Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jennifer Niceley Live at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 2/7/08

Move over, Eleni Mandell. Make some room, Rachelle Garniez. Neko Case, scooch. Meet the next great noir chanteuse: Jennifer Niceley. Tonight the Tennessee singer/guitarist held the crowd at the Rockwood spellbound throughout her all-too-brief, barely half-hour set. Singing with a smoky, slightly breathy contralto rich with jazz and soul inflections and playing a hollowbody Danelectro Les Paul copy with just a hint of distortion, she proved as adept at sunny soul music as the eerily glimmering, reverb-drenched, slowly swaying minor-key ballads that she clearly loves so well. Her best song of the evening, possibly titled Shadows & Mountains, describes a woman taking a long, David Lynch-esque drive through the night. At the end of the song, after she’s finally gotten past them, she ends up at the edge of a lake praying in the dark that everything will be all right. Niceley followed this with two more slow, torchy minor-key numbers from her new album, Luminous, that were equally chilling.

Growing up in the country in East Tennessee, she explained, her father was a huge Jimmy Rodgers fan, so she played a slightly jazzed-up version of one of his songs. She also treated the audience to her own rearrangement of the Bobby Bland/Little Milton blues classic Blind Man (which she retitled Blind Woman), a showcase not only for her vocals but also for her lead guitarist, who played the most riveting solo we’ve heard all year long. Using a slide, he swooped around, pushing the beat as if to mimic the sound of backward masking (sounds like somebody in this band’s been listening to Jim Campilongo!). At the end, he abandoned the effect and flew up the fretboard to the highest registers, throwing in a couple of lickety-split, Ravi Shankar-ish licks to seal the deal. The crowd was awestruck. It’s early in the year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this turned out to be the best show of 2008. If the aforementioned Mme. Case, Garniez or Mandell are your cup of tea, or if you love Snorah Jones’ voice but wish the girl would grow up and learn how to write a damn song, don’t miss the chance to get to know Jennifer Niceley.

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February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wild Adventures in Pipaland

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the great musical adventurers of our time. The Chinese expat pipa player/singer has opened for Bjork at the Garden and played a solo set of Thelonious Monk arranged for pipa at Carnegie Hall. Her instrument is a Chinese lute whose name derives from the sounds the strings make when hit with up or down strokes, either “pi” or “pa.” Accomplished in a vast variety of styles including traditional Chinese, jazz and western classical music, she clearly delights in blending these styles together to create a sound that is uniquely her own. With her literally panstylistic group the Blue Pipa Trio, featuring Steve Salerno on electric guitar and Dean Johnson on upright bass, she played a set that was as exciting as it was challenging and sometimes absolutely baffling to the older, lunchtime crowd gathered at Trinity Church this afternoon.

The group opened with a rearrangement of a traditional Chinese instrumental, Salerno impressing with a soulful, bluesy solo toward the end. The next piece, Dancing with the Moon, an attractively nocturnal, traditional number saw Johnson playing some amazing, Stanley Clarke-style fills, all swoops, dives and even high harmonics. He had the treble turned up all the way on his pickup, making every note distinct. Min and Salerno played graceful cascades against each other, sometimes changing up the rhythm and playing against the beat.

Min then put down her pipa and sang what she termed “an early Chinese pop song,” possibly titled The Sweetness of Flowers at Night. Johnson played what was essentially a pipa arrangement on bass, fast staccato runs around the simple, torchy chord changes. Although the lyrics were incomprehensible to non-Chinese speakers, Min allowed an eeriness in her vocals: the song would fit perfectly in a vintage David Lynch movie.

The most difficult composition on the bill was a tongue-in-cheek number called Chinese Take-Out, a bustling, dissonant instrumental wherein Min swooped and dove, using a slide, when she wasn’t frenetically wailing on the strings, evoking the cacophony of a takeout joint at lunchtime. In the middle of the piece, a strikingly pretty, quietly contemplative bridge suddenly appeared, perhaps where the exhausted kitchen crew finally gets to relax with some tea. But then the dinner crowd descends and everything starts up again. Uh oh, heads up, here comes another huge, steaming pot, watch your backs!

She explained how her song Red Haired Boy Dancing With Golden Snake was a medley, a traditional American folksong followed by its Chinese counterpart. “All Americans know Red Haired Boy, right?” she asked quizzically, perhaps surprised at the dead silence from the audience. Nobody said a word: this wasn’t Nashville, after all. The arrangement of the first was surprisingly close to the original, and the segue into the second part was seamless.

The best songs on the program were originals. “This song was inspired by a poem from the Tang dynasty. It’s called Poem from the Tang Dynasty,” she told the crowd, and followed with a stately, thoughtful, understatedly precise number. Nanjing Monk was a stark and smashingly successful attempt to blend Thelonious Monk (at his most accessible and melodic) into traditional Chinese folk. The trio closed on a high note with Fascinating New Year, ostensibly an attempt to bring some Gershwin to the mainland. Min began it with a couple of vocal whoops, using the song to air out her voice and show off her spectacular range. Not only did she hit the high notes, she proved that she knows her blues, growling and bending notes with a dexterity that would do Eartha Kitt proud.

Perhaps not surprisingly, even though Min is a star in world music circles, the church was only about half-full. Sadly, there is a city bus stop just a few feet from the church entrance, and the screech of the alarm that sounds as the bus doors open, earsplitting outside the doors, was still painfully audible above the music on more than one occasion. The edifice dates from a more civilized time, when insulation from such sonic assaults wasn’t necessary: it’s likely that the downtown lunch crowd has become aware of this and stays away. Until there are no more alarms going off during concerts here – fat chance of that, considering that this has been a problem since 1997 – this beautiful, historic landmark, with its excellent sonics inside, cannot really serve as a viable place for music. Or anything else, during the day at least.

Min Xiao-Fen’s next show is a solo gig at the Queens Museum of Art on February 17 at 2 PM in celebration of the Chinese New Year (Year of the Rat, which is what it is every year in New York), on a bill with Ishigure Masayo on Japanese koto and Yoon Jeong Heo on Korean geomungo.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Bedsit Poets Live at Banjo Jims, NYC 2/6/08

This show validates our Rainy Day Theory, that the ideal time to go out is during a monsoon or a blizzard because there are hardly any crowds to compete with, and the musicians onstage, driven by anger and frustration at the skies, often turn in an incandescent show. Even minus the big stage and big powerful PA system that the Bedsit Poets are used to – and also minus their bass player – they still delivered a lush set full of sweeping grandeur and soaring three-part harmonies. Lead guitarist Mac Randall’s Fender clanged and sang like a Rickenbacker; drummer Nancy Polstein had absolute command of the room with her subtle, quietly nuanced rimshots and accents (and played piano on one song, impressively well), while singers Amanda Thorpe and Ed Rogers traded parts and jokes and dazzled with their voices. Both of these two British expats love their 60s rock – if there’s ever another Austin Powers movie, this band should do the soundtrack – and sing as if they were brought up on it, which perhaps they were. They opened with the catchy Simple Twist of Emotion, from their debut album The Summer That Changed (whose deliciously jangly title track they also played). On a new number, perhaps titled Misery, Rogers clearly enjoyed playing a raffish, underworldly character versus Thorpe’s straitlaced persona. After a beautiful, darkly jangly 6/8 ballad sung by Thorpe, they played a bossa song with lots of harmonies, everyone in the band’s frontline singing a different lyric at one point, Randall obviously reveling in the complexities of the melody (titled Every Day I Fall in Love with You Again, maybe?)

“This one Amanda wrote in five minutes,” said Rogers with a straight face, as the band launched into an impressively bluesy cover of Dylan’s You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, Randall tossing off a few spot-on Bloomfield/Langhorne licks at the end. They ended the set with a big slow anthem evocative of the Church, its gorgeous, arpeggiated melody unfurling slowly and majestically, and closed with an original that Rogers said was a tribute to T Rex. What a treat to be able to hear such an inspiring, uplifting show in such an intimate setting.

February 7, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment