Isn’t it amazing how there are so many incredible classical and jazz performances in New York, just a stone’s throw off the beaten path? Last night at Good Shepherd-Faith Church in the Lincoln Center complex was a perfect example, where the Nova Philharmonic teamed up with violinist/composer Gregor Huebner and the Paul Joseph Quartet for a characteristically genre-smashing good time. First on the agenda was Huebner’s own absolutely haunting Ground Zero (from his New York Suite), a tone poem that gave him the opportunity to play while casually circling the audience, conductor Dong-Hyun Kim leading the string orchestra onstage through its chilling, gently keening and then subsiding microtones. The work eventually reached a chilling crescendo with Huebner’s horror-stricken staccato attack against a brooding, dissociative backdrop. As an evocation of the anguish of 9/11, it’s powerfully evocative, more of a look back from a distance than Robert Sirota’s manic-then-bereaved Triptych or Julia Wolfe’s terror-fueled, recently released Big Beautiful Dark & Scary.
The ensemble shifted to warmer, more consonantly enveloping territory with Joel Mandelbaum’s The Past Is Now, a trio of May Sarton poems set to music and delivered with highwire intensity by soprano Kathryn Wieckhorst: in the church’s echoey acoustics, her sheer crystalline power equated to the force of a choir over the lushness of the strings. Mandelbaum’s attention to the rather elegaic lyrical content was both poignant and witty, notably in a furtive, metaphorically-charged passage marking the trail of some nocturnal varmints who’d vanished by daybreak, leaving only their pawprints in the snow. Huebner then rejoined the group for his Concerto con Violin Latino, a bracing, rhythmically-charged suite juxtaposing guajira, bembe and tango themes that began with an anxious, Piazzola-esque sweep and majesty and then romped through the tropics before reverting to a staccato intensity that revisited the angst of the opening piece.
Throughout the performance, Kim’s meticulousness was matched by the ensemble, perhaps most noticeably on the concluding suite, Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik. How does one rescue this old standby from the world of credit card commercials and NPR lead-ins? This group’s answer was to dig in and amp it up. And they had to, because this particular performance was billed as a duel of sorts with pianist Paul Joseph and his Quartet – Susan Mitchell on violin, Edgar Mills on bass and Mike Corn on drums – who played their own jazz versions of each of Mozart’s four movements: first the orchestra would play one, then Joseph and crew would come up with a response. Much as it might have been tempting to make hard bop out of it, Joseph did the right thing with a jaunty, ragtime-inflected approach worthy of Dave Brubeck. They swung the opening allegro with gusto, turning the Romanza into bossa nova and the minuet into a jazz waltz. To call what they did eye-opening is an understatement: the strength and irresistible catchiness of Mozart’s melody became even more apparent as they turned a Venetian courtly dance into a blithely bouncy jazz-pop anthem that would be perfectly at home in the Egberto Gismonti songbook. Whenever the glittery attractiveness of the piano threatened to saturate the mix with sugar, Mitchell was there in a split-second with stark, assertive cadenzas and a razor-sharp, slithery legato to add edge and bite. They turned the concluding rondo into a samba, making it as much of a round rhythmically as musically, Mills and Mitchell trading off the tune while Joseph and Corn paired off on an increasingly animated series of percussive jousts that the orchestra finally lept into, completely unexpectedly, and wound out in a joyous crescendo. The audience exploded with a standing ovation. Watch this space for upcoming New York area dates for the Nova Philharmonic and the Paul Joseph Quartet.
Classical music fans in New York looking something more interesting than the same old standards have numerous options. Among the best of these is the New York Scandia Symphony, who dedicate themselves to reviving interest in lesser-known Nordic composers as well as premiering new works by emerging composers from the upper reaches of that hemisphere. Last night at Victor Borge Hall in Murray Hill, the highlight of the night, performed by a twelve-piece chamber version of the orchestra, was the American permiere of contemporary Danish composer Anders Koppel’s Symphonie Concertante. A triptych, it’s a characteristically enigmatic and absolutely fascinating work, something to get lost in if not for the endless tempo and stylistic shifts. Conductor Dorrit Matson, a Dane herself, led the ensemble seamlessly through a wary, pulsing first movement that evoked Astor Piazzolla’s later work before engaging Steven Hartman’s clarinet and Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon in a long round of animatedly crescendoing rhythmic hijinks over the swells of the strings and eventually a labyrinth of polyrhythms. And yet, the jousting stopped abruptly during the early part of the second, Largo movement and turned to apprehension, reaching near-horror proportions via the chilling, Bernard Herrmann-esque string motif around which the final Allegro appassionato movement was centered. A celebrity in his native land ever since his days in popular rock band Savage Rose, Koppel deserves to be much better known here.
Another highlight of the program was Symphony violist Frank Foerster’s Suite of Scandinavian Folk Tunes for string ensemble. Foerster is a very eclectic player and has a great wit – another suite of his, Summer in Fort Tryon Park, is a quintessentially New York tableau, packed with irresistible on-location references. This piece is more serious, a rugged hardanger fiddle-style sea motif linking a series of portraits of several of the Nordic nations: by this account, the Norwegians and Swedes are a serious bunch given to vivid dramatics, while the Finns and Icelandics are party animals. Opening the concert, Matson and the group took Swedish baroque composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Haydn-esque Violin Concerto and tackled its rather rugged, stern underpinnings with a muscular sway beneath violinist Mayuki Fukuhara’s spun-silk swirls; a bit later, Hartman was featured in a velvety version of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, Op. 11 of Bernhardt Henrik Crusell, a Swedish contemporary of Mozart. They closed with enjoyably jaunty yet precise takes on the Prelude and Rigaudon from Grieg’s Holberg Suite. Concerts like this only add intrigue to the question: what have else we not yet heard from this particular part of the world that deserves to be known equally well over here – and when is this orchestra going to play it?
by Rimas Uzgiris
The two-woman show by Andrea Cukier and Florencia Fraschina at the Argentine Consulate presents two contemporary Argentine painters whose work is deeply rooted in Argentina’s urban culture, albeit in entirely different ways.
Andrea Cukier, now a resident of New York City but raised and trained as an artist in Buenos Aires, is a painter of suggestive atmospheres. She paints light through mist, humid air, harbors and dilapidated shorelines. She takes inspiration from the painters of La Escuela de La Boca, a group of mostly Italian immigrants to Buenos Aires who often depicted sections of their working-class neighborhoods, including the nearby waterfront. Cukier’s “Broken Passage” is a masterful portrayal of a shattered, chaotic shoreline. The sense of mist and moisture pervades both sky and water so thoroughly that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins. All things seem to be dissolving into the elements of earth, air and water. The painting is almost wholly abstract. And even though, on the one hand, entropy seems to dominate, on the other hand, there is a tremendous sensitivity to light, which suffuses the clouds and mist and water with a glow that feels almost redemptive, albeit earthy. Other works, notably “Late Storm” and “Evening Light”, may be more representational, but are equally intriguing, depicting the play of clouds, smoke and light in canvasses dominated by sky. Human civilization is suggested with no more than the rooftops of city buildings, barbed wire, and churning black smoke. There is always a threat looming in these subtly dramatic paintings, but there is hope as well—whether in the form of light, or in a fleck of black paint like a bird fleeing the looming darkness. One cannot look at her paintings without being entranced by the complex interplay of grays, whites and blacks. One might say that in her work we have the late Turner in 21st century New York City by way of an urban sensitivity cultivated in La Boca.
On the opposite side of this warm, wood-paneled room hangs the work of Florencia Fraschina, a painter based in Buenos Aires. Fraschina draws her inspiration from entirely different sources. If Cukier reminds us of Turner by way of La Boca, Fraschina’s work brings us the spirit of Hopper by way of Kahlo. Her paintings are a symphony of saturated colors, populated by voluptuous women, often in various states of undress. Like so many paintings by Hopper, they suggest stories. The depicted characters express complex emotional states, and their situations are often enigmatic, sometimes even sordid. The exceptional “El Descanso” depicts a man and a woman in a tub. The woman is enormous, and the man thin and frail. He nestles inside of her legs and breasts, smoking a cigarette, looking up at the ceiling. Is he satisfied, or a bit intimidated—even a bit scared? Is her expression motherly? Or is there the hint of a smirk? Fraschina does not give us easy answers about her characters’ inner lives. Their charm is in their mystery. The paintings shimmer with color—extraordinary blues, bright pink, serene green. One especially harmonious piece is “La Costurera”: a woman, also large, but fully clothed, sews. Her expression is calm and focused, a bit sad as well. The painting is a symphony of blue, yellow, and red, and it is peaceful in its domestic melancholy. Similarly domestic, and quite poignant, is “Almorzando con Mirta”, named after a popular Argentine TV program. An old woman, dressed in black (a nun?) sits at a table, eating (soup? gruel?) from a bowl. She faces a television whose screen shows a young woman with golden hair. In the otherwise drab apartment, the only other color highlight comes from the halo in the painting above the mantle—thereby uniting the old, kitschy painting with the modern television program in a provocative way. Other details also draw us in to this woman, her story, her emotional life: a pair of elephant figurines, a wedding couple statuette. Fraschina makes us yearn for the human, for the true connection to the other, even as she problematizes our ways of relating to self and other through her depiction of pop culture and religious symbols. It is rare to see such social commentary come through a painting so subtly, and with so much feeling for the simple and solitary human life.
This show is a reminder that profound and emotionally gripping art is still being made in an age of shallow postmodernism, and it is being made with talent, craft, subtle intelligence, and a connection to history that is both revealing and progressive.
Andrea Cukier and Florencia Fraschina: Paintings are on display at the Consulate General of Argentina in New York, 12 W 56th St. (5th/6th Aves.) through April 10.
Indie classical outfit Cygnus Ensemble has a fascinatingly eclectic collection of Frank Brickle chamber works titled Ab Nou Cor out recently on Innova. They call it “neo-medieval psychedelia.” That’s actually not a bad way to describe at least some of this. The best way to start is not with the original compositions but with the new arrangements of a couple of fairly well known pieces from the 13th and 18th centuries. Perotin’s famous early medieval choral work Sederunt Principes has never sounded more modern. Utilizing the whole ensemble – guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader (who also employ period stringed instruments here), cellist Susannah Chapman, oboeist Robert Ingliss, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinist Calvin Wiersma and pianist Joan Forsyth – they highlight portions of the old madrigal to bring out a seemingly global range of influences, from a stately Spanish court theme (shades of Miles Davis) to a jaunty, practically Celtic dance. They also reinvent Ferrucio Busoni’s Berceuse Elegiaque as a warped Pavane for a Dead Infant with thoughtful handoffs between voices and some memorably rumbling and then eerily starlit (and probably extemporaneous) piano from Forsyth.
In addition to composition, Brickle is also an inventor whose pioneering work in software-based radio won him a government contract. Not that you need to be aware of that to see how disparate his interests are. The opening track is the first of a handful of partitas: a syncopated cello/theorbo dance, a dramatic third-stream jazz interlude with soprano Haleh Abghari soaring overhead, a return to the theme with the guitar dancing over a cello pedal note, a briefly somber interlude setting up a waltz theme with considerably more restrained vocals. Could this or some of the other works here have been composed for the theatre?
They certainly sound that way, especially The Creation, a Towneley Mystery Play. This number clocks in at around thirteen minutes of tension between dramatic consonance and airy atonality featuring high-voltage flourishes from Abghari, a couple of brief, brooding piano/strings interludes and a deliciously creepy, music box-style crescendo that leads to a concluding rondo. They explore jazz on Midnight Round, its hypnotic, elegantly fingerpicked interplay between the guitarists echoing Redhooker’s adventures in that field. Merlin I evokes Roy Wood’s explorations of moody medieval fretwork and then sees the ambience shattered by Abghari’s piercing, unnervingly atonal leaps and bounds.
As much as Brickle likes to explore multiple genres within a lengthy suite, he also likes vignettes. The title track is a rather insistent, brief work for theorbo and voice; the stately, pleasantly steady, rather skeletal Teutonic concluding cut featuring the same instrumentation. There’s also the murky piano miniature In Media Res with its striking low/high contasts, and Genius Loci, a delicately interwoven thicket of twin acoustic guitars.
Israeli jazz pianist Alon Yavnai & the NDR Bigband have an understatedly powerful, very smart new album just out, Shri Ahava (Hebrew for “love poem”). He’s playing the cd release show at Birdland this Sunday at 6 (six) PM with a fantastic New York band featuring Paquito D’Rivera and Malika Zarra: if you’re a fan of Gil Evans, or Middle Eastern jazz innovators like Gilad Atzmon or Amir ElSaffar, this is a show you shouldn’t miss.
The album’s most striking track is titled Travel Notes. Yavnai has a long history with D’Rivera, so it’s no surprise that he’d be as fond of melodies and beats from south of the border as he is of the many traditions from his own part of the world. This one takes a bouncy Peruvian festejo groove and works a mighty series of shifting motifs from the orchestra to a biting, Arabic-tinged interlude where the piano mimics an oud. From there they works variations on the theme through rapidfire solos by trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt and clarinetist Lutz Buchner to a fiery, practically stampeding conclusion. It’s a major moment in recent big band jazz.
Two other equally intriguing tracks are both pastorales that unexpectedly and vividly go noir. Au Castagney is a cinematic epic that leaps from comfortable cinematic ambience to become a spy story set in wine country, with deliciously creepy solos by Yavnai and guitarist Sandra Hempel, who mines some luridly terse Marc Ribot-style tonalities. Then there’s Ilha B’Nit (Beautiful Island), a homage to Cape Verdean music that shifts from lush exchanges of washes carried by two or three voices, to stormier, more rhythmic intensity that brings in some unexpected funk before going out with a darkly memorable bluster.
Bitter Roots is a hybrid Afro-Cuban/Egyptian groove that grows from increasingly agitated cadenzas over a one-chord jam to a series of hypnotic circular riffs. Zriha (Sunrise) builds from bright, optimistic atmospherics to an unexpected wariness calmed by a Frank Delle baritone sax solo, rising matter-of-factly to a clever false ending. The opening, title track juxtaposes pensive solo piano passages with sweeping, majestic charts set to an insistent bossa pulse; the album ends with a requiem for Yavnai’s friend, the late drummer Take Toriyama, brooding solo piano giving way to an exchange of voices that slowly introduce warmer, more comforting variations. Jazz doesn’t get as accessible yet as cutting-edge as this very often.
Debussy was right about gamelan music. In a marathon three-and-a-half show Friday night at the Asia Society, famed Javanese dhalang (shadow puppeteer) Purbo Asmoro led New York’s Gamelan Kusuma Laras along with musicians from his own gamelan troupe Mayangkara in a lush, hypnotic, often thrilling and frequently hilarious modern update on the medieval wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) epic Dewi Ruci. Subtitled “Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment,” it’s an Indonesian spin on an old Indian myth. The plotline concerns a spiritually-inclined prince’s Herculean adventures in the search for enlightenment: who knew that a quest for personal growth could be so arduous? Bima tackles ogres in the woods and dives to the ocean floor to do battle with a giant sea serpent, all in the name of wisdom. Which makes sense, given his lineage. Utimately, the story could be termed a battle between blue and red states: Bima’s family, the peaceful Pandhawas, are vying with their rivals, the materialistic Kurawa clan, for control of an empire. As part of a “comic interlude” that was only supposed to take five minutes but which went on much longer (to the delight of the remarkably diverse crowd of expats and Americans), a Barack Obama puppet made an appearance, which only made sense: as Asmoro told it, Obama was exposed to wayang as a child in Indonesia and enjoyed it. And who wouldn’t.
Simultaneously playing the role of lyric baritone, comedian, and conductor, Asmoro was a force of nature, acrobatically spinning his wayang (puppet figures manipulated with what look like giant chopsticks) to cast shadows on the screen, aggressively thumping his giant wooden puppet box, clattering his foot cymbals to signal dynamic shifts and all the while entertaining the crowd. This was all the more impressive considering that he and most of his ensemble played the entire show seated, their backs to the audience, which is the style in Indonesia these days (apparently the desire for a backstage pass is universal). Throughout the performance, audience members traipsed onstage to get a look at the figures on the shadow screen facing the band, which was also being projected via live video on the side of the stage. To the immense benefit of the non-Javanese speakers in the crowd, gamelan member Kitsie Emerson furiously typed a witty and insightful simultaneous English translation that was projected high above the musicians.
The music itself covered the range of the entire sonic spectrum. Director I.M. Harjito led the group as they built calmly dreamy ambience with a hypnotic, gently polyrhythmic, pointilliistically glimmering web of instrumental “welcoming music” with their bells, gongs and fiddle that went on for practically a half-hour before Asmoro took the stage. Alternately dramatic, intense, droll and ribald, he shifted voices as much as he shifted characters while the band rose and fell along with the plotline. When the stage momentarily lost power, puppets blamed each other; Freudian metaphors abounded, and Asmoro got the crowd roaring with his explanation of how New York winter cold affected his manhood. Musically, the highlight of the show was a harder-charging interlude meant to illustrate soldiers in what seemed to be competitive training exercises, the tinkling of the bells balanced by the low, richly reverberating boom of the gongs. In between acts, a choir sang choruses along with soloists from the ensemble (notably soprano Ibu Yatmi, with her meticulously nuanced, piercingly microtonal melismas). After about an hour and a half, wine and snacks were served upstairs: people made their way up and back into the theatre, happy for a break but eager to see what else the group had in store. It was after eleven when the show finally concluded, Bima victorious at last in his search for wisdom, the future of the Pandhawa uncertain, the crowd still invigorated, on their feet, wanting more.
This coming Sunday, March 25, highly regarded up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a 3 PM performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto, and the Brahms Symphony No. 3. It looks to be an auspicious connection between like-minded, energetically-inclined purists. A child prodigy on the violin in his native Turkmenistan, Khudyev is Azeri by descent, educated at Interlochen, Oberlin and Yale, and has conducted several orchestras in central Asia and the United States. A thoughtful and passionately honest advocate for the music he performs, Khudyev took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about the concert:
Lucid Culture: Audiences often wonder how orchestras and conductors come together. How did this gig happen? Did you find the GVO or did they find you?
Farkhad Khudyev: Barbara Yahr [the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s conductor] contacted me after looking at my video materials, we met for a cup of coffee and had a lovely time talking about music and the conducting world.
LC: You come from an interesting background as an awardwinning young concert violinist – which was your ticket to a scholarship at Interlochen, the Juilliard of the midwest. How did you get involved with conducting? Has this always been an interest for you?
FK: Conducting has always been something incredibly special to me. I remember when I was studying violin and composition back at Interlochen, the desire to conduct was already coming to me then. Through this mystical and beautiful art I felt I could communicate the best that great artists have given us, while simultaneously bringing my own inner world into the music.
LC: Does conducting get in the way of the violin for you, or vice versa? Which do you prefer – or does it really matter to you?
FK: I try to find time for the violin as much as I can. Currently Australian pianist Stephen Whale and I have been performing as a duo, Duo Fondamento, where we try to bring out a fundamental approach to our interpretation of Beethoven, Brahms, as well as various other sonatas in our repertoire. I also often play with my two brothers, violinist Eldar Khudyev and clarinetist Emil Khudyev, who are fantastic musicians. We’ve done critically acclaimed concerts together at several venues throughout the world as the Khudyev Brothers. Conducting, playing the violin and composing are all closely related, I feel, and all three of these great art forms help me communicate what I have to say through music.
LC: You’re also a composer. How has does that inform your view of how to conduct an orchestra?
FK: Composing has helped me to understand instrumentation, orchestration and most of all I learned how to compose all the great works of great composers for myself again. In other words, I learned to rediscover music that I conduct and bring some fresh air into these great works.
LC: You’ve led a very diverse list of orchestras, from your native Turkmenistan, to Russia, to the USA. As a guest conductor, what’s the main challenge for you?
FK: As guest conductor, it is a challenge to bring all the musicians together and let them trust your own inner world. Once musicians see the truth and depth in your work, trust comes very quickly. I find that first rehearsal is very important. My goal is to inspire every musician in the orchestra so we all have a great experience working together and most importantly a meaningful performance. The GVO is a wonderful orchestra with such friendly and warm musicians. This month has been a great experience for me.
LC: To what degree can a conductor breathe new life into well-known works like these without completely twisting them out of shape – or should a conductor attempt such at thing at all?
FK: I think that a conductor can only attempt to breathe new life into these great works once the music has lived with him or her for a long time. The point where the music speaks through a conductor is the right time to attempt to bring it to life. These works are full of inner depth, and they require time and experience to be able to understand, and to breathe new life into them.
LC: I think you’re going to find this orchestra a joy to work with. Is there anything special that audiences should look forward to on the 25th?
FK: Since I am ethnically Azeri, from Turkmenistan, it’s very special for me to conduct Kachaturian’s music – its traits are similar to the culture I grew up in. This music is full of strength as well as ethereal warmth and softness. These two extreme sonic aspects are culturally meaningful in the Caucasus. Brahms’ Third Symphony is a great example of an artist’s love of freedom and longing for it, despite life’s bitter hardships. Brahms cherishes all kinds of wonderful memories with great tenderness throughout the symphony, immortalizing them in the music.
LC: Are you sick to death of getting tagged with the wunderkind thing, you know, “young conductor?” I mean, you’re in your twenties now, you’ve graduated from conservatory. Can we simply count you among your peers in the conducting world now? Is that what you’ve worked toward all along?
FK: Music is my life and it gives me a chance to express everything I have in my heart which I am strongly thankful for. Therefore I have never taken the “wunderkind thing” seriously, since it does not mean much to me. I know that as long as I live I will try to give everything to this divine gift. Music grants strength, sincerity, purity and joy to humanity, which is so essential in our world.
Farkhad Khudyev leads the Greenwich Village Orchestra in a performance of Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance, Violin Concerto and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place and 16th St. in Manhattan at 3 PM on Sunday, March 25, $15 sugg. don., reception to follow.
Over the past nine years the lineup of artsy, eclectic Israeli rockers the Idan Raichel Project has comprised a global cast of over ninety musicians ranging in age from sixteen to ninety-three, bandleader/keyboardist Raichel revealed at his sold-out show last night at the Town Hall. That’s a formula for success if your goal is to be fluent in every global style of music ever invented. What did this particular twelve-piece incarnation of the band not play last night? Music from China, the North Pole, and Jamaica (they didn’t do any reggae). They did just about everything else, something akin to another Project from another era – that one led by Alan Parsons – but with a considerably deeper immersion in Middle Eastern and African grooves. The concert started slowly and built momentum steadily, up to an explosive, darkly bracing Ethiopian dance driven by spiraling flute, trumpet and alto sax over a slinky triplet rhythm. By this point, half the crowd – on the young side, and at least fifty percent female – had moved to the aisles, dancing and waving their glowsticks.
Raichel is a terse, elegant player who usually leaves the exuberance to the band (for a look at his more pensive, exploratory side, keep an eye out for his tremendously good forthcoming collaboration with Malian desert blues guitar star Vieux Farka Toure). In the beginning of the set, global influences flitted in and out of pretty standard if classically-tinged piano-based pop songs. An Iranian tar lute riff, an Egyptian snakecharmer flute motif, Rio rhythms and fetching habibi vocals from the group’s two dynamic, versatile frontwomen all made their way up into and out of the mix as the band almost imperceptibly brought the energy up, eventually rollicking their way through a bouncily hypnotic Afrobeat tune (these folks could teach Vampire Weekend a thing or two about energy and soul).
As the show went on, the band left the straight-up rock behind and dove deeply into global grooves. One of the encores could have been a Yemen Blues Middle Eastern jam, with oud and spiraling ney flute; a couple of others vamped on a rolling Ethiopian beat as the group lept and danced over it. The most intense of the night’s many solos (this group keeps most of them brief and leaves you wanting more) was during the loudest song, a roaring rai rock tune straight out of the Rachid Taha playbook, the guitar player building methodically to a savage Dick Dale-style blast of tremolo-picking. Not all of this came across as dead-serious, either. One track began with the percussionist playing a calabash which was sitting in a tub of water: while it was obviously not intentional, the popping beats alternating with the sound of pouring water evoked a bathroom more than it did a riverbank.
Beyond becoming the most eclectic rocker on the planet, Raichel’s ultimate motive is promoting peace. Obviously he feels that it’s worth repeating the old shibboleth that if we left the planet to the musicians instead of the priests and the mullahs, there would be no wars. Leading by example, blending cultures onstage, he drove his message home with a wallop. Has this band ever done the summer concert tour, places like Coachella? They ought to.
If you see a lot of jazz, you’re probably used to watching familiar faces run through familiar material and wondering to yourself, what if they were left to their own devices? What if they did their own stuff – would they take it to the next level? Doug Webb’s latest album Swing Shift is one answer to that question.
Back in April of 2009, the saxophonist sequestered himself in a Los Angeles studio for a marathon session with a rotating cast of characters. By any standard, the results were spectacularly successful, netting enough material for two good-naturedly energetic, expertly delivered albums of mostly standards, 2009’s Midnight and 2010’s Renovations…and this one. If edgy postbop jazz is your thing, this is your album: Posi-Tone definitely saved the best for last. Webb has chops that’ll make your eyeballs pop. Remember that old Coltrane line about how “everybody thinks I’m playing glissandos but they’re really arpeggios,” or something like that? Whether playing tenor or alto, Webb is on that level, technique-wise, rising with seemingly effortless ease from liquid crystal swirls to gritty, clenched-teeth squalls in places. But this isn’t a chops album – it’s a hot vibe album on a high-octane tip in the same vein as Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers.
Rhythmic shifts are key here, even as they gradually get into it with Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes, done as a matter-of-factly swinging blues ballad. Webb takes it doublespeed in a split second, almost imperceptibly, setting up an incisively scampering Larry Goldings piano solo, then resuming his pace without breaking a sweat – or so it seems. Then they jump into the centerpiece of the album, the practically 23-minute Patagonia Suite, a co-write for Webb and bassist Stanley Clarke (who proves to be the perfect fit for this record, whether turning in tireless overtime walking scales, adding low-pressure buoyancy with judicious, juicy chords and even leading the band through a reggae-tinged interlude toward the end). Playing alto with a high, biting, practically snarling tone, Webb casually makes his way through steady eighth-note clusters built around a simple minor-key riff, to wailing squalls, to a dark, stern, straight-ahead, thoughtfully JD Allen-esque interlude that he ends completely unleashed. The architecture is just as smart as the playing, Webb assigning pianist Mahesh Balasooriya (and, to a lesser extent, Clarke) the tough role of following with long solos that echo the sax’s shift from methodical to completely unhinged. Both players register a bullseye, drummer Gerry Gibbs (who played the entire session) cleverly building suspense with his one deadpan, matter-of-fact solo.
In fact, the piece as a whole seems to be a series of variations on Frank Foster’s gorgeously edgy Simone, which is the track that follows: whether their version served as the prototype, or was intended as a coda, it works magically, with a jaw-dropping, supersonic cadenza by Balasooriya, incessant but almost imperceptible tempo shifts and a relentlessly bracing, modal attack by Webb.
They do Rogers and Hart’s Where or When as a trio with no drums, Joe Bagg playing piano with terse hints of stride: even here, Webb is still wired from track two and in edgy minor mode, which redeems this increasingly moldy oldie many times over. They follow that with a Webb/Gibbs duo, Rizone, swirling clusters versus steadily shuffling rhythm and wind up the album with another bracing Webb/Clarke collaboration, Apodemia, evocative (as much of this album is) of Kenny Garrett’s best 1990s-era work. As they do with Where or When, they take their time pulling it together, Clarke fueling the smoldering blaze with his chords, Bagg’s piano unveiling a rippling midnight ambience while Webb broodingly contemplates his next move, the band swaying expectantly underneath. Other than the first track, the tension never really lets up here. This isn’t late night sleepy jazz and it sure as hell isn’t boudoir jazz but as a shot of adrenaline after a rough day at work, it’s unbeatable. Lisa Simpson would be proud (Webb plays her sax parts on tv).
When the Prism Concert series at Central Synagogue in midtown began a couple of years ago, it was like getting a private performance: there might have been a half-dozen people from the neighborhood there. It’s good to see that the organizers of the twice-monthly midday series have stuck to their guns, because there was a substantial crowd gathered there today to see Israeli organist Roman Krasnovsky play a smart, intuitive mix of standard repertoire and a couple of rewarding original works. He paced Bach’s ebullient Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532 casually and steadily, holding back the firepower for when he needed it it. Brahms’ magnificent Prelude and Fugue in D Minor gave him the chance to set that firepower loose through its swells and sustained passages; in between those two, he played Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations with great sensitivity to the melody’s singing quality, especially early on, making sure the warmly inviting motifs lingered.
He closed the program with a couple of fascinating original compositions. The first was variations on a Taiwanese folk song, Spring Wind, that he quickly built from traditional Asian tonalities to a series of acidic close dissonances, alluding to but never reaching a resolution. The piece is a diptych: the second part gave him the chance to leave the 21st century behind and revert to a gentle pastoral ambience. He ended with his own Toccata Domenicale, where he took a rather boisterous, operatically-tinged theme, disguised it a little, toned it down and then gave it a similarly jarring, dissonant quality, pairing notes together when least expected, reaching a considerably more forceful conclusion. It made an impressive introduction to this former student of Aram Kachaturian whose return to composition after a long career as a recitalist is more than welcome.
The next Prism Concert is on March 27 at half past noon at Central Synagogue on Lexington Ave. at 54th St. in Manhattan.