What does the thought of New York’s Upper West Side conjure up for you? Homeless Iraq war vets panhandling at the subway station at 72nd and Broadway? Cops frisking teens for contraband twenty blocks north in order to meet the quotas of cheap arrests arbitrarily imposed by NYPD brass? Brand-new multimillion-dollar condos infested with bedbugs? Such is the state of the Upper West Side, 2012. For those who prefer a Woody Allen-style Upper West Side of the mind, pianist Ehud Asherie and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen have a new duo album by that title just out from Posi-Tone that conjures up a vastly more enjoyable, suavely urbane milieu. Imagine spacious prewar buildings, low lights, wood paneling, red wine and purist jazz and you are on the right track.
The two make a good team. Allen is the rake and Asherie is his wingman. Allen’s misty shtick works as well as it does because he happens to be a hell of a blues player, and will surprise you here and there with the occasional detour into gracefully edgy microtonal swoops and dives. Among the new breed of jazz organists, Asherie is a standout player with impeccable rhythm and an intuitive feel for melodic basslines. What makes this album different is that on all the midtempo and upbeat tracks here, he’s basically playing stride piano – but with a judicious, tight swing rather than a careening barrelhouse attack. After all, if you’re doing an album of standards, you have to put your own mark on them.
The opening track, Learnin the Blues perfectly capsulizes the appeal of the album, setting a mood within the first few bars with casually steady, precise piano providing a solid framework for Allen’s slinky, warmly melodic lines. It Had to Be You picks up the pace; O Pato is a caffeinated bossa tune with some jaunty, carnaval-esque, chromatic tinges by Allen that Asherie winds down with an unexpectedly whispery, starlit outro. Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here to Stay has some especially choice, impressionistic rubato piano that sets up a mutually relaxed, satisfied groove, echoed even more vividly on the album’s strongest track, Strayhorn’s Passion Flower, Allen reaching back for a Ben Webster bluesiness.
Richard Rodgers’ Have You Met Miss Jones has the duo reverting to assigned roles, picking up on I Want to Be Happy, Asherie’s righthand accents cleverly mimicking a pulsing, staccato horn arrangement. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams has a sly Brother Can You Spare a Dime reference and a practically imperceptible crescendo; they keep I’m in the Mood for Love on the straight and narrow as Allen goes breathy, with a nice impressionistic Asherie outro. Eubie Blake’s Love Will Find a Way blends smokiness into its ragtime tinges; they close with a brisk but measured take on My Blue Heaven, a terrific choice to end the album on a note that stops just thisshort of breathless. With its thoughtful if not radical rearrangements, solid playing and chemistry between the two musicians, this one’s for the purists from Lincoln Center all the way up to Columbia and probably a lot further uptown as well. And while we’re at it, make that the east side too
“SHE’S GOT IT! Yeah baby, she’s got it! I’m your [muffled, incoherent], I’m your fire, your desire!”
You’ve heard it before, well-intentioned but clueless non-English-speaking European musicians of a certain age aping iconic Americana roots styles. A lot of those players were hippies and were probably so stoned at the time they didn’t realize how badly they were embarrassing themselves, so they get a pass. But if the idea of a Finnish version of Mose Allison or early Lou Rawls might sound icky to you, that’s ok. You just need to hear Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner’s More Than 123: it will completely change your mind about European bluesmen. These guys absolutely own what they do – they completely nail the idiom with just as much or even more imagination than the Americans who were doing it the first time around. To say that this album is a trip to hear is an accolade, not an insult.
Lindholm is the guitarist and singer in the band; what does Donner do? Well, he’s the conductor. OK – maybe the idea of a blues band needing a conductor might seem like a red flag, but in this case, it’s not – if the horn charts here are his, he’s a genius. Whatever the case, it’s an irresistibly fun record. It’s an absolutely original, unique blend of 60s soul and blues…but with arrangements straight out of 1948! Lindholm’s smoky baritone betrays his Finnish roots, but he’s completely on his game as sly oldschool blues crooner, and the band is coolly sensational. For example, check out the inventive, period-perfect conversationality between Tero Saarti’s suave muted trumpet and Manuel Dunkel’s tenor sax on the opening track, Why I Smile Again.
The second track, Oh Don, is an innuendo-charged murder ballad straight out of the Hazmat Modine playbook, with Lindholm’s guitar wailing over the cosmopolitan, hushed brushwork of drummer Mika Kallio. “They’re gonna take you to Yellowstone, but I can take you to the moon,” Lindholm croons on the briskly noir-tinged, Mose Allison-esque I’m Right, Dunkel spiraling down to Riitta Paakki’s rippling piano as the arrangement grows more suspenseful. The lushly gorgeous blues ballad Where You’re Walking Now artfully features Mikko Heleva’s Hammond organ taking over for the entire ensemble as Paaki’s piano goes unexpectedly terse and biting, and then back up again. An equally wry, bittersweet ballad, True Life works a methodically killer crescendo beginning with Pepa Paivinen’s baritone sax handing off to Dunkel’s tense, expectant tenor and then the trumpet to take it all the way up. The band channels Magic Sam circa 1967 on the shuffling I Know My Boulevard before closing the record with an unexpectedly dixieland-flavored march, Lucky Johnny’s Gone, a diptych of sorts whose centerpiece is a church organ processional. Without question, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable and utterly original albums of recent years, in whatever style you choose to call this. It’s out now on the Finnish label Tum Records.
Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.
It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.
Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.
Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.
Along with New York’s Moon Hooch, Chicago’s Herculaneum and Los Angeles ensemble Slumgum, Seattle band Reptet are at the forefront of fearless, aggressive, punk-inspired jazz. Their album At the Cabin came out last year; these self-described “horn-heavy tone bandits, injecting jazz with adrenaline and bringing it to the streets” blend influences from all over the map with a good-natured sense of humor. The whole album as well as their equally interesting previous releases are streaming at their Bandcamp. Although their instrumentation is fairly traditional, they’re more about creating a new, high-energy sound than drawing on past influences or styles. Funky hooks alternate with woozy collective improvisation, hard-hitting rhythms shift to quiet ambience, and the melodies reach far afield from the basic blues to Ethiopia, the Balkans and the baroque.
The brightly shuffling, rhythmically tricky Mayfield Safety kicks off the album. It’s a diptych with neatly arranged crescendos changing hands, from Izaak Mills’ tenor sax, to Chris Credit’s baritone sax, to Samantha Boshnack’s trumpet delivering the big payoff. The second part is considerably quieter, the trumpet’s microtonal quavers shifting to the unexpected warmth of Credit’s alto sax. Snow Leopard sends big, exuberant horn charts riding the waves from clave, to funk, to an Ethiopian triplet groove and some potent contrasts between the trumpet and Nelson Bell’s trombone working tightly with guest Mark Oi’s guitar. From there they segue into the casual, carefree intro to Milky Shakes, which turns droll and comedic in a catchy Moisturizer way, with a surprise ending.
Something Like What turns slinky soul-funk into Ethiopiques, packed with light/dark contrasts, nimble handoffs between voices and some especially choice, incisive clarinet work from Credit on klezmer-tinged clarinet. Mock Arena is an exuberantly successful clinic in full-band counterpoint and clever two-versus-two horn charts, while the bubbly Songitty Song plays variations on a latin mode. Silly outerspace efx contrast with soul/gospel joy in the practically ten-minute Agendacide, with solo euphonium kicking off a spacy jam that builds to a triumphant George Clinton-esque finish. The band’s sense of humor takes over completely on the last two tracks, the crazed, vividly breathless, jazzcore Trash Can Race, where laughter eventually overwhelms any sense of coherence, and the bouncy, sly faux-Balkan tune Pills, which they keep meticulously tight until those pills start to really kick in and at that point the same thing happens but much, much more slowly. What a great time to be alive and watch bands like Reptet creating the future of jazz in such a cutting-edge yet accessible way.
The American Modern Ensemble’s recording of Robert Paterson’s Star Crossing was one of last year’s most enjoyable albums, a noir film for the ears. Right now the eclectic composer/percussionist is about to unleash a suite about former New York Mets star and suspected steroid juicer Mike Piazza. Sandwiched between those two works is the Book of Goddesses, which is essentially his Pictures at an Exhibition, a bright, rippling, generally upbeat theme and variations which takes its inspiration from illustrator Kris Waldherr’s Book of Goddesses. Rather than being a depiction of female archetypes, Paterson’s intent here is to employ a vast palette of motifs from all over the globe to breathe sonic life into a series of pictures from the book. Eclectic concert harpist Jacqueline Kerrod is the central performer here, whether in the trio Maya, with Sato Moughalian on flutes and John Hadfield on percussion; the duo Clockwise, with violinist Marc Uys; or the American Modern Ensemble, with Moughalian plus violist Danielle Farina. The compositions are more rambunctious, less delicate than this instrumentation might imply, a series of interwoven variations on themes reflecting the origin of the goddesses themselves – or not. For example, the Chinese fertility goddess Xi Wang Mu, if this is to be believed, has some Bollywood in her – and santeria goddess Oya is smartly introduced by a bolero. Maybe by design, maybe not, the composer whose work this collection most closely resembles is Bollywood legend S.D. Burman.
The opening overture is titled Sarasvati – the Hindu goddess of knowledge, whose portrait is included in the album’s lavish cd booklet along with the rest of Waldherr’s pantheon. Rippling Chinese-inflected ambience gives way to a Bollywood theme which then goes north again, followed by Aphrodite, which is essentially an acoustic take on Greek psychedelic rock (think Annabouboula or Magges) – not exactly what you’d expect from a chamber music trio, with a rhythmic pulse and catchy melodicism that has become Paterson’s trademark. A swirling Irish reel named after the Celtic goddess Brigit is followed by cleverly polyrhythmic interpolations of previous themes, dreamy ethereality, bouncy Mexican folkloric inflections, that Nigerian bolero, and a balletesque, vividly contrasting number titled Yemaya, where the percussion comes to the forefront against Moughalian’s graceful flute.
There are also two companion pieces here. Freya’s Tears is a triptych building from pensive spaciousness, to mysterioso ripples, to echoes of a baroque minuet and then delicate Middle Eastern allusions. The concluding work, Embracing the Wind, a portrait of a runner who seems more of a fugitive than an athlete, harks back to the ominous unease of Star Crossing. On one hand, there’s a “look, ma, I’m writing Indian music now” feel to some of this, but it’s less showoff-y than simply diverse: clearly, Paterson listens widely and has a passion for the global styles he’s so enthusiastically embraced. Play this loud and it becomes party music: play it softly and it makes for good late-night ambience
Where the Book of Goddesses is lively and animated, Due East’s Drawn Only Once: The Music of John Supko is often blissfully dreamy and nocturnal. Flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer join forces to create a frequently mesmerizing, intricate upper-register sonic web. There are two works here. Littoral, a lush, balmy, minutely nuanced seaside scene (including two spoken-word narrations comfortably back enough in the mix that they intrigue rather than drowning out the music) reaches symphonic length and sweep. Crescendoing almost imperceptibly, the flute flutters and then builds playful clusters over long, sustained, hypnotic tones and elegant vibraphone, becomes a dance and then a gamelan anthem that slowly and warmly winds down, a comfortable shoreline at dusk.
The second work, This Window Makes Me Feel, also rises with a slow, hypnotic elegance, growing closer and closer and finally achieving an optimistic resolution, with pianist David Broome and soprano Hai-Ting Chinn adding subtle textures to the mix. It’s a terrific late-night album and comes with an accompanying DVD, not viewed at press time.
Putting a boy from a well-known indie rock band front and center on the Bang on a Can All-Stars’ new album Big Beautiful Dark and Scary is a marketing move gone awry. The audience for this genre-defying indie classical/art-rock band is probably somewhere in the gypsy rock, or Balkan brass, or jazz or maybe even what’s left of the punk rock camp, as the album cover alludes. Like the idiom he comes from, the pieces by the indie guy are carefree and shallow, and the rest of this album is anything but: even the Evan Ziporyn rearrangements of works by weirdo player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow reach toward communicating an agoraphobe’s angst, even if they don’t quite succeed. Indie rock has been suspect from the git-go and hasn’t been relevant for a long, long time: as it stands in 2012, it’s a ghetto for one-percenters and one-percenter wannabes, the kind of posers who are just as annoying an addition to the indie classical scene (e.g. this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival) as they are in the neighborhoods they’ve suburbanized with their simpering gentrifier sensibility.
But that’s the bad news. The album’s title track is a classic Julia Wolfe showstopper, a series of ascending progressions that grows from agitated, staccato suspense to terrified and anguished, then somber and quickly up again, Ziporyn’s elegaic clarinet rising over the increasingly swirling, insistent intensity of Ashley Bathgate’s cello and Robert Black’s bass. It’s not quite as shattering as Wolfe’s Cruel Sister suite, released last year, but it’s awfully close: as an evocation of the horrors of 9/11, it ranks as one of the most intense, right up there with Robert Sirota’s equally anguished, morbidly picturesque Triptych.
David Lang’s Sunray maintains a brooding mood, with minimalistic, trickily rhythmic piano-and-bass accents over an austerely staccato circular guitar riff that gradually fills out to a rather martial grandeur that wouldn’t be out of place in Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Michael Gordon’s For Madeline, with its slowly sirening strings over echoey, horror-film piano-and-guitar ambience, packs a wallop. Ziporyn’s Music from Shadowbang is a three-part suite. Its opening segment sets his own nimbly scurrying clarinet accents over elegantly dancing bass – with its warmly inviting Brazilian inflections, it’s the most overtly jazz-oriented piece here. That’s followed by Ocean, a terse, pensive art-rock anthem without words, pianist Vicky Chow layering creepily precise water-droplet piano over a hypnotic central hook. The concluding segment grows from absolutely creepy to triumphant in the same manner of the Lang work, bringing this triptych full circle.
Louis Andriessen’s Life (with short films by Marijke van Warmerdam on the enhanced cd) is a moody and extraordinarily vivid work, one of his most straightforwardly melodic, and it too packs a punch, from the pensive, opening string-and-piano tone poem, through hypnotic, nocturnally strolling, elegaic ambience and then expectant, suspensefully minimalist cinematics. The album ends with Kate Moore’s Ridgeway, which builds from menacingly minimalism to a swooping, sweeping, Gilmouresque intensity driven by Mark Stewart’s biting slide guitar and Chow’s fiery, percussive piano in tandem with the bass. For those who don’t already have this (it’s already had a monthlong life as a free download for those with the broadband to haul in the whole thing), this double-disc set is worth owning for the Wolfe piece alone, let alone the substantial works by her old BOAC pals Lang and Gordon and the other first-rate composers here.
Believe the hype: Wes Montgomery’s Echoes of Indiana Avenue, due out on March 6 from Resonance, is major. For one, this recently unearthed collection comprises the guitar legend’s earliest known studio and stage recordings, dating as far back as 1957 (and whose master tapes were originally discovered on ebay). To this date, Montgomery’s fingerprints are all over virtually every subsequent guitar jazz recording, a legacy that this album quietly but powerfully affirms. It’s amazing how fully formed his voice was by this time, playing with tight and surprisingly eclectic bands from his hometown of Indianapolis featuring his brothers Buddy on piano and Monk on electric bass, plus Melvin Rhyne on piano and organ, Mingo Jones on bass and either Sonny Johnson or Paul Parker on drums. The performances here transcend the slightly muddy, mono sonics (which have obviously been subjected to a thorough scrubbing). As you would expect from what’s essentially a collection of demos, most of the songs are standards that conceivably would have appealed to that era’s jazz label executives; as might also be expected, the single most eye-popping track is a blues jam that Montgomery punches into with a stunningly invigorating T-Bone Walker-inflected attack. Not what you might expect from someone typically associated with genteel urbanity.
The tiptoeing intro to Diablo’s Dance gives no indication of the confidently spiraling solo that Montgomery builds to, capping it off by interjecting some casually biting chords within Rhyne’s elegant, flutelike piano lines. Round Midnight gets a surprisingly dark, expansive, slowly swaying interpretation with Rhyne on organ – the artful way the guitar shifts octaves on the outro transcends any “octave thing” shtick that Dan Morgenstern’s liner notes mention. The staccato swing of Straight No Chaser features a memorably heated exchange of ideas with Montgomery’s bass-playing brother, while Nica’s Dream, with its pulsing bolero tinges, has Montgomery veering from juicy, biting chords to wary horn voicings.
The organ ballad version of Darn That Dream has a warmly bluesy, cognac-infused wee-hours ambience; the sound quality diminishes appreciably on an otherwise entertainingly animated postbop live concert version of Take the A Train, Montgomery pushing pianist Earl Van Riper, who pushes back just as vigorously. Misty reverts to late-night gin joint mode; Body and Soul gets reinvented as syncopated, practically atonal postbop; and then there’s that slowly sizzling blues jam. Were some of Montgomery’s albums, especially toward the end, poorly conceived and carelessly produced? No question. This, thankfully, isn’t one of them. If you’re a fan, get this; if you’re not a fan, this is a tremendously revealing and soulful mix of important historical work from an iconic artist.
For fans of low tonalities, BassX3’s new album Transatlantic is heaven. It’s the second one from multi-reedman Gebhard Ullmann (who plays bass clarinet and bass flute) with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. To call this the best jazz album of the year so far invites all kinds of arguments – after all, can a recording this opaque, rhythmically inchoate and impossibly esoteric be much more than a curio? Absolutely! Whether you consider this free jazz, ambient music or indie classical, it’s a rich, murky masterpiece. Its centerpiece is the title track, an epic, 33-minute three-part suite. The low drone of the two basses being bowed in tandem builds a chocolatey mist laced with overtones, with the occasional creak, thud or rattle, evoking the hum of the diesels and maybe a hammock swaying in a stateroom. You could call it the Titanic Theme – from the point of view of passengers in steerage, anyway. Ulllmann, as usual, doesn’t limit himself to any preconceived tonalities, offering a blithely whistling microtonal solo in the first segment as the bassists rattle the occasional random household item like ghosts flitting through the sonic frame.
The other tracks here are just as enjoyable and much less static. The Thing features burbling, echoey twin basses with the bass clarinet wandering the moors, off to the side; then the basses back away, leaving Ullmann prowling contentedly, centerstage. The No Place has the bass flute looming pensive and minimalistic over jagged, distantly percussive bass chords and atonal accents and the occasional jarring pluck of a string: an Asian-tinged horror film score for before the point where the suspense reaches the level of a scream. The aptly titled Epic layers minutely wavering bass flute over a rather menacing backdrop of overtones and low washes; then the group all go spiraling around in what sounds like the bottom of a well before returning to a lusciously droning rumble that Ullmann uses as a long launching pad for some unexpectedly energetic low bass clarinet work. Ornette’s Closet contrasts brightly bouncing clarinet over echoey low-register playfulness; the diptych Berlin Is Full of Lonely People, a desolate, brooding tone poem, is the most melodically memorable track here.
Ullmann also has a considerably more lively if less intense release out with his Clarinet Trio, simply titled 4, featuring him playing bass clarinet alongside Jurgen Kupke on clarinet and Michael Thieke on alto clarinet. Fans of Ullmann’s back catalog will find this casually conversational session more in line with his previous free jazz work. The tracks include an artfully disassembled, brightly layered Balkan cocek dance; a wryly swaying, atonal blues; a tensely exploding tone poem that might have been a sketch for Transatlantic; a playfully martial study in low-register clusters; all sorts of friendly jousting, and an Ornette Coleman cover. Both albums are out now on Leo Records.
Plenty of artists have found their muse in the Mississippi. About eighteen months ago, composer Eve Beglarian took a camping trek down the entire length of the river, which gave her more than enough inspiration for an entire concert worth of material. Last night’s performance at the East Village’s Wild Project (part of this year’s dizzyingly diverse Avant Festival) was less a suite than a loosely thematic cycle of jawdroppingly eclectic, smartly conceived, relatively short chamber works for voice, violin, piano, electronics and sometimes all of that at once. In a word, wow. As far as emotional terrain is concerned, the pieces in her new Songs from the River collection run the gamut from hopeful, to anxious, to stormy, to blissfully peaceful. Stylistically, as could be expected from Beglarian, they’re all over the place, and so much better for that. She explained that one particular segment mixed New Orleans motifs with plainchant and a little Bach – she could have added “because I can” and everybody in the sold-out theatre would have nodded their approval.
This concert was particularly special in that Beglarian was part of the performance, lending her unselfconsciously warm, uncluttered mezzo-soprano to the lush, meticulously choreographed voices of the Ekmeles Ensemble (Megan Schubert, Rachel Calloway, Eric S. Brenner and Jeffrey Gavett) alongside Ana Milosavljevic on violin and Vicky Chow on piano. The twelve pieces on program shared an attention to subtle timbral details, uncompromising originality and embrace of all available genres. Watchin Beglarian vividly reassert her command of idioms including but not limited to circular choral counterpoint, neoromantic piano, ambient electronics and violin-and-voice ethereality was literally breathtaking and not a little suspenseful: it was impossible to have any idea of where the music would go next. A Hurricane Katrina eulogy of sorts riffed on “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” not as savagely as the Ted Hearne classic, but as it crescendoed and the phrase coalesced in the mix, it was pretty close. A hopeful, unsentimentally bucolic interlude illustrated how where Beglarian expected to find twisted meth-heads, she found a small town (population less than 200) that enjoyed sharing its ice cream instead. The most hypnotic of the segments was an echoey electroacoustic mashup of water flowing over a dam augmented by Milosavljevic’s elegantly minimalistic violin. The most gripping was a depiction of deep-water currents, which Chow made look easy even though its turbulent, forceful ripples were anything but: Water Music for a new century. The most captivating of the vocal passages set an eerily fluttering, disembodied rondo making its way through the upper registers, completely gothic if not particularly southern.
And the tunes were full of simple, impactful hooks! PBS, or the world of indie film are the obvious destinations for a lot of the material on the program. Beglarian may have made a name for herself on the outskirts of the mainstream, but so much of the music on last night’s bill found itself in perfect balance between cutting-edge and catchy. Beglarian’s music is next featured in New York on March 2 at 8 PM at the Church of Saint Matthew and Saint Timothy, 26 W 84th St., with the art song duo Two Sides Sounding performing“A Coney Island of the Mind,” comprising music and images inspired by that Brooklyn neighborhood with music by Beglarian, Gilda Lyons, and Erik Moe and dramaturgy by Kelley Rourke.
It seems that more and more frequently these days, there’s a time lapse between when jazz albums are recorded and when they’re released. The Noah Kaplan Quartet’s Joe Maneri homage, Descendants, was recorded in 2008 and is out now on the estimable German label Hat Hut. As you would expect, it’s a series of free improvisations by a crew with considerable chemistry and collaborative sensitivity: alongside Kaplan, a Maneri acolyte who plays tenor and soprano sax, there’s perennially interesting individualist Joe Morris on guitar, Kaplan’s Dollshot bandmate Giacomo Merega on bass guitar and Jason Nazary on drums. The album begins with a ballad in disguise and ends with a tone poem. Melodic resolution is defiantly resisted whenever it’s hinted at, which is infrequently: an austere, sometimes acidic, frequently elegaic quality persists throughout the album’s six tracks.
The side of Kaplan that isn’t represented here is his wit: Dollshot, his improvisational chamber-rock project with his singer sister Rosalie, delightfully and often cruelly reinvents early 20th century art-song. Instead, his microtonal inflections here evoke more somber emotions, crying, quietly wailing or sirening, sliding gracefully up and down between semiquavers, often straining against the pull of a central tone that appears only by implication. And the band is doing a whole lot of thinking on their feet here along with Kaplan: there’s more pitch-and-follow than there is intricate interplay. Often it’s Merega who holds down the center or establishes a rhythm for the other group members to pull into focus and then back away from. Morris’ casually biting jangle and stinging, trebly tone are perfect for this unit, whether he’s alluding to a big expansive arpeggio, spinning out raindrops for the rest of the unit to run between, or adding incisive accents. Nazary’s presence is affectingly ghostly more often than not, often confined to ominously looming or echoing atmospherics than actual propulsion: as the album cover image (crow on a dead tree limb, stormclouds in the background) indicates, this is dark music. And it’s more or less quiet music: only one of the segments features the kind of atonal bluster commonly associated with this style of jazz. For those who play this kind of music, there’s plenty of inspiration here: the way Nazary casually punches in to fill out Merega’s insistent pulse on the twelve-minute title track; Morris circling Kaplan, and then the two switching roles, in the cold late-afternoon drizzle atmosphere of the following cut; and the mysterioso rise and fall of the waves of the band together on the final segment. People who need a catchy beat and a singalong melody will have to look elsewhere, but for those who can’t resist an album of strange, sometimes harsh, sometimes hypnotic tonalities, this is an inspiring listen. Joe Maneri, who knew a little something about that stuff, would approve.