Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston was a mainstay of this city’s edgy downtown jazz scene throughout the 80s and into the 90s, most prominently as co-founder of wryly cinematic, sardonically entertaining “surrealistic swing” band the Microscopic Septet. Johnston returns to town for a week at the Stone from March 3 through 8, with a variety of ensembles and sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15.
Since the late zeros, the Microscopic Septet have reunited frequently for albums and tours, and the full group will be playing the 10 PM set on March 5 (possibly their first-ever nighr of free improvisation), then airing out their vast back catalog of songs at 9:30 PM on March 19 at Smalls. The group’s four-man sax line will also be making their debut as an unaccompanied quartet at the Stone on March 7 at 8 PM. And another very auspicious set concludes the stand there at 10 PM on March 8, with Johnston leading an eleven-piece improvisational unit playing his utterly macabre score to the Japanese cult film Page of Madness.
On one hand, the Micros could be credited with being forerunners of the Gatsby jazz revival because they were swinging their collective asses off a good fifteen years before the new moldy fig crowd started doing it. On the other hand, the Micros’ music actually isn’t retro at all. Mashing up droll cartoonish themes and eerie Monkish blues with an unselfconsciously joyous dixieland flair (along with more brooding tunes, like the one that’s served as the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air since the 90s), there’s no other band out there who sound like them. Their latest album, Manhattan Moonrise, comprises both new and older, previously unreleased material – click the links below for what little of it is online, a frustrating issue with a lot of cult acts who go as far back as these guys do.
The opening track, When You Get In Over Your Head is a brisk, blustery, noir-tinged stroll, the reeds – Johnston (soprano sax); Don Davis (alto); Mike Hashim (tenor); Dave Sewelson (baritone) – teaming up for some Ellingtonian indigo. No Time has lustrously shifting, late summer shades as Hashim pulls if further into a latin groove over bassist Dave Hofstra, pianist Joel Forrester and drummer Richard Dworkin. The band revisits that tangent a bit later on with Hang It on a Line, this time shifting out of a rustic campfire gospel theme. Forrester’s sly, low-key stride piano gets the album’s title cut motoring along – and he can’t resist throwing a spitball or two at Hofstra’s dead-serious, racewalking bass solo.
Johnston explains Obeying the Chemicals as an attempt to merge funk and boogie-woogie: Sewelson’s gruff rhythm gives it a second-line feel. A Snapshot of the Soul juxtaposes an uneasily staggered Monk-ish theme with a lively, bubbly, straight-up swing. Star Turn turns a genial, Doc Pomus-style saloon blues tune into a springboard for a long, brightly sailing Davis solo, the longest one on the album
Let’s Coolerate One, Johnston’s theme song for another band of his, the Coolerators, brings the noir back over a lushly swirling swing shuffle, Sewelson and Hashin romping above it. Good-natured solos by Forrester and Sewelson light up the boogie-tinged nocturne Suspended Animation, while Blue hints briefly at melancholy balladry before going all out-of-focus and outside.
You Got That Right! mixes droll stop-and-starts with a jaunty Crescent City swing and lively, tongue-in-cheek conversations among the reeds. The album winds up with Occupy Your Life, which makes an enigmatic cha-cha out of Beethoven – it’s the band’s first-ever number with vocals. Because Johnston decamped for his native Australia awhile back, the Micros don’t play as much as they used to, so if you’ve been thinking of seeing them, now’s as good a time as any.
There was a lot of fun onstage last night at the Jazz Standard. There was a downwardly spiraling, menacingly chromatic Freddie Hendrix trumpet solo that might have been the higlight of the evening. There was an animated conversation between flugelhornist Scott Wendholt and pianist Steve Allee that emerged from two deep-space tangents. Guitarist Vic Juris supplied genially bubbling, melismatically warping interludes; tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson, bass clarinetist Carl Maraghi and trombonist Ryan Keberle took turns contributing judicious, purist, blues-infused lines when called on to take centerstage. But that’s the least of what was going on.
Big band jazz sometimes gets a rap for being simply a vehicle for solos: Phish with horns. And if you’ve got twenty people the caliber of the players in Rufus Reid‘s group, there’s no limit on where they can take the music. But despite the starpower on the bandstand, the large ensemble’s current stand here – which continues through March 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM – is all about compositions. Reid has a hall of fame career as a sideman, but in recent years he’s devoted himself to composing. Last night’s opening set was marked by gravitas, and depth, and lustrously shifting segments, most of the numbers taken from Reid’s vivid, politically aware album Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project.
Reid left no doubt how much inspiration he’s drawn from sculptor and visual artist Catlett’s defiant, symbolically loaded images of resistance and endurance, and the music reaffirmed that. Singer Charenee Wade got the most choice spots, capping off the crescendos with remarkably nuanced vocalese, her vibrato trailing off elegantly as her phrases wound out, sometimes in harmony with french hornists John Clark and Vincent Chancey, at other times over a lush bed of high reed textures. Drummer Chris Beck got to trigger a deviously amusing false ending or two while the bandleader, amped well up in the mix, pushed the ensemble with an understatedly funky pulse when he wasn’t swinging it hard or circling around with tersely minimalist, avant garde-tinged phrasing. Notwithstanding the album’s epic, classically tinged sweep and sophistication, this show reminded just how deeply Reid’s writing is rooted in the jazz tradition. Taking the time to assemble a big band is a herculean effort to begin with; that this group could play this music as tightly and passionately as they did is tribute to how inspiring Reid is as a composer and bandleader. Although last night’s shows appeared to be sold out, there are seats left for the rest of this weekend; reservations to 212-576-2232 are always a good idea here.
Cellist Inbal Segev played a mesmerizingly intuitive, emotionally electrifying selection of Bach cello suites from her forthcoming album at Lincoln Center last night. During an extensive and enlightening Q&A with an intimate penthouse crowd, she came across as both deeply reflective and also something of a restless soul – a runner during her conservatory years, she’s clearly still defining her own path. When she picked up her bow, she played with a penetrating yet luminous tone reflective of the centuries since her cello was manufactured in Italy in 1673. It was the antithesis of a cookie-cutter performance: Segev varied her dynamics and attack with sometimes minute, sometimes striking variation depending on emotional content, revealing the music as songs without words.
Excerpts from Nick Davis‘ forthcoming documentary film about Segev, screened before the concert, revealed that she’d been scheduled to complete the album prior to this year (the music is still in the editing stage). But during the initial recording, she collapsed. In trying to embrace a more traditional baroque approach to the music, one that goes against the grain of her own intuition as an artist, she ended up abandoning the project. She told the crowd that her only choice was to regroup and reapproach the album – the Bach suites being sort of a rite of passage that most A-list cellists record sooner or later – with her own integrity front and center. That last night’s concert sounded perfectly suitable for release on cd validates that she picked the right moment to listen to her inner voice.
During the Q&A, three of the cellist’s remarks were especially telling. First, she admitted to being more comfortable in the concert hall than in the studio: “Onstage, it’s everything we’re trained to do: you don’t have time to think,” Segev explained. Which begs the question of why more artists, in the classical world and elsewhere, don’t release more live recordings. Another interesting remark spoke volumes. In response to an audience member inquiring about the degree to which Segev employs the traditional metronomic rhythm for playing Bach, the cellist replied that she didn’t. “A metronome can kill a piece easily,” she cautioned. Which deeply informs how Segev approaches Bach: while she didn’t rubato the music or imbue it with tropes from Romanticism or otherwise, her interpretations were irrefutably individualistic.
She equated the stark sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C Minor to Webern, explaining how elusive its tonal center is and then illustrating it with a spare, exploratory quality enhanced by tuning her A string down to a G for extra overtones, as was popular in Bach’s era. By contrast, much of the Suite No. 2 in D Minor was considerably more straightforward. She ended the show by finding the inner danse macabre in the gigue from the Suite No. 5. If the new album is anything like this concert, it’s amazing.
Anyone who experienced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time in concert Sunday at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center is spoiled for life. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s recording of the piece is good; their performance this time out was transcendent. One hopes that they recorded this as well, because it will supersede their previous one. Conductor David Bernard remarked privately before the concert that his game plan for what might otherwise seem like a bizarre juxtaposition of the Stravinsky with Lorin Maazel’s mashup of Wagner opera melodies, The Ring Without Words, was to illustrate how both suites draw from folk themes. And he’s right on both counts, but what he didn’t allude to is what the orchestra was challenged to say with the music: “Just look what this mighty beast can do.” And they delivered.
Mechanically speaking, the Rite of Spring is a minefield in more than one sense of the word: there’s always something going off unexpectedly somewhere, and there are pitfalls everywhere. But the orchestra danced around them, with passion and fervor, methodically one by one. Solos were precise and emphatic, from Gabriel Levine’s looming bassoon, to Brett Bakalar’s similarly resonant english horn and the thunderingly meticulous percussion of Robert Kelly and Paul Robertson, among other standout moments. Segues were similarly seamless, contrasts were vivid and Stravinsky’s whirling exchanges of voices were expertly choreographed. And much as the orchestra left no doubt that the composer’s “stone age ballet” was a dance party, Bernard had his serious hat on all the way through, conducting from memory with a clenched-teeth intensity in contrast to his usual bounding, beaming, joyous presence in front of the ensemble.
On face value, following with the suite of popular Wagner tunes was a rather drastic change, requiring the orchestra to shift abruptly from high gear to low, to switch on a dime from staccato thrash to recurrent washes of atmospherics, a daunting task to say the least. But the group proved they could do it. On one hand, the music was everything Stravinsky was ostensibly trying to upend: comfortable, audience-friendly heroic themes laced with nostalgia. And Maazel’s artful segues may not have completely eliminated the camp factor, even though the vocals were edited out. But his arrangement does manage to sidestep what Sir Thomas Beecham famously groused about during one particular Wagner rehearsal: “Three hours later, and we’re still playing the same bloody theme!” And those melodies’ unselfconscious, singalong attractiveness is due at least in part to the folk tunes that Wagner fell back on. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy segue after all. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on May 16 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St. just west of First Ave., where they’ll be playing music of Hindemith, Schumann and Bach.
One of the most exciting and highly anticipated stands by any jazz group in recent months is coming up at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, Feb 26 when venerable bassist Rufus Reid and his big band air out the songs on his magnificent latest album, Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (streaming at Spotify). They’re at the club through March 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $30 ($35 on the weekend). Even more auspiciously, pretty much everybody among the album’s all-star cast will be onstage for all the shows.
The album is a lush, ambitious suite inspired by the striking, historically and politically-themed sculptures of Elizabeth Catlett. An inspiration to the civil rights movement, Catlett’s work embodies traditions and themes from both Africa and the west: her images are uncluttered, often very stark and while often optimistic, also have a withering subtext. Like Catlett’s sculptures, Reid’s music here – which draws directly on six of them – has a frequently persistent unease. The sophistication and acerbic colors of his compositions and arrangements are all the more impressive considering that this is his first adventure in writing for large ensemble – and that he is still best known as a sideman. That perception has definitely changed in the past year!
Although ostensibly divided into individual pieces, the album is best appreciated as a whole: a jazz symphony, essentially. A big, ominous, cinematically sweeping theme that will recur throughout the suite kicks it off, gives way to a broodingly vamping jazz waltz that picks up with a turbulently funky groove and blustery brass, then down to the rhythm section, Freddie Hendrix’ muted trumpet bringing it full circle. Reid utilizes Charenee Wade’s lustrous vocalese much like Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her album a couple of years ago; the addition of two french horns adds both brightness and heft.
Throughout the rest of the album, Reid himself adds the occasional soberly dancing interlude. Guitarist Vic Juris plays both incisive flamenco lines on acoustic as well as adding bubbly electric textures. The brass section rises dramatically with a majestically ambered, blues-infused gravitas, Wade often changed with hitting the top of the peaks as well as supplying nebulous washes to the quieter sections. Reid allows for animated free interludes, pairing brass and piano or drums, then swings his way back to a precise theme. Trumpeter Tim Hagans and trombonist Ryan Keberle get to take it to the top of the mountain as a triumphant coda develops. It’s everything big band jazz can be: towering, majestic, unselfconsciously powerful and cutting-edge. Catlett, who died three years ago, would no doubt be proud.
Tenor saxophonist Tom Tallitsch has been on a roll lately. He’s been writing some of the most memorable tunes in jazz over the last couple of years. His latest Posi-Tone album, Ride, is streaming at Spotify; tomorrow night, Feb 20 he’s at the Garage (99 7th Ave. South, 1 to Christopher St/Sheridan Square). for happy hour starting at 6 PM, leading a quartet with Jordan Piper on piano, Ariel De La Portilla on bass and Paul Wells on drums. Then next month, on March 27 at 8 PM Tallitsch leads a monstrously good sextet including Mike DiRubbo, David Gibson, Brian Charette, Peter Brendler and Mark Ferber at Victor Baker Guitars, 38-01 23rd Ave, Astoria (N/Q to Ditmars) for a live youtube broadcast.
The band on the album is just as good. Art Hirahara is one of the most instantly recognizable pianists in jazz right now, drawing on styles as diverse as the neoromantics, Asian folk and funk. Bassist Peter Brendler continues to build a resume of some of the best recording dates and groups in New York in recent years. Trombonist Michael Dease is another in-demand guy, with nuance to match raw power; drummer Rudy Royston has finally been getting long-deserved critical props, and pushes this date along with characteristic wit and thrill-ride intensity.
The album’s title track kicks it off, a brisk, edgy Frank Foster-esque shuffle with some tumbling around from the rhythm section, an expansively uneasy Tallitsch solo echoed by Hirahara followed by a machinegunning Royston Rumble. Rubbernecker, a caffeinated highway theme with subtle tempo shifts, moves up to a spiral staircase sprint from Hirahara. Rain, a plaintive pastoral jazz waltz, is anchored by Hirahara’s sober gospel chords and Royston’s stern cymbals. The Giving Tree, another brisk shuffle, works a vampy, nebulously funk-influenced tune – a lot of 70s and 80s fusion bands were shooting for something like this but couldn’t stay within themselves enough to pull it off. The Myth, a rippling, lickety-split piano-fueled shuffle, is sort of a more uneasy, modal take on a similar theme.
El Luchador, a wry, tongue-in-cheek Mexican cha-cha, gets some surprisingly pensive rapidfiring sax that Dease follows with a hair-trigger response once he’s finally given the chance. Dease fuels the droll Knuckle Dragger with an infusion of wide-eyed cat-ate-the-canary blues. The somewhat ironically titled The Path is the album’s most challenging, labyrinthine track, but Royston keeps it on the rails. The album winds up with Turtle and its kinetically romping mashup of latin-inflected drive and moody modalities.
There are also two stunningly successful rock instrumentals here. The band does Life On Mars as straight-up, no-BS art-rock anthem – Tallitsch’s wistful timbre nails the bittersweetness of the Bowie original. Led Zep’s Ten Years Gone rises with majestic twin horn harmonies from Tallitsch and Dease – while the rhythm is totally straight-up, it’s closer to jazz than the Bowie cover.
Tallitsch is also a radio host. His WWFM show spotlights lots of under-the-radar NYC talent.
by Shoshana Blau
GetClassical’s February 11 installment featured pianist Kariné Poghosyan’s performance at Louis Meisel Gallery on Prince Street in SoHo, in conjunction with the first solo New York exhibition of her father Razmik Poghosyan’s artwork. The gallery was packed when the pianist sat down at the antique Steinway grand amidst her father’s paintings. Seated concert style, the audience was soon enveloped by the younger Poghosyan’s expressivity throughout the first part of the program, ranging from Schuman and Stravinsky, Bach, Scriabin and Schubert to Albeniz and DeFalla.
After refreshments and a lot of inspired conversation among the audience members concerning Razmik Poghosyan’s paintings, the performance continued with masterworks by Liszt, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff, ending with an especially ravishing rendition of the Adagio from Spartacus, by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian and an excerpt from Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No.1, Op.22. Building momentum with authority and vigor, these concluding pieces proved to the be the evening’s highlights. It comes as no surprise that the pianist is a leading advocate of Khachaturian’s works, with an exciting new all-Khatchaturian solo piano cd just having been released, so she was able to sign several new, hot-off-the-press copies for the crowd. The official New York release concert for the album takes place on April 19 at 2:30 PM at Greenfield Hall at Manhattan School of Music.
“I got inspired by my father’s artwork to choose my favorite pieces for this amazing concert,” says the Armenian-born pianist, an alumna and current member of the MSM piano faculty.
“When Kariné approached me to perform for a GetClassical concert event, perhaps at its new monthly classical series at the downtown jazz club Zinc Bar, I could not help but notice the passionate determination of this young pianist, enabling her to draw people into her performance. That special drive that motivates performers to express themselves and give it their all – it’s something that can’t be learned in the practice room,” says music journalist Ilona Oltuski, the founder and creative energy behind GetClassical’s concert events.
“When Kariné told me about her father’s artwork, we stopped by her house and I was taken by the graphic equivalent of that same vibrant, artistic spirit in his paintings. Stacked on top of each other on walls up to the ceiling and in every perceivable nook of this tiny Upper Westside apartment, the highly decorative motives form the theatrical world in a cubist-inspired style exuded vibrant joy and an inner world worth exploring,” explains Ilona, who also holds a PhD. degree in art history.
“As I took photos of Razmik’s paintings, it was clear to me that I wanted to show them in conjunction with his daughter’s pianism,” she adds. “With their subdued brightness, the paintings pulled you into their mystical drama and surrealist playfulness.”
“This is my life,” says the Armenian artist, describing his personal style as something that has never really changed, but simply comes from his deep love for beauty and joie de vivre. A former professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Yerevan, the artist has also created set designs for theatre productions broadcast on national television.
“Where some people associate the smell of freshly baked cookies with being at home, for me, when I was growing up, it was the smell of fresh oil paint,” says his daughter with a fond smile.
“When Louis Meisel, who is a great supporter of musical endeavors throughout the city, offered me his space to curate this concert and exhibit, I was thrilled to broaden GetClassical’s outreach into the arts scene,” Ilona explains. “GetClassical’s mission is to attract new audiences to classical music for a personal presentation of young and accomplished artists in unconventional venues, like the ‘cool’ Zinc Bar, the refined India House, the elegant Gramercy Park Rose Bar, and also to develop relationships with new venues like Midtown Live, a new club managed in association with Webster Hall. Partnership with WWFM allows GetClassical’s performances to be broadcast on the classical radio station, to share these intimate concerts with wider audiences.”
Enthusiastic about the talent she encounters as music journalist for her website GetClassical.org and by her friendships in the New York classical music community, Ilona Oltuski wanted to go a step further and join forces with select artists, presenting them in intimate concerts beyond her writing. “GetClassical aims to further classical music presence within the New York nightlife scene in nontraditional concert venues,” she says. “But what that really means is a true collaboration with the artists. I find it greatly validating that artists return to collaborate with me, because, ‘I get them.’”
GetClassical’s next concert is at Zinc Bar on February 24 at 7 PM, where violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen perform an exciting program packed with premieres by contemporary composers.
Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.
As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then reconfigures, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the conventional wisdom that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?
Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.
And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir.
Missy Mazzoli’s music is hypnotic yet stormy, intricate yet disarmingly transparent. A strong and influential contingent of New York new music fans consider Mazzoli to be the most vital composer so far to emerge in this century. Thursday night, the Miller Theatre saluted her with a “composer portrait” concert of her work for both string quartet and for soloists playing along with prerecorded multitracks. As accessible and vivid as Mazzoli’s compositions are, they require all kinds of extended technique and are far from easy to play – although they seem, as a rule, to be fun to play, and the performers reveled in them.
The Mivos Quartet opened the bill with an alternately kinetic and atmospheric favorite from 2010, Death Valley Junction. Lit up with innumerable, graceful swoops and dives – Mazzoli LOVES glissandos – the piece takes its inspiration from Martha Becket, an octogenarian opera singer who achieved cult status for her one-woman shows in a desolate sagebrush town on the California-Nevada border. The group also ended the first half of the performance with a nimble electroacoustic take of Harp and Altar, a joyously bustling, circling homage to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Violinist Robert Simonds played Dissolve, O My Heart, a very subtle, gentle and distantly plaintive theme and variations based on the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita. Cellist Jody Redhage sang A Thousand Tongues, contemplating issues of honesty and believability in a soaring soprano while playing its remotely disquieted, ambered lines against a hypnotic backing track of electronically blenderized Mazzoli solo piano. Likewise, Violist Nathan Schram got to interact with a backing track of processed viola by Nadia Sirota – with the piece’s clever waves of call-and-response, Schram couldn’t resist breaking into a grin, and the audience was there with him. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge then took centerstage, joined by the string quartet Ethel for His Name Is Jan, a “work in progress,” as Mazzoli put it, moody tectonic shifts anchoring its irresistibly droll, animated arioso vocals. It’s part of a forthcoming opera based on the Lars Von Trier film Breaking the Waves, scheduled to premiere in Philadelphia next year.
Ethel closed out the concert with a blustery yet elegant world premiere, Quartet for Queen Mab, an aptly trippy portrait of a mysterious sprite who spirits people off to a surreal dreamworld. The next “composer portrait” program at the Miller Theatre is Feb 19 at 8 PM with the Mivos Quartet, Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles playing and singing the thorny, challenging music of Stefano Gervasoni. Mazzoli’s art-rock band Victoire are playing the album release show for their intense, richly enveloping, forthcoming cd Vespers for a New Dark Age at le Poisson Rouge at 8 PM on May 7.
It’s likely that there’s a crowd of people who think the idea of playing classical music on bluegrass instruments is flat-out absurd. Then again, music is always evolving, and the musicians pushing that evolution are usually the bravest. The Jake Schepps Quintet have chops to match their utter lack of fear. Wednesday night at Subculture, the five-string banjoist and his group – Ryan Drickey on violin, Jordan Tice on acoustic guitar, Andrew Small on bass and Matt Flinner on mandolin – played an ambitious program that encompassed so-called indie classical as well as Nordic fiddling and a healthy dose of traditional Appalachian music. At worst, they came across as a less fussy take on the Punch Brothers; at best, they took a lot of chances, danced on cinders and came away for the most part unsinged.
The centerpiece of the program was Flinner’s four-part Migration, a vivid, uneasy suite that, as the mandolinist explained to a pretty full house, sought to explore how bluegrass made its way from rural areas to larger population centers like Knoxville and Baltimore. Growing from a stern, terse, ruggedly minor-key gospel theme, it slowly brightened, although it ended with a lingering lack of resolve. Along the way, there were plenty of choice moments for soloists throughout the band, at one point Small pushing a waltz interlude with a practically new wave bassline. And it worked as well as it did, because, as Schepps put it, Flinner comes out of “the tradition” and never lost sight of it, no matter how minimalist, or avant garde, or for that matter, cinematic, the piece became.
Small revealed himself as an inspired country fiddler on an animatedly pulsing, biting, original bluegrass number on which the band was joined by a guest bassist who just happened to be in town. Tice alternated between big, expansive, jazzy chords and nimble flatpicking, particularly on an elaborate, dynamically-charged, waltzing original. Drickey led the group through a bracing number from the Swedish-Norwegian border which gave the quintet a launching pad for plenty of high-octane solos.
The night got off to a slow start with a couple of works by contemporary composers from outside the group. The first was gingerly blues-tinged, with the unfocused yet cautious feel of a student work, one that came across as trying to avoid failure rather than reaching for victory. The second rehashed Steve Reich and Windham Hill with the kind of preciousness that plagues so much of the indie classical demimonde. So when Schepps led the group from there into a mashup of a Bartok Mikrokosmos etude (#87, maybe?) and a high lonesome traditional number, it took awhile for the band to shake off the stiffness. One up-and-coming composer that the group ought to seek out is mandolinist Vivian Li, whose irrepressible, distinctive style is a richly intertwining blend of traditional bluegrass and cutting-edge contemporary composition for traditional folk instruments.
The Jake Schepps Quintet is currently on tour; their next concert is Feb 7 at 8 PM at the Theatre at 291 Gay St. in Washington, VA, tix are $20/$10 18-and-under.