Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Slumgum: Perennially Dark and Cutting-Edge

Old paradigm: albums get buried in the stack or maybe get stolen. New paradigm: albums get lost on the server or accidentally deleted. Los Angeles jazz quartet Slumgum definitely belong to the new paradigm, so it’s only fitting that’s what happened here as far as their album Qardboard Flavored Fiber is concerned (it came over the transom almost a year ago). But good records stand the test of time, and this one’s no less fun or paradigm-shifting now than it was then.

Slumgum defies categorization. Aware of jazz history but not constrained by it, committed to improvisation but not constrained by that either, the band mixes an impressively eclectic series of clever cross-genre tropes with vivid cinematics that often venture into totally noir territory: Sam Fuller movie themes in color for a new century. A suite titled Big Fun, which ranges from apprehensive free improvisation, to latin, to third-stream themes, runs through the album and opens it on a chilly, spacious note, Rory Cowal’s icy, Ran Blake-inflected piano mingling with Dave Tranchina’s terse bass incisions and scraping ambience, Jon Armstrong’s tenor sax adding wary atmospherics. They follow that with the Lynchian Hancho Pancho, Cowal’s echoey Rhodes intertwining with Armstrong, who builds to a smoky, terrified crescendo over Tranchina’s molten pitchblende chords. The way they manage to take it out with an unexpected grace is one of the high points of the album.

Big Fun (New Ruckus) is a warped salsa jazz tune that coalesces slowly and then falls apart twice as fast, the band leaving everything to the bass and drummer Trevor Anderies’ unexpectedly blithe rimshots. A mini-epic, Eshu’s Trick morphs playfully from a clave groove to darkly Ethiopian-tinged sonics with striking light/dark contrasts between sax and drums – and is Armstrong playing baritone and alto at the same time, or is that an overdub? Either way, the harmonies are an unexpected treat. They end it with a very cool, psychedelic reggae-jazz interlude that turns nebulous and polyrhythmic. Big Fun (Street Puddle Rainbow), which follows, is a pretty, third-stream after-the-rain vignette, making a good segue with Afternoon, the most trad piece here, driven by Cowal’s expansively warm, stately melodicism.

Big Fun (Liberation) is surprisingly tentative and gentle, Tranchina’s judicious solo bass bookending quiet, pensive sax and piano incisions. The high point of the album, and one of the most stunning jazz compositions of recent years, is the title track, a rollercoaster ride that alternates a devious, baritone sax funk riff with Cowal’s rippling, Schumannesque arpeggios and runs up and then all the way down the piano, adding brooding chromatics and shortening the distance between horror and comedy as the song goes on. It ends unresolved. Big Fun (Buzzsaw Flower Blossom) reverts to slowly crescendoing, Ran Blake-ish intensity, also mining a pretty/ugly dichotomy but with considerably more humor. A rather cruel lounge-jazz satire, Puce over Pumpkin with a Hint of Lime builds from a tricky circular piano/sax circularity to a coldly suspenseful, martial interlude before they swing it, Cowal going totally noir, Armstrong leading the band all the way up before the wheels all fall off, one by one. Cowal ends it on an especially lurid/icy note. And that’s how they end the album, with the creepy tone poem Big Fun (The Bellows), Anderies’ whispery cymbals growing to a succession of waves as the sax and bass rise tectonically against it – a call for help in a storm, maybe? Whatever the case, count this as one of the most entertainingly intense jazz albums of recent months, irrespective of when it might have come out.

March 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Max Raabe Charms the Crowd at the Met

Last night German crooner Max Raabe and his meticulously inspired 15-piece Palast Orchester put on a characteristically devious, slyly entertaining show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fluent English, with a clipped, deadpan accent that he might have played up for added effect, Raabe led the group through an endlessly playful mix of Weimar and American hot jazz numbers from about 1926 through 1938. While they blended a few slapstick theatre songs into the set, they’re a jazz band first and foremost, and to the immense credit of the Met’s sound crew, the balance of the instruments in the auditorium was perfect, from guitar and banjo to brass to Cecilia Crisafulli’s graceful, understated violin to percussionist Vincent Riewe, whose sly implementation of cymbal and bells was timed to a split second. Raabe maintained his signature deadpan facade throughout the group’s roughly 90 minutes onstage: he didn’t smile once, nor did it look like he broke a sweat either. His M.O. is that he lets the songs, and the tunes, speak for themselves: and in period-perfect vaudeville style, he dished out clever cameo after cameo to the orchestra members, who lept in and out, sometimes in less than a single bar of music, with considerable relish. The four saxophonists came out from behind their matching black-and-white podiums (this is a German band after all) for a faux-Ink Spots interlude where Raabe eventually joined them on high harmonies, and didn’t have to go into head voice (pretty impressive, ja?). Alto saxophonist Johannes Ernst got to deliver a lusciously spiraling outro; baritone saxophonist Rainer Fox took charge of a couple of comedically gruff intros; and guitarist Ulrich Hoffmeier doubled ably on violin along with one of the trombonists on a theatrical number about a girl who goes off to China with a guy who can’t stay faithful. “But that doesn’t matter,” Raabe explained beforehand: it turned out that the girl was just using the guy for his money.

Raabe’s operatic background makes itself evident in his round, precisely modulated tone: that he stops just thisclose to overdoing it is what makes him so amusing – and sometimes genuinely plaintive as well, especially on a wary, knowing version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The way he swooped effortlessly upward to the root note as the band kicked into the old Cuban standard Siboney was spot-on (and so was the conga solo that Riewe managed to pull off while somehow holding the center with his woodblock). They redeemed Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by showing its klezmer roots – that the orchestra could risk a potential Pink Martini moment and instead give it a big grin testifies to their subtlety and originality. In between songs, Raabe amused the audience with deadpan repartee. The evening’s brisk opening number, one of the handful of German-language songs in the set, was about moviegoers wishing their lives could be as glamorous as the movies. “The last time I left a movie theatre, I was glad my life wasn’t so horrible,” Raabe explained. He riffed on American anti-smoking laws and how those who haven’t kicked the habit have to contend with being made into a zoo-like spectacle in airports and outside office buildings. He even sang an original, One Cannot Kiss Alone (the title track to his forthcoming album), nimbly negotiating its torrents of puns over an unexpectedly doo-wop flavored melody.

Raabe told the crowd that a staggered German waltz would not be “elegant like they have in Vienna – but louder.” They closed the set with a German dancehall number about a clumsy dancing girl, the band interpolating a handbell choir into the arrangement to max out the vaudevillian factor. But for all the nonstop good cheer, this group is all too aware that what they play is escapist music: beneath the lushness of the arrangements, there’s an inescapable unease that  they occasionally cede centerstage to, most strikingly on the encore, an anxiously brisk Dream a Little Dream of Me. Rather than evoking the jaunty Mama Cass ragtime version, it was a hasty lullaby for someone who’s not about to fall asleep afterward (and a not-so-subtle hint to come see the band the next time they pass through town). Considering the standing ovation the crowd gave them, no doubt many of those people will.

March 4, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment