Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz Sax Player Brendan Romaneck’s Auspicious Compositions Memorialized in a Superb New Album

This is the saddest way jazz legends are born. At age 24, sax player Brendan Romaneck was just about to record his first full-length album. Impressively, he’d put together a first-class band including powerhouse trumpeter Terrell Stafford. Tragically, before recording could begin, Romaneck was cut down in an accident. Four years after the composer’s untimely demise, several of the musicians he’d originally assembled came together to record some of his tunes along with a sensitive collection of covers. Without any context, this is a good jazz album; it’s also a reminder of what the world lost in April, 2005. Romaneck’s compositions  are ablaze with life, color and clever rhythms: he was clearly an artist with talent and passion that could have gone much further than what he left behind. What’s here offers more than a glimmer of greatness.

The songs her feature either Chris Potter or Steve Wilson on sax, Romaneck’s teacher and mentor Keith Javors on piano, Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn and a rhythm section of Delbert Felix on bass and John Davis on drums. Impressively, the originals are the strongest suit. Romaneck obviously listened widely, as evidenced by Dream Behind the Winter, sounding like Donald Fagen gone latin, busy, bustling Javors piano trading off against balmy Potter tenor in a confidently ambitious arrangement. 3 Steps Ahead of the Spider is a catchy Brubeck-style jazz waltz packed with smart, out-of-the-box devices: suspenseful drums breaking up the piece early on; a leaping, agile piano chart played with gusto by Javors and some arrestingly intense, lightning-fast work by Potter.

The title track, Coming Together is a captivating exercise in circular melody with rousing turns by Wilson, Stafford and Javors, the band playfully running the central hook behind Davis when it comes his turn to step out. The catchy swing tune The Vibe runs from brightly wary Javors piano, to a recklessly allusive Wilson solo, to Felix’ jaunty bass. When the horns follow each other, a phalanx of warriors (or partiers) bounding off to wherever they’re going at the end, the arrangement is exquisite.

The best and most adventurous cut is Minion, Stafford and Wilson’s conversation evocative of what Trane and Dolphy were doing forty years previously, taking turns  maintaining a semblance of sanity while the other gets a chance to vent. At the end, there’s another deliciously blazing horn chart with more devious counterpoint. Another original echoes 70s-era Stevie Wonder, illuminated by a characteristically forceful Stafford solo.

What connection the covers had to Romaneck are not clear, but they’re  also well done. Killing Me Softly with His Song is a clinic in how to skirt a melody and make it interesting; Harold Arlen’s My Shining Hour, which kicks off the album, matches conviviality to a portentous suspense. And Nancy with the Laughing Face emphasizes the ballad’s effortlessly pretty, nocturnal vibe, a casual trio performance by Potter, Felix and Javors. Romaneck’s strength, at least as evidenced here, was not ballads – the two on the cd sound like student works and don’t have the strong, individual stamp he put on his more lively pieces. Now that we have this album, it’s time to hear Romaneck playing his own stuff. It’s a fair assumption that in this day and age, there must be at least a few recordings worthy of at least youtube and quite possibly an album of his own.

Advertisements

November 8, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Complete Fela Catalog To Be Reissued for the First Time in North America

Great news for Afrobeat fans – to coincide with the new musical FELA! opening on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on November 23, Knitting Factory Records will not only be reissuing the entire Fela catalog on cd in digipacks with reduced images of the original artwork, they’ll also be reissuing the albums on vinyl as well over the next eighteen months. What’s more, they’ll also be reissuing the entire extant catalog of Koola Lobitos, Fela’s 1960s high-life band.

The first of the releases is the greatest-hits compilation The Best of the Black President, originally compiled in 1999 (you can hear the whole thing on last.fm). While it makes a fine introduction to the iconic Nigerian freedom fighter/bandleader, it’s necessarily flawed by the constraints of trying to cram as much essential Fela as possible into one package. It simply isn’t possible. Fela Kuti’s genius was to package revolution as sexually charged thirty-minute dance vamps – for Fela, a short song clocked in at about eight or nine minutes, so the concept of editing these frequently album-long jams down to something approximating their essence is simply a lost cause. While The Best of the Black President does contain full-length versions of the iconic Zombie and Sorrow Tears and Blood, the edited or truncated segments from most of the other revolutionary anthems here – including his signature song Coffin for Head of State – work as dance grooves and little more. To resonate at full power, these numbers need to be heard – and under ideal circumstances – danced to in their entirety. Which makes the pending reissue of the full Fela catalog something to salivate over: fans will be able to pick and choose from the original releases.

It may also come as a shock to discover that the Fela musical actually seems as if it might be worth seeing: a listen to some of the original cast recordings reveals that the musicians (that’s right, a real Afrobeat band, not just a synthesizer and a cd with live vocals) and the actors seem up to the challenge: they’ve actually taken their subject seriously. This isn’t the same guys who played in the pit (or on the soundtrack) for the Abba musical shifting gears and trying their hand at psychedelic Nigerian funk. It looks like they’re trying to be the real deal.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – God’s Favorite Band

Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a  joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”

As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

An ancient-sounding  instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.

But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was  one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Frank London/Lorin Sklamberg – Tsuker-zis

Perhaps the greatest thing about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled. In a sense, it could be said that it embodies the best of all worlds. The new collaboration between the “legendary trumpeter of the klezmer underground,” as one recent concert flyer described Frank London, and former Klezmatics accordionist/frontman Lorin Sklamberg certainly could be categorized as such. With contributions from ex-Psychedelic Fur Knox Chandler on guitar and effects, Ara Dinkjian adding gorgeously clanging, plinking and plunking textures on Middle Eastern lutes including the oud, saz and cumbus, and world music percussionist Deep Singh on tabla and dhol, the cd – recently out on Tzadik – alternates between boisterous and haunting reinterpretations of traditional Jewish liturgical music. Is this klezmer? Folk music? Jazz? Rock? Well, it’s all of the above: the melodies are as rustic as would be expected, but the playing, the arrangements and the production all draw deeply on what’s happened in the hundreds or maybe even thousand years since these tunes first saw the light of day. This is a beautiful and plaintive album and it also really rocks from time to time.

A couple of the tracks here turn worship into slinky, undulating Levantine dances, bouncing along on the beat of the tabla. Another couple have an upbeat dance feel and a Celtic tinge to the melodies. Still a couple more could be called shtetl ska, even if they go back long before ska was invented. The album’s twelfth track, a lament about being overrun by invaders, showcases London’s facility for channeling diverse moods both with and without a mute. After that, Sklamberg gets to breathlessly rattle off a Hasidic acrostic for a lyric while the band scrambles to keep up – and then Chandler throws in a big blazing arena rock solo where London then picks up the melody again, seamlessly  yet exhilaratingly as middle-period ELO would do. The ambient final cut nicks the intro from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, an expansive showcase for the whole band and especially Sklamberg’s rapt, incantatory vocals.

London’s playing is characteristically soulful, whether swaying through a sly muted passage or with half-balmy, half-ecstatic clarity. It’s also particularly pleasant to see how well Sklamberg’s voice has aged: it’s lower than it was in his Klezmatics days, the petulance of that era replaced with an unaffected, very welcome gravitas. This album ought to appeal to a vastly wider audience than your typical collection of traditional Jewish ngunim, while providing a decisive answer to the age-old question, does Rabbi Saul of Mozditz really rock? Answer: an emphatic ja.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment