Bio Ritmo’s new album La Verdad uses oldschool, classic Fania era salsa as its stepping-off point and blends in trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub for a sound that’s absolutely unique, and absolutely psychedelic. Keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandona is their secret weapon. Sometimes she anchors the music with darkly reverberating Fender Rhodes lines; other times she goes way up for a glimmering, pointillistic, starlit vibe; then she’ll swoop in with the organ or shift to swinging Afro-Cuban salsa piano riffs. The horns move from bright, incisive bursts, to big, lushly jazzy swells, with frequent breaks for individual solos, as the timbales rattle, the congas hold the tunes close to the ground and the bass rises with a body-tugging groove. Singer Rei Alvarez is a mercurial, slyly surreal presence: when there are lyrics here, they work on several different levels.
As you would expect from a great oldschool album, there’s a distinct Side One and Side Two side here. The opening cut features unexpected touches like wah-wah keys and a blippy bass solo along with some tasty brass parts. A couple of the jazzier tracks, like the title number and Caravana del Vejicante (Clown Parade) often resemble the excellent, shapeshifting latin-influenced jazz group Either/Orchestra, with their cleverly shifting brass segments and smirking keyboard interludes. The third track, Dina’s Mambo, contrasts psychedelic slinky, conspiratorially swinging, psychedelic keys with hi-beam horns; the fourth, Carnaval, builds nonchalantly to a punked-out Afrobeat feel. There’s also the deliciously noir Verguenza (Shame); the bouncy, surprisingly carefree, sarcastic Majadero (The Noodge); the even creepier, Thelonious Monk-ish Lola’s Dilemma with its subtle dub echoes spicing up a tiptoeing son montuno melody; and the hidden track, an absolutely killer dub version of the second cut. If you wish you’d lived through the classic salsa era of the 70s – or if you did – this one’s for you. Bio Ritmo play the album release show for this one tonight at 10 at Southpaw; those who prefer the superior sonics at SOB’s should check out their Manhattan release show there at 8 PM on Nov 18. Also recommended: Bio Ritmo’s sister band Miramar, who recreate classic Puerto Rican boleros from the 1950s (and create some of their own) with a similarly dark psychedelic edge.
Among the many important works inspired by the 9/11 disaster, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem – recently released on Innova – is one of the most gripping. It’s a Christian mass performed by the Trinity Youth Chorus, augmented in the lower registers by members of the Trinity Choir, conducted by Robert Ridgell. Which is a choice of performers as fitting as it is musically successful; New York’s Trinity Church was the house of worship closest to Ground Zero, its organ destroyed by the avalanche of soot and debris from a couple of blocks away. Here the choir performs with Alexander Hermann at the organ, Jennifer Hoult on harp, and a cello section of Aminda Asher, Veronica Parrales, Sara Wolfe, and Miho Zaitsu. Most of this is very quiet as befits an atmosphere where grief has depleted most all energy, although not all the music is dark: Moran allows some hope for a possible future, particularly on the warm if plaintive theme in the final movement, In Paradisum. The melodies move slowly, gently, often very poignantly: the arrangements themselves change much more than the actual tunes, in the style of Rennaisance choral music but with more of a willingness to embrace the unresolved, a style perfectly capsulized in the Introit, which begins with the suite’s one big organ swell and ends unsettled and somewhat menacing. Somewhat similarly, the spacious, echoey Kyrie gingerly moves away from and then back to a central tone. A calming hymn, a gentle processional that gives way to a baroque waltz (with vivid echoes of the Pachelbel Canon), a distant, somewhat minimalist funeral march and eventually a turn into quiet, otherworldly, mutedly soaring upper-register ambience mark the passage from stunned disbelief to sheer anguish to a slow determination to begin anew. To call it methodical wouldn’t be accurate – coping with death is never like that – but it’s a potently perceptive portrayal of how many of those who survived the disaster, or lost loved ones in it, would respond. When approached to write this, Moran was initially dismayed by the idea of writing a requiem sung mostly by children, but it’s a good thing he didn’t back away from it. This achievement makes a powerful, considerably quieter counterpart to Melora Creager’s angry, betrayed 9/11 suite, and Robert Sirota’s haunting, nightmarish Triptych.
There are three other works on this album, and they make good segues. Seven Sounds Unseen, a John Cage homage performed by choral ensemble Musica Sacra, is considerably more lively but similarly full of intriguingly subtle tonal and timbral shifts, particularly the low, solitary drone that emerges toward the end of the first movement to counterbalance the highs as they reach for a hypnotically celebratory feel. The second is a long, hypnotic round with a surprise interruption, the third a mutedly triumphant outro.
Notturno in Weiss, a subtly apprehensive, slow fugue between the voices of The Esoterics and harpists Alexis Odell and Melissa Walsh is a setting of a Christian Morgenstern poem which contrasts the whiteness of a lily and a tombstone, each keeping its own vigil. The final track is titled Requiem for a Requiem, a seamless Moran “greatest hits” medley assembled by soundsculptor Phillip Blackburn including an excerpt from a more vigorous work as well as long passages that play up the harp versus the choir’s atmospherics.
As we usually do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #462:
Jazz on a Summer’s Day
This is a case where you really should get the movie: the visuals of this 1960 documentary of the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival are fascinating and often hilarious. It’s best known for Anita O’Day, stoned out of her mind, wailing her way through Sweet Georgia Brown and Tea for Two with a great horn player’s imagination and virtuosity. That’s just the juiciest moment; there’s also a young, ducktailed Chuck Berry doing the splits on Sweet Little Sixteen; Dinah Washington making All of Me sound fresh and fun; Gerry Mulligan and his band; and cameos by George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton, a lot of Louis Armstrong and a real lot of Mahalia Jackson at her peak doing spirituals and a final stirring benediction. Some of you may scoff at how mainstream this is…until you hear what this crew does with a lot of standard fare. The random torrent here is for the movie rather than the stand-alone soundtrack.
Monday night at the popular upper westside Music Mondays series, one of the organizers remarked that sometimes chamber music ensembles from outside this country aren’t as well-known here as they deserve to be. The reverse is also true – and that’s too bad. This particular series devotes itself to community concerts by world-class performers, and Trio Con Brio Copenhagen definitely delivered. There’s an easy explanation for much of this group’s warm chemistry and singleminded approach to the music: violinist Soo-Jin Hong and cellist Soo-kyung Hong are sisters. Rounding out the group, Danish pianist Jens Elvekjaer played with an uncluttered fluidity, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes chillingly dark.
The three pieces on the bill were arranged generously so that each group member could shine. They opened with Haydn’s “Gypsy” Trio in G Major. It’s a ceaselessly pleasant, chipper work, one of Haydn’s literally hundreds like it: a couple of waltz themes, variations and call-and-response and a rondo at the end that gave Elvekjaer a chance to air out his chops with a brief but memorable series of powerhouse, articulated runs. Their next piece, Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor was transcendent, moodwise completely the opposite of the breeziness that preceded it. Elkvekjaer launched into its spacious, murkily minimalism with a visceral sense of dread, Frankenstein walking on eggshells. An apprehensive, somewhat manic flurry of strings was the first of many moments for the cellist to dig in and match the piano’s ambience goosebump for goosebump. Even the more lively second movement was only a respite from the distant, quietly resounding low-register motifs that took it down and out with a white-knuckle intensity. Has this group recorded this? They ought to.
They closed with a warmly rippling take on Tschaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50, a showcase this time for the violin, which gets a few solo passages to build suspense or shift the mood in one way or another, and made the most of all of them. It’s classic Tschaikovsky: wounded angst peering out from behind the comfortable, nocturnal swells, a somewhat sad, courtly dance and a conclusion marked “lugubre.” This particular version wasn’t lugubrious, though – it was downright haunting, even though the composer almost completely sidesteps brooding minor-key Russian tones in favor of more comfortable central European colors. Music Mondays’ next concert is November 7 at 7:30 PM at Advent/Broadway Church, 2504 Broadway at 93rd St., featuring the reliably adventurous Miro Quartet.
As we usually do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #463:
The Shivvers – Lost Hits From Milwaukee’s First Family Of Powerpop 1979-82
Every day, there seems to be yet another rediscovery of a great band from decades ago that never “made it,” at least in the old mass-media sense. And more and more frequently,it’s becoming clear that those “unknown” bands were usually way better than what was on the radio at the time. This 2006 reissue includes most of this extraordinary group’s studio recordings as well as a surprisingly snarling, intense live set. In the studio, keyboardist/frontwoman Jill Kossoris’ vocals were quirky and detached, notably on the closest thing they had to a radio hit, the chirpy but cynical anticonformist anthem Teenline. But live, she was a powerhouse, most notably on the second version of You’re So Sure here, which sounds like the early Go Go’s. There’s also No Substitute, like the Raspberries with a girl singer; the scurrying new wavey/Beatlesque Please Stand By; the rich, ELO-inflected Remember Tonight; the punchy garage pop of My Association (“There’s a place I can go where I don’t have to be an outcast”); the George Harrison-esque Hold On; the absolutely gorgeous Life Without You; the Orbisonesque Nashville noir of It Hurts Too Much and Blue in Heaven, their offhandedly attempt at a big artsy (6 minute) synth/guitar anthem…sung by a dead girl! The whole thing is streaming at yucky myspace; here’s a random torrent.
As we usually do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album was #464:
Gerry Mulligan – The Concert Jazz Band at Newport 1960
This one of those recordings that went unreleased for decades, most likely because the sonics aren’t quite up to cd quality. But in the age of the mp3, it’s not as if most people can tell the difference. And the versatile, nonconformist baritone saxophonist/composer’s big band is absolutely smoking, snaking their way up Kai Winding’s Broadway, taking the Theme from I Want to Live deep into noir territory, going Out of This World and then to gypsyland with Manoir de Mes Reves. They go swinging into the blues with the Johnny Hodges homage Carrots for Rabbit, then expansive versions of Sweet and Slow, I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ and go out on a high note with Blueport. There are also a couple of bonus tracks from European shows around the same time. Here’s a random torrent via Moha Offbeat.
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony are not unknown – they’re touring China late this year – and their Manhattan concert yesterday appeared to be sold out. If you’re a fan of classical music and they’re not on your radar, they should be: they are a world-class orchestra, and not as small as “chamber symphony” necessarily implies. Sunday evening they offered fresh, inspired takes on a couple of old favorites – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61 – as well as Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations.
They opened with the Britten, an orchestral setting of Rimbaud poems on diverse themes, sung here by soprano Tamra Paselk. The program notes suggested that there may be a gay subtext to Britten’s interpretation, which may or may not be true – when he wrote them, the composer might simply have been glad to be hanging out in America, far from the stodginess of British high society. Throughout the nine-part suite for strings and voice, there was a recurrent sense of unease in the orchestra, counterbalanced, sometimes to triumphantly joyous extreme, by Paselk’s interpretation. With the occasional, unexpected sudden leap and chromatics that play against the orchestra, these were not easy songs to sing, but she owned them, moving from clenched-teeth intensity to redemptive joy to end on an unexpectedly rapt note.
This orchestra’s version of Death and Transfiguration wasn’t much about death, but it was all about transfiguration – still, intense apprehension giving way to hope. Conductor David Bernard didn’t leave an inch of headroom, taking it to the rafters with a bang at the first opportunity, which worked magically because the dynamics to come later would bring it all the way back down, a monumental contrast. It’s amazing how modern this piece is. A lot of orchestras have done it fairly safely as a tone poem of sorts; this version, for all its blazing crescendos, was an impressive reminder of how little the melody actually moves around, how much of it foreshadows “horizontal music,” and how dynamics can transform it from decently suspenseful to absolutely electric. Nietzsche, who wasn’t far behind (Strauss would write Zarathustra only a couple years later), would have approved.
Metropolitan Opera orchestra concertmaster David Chan played the violin concerto from memory with an intuitive sense of touch, varying from crystalline to split-second doublestops and more than one subtly modulated vibrato approach. There’s a series of three big insistent chords that leap unexpectedly out of one of the early solo cadenzas, and Bernard brought the orchestra in to land with an understatedly nimble assurance. Although the work dates from 1806, Beethoven is already hinting amidst the comfortably nocturnal Haydn-influenced highclass alehouse consonance – this was from a time before cocktails were invented – at the kind of melodic and architectural paradigm shifts of his last sonatas and string quartets. Through subtle and then more dramatic melodic variations, with and without the ensemble, Chan methodically assembled a launching pad for the final victory round. After their Chinese tour, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony wrap up their season with Beethoven’s Symphony #4 and Mahler’s Symphony #1 on May 5 and 6.
That the American Composers Orchestra’s program Saturday night at the World Financial Center, closing this year’s SONIC Festival, would be saddled with a title that evoked boomer nostalgia made no sense at all. Maybe it was an inside joke, or a stroke of sarcasm. Instead, the ensemble treated the crowd to a fiery, frequently noir and brilliantly played series of ambitious new works by up-and-coming American composers. Conductor George Manahan led them with an almost casual but ironclad confidence, beginning with Paul Yeon Lee’s showstopper Echo of a Dream. A towering, often ferocious work that arranged modern tonalities in familiar High Romantic architecture, it was a tour of a monstrous landscape with fear and apprehension at every turn. A bellicose March of the Orcs! A swooping, darting, terrified Flight of the Nazgul! And The Siege of Minas Something, which ended minus the orchestra as Lee deftly dropped almost everything out for a split-second of cliffhanger suspense. For all the sturm und drang, the orchestra delivered it so matter-of-factly that it couldn’t have been anything other than genuine. Such storms do in fact exist, and it was a blast to hear this one and know that Lee is keeping an old flame very, very much alive while fueling it with something that could only have been invented in this century.
Ruby Fulton’s Road Ranger Cowboy was much quieter, but packed just as much of a wallop. Based on a caricature used by the Road Ranger chain of truck stops in the midwest, it’s a portrait of both incongruity – a horseman at a truck stop? – and clinical narcissism, and its pathological effects on the personality. Like the best political art, it manages to be very funny: a cowboy theme that disintegrates slowly and inevitably, leading up to an absolutely hilarious ending, in this case where the first violinist got to deliver the punchline and was obviously having such a good time that she could barely keep a straight face.
Ryan Gallagher’s Grindhouse might have been sarcastically titled as well. A classy, sometimes macabre film noir mini-suite, it was the high point of the night. Eerily shifting atmospherics contrasted with an aghast crescendo with the brass and high winds shrieking, skeleton key percussion, a furtive pizzicato spy vs. spy theme scene, a handful of pummelling, murderous scenes and a titanic ending that wouldn’t be out of place in Shostakovich. Suzanne Farrin’s equally gripping Infinite Here was brooding and more ambient but maintained the dark mood, slowly and methodically building tension and apprehension. In this piece, here is limbo, next door to hell.
Andrew Norman’s Unstuck was the most diverse piece on the bill, matching some of the drama of Lee’s work with Gallagher’s noirisms and Farrin’s vividly overcast milieu. Creepy swirls of strings, doppler brass and unpredictable percussion made a lethal combination that set off a chain of ominous little explosions which grew absolutely ballistic, then went down morosely and back up again to a surprise ending.
The biggest surprise of the night was Bryce Dessner’s St. Carolyn by the Sea, on which he and his brother Aaron joined the orchestra on electric guitars. The Dessners’ band the National is a derivative but very effective cure for insomnia: this piece was anything but. Inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, it’s supposed to evoke loneliness and lost love. From its windswept, desolate overture, carefully articulated thematic shifts throughout the orchestra, and pensive circular motif that ran over and over as an underpinning toward the end, the ensemble took what could have been an awkward 5/4 tempo and made it comfortable and effortless. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, the guitar melodies were the least memorable, whether recycled 17 Seconds-era Robert Smith meandering or sotto-voce Grey McMurray tremolo-picking. Maybe the Dessners were just trying to blend in with the orchestra. Either way, it looks like Bryce Dessner has found his muse in a big way.
Much of this will be airing at some future date on Q2 – tune in and find out.
As we really try to do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #465:
Ella Fitzgerald – Twelve Nights in Hollywood
The “great American songbook” was the elevator music of its era – 99.99% of it is garbage. But when jazz musicians got ahold of it, magic could happen. This 2009 four-cd box set of previously unreleased 1961 and 1962 small club dates is notable for being Ella backed by a small combo – just understated piano, bass and drums – which gives her the advantage of not having to belt over the roar of a big band. So as with Sarah Vaughan (see #611 on this list), this gets the nod over the rest of her exhaustive catalog because she really gets to take it deep into the shadows. To be truthful, there is some schlock among the 77 tracks here, but there are also innumerable wee-hours gems, notably the original jazz and blues songs: Billie Holiday’s Lover Come Back to Me; Ellington’s Caravan and Squeeze Me; Ray Charles’ Hallelujah I Love Him So; Monk’s Round Midnight and Les Paul’s How High the Moon. There are also expansive versions of One for My Baby, The Lady Is a Tramp, Anything Goes, All of Me, Love For Sale (where she leaves no doubt that it’s about a hooker) and the famous moment where she decides to be a rock singer for thirty seconds before jumping back into Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot. Here’s a random torrent.