Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bass and Vocals Like Never Before

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.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dunya Ensemble Traces 1000 Years of Istanbul Music on a Massive Double Album

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.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment