Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Tris McCall – Let the Night Fall

As a tunesmith, keyboardist/songwriter Tris McCall (who also plays with Kerry Kennedy in indie powerpop supergroup Overlord) knows a catchy hook when he hears one. As a wordsmith, he is unsurpassed, on the same level as Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann or Paula Carino. If there’s anybody who knows the difference between sarcasm and irony, it’s this guy. There are loads of both here. His previous album was a refreshingly jaundiced excursion through trendoid indie Williamsburg; this time out, McCall turns an unsparing yet sometimes wistful gaze on the place he knows best, the state that actually once spawned a movement to make Born to Run its official anthem (death trap, suicide rap, we gotta get out, etc. – it happened). Springsteen hovers at the edge of the parking lot here, a distantly anthemic presence. Otherwise, the songs evoke Fountains of Wayne but with balls (hard to imagine, but try it), a defiant populism and much better tunes, McCall’s vocals casual, unaffected, often surprisingly cheery considering the underlying grimness.

The opening cut, WFMU builds from catchy trip-hop to a blazing chorus metaphorically loaded with unease, one rapidfire mot juste or double entendre after another. “The radio’s damnable when it’s programmable” is the keystone. At the end, McCall sends out friendly shout-outs not only to the long-running independent New Jersey station but also to WSOU (who knew?), WBGO, WFUV and even distant WPRN, halfway to Cape May. The Throwaway – “cut my neck and I bleed gasoline” – wonders why the neighborhood emo kids won’t accept him as one of their own, considering that all of them should have had the sense to get out, while The Ballad of Frank Vinieri harrowingly memorializes an up-and-coming populist ground down by the gentrifiers of Jungleland. Sugar Nobody Wants, an atmospheric nocturne, pays homage to the age-old anomie-driven sport of trespassing. The title track, an 80s-inflected powerpop stomp, paints a snide Fourth of July tableau set “where minutemen jump back and feign surprise when they get the tax bill.”

The centerpiece of the album, First World, Third Rate is a majestic, metaphorically charged kiss-off from a mallrat stuck working some ineffable fast-food salad bar. The poor kid’s life has been so barren that the best things he’s managed to live to eulogize are a Thomas Wolfe-esque litany of scuzzy chain restaurants – as the faux-Meatloaf arrangement grows more and more bombastic, an exuberant choir yells out their names in perfect time. It makes even more sense in the context of the next cut, You’re Dead After School, a creepy new wave-ish reminiscence of close encounters with pedophiles. Midnight (Now Approaching) follows with its guitars blasting, sort of a Meeting Across the River in reverse (this one’s actually set on the Staten Island Ferry), electric with both excitement and maybe imminent doom.

A gentle country song on the surface, Mountainside has the hometown folks contemplating a prodigal son’s return with bated breath – and cemetery plot ready, while We Could Be Killers layers one vintage synth patch over another in a big Pulp-style pop end-of-the-world epic. The album closes, coming full circle, with a hallucinatory early-morning roadside tableau. This one’s going to show up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year, including here. Tris McCall plays the Rockwood at 7 PM solo on piano on March 30, a good place for him to run through the album’s lone instrumental, a clever baroque-rock interlude.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo – Zakopane

Satoko Fujii is one of those people who seems to record everything she plays – in her case, that’s a good thing. Methodically if not particularly calmly, Fujii has become over the past 25 years simply one of the most important composers of our time: she gives new meaning to the term “panstylistic.” Her own Libra Records imprint has most recently released Gato Libre’s delicious new gypsy-jazz concoction; a surprisingly tuneful if crazily noisy one from her free jazz outfit First Meeting; a typically vivid one by her small combo Ma-Do, and this album by her colossal fifteen-piece Orchestra Tokyo. She first made a big-band splash with her Orchestra New York back in the late 90s: this effort finds her similarly out-of-the-box but considerably different, Kelly Churko’s evil, chicken-scratch guitar skronk frequently adding a snarlingly jarring undercurrent very evocative of Arto Lindsay back in his DNA days. Fujii loves paradoxes and studies in contrasts: as usual, there are plenty of them here, some of them very funny. This ensemble is piano-less, Fujii working exclusively as conductor.

The cd opens with variations on a big bluesy rock riff with boisterous solos from Takao Watanabe’s trumpet and Hakuregumo Nagamatsu’s trombone. The characteristically paradoxical Desert Ship runs a lush, pensively cinematic minor key theme, husband and longtime collaborator Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet a barely caged elephant plotting a quick getaway – and then they’re off on the wings of Sachi Hayasaka’s completely unhinged soprano sax. The third track, Zee, sets gritty, trebly noise-guitar beneath lush, swaying orchestration into a woozy yet disturbed Toshihiro Koike trombone solo. The amusing early morning barnyard ambience of Sakura builds to a rubato, overcast early summer atmosphere, individual voices filtering in and out.

