Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Scratches – Screaming Softly

This is an album with more than a few “did you just hear that” moments. “I take the shape of my container,” the Scratches‘ pink-haired frontwoman/cellist Ariana sings nonchalantly (that’s the song title – it’s a water metaphor). “Some things taste better standing up” – that’s another song title, maybe not a song that screamed out to be written, but it’s a good thing this band did it instead of someone else. Their second cd Screaming Softly makes a good rainy day album for people too hungover to go out to the deli, or for winding down if you aren’t yet planning on falling asleep. The Scratches weld classical influences to skewed, sometimes brooding piano-based pop songs – imagine a quirky version of early ELO with a better sense of humor. Piano, violin and cello serve as the main instruments along with occasional percussion, acoustic guitar and mandolin. Ariana has the dramatic, full-voiced delivery of someone with a lot of classical training but she comes across as too imaginative and restless to be satisfied with just one style of music.

Many of the songs are strung together with little miniature instrumentals, the kind of interludes that art-rock bands in the 70s would use to facilitate segues between larger pieces (or just never finished by the time they went into the studio). The best of these is All the Machines Are Screaming, which sets bracing, staccato cello over ambient violin with mandolin and piano. This Begins With Mumbling And Piano explains precisely how the cd starts off, like a live recording with the crowd waiting for the band to take the stage. It’s an eerie, percussive little number that pounds along with piano and strings. “Can you live all your dreams without me?” Ariana asks nonchalantly. I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get There Now is a catchy, artsy, breathless minor-key piano pop song in somewhat of a Greta Gertler vein. The group sings as a choir, somewhat sheepishly on the piquantly titled In the Afternoon I Smell The Pigments Changing.

The most memorable track here is Pack Up Your Box of Crayons, a noir cabaret number with roughhewn strings and a neat little acoustic guitar solo. “We don’t like to worry,” Ariana advises, although it’s hard to tell if she’s being sarcastic. The cd ends with a practically ten-minute, hypnotically effective exercise in minimalism, Gamble and You’ll Get Bombed. Not everything here is as it seems – there’s a lot going on below the surface and to the Scratches’ credit they do it simply and tersely. And have a lot of fun in the process.

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September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Dave Rivello Ensemble – Facing the Mirror

This cd is something of a feel-good story. Jazz composer/conductor Dave Rivello is a Bob Brookmeyer protege and the influence is clearly audible here. Recorded in 2002 but just recently released, this cd features Rivello leading his Rochester, New York-based twelve-piece jazz orchestra through an inspired set of eight mostly robust originals. Like his colleagues Jim McNeely, JC Sanford and Maria Schneider, Rivello is pushing the envelope with big band jazz  – this cd only raises the intrigue of what he may have been up to in the intervening years. As with the best big bands, there’s plenty of grandeur and majesty on this album but also an impressive out-of-the-box imagination. Rivello is especially adept at dynamics, frequently interspersing brief, incisive solo drum passages as a segue or to take a crescendo down a notch. His tradeoffs and thematic variations can be rhythmic as well as melodic. He likes a pulse – the piano here is an integral part of the rhythm section. Rivello is clever and often devious – he can’t resist a trick ending, or three, and there’s maybe just as much interplay between the orchestra and the soloists as there is between the individual players. Throughout, the compositions show off a strong sense of melody and an equally strong sense of purpose. As long as they go on – frequently more than ten minutes at a clip – these songs take a definable trajectory. They go somewhere. This is your chance to get to know this guy before he’s famous.

The opening track, One by One by One works a reggaeish vamp into a soul shuffle, Red Wierenga‘s piano taking a deliberate solo against the horn riffs to a big bright crescendo and the first of what will be an innumerable series of trick endings throughout the cd. There’s a defiant satisfaction to how Rivello lets the darkly tinged latin vamp breathe as the second track, Of Time and Time Past, unwinds with the warm effect of a good chianti. As the orchestra rises and falls, the plaintiveness remains,very evocative of Pam Fleming‘s work, particularly when Mike Kaupa‘s trumpet is flying overhead. Stealing Space builds a tense, noir-tinged intro to a quick crescendo, pits balmy tenor against the casual, ambient swell of the horns, then starts to scurry and bounce all the way into a deliciously mysterioso passage by the rhythm section. The rhythmic tradeoffs between piano, bass and drums are exquisite, and the way the rhythm section intermingles between the swells and blasts as the piece winds up are very captivating as well. The drum/orchestra tension recurs on the next track.

The standout cut here is Beyond the Fall, towering, resonant and powerful as the trombones take the central phrase to a roaring, dramatic, low-register swell. Matt Pivec‘s soprano sax solo plays off Wierenga’s Donald Fagen-esque, murkily minimalist chordal work to a big squalling crescendo as the horns circle overhead in menacing anticipation. And then it’s back to the ferocity of the intro. The Path of Innocence begins atmospherically and features a beautiful, Middle Eastern-inflected tenor solo by Jose Encarnacion and then some memorably fugal work by Wierenga, righthand echoing the left. The concluding cut is a brief, comfortable nocturne that would work perfectly as a tv theme. Now the operative question: when can we expect something more from Rivello? If this is any indication, it should be exciting to say the least.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Monika Jalili – Elan

This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.

Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.

Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.

Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):

Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,

Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Song of the Day 9/4/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Friday’s song is #327:

Radio Birdman – Hit Them Again

Characteristic pyrotechnics from the Australian garage-punk legends’ Radios Appear album, 1979, a co-write with Ron Asheton. Deniz Tek’s excoriating noise solo as the song burns its way out is pure adrenaline. Mp3s are everywhere – and here’s the Visitors doing the song in 2008 live!

September 4, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment