David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.
Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.
The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?
The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones. Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist.
Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.
Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.
About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.
McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways: there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.
What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.
The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved. Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.
“They didn’t save my letters,” Sylvia Milo’s Nannerl Mozart muses early on in The Other Mozart, Milo’s witheringly relevant one-woman show now on world tour after a wildly successful three-year New York theatrical run. If you find the glass ceiling in music troubling, consider that it wasn’t until the Reagan era – irony of ironies – that an all-female rock band, the Go-Gos, achieved national prominence. For a woman instrumentalist in jazz, the challenges continue to be daunting. And you can still count the internationally known women orchestral conductors on the fingers of one hand. In that context, is it any wonder that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his dad tossed aside Nannerl’s responses to their breathless chronicle of touring their era’s great European concert halls?
Milo’s tragicomic biodrama about “Wolfie” Mozart’s lesser-known but reputedly just as talented older sister has already been performed in the Mozart family apartment in Salzburg; the Mostly Mozart Festival here in New York would be the logical venue for a triumphant homecoming. With a lithely luminous, charismatic presence and a balletesque grace in a physically taxing role, Milo transports the audience into a world of 18th century high society drama and intrigue that puts this era’s celebrity Twitter feeds to shame. The action is nonstop, so much that in the early going, her whirlwind delivery demands especially close attention. The dialogue, most of it drawn verbatim from the Mozart family’s archival correspondence, reveals that Amadeus was hardly the only drama queen in this story. That’s a family trait, and Milo dives into that for maximum entertainment value, juicy gossip and all, although it eventually takes its toll on pretty much everyone concerned.
The great tragedy is that Nannerl’s kid brother at least got the chance to pursue his art fulltime. Her mom – who, predictably, has been lost to history to an even greater extent – couldn’t wait to put Nannerl’s childhood dreams of stardom to rest and marry her off to some bigwig. Complicating those efforts is the Mozart siblings’ past as child stars. Clearly, Nannerl dreads the thought of having peaked at a young age after having been feted as a child prodigy alongside her brother while Father Mozart, desperate to escape his dreary dayjob, pulled out all the stops in trying to ride his kids’ talent all the way across the continent, and, ultimately, out of town.
Jealousy simmers while Nannerl busies herself with smalltown drudgery, cast aside by her father and brother in their headlong dash for fame, fortune and an increasingly elusive rich patron to facilitate all of that. Milo puts all of this in context, resulting in many of the performance’s most cruelly amusing moments. After all, in Enlightenment-era Europe, everyone knew that women’s fragile constitutions and similarly weak minds put all sorts of all-male activities, the concert tour among them, permanently off limits. Milo dredges up a couple of particularly ugly, piggish quotes from none other than Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to drive that home: compared to those two, Donald Trump may not be Simone de Beauvoir, but he’s definitely a cut above when it comes to misogynist prejudice.
Although Milo saves a particularly ironic twist for the very end, the conclusion of this tale isn’t as tragic as it could have been. History tells us that Nannerl Mozart was able to find some late-career redemption, such as that could have existed for her then. Widowed and supported by an inheritance, she earned respect as a teacher, salon operator and champion of her late brother’s works. Milo doesn’t address this, but one can only wonder if Nannerl could have achieved as much without living in her brother’s shadow.
The musical score, with spot-on musical direction by Nathan Davis deserves its own stand-alone release: it’s that good. Rippling, uneasily and vividly atmospheric original compositions for toy piano and music box by Phyllis Chen are juxtaposed with well-chosen, familiar excerpts from works by Mozart and also from Marianne Martines, a popular salonniere and composer in mid-1700s Vienna. What we don’t get is Nannerl Mozart’s own work: only a fragment of one of her compositions survives.
Last night at the Fridman Gallery in Soho, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar opened the night solo with a series of sweepingly concise, panoramic phrases that came across more as a call to arms than to prayer. Or maybe just a calm, resolute series of wake-up calls. In between, he left some of the most pregnant pauses hanging in the air anywhere in this city. Maybe the effects of a Pauline Oliveros retrospective here the previous night lingered as well. In between notes, the hushed, high harmonies of the ventilation system – a ninth interval, if you were there to hear it – became part of the music, along with the occasional random footfall from an adjacent room. The effect was as suspenseful and cinematic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. There would be a lot of deep listening this evening, matched by the depth of the music onstage.
As ElSaffar went on, the images on this vast canvas became more distinct, the occasional moody, graceful riff appearing amid the desolation. A series of slow, matter-of-fact crescendos gave way to a brief series of doppler effects – a calm before a storm, or planes hovering high over the fields and plains of northern Iraq? While ElSaffar is best known for his ornate and often harrowing blend of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds from that country to Syria, if there was any specific genre he brought to mind, it was austere 19th century blues.
Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined him for the second half of the show, a series of interconnected themes and variations that echoed ElSaffar’s mighty, turbulent 2015 large-ensemble Crisis suite. Trumpeter Peter Evans, the sonic curator for this ongoing series of shows at the gallery, is known for his extended technique, pushing the limits of what his instrument can do. ElSaffar’s own ability to conjure images, from a diesel engine at peak RPM, to sepulchral microtones and keening, overtone-fueled polytonalities, proved every bit as daunting and inspiring.
Fujiwara grounded the music with majesty and gravitas on his toms, delivering a coy doppler of his own from the bell of his ride cymbal outwards, later riding the rims with a moody, mutedly syncopated suspense. ElSaffar and Mathisen locked harmonies, whether in the western scale or outside of it as the music finally rose into magically Middle Eastern microtones. The themes were sturdy, and emphatic, and hardly at ease. A stately, regal movement gave way to a troubled fanfare, a march and variations that more than hinted at sarcasm, then a wary, practically furtive passage that made for a gently resonant crescendo before the horns finally took the music toward the region where the Chicago-born trumpeter has found his greatest inspiration over the past fifteen years or so. There will be a “best concerts of 2017” page at the end of the year here, if we’re all still here, and this will be on it.
The Sirius Quartet – violinists Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman – play seriously exciting, tuneful, sophisticated music. They’re the rare chamber ensemble who can strike a chord with fans of heavy rock, psychedelia and jazz in addition to the indie classical crowd. They’re playing on an intriguing twinbill, with special guest violinist Tracy Silverman, tonight, Jan 5 at around 9:30 PM at Club Bonafide that makes more sense thematically than you might think. Longtime Astor Piazzolla collaborator and nuevo tango pianist Pablo Ziegler and his ensemble open the night at 7:30, cover is $15 and the club’s webpage notes with some relish that you’re welcome to stay for both acts at no extra charge.
The Sirius Quartet’s latest album Paths Become Lines is streaming at Spotify, opening with its title number, a pedal note shifting suspensefully between individual voices, pulsing with a steely precision as the melody develops elegantly and tensely around them. The darkly bluesy, chromatically-charged exchanges that follow are no less elegant but absolutely ferocious.
The second number, Ceili, is a sharp, insistent, staccato piece, in a Julia Wolfe vein. Plaintive cello interchanges with aching midrange washes; it grows more anthemic as it goes on. Jeff Lynne only wishes he’d put something this stark and downright electric on ELO’s third album.
Racing Mind builds to a swinging jazz-infused waltz out of a circular tension anchored by a bubbly cello bassline that gets subsumed almost triumphantly by tersely shifting and then spiraling riffage. Spidey Falls! is a cinematic showstopper, a frenetic crescendo right off the bat giving way to a harrowingly brisk stroll that’s part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann and part Piazzolla, then an acerbically circling theme in a 90s Turtle Island vein before the cell digs in and a violin solo signals a return to the turbocharged tarantella. String metal in 2017 doesn’t get any more entertaining than this.
The next piece is a fullscale string quartet. Slow, austere, staggered counterpoint gives way to an insistent chase theme that calms slightly and goes marching, with a hint of tango. The second movement, Shir La Shalom is slow and atmospheric, a canon at halfspeed that builds to a wounded anthem. The third opens with stern, stark cello but quickly morphs into a syncopated folk dance and increasingly rhythmic variations. The breathless, rather breathtaking conclusion mashes up Piazzolla at his most avant garde, early Bartok, swing jazz and furtive cinematics.
Get In Line, a staggered, chromatic dance, veers toward the blues as well as bluesmetal, spiced with an evil, shivery glissandos and tritones, suspenseful pauses and an allusively marionettish cello solo. The album winds up with its most expansive number, Heal and its series of variations on a hypnotic, pizzicato dance theme that finally rises, again in a tango direction, to fearsome heights. Other than the Chiara String Quartet‘s relevatory Bartok By Heart double-cd set, and the Kepler Quartet‘s concluding chapter in their wild Ben Johnston microtonal quartet series, there hasn’t been a string quartet album this exciting released in many months.
The Mary Halvorson Octet‘s new album Away with You – streaming at Bandcamp – is the latest and most epically entertaining chapter in the career of arguably the most important, and inarguably most individualistic guitarist in jazz since Bill Frisell. As dark and enigmatic as Ilusionary Sea, her previous release with this unit was, this one is 180 degrees the opposite. Halvorson has a devastating sense of humor, and this is the funniest album she’s ever made. She unleashes the most vaudevillian stuff right off the bat. Much of the rest of this suite is as cruelly cynical or subtle as anything she’s ever recorded. Even drummer Ches Smith gets some – in fact, a lot more than drummers get, and drummers are sometimes funny despite themselves.
The opening number could be described as Mostly Other People Do the Killing mashed up with an Anthony Braxton large ensemble, a tongue-in-cheek, snidely blithe theme rather cruelly dissected midway through before the bandleader slings off one of her signature, sardonic punchlines…and then the snarky fun begins all over again. The presence of the irrepressible Jon Irabagon on tenor sax might have something to do with all this levity. Likewise, the title track – which opens as an upbeat new wave rock anthem of sorts before morphing into an uneasily pointillistic march – is a clinic in how to twist a cheery theme inside out, winding up with a desolate Jonathan Finlayson trumpet solo and then Smith’s misterioso solo passage.
The Absolute Almost is the most desolate thing Halvorson has ever recorded – Susan Alcorn’s lapsteel is every bit as woundedly beautiful as anything Big Lazy has ever released. When the band comes in, the circusy. cinematic theme and variations are priceless – and venomous, at least until the end where the devious web of counterpoint unravels elegantly, a sense of calm and closure after the storm.
Sword Barrel kicks off as an enigmatically attractive, distantly twinkling, Hawaiian-tinged march, but a wistful, pastoral Irabagon solo goes haywire and pulls everyone toward chaos before Finlayson emerges as the voice of reason. Old King Misfit opens with Halvorson and bassist John Hebert kicking the ball around amiably before the band brings that offcenter march theme back, the bandleader playing steady, eerie, watery chords that eventually fly off into the recesses of her pedalboard while everybody else falls away, like one of those blooming onions you find at street fairs.
Halvorson’s moodily terse guitar and Hebert’s bass stroll behind Jacob Garchik’s similarly pensive trombone as Fog Bank gets underway; then Halvorson spirals and flits away, a forest of sprites emerging from the mist! When the march returns, by now it’s unmistakable that Halvorson has a clear view of the direction all this is going in, and it’s not going to be an easy ride. The album’s final number is Safety Orange – the siren motif in the early going makes an apt centerpiece in the post-9/11 era, eventually bringing back the march in an allusively shambling Tom Csatari vein. Be grateful that you’re around to witness this music as it’s coming out: future generations will be jealous.
Other than at the insanely overpriced Bleecker Street festival coming up, Halvorson doesn’t have any octet shows listed on her gig page, but she is playing tonight, Jan 3 at around 9 PM at I-Beam as one third of the Out Louds with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and multi-reedman Ben Goldberg, improvising music inspired by plant species at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Cover is $15.
Continuing yesterday’s theme about top-drawer jazz artists playing some unlikely spaces here in town, today’s is vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who’s doing a live rehearsal of sorts, leading a quartet at the Fat Cat on Jan 2 at 9 PM. You can be there to witness it for the three bucks that it takes to get into the pool hall – if you don’t mind the random polyrhythms of sticks hitting balls and some other background noise, you’d be surprised how many quality acts pass through here when they’re not headlining a place like Smalls, which is Gillece’s regular spot when he’s in town.
His 2010 Little Echo album with frequent collaborator Ken Fowser on tenor sax is one of the most tuneful, enjoyable postbop releases of recent years. Gillece’s previous album Mindset was considerably more ambitious, and on the knotty side; his latest one, Dare to Be – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a welcome return to form.
The album’s opening track, Camera Eyes begins as a sparkly ballad, shades of early 70s Milt Jackson until the rhythm section – Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Tiemann on drums – kicks in and then they’re off on a brightly shuffling, distantly Brazilian-tinged tangent. Gilllece’s shimmering lines cascade over a similarly brisk shuffle groove in From Your Perspective, Bruce Harris’ trumpet taking a more spacious approach.
Tiemann’s snowstorm cymbals push the 6/8 ballad Amethyst along, gently, Radley channeling some deep blues, Gillece just as judicious and purposeful. The group picks up the pace but keeps the singalong quality going with the lickety-split swing of Signals, Radley and Gillece adding percolating solos: the subtle variations Gillece makes to the head are especially tasty. His intricate intro to Drought’s End hardly gives away how straight-ahead and understatedly triumphant Harris’ trumpet and Radley’s guitar will be as it hits a peak.
The first of the two covers here. Bobby Hutcherson’s Same Shame is done as a crescendoing, enigmatically scrambling quasi-bossa, echoed in the goodnaturedly pulsing, tropical grooves of Gillece’s. Live It. The album’s anthemic title track grooves along on a brisk clave beat: it’s the closest thing to the lush life glimmer of Little Echo here.
The last of Gillece’s originals, Trapezoid is a rapidfire shuffle: Tiemann’s counterintuitively accented drive underneath the bandleader’s precise ripples and Radley’s steady chords is as fun as it is subtle. The album winds up with a gently resonant take of Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time For Love, looking back to both the Milt Jackson and Buddy Montgomery versions. Fans of engaging, ringing, tuneful music in general, as well as the jazz vibraphone pantheon spanning from those guys, to Hutcherson, to Gary Burton have a lot to enjoy here. If Gillece wasn’t already on this map, this has put him there to stay.
Guitarist Will Bernard is unique in the jazz world as someone with a serious postbop pedigree but also a dark side and a penchant for all sorts of interesting textures. The trouble with so many jazz guitarists who use a lot of effects is that they sound fusiony, i.e. like everybody in the band is on coke and soloing at the same time. Bernard’s music, by contrast, is very straightforward, tuneful and often cinematic: he’s easy to spot because nobody else really sounds like him. When he’s not on tour – he’s highly sought after as a sideman – his usual home in New York is Smalls. But sometimes some of these A-list jazz guys use small venues more or less as a rehearsal room, which probably explains how Bernard got booked into the small room at the Rockwood at 10 PM on Jan 2. It’s a great opportunity to hear one of the most distinctive talents in New York jazz guitar in an intimate setting with good sound.
Bernard’s latest album is the aptly titled Out and About, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. All but one of the tracks are originals and the band is fantastic. Drummer Allison Miller’s jaunty groove, a New Orleans shuffle beamed back to Africa, propels the wry wah-infused opening number, Happy Belated, John Ellis’ bright tenor sax contrasting with Ben Allison’s growly, sinuous bass. Bernard follows that with a wistful, Americana-tinged miniature, Not Too Fancy. Then the band go for offcenter harmonies and staggered rhythms with Next Guest, from some terse guitar-sax exchanges to Bernard tumbling alongside Miller’s steady crescendoing pulse, Allison weaving between the raindrops.
The heat in Habenera, the album’s best and most epic track, is the simmering kind, Brian Charette’s creepy funeral organ over a beat that almost imperceptibly shifts away from an uneasy tango toward roots reggae as Bernard growls and burns: it sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen at their most jazz-oriented. Then the band moves to an altered swing shuffle with Redwood (Business Casual), the bandleader’s enigmatic lines and Charette’s scampering riffage adding a suspiciously sardonic edge against Ellis’ irrepressible good cheer and a classic, expertly extroverted Miller solo.
A doggedly insistent clave groove, a catchy Americana turnaround and moody guitar-organ chromatics mingle throughout the Lynchian Homeward Bound, another killer cut: Bernard’s flickering resonance gives the impression that he wouldn’t mind staying on the road instead. By contrast, Ellis’ misty sax and Miller’s gently strolling rhythm take Homebody into pleasantly grey-sky current-day pastoral jazz territory.
With its pensive sway and surreal guitar efx channeling distant deep-space disturbances, Suggested Reading is another number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Brian Beninghove catalog – dig that trick ending! Miller rides the traps and Charette bubbles throughout the toe-tapping Full Sweep, which looks back to classic Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations. A slow, spacious number, Pan Seared veers warpedly toward pastorale territory The album winds up with the title track, a bleak bolero-jazz piece once again anchored in the murky depths by Charette, an apt way to wind up this shadowy, distinctive gem of an album.
Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.
The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.
The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crescendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.
The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.
Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.
Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.
Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.
Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.
The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.
Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.
A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.
Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”