Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Hole’s Got a Bucket in It

Ben Syversen plays trumpet in two of New York’s best bands, Balkan juggernaut Raya Brass Band and also ferociously eclectic guitar-and-horn-driven “new Balkan uproar” outfit Ansambl Mastika. His new solo album Cracked Vessel is a masterpiece of warped, paint-peeling noise and spontaneous fun. Part noise-rock, part free jazz, with frequent Balkan and funk tinges, it screeches, squalls and rattles its way through one side of your cranium and out the other. Easy listening? Hardly, but it’s without question one of the most deliciously intense albums of the year (it’ll be on our Best of 2010 list at the end of December). Alongside Syversen’s alternately thoughtful atmospherics, blazing Gypsy sprints and tersely wary passages, Xander Naylor’s guitars do triple duty, serving as both bass and percussion along with providing some of the most memorably twisted sonics recently captured on disc. The beats can get even crazier when Jeremy Gustin’s drums are in the mix; otherwise, he holds this beast to the rails while it thrashes to break free and leap into the nearest abyss.

The album opens with the possibly sardonically titled Frontman, Syversen playing sort of a “charge” theme over percussive, trebly guitar skronk. As is the case frequently here, the drums crash in, the guitar goes nuts – and then it’s over. A staggered, off-kilter stomp with Balkan overtones, Weird Science sounds like a sketch that Slavic Soul Party might have abandoned because it was too crazy even for them, especially as the guitar careens and roars. Bad Idea contrasts pensive, terse trumpet against gingerly stumbling guitar underneath, finally exploding in a ball of chromatic fury and then back down again. Naylor cools the embers with sheets of reverb-drenched white noise.

The fourth track, Untitled, begins with a creepy minimalist Bill Frisell guitar taqsim and gets even weirder: even Syversen’s pensive, sostenuto trumpet can’t normalize this one. Krazzle works a long noise-funk crescendo up to a macabre trill, all the way down through a shower of amplifier sparks to virtual stillness – and suddenly they’re back at it. End of Time turns a playful trumpet-and-guitar conversation into a memorably nasty confrontation and another effective quiet/insane dialectic; From the Abyss has Syversen craftily dodging everything Naylor and Gustin can hurl at him, which is a lot, all the way down to a netherworld where a richly and unexpectedly beautiful minor-key art-rock song assembles itself and then eventually fades. It’s the most counterintuitive and richly satisfying passage in the entire album. There’s also the aptly titled Apparition, a study in percussion on all available instruments; Fried Fruit, a twisted funk tune, and the bonus track, Talk, which hints at minor-key janglerock before going completely off the rails with several blasts of guitar fury and finally a brutal, bodyslamming crescendo. The louder you play this, the more exhilarating it is. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Watch this space for upcoming shows.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amina Figarova Makes Her Travels Memorable Ones

“What happens on tour stays on tour,” jazz pianist Amina Figarova asserts, but the fun spills over onto the compositions on her new album Sketches. It’s a striking change, considerably more upbeat than her stunned, intensely evocative 9/11-themed September Suite. A series of vividly cinematic snapshots of her travels around the world, they chronicle moods rather than specific locales – at least as far as the official story goes, anyway. This is obviously a band that has a good time on tour. A sense of optimism and confidence pervades the arrangements here, achieving a remarkably big sound for a sextet, Figarova joined by Ernie Hammes on trumpet and flugelhorn, Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, Bart Platteau on flutes, Jeroen Vierdag on bass and Chris “Buckshot” Strik on drums. She favors expansive, impressionistic solos and lush horn charts with considerable tempo and dynamic shifts, often creating a narrative. Recorded in a single day, these tableaux capture a well-traveled band at the peak of their creative chemistry.

The opening track, Four Steps to… is an anthem with a vivid sense of anticipation, clever tradeoffs between the trumpet and flute and a sense of calm triumph at the end. By contrast, Unacceptable is perturbed, scurrying along with a breathless Figarova solo that bristles back into the head jaggedly. The title track works a staggered, circular piano riff against characteristically lush horns.

Evocatively wintry but playful, Caribou Crossing opens in late afternoon and ushers in the twilight gently and memorably. An upbeat, catchy ensemble piece, Breakfast for the Elephant has Figarova moving ebulliently out of Hammes’ balmy introspective lines. Back in New Orleans, a slow, swinging ballad, gives Mommaas a chance to flutter in doubletime against the thoughtful legato of the piano. With its Caravan drums, Flight No. captures the scramble to the airport gate, a well-deserved break at cruising altitude and then pandemonium all over again, a theme revisited in the similar Train to Rotterdam. Look at That begins almost as trip-hop, cymbals and bass running a loop, Figarova leading the ensemble brightly and cheerily all the way through. The album winds up with the brisk, bouncily expansive Happy Hour and then the partita In Your Room, beginning as a classically-tinged nocturne with particularly biting piano and flute until the bass brings down the lights. It’s a long album, almost an hour and a quarter worth of music: obviously Figarova’s recent travels have been memorable ones. She and the sextet play Dizzy’s Club on August 9 at 7 and 9:30 PM.

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

The Whispering Tree Waits in the Shadows

Plaintive, moody and often downright haunting, the Whispering Tree’s new cd Go Call the Captain is a strong contender for best debut album of the year. Pianist/frontwoman Eleanor Kleiner’s wary, pensive, unadorned voice makes a potent vehicle for their gothic Americana songs. Many of them are in stately 6/8 time, spaciously and tersely arranged with keyboards, guitar and frequent orchestral flourishes. The title track starts out as a plaintive Applachian ballad but quickly grows to a towering art-rock anthem:

False prophets, liars and thieves rule the world…
Pull the veil down over our eyes
While we frantically follow behind
I’d rather be lost than led by the blind

And unlike a lot of the songs here, it ends on an upbeat note. “We can rule the world,” Kleiner asserts, if we overthrow these monsters. Claustrophobia pervades much of what’s here, both metaphorical and literal, on the fast, oldtimey swing shuffle So Many Things – which Kleiner would gladly toss out the window, to watch them smash on the street and destroy all the memories attached to them – and The Tallest, which laments being surrounded by “rooftops stretching as far as the eye can see.” The bitter ballad Las Vegas has Yoed Nir’s cello combining with Thad Debrock’s pedal steel and Elie Brangbour’s incisive guitar for a bracing, uneasy undercurrent, and maybe the most haunting honkytonk piano solo ever. “Those colored lights they hypnotize,” Kleiner warns.

The late-summer ominousness of Something Might Happen is visceral, crescendoing with a biting guitar solo. The angst reaches breaking point on Soon, the darkest and most intense track here, Kleiner going as high and distressed as she can, the band taking it down and then back up again with a searing, psychedelic interlude. There’s also a pensive, slow number spiced with Beth Meyers’ plaintive violin, a surprisingly jaunty mandolin tune and the apocalyptic closing track, Washed Ashore. Fans of the Handsome Family, Nick Cave, Liz Tormes and Mark Sinnis owe it to themselves to get to know the Whispering Tree.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece Ask, Your Place or Mine?

This is what the Mad Men soundtrack ought to sound like. On their new album Little Echo, tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser and his vibraphonist cohort Behn Gillece have teamed up for an absolutely period-perfect, gorgeously melodic collection of golden age-style jazz. This is the kind of thing you can stump your jazz snob friends with: guess which 1959 group this is? Maybe a previously unknown Chico Hamilton session with Hamp, maybe? Even the cd cover images and fonts come straight out of the late 50s Columbia catalog, and for anyone who owns actual physical albums from the era, they’re a dead giveaway. To call this boudoir jazz doesn’t give enough credit to the strength and intelligence of the compositions, but with the nocturnal ambience created by the intermingling of the piano and the vibes, it’s the jazz equivalent of Al Green or Sade. If there’s a population explosion among jazz fans in the next nine months or so, blame these guys. Here Fowser and Gillece – who wrote all but two of the compositions – are joined here by Rick Germanson on piano, the ubiquitously reliable Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Quincy Davis on drums.

The genius of the songs here – and they are songs in the purest sense of the word – is their simplicity: the “jukebox jazz” label recently applied to JD Allen’s recent stuff aptly describes this as well. The band set the tone right off the bat with the ridiculously catchy Resolutions, with brief and vivid solos by Fowser, Gillece and Germanson in turn. A Fowser composition, Ninety Five employs a slinky guaguanco vamp as the launching pad for some balmy sax work followed by a more aggressive turn by Gillece. The band pass the baton around on the next one: Gillece plays a horn line, Germanson scurries along and Fowser bounces off the bass and drums.

The dreamy ballad The Dog Days is a showcase for Fowser sultriness, Germanson impressionism and a hypnotic, slow Gillece solo over steady piano. Upbeat latin tinges and a soaring sax hook give the next cut, Vigilance, a summery blissfulness. Germanson anchors the deliciously noir-tinged latin jazz of the title track as Fowser prowls around on the low notes: the utterly carefree, closing-time style piano solo might be the most vivid moment on the entire album. Fowser’s One Step at a Time offers more than a hint of Gil Evans era Miles Davis; Gillece’s ballad You mines some choicely pensive modalities on the way to the blues; the closing cut Another View works a shameless So What quote into the wee-hours bliss of the opening track.Marc Free’s production goes back to the golden age as well – he doesn’t overcompress the vibes or the piano and puts Okegwo’s tireless bass walks up just high enough that you appreciate all those tireless walks, without making it sound like hip-hop. It’s out now on Posi-Tone Records.

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

Knights at Night in Central Park

With all the great new music out there, and the Knights – one of the most adventurous, new-music-inclined orchestras in the world – on the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night, why did they play so much old stuff? Maybe because they knew they could bring so much joy to it – and counterintuitivity, too. Conventional wisdom is that name-brand orchestras surpass the smaller or lesser-known outfits, but all too often the big ensembles are basically sightreading and not much more. One of the benefits of a less strenuous season than what the Philharmonics of the world have to tackle is that there’s enough time for everyone to really get their repertoire in their fingers, discover it on an individual level and let its nuances fly rather than trampling them in a quest to simply get the job done. Conductor Eric Jacobsen (who doubles as the cellist in celebrated string quartet Brooklyn Rider) offered a prime example during the second movement of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Major. It’s a series of swooping arabesques on the strings, followed by variations that the entire ensemble picks up and tosses around. Jacobsen turned them into a mystery theme, then shifted gears with the tempo, a couple of times, with a wink and a grin as the melody split and shifted kaleidoscopically on the wings of the winds. Likewise, he led the Knights through two waltzes by Shostakovich (newly arranged with jazzy Kurt Weill verve by Ljova Zhurbin) with a jaunty cabaret swing, taking a brooding Russian folk theme and then a more Weimar-inflected tune and making something approaching real dance music out of them, guest violinist Vera Beths clearly enjoying herself as much as she had during the devious swoops and slides of the Beethoven.

The rest of the program was more traditional. They’d opened with Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, something akin to the Simpsons Theme from another time and place. As with the Simpsons Theme, less is more with this one, and that’s how the Knights played it. Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite was written for a favorite niece, said WQXR’s Bill McLaughlin, standing in as MC in place of a honeymooning Midge Woolsey (congratulations, Midge!). The two miniatures weren’t Fur Elise but they weren’t bad either. The orchestra wound up the program with a warmly cantabile performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, commonly known as The Clock (from the metronomic sway of a prominent pizzicato passage). All counterpoint and comfortably familiar chord resolutions, to New Yorkers of a certain stripe it made a perfect soundtrack for wine and quiet conviviality on Central Park grass. This was the final Naumburg Bandshell classical concert for 2010; watch this space early next summer for information on next year’s schedule.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment