Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Sara Serpa Transcends Everything

The theme of jazz singer/composer Sara Serpa’s show last night at the Cornelia St. Cafe was travel. It was all about loneliness, and quiet determination, and ultimately transcendence, something every true adventurer inevitably finds when confronted with challenges they’d never have met if they’d stayed in their comfort zone. Originally from Portugal, now making her home in New York, Serpa obviously knows a lot about that firsthand. Her stage presence is demure bordering on shy: her band intros and announcements between songs didn’t often reach the back of the room. But her vocals were as vivid as her stunningly original, memorable songs, most of them without words. Many of them went on for ten minutes or more, in a somewhat marathon set that literally heated up the room: one can only imagine how hot it must have been onstage. In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly nuanced vocalese, backed by an inspired cast including Andre Matos on guitar, Marcus Gilmore on drums, Ben Street on bass and Kris Davis on piano.

Most of the set was new material. The first song, Serpa explained, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie: “The music suits the landscape,” she explained, specifically, a San Francisco park. Over bass and guitar, she delivered a brief spoken-word interlude, her vocalese matter-of-fact and persevering with Davis’ stark block chords and Street’s pulsing bass, finally reaching up and parting the clouds triumphantly. The second number moved from variations on Davis’ pensive, terse broken chords to a gorgeously warm, swirling section featuring some gently incisive, vintage Jerry Garcia-inflected guitar from Matos into slowly fading, circular piano. A moodily syncopated, brilliantly understated number in Portuguese was the most trad moment of the night; the next song hinted at bossa nova, through murky, subterranean shifts in the low registers to an unexpectedly jaunty Serpa climb out of the morass, a cleverly circling drum solo and a sudden, cold ending.

Serpa’s new album Camera Obscura, with Ran Blake, is rich with noir ambience (and arguably the year’s best), and as much as there were tinges of this all night, they took it to the next level with a long partita, Gilmore’s artful cymbal work lowlighting Davis’ macabre music-box piano, Serpa maintaining an air of mystery all the way up to Gilmore’s decision to thump around and move the corpse. From the audience’s response, the most stunning moment of the night was a wrenchingly intense, barely three-minute version of Meaning of the Blues, vividly evoking Julie London’s wounded resignation but taking it to a logical, defeated extreme, Serpa’s careful enunciation leaving no doubt as to how badly it would end. At the end, there was a good five seconds of silence before the crowd exploded in applause. The show closed with Ten Long Days of Rain, from Serpa’s 2008 album Praia, an expansive, Radiohead-inflected pop-jazz showcase for her more playful, witty side, notably a cheerfully winking vocalese solo with bluesy soprano sax inflections. Serpa’s next NYC gig is on 10/4 at 9 at Tea Lounge in Park Slope with the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra.

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September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The JC Sanford Orchestra Rip up the Joint

Barflies at CBGB in 1976 may have reacted to the Ramones the same way the customers at Tea Lounge Monday night reacted to the JC Sanford Orchestra, that is, if laptops had existed the year Johnny Bench put the Yankees out of their misery early in the World Series. Everybody looked up from their keyboards, startled. And pretty much everybody stayed. This unlikely, upscale Park Slope coffee-and-beer joint might or might not end up being to big band jazz what CBGB was to punk, but for now it is the place to see pretty much every good large-scale jazz ensemble in New York that’s not led by a Schneider, a McNeely or the ghost of Mingus. Sanford is its impresario, and this was his group, many of the same cast who’d played so memorably on his Sanford-Schumacher Sound Assembly album from a couple of years ago. Conducting as well as contributing a long, soulful trombone solo on one song, he steered the crew on a mighty swing through a mix of numbers from that album along with plenty of towering, majestic and deceptively playful newer material that often crossed over the line into third stream and soundtrack-style atmospherics. Ceativity leapt from the charts, and the band seized it joyously.

They opened circular and fluttering with Rhythm of the Mind, with solo spots for blippy bass clarinet by Kenny Berger, Ben Kono taking it up warily on clarinet a bit later, the whole band nonchalantly bringing it down for a few bars’ worth of Buddhist chanting like it was the most natural thing for a jazz band in New York to be doing at that particular moment. Chuck and Jinx, a swinging, genial tribute to a man and his cat, saw bassist Aidan Carroll taking a deliberate stroll against Mike Eckroth’s ringing, sparse electric piano, bemused high brass playing the owner (or actually, the owned) while Ted Poor’s drums impersonated the irrepressible, furry creature who, whether or not we admit it, always runs the show. Poor would also elevate the long, shapeshifting Indecent Stretch, a partita of sorts, to magnificent heights, kicking up a storm with the piano and bass, later leading an increasingly agitated crescendo in big, determined steps beneath the rest of the group’s uneasy atmospherics.

An Attempt at Serenity was aptly titled and genuinely tormented in places, Nadje Noordhuis’ trumpet comforting and resolute alternating with guitarist Andrew Green’s vividly twisted, downright evil, bent-note phrasing. Would hope triumph in the end? For awhile it looked like it might, despite distant hints to the contrary that added yet another layer of suspense. It ended quiet, atmospheric and somewhat ambiguously. They wrapped up their first set with a blazing version of Your Word Alone, a big thank-you note to a friend and mentor of Sanford’s who from the sound of things singlehandedly scored him a plum teaching position. The composition gave the band a chance to express considerable humor, especially in the big crescendo that led to the joyous “eureka” moment where the contract (or the check) appears in the mail, violinist Christian Howes (whose latest album with Robben Ford and Eddie Floyd is a treat) ripping casually through an eerie, phantasmagorical solo played through a watery chorus-box effect. Through one tricky false ending after the other, the band quoted liberally from the Mission Impossible theme as individual voices  – notably Kono – appeared and vanished almost in a dub reggae style. The remarkably young audience – many of whom appeared to be high school kids animatedly trading music and doing homework – roared their approval. Hey, big band jazz was the default music of the under-20 crowd seventy years ago. Could happen again.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/22/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #860:

Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – Volume II

The 1985 debut by le Mystere des Voix Bulgares, or the Bulgarian Voices as they’re more popularly known, was one of the landmark albums in the history of recorded music and spearheaded a global phenomenon. Every choir and every woman who’ve ever sung this repertoire, especially those in the west, owe something to this long-running ensemble. First established in the early 1950s, their self-released 1975 album was issued worldwide ten years later. But this one, their first recorded for the 4AD label in 1988, is even better (we aim to be counterintuitive here). With its eerie ninth and eleventh intervals, strange, guttural trills and sepulchral ambience, these large-scale choral arrangements of traditional Bulgarian folksongs are nothing less than otherworldly, especially to western ears. The women perform them a-cappella with the exception of one which has an accordion on it. The high point is the insistently catchy folk tune Dragana I Slavei, memorably covered in a new arrangement for four voices by groundbreaking Brooklyn quartet Black Sea Hotel in 2008. You can hear the whole thing here: it’s still in print from Nonesuch. If you’re looking for a torrent, here’s a random one.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment