Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Lee Kortes’ Songs of Beulah Rowley Strike a Nerve

The frontwoman of New York band Mary Lee’s Corvette, songwriter Mary Lee Kortes first gained prominence as a singer – she’s done vocal tracks for everybody from Billy Joel to Placido Domingo, and now leads the UN Voices choir. With a crystalline wail that resonates to the spectacular upper reaches of her range, that voice has made her arguably the most individually compelling rock stylist of our era. But it was her turn-of-the-century album True Lovers of Adventure that put her front and center among this era’s greatest tunesmiths: it ranks with Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement and Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space as one of the most brilliant lyrical rock records ever made. While over the years that followed, she’s put out a succession of good albums – including a full-length live version of Blood on the Tracks that’s even better than Dylan’s original – this is her best original recording in over a decade. Not bad for a five-song ep.

The name “Beulah Rowley” came to Kortes in a dream. Kortes has since fleshed Rowley out into an obscure but stunningly eclectic Midwestern songwriter from the previous century, and created a musical which includes songs from throughout her career. Compared with Kortes’ previous work, the songs here are a little more rustic, which makes them contemporaneous with Rowley’s life, but like everything she’s ever done, they’re timeless. Escape is a constant theme; puns and double meanings are everywhere, and more than anything, these songs are dark. Pound for pound, it’s the most intense collection she’s ever put together. The first song is Born a Happy Girl, a spare noir cabaret tune with accordion, bass and drums, the chilling tale of a mother who might have killed her daughter if the child hadn’t escaped. “I put my happy ending here, hallelujah,” the narrator sings, allusively: that happy ending, if it’s to be taken on face value, wasn’t planned.

Well By the Water also works a simple, repetitive, practically hypnotic verse and chorus, chillingly. The sarcasm of “we did well by the water” is crushing. “Hide the heart and cut the thread, all the dreaded secrets dead,” Kortes sings with a quiet, stoic intensity, assessing the cruel aftermath of the hidden, twisted side of smalltown Midwestern (or New England) life. The pace picks up with the jaunty, Moonlighters-esque swing tune Big Things, a defiant escape anthem that clatters along with piano and an evocatively mechanical percussion track. Finally, as the chorus rises, Kortes sails up and hits one of her signature statospheric notes – and then takes it even higher. It’s viscerally breathtaking.

Will Anybody Know That I Was Here is a September song as poignant as any jazz standard ever written. Backed gracefully and tersely by just a piano trio, Kortes traces a day in the life of a woman quietly and anxiously pondering what posterity might hold in store: “When my face is long gone from the mirror, will my voice echo clear?” She ends the song solo, with just a brittle, sustained vibrato. It’s another chilling moment. The ep ends with Someplace We Can’t See, the most rock-oriented song here. It’s sort of a more understated take on the towering intensity Kortes nailed so vividly on her signature ballad 1000 Promises Later, the centerpiece of True Lovers of Adventure. Here, over watery chorus-box guitar, she traces the somewhat embittered, tortuous trail of a couple’s unfulfilled life. Balancing optimism and emotional depletion, it ends ambiguously. It’s the perfect place to continue this haunting and powerfully resonant story: as it is, count it among the elite handful of albums at the top of this year’s already impressive crop.

Advertisements

May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Build’s New Album Defies Categorization

Genre-defying instrumental quintet Build’s new album, simply titled Place, is an entertaining, meticulously conceived series of thematically connected instrumentals. Throughout the album, there’s a sense that violinist/bandleader Matt McBane has taken pizzicato violin melodies and fleshed them out for piano, bass, drums and string section. Much of this is brisk and cheery, with tricky rhythms and playful, quirky tunes that veer from insistent minimalism to hints of jazz. The cd case photos – Central Park on a late autumn afternoon – make a good match with the music. Yet despite the spring-loaded bounce of most of the pieces, there’s an undercurrent of unease which, when it comes front and center, provides some genuinely chilling moments which are by far the most memorable here. Along with McBane on violin, the group includes Andrea Lee on cello, Ben Campbell on bass, Michael Cassedy on piano and Adam D. Gold (also of lush, anthemic art-rockers the Universal Thump) on drums and percussion.

The opening cut, Behavior Patterns, sets the tone, piano hammering out a hypnotic pedal figure with pizzicato strings over it. Essentially, it’s a circular African theme broken up into its individual components, bass nimbly weaving through the understatedly percussive attack. The striking rhythms continue through the second cut, Dissolve, a minimalistic string arrangement delivering a motoric beat that winds up with a long, hypnotic, repetitive outro. The closest thing to a pop song here is Ride, bass playing artfully off a simple piano figure, strings kicking in with its catchy, crescendoing chorus, eventually building to a sweeping crescendo that winds out gracefully at the end.

The big epic here is Swelter. Divided as a triptych on the album, it’s more elaborate than that, despite the minimalism of the melodies. Part one features arrhythmic piano against suspenseful staccato strings, a terse cello solo and then piano leading it up and out animatedly; part two is vividly brooding and cinematic, a slow piano dirge broken up intermittently by almost off-key violin and ominous cello passages. The concluding segment introduces the jazziest interlude here and then reintroduces the theme of the album’s opening track, but more bustling and animatedly. They follow that with the sirening horror-movie sonics of Cleave, the eerie oscillation of the strings rising until they push the other instruments completely out of the picture.

The following track, Anchor matches the playful to the pensive, an interchange of glockenspiel, cello, bass and violin voices morphing into a blippy, blithe call-and-response that quickly takes a downturn as the string textures shift and the piano lands everywhere but on the beat. The album closes with Maintain, an catchy overture driven by emphatic staccato strings that hint at a big crescendo but in fact do just the opposite. For that matter, very little turns out as anticipated here: that’s only one of the joys of this somewhat quietly, matter-of-factly fascinating, uncategorizable gem of an album.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Jared Gold Wraps up a Diverse, Intense Album

Jared Gold’s new B3 organ jazz album All Wrapped Up may not be the last thing you would expect, but it’s different. Before we get into this, let’s establish the fact that the world would be a much less enjoyable place without the B3 grooves of Lonnie Smith, Jimmy McGriff, the late Jimmy Smith and of course James Brown, who in case you didn’t know, first got an appetite for funk when playing this kind of stuff. Gold’s previous album Out of Line continued that great tradition: this is a lot more stylistically diverse. Once in awhile Gold will slip in a piano voicing; he’s also the bad cop here, bringing on the night when there’s too much sunshine. In addition to a couple of the usual grooves, the band also does a couple of swing tunes, slinks into noir mode and explores the fringes of Sao Paolo and New Orleans. Gold has a great cast behind him: Ralph Bowen on saxes, Jim Rotondi on trumpet and Quincy Davis on drums. The compositions are all originals: everyone in the band contributes.

The first cut, My Sentiments exactly works a pretty traditional shuffle groove and a triumphant horn hook, Bowen and Rotondi spinning off bright, bluesy eighth-note runs. A vivid swing tune, Get Out of My Sandbox has Bowen artfully playing off a descending progression as Davis adds rumble and crash, Rotondi getting to the point much more quickly with some scurrying downward chromatics. Gold messes with the tempo: if Keith Emerson wasn’t so hell-bent on showing off, he might have sounded something like this. Piece of Mind, by Davis, introduces a casually catchy, upbeat swing tune afloat on Bowen’s melismas, Davis varying his tread from nimble to stomping, with an intense, animated group conversation out of a pianistic Gold solo.

Midnight Snack, by Bowen shoots for nocturnal and noirish quickly – a nonchalantly crescendoing sax solo goes gritty, Rotondi’s insistent glissandos heighten the tension and Gold pushes him as he takes it up. And then the organ morphs it into a moody jazz waltz. Dark Blue, by Rotondi, brings it further down into the underworld, a slow slinky blues ballad with Taxi Driver ambience. Gold’s biting staccato righthand adds neon glimmer in the shadows; the whole band takes it up to a wailing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek crescendo.

Mama Said starts out as a jaunty New Orleans strut and ends up as a crime movie theme, Davis and Gold again working in tandem to boost the suspense, the organ eventually taking it down and then matter-of-factly back up in a vintage Quincy Jones vein. They follow with Suadades, a deceptively creepy, languid number, again with matter-of-factly impactful, ambling mysterioso ambience from the organ and drums, Bowen bringing a rare gentle balminess. They close the album going back to the funk, if not completely all the way, with Just a Suggestion, a lauching pad for Bowen’s on-and-off-kilter, weaving lines and Gold’s Memphis allusions. There’s an awful lot going on here: while it takes a lot of time to get to know this, stick with it, it’s all good. It’s out now on Posi-Tone; Gold is at the Fat Cat on May 20 at 10:30 with a quintet.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Boubacar Traore Returns with More Hypnotic Desert Blues Magic

This is the kind of album you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa. Along with Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore is one of the fathers of desert blues: now close to 70, the superstar Malian guitarist’s voice has taken on a flintier edge as the years have passed, but otherwise his playing is as hypnotically gripping as it was forty years ago when his cassettes began circulating in his native land. His latest album Mali Denhou is characteristic: sometimes brooding, sometimes warmly circling, it’s a display of minimalist intricacy that European composers struggle trying to achieve. Traore does this effortlessly, backed by spare, simple percussion and mournful chromatic harmonica, occasionally with dual acoustic guitar tracks.

Traore’s solos are typically limited to an expansive bar or two, often to signal a change or the return of a chorus: the harmonica is the lead instrument here, and it is excellent, woundedly spiraling or letting the end of a phrase trill out over the steady rotation of the guitar riff underneath. Traore sings in his native dialect, usually with the patient stoicism that characterizes Malian desert music, occasionally rising to meet the crescendo of the guitars. The album’s opening tracks feature marimba interwoven among the guitars, so seamlessly that it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what unless you’re paying close attention. A couple of the later ones feature a lute that sounds like a higher-pitched oud, snaking through the thicket of casually intricate textures. An early track has a lullaby feel; the final one runs a warm circular motif over and over. Another hints at an upbeat 1-4-5 change, evocative of some of reggae legend Burning Spear’s simpler, more direct, African-influenced songs. There’s also a mini-epic that begins with a distinctly flamenco-tinged riff. But as with the rest of Traore’s voluminous back catalog, it’s the dusky otherworldly minor modes that deliver the most chills, and there are plenty of them, from the stately title track, an anthem in 6/8 time, to a couple of rhythmically trickier, slowly unwinding numbers, building from skeletal yet incisive hooks that essentially serve as basslines. Imagine the expanse of the desert from beyond the tent, as the sun goes down at last and a breeze breaks the spell of the heat for the first time. This is magical music from a magical player who’s been around a long time. Fans of the current crop of desert blues bands like Tinariwen or Etran Finatawa have a lot to enjoy here. It’s out now on the adventurous French Lusafrica label.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jolly Boys Surpass Expectations

The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.

One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.

But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/3/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #637:

The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass

This is as outside as we’re going to get here. At the risk of alienating some of you, we give you this sprawling 1970 theatrical acid jazz tour de force by these legendary improvisers. Burnt Sugar would be impossible to imagine without them. As much as this is free jazz per se, the reality is that this was an extraordinarily tight band that practiced sometimes as much as twelve hours a day, meaning that many of the motifs you hear here were minutely finessed in rehearsal. Here the classic late 60s/early 70s lineup of Lester Bowie on trumpet, Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Malachi Favors on bass and Don Moye on drums is joined by Fontella Bass who contributes both vocals and piano. Two long, sidelong suites: How Strange/Ole Jed on side one, Mitchell’s Horn Web on side two, which is more of an outright jam and features some characteristically tasty interplay between the saxes. Don’t hold it against these guys that they’re one of the grand total of two – two – jazz acts included on the best-albums list at that awful Chicago indie rock site run by those gay dudes. Here’s a random torrent via African Gospel Church.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment