A fearlessly iconoclastic, mostly successful attempt to reinterpret the cutting edge of three hundred years ago via the cutting edge of now. Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s formidable chops are matched by a laserlike emotional intelligence – for her, playing Bach seems to be a treasure hunt. Last night at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dinnerstein drew a gemlike, detailed map of the intimacies and intricacies within a selection of segments from the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue as well as the D Minor and F Minor Concertos (BMV 1052 and 1056), accompanied by the estimable American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME).
Among the joys of playing Bach is the challenge of bringing to life the incredible range of emotion in the compositions without jumping the rails, without falling back on the tricks of the Romantic trade, i.e. dynamics that weren’t typically utilized in the classical music of Bach’s era. Dinnerstein has famously topped the classical music charts with her warmly legato interpretations of Bach – this time out, she put more of an individual stamp on the music than she usually does, adding an impressive forcefulness to that legato and taking some judicious liberties with the time signature. Most of that was limited to intros and outros, but there were moments where Dinnerstein would add or pull back for a microsecond when a particularly poignant phrase or emotionally charged chord would resonate more strongly. It worked like a charm, notably in the Well-Tempered Clavier pieces: the plaintive midsection of the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C Sharp (BWV 872) and the glimmering, shadowy whisper-and-response of Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E (BWV 878). That even such subtle dynamics would be so impactful speaks equally to the quality of the performer and the material. Hubristic? Maybe, but not compared to, say, Yngwie Malmsteen.
New music titans ACME didn’t run up against any resistance that wouldn’t disappear with more rehearsal and familiarity with the material (although it’s impossible to get through Juilliard without being on relatively comfortable terms with Bach). The quartet of Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata on violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and ensemble leader Clarice Jensen on cello squared off as something of a string section backing Dinnerstein’s tersely and exquisitely voiced rock band on the D Minor Concerto. As the night went on, they loosened up – within an Art of the Fugue segment, the procession of textures from Kelli Kathman’s flute, to Alicia Lee’s bass clarinet, to Eric Huebner’s harmonium and then back to Dinnerstein were a rigorous yet joyously athletic game of hot potato. And the vibraphone, played with smart understatement by Chris Thompson, made a worthy out-of-the-box addition to the textural feast. At the end, on the F Minor Concerto, the string quartet cut loose with Dinnerstein from the first few bars, discovering a vivid tango melody, then in the third movement employing a playful and tremendously effective recurrent pianissimo accent at the end of a series of sprightly phrases to add considerable depth.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #179:
The Boomtown Rats – Rain
Fearing that American audiences might misconstrue the Rats’ big 1985 Roxy Music-inspired UK hit Dave as a love song from one man to another (it’s not – it’s a sympathetic cautionary tale directed at a friend whose drinking has gotten the best of him), the band’s label had them redo the song with a new title, Rain. One has to wonder why, because as with the rest of the band’s UK hits, it didn’t go anywhere stateside. From their last dismal gasp of an lp, In the Long Grass.
This is like an anthology of the world’s most interesting Middle Eastern bands, except that it’s one guy all by himself. Origine Orients, his fifth cd, is one of the most stunningly imaginative albums of recent years. Abaji’s syncretic style reflects both his mixed Greek/Turkish heritage and his other career as an inventor of instruments – notably the oud-guitar prominently featured here, a fretless creation with a double set of nylon strings. Drawing on such diverse elements as levantine dance music, Lebanese ballads, American blues, indie rock and singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Abaji is literally a one-man band – or make that an orchestra. A collector as well as inventor, he plays bouzouki, saz (Turkish lute), Colombian sax, flute, blues harp, fiddle and all sorts of percussion instruments, singing in five different languages in an impassioned baritone, equal parts Mediterranean balladeer and western rocker. Because he draws on so many diverse styles, he can sound like a whole lot of people, but the obvious comparison is devious New York Middle Eastern multistylists Tribecastan.
The album’s opening Middle Eastern riff quickly morphs into a circular indie rock theme. The second cut, Desert to Desert is an insistent slide guitar blues played on a bouzouki with Abaji using an eerie wooden flute for a slide! The single best song on the album is the ominously gorgeous bouzouki rock ballad Menz Baba, which sounds like it could be an acoustic version of a Botanica song, but with vocals in Armenian. Abaji winds it up with a towering, anguished vocal crescendo. Then he brings it down with a pensive solo Colombian sax taqsim.
Building from simple blues harp and spare percussion to a big frenetic buildup with saz and cymbal crashing, Saz Dance vividly evokes New York panstylists Hazmat Modine, right down to the crazed Wade Schuman-esque vocalese. Likewise, Anatolia, an acoustic art-rock instrumental in 6/8, evokes legendary Turkish rockers MFO with Abaji whistling over his apprehensive, intensely strummed saz. The other songs here include a long, evocatively rustic fiddle taqsim; a hauntingly catchy acoustic rai-rock song; a spare ballad that builds to a lickety-split, almost bluegrass tune; and a trio of songs that smashingly blend Django swing and flamenco with intensely soulful Middle Eastern flourishes.
The closing title track is a vividly torchy blues played on the low-register Colombian sax, which wouldn’t be out of place on a recent JD Allen album. That’s keeping good company, to say the least. If there’s any album that’s been released recently for people with diverse taste in music, this is definitely it!
Tall Tall Trees didn’t play shit tonight. To be more precise, they didn’t play Shit, their funniest song – and they have many. If there’s one New York band that screams out SUMMER FESTIVAL, it’s Tall Tall Trees. On the coldest night of the year so far, they brought a sly, slinky midsummer cookout vibe to the comfy stone basement spot that if rumor is to be believed is threatened with extinction (stay tuned). Beyond the fact that it would be a shame – not to mention a considerable loss to the Columbia student community – if the makeshift club closed, it was especially nice to be able to see these guys play without having to peer over the shoulders of the usual hordes who come out to see them in Manhattan locations further south.
These guys’ sound is indelibly their own, part oldtimey blues/gospel revivalists, part bluegrass and part jam band. Bassist Ben Campbell played snaky, swaying lines while Matthias Kunzli stomped and pushed the band on a multicultural mix of percussion instruments, guitarist Kyle Senna and frontman/banjo player Mike Savino artfully and amusingly trading off licks. The one big jam moment of the night came early, a bubbling cauldron between the two on a blissful version of Spaceman, one of the more psychedelic numbers on the band’s debut album (very favorably reviewed here back in August). A new number, the ragtime-inflected Walk of Shame, shamelessly chronicles the kind of stuff we do when we’ve had too much and we forget that we’re basically still at work.
“This is a traditional one,” Savino deadpanned, then led the band through another new song, Chocolate Jesus, a thoughtful digression on the kind of candy bar that even an Almond Joy can’t compare with. After a couple of easygoing, easy-to-like oldtime-flavored numbers, they wrapped up their too-brief set with a request, a fiery, incisive version of Sallie Mae. The album version is a smartly terse minor-key gospel-flavored song; live, the tale of the woman who left the poor guy with a house he couldn’t afford and a college loan he can’t pay resonated powerfully throughout the room full of undergrads, ending with a resounding boom as Kunzli smacked at his riq and practically knocked the little hand drum off its frame.
Tall Tall Trees play another even more incongruous small-room show at Banjo Jim’s at 5 (five) PM on Feb 5 for happy hour; it would make sense to say that you should get there early, which isn’t really much of an option unless you can sneak out of work somehow.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #180:
Elvis Costello – Accidents Will Happen
Costello at the peak of his powers as psychopathologist, here dissecting the poisonous union that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy – how amusingly ironic that there’d be a tv program tonight about John Edwards’ love child, fathered during the 2008 presidential campaign. Lush, anthemic new wave at its best from Armed Forces, 1979.
Two words: YEAH MON! This new cd does double duty as valuable cultural artifact and strangely delightful party album. With acoustic guitar, a primitive “rhumba box” for a bass and an impressively energetic octogenarian banjo player, Gilzene & the Blue Light Mento Band play what Jamaicans were playing and dancing to before calypso, decades before reggae. Mento is sort of like Jamaican bluegrass, with similar chord changes but a different rhythm. It’s not reggae, but as this album goes on you can hear several elements that survived the transformation: for example, the way the percussion rolls when the song reaches a turnaround, and the guitar accent on the downbeat. Sung in old-fashioned Jamaican patwa, the lyrics reflect an earlier era, sometimes sly, sometimes silly, laden with puns and innuendo. Authenticity these days may be a dubious concept, but this album has an strikingly roughhewn, rustic vibe. The ramshackle quality of the performances, the dodgy harmonies and the slightly out-of-tune instruments only enhance the vintage feel. Although mento is an indelible part of Jamaican culture – island jazz still abounds with mento themes and references – it’s been a long time since it was in style. So this album is overdue, and particularly welcome for preserving these songs pretty much the way they were played seventy and eighty years ago.
The group kicks it off with a stripped-down, acoustic version of Crying, an international hit for Katie Kissoon in the 70s. The second track has a rousing, careening bluegrass feel with bracing, sometimes abrupt banjo accents. Gungu Walk, which follows, is a playful narrative told from the point of view of a peeping tom. The work song Hill & Gully is a long (some might say interminable) call-and-response vamp with a vintage Cuban feel – being an island nation, Jamaica has long been a melting pot for a stupefyingly large variety of styles. Ole Im Joe (Hold Him, Joe) is similarly rousing, in this case the metaphorically loaded tale of a donkey who can’t get enough to drink, alcoholic or otherwise. And Wata Yu Garden needs no explanation. The last of the fifteen tracks is a somewhat breakneck, out-of-tune version of the Toots & the Maytals classic Sweet & Dandy with vocals by Toots himself.
The backstory here is classically Jamaican. Gilzene has two other incarnations, one as Culture George, a reggae artist whose orthodox Rasta roots album was produced by the Twinkle Brothers’ Norman Grant back in the 70s, and the other as a gospel singer. Backup singer/percussionist Donnett Leslie moonlights as the keyboardist in his reggae band.
The audio equivalent of good hashish. Ridiculously catchy, danceable and psychedelic, The Spy from Cairo has put together an upbeat album that spans practically every style of pop music to come out of the Arab world over the last fifty years. The production is typical of what you get these days in Middle Eastern pop, somewhat slick and artificial with synthesizer and percussion loops in addition to the layers of real drums and percussion here. The “secretly famous” artist here also plays soulfully and intensely on the oud, saz (the gorgeously plinky Turkish lute), ney flute and a small army of percussion instruments, all of which happily get long, extended solos over the throb of the beat. What’s new and innovative is the dubwise feel he brings to much of this – for example, he turns the Farid Al Atrache oud classic Ala Shan into Egyptian reggae as someone like Mad Professor or Niney the Observer might do, instruments fading up into the mix and then out just as quickly when you least expect them.
The originals are just as good. The opening track, cleverly titled Nayphony works a catchy ney flute hook over a slinky trip-hop beat and a gorgeous, classically-inflected Arab melody, cifteli (an Albanian version of the saz) clinking beautifully as the string synthesizer climbs and then fades above it all. The second track is a Jordanian wedding tune given a snakecharmer feel with drum-n-bass production. With vocals and lyrics by guest chaneuse Ghalia Benali, Ana Arabi defiantly evokes Arab pride – and pride in denouncing terrorism – over a hypnotic, atmospheric dance-pop tune.
The single most gorgeous song here is Leila, a tribute to the great Mohamed Abdel Wahab with a long, exhilarating, pointillistic kanun solo. There’s also Kembe, which is trip-hop with oud playing variations on a hypnotic two-chord vamp; Jennaty, a particularly psychedelic, slightly funky number with oud played through a wah pedal; and Saidi the Man, a classic bellydance tune redone first as dancefloor pop, morphing back in time to a mesmerizing jam out with saz and percussion. Plus a resoundingly successful, woozily Rachid Taha-esque venture into rai-reggae. This is first and foremost a headphone album (those ipod earbuds don’t do justice to the fatness of the bass here); it also ought to make a great party-starter (or finisher: crank this at 4 AM if you’re in a space where either your neighbors can’t hear it, or if they’re cool and they might come over and wind down the night with you).
Legions of musicians and artists struggle to acquire some nebulous quasi-version of “downtown New York cool.” Last night Pal Shazar reaffirmed that she’s always had it, and did so effortlessly. In the front room of an after-hours Lower East Side beauty salon, of all places, she treated the crowd of mostly friends and diehard fans who’d shlepped down to Broome Street in the cold to a tantalizingly brief set of her trademark edgy, sharply literate rock songs. She didn’t even use a mic. Backed by a single guitarist playing tight, terse janglerock on his Telecaster, Shazar displayed a carefree energy, bouncing around and getting the lone underage kid in the crowd – he looked about two – to show off his own equally carefree moves. Shazar’s songwriting is something akin to the missing link between Patti Smith and Patti Rothberg: the melodies glisten and ring out while the lyrics deliver an indelibly urban, often metaphorically charged tableau. This was best exemplified by the defiant anthem People Talk (from her most recent cd The Morning After), which closed the set: “People talk, just keep walking, they don’t know how you feel.” Shazar’s husband Jules Shear joined her on that one, adding casually perfect harmonies.
Other songs held up strongly, stripped down to just the basics. A gritty, rapidfire Lou Reed-inflected pop song reflected on how to carry on a relationship with someone inclined to take himself too seriously: “Life is not serious at all!” she exclaimed, almost out of breath. There was irony in that, but there was also fun. The opening number, a vivid chronicle of down-and-out survival called out for someone to “help me off my knees,” welcoming any new scenario “as long as it’s no place like home.” Other songs matched breezy, upbeat pop melodies to more introspective lyrics.
Shazar is also a painter (she’s got an intriguing coffee table book out, Pal Shazar: The Illustrated Lyrics) and had numerous works on display. Eyes are the thing with her: even her animals (a lion, especially) have them, whether wary or brutalized, rendering them instantly and potently anthropomorphized. Most of the others were portraits, seemingly in a series contrasting an arresting yellow-ochre with gentler pastel tones. The first of the two strongest of these posed a woman clutching herself under a white dress, which may be torn, or it might just be askew enough to reveal a leg – if looks could kill, that painting would have. The other was equally striking in its sadness, a woman with her back to the sea, clutching what could either be a child or maybe a smaller, younger version of herself. As with her music, Shazar’s art gives you a lot to think about.
This new album, available for the first time outside Hungary, collects an alternately haunting, rousing and mystical mix of traditional songs. Sometimes austere, sometimes lush, it sets Marta Sebestyen’s voice either soaring or hushed against a background of bagpipe, flutes, sax and tarogato (Hungarian clarinet) by Balazs Dongo Sokolay and a thicket of lute and zither played by Matyas Bolya. The effect is rustic and often absolutely gorgeous. Marta Sebestyen is hardly unknown outside her native Hungary – in addition to being a leading European exponent of her country’s folk music, she won a Grammy for her contributions to a Deep Forest album and had a song on the soundtrack to the film The English Patient. Here, she explores music both sacred and profane – for a non-Hungarian speaker, which is which is pretty much impossible to tell.
The first couple of tracks start out tersely, Sebestyen voicing an understated clarity over a rather hypnotic mix of fujara (overtone bass flute), throat-singing and lute. Several of the tracks here combine two or more songs: for example, the almost nine-minute Invocation, beginning with a somewhat troubled, rhythmically shifting ballad and segueing with lute and what sounds like a krummhorn into a more atonal feel with echoes of Middle Eastern taqsim improvisation. There’s a waltz that sounds an awful lot like Scarborough Fair that picks up the pace with flutes and then powerful bagpipes, like a sea chantey. There’s a suite about the liberation of Hungary from the Ottoman Empire that begins with a bouncy, apprehensive Middle Eastern dance, Sebestyen’s vocals stately and nuanced, replete with longing – and then it accelerates with a bounce, the bagpipes and flute swirling in celebration. Another follows what could have been a dramatic Fairport Convention ballad with a boisterous waltz tune. Sebestyen errs on the side of caution, a welcome trait – she never overdoes anything, so when she rises to meet a lyric or an instrumental passage, you know she has good reason. This ought to appeal to the gypsy music contingent every bit as much as fans of Middle Eastern and western folk music. Yet another good Eastern European vocal album to come out in recent months, echoing the New York scene with AE, Black Sea Hotel et al.- if what’s happening here is a microcosm for what’s happening throughout the world, so much the better.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #181:
Pink Floyd – Mother
This might have supplanted Hotel California as the national anthem of busking if it wasn’t so depressing. It appears in the movie conveniently just in time to wrap up side one of The Wall.