Tropical Fish is even funnier, Ryuichi Yoshida’s baritone sax sprawling and content until the food enters the tank, Koike following in the same vein – and then the rest of the fishes join in a tango that goes from stately to Mingus-esque noir to Jerry Goldsmith cartoonish. The title track works contrasts: a spacious bowed bass intro by Toshiki Nagata against a couple of blasts from the orchestra, then some Bill Frisell-on-mushrooms guitar from Churko that doesn’t take long to go completely unhinged and noisy against big, suspenseful orchestration. The most suspenseful cut here, actually is Trout, a rousing detective theme that’s actually a tribute to a good meal – it must have smelled really good in the kitchen! – Kunihiro Izumi adding a deliciously Middle Eastern alto solo worthy of Lefteris Bournias. They end on a boisterously satirical note, the horns taking a sentimental theme completely over the top with weepy vibrato. As with Fujii’s 2006 live album with her New York orchestra, this one’s going to end up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of this year. New York audiences may not get a chance to see this band, so this album may be as close as you ever come. Fujii, however, gets around (she used to be here a lot more than she is now); watch this space for NYC dates.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DVD Review: Zade – One Night in Jordan: A Concert for Peace

How do you say sturm und drang in Arabic? Jordanian composer/pianist Zade likes a BIG sound, which takes on an even more dramatic effect given the striking setting for this outdoor evening concert recently rebroadcast on PBS: a Roman amphitheatre dating back two millennia. In fact, it seems that the massive choir joining with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Zade’s band may actually outnumber the audience. The subtext couldn’t scream any louder than the music: if we don’t get peace in the Middle East, this is just a small piece of what we stand to lose.

Zade’s lavishly orchestrated Middle Eastern-inflected, minor-key neo-romantic soundscapes have a lot more in common with the Alan Parsons Project – or Richard Wagner – than they do with pioneering Middle Eastern composers like the Iranian Abolhassan Sabeh, who, like Zade, would utilize the even tunings of the western scale. Ironically, it’s the little touches here that resonate the loudest: the brief yet viscerally haunting ney flute solo at the end of the tango that takes up the fifth track, or the wistful interplay between piano and acoustic guitar on the intro to the next one, Santiago’s Dream (inspired, Zade tells the crowd, by Paulo Coelho’s hit new-age novel from twenty years ago,The Alchemist). An electric violin solo trading off with the flute sounds like a particularly inspired mashup of ELO and Jethro Tull – and the crowd goes wild for it!

A playful, bouncy pop melody is dedicated to Jordan’s Princess Haya, an equestrian of some note and apparently a patron of Zade’s peace crusade, an encouraging revelation (peace of course being a relative term, especially in these parts). There’s also a plaintive breakup ballad sung by Jordanian chanteuse Jama; and the strongest composition, a particularly sweeping, percussive anthem titled Amman that perhaps appropriately has the most indelibly Arabic feel to it.

To say that the surroundings match the music for dramatic impact is quite the understatement: if what’s going on inside the amphitheatre is a little overwhelming, you can watch the headlights of the evening traffic peacefully going by outside at the top of the screen, completely oblivious – or maybe listening on Jordanian state radio, who knows. Casual fans may prefer the cd, since most DVD players don’t have the sonic capability to render the show in all its glorious exuberance (although the sonics of the DVD prove identical to those of the cd if run through good speakers). The cd also lacks the bonus features, including an interview with Zade, whose sincerity as an advocate for peace translates vividly in flawless English.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | Film, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The NEC Jazz Faculty All-Stars at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/24/10

To steal a line out of the Jim Macnie fakebook (he gets a shout-out because he’s on the side of the angels), this was the coolest faculty meeting you could imagine. The New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty distinguish themselves in a lot of ways but most of all because they maintain fulltime live performance schedules. As trumpeter John McNeil, the group’s class clown, sardonically told the sold-out house at the Jazz Standard last night, a NEC gig assures that you always have the means to pursue others! Which might explain why this gig was a clinic, if hardly an academic one. The camaraderie between McNeil – whose compositions dominated the set list – alongside tenor titan George Garzone, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist Cecil McBee and sub drummer Richie Barshay (Billy Hart couldn’t make it) is comfortable and intiutive, facilitating a clinic in effective listening, trusting one’s bandmates and seeing that trust richly rewarded. It’s not likely that anyone shopping music conservatories was in the crowd, but if they had been, they were either sold or holding out for a bargain that doesn’t exist.

They opened with segueing McNeil numbers, Nanotechnology into Alone Together, mysterioso modal into catchy hook into swing featuring the first of several fast, fluid Garzone solos, McBee going in the opposite direction with lots of space. McNeil got a lot of laughs telling the crowd how he’d named another tune, CJ, after a woman he was pursuing. In retrospect, he should have known that you have to try a little harder than just a blues if you want to impress a woman. Something else that McNeil didn’t know when he wrote it thirty-one years ago, almost to the day: you don’t write the blues before the woman, you write the blues after. But it gave Carlberg the first of many foundations to enigmatically warp the time as he would all night, McBee taking it out quietly, tersely and eerily.

A homage to Piaf, whom McNeil had a crush on as a kid, built from plaintive, insistent piano to gently pulsing, Ray Brown-esque bass, Garzone eventually going major on minor to enhance the somber intensity. Frank Carlberg’s composition Consternation (after the Bird tune A Confirmation) driven by some utterly marvelous Barshay cymbal work, saw the band playfully interjecting themselves into the drum solo. The night’s last number was the best, a Dave Liebman composition that nobody could remember the title to, but they played the hell out of it – a murky modal masterpiece with scurrying rhythm section, icy Carlberg minimalism and more rapidfire Garzone sharpshooting, McNeil avoiding the murk at first but eventually plunging right in as the rhythm section took it all the way up with a stomp that built thisclose to complete ferocity, McBee again leading it out on a quietly moody note. This show was part of NEC Jazz Week in NYC, an allstar series of concerts continuing tomorrow through the big blowout at B.B. King’s on the 27th – the complete schedule is here.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment