Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Denis Matsuev/Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3./Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The elephant in the room is that with such a glut of Rachmaninov available on both mp3 and vinyl, did it make any sense to make this recording at all? Answer: a resounding, fortissississimo YES. Everyone who’s a fan of this stuff has his or her favorite versions. Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony did a wonderfully rousing recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Abbey Simon on piano; for sheer velvet sonics, nothing beats the version of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that Philippe Entremont did with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra roughly a half-century ago. Both of those achieved broad circulation and are commonly available wherever used vinyl is sold (you wouldn’t really settle for icky mp3s, would you?). So why bother with the new recording by pianist Denis Matsuev with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra? Because it’s just as good as those two if not better. And for what it’s worth, it’s also one-stop shopping, two classics for the price of one without the extraneous filler that sometimes gets squeezed into classical albums.

Maybe Russian pride has something to do with this, but whatever the reason, this recording has every bit as much precision as Slatkin’s and gives Ormandy a run for his money as far as lushness is concerned (James Mallinson’s production is noteworthy not only for very closely replicating the warmth of a vinyl record, but also for capturing the ambience of the concert hall – put your headphones on and you are there). And Matsuev’s interpretation is spot-on, coupling a strong yet fluid legato to the kind of percussive power that you need in order to drive all those ferocious crescendos home, replete with longing, angst and rage and not a hint of the cold, clinical precision that plagued so many Soviet recordings of this material. As far as that’s concerned, there’s plenty of dynamics but there’s nothing particularly subtle in either of these pieces, Rachmaninov veering between his usual white-knuckle intensity and perhaps the sonic equivalent of a too-strong handshake: not for everyone, maybe, but you can’t say it doesn’t grab you. Pianist and orchestra wrest a vivid downward trajectory into the sweepingly beautiful second movement of the concerto from the battlefield that opens it, and interestingly, they accentuate many of the pauses that demarcate the twenty-eight cinematic variations of the Paganini theme. It works both to smooth the transitions between them and maybe even to underscore what Rachmaninov might have had in mind, a series of foreboding miniatures linked with a robust, epically optimistic theme.

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March 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Whitney James – The Nature of Love

West Coast jazz singer Whitney James’ debut cd is auspicious because she sings nonstandard repertoire, she’s got a great band behind her, she embraces the role of band member rather than just having the other musicians back her up, and most importantly, she knows that less is more. Her voice recalls early 70s singers like Marilyn McCoo and Valerie Simpson, who made their careers in soul music using jazz chops. Yet James also bears some resemblance, if not timbre-wise, to another very popular singer, namely Karrin Allyson. James doesn’t go for Allyson’s fox-in-the-icehouse delivery, but like Allyson, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. When she’s at the top of her game she draws you in with her clear, vibratoless, sometimes subtly cajoling, sometimes distantly rueful style. That explains why she gets away with what she does here when she covers material that’s been done before by jazz sirens with bigger voices and bigger names. Alongsider her, pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan work the corners for subtleties, with Ingrid Jensen adding characteristically terse, rich color, on trumpet and flugelhorn on five of the tracks.

James puts her own subtle (some might say tender) stamp on Tenderly, rather than trying to mimic the iconic Sarah Vaughan version – Jensen is there right off the bat with a smoky/steamy trumpet intro. Whisper Not was a hit for both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day; here, James and the bass play a carefree game of tag until the swing kicks in. Then Jensen takes a sailing, breezily bluesy solo into a suspenseful spy movie-style bass/drums vamp out of which James bursts unexpectedly with a minor arpeggio. When you think about it, all the great jazz singers basically do horn lines, and that’s exactly what she’s up to here and elsewhere. Although on the intricate, expansive version of the obscure A Timeless Place (The Peacocks), she sings what’s essentially a righthand piano melody against Wolff’s expansiveness and gracefully terse, almost rubato accents by the rest of the band.

Long Ago and Far Away (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) was written for a man’s voice; the interpretation here is closer to Billie Holiday, James so comfortable over the bass and drums early on that when Wolff good-naturedly jumps in, the effect is startling. Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You hints at flying off the tarmac, suspensefully, with a neat bass solo; The Very Thought of You counterintuitively gets a dreamy ballad arrangement with romantic muted trumpet. Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean gets a psychedelically percussive intro before it goes straight up into the air, as high and far as James and the band can take it. Then Wolff and James take it back down again with what might be the strongest song here, the vividly world-weary obscurity Be Anything. The only misstep on the album is In April, and not because the band does a bad job with Bill Evans’ tune, but because Roger Schore’s lyric has not aged well and at this point in history comes across as rather sexist. James recorded the album in Brooklyn, so a return trip shouldn’t be out of the question: watch this space.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: The Snow – I Die Every Night

Here we are in March with the first classic album of 2010 (this one actually came out in mid-January). The Snow’s debut album True Dirt was good: this is a lushly arranged, thoughtful, funny, richly lyrical art-rock masterpiece. Bandleader Pierre de Gaillande has been writing good, frequently great songs for several years, throughout his days with Melomane, Sea Foxx and numerous other side projects (like his English-language Georges Brassens cover band Bad Reputation), but this is the strongest effort he’s been a part of yet. Putting keyboardist/chanteuse Hilary Downes out in front of the group was a genius move, even if it was only logical. She’s a torch singer straight out of the Chris Connor/June Christy mold (or a darker Nellie McKay) with an alternately coy and murderous way of sliding up to a note and nailing it. She also contributes half of the songs on the album, alternating with Gaillande from track to track, with an additional number, a rueful tango, written by multi-reed virtuoso David Spinley. The rhythm section of Christian Bongers (ex-Botanica) on bass and Jeffrey Schaeffer on drums slink through the shadows as the clarinet or saxes soar above the swirl of layers and layers of keyboards and the occasional snarl and clang of the guitar. There are other bands who leap from genre to genre as avidly as the Snow do here, but few who have such obvious fun doing it.

The opening track is Albatross, an ironically straightforward, metaphorically loaded ballad by Downes that makes stately art-rock out of a Gaillande garage guitar riff. Handle Your Weapon, by Gaillande, throws out a lifeline to a possible would-be suicide miles from civilization in a symbolic middle of nowhere, swinging along on the pulse of Downes’ electric piano. By contrast, The Silent Parade – sort of a signature song for the band – delivers the understated, menacing majesty of the snowstorm to end all snowstorms, the last way anyone would expect the world to end at this point in history. The warmly torchy, soul-inflected Fool’s Gold could be a requiem for a relationship – or for the promise that indie rock seemed it might deliver on for a moment but never did.

Undertow is a tongue-in-cheek clinic in jazzy syncopation, a showcase for Downes’ darkly allusive lyrical wit, matched by Gaillande on the wryly swinging, Gainsbourg-esque Reptile, a hot-blooded creature’s lament. The most menacing cut on the album is the hypnotic, woozy 6/8 masquerade-ball themed Slow Orbit. The album winds up with Downes’ understatedly bitter, minor-key chamber-rock ballad Shadows and Ghosts and Gailllande’s hypnotic, aptly titled psychedelic anthem Life Is Long and Strange, far more subtle than it might seem. Live, the band surprisingly manage to capture most of the atmospherics of their studio work; watch this space for NYC dates.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Steeve Laffont – Swing for Jess

Sizzling gypsy jazz with lots of innovative flourishes from the French guitarist and his inspired band. Steeve Laffont is in fact of Roma ancestry; his first instrument was keys. Self-taught as a guitarist, he has a refreshingly original style. It’s not known what if any his affinity for Americana is, but there’s a soaring, blue-sky western swing feel to much of this, a welcome change from the legions of well-meaning but slavish Django imitators. There are places on the album that frequently evoke the paradigm-shifting work of Stephane Wrembel, but Laffont is a lot sunnier. On this new album, his second as a solo artist, he’s backed by a brisk, non-nonsense band of Rudy Rabuffetti on rhythm guitar, Serge Oustiakine on bass and violinist Costel Nitescu guesting on all but three tracks.

The title cut is a characteristically bristling swing number. Mano, one of the three Django covers here gets a spiky whistle-stop treatment. A lickety-split version of Old Man River is rendered almost unrecognizable with Laffont’s playful hammer-ons and dizzying, circular chromatics. Meggie Style, a Rabuffetti composition, is a 12/4 ballad that gives the violin and bass to get expansive and build atmosphere.

One of the most imaginative tracks here is Astor Piazzolla’s signature song, Libertango – Laffont traces its roots straight back to Spain, giving it a staggered flamenco treatment. Their fast shuffle version of Oh Samba Leo manages to echo both Steve Cropper and George Benson; they slow things down with the Laffont original Djazz, a vividly nostalgic ballad with a Georgia on My Mind feel guitar against a lush string section, then an aptly wistful violin solo. The album wraps up with the band blasting through Ain’t Misbehavin’ and then the old George Shearing ballad I Remember April, each one a springboard for Laffont’s sizzling triplet runs offset by a wry bluesiness. Keep your eye on this guy – he’s only going to get better.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/4/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song is #147:

The Room – Jackpot Jack

The somewhat epic title track from arguably the greatest ep ever made, from these psychedelic Liverpool new wavers, 1985. Over Becky Stringer’s ridiculously catchy, hypnotic bass groove, frontman Dave Jackson snarlingly recounts the last hours and ugly death of a hack corporate musician. It’s sweet revenge for purists and good songwriters everywhere.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NEC Jazz Week in NYC 3/20-27/10

March 20-27 it’s the 40th anniversary of jazz at the New England Conservatory (Boston’s equivalent of Juilliard), with a series of first-rate, relatively inexpensive (or free) New York concerts plus a lecture. The weeks winds up with a jazz summit at BB King’s on the 27th featuring Cecil Taylor, Bernie Worrell, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood and others. Proceeds from the events go to support jazz scholarships at NEC. The full calendar is below: click here for updates.

Saturday, March 20 saxophonists Matana Roberts solo at 8:30 followed by composer Jeremy Udden and his group at 10 PM at the Cornelia St. Cafe, $10.

Sunday, March 21, 2-6 PM, free, at the Studio at the Irene Diamond Education Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Time Warner Building, 33 West 60th Street, a panel discussion: “Living Time”: George Russell’s Musical Life and Legacy

Panel 1: George Russell as composer, bandleader, and influential figure

Panel 2: George Russell as music theorist and educator

Panelists include: Gunther Schuller, Ken Schaphorst, Ingrid Monson, Cameron Brown, Stanton Davis, Ben Schwendener, with an introduction by Jerome Harris.

Sunday, March 21 Andre Matos featuring Noah Preminger & Sara Serpa along with bassist Thomas Morgan, pianist Leo Genevese and drummer Ted Poor, 8:30/10 PM at the Cornelia St. Cafe, $10.

Monday, March 22, PM at 55 Bar the Public Option: trumpeter Jason Palmer, saxophonist Michael Thomas, guitarist Greg Duncan, bassist Lim Yang and drummer Lee Fish, free, followed at 9:30 by the Noah Preminger Quartet ($10 cover): saxophonist Noah Preminger, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Matt Wilson.

Tuesday, March 23 Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 7:30/9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard, $25

Wednesday, March 24 the NEC Faculty Jazz All Stars: George Garzone, John McNeil, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart and Frank Carlberg, 7:30 PM plus at 9:30 Marty Ehrlich’s Quartet at the Jazz Standard, $25

Thursday, March 25 the New Mellow Edwards feat. Curtis Hasselbring, trombone; Chris Speed, tenor saxophone, Trevor Dunn, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums. The post-show jam session features Jeremy Udden, alto saxophone; Frank Carlberg, piano; Joe Fitzgerald, bass; George Schuller, drums at the Douglass Street Music Collective, 295 Douglass Street (3rd/4th Aves), Gowanus, Brooklyn, $10

Friday, March 26 the NEC Jazz Vocal Summit feat. Dominique Eade, Sara Serpa, David Devoe, Amy Cervini, Jo Lawry and Sofia Koutsovitis, 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, $15

Also Friday, March 26 the John McNeilBill McHenry Quartet at the Cornelia Street Café 9/10:30 PM, $10

Saturday, March 27 NEC Jazz 40th Anniversary Summit concert feat. Cecil Taylor, Bernie Worrell, Anton Fig, John Medeski, Ran Blake, John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood; Sarah Jarosz, Dominiquie Eade, comedic country cabaret crew Lake Street Dive (Rachael Price, Michael Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson), others TBA. At BB King’s, 8 PM, $25 adv tix highly rec.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment