Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Geoff Berner’s Pyrrhic Victory Party – One of the Year’s Best

Cynical, insightful, hilarious and iconoclastic, Canadian klezmer rocker Geoff Berner comes off as sort of the Eugene Hutz of current-day Jewish music. After wrapping up his Whiskey Rabbi trilogy, Berner made this ferocious, fearless latest one, Victory Party, with Canadian Jewish music maven Socalled. Berner is ironically more of a throwback to oldschool klezmer than any of the klezmer revivalists: in the days of the pogroms, klezmers (Jewish musicians) tended to be hellraisers, outcasts not only in society as a whole but often within their own culture as well, and Berner seems to embrace that fate as he calls bullshit on pretty much everyone who deserves it. This is a hell of an album, and ironically, though the music is more retro, less punk than his previous stuff, his vision is more fearlessly punk than ever.

The album gets off to a low-key, cynical start with the title track, a pyrrhic victory where the narrator journeys through a nightmare past “the charred remains of the orphanage, past the dogshit and corpses” to what poses for a party. “I knew we were right on the brink of our best years,” Berner remarks flatly. At his site, he explains that the song was inspired by the true story of a death camp survivor who “returned to Berlin to reclaim his bar. He paid German musicians to play klezmer tunes while he slowly drank himself to death.” Michael Winograd’s sarcastically blithe clarinet lights up the bouncy Jackie the Pimp, which offers an Iceberg Slim-style look at the downside of the profession. Wealthy Poet chronicles the ways the guy will help his girlfriend escape the oppressors, finally by giving her some matches so she can burn off her fingerprints at the border, the violins of Diona Davies and Brigitte Dajczer snarling and smoldering overhead.

The famous Yiddish-American protest song Mayn Rue Platz is transformed into a gorgeous duet with otherworldly vocals from Chinese-Canadian siren/erhu player Lan Tung. I Kind of Hate Songs with Ambiguous Lyrics is self-explanatory, and an instant classic, a song that needed to be written; Dalloy Polizei – a reworking of a hundred-year-old Russian Jewish folk tune – commemorates the murder of Ian Bush, shot from behind in police custody in Houston, British Columbia after being arrested for having an open container of beer. And with Berner’s accordion driving a cruelly amusing, deadpan, rustic shtetl-style cover of Canadian girlpunks the Sluttards’ I Am Going to Jail, he finds the commonalities between centuries of persecution of Jews, and centuries of persecution of nonconformists of all kinds.

A brutally sarcastic techno song, Oh My Golem explores the cruel irony of how the original, idealistic concept of Zionism was appropriated by genocidal, anti-Palestinian wingnuts in Israel. There’s also a plaintive, sad version of the waltz Cherry Blossoms, and a woozily slinky epic titled Rabbi Berner Finally Reveals His True Religous Agenda that pokes fun at religious cults. Savagely aware, catchy and contemptuous, this is refusenik rock at its best. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if any of us are still alive to compile it.

March 26, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Flower Brings Her Fast Fingers to Town

On April 1 at 7:30 (no joke), Portland, Oregon acoustic guitar goddess Mary Flower plays the Good Coffeehouse series at the Ethical Culture Society at 53 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. If guitar is your thing, she’s inspiring. Her latest album Bridges is a mix of characteristically fluid yet precise Piedmont style blues playing as well as some delicious ragtime and lap slide work. First and foremost, this is a guitar album – Flower keeps her vocals unaffected and nonchalant and lets her fingers do most of the talking. They’ve got a lot to say and say it memorably.

The best songs here are her original instrumentals – while everything here draws on different Americana roots styles, Flower isn’t afraid to add her own more complex, modern melody lines. Temptation Rag is absolutely gorgeous, Flower’s twin ascending lines against Robin Kessinger’s flatpicking and Spud Siegel’s mandolin shifting to a gypsy jazz vibe. Slow Lane to Glory imaginatively takes a gospel tune and makes midtempo swing blues out of it, played richly and tunefully on lap slide guitar. The bittersweet Piedmont blues number Daughter of Contortion eventually works in a playful circus motif, and the concluding track Blue Waltz artfully intertwines her guitar lines with Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and accordion from Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso.

A couple of the vocal numbers have a jaunty Roulette Sisters feel, most memorably the darkly simmering Big Bill Blues, lit up by some edgy, incisive piano from Janice Scroggins (whose contributions throughout this album are consistently excellent). The opening track, featuring Tony Furtado’s bottleneck in tandem with Flower’s densely intricate fingerpicking, evokes Jorma Kaukonen’s early 70s work. There’s also a version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that builds from hypnotic to steady and swinging; another first-rate ragtime song, Columbia River Rag, and explorations of country gospel, New Orleans blues and a cover of There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears with more biting blues piano from Scroggins. In addition to her April 1 gig, Flower is teaching a workshop on Piedmont style guitar at noon at the Jalopy on April 2.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Peplowski’s In Search of… Finds a Groove

The cd cover of veteran big-band reedman Ken Peplowski’s new album In Search of… pretty much tells the story. Pictured at the edge of the sidewalk, playing his clarinet in the yellow neon light of a sepia-toned, twilit Downtown Diner in the shadow of downtown Manhattan skyscapers, this is oldschool after-hours music. With all but the final three tracks recorded live in the studio in a single take, there’s a comfortable familiarity here – you can hear the voices of the players as they respond to cues and solos – but also plenty of surprises. For the casual fan, it’s an album of spirited nocturnes; hardcore jazz types will be amazed by the liquid crystal clarity of Peplowski’s legato – what flows from his horn is rivers rather than single notes – and some unexpected tunes. Here he plays clarinet and soprano saxophone, backed by Shelly Berg on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass and John Hamilton (leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his own trio, whose excellent 2009 album we didn’t exactly do justice to here) on drums. There are also three additional tracks with Greg Cohen on bass, Joe Ascione on drums and percussion and Chuck Redd on vibraphone.

They open it with The Thespian, by Freddie Redd, a lyrical ballad that jumps into doublespeed, piano and sax playing a double line before Peplowski’s soprano sax goes out exploring. The strongest tune here is Kennedy’s, Love’s Disguise, Hamilton’s hushed brushwork a clinic in good tast pushing the syncopated Cuban beat – as is Kennedy’s genial, melodic bass solo. More of those suspenseful brushes color an expansive, Romantically tinged version of When Joanna Loved Me; Hamilton’s warm samba groove, Falsa Baiana, gives Peplowsky a long launching pad for some boisterously tropical excursions. The relatively obscure Rodgers/Hart tune, A Ship without a Sail shifts rhythms back and forth to drive up the emotional impact;  the brooding quality of Peplowski’s clarinet elevates another showtune, With Every Breath I Take, far above its origins.

Berg has a couple of tunes here, a warmly summer 6/8 ballad that contrasts vividly with pensive clarinet, and a briskly comedic, almost dixieland dedication to Peplowski, who gamely plays along with the portrait of an irrepressibly good-natured guy who can’t sit still. And then Berg more than matches him for boisterous antics. The album winds up with an unexpectedly poignant take of This Nearly Was Mine, Berg adding suspense with some rubato solo piano as a bridge, and a tight bass/sax duo of No Regrets. The only misses are the Beatles and Professor Longhair cuts that end it; if you’re planning on using this as 4 AM wind-down music (it’s perfect for that time of night/day), either put those tracks somewhere else on your ipod or program the cd differently. Is this album a throwback to a better time and place? From a look at the cd cover, it’s hard to think otherwise. It’s out now on Capri Records.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 3/25/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #676:

Barbara Brousal – Pose While It Pops

One of the great voices of the last fifteen years or so, Barbara Brousal can pull more emotion out of a thoughtfully bent note than most people can with a whole album. A professional musician from Boston via Brooklyn, her background is Americana, and that’s one element among many in this diverse and intensely lyrical 2000 album, her second. The real classic here is the opening track The Human Arrow, a bitter and brilliantly metaphorical portrayal of love as a circus act. The slow, angst-driven country ballad Take These Tears wouldn’t be out of place on a Dolly Parton album from the late 60s; the carefree sway of Soap and Water contrasts with the stiletto dismissiveness of the lyric. Charm Bracelet and Picture Booth are offhandedly brooding without being maudlin; there’s also the irresistibly catchy, lyrical Throwing Bones, the hypnotic chamber-pop of Lay Down Your Soul and the long, intensely crescendoing Breathing Down Your Neck. Brousal’s excellent band here includes David Poe and Kevin Salem on guitars, John Abbey on bass and Jane Scarpantoni on cello. Awfully hard to find in hard copy form but still available from the usual download merchants, and myspace has several of her tracks streaming. If you like this one you might also enjoy her 2002 collection Almost Perfect, a collection of demos that frequently reaches the heights this one does.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting and Ecstatic Global Sounds from Gilad Atzmon

Reedman/multi-instrumentalist Gilad Atzmon’s chutzpah is consistent throughout both his music and his politics. His band the Orient House Ensemble takes its name from Yasir Arafat’s old digs (Atzmon is Israeli-British; his politics are progressive, i.e. supportive of the Palestinian people). Innovatively and often hauntingly blending elements of Middle Eastern, Balkan and klezmer music along with jazz, his latest album (which came out in the UK last fall) is characteristically eclectic. Here Atzmon plays alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet and accordion, along with Frank Harrison on piano, Wurlitzer and xylophone; Yaron Stavi on bass; Eddie Hick on drums, and Tali Atzmon providing atmospheric vocalese on many of the songs.

They bookend the album with a playful, carnivalesque waltz and then an oompah dance for a Sergeant Pepper feel, a considerably blithe contrast with the intensity between intro and outro. The expansive title track sets bracing, Balkan-tinged sax over suspenseful piano that grows more otherworldly as Atzmon heads for the stratosphere. There are two gorgeous, bitter, low-key laments here, the first of them winding up unexpectedly on a more optimistic, nocturnal note. A jazzy take on Ravel’s Bolero has Atzmon staying pretty close to the page over a hypnotic, almost trip-hop rhythm; the most memorable number here is the vivid, cinematic London to Gaza. Opening as a judicious, wary mood piece, Atzmon introduces a bright muezzin call followed by Harrison’s darkly tinged, modal jazz waltz and finally a crazed sax crescendo followed by more bustling piano urbanity. Likewise, In the Back of a Yellow Cab traces a long ride, possibly through an Israel of the mind, a slow slinky groove followed by a pair of animatedly orchestrated sax conversations and a more conspiratorial one between the bass and piano. They follow with All the Way to Montenegro, a jolly clarinet dance that breaks down to a long, suspenseful clarinet taqsim before winding up on an ecstatic note. Many moods, many styles, often very gripping. The album is out now on World Village Music.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doug Webb’s New Renovations Takes It Up a Notch

Last summer, jazz saxophonist Doug Webb released an entertainingly trad album titled Midnight. This new one, from the same session, is called Renovations. If we’re in luck, maybe we’ll live to see them reissued together as Midnight Renovations. Intriguing title, huh?

This one is a lot more upbeat, occasionally pretty intense. Buckle your seatbelt – bet you’ve never heard as energetic a version of Satin Doll as the one that has the band jumping out of their socks as animatedly as they do for seven minutes and change here. Besides Webb on tenor, there’s Joe Bagg on piano, Stanley Clarke on upright bass and Gerry Gibbs on drums. Larry Goldings’ casually rippling, summery piano provides an apt backdrop for the languid soprano sax lines on a swaying midtempo version of Then I’ll Be Tired of You – and his organ background comes through fluid and concise, a long solo taking everything up to a crescendo that holds back just thisshort of joyous. An especially amped version of Vernon Duke’s hit I Can’t Get Started, from the long-forgotten film Follies of 1936, has Webb charging hard alongside Mahesh Balasooriya’s express-train piano.

With Goldings manning the throttle again, a tensely swinging I’ve Never Been in Love Before contrasts with Webb’s long, comfortable runway landing, and then brings in some genial blues with the piano. They take Nat Cole’s You’ve Changed doublespeed at just the right random moment; Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away from Me, the bluesiest tune here, is also unsurprisingly the most rustic.

Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette is reincarnated, stripped down to what’s basically a rapidfire two-chord jam, Webb’s soprano sax taking a clarinet-like tone, Balasooriya spinning off some wildfire cascades to Webb who takes them even higher: it’s a triumphant pinnacle in an unlikely setting, more than hinting at how much further outside they might be capable of going if they went on longer. The album’s closing cut, Henry Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind – now there’s a title for the moment, huh? – is sort of the mirror image of that, slowly pulsing and sultry, with a geniunely fluid, relaxed solo by Clarke where he doesn’t overvibrato it, Webb’s tenor pushing the caravan along with a stream of eighth notes, Goldings’ dynamics refusing to let the suspense go too far one way or another, Webb finally joining him and they tumble into the vortex. It’s another welcome out-of-control moment – Lisa Simpson, eat your heart out. If you’re wondering what that’s all about, Webb voices her sax parts on the tv show. This one’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brian Landrus’ Traverse Album Takes a Quantum Leap

The Brian Landrus Quartet’s new album Traverse is fun even before it starts spinning, or whatever it does on your ipod besides run down the battery. The big-sky surrealism of the cover art, and the photo collage inside the cd cover are priceless – imagine Horizon’s 1975 album Breathless Sigh and you’d be on the right track. But the music here sounds nothing like that. A terrifically tuneful, entertaining collection which could well be the baritone saxophonist’s breakout album, he’s got an especially inspired band here: Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Michael Cain on piano and Billy Hart on drums. Landrus uses every bit of his range, far more than most baritone players – he’s sort of an update on Gerry Mulligan – with upper-register melodies outnumbering the lows many times over. That’s also how he writes. His background also extends beyond jazz to reggae (he’s played with current-day roots stars Groundation) and even doo-wop, so there are simple, catchy hooks all over the place. Consider this a creeper contender for the year’s best jazz album.

It opens counterintuitively with a jazz waltz. Hart is at the peak of his game from the first of innumerable, devious cymbal fills – in a lot of ways, he owns this album. As he swipes around, feeling for a comfortable place to hang, Landrus goes off exploring from the highs to the lows and back and forth, followed by Cain who does the same. The second track, Gnosis, is basically a two-chord jam over a suspenseful latin groove, Plaxico holding it together as Landrus’ bass clarinet paints moody ambience, Cain following a trajectory from loungey to minimalist to incisively jabbing with rewarding results. He goes deep into lyrical territory with a long, solo first verse on the beautiful piano-and-sax ballad Lone, basically a setup for the album’s high point, Lydian #4. Its modalities driven by Plaxico’s funky bass – and an all-too-brief, majestic solo toward the end – Landrus’ bright explorations soar over terse, rhythmic piano and yet more sly cymbal splashing by Hart.

If you think you’ve heard enough versions of Body and Soul for one lifetime or maybe more, Landrus’ will change your mind. He sets it up with a long, expansive solo passage, then he and the band turn it into a slowly unfolding contest for who can come the closest without actually touching it. The fun continues on the swinging Creeper, with its irresistible faux-noirisms, Cain’s vaudevillian piano rhythms and finally a chance for Hart to cut loose – and yet when he gets the chance, he doesn’t take it over the top, instead turning it something approximating the tunnel in the Halloween House. The album ends with Soundwave (titles are not Landrus’ forte), a gentle, attractive solo sax sketch. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if we’re all still here to see it.

In case you were wondering, the 1975 album Breathless Sigh by Horizon doesn’t really exist – at least we hope not.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 3/24/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #677:

Les Chauds Lapins – Parlez-Moi D’amour

One of the alltime great boudoir albums, and you don’t have to speak French to appreciate it (although that helps). This is the irresistibly charming 2007 debut by a group that began as a side project of two Americans, Roulette Sisters guitarist/chanteuse Meg Reichardt and former Ordinaires bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Kurt Hoffman. In the passing years, the band took on a life of its own, with a great new album Amourettes just out and a cd release show tomorrow at 10 at the 92YTribeca for all you New Yorkers. At the time they released this, Les Chauds Lapins (French slang for “hot to trot”) specialized in mining the witty wordplay and lushly jazzy arrangments of now-obscure French pop hits from the 1930s and 40s (the band has since broadened their palate a bit). This one’s got the coy Il M’a Vue Nue (He Saw Me Naked), the unselfconsciously romantic J’ai Dansé Avec L’Amour (I Danced with Love); the surreal Swing Troubadour; the sad shipwreck lament La Barque D’Yves (Yves’ Boat), the dreamy title track (whose original version was included in the soundtrack to the film Casablanca) and the not-quite-so-dreamy Parlez-Moi D’autre Chose (Let’s Talk About Something Else) among the thirteen sweepingly nocturnal tunes here. This one doesn’t seem to have made it to the sharelockers yet, but it’s still available (also on vinyl!) from the band’s site.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michel Reis’ Point of No Return Captures the Zeitgeist

Luxembourg-born pianist Michel Reis’ Point of No Return is a stunningly vivid, darkly powerful album, easily one of the two or three best to come over the transom here so far this year. This is not an album of blazing solos or gratuitous displays of chops, yet it conveys an intensity of emotion rarely reached via any approach, whether loud or quiet. The word “haunting” is often misused, but not here. Reis wanders judiciously through minor keys for an austere, rain-drenched, frequently cinematic ambience, leaving plenty of space for the ghosts to wander. Some of this reminds of Fernando Otero in a more restrained, contemplative moment, or Dave Brubeck circa Brandenburg Gate Revisited.

There are so many “OMG, that was good” moments here that it doesn’t make sense to list them all – or ruin the suspense. If you think that a bass solo can’t be plaintive or deliver an impact, let bassist Tal Gamlieli’s cautious, pause-laden one on the sad, plaintive, simply titled Folk Song hit you – it’s what he doesn’t say that resonates most intensely. When Vivek Patel’s flugelhorn and Aaron Kruziki’s soprano sax shadow each other on the austerely catchy opening track, The Power of Beauty, the effect is much the same. As is Patel’s tentative reach and then decision against a flight upwards coming out of Reis’ incisively hammering chords on the bossa-flavored It’s Only Been a Dream. The cinematic Riverside Drive paints a vivid noir tableau, Reis’ uneasy piano flutter matched by Adam Cruz’ drums as the menace rises and then recedes, leaving the calm cityscape ominously unchanged. And The Sad Clown, a darkly carnivalesque song without words, wouldn’t be out of place on Frank Carlberg’s creepily theatrical Tivoli Trio album.

Not everything here is as dark. Sailing Away at Night is an irresistibly fun narrative, moving out into the depths where the waves are calm and the air is still, but then, uh oh, here come the raindrops! Time to head back to port! The title track works off a rippling, circular hook that threatens to head off into Yellowjackets territory but doesn’t, thanks to a scowling bridge and an exchange of fisticuffs between the piano and drums. There’s also a diptych of sorts, Street of Memories followed by Leaning in Towards Tomorrow, that juxtaposes comfortable, distantly blues-pop tv-theme phrases with hints of the otherworldly – clearly, even those safe streets are not without their ghosts. Reis plays the cd release show for this one on April 6 at 7:30 PM at Miles Cafe.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Randi Russo Releases the Best Album of 2011, So Far

For over a decade Randi Russo has lurked amongst the elite of New York’s rock underground. Her 2001 album Solar Bipolar, a cauldron of screaming, whirling guitars and anthemic lyrical intensity, achieved cult status among devotees of noise-rock. Since that time, her prolific catalog has grown to include skeletal, sepulchral folk-rock, janglerock, punk and most recently, psychedelia. Her latest album Fragile Animal is logical extension of the psychedelic direction she first began gravitating toward in the mid-zeros before breaking up her band and then slowly regrouping. This packs as much of a wallop as anything she’s done before, yet sometimes that wallop is a playful one. The one aspect of Russo’s songwriting that hasn’t always come through as clearly as her defiant, resolute individualism is her sense of humor, but it does here. Co-produced by Russo and the Oxygen Ponies’ Paul Megna and released on the insurgent Hidden Target label, this is a lush, swirling mix of guitar and keyboard textures, Russo’s velvet voice steady above the maelstrom. While it’s never wise to assume that an album released so early in the year will beat out everything else that appears between now and December, it’s going to take a miracle to surpass this one. Welcome to the best album of 2011, so far.

The first track is Get Me Over, setting the stage for what’s to come, Russo’s quiet desperation and need to escape muted by the whirling sonics, backward masking and unselfconscious backbeat beauty of the melody. Venus on Saturn is hypnotic, insistent post-Velvets rock, a scathingly funny slap upside the head of a drama queen: “Without it she’d be boring, and no one would care to listen; now, she’s just annoying – yet she’s getting all the attention.” With guitarist Don Piper’s crazed leads fueling its stampeding Helter Skelter stomp, Alienation is a study in paradoxes, the push and pull of the need to connect versus the fear of scaring people off by confronting them with reality.

Invisible is her September Gurls – hidden beneath its ethereal layers of vocals and multiple-tracked guitars is a classic pop song. In a way, it’s the ultimate outsider anthem: she may be invisible, but she’s also bulletproof. “No one can touch me now, no one can bring me down,” Russo asserts with a gentle steeliness. It contrasts with the hypnotic, Steve Kilbey-esque mood piece I Am Real, anchored by Piper’s harmonium, which contrasts in turn with the wryly cheery Beatlisms of Invitation, which follows.

Russo’s voice finally cuts loose on Swallow, a soaring, crescendoing portrait that will resonate with anyone who’s had to swallow their dreams as they run to catch the train to some dead-end destination or dayjob. With its mechanical drums balanced by simmering layers of guitar feedback and a mammoth crescendo out that’s part Led Zep and part Egyptian funeral procession, Head High offers a more optimistic outlook for would-be killer bees stuck in a deathly routine. True to its title, the dreamy Hurt Me Now is more sad lament than kiss-off anthem, lit up by Lenny Molotov’s vivid lapsteel leads. The album winds up with the haunting, relentless epic Restless Raga, twisting a Grateful Dead reference into an escape which could be completely liberating…or it could be death:

Heart’s all empty and I don’t care
‘Cause I can steal yours with my stare
And I’m gonna ride that final wave
Of excitement to my grave

The album is available exclusively for a week starting today at Russo’s bandcamp site (which is preferable to the other usual sites, where it will be in about a week, since bandcamp’s downloads are more artist-friendly, not to mention sonically superior). Randi Russo plays the cd release show for Fragile Animal on April 17 at 9 PM at the Mercury Lounge with another first-rate, lyrical Hidden Target band, the Oxygen Ponies.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment