Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.
The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.
The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.
The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.
Boston-based Turkish music group Dunya Ensemble has two new double albums out. The first of these is the lavish A Story of the City…Constantinople, Istanbul, a dreamlike, surreal and sometimes ghostly creation. These are the ghosts of centuries past, a homage to a melting pot that’s been a hotbed of musical cross-pollination for over a millennium. Conceived by multi-instrumentalist bandleader and Turkish music maven Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, it’s a sometimes drastically original take on about a thousand years worth of music. Sanlikol rightly sees Istanbul as a hub where genres from across the silk road, and beyond, mingled and created brand-new sounds, to which he adds his own eclecticism as an indie classical composer with a jazz background. Confusing? A little. This is an album to be enjoyed as a buffet: an atonal avant garde overture leads into a series of dark choral pieces – whose melodies date from the middle ages – to a graceful baroque waltz, lots of clanky lute-and-voice pieces where the Middle Eastern scales are just starting to emerge, and eventually rock. Depending on your personal taste, you may want to completely resequence these tracks; on the other hand, fans of choral music have a feast of mini-suites on their hands here, as do fans of 20th century Middle Eastern music. The big choral works are delivered by the powerful voices of Boston renaissance choir Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas; the Janissary music is by Janissary band New England Mehterhane. Many of this album’s 40 tracks clock in at around two minutes, although there are also some epics. It’s a mammoth undertaking and ultimately a mammoth triumph for everyone including the listener. Sanlikol has said that this music is not meant to reflect any sense of contentment: instead, in a city composed of foreigners, unease is the usual state of mind, and that’s usually the case here.
The first disc begins with that atonal overture, followed by what sounds like a series of Hasidic cantorial ngunim with hints of Middle Eastern microtones – this mini-suite grows gradually more complex in its counterpoint and arrangements. There’s a brief, stately Byzantine Palace diptych with clanking lutes and a rustic waltz; quaint European Crusaders’ ballads; dark ominous plainchant melodies capped with fiery zurna (Turkish oboe) cadenzas; an absolutely lovely choral miniature that could be Andrea Gabrieli; and a lumbering, explosive vamp with thunderous bass drums to close it out.
The second is where the readily identifiable Middle Eastern modes coalesce and eventually catch fire. Bits of raga and casually crescendoing improvisations for various lutes personify Istanbul, then other waves of outsiders arrive, adding their own tonalities to this rich stew. The Turks’ vivid contribution to Greek music is acknowledged by a slowly swaying, nostalgic Smyrniki ballad, while Greek melodies and Egyptian rhythm slink their way in as well, the klezmer element represented by a bracingly brassy dance tune. The ngunim of the first cd get lush, rich orchestration a second time around and dance out joyously. Perhaps with intentional irony, what sounds most overtly Turkish only appears toward the end: a gorgeously brief dance, a muezzin’s call and finally an irresistible 1970s style Mediterranean disco/funk epic. Eclecticism has never been more lavishly successful than it is here.
Acclaimed German early music group joins forces with Canadian cellist for a romp through an impressively diverse selection of Vivaldi works for cello and string ensemble: the operative question here is, why cover the same ground that so many other artists have over the centuries? Maybe because it’s so much fun. This vividly enjoyable assemblage of cello concertos by Vivaldi and his contemporary Antonio Caldera, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras with the Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin, conducted by Georg Kallweit, is recently out on Harmonia Mundi. Some of these pieces are parts of other suites: there’s a selection from L’Estro Armonico, and even a vignette from the Four Seasons. The production is lush and rich, considerably more so than typically is the case with recordings of music from Vivaldi’s era. Queyras plays with the clear, direct, somewhat more trebly cantabile tone common to 300-year-old instruments over arrangements still striking in their buoyancy. That this music resonates as much as it does to modern ears – bracing, unexpected chord changes and dynamic shifts within familiar period architecture – testifies to how far ahead of its time it was. The album is best enjoyed as a whole: it really sets a mood (uploading the whole thing as a playlist will help facilitate this). But there are many individual treats here that leap out at the listener.
The theme from the second movement of the Sinfonia in C has been used (and ripped off) for film music for decades, while the blustery Concerto in G Minor gives Queyras a chance to dig for gravitas through the rapidfire staccato passages. After opening with Raphael Alpermann’s wary, dark harpsichord and strings, the second movement of the Concerto in F lets Queyras revel in its chocolatey beauty. The Concerto for Cello and Bassoon in E Minor has the stark counterpoint between the cello and Christian Beuse’s bassoon making a mighty contrast with practically frantic strings. And the Concerto No. 11 in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) plays up its subtle yet striking echo effects. The Caldera pieces include the richly brooding Sinfonia No.12 in A minor, a Christ on the Cross tableau; a dressed-up country waltz, and the wary, sometimes rapt, fugal Sinfonia No.6 in G minor. Though most of the 30 individual tracks here clock in at less than three minutes, the effect is seamless. It’s a triumph for everyone concerned, including the listener.
Brooklyn string ensemble Trio Tritticali have just released their new Issue # 1, one of the most gripping, intelligent, richly eclectic albums of recent years. Drawing on elements as diverse as Egyptian dance vamps, the baroque, bossa nova, tango and European Romantic chamber music, they blend those styles together seamlessly and imaginatively for a bracingly intricate sound that’s uniquely their own. The chemistry between violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster is intuitively playful. As the songs slowly unwind, the band exchanges thematic variations, converses, intertwines and occasionally locks horns, individual voices often disappearing or reappearing when least expected: they may be a trio, but there are surprisingly many moments when it’s only two or even one of them. They love minor keys, and have a thing for chromatics, no surprise considering that Darling also jams with the Near East River Ensemble. Yee also plays yangqin dulcimer in Music from China; Dempster also performs with the avant-garde Dan Joseph Ensemble and with well-known dance ensembles.
Which makes a lot of sense: Dempster’s rhythmic, often funky edge is key to this group, right from the title track, which alternates stark, dark funk, then goes quiet and mysterious, then finally explodes in a blaze of chamber metal. It’s the most dramatic moment on the album. They follow that with a bracing tango, La Yumba, which takes a detour into early Beethoven with a cello solo that rises imperceptibly until it’s sailing over the lushness of the other strings. The dynamic shifts in this one are especially yummy.
A long, suspensefully crescendoing Middle Eastern piece, Azizah begins with a casually ominous series of taqsims (individual improvisations), shifting methodically from tone poem to processional to triumphant swing, voices constantly shifting and handing off ideas to each other. By contrast, Corcovado is a nostalgic bossa ballad that takes a turn in a more wistful direction, Dempster’s brooding solo leading to an intricate, stately thicket of violin and viola. A jazz-pop song in disguise that goes unexpectedly dark, Stolen Moments is a showcase for Dempster’s walking basslines, pensively swinging lines and bluesy accents. The sarcastically titled Ditty is actually one of the album’s most stunning compositions, another long detour into the Middle East with a funky modal edge, a memorably apprehensive Darling solo and an equally memorable lead-in from Yee, who comes in buzzing like a mosquito with an off-kilter, swoopy edge while the cello and viola lock in an intense, chordally pulsing bassline.
The seventh track, Who Knows Yet is a gorgeous, starkly wary waltz with a series of artful rhythmic shifts and a series of bitingly bluesy variations – it reminds a bit of Rasputina in an especially reflective moment. Psychedelic and very clever, Sakura is a diptych: an austere tone poem with the cello mimicking a koto, then a pensive, minor-key 5/4 funk theme with yet more deliciously unexpected tradeoffs between instruments. The concluding tone poem, Heart Lake, evokes Brooklyn Rider’s adventures in Asian music, viola and violin trading atmospherics over Dempster’s hypnotic, circular bassline – it’s like Copal at their most ambient, with distantly Asian motifs. This is one of those albums where every time you listen to it, you’ll discover something new – you can get lost in this music. With compositions like this, it won’t be long before Trio Tritticali will be playing big stages like Symphony Space; for the moment, you can catch them at low-key Brooklyn brunch spot Linger Cafe (533 Atlantic Ave. between 3rd and 4th Aves) on frequent Sundays – the next one is December 10 – starting around 1 PM.
Thin Air Tango is Jeff Covell on piano and Ed Fiorenza on saxophones, playing compositions and improvisations on outer space themes. Their new album is out now on Original Copy Records. Covell’s graceful short works lean toward third-stream minimalism: Fiorenza’s crystalline tone memorably enhances Covell’s steady but distant, intriguingly off-center walks and chordal clusters. The opening Nebula Suite is aptly titled, a suite of nocturnes that move from spacious, simple, matter-of-fact solo piano, embellish it rhythmically and then finally bring in soprano sax, casually coalescing a couple of intriguing verse/chorus patterns before bringing it to an end. This could have gone longer and still maintained interest – and maybe it does, when the two play it live.
The Sakura Suite begins with Elegy for Joe Viola, mostly just vividly wistful soprano sax, Covell adding a somewhat ominous, murky chordal undercurrent as the piece winds out. Tango di Callisto is sort of a tango in outer space, avoiding resolution, the casual chill of Fiorenza’s nebulously acidic lines vivid against Covell’s increasingly insistent, magnetic piano. Sakura, Sakura begins absolutely inaudibly, to the point where the question of whether the cd is still playing arises. But then stately piano and Fiorenza’s elegaic lines join together in an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive rendition of the Japanese folk song with a handful of clever quotes that work marvelously.
Named after one of the moons of Jupiter, the Europa Suite, a free improvisation, picks up the pace. It’s long, almost forty minutes, and as intense as it gets, the warm camaraderie between the two musicians remains strong. Covell intimates danger with his solo intro, then the two exploring a dark, Ran Blake-esque gospel-tinged theme that Covell expands with a furtive intensity as Fiorenza’s tenor sax holds the center while matter-of-factly reaching for higher velocity and tonal contrasts. The sax takes over the eerie chromatics for awhile, Covell leapfrogging them judiciously before taking it into viscerally icy terrain with a macabre, David Lynchian edge. All in all, this makes for great late-night listening: kill the lights and set your sonic sights on Jupiter.
Music awards ceremonies can be funny, and not in a good way – for example, when’s the last time you watched the Grammies? A better question would be, have you ever watched the Grammies? At their 2011 awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall Monday night, the Classical Recording Foundation chose the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to receive their “collaborative artist award,” named in honor of Samuel Sanders, the longtime Itzhak Perlman collaborator and a sensitive pianist. Other than that they have excellent taste – and that maybe they should call this award the Classie – what does this say about the Classical Recording Foundation? Do celebrated pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson deserve yet another award? Without question, yes, as they reminded when they played a fresh, cliche-free take of the opening Allegro Moderato from Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, acerbic and sometimes stingingly direct where they could go in that direction, redemptively cheery when that path wasn’t an option. This was especially impressive considering that they’ve probably played this piece hundreds if not thousands of times. But do they need this award? At this point in their career, having debuted as an ensemble at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural, they have their choice of concert halls worldwide and audiences who will fill them and walk away afterward in awe – and tell everyone about it.
If that particular award set the bar, the others upheld it. The first of two “composers of the year” was Robert Paterson. The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Paterson compositions, Star Crossing, is one of 2011’s best and most richly enjoyable albums, a feast of noir flourishes, accent on flutes and percussion, from someone who’s a somewhat unlikely combination of percussionist and composer. Imaginative, often magical trio Maya got to play several selections from Paterson’s considerably more lighthearted but equally original new Book of Goddesses album. Paterson’s keen sense of melody and remarkable eclecticism were evident throughout the four pieces on the bill. The first, Aphrodite, took on a bracing Middle Eastern edge with Sato Moughalian’s full-throated flute, Bridget Kibbey’s characteristically lithe, incisive harp and percussionist John Hadfield’s slinky levantine groove. After an ersatz Andean folk tune, Oya was a showcase for Kibbey, who switched effortlessly from percussive fire to funky rhythm and back, while The Muses gave the group a chance to work their way with a casual elegance from the ancient Middle East to current-day downtown New York. The other composer of the year, Arlene Sierra, was represented by piano duo Quattro Mani, whose pianists Susan Grace and Alice Rybak merged singlemindedly on the otherworldly Wuorinen-esque atonalisms of her 1997 composition Of Risk and Memory, which gave way to a cruelly difficult, insistent, staccato rhythmic attack and then extrapolated on both themes.
Young Artist of the Year went to Metropolitan Opera star Susanna Phillips, who delivered Debussy’s six Ariettes Oubliees, pianist Myra Huang getting the enviable assignment of playing them, turning in a richly sustained, spacious interpretation that essentially got the max out of the composer’s otherworldly minimalism. Phillips is a force of nature and sang like one, but the songs wouldn’t have had the same impact without Huang.
Awards are just a small part of the Classical Recording Foundation’s agenda (to an outsider, this concert felt like an exclusive party: everybody seemed to know each other, with several famous or least semi-famous faces scattered throughout the crowd). The Foundation’s agenda is to raise funds for important recordings, without regard to commercial appeal. The roster of acclaimed artists they’ve worked over the years includes such familiar names as Simone Dinnerstein, Donald Berman and Ann Marie McDermott. The CRF also has an ongoing collaboration with the Library of Congress and Bridge Records, both fortuitous relationships for an organization clearly not afraid to take risks in the spirit of making our era’s important works and performers available to future generations.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s most recent concert this past Sunday featured fresh, energetic, revealing takes on a couple of familiar favorites, bookending an unexpected interlude. Led by guest conductor Pierre Vallet, the ensemble opened with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture: lush, dreamy beauty shifting to brighter and more energetic, with pinpoint French horn flourishes and a bouncy precision. Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37, the lesser-known follow-up to the Enigma Variations, were next, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, who showed off a full soprano’s range as the suite went on, a series of cinematic, coastal and nautical settings of British Romantic poems including texts by Elgar’s wife along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. From sweeping, craggy, windy bluster to more simple, catchy songcraft and then up with more drama – particularly the final song in the cycle, The Swimmer, considered by some to portend Robert Browning’s suicide at 39 – the orchestra gave Johnson Cano a lush backdrop for her vivid, turbulent evocation.
From seats close to the orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition turned out to be as close to an opportunity to get inside Maurice Ravel’s mind as is physically possible. There’s literally not a bad seat at the GVO home base on 16th Street, an unexpected bonus considering that the building is now a public high school. On one hand, it was impossible not to revel in how much fun Ravel had orchestrating Moussorgsky’s creepy suite. On the other, Ravel did it justice: ultimately, this is a requiem for Moussorgsky’s painter friend Victor Hartmann. And the GVO did them both justice, particularly in the darker passages, not to mention the brief refrains that punctuate the “pictures.” Conductor Barbara Yahr likened them to an inner journey, the composer remembering his dead pal, rather than simply a chronicle of the stroll from one end of the gallery to the other. “These aren’t filler,” she reminded the crowd before the piece began, and she wasn’t kidding: by the time she took them down into the Catacombs, what began as a fanfare had become a dirge. Themes familiar to every moviegoer became profound: the Gnome bellicose yet poignant; the Old Castle brooding with a nostalgic tone, the children dancing in the Tuileries quaint and somewhat courtly. The orchestra’s attention to the astringent faux-Orientalisms in the portrait of the two Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuely, alone made the trip worthwhile. And after the off-center menace of the Catacombs, the most macabre part of the suite, the orchestra maintained that atmosphere intensely even as the classical heavy metal of Baba Yaga’s Hut kicked in. If the Catacombs is Moussorgsky facing the fact that his friend’s not coming back, as Yahr mentioned, then maybe this is the rage afterward. The coda, The Great Gate of Kiev contemplates a mechanical marvel which was actually never built, a cruel irony for this towering, majestic ending to end all endings and its epic Beethoven allusions. Through two standing ovations, the mostly sold-out house seemed as out of breath as the musicians were.
Either/Orchestra’s long and remarkable career has taken them from a sort of punk jazz, through a latin jazz phase and then on to worldwide acclaim collaborating with the dean of Ethiopian jazz, Mulatu Astatke. While there’s been some turnover in the group, bandleader/saxophonist Russ Gershon has been a rock of consistency as far as strong, imaginative tunesmithing is concerned (their 1992 album The Calculus of Pleasure made our 1000 Best Albums of All Time list). Saturday at the New School, Gershon unveiled a suite of New York premieres recently commissioned by Chamber Music America: after all these years, this band’s creativity just gets more and more amazing. This had to be one of the two or three best New York concerts of the year.”We’re going to play this, and then we’re going to pass out,” Gershon joked about halfway through almost three hours of new compositions and some other tunes recently rescued from the archives in Ethiopia.
Gershon’s stock in trade is wit and sophistication. The new compositions and arrangements revealed an unexpected gravitas and lush, majestic power to rival or maybe surpass anything this band’s ever done, effortlessly and imaginatively bridging the gap between Cuba and Ethiopia. Either/Orchestra in its many incarnations has always had the sound of a big band twice their size (this version has ten players): the shifting textures and voicings of these new compositions are equal to anything Gil Evans ever came up with. Another strength of Gershon’s is how he writes to the strengths of his players: alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s restless intensity, pianist Gilson Schachnik’s fluid melodicism, trombonist Joel Yennior’s febrile, cerebral expansiveness and drummer Pablo Bencid’s effortlessly spectacular facility for demanding polyrhythms.
Interestingly, the new suite, The Collected Unconscious – which was being recorded for broadcast on WBGO’s Jazz Set early next year – incorporates several waltzes, from the unselfconsciously attractive, Beatlesque opening theme, to several bracing, acidic variations on Ethiopian riffs that occur later on (the whole thing runs about an hour and a half) along with a little straight-up swing and several richly noir segments. Yennior’s long, slow burn on the second segment, which elliptically mixed loping Ethiopian triplet rhythm with hints of Afro-Cubanisms, was one of dozens of highlights; Niswanger’s no-nonsense attack during a long Ethiopian vamp was another, with Gershon himself contributing casually climactic passages on tenor and soprano sax and joining Niswanger on flute on another. At one point, Bencid had one beat going with the hi-hat, another with the cowbell he had on a kick and a third which he used as the basis for a solo while not missing a beat with his magic left foot.
As the suite unwound, the group went deep into noir territory, took it back to Cuba with just drums and Vicente Lebron’s congas against slinky Rick McLaughlinbass and Schachnik’s piano. After a break, they unveiled three new versions of classic Ethiopian themes. As has been documented on NPR and elsewhere, Haile Selassie discovered western brass band music, but there was no such thing in Ethiopia, so he hired an Armenian immigrant, Nerses Nalbandian, who would become a sort of royal court music teacher and arranger. He also happened to be a fan of Afro-Cuban music: it was as if a proto Either/Orchestra had been born. Gershon’s new arrangements of these songs – which probably haven’t been performed since the early 70s, maybe earlier – utilized the same artful exchange of voices that’s always characterized his work. The most spectacular of the new ones, with charts by Yennior, was a stunning and hard-hitting example of the sheer number of permutations that an inspired arranger can pull out of one simple, eerie riff. After that, they treated the crowd to a rousing, lengthy, funky dedication to New Orleans, then the politically-fueled Town Hall Meeting, featuring a hilariously bellicose duel between trumpeter Tom Halter and baritone saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase. They closed with their new version of Auld Lang Syne, which of course bears virtually no resemblance to the original: Gershon took one of those gorgeously apprehensive Ethiopian riffs and expanded on it, interpolating a little Scotland to see if anybody might be paying attention. Ostensibly, that’s also scheduled for broadcast on BGO for New Year’s Eve. If this is what this group does with a commission, Chamber Music America might as well just make Either/Orchestra their house band.
by Serena Angelique Williams
I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.
I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.
This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.
The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.
Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.
In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.
The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview. We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.
Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.
As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.
And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.
The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission. Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. There is one last performance on Saturday, and it should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.
Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in “Chelsea Madchen” at the Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. South on Nov 19th at 9:30 PM. Tickets are $10; reservations are highly recommended to (212) 255-5438.
The Olavi Trio’s latest album, Triologia, is best enjoyed lying down, with headphones on (earbuds will do, but headphones are better). Yup, one of those. It’s not very rhythmic, nor is it very melodic either, but the fun the band is having translates viscerally to the listener. It makes you wonder what kind of stuff they grow in the greenhouses up in Finland where this comes from – although that’s not to imply that the musicians were under the influence when they made this album. For jazz this woozy, it’s very purposeful – which is what you might expect from a big band trombonist (Jari Olavi Hongisto), a symphony orchestra bassist (Teppo Olavi Hauta-aho) and the drummer for the Tomasz Stanko quartet (Niilo Olavi Houhivuori). More obviously, what these musicians have in common is a warm repartee and love for collective improvisation, on the thoughtful, quiet side. Juhani Aaltonen and Kalle Kalima join them on tenor sax and guitar, respectively, on a couple of tracks as well.
What this album’s first eleven tracks have to offer (you are now reading the longest sentence ever in the history of jazz writing) includes swoops over an approximation of a groove; playful baby elephants chasing each other over a muffled, cleverly disguised boogie beat; a tone poem contrasting plinks, creaks and dark washes of sound; muted contentment against a casual rubato stroll; a lively exchange of flourishes (specifically, a dynamite cover of Anthony Braxton’s No. 69B); a comedic jazz-in-the-forest setting; simple and vivid variations on a moody modal riff; a brief, dangling conversation; two distinct strata very much alive in a primordial soup; waves punctuated by drums, with comic relief from the trombone; and an unexpectedly creepy music box interlude.
With the album’s twelfth track, they take it into more familiar free jazz territory, with a distinct melody and variations. That tune, Old Papa’s Blues was brought to the session by its composer, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, a mournful, distinctly Nordic progression bookending a very lively midsection: this old guy’s not ready to go yet. The album ends with an improvisation that evokes strolling insects (throughout the album, toy instruments are employed to enhance the amusement/strangeness factor), and then Taysikuu, by Toivo Karki and Reino Helismaa, an apprehensive, out-of-focus tango with bowed bass that coalesces with disarming matter-of-factness. For those who believe that the idea of waves punctuated by drums is hopelessly unlistenable, this album is not for you. But for those who would enjoy that, this album will take you on a journey to a better place and make you smile along the way. It’s out now on the adventurous Finnish Tum Records label.