not endorsing any sinister schemes like the abolition of home or motor vehicle ownership, or the imposition of personal carbon allowances or Chinese communist-style social credit scores. She just loves the outdoors – which, in the context of 2022, is a welcome and genuinely radical concept.

April 16, 2022 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii and Joe Fonda Defy Logic and Lockdowns to Keep Their Magical Duo Project Alive

Pretty much every musician alive grew up playing along to their favorite records. What if you could not only play along with one, but be on it too?

That happened to bassist Joe Fonda. It helps that he was in the band.

Before the lockdown, Fonda and pianist Satoko Fujii released three frequently mesmerizing live albums, all of them longscale improvisations. While distance and political insanity have kept the duo separated since, they stayed in touch over email, no doubt hoping to pick up where they’d left off months ago. In the meantime, Fujii has maintained her herculean recording schedule with a series of solo albums and online collaborations, most of which reflect the otherworldly, often mystical sensibility she has come to embrace in the last few years.

Fonda heard her solo record Step on Thin Ice at her Bandcamp page and had an epiphany: why not record a bass part and then release that as a duo album? Fujii thought it was a great idea. The new album – which isn’t online yet – has new track names and is resequenced: it’s a fascinating companion piece and incredibly inspiring for bassists who think outside the box.

One of the reasons why it works so well is that Fujii left a lot of space in the original. That’s reflected right from the first track, Kochi, where Fonda resumes the anchoring role he typically filled on the duo’s other recordings, finding crevasses to insert spring-loaded riffs, sometimes shadowing Fujii’s stern, icily gleaming chords and judicious ripples.

In Fallen Leaves Dance, Fonda reinforces Fujii’s quasi Mission Impossible lefthand, providing a supple tether when she spirals off course. He takes a more prominent role with his supple accents in Reflection, in contrast to Fujii’s vast, somberly echoing expanses and muted inside-the-piano work. Then the two reverse roles: little did they know that would happen!.

The tight, scrambling interweave of Anticipating – a coyly accurate description of Fujii’s architectural thinking – comes across as Monk and, say, Henry Grimes methodically driving a George Russell tune up and eventually off the rails. Fonda’s solo contribution is My Song, a catchy, upbeat pop-flavored riff and animated variations

Fonda has sotto-voce, flurrying fun in between Fujii’s torrential, lightning flurries in Sekirei. Is that Fonda on wood flute in Wind Sound, a mysterious extended-technique sound painting? Yup. It’s the last thing you would expect, a verdant transformation of the original.

It’s hard to figure out if or where Fonda appears in Winter Sunshine, a tantalizingly gorgeous, brief variation on Fujii’s lefthand figures in the second track here. His squirrelly textures and keening harmonics add a completely different, playful contrast to Fujiii’s icily starry, hypnotically circling figures in Haru. The closing track, Between Blue Sky and Cold Water has gritty, windswept textures, somber lingering exchanges amid lots of space, and some unexpected levity: it’s Fonda’s recorded debut on cello.

Under ordinary circumstances, adding bass or drums to an album on top of other tracks is pretty crazy, but it’s literally impossible to tell that this wasn’t done together in the studio unless you know the backstory: desperate times, desperate measures. For the moment, Fujii has resumed playing in her native Japan. Fonda’s next New York gig is on a particularly interesting, improvisationally-inclined twinbill on April 19 at 6:30 PM at Downtown Music Gallery, where he opens the night at 6:30 PM in a trio with trumpeter Thomas Heberer and drummer Joe Hertenstein. The 7:30 PM quartet of singers Joan Sue and Isabel Crespo with bassists Nick Dunston and Henry Fraser is also intriguing.

April 14, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment