Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 5/9/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #631:

Steely Dan – Katy Lied

Let’s stay in 1975 for another day, huh? This is self-mythologizing, deviously literate jazz-funk from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and a cast of studio pros. Great band, but practically every one of their albums has a real clunker to go along with the good stuff, so that’s why we picked this one.There’s only a couple of super standouts here – Any World That I’m Welcome To, where Fagen lets down his guard and bares his fangs at the morons he grew up with, and the absolutely macabre Black Friday – but it’s solid all the way through. Bad Sneakers is a spot-on period piece, a couple of losers “with a transistor radio and a whole lot of money to spend” making their way up Sixth Avenue past Radio City. Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More works an oldschool blues vernacular better than any of the band’s contemporaries could, while Chain Lightning goes in a slow, funkier direction. Rose Darling and Everyone’s Gone to the Movies offer a leering, cynical look at romance, the surreal Dr. Wu was a pseudo-hit, and Your Gold Teeth II and the closing track, Throw Back the Little Ones reach for a distant, offhand menace. Here’s a random torrent via Walrussongs.

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May 9, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch’s Coma Dreams Premiered Memorably in New Jersey

My Coma Dreams: the title of Fred Hersch’s eclectic new multimedia suite evokes a lurid, surreal netherworld. At the world premiere yesterday at Montclair State College in Montclair, New Jersey, the brilliant jazz pianist and an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by Gregg Kallor revealed it to be definitely surreal, less lurid than one would imagine, blackly amusing and ultimately a genuinely heartwarming portrait of joie de vivre triumphing over enormous odds. In order to facilitate a cure for a particularly virulent case of pneumonia, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York put Hersch into a medically induced coma, from which he was not expected to emerge as his old self, perhaps not at all. Yet he did, and after what must have been a grueling rehabilitation process, resumed playing, touring and ultimately making a beautifully lyrical solo album, Alone at the Vanguard, this past December. Hersch’s newest work makes a good companion piece to John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (just reviewed here), another harrowing narrative with a similar gallows humor, also set at St. Vincent’s.

With a narrative by Herschel Garfein, spoken and often sung by actor Michael Winther, the suite shifts between the dreams that Hersch was able to remember from his two months in the coma, along with Hersch’s own observations and those of his doctor and his lover, who maintained a resolute vigil throughout the ordeal. The transitions between narrative voices can be awkward – sometimes it’s less than clear who’s telling the story. But to paraphrase Garfein’s program notes, the story takes a back seat to Hersch’s musical interpretation of it, and of the dreams, often stunningly lyrical, haunting and also uproariously funny.

In one of the early dreams, Hersch finds himself bound and gagged in the back of a van. How he tries to ransom himself from his kidnapers is characteristic of the wry surrealism here, and it’s vividly portrayed via a frantically pulsing, Mingus-esque tableau that gave drummer John Hollenbeck a deliciously amusing interlude to sprint from the scene, less Keystone Kops than Dragnet. Another dream involves a party on a plane – and then another plane, albeit one either set in another century, or with costumes to match. “One cool airline!” is Hersch’s interpretation, the band swinging through a sultry tango-flavored piece lit up by the string quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence and Deoro cellist Dave Eggar.

The most stunning number on the bill relates to a dream concerning a duo improvisation in Brussels that is fraught with anxiety but ultimately works out well. Beginning with a hypnotic, plucked pedal figure on violin, much of it is essentially a one-chord vamp that builds to an almost cruel suspense with a long, surreal, noir Twin Peaks piano solo whose bright, lurid menace is literally breathtaking. That tune is soon followed by an equally vivid one where Hersch – a Thelonious Monk devotee – finds himself in a cage alongside the guy with the beard and the hat. There’s a composition contest: whoever comes up with a piece of music first gets out. Hersch busies himself while Monk relaxes with a grin; the music gives Hersch an opportunity to literally channel Monk’s playing, with every subtle and not-so-subtle weird dissonance, smokily warped blues phrase and roll he can come up with – and there are many. It’s the longest section here.

The two funniest ones are parodies, and both got the audience roaring: the first a sendup of a schmaltzy girl-in-a-coma afterschool special tv show, the second titled Jazz Diner, a cruelly entertaining account of another dream where Hersch finds himself playing straight man to a diva doing hours and hours at a jazz diner in the woods. Just when the satire starts to feel interminable, Hersch decides he’s had enough and makes the piece interesting,  Steven Lugerner‘s tenor solo beginning as something of a spoof but soon taking off with an energetic unease. By contrast, Hersch offers a requiem, stately and elegant with the strings gently amping the sadness, for the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s – the first New York hospital to have an AIDS ward, which Hersch credits with saving his life more than once.

There are also songs, and strangely, neither Hersch’s cerebral wit nor his purist melodicism translate to them: the effect is like following Monk with Journey, or more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But except for one of them, they’re over soon. There’s also a video component, which at best is redundant and at worst is distracting (jazz audiences like to watch the musicians). But the strength of the compositions, and the playing, transcends these minor flaws. The rest of the ensemble included trombonist Mike Christianson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, multi-reedman Adam Kolker and bassist John Hebert: one hopes that this stellar crew can be part of the Manhattan premiere of this powerful and compelling work.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clara Engel’s Madagascar EP Is Dark and Intense

Canadian songwriter Clara Engel has a new ep out on Vox Humana, on vinyl, one of the best small-size collections to come over the transom here in recent months. You can also stream the tracks or download at their bandcamp site. The first cut, Blind Me begins with a moody stark minor-key guitar intro and becomes a darkly swaying folk pop anthem in 6/8 time, in a Marissa Nadler vein. Engel’s voice is sort of a cross between Penelope Houston and Patti Smith, with a pure, unaffected clarity that’s scary by itself, never mind the lyrics. The song gently picks up with smoldering, terse electric guitar and an ethereal choir. There’s a recurrent theme of “bloody echoes from the walls of this prison” – offhandedly lurid and compelling. The lurid factor picks up on the second track, Madagascar, seductive yet menacing, drummer Paul Kolinski building the ambience with some marvelous mallet work, Nicholas Buligan’s trumpet fluttering in occasionally as Engel’s guitar adds intensity. The third track, Accompanied by Dreams, from Engel’s album The Bethlehem Tapes, is just guitar, voice and Taylor Galassi’s cello, an imploring mini-epic that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of those great Penelope Houston albums from the early 90s. “Do I have to wait for another lifetime?” Engel asks plaintively. She’s also offering an excellent free download: Lick My Fins is noir cabaret with a stark, Creatures-style arrangement heavy on the drums, light on the shadowy orchestration. All of this is good stuff, reason to look forward to more in the future

May 9, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment