Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Tommy T – The Prester John Sessions

Prester John was a mythical medieval contradiction in terms, a benign despot whose apocryphal, abundant kingdom sparked many fruitless expeditions to locate it. One popular theory at the time was that it was in Ethiopia. Centuries later, Ethiopian-born Gogol Bordello bassist Tommy T has used the myth as a springboard for one of the funnest, most hypnotic albums of the year. If the snowfall of recent days has gotten you down, this utterly psychedelic, summery cd will get you up again. It doesn’t sound much like Gogol Bordello (though there is a deliciously fat reggae remix of that band’s song Lifers at the end as a bonus cut), but in its own way it’s just as good. It’s a groove-driven, unique blend of Afrobeat, oldschool roots reggae and classic dub. There are echoes of Ethiopian jazz, notably Mulatu Astatke of Broken Flowers fame, but the closest approximation is another groundbreaking album that came out about a year and a half ago, the sprawling Dub Colossus project.

The first track sets the stage for much of the rest of the album, a catchy reggae number with bubbly organ and tasty, melodic bass prominent in the mix, but also in tricky 7/8 time, with screechy massinqo (Ethiopian fidddle) playing what are often essentially lead guitar lines. If that isn’t original, you decide what is. The following cut is slinky, dubwise reggae with brief lyrics in Amharic. Then they go jangly with an almost Appalachian feel and minor key acoustic guitar: from a distance, it could be Tinariwen.

The Eighth Wonder kicks off with a hypnotic early 70s style funk/soul groove with Fender Rhodes piano and a blazing horn chart, massinqo sailing blissfully overhead. They follow that with a gripping, dark dub rearrangement of a couple of ancient folksongs. East-West Express is a juicy dancefloor vamp, sort of Fela gone further east. Cleverly nicking the hook from Marley’s Crazy Baldhead, the gorgeously eerie, rustically-tinged Tribute to a King segues into a bounding dance, practically a jig with massinqo, string synth and wah guitar. It works deliriously well. The album wraps up with a soulful dialogue between scorned lovers and then a strikingly contemplative, atmospheric number that finally bursts into flame when a bright, insistent horn section takes over. All the way through, the playing is inspired, and the production is far deeper and heavier than your typical digital recording. It works just as well on headphones as it does with a boisterous crowd. World music fans and stoners alike will be all over this one.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and Alexandra Joan at Trinity Church, NYC 12/10/09

Cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir and pianist Alexandra Joan wrapped up this year’s chamber music series here on a note that began fluidly and warmly and ended with riveting intensity, a performance that managed to be both cutting-edge and true to the spirit of the compositions, no small achievement. Throughout the hourlong concert, they displayed a remarkable chemistry, each musician clearly tuned in to the other. After a heartfelt, coloristic take of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, their keen sense of interplay became most evident on the show’s middle number, Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 69. It’s something of throwback to the baroque, a trio suite loaded with call-and-response that seems straight out of Haydn. When a boisterous pizzicato passage arrived for Thorsteinsdottir, she attacked it with a raw, percussive abandon that threatened to snap the strings on her 1790 cello. It was a lot more punk rock than early Romantic, and the fiery treble tonalities she achieved were marvelously effective. Alexandra Joan provided vivid, sustained rivulets alongside her, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness, even gravitas in her style and at the end of the allegro vivace that concludes the sonata, she let loose an insistent, impatient staccato, as if to say, bring on the night. And when the night came she made it her own.

And so did Thorsteinsdottir. Messiaenesque, defiantly neither major nor minor, unwilling to offer resolution and utterly inconsolable, Benjamin Britten’s Sonata in C, Op. 65 was bone-chilling and utterly impossible to turn away from, cello again slamming out against the darkness, particularly during the pizzicato scherzo that comprises the second movement. The duo encored with the second movement of the Janacek cello sonata, meant to evoke the occult, and it was a powerfully apt choice, maintaining the darkness but raising the energy level to the point where the crowd could exit under their own power. That’s how effective their rendition of the Britten was.  

Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir’s next New York concert is with the ACJW Ensemble on January 19 at Paul Hall at Juilliard, a Romantic bill featuring both Schumanns, Robert and Clara; one can also wish for a reunion with Alexandra Joan, playing something similar.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Minamo – Kuroi Kawa – Black River

Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama,  much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score.  It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.

Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.

The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole.  The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strange Girls Sing: Rachelle Garniez, Carol Lipnik and Little Annie at Galapagos, Brooklyn NY 12/9/09

The concert was billed as “Strange Girls Sing.” Which was something of a misnomer. Rachelle Garniez, Carol Lipnik and Little Annie aren’t really that strange at all, they’re just a reminder – and a harbinger – of an era where quality rather than trendiness or effeteness is celebrated. The way Galapagos is set up, it holds only a fraction of the people a similar warehouse-sized club would, yet all the same it was heartwarming to see all the pods and tables fill up as the night got underway. People, there is a renaissance in bloom and this particular evening was a prime example.

Rachelle Garniez never plays anything remotely the same way twice. Part steampunk goddess, part noir cabaret chanteuse, she’s just about the most quotable performer out there – yeah, she’s been reviewed here a few times before, but that’s because she always makes good copy. She took the stage solo with her accordion. “It must be nice to be an ice queen, colder than ice cream but not as sweet,” she mused. “This little song is about hypothermia…when hypothermia sets in, everything begins to look wonderful.” With that, she launched into the swinging country anthem January Wind, its blithe, Hank Williams-esque tune belying the anguish of the lyrics.

After that, she went into a digression about frogs, how their hibernation so closely resembles a death state, and how some of them ooze a chemical with psychedelic properties. And followed that with the bluesy Medicine Man, squeaky vocalese giving way to the out-of-control orgasmic wailing on the album version – but only for a little while. Then she switched to piano and lit into an Asian melody that gradually took shape and became the tongue-in-cheek yet viscerally poignant letdown anthem After the Afterparty. My House of Peace, her most recent single on Jack White’s label, made a good contrast with its carefree barrelhouse stomp, but the atmosphere turned ominously warmer quickly with the snide apocalypse anthem The Best Revenge, ending with characteristically understated drama, a little boy cluelessly enjoying himself while the thermometer rises yet another notch. She encored on accordion with the single most scathing song of the night, People Like You, as much a tribute to a dangerous, infinitely more interesting New York gone forever as it is savage dismissal of the clueless, pampered children and their developer collaborators whose attempts to turn the city into a suburban mall town have been tragically successful. “You could sleep on Rockaway Beach,” she related. “Back in the day they didn’t have SPF in suntan lotion – a handful of sand from Rockaway Beach from back in the day would hook you up with your minimum RDA.” And then launched into the song’s breezy Rickie Lee Jones swing.  In the middle, she sarcastically imagined sitting across from a member of the permanent-tourist class: “I like you in spite of those times you were looking over my shoulder to see if there was someone more important in the room.”

Carol Lipnik’s roots are similar, and her phantasmagorical, carnivalesque songs often take on a defiantly freakish, punk edge, but lately she’s been equal parts sideshow siren and mystic (notably in her ongoing collaboration with John Kelly). This time out she brought along a reverb pedal which she’d hit when she really wanted to drive a crescendo home, when the uppermost reaches of her four-octave  range weren’t enough. Backing her was the reliably gripping Dred Scott on piano, in particularly terse mode – as adventurous as his own darkly tinged jazz compositions can be, he held back to what was necessary and in doing that left a powerful mark.  Lipnik opened with the noir waltz Last Dance and immediately took the energy level to redline, vocalizing a lightning-fast, Coltrane-esque melisma somewhere in the stratosphere. Scott, dressed in his best Raymond Chandler coat and fedora, brought considerable suspense to a newer number, My Firefly. The rest of Lipnik’s happily hourlong set alternated between an offhanded savagery – as in the casually eerie drowning anthem When I Was a Mermaid – and rapt, soulful ecstasy, subdued a bit with considerable gentleness on the hypnotic Two-Headed Calf. It may be headed for the museum tomorrow, Lipnik related, “But tonight it is alive and in the north field with its mother.” She wound up the set with the utterly macabre Cuckoo Bird, Scott playing minor against major for the first verse, and then an audience-participation version of the Michael Hurley (and more recently, Cat Power) cult classic Werewolf, coming down in front of the stage to lead the crowd in a gleeful howl-along.

“You know the sad clown? I’m the opposite. Crying on the outside, laughing on the inside,” Little Annie explained (not surprisingly, Garniez has described herself the exact same way). Annie and her longtime conspirator, Botanica keyboardist Paul Wallfisch had just returned from another European tour, and she was running on endorphins, creating a carnival of soul that would only get more dadaesque as the evening went on, and it did, for over an hour. With her contralto growl, she’s been described as something akin to a white Eartha Kitt, and she was dressed for the part in perfectly matching black skirt, heels, hat and shimmery black jacket. “Tomorrow we’ll all have wines and we’ll all be fine…Lenox Avenue, Coney Island and Istanbul will all be rolled into one,” she explained in a rapidfire rap number that could be her version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Her peppy little beachside tableau where people “shake their Bootsy Collins in the sand” revealed itself as a vicious anti-trendoid diatribe about wealthy New York newcomers “speaking loudly on their cellphones making plans…we do not read the papers because they’re depressing and we do not understand.”

The rest of the show mixed several requiems with a varying tongue-in-cheek quality along with a long digression about the karmic consequences of reporting misbehaving cabbies to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, a little straight-up noir cabaret (the Kid Congo Powers collaboration Good Ship Nasty Queen) and another rap number, Wallfisch taking a rare opportunity to play acoustic guitar onstage and proving as incisive as he is on piano. Annie marveled at the shaggy carpet that was making her work twice as hard when she kicked up her heels: “If I had a bedroom this is what I’d put on the floor.”

“You have a bedroom?” Wallfisch seemed surprised.

“No, that’s for people who sleep,” Annie replied, and then they resumed the show with a gospel-inflected number, more noir cabaret, a cover of the old pop standard Smile, the offhandedly defiant post-rehab broadside The Other Side of Heartache, a segue into Strange Love and by now it was past midnight and nobody had left.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Graham Dechter – Right on Time

Jazz guitarist Graham Dechter’s debut as a bandleader is auspicious to say the least. A John Clayton protégé, he made his debut with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at nineteen. Four years down the road, as befits a guitarist whose main gig is a big band, Dechter eschews gratuitous solo lines in favor of an assured, frequently aggressive chordal attack which nonetheless abounds with subtleties in voicing and shading. He plays straight through his amp without effects, generally with a round, slightly bassy tone that grows to include just a hint of distortion, threatening to combust at any second, when he feels like sending a crescendo over the edge. What’s most impressive about this is that Dechter does it mostly with either familiar or canonical material – it’s a cover album, but the interpretations are unquestionably his. It’s quite a ride.

Backing him are his bandmates: his mentor Clayton on bass, Jeff Hamilton (whose latest as bandleader, Symbiosis, is also excellent) on drums, and the vividly lyrical Tamir Hendelman on piano. The album kicks off a briskly swinging, meaty take on Low Down (by Thad Jones, NOT Boz Scaggs), following with a Jobim cover, Wave, subtly and effectively bluesy with a brisk and confident Dechter crescendo followed amusingly by Clayton’s tiptoeing around, up to a sneaky false ending from Hamilton. The group take their time with The Nearness of You (Hoagy Carmichael), giving it plenty of room to breathe, Hendelman’s solo echoing Dechter’s casual terseness.

I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues (one of three Ellington tunes here) is a showcase for Dechter’s sly aplomb with subtle hammer-ons and tremolo picking. The comparison might seem over-the-top, but Dechter’s seemingly intuitive feel for the blues and fresh chordal approach remind of a young Matt Munisteri (albeit without the bluegrass), especially in the suaveness of In a Mellow Tone. Here he eggs his bandmates on, to the point where Hendelman smacks his way in with some impatient staccato as the first guitar solo winds up, then nips at Dechter’s heels for the rest of the song. And when it’s Clayton’s turn to step out, he comes in with a train whistle. Otherwise, Johnny Hodges’ Squatty Roo is a lickety-split romp full of post-Wes Montgomery guitar articulation; his saxist dad Brad Dechter’s bluesy title track works as both clinic in keeping it simple and on track, and an exercise in trick endings; and the old standard Broadway provides ample opportunity for Dechter to muscle up its horn chart. Considering the amount of time the players on this album have clocked together, it’s no surprise to hear such an abundance of convivial, good-natured jousting and interplay. Dechter’s wunderkind years may be behind him now, but with a whole career in front of him, it’ll be very interesting to watch him develop. Let’s hope he starts playing his own compositions – if this cd is any indication, they ought to be captivating. And if not, he’s made a mark as an individual, first-class interpreter worth watching over the months and years to come.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment