Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Haunting, Starry Night with Guitarist Andre Matos

One of the most rapturous, magical albums of 2021 is guitarist André Matos‘ solo acoustic record Estelar, streaming at Bandcamp. He recorded the collection of “comprovisational” nocturnes alone this past May in a Brooklyn apartment, using a cheap practice model from the 1960s.

Among jazz guitarists, Matos is one of the kings of melody (Bill Frisell and Tom Csatari are good reference points if not necessarily comparisons). But where Csatari comes to jazz via Americana, Matos cut his teeth on the blues, and remains a brilliant blues player. There’s a lot of that here, even if if it’s often allusive, adrift in the stars.

Matos’ phrasing here is very spare, so much that fret noise becomes an essential part of the picture. There are no wasted notes and no big chords, just little chordlets intermingled amid gently floating slide licks. While there are dreamy interludes, overall this is a pretty dark record, no surprise considering the circumstances under which it was made.

Most of these tracks appear to be single takes; a few feature overdubs. The first is Ao Relento (Outside), Matos’ desolate, spare slide phrases congealing into a spare, mournful minor-key blues anchored by a persistent low E.

After the rustic Aguda (Acute), a crepuscular atmosphere lingers throughout Miradouro (Perspective), as Matos reaches toward a bittersweet downward resolution. The suspense in Pensomentos builds as Matos hints at where he might take the hypnotically atmospheric central vamp. Luz Subita, true to its title, is one of the warmest numbers here.

Track six, So (The Only One), is absolutely forlorn and the most album’s most Lynchian interlude. With its throaty, keening slide riffs, Fadiga Do Concreto (literally: Concrete Fatigue) makes a good segue, Matos building to a punchy intensity over a drone.

There are wry hints at a ba-BUMP roadhouse theme in Plantas Medicinas…hmmm, you be the judge.

After that, the unease rises amid lustrous resonance in Chuva Miuda (Drizzle). Matos winds up this quietly edgy suite of sorts with the allusively sinister mood piece Consciencia do Mundo. Assuming that world events don’t derail the best albums of 2021 page here at the end of the year, you’ll see this one on it.

November 29, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Vigorous, Colorful, Purist Bach Album From Harpsichordist Aya Hamada

Harpsichordist Aya Hamada’s new recording of Bach works, primarily from the Klavierubung – streaming at Spotify – is for passionate fans who expect performers to embrace all the color, and humor, and kaleidoscopic wizardry in the composer’s work. It satisfies on all counts. Hamada recorded it on a magnificently responsive seventeenth century Ruckers harpsichord at the Neuchatel Museum in Switzerland about a year ago.

The first piece is the Toccata in D Major, BWV 912, which is not the iconic one heard in innumerable horror movie scores. This piece is more expansive – it’s actually a triptych – and in its darkest moments, it’s plaintive rather than outright macabre. Hamada’s pouncing attack in the lefthand in the early going is balanced later by the poignancy of her single-note lines – as the liner notes allude, the middle segment would fit seamlessly into the Cello Suites. Hamada’s ornamentation is colorful but judicious, her tempo resolutely steady. This is not an album for people who want to hear Bach played with arioso bombast or pregnant pauses.

It sets the stage for the rest of the record. Next, Hamada tackles the Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971. Spring-loaded trills and a tightly wound internal swing are central to Hamada’s approach in the faster passages. She loosens her vise grip a little in the rainy-day midsection.

There’s a spiky feast of flourishes intermingled with triumphantly icepick precision and balletesque litheness in the Overture in the French Style in B Minor, BWV 831. Hamada closes with Skip Sempe’s transcription of the Chaconne in D Minor from the Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, and it’s here where the drama reaches toward the High Romantic. Composers of Bach’s era and before were keenly aware of the value of flexible scores, and this validates that, not only in context but as a showcase for solo keyboard poignancy and majesty.

November 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy, Tuneful, Spanish-Inspired New Violin Jazz From Don Macdonald

Jazz violinist Don Macdonald‘s new album Shifting Sands – streaming at Bandcamp – is aptly titled. He and his band don’t stay in one place very long. His compositions are straight-ahead but draw on a multitude of influences, and have a striking translucence that often veers toward the dark side, especially in the Spanish-influenced numbers.

The group open with the title track, moving between brooding Indian-tinged modalities and brighter trip-hop. Pianist Dave Restivo breaks away from from enigmatically circling riffs to more somberly acerbic tones, then guitarist Mike Rud’s Pat Metheny-ish guitar solo brightens the mood. The cycle repeats with lively solos from the bandleader and mandolinist Dylan Ferris.

Dali’s Hourglass is even more darkly bracing, Macdonald sailing uneasily over Restivo’s steady, eerily circling phrases. Again, Rud pushes the clouds away, only for another return and a latin-tinged Restivo solo.

Drummer Steven Parish kicks off Bayou with a jovial New Orleans second-line groove, then Macdonald, Rud and guest violinist Jason Anick have fun teaming up for Cajun, blues, and Wes Montgomery-flavored riffs. Restivo and Macdonald lead the group back to pensive mode with the allusively Middle Eastern-tinged Dreams of Ozymandias, its downwardly stairstepping piano, biting, lingering Macdonald solo over lingering guitar chords and enigmatic ending.

La Tormenta is a quasi-flamenco shuffle, Restivo bringing to mind Chano Dominguez beneath the bandleader’s lively, kinetic lines. Derecho begins with warm solo glimmer from Restivo; that’s either Rob Fahie or Jill McKenna supplying the catchy, funky bassline while Macdonald builds an anthemic attack overhead. The bluesy mando solo, and the stomp up to a false ending are deliciously counterintuitive.

Bembe has lively hints of soukous and Bahian melody, plus shadowy moments to balance the cheeriness. There are imaginative Indian rhythmic tropes, brooding blues and austere resonance in Atacama, arguably the album’s most concise, catchy track. Macdonald winds up the album with his funkiest number here, Homecoming: as he bounces through the blues, you keep waiting for a Hammond organ that never arrives.

November 27, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tracing Magic and Mysticism Through Decades of French Piano Music

Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico‘s latest album Sound Visionaries – streaming at Spotify – traces the most harmonically acerbic side of French piano music, starting with Debussy’s fix-Asian, then exploring Messiaen’s otherworldly universes, up to Pierre Boulez. It’s a frequently wild, entertaining, haunting and counterintuitive performance.

Quilico brings Debussy’s Brouillards – the opening segment of his Preludes, Book 2 – full circle, through tinkling Javanese mist, to a chillier rainstorm and back. Feuilles Mortes turns out to be a steadier, more increasingly phantasmagorical tableau: her restraint, where others go straight for the macabre, is a revelation. Then she flips the script, bringing the flamenco flourishes of La Puerta Del Vino front and center.

Les Fees Sont d’Exquises Danseuses is less an unbridled spritely dance-off than a prelude to one, with dazzlingly articulated hints of future fireworks. Likewise, La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune focuses on emphatic, expectant, darkly carnivalesque phrasing. And she finds unexpected unease within the rapidfire rivulets of Ondine, particularly via lefthand grit.

Quilico’s blend of legato and wry ragtime flourishes in Les Tierces Alternes is insightful, and a lot of fun. The fireworks finally coalesce and flourish in the suite’s coda.

Debussy’s gamelanesque, chiming harmonies give way to Messiaen’s icily reverent resonance in eight selections from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus. Messiaen is not known for his sense of humor, but Quilico finds it, in the music-box bounce of #4 and the jaunty ragtimish allusions in #11, dauntingly vast clocktower resonance and austere close harmonies notwithstanding.

The procession of prophets, shepherds and wise men march regally through #16, even as the rhythms grow more dissociative. Following with the Star of Bethlehem tableau of #2 is a neat bit of programming, turning the composer’s foreshadowing inside out. Angels are just short of frantic to get the show on the road in #14.

There’s a return to coyly playful gremlinish fun in #11’s view from above. Quilico’s final selection from the suite is very evocative of Jehan Alain’s iconic organ work Litanies.

Quilico concludes the program with Boulez’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3. Both are rather doctrinaire if quirky and improvisationally-inspired twelve-tone works.

November 26, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colorful, Dynamic, Meticulously Arranged Loopmusic From Baritone Saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi

The big recording meme of 2020 was solo albums. Among the most interesting to hit the web so far is baritone saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi’s new solo release Hidemi, streaming at Bandcamp. Often using a loop pedal, he multitracks himself into a sometimes elegantly brooding, sometimes exuberantly rhythmic, catchy wind ensemble.

He constructs the opening number, Beachside Lonelyhearts from a somber tableau to an aggressively circling intensity, only to let it drift away into the waves. Tule Lake Like Yesterday is a lattice of staggered, minor-key blues loops with a solo at the center that moves from ominousness to a frantic squall. No surprise, considering that the title refers to the World War II concentration camp where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

Shiroishi follows the same pattern in Jellyfish in the Sky, but with a considerably more squiggly, playful series of concentric phrases. What Happens When People Open Their Hearts begins airy, spacious, and genuinely tender, but watch out!

Stand Up and Let Us Witness This Ourselves is built around a staggered bassline, and much shorter than that long title might imply. Shiroishi pulls out some daunting extended technique for the laserlike precision of the fluttery phrases in To Kill a Wind-up Bird: it’s the most cynically funny track here.

If Shiroishi is to be taken at face value, Without the Threat of Punishment There Is No Joy in Flight is bullshit, for many obvious reasons. He could also mean that sarcastically: the theme itself is on the carefree side and the most improvisational one here.

He goes for cartoonish in The Dowager’s Clipped Wings: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Daniel Bennett catalog. Shiroishi closes the album with The Long Bright Dark, a showcase for rapidfire articulation and prowess on alto sax as well, and is the lone moment with vocals: “Is this the end of the storm?” Shiroishi hollers in Japanese.

November 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignant, Darkly Thoughtful Jazz and Classical Themes From Nikolaj Hess

Pianist Nikolaj Hess‘s latest release Spacelab & Strings – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is the rare album that’s closer to classical music with jazz piano, than piano jazz with classical influences. It’s also poignant, and picturesque, and one of the most individualistically interesting albums of recent months.

It begins with ECM Country, a brooding, expansive, windswept waltz, Hess playing suspiciously blithe, light-fingered, bluesy lounge phrases over the mournful swells of the strings. You want Lynchian?

Likewise, the simply titled Piece begins with bassist Anders Christensen rustling amid a white haze from the strings. Then Hess introduces a bittersweetly symphonic, Ellingtonian theme, drummer Mikkel Hess keeping his distance while his brother shifts into persistently uneasy ripples.

The string quartet – violinists Cæcilie Balling and Christian Ellegård, violist Jakup Lützen and cellist Josefine Opsahl – are more incisively plaintive in Indigo Meadow as Christensen climbs sparely and Hess chooses his spots to color in rivulets behind them. Ravel Reflections, drawing on the second movement from the composer’s String Quartet, is much more labyrinthine, beginning with ragtime flourishes from the piano and shivers from the strings. There’s an interlude that could be the Doors with strings, then an opaque refraction of the original theme before Hess returns with reflecting-pool gleam. Dissociative overlays pack a quiet wallop at this strange epic rustles toward the end.

The Adagio here is a tersely loopy, Philip Glass-ine canon spiced with low-key glimmer from Hess. Christensen shadows Hess as the drums hold the center and the strings lay out for Trio2. Seven Ate Nine has allusively Monkish modalities and tricky polyrhythms, a vivid portrait of persistent disquiet, the piano adding a considerably creepier edge as the band stalk along.

Danish Accents Lost in the Bush (In a Broke Down Yellow Volkswagen in Nigeria)” references the moment when Hess found himself stuck way out in the sticks with Fela and Femi Kuti. One can think of a worse fate, although there’s an increasing sense of terror and dissociation as the rhythm loosens – what spirits, or what hyena ambush, did this unlikely trio encounter?

There’s a devious cello metal starkness and contrasting deadpan humor throughout Kontra Punk. Tinir (meaning “your” or “yours”) is a similarly spare, ruggedly rustic but also balletesque adaptation of a much more lavish Hess choral setting of a Faroese myth.

Christensen’s darkly emphatic accents against Hess’ lingering iciness as his brother’s drums scan the perimeter in the Arvo Pärt-inspired Trio1 combine to create one of the album’s most haunting interludes. Celeste, a minimalist waltz with equal amounts Satie and Brubeck, is even more so, and arguably the high point of the record.

Black & White makes a good segue, a troubled, echoey reflection on Nordic gloom. Hess concludes this often riveting album solo with a fleetingly dark chromatic theme.

November 18, 2021 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | | Leave a comment

A Dark Masterpiece From the Del Sol String Quartet and Guitarist Gyan Riley

The Del Sol String Quartet’s gorgeously brooding, aptly titled Dark Queen Mantra with guitarist Gyan Riley came out in 2016 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a great album to listen to with the lights out – hypnotic in places, but with a tightly coiling intensity. It contains three debut recordings: Terry Riley’s title triptych and concluding sixteen-minute “waltz,” along with cult favorite microtonal composer Stefano Scodanibbio’s Mas Lugares, inspired by a Monteverdi madrigal.

This music spans several different genres: there are moments that are pure 70s psychedelic art-rock, others that strongly bring to mind Philip Glass at his darkest. As the title track’s first part, Vizcaino begins, the guitar launches into an eerie downward chromatic theme, then variations on a flamencoish riff while the strings pulse in response. Riley calls, they respond, they echo, sometimes all joining together. Eventually they reach a quietly marionettish interlude enhanced by an unusual and welcome amount of reverb for a string quartet recording, the guitar a darkly bubbling presence amid the quartet’s insistence.

Part two, Goya With Wings develops from uneasily disjointed, hazy resonance contrasting with the younger Riley’s lingering, minimalist incisions, to a slowly staggered, pensive ballad that coalesces in the epic third movement after a guitarless bit. Riley’s return signals a moodily circling variation on the simmering opening theme, this time the quartet taking the lead, steady eight-note riffs popping up like evil gremlins in every corner of the sonic picture. Riley’s precise, distorted spirals lead down to a circular Indian carnatic theme; it ends unresolved.

The rest of the album isn’t anywhere near as dark. Scodanibbio’s five-part suite begins with what could be a Nordic dance, steadily pulsing eight-note echo phrases from the quartet’s individual members – violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates. It has little if anything in common with Italian Renaissance polyphony, but the other sections do, their surrealistic, metrically tricky paraphrases keening with harmonic overtones. Flight motives and haze alternate in the third movement, with an Iranian tinge.

The quartet open the elder Riley’s Tibetan-inspired Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz with tense close harmonies, a morning theme punctuated by swoops, plucks and the occasional anthemic riff. Suddenly the birds take flight, with distant Middle Eastern and jazz allusions, Riley was close to eighty when he wrote both works here: the contemporary classical icon and godfather of American minimalism shows no sign of slowing down. Both his son and the quartet revel in the music’s constantly shifting idioms.

November 13, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Swing Charm and Surprises From Singer Sarah King

It was a freezing Monday night in the Meatpacking District in the winter of 2016. But at the penthouse bar in a brand-new, shi-shi new hotel, chanteuse Sarah King & the Smoke Rings were keeping the room warm with their elegant, low-key swing tunes. Not what you might expect from someone who was in the cast of Sleep No More (the gothic Macbeth), or fronted Hungry March Band when that group was still in its street-punk phase.

Fast forward to 2021: if the hotel bar still has jazz, no doubt there are all kinds of ugly restrictions. But King has soldiered on and has a characteristically urbane new album, Tulip or Turnip, streaming at youtube. If your goal is to turn your place into a cozy hotel bar ripe for romance, this is your jam.

This is a playlist of old songs, some well known and others considerably less so. Clarinetist Jon DeLucia and pianist Stefan Vasnier set the scene right off the bat with a coy intro to the album’s title track, King in chirpy Blossom Dearie mode over the steady, low-key swing of bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Ben Cliness.

King takes her time, unleashing an occasional brittle vibrato, in a slow balmy take of Azaleas, lit up with a mellifluous clarinet solo. The band leave the Ellington catalog behind for an unexpectedly understated version of the Kern/Hammerstein vaudeville chestnut Life Upon the Wicked Stage.

Vasnier pushes I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key) with a terse ragtime pulse: King’s cooing delivery brings to mind another once-ubiquitous New York presence, Tamar Korn. King’s wistful interpretation of Empty Pocket Waltz has new resonance in an era of mass firings and Nuremberg Convention violations.

She stays in pensive mode, through the wry contradictions in You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart over O’Donnell’s lithe pulse. Let’s Pretend That There’s a Moon is a platform for a much more pillowy approach. A suave take of the Gershwin tune There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York serves as a springboard for the band to tickle the audience, beginning with DeLucia’s deadpan opening quote.

King and O’Donnell do a spring-loaded, impressively energetic duo version of Everything’s Made for Love, then the band close the record with a fondly detailed, glisteningly chorded take of I Remember; King’s hazy final lines drive the punchline home hard. Purist fans of the 30s sounds King favors here will find plenty more detail than this to appreciate here.

November 13, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Vivid, Original, Brightly Tuneful Debut Album From Jazz Singer Alyssa Giammaria

Alyssa Giammaria has a soaring, warmly mapled, crystalline voice and writes ambitious but similarly translucent jazz songs. Her debut album Moments is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s always a treat to discover vocal jazz as imaginative and individualistic as this: we hear all kinds of cliches about “fresh new voices,” but Giammaria is the real deal.

The album’s first track is Beginning and End, a wistful contemplation of impermanence, whether in relationships or otherwise, “tracing darkness,” as Giammaria puts it. Leighton McKinley Harrell’s starkly bowed bass behind the vocals expands to a lustrous brass arrangement over a steady sway. Pianist Jen Lo plays an elegantly ornamented solo with unexpected peaks as drummer Jacob Slous edges toward a shuffle.

The horns – trumpeters Evan Dalling and Christian Antonacci and trombonist Nick Adema – build bright harmonies to introduce the album’s title track, Giammaria revisiting a hopeful/downcast dichotomy. Adams’ bubbling solo over Lo’s three-on-four and Harrell’s dancing bass raise the optimism even as Giammaria confides that “I won’t stay the same.”

“How many times do I have to start over?” she muses over Lo’s spare resonance in Understand, a pensive but brightly lyrical duo ballad. “I learn to leave all the things that don’t find me.”

Harrell scrambles uphill by himself to kick off For Myself, a darkly clustering, soul-infused modal ballad. This time it’s a trumpet solo that pushes the clouds aside, setting up the bandleader’s guardedly cheery scatting. The contrast between the band’s polyrhythmic intensity, and Giammaria’s self-admonition to think for herself in the most pivotal moments, is visceral.

“There is an answer to the emptiness of now,” she asserts in the album’s final number, What About. Yet, there’s an inescapable vulnerability and woundedness in her airy vocalese over the group’s lively, altered shuffle. What a breath of fresh air this is: let’s hope there’s more where this comes from.

November 9, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Thrills From a Great Florida Big Band

One of the best large jazz ensembles in the country hails from Florida. So it’s possible that Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge‘s new album Within Us – streaming at Spotify – is the first big band album to be recorded in a convivial, energetic studio setting here in the US since live music and free assembly in general were criminalized throughout most of the country in March of 2020.

Tellingly, the bandleader takes the album title from Albert Camus’ essay Return to Tipasa, about finding hope and joy even in the darkest times. There’s a jubilant sway but also a dark undercurrent to the opening number, Chick Corea’s Chelsea Shuffle. The late pianist was slated to record this with the band, but tragically never got that opportunity. Soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson brightens the atmosphere with a bubbling solo, passes the baton to vibraphonist Warren Wolf and then a triumphant strut from bassist Mark Neuenschwander before a swaying, brass-fueled outro. It’s a refreshingly optimistic way to kick off the album.

Trail of the Ancients is classic Owen, a colorful, imagistic epic rising from a suspenseful intro with a Sara Caswell violin solo, to tensely pulsing brass counterpoint. If Pete Townshend is aware of the LaRue Nickelson guitar break announcing Caswell’s flurrying second solo, no doubt he’s laughing. But the mood turns 180 degrees from there with the pairing of Nickelson with steel guitarist Corey Christiansen. Caswell – who turns out to be the star of this record – returns for a cheery series of exchanges with Nickelson, over an understated latin pulse. It’s a Maria Schneider-class composition.

With its unabashed political theme, American Noir begins subdued and moody, trombonist Jerald Shynett over a somber guitar-and-piano backdrop, the orchestra looming in. But suddenly alto saxophonist Tami Danielsson cirlicues around, and there’s a break in the clouds waiting for Shynett’s return. From there it’s a colorful, bracing ride, through a piercing peak to a sudden, mysterious false ending.

The second cover here is Miles Davis’ Milestones, reinvented first with a funky bounce and playful bursts from the horns, tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and trumpeter Clay Jenkins offering sagacious cheer over drummer Danny Gottlieb’s muted New Orleans beat. Owen’s choice to detour into the noir makes a stunning contrast, considering how he brings the tune full circle.

The album’s second big epic is Apalachicola, reflecting the ecological devastation of eastern Florida’s oyster industry. Pensive overlays and counterpoint interchange with cries and flurries from Caswell’s violin. Christiansen’s over-the-top blues seems satirical, and spot-on as a portrait of greed, or at least cluelessness. Likewise, Brantley’s garrulous if somewhat subtler trombone solo. And Caswell’s closing solo drives home the cruel toll that pollution takes on our coastlines.

During the recording of Sparks Fly, the local fire department evacuated the band from the studio since sparks had been spotted on the roof – that’s what happens when you get musicians who haven’t played in awhile in the same room all together, for the first time in months! The group rise from a lithe, balletesque pulse on the wings of Caswell’s flights and then back for a jaunty conversation between Wilkins and Wilson, the latter on alto this time.

The Better Claim, first released on Owen’s landmark 2013 epic River Runs, is considerably less turbulent, from the subdued duet between Wolf’s lingering vibes and Jenkins’ wistful trumpet, to bright, brassy crescendos, contrasts between a delicate Wolf solo and the trumpeter’s bluesy sagacity.

The band wind up the record with the title track (subtitled, aptly, An Invincible Summer). In the liner notes, Owen cites Camus’ text as an inspiration: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Airy suspense from Wolf and Caswell introduces pianist Per Danielsson’s spare, solo lyricism, interchanging with resonant hope and surprising tenderness from the ensemble. Rex Wertz echoes that gentle resolve on tenor sax,

Owen’s most symphonically successful album to date is River Runs, a surging portrait of American waterways, but this one is a joy and an inspiration, hands-down one of the top ten jazz albums of the year. May there be many more of these in the years to come.

November 8, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment