Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Jeremy Udden – Plainville

Sax player Jeremy Udden’s latest cd Plainville is a gentle, laid-back, warm and often very beautiful album. Eighty years ago, country musicians started messing around with jazz and western swing was born; this decade has been much the opposite, with a lot of jazz composers diving into country music. It might seem incongruous that Udden would represent his old Massachusetts hometown (north of Attleboro, over by the Rhode Island border: PawSox territory) with motifs more closely associated with the Old West, but maybe those motifs should be taken out of their usual context – there’s a fondly thoughtful, frequently nostalgic feel to this album. And it’s a real feel-good story, a comeback for Udden, who’d been rendered unable to play for a year while recovering from a debilitating case of vertigo. The lineup here is unorthodox and imaginative, Udden leading the band on alto and soprano sax, Pete Rende on manual pump organ or Fender Rhodes and Brandon Seabrook alternating between banjo and acoustic and electric guitars plus a rhythm section. Stylistically, Udden’s big debt is to Bill Frisell – to say that some of these songs would sound perfectly at home on a recent Frisell album is a compliment well deserved.  

The album’s centerpiece, Christmas Song, is absolutely gorgeous, Udden playing comfortably and soulfully over Nathan Blehar’s warmly incisive nylon-string guitar that gives way to a hushed bass solo and then the band picking it up, capping it with joyously swirling pump organ. It’s a holiday song for anybody wishing for something more substantial than what the radio bombards us with starting the day after Thanksgiving.

Another highlight is the steady, jangly, methodical 695, with the feel of a road song, pushed along by Udden on the cymbals this time. There’s a big crescendo with the Rhodes, then the instruments fall away gracefully, one after the other. The gentle waltz Red Coat Lane is spiked with banjo, a fluttery keyboard riff sneaking its way in mischievously. Put this on and get distracted for a moment, and you might think you hear somebody’s phone going off in the background. The most overtly jazzy of the cuts here, the bustling Big Lick introduces a dark undercurrent, acoustic guitar pedaling a single jarring note beneath a characteristically carefree series of changes. The cd concludes with the thoughtfully evocative Empty Lots, a tone poem of sorts opening with sparse bass over atmospheric organ, the rest of the band easing their way in, rubato. Like the aforemention Mr. Frisell’s latest work, this is a welcoming, heartwarming cd, the kind of album that could hit the spot just as much after a productive Sunday afternoon as for cocktail hour after a rough day at work. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Black Sea Hotel’s Debut Album

Using only their voices, no autotune, synthesizers or computerized effects, Black Sea Hotel’s four singers – Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder – have created the most haunting and beautiful cd of the year so far. Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir, taking both ancient and more modern Bulgarian folk music to a lot of very otherworldly places. It would be easy to say that since they play most of their shows at rock clubs,  they’re sort of the punk rock version of le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Not only are the group extraordinary singers, they’re also arrangers. As the four members revealed in an enlightening interview here recently, they’re doing new things with an impressive repertoire of haunting old songs, paring down large-scale pieces for just their four voices, embellishing works for solo voice as well as folksongs typically played with instrumentation. The result ranges from chilling or hypnotic to downright psychedelic, gorgeous washes of sound panning across the spectrum, moving in and out of the mix, from one harmony to another in places. Sometimes all four voices harmonize. Sometimes they work in pairs, or a single voice against two or three in counterpoint. Between them, they cover the sonic spectrum from contralto to high soprano with an astonishing ability to go from the lowest to highest registers and vice versa in a split second, using Balkan and Middle Eastern scales, eerie microtones, magically precise melismas or sometimes just a pure, crystalline, fullscale wail. But rather than always going for the jugular with the wild whoops and embellishments for which le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are best known, they choose theirs spots judiciously, saving the most elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation for when they really need it.

The cd mixes sixteen songs in both Bulgarian and Macedonian from literally across the centuries. There’s a polyrhythmic dance; a mysterious number about witchcraft with a quite operatic bridge; a dirge about a girl swept away in the river; a Middle Eastern-inflected cautionary tale; the sad story of a drunken pasha; a wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz; the suspenseful account of a singing competition between a young girl and nightingale; and an insistent taunt that with all four voices going full steam becomes practically a sonic lynching. If this album doesn’t end up making the top ten in our Best Albums of the Year list at the end of December, 2009 will have been the best year for music in recorded history. Not bad for a quartet of American women who probably never heard a word of Bulgarian until they were in their teens. Black Sea Hotel play the cd release show at Union Pool at 9 on June 4 on an excellent bill with Sxip Shirey, Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Felix Lajko and Antal Brasnyo at the Schimmel Center, Pace University, NYC 6/1/09

Were Hungarian violinist Felix Lajko and his violist cohort Antal Brasnyo at Bang on a Can on Sunday? Actually not. Carving out new territory embodying elements of gypsy music, classical, jazz and the avante-garde, they would have fit in well at Sunday’s marathon. In their duo performance, Lajko played lead, Brasnyo’s viola functioning much like a harmonium, creating washes of chords anchoring Lajko’s wild glissandos and stark, rapidfire staccato passages. How much was composed and how much was improvised was hard to tell, other than several false endings after which Lajko would meander mysteriously before winding up with a big crescendo or a sudden, cold stop. A couple of the pieces were straight out of the mid-70s Jean-Luc Ponty songbook, fast two-chord jams where Lajko would cavort with a gypsy dance feel. Another was a straight-up four-chord rock melody with a soaring, upbeat chorus.

Lajko switched to zither on a couple of numbers, Brasnyo maintaining the ambience while his partner picked away frenetically (with the size of the auditorium, it would have been nice if the zither, with virtually no sustain, could have been amplified). After a solo series of variations on a gypsy dance by Lajko, the duo played a capitivatingly morphing number that moved from a vintage soul melody to a tango to a joyous dance before closing with another two-chord jam. Despite the blazing speed of pretty much everything they played, neither musician looked like they broke a sweat. Bang on a Can ought to enlist these guys next year. This show was part of the ongoing Extremely Hungary festival, featuring a diverse series of musical, literary and theatrical events running through the end of the year in both New York and Washington, DC.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mark Sinnis at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn NY 5/31/09

Nashville gothic from one of its finest exponents. When Mark Sinnis isn’t playing bass and fronting dark, ferocious rockers Ninth House, he does this scaled-down acoustic project, sometimes backed by revolving cast of A-list characters from the New York underground scene. This time out it was just the powerful baritone singer on acoustic guitar, backed by Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas. Since the Social Distortion-inflected Aerosol and the intro to the Cure-influenced Quiet Change both start as blazing rockers when he plays them with Ninth House, Sinnis backed off the mic to maintain the intimate vibe rather than assaulting everyone with punk rock in a small space.

The rest of the show was a clinic in subtle inflection. Sinnis may be a big belter in his own band, but in a quiet setting he shows off the kind of phrasing that you usually only see in jazz singers. Or in Johnny Cash, an obvious influence. An audience member who’d been at Ninth House’s previous show a couple of weeks ago at Don Pedro’s remarked that hearing his vocals there, “to a woman, was like an hour of chocolate.” This was more like Grand Marnier. The new, minor-key Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, a parable about the death of New York by gentrification, was all barely restrained wrath; the love song A Southern Tale (title track to his new album, recently reviewed here) was exactly the opposite. In between the two extremes the two players did a new Louvin Brothers style country gospel number possible titled Death’s Your Friend that met with considerable nervous laughter, an organ-fueled take of St. James Infirmary and closed with a stripped-down cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky, Sinnis’s voice sailing over funereal organ again. The crowd wouldn’t let them get away without an encore, so they played a terse version of the big Ninth House drunk-driving anthem Follow the Line. Ninth House play Hank’s on June 12 at 11; Sinnis’ next acoustic show is July 12 at Sidewalk at 9.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 6/3/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #420:

Jack Grace – Let Your Mind Do the Talking

The charismatic New York country singer’s finest and darkest hour as a songwriter. This is a haunting, somewhat epic minor-key anthem about a guy out in the sticks somewhere slowly and inexorably losing it. There’s a rough mix on Grace’s Staying Out All Night cd, as well as a live bootleg or two kicking around: in the years when he was a regular in the band, the late Drew Glackin would play lapsteel on this one, bringing the intensity to redline with his fiery solos.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment