Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Idea-Packed Big Band Improvisation from Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio has an intriguingly original album, Autobiography of a Pronoun, out now: the concept is improvisational big band jazz. This isn’t the waves of tunefulness followed by controlled chaos that Butch Morris champions, nor is it slowly shifting Greg Tate-style long-tone improvisation. What fuels this is a good sense of humor and artful orchestration: there are times when the whole ten-piece ensemble is cooking, but more often than not it’s a series of subgroups exploring a particular idea, so when the entire band gets in on it, the upward dynamics pack more of a punch. Most of this music is defiantly atonal, alluding to but seldom hitting a catchy hook head-on, the sixth track’s hypnotically syncopated Ethiopiques being the most memorable melody here in the conventional sense of the word. The presence of both Harry Scorzo’s violin and Jonathan Golove’s cello along with Anders Swanson’s frequently bowed bass add sonics that range from austere to occasionally lush and sweeping. It pretty much goes without saying that those who need a catchy tune to sing along to, or a steady beat to follow, will need to look elsewhere. But for jazz fans with an ear for the unconventional, this can be as much fun as it obviously was for the band to record.

Sample song title: Leg Belly Neon Kill Climb Unaware Pride, the ten-minute opening track. Surrealism reigns, from the pensive third-stream string ensemble introduction, a clave theme with vivid murky/airy contrasts between violin and ambience behind it, wry microtonalisms from Vlatkovich and a tasty Twin Peaks-ian interlude with legato piano leading spacious bass accents. It ends on an ominously agitated note.

The second track is more overtly improvisational, like early ELO on acid, anchored by drummer Michael Burdon’s funky shuffle, with tense strings-versus-horns contrasts, a free interlude that weaves from comedic to apprehensive and a lively, dancing bass solo out. Like the first cut, it has a persistent sense of unease. A three-part suite titled JMZ follows: its first section a rather chilling, twilit conversation between the bass and Wayne Peet’s piano, the second a blues ballad in heavy disguise contrasting rumbling, tumbling rhythms with terse piano and trombone motifs and the final an unexpectedly comic, increasingly rhythmic interlude led by William Roper’s tuba.

A jaggedly swinging large-ensemble piece, the wry Explain Why I Can’t Drive Faster Than the Car in Front of Me builds tension right from the big, lush opening chart, through a jarringly dissonant trombone/violin passage, to Peet’s piano going agitatedly off the edge into biting bop. Brian Walsh’s clarinet holds the funky Queen Dynamo together as the violin swirls and dips acidically before passing off to Jeff Kaiser’s muted trumpet and the trombone. The final piece, Memories Hold My Hand, is a sad, stately, Russian-flavored baroque requiem driven by somber tuba/trombone harmonies over flickering percussion. Those are just the highlights: other elements that are no less interesting emerge with repeated listening. Kick back with this if you’re up for getting swept into what can be an intense, inspiring, entertaining ride.

March 12, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pensive Rustic Cinematics from Sagapool

Sagapool hail from Montreal. They play tunefully esoteric, mostly minor-key instrumentals that would make a good soundtrack to a David Cronenberg film somewhere in the woods north of Quebec City. Their new album features Luizio Altobelli’s accordion, Guillaume Bourque’s clarinet, Alexis Dumais’ piano, Zoe Dumais’ violin, Dany Nicolas’ acoustic guitar and Marton Maderspach’s lithe, subtle drums as the main instruments, although they also use banjo, bass, alto sax, mandolin, electric piano, sandpaper and “whispering.” Gypsy music is an obvious influence, and there’s a little of that here, but they also touch on classical, jazz and various folk styles. Some of their stuff reminds of eclectic San Francisco group Pickpocket Ensemble. Although not a theme and variations per se, the album works best taken as a single integral work, as if actually intended to be a movie soundtrack. The tunes are catchy and will linger in your head long after the sun goes down for good.

The opening cut is set in a Montreal park, a slightly aching accordion melody that builds to a motorway anthem as the drums rumble along, muffled against swooshing ambience. They follow that with Coeur D’Aiguille (Eye of the Needle), a wistful clarinet waltz with glockenspiel and ambient accordion. Le Vent Des Iles (Island Breeze) is another waltz, this one more pensive and featuring the piano. It rises to a sailing clarinet solo and then a romp through a majestic swirl of arpeggios in the style of 70s art-rock bands like Genesis. From its staccato piano intro to its tense violin/accordion melody, Le Fil Boreal (Edge of the Northern Lights) sounds like it’s about to explode into a big anthem but never quite gets there. La Tristesse De L’Ampleur (Sad Expanse) is a rather plaintive folk/jazz guitar tune that shifts between tricky and funky, and another moody waltz, clarinet soaring brightly upward.

The two tracks here where the grey-sky atmosphere lifts are Marcel, a jaunty, carefree dixieland-flavored number, and the amusing closing cut, Mon Cousin Joue Du Synthe (My Cousin Plays Synth), a dark minor-key theme bookending some unexpectedly silly, campy 80s new wave tropes. There’s also a brooding neoromantic piano waltz with Erik Satie echoes; another violin tune that shifts between waltz time and trickier rhythms; and the vividly crescendoing De Cordes et De Bois (Strings and Wood), which matter-of-factly builds until it lifts off and becomes an action movie theme – and then reprises an earlier melody. Who is the audience for this? Montreal bartenders on the day shift; northern New England shopkeepers who aspire to be classier than Walmart; people whose days begin late and end early or wish that was the case.

March 8, 2012 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trippy Persian and Global Grooves From SoSaLa

The new album Nu World Trash by SoSaLa a.k.a. Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and his brilliantly assembled ensemble is so eclectic and trippy that it defies description, a woozy blend of dub, Middle Eastern music and American jazz. Producer Martin Bisi expands his own inimitable vision with dark, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired psychedelic sonics as the group slips and slinks through grooves with roots in Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan and the south side of Chicago circa 1963. That’s just for starters.

The opening track is characteristic. Titled Ja-Jou-Ka, it’s ostensibly Moroccan, but it could also be Ethiopian, right down to the biting, insistent, minor-key riff and galloping triplet rhythm that emerges from A swirling vortex of low tonalities right before the song winds out with echoey sheets of guitar noise, Ladjevardi’s elegantly nebulous tenor sax lines managing to be wary and hopeful at the same time. Ladell McLin’s guitar and Piruz Partow’s electric tar lute combine for a distant Dick Dale surf edge on Nu Persian Flamenco, a catchy, chromatically-charged surf rock vamp with echoey spoken word lyrics by Ladjevardi. Classical Persian music is inseparable from poetry, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to add his own stream-of-consciousness hip-hop style: “Work like a dog, what for? I need something to cheer me up,” this clearly being it.

With a rather cruel juxtaposition between gentle guitar/flute sonics and samples of agitated crowd noise (and a crushing assault by the gestapo a little later on), Welcome New Iran looks forward to the day when the Arab Spring comes to the Persian world (it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the U.S., too!). A traditional song, Kohrasan begins with a pensive taqsim (improvisation) on the tar and then launches into a bouncy modern gypsy-jazz vamp: it seems to be an illustration of a fable. Vatan Kojai (Where Is My Country) morphs from a swaying, soaring rai vamp into a wailing guitar dub interlude, while Happy April Fool’s Day veers from off-kilter jazz, to Ethiopiques, to biting contrasts between McLin’s abrasive noise and Sylvain Leroux’s fula flute.

The onomatopoeic (say that three times fast) NY’s Sa-Si-Su-Se-So sets Massamba Diop’s hypnotic talking drums agains swirling sax effects and wah funk guitar over a hypnotic Afrobeat groove driven by bassist Damon Banks and drummer Swiss Chris. Sad Sake makes atmospheric acid jazz out of a Japanese pop theme; the album ends with the swaying, funky Everyday Blues, a gritty workingman’s lament: the guy starts every day with a coffee and ends it with a “small bottle of beer,” and he’s had enough (although a bigger beer might help). Eclectic enough for you?

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irreverent Funny Dutch Jazz

Jazz from Holland – isn’t that kind of like surf music from Peru or gypsy music from America? Actually, yes. Gogol Bordello are from Brooklyn (applause please), and for years Peru made the world’s best surf music (back then they called it chicha). One of the more entertaining groups in the vital Dutch jazz scene is the irreverent and frequently comedic quartet Talking Cows, whose series of droll videos has made them a youtube sensation. Tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeersen gets credit for the more serious songs on their latest album Almost Human (just out on Dutch label Morvin Records); pianist Robert Vermeulen seems to be the cutup in the group. Bassist Dion Nijland has a remarkably melodic, terse style, while eclectic drummer Yonga Sun is equally at home with latin grooves, complex polyrhythms utilizing every square inch of the drum kit, or sraight-up in-the-pocket swing.

The opening track, Hurdles in Threes is something of a false start, a triplet tune that refuses to resolve, hanging out just a bit under the tonic with postbop sax swirls, loungey piano, dancing bass and latin-flavored drumming. It doesn’t give much of a hint of the levity lying in store. The second track, sarcastically titled A Serious Lack of Humour does that, though, through a deadpan solo bass intro, variations on a riff that echoes Ellington’s Caravan, a squalling sax crescendo and all of a sudden a noir loungey interlude that rises again on Vermeersen’s steely lines. A Stroll for Gonso is sort of their warped version of Harlem Nocturne, slowly bubbling with smoky sax, wry mallets on the drums and finally a long, thoughtful Vermeersen solo that straightens things out. They evoke the Microscopic Septet with the blippy, occasionally vaudevillian, Monk-tinged Dinner Is Served, full of fake turnarounds, rhythmic tricks, a ridiculously repetitive righthand piano riff and finally an Epistrophy quote. It’s one of two live recordings here, the second being the dizzyingly polyrhythmic, latin-inflected closing track Hop On, Hop Off which works its way from sly funk to relaxed, lyrical bliss.

The funky/bluesy Not Yet juxtaposes gleefully eerie upper-register piano flourishes with sly sax and a long, genial crescendo that really starts to cook as Sun takes it up huffing and puffing with a shuffle. Mos Def! returns to having fun with latin and Monk, Vermeulen throwing one jape after another into the mix shamelessly as the group veers from relaxed, bluesy charts to the point of pandemonium and then back again. A free piece titled Hang Glider lets an anthemic theme evolve slowly out of carefree, rubato, cool-breeze interplay between sax, bass and piano, while Mooing Around turns a jump blues tune into refusenik postbop much like the opening track. There’s also Two Guys and a Beer (the band doesn’t say what kind, or how many), a jovial, period-perfect 1950s clave jukebox jazz stroll that Vermeulen takes completely off plan. We need more bands like this.

March 8, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ahmad Jamal Does It Again

In case you hadn’t heard already, Ahmad Jamal has a new album out on Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village imprint, titled Blue Moon. On one level, it raises the question of whether or not to expand on that: what else is there to be said about this guy that hasn’t been said already (“I get all my inspiration from him” – Miles Davis)? Perennially vital, lyrical, third-stream pianist with a prestigious place on Improvisation Avenue between Errol Garner and Cecil Taylor? If you’ve followed jazz anytime over the last half-century, all that’s old news. And there’s a good chance that most of the people who would conceivably want this album already have it. What makes this album different is that it’s essentially a latin jam session, a neat spin on a bunch of old tunes from the movies along with three Jamal originals.

A couple of the tracks here are one-chord jams in the sense that Indian ragas are one-chord jams: Jamal doesn’t need chord changes to animate them, awash in rippling neoromantic cascades, rhythmically devious staccato clusters, bright block chords, hitting the chorus head-on when least expected. The ten-minute title track sets the tone, Jamal’s darkly majestic interludes eventually trading on and off with Reginald Veal’s hypnotic bass riffage until they finally acknowledge that it’s the old doo-wop standard they’ve been messing with. Likewise, their version of Invitation coalesces slow and starlit into drummer Herlin Riley’s slinky clave groove, Jamal alternating big sustained ripples with staccato incisions and then taking it out as quietly and gracefully as he came in. And Gypsy unwinds slowly over a booming bass pedal note, Jamal leading the bass, drums and Manolo Badrena’s marvelously subtle, incisive percussion as he does throughout many of the tracks here, matter-of-factly introducing a bit of a fugue and then setting off some brief fireworks with the drums.

Jamal’s own I Remember Italy begins with a glittering, Asian tinge and comfortably settles into a lyrical, singing mode, pushing the boundaries of the melody further and further out until the steady rhythm section pulls everything together again: it’s a genuinely lovely ballad and the most trad thing on the album. A bolero, Autumn Rain sets Jamal’s apprehensively majestic splashes of color over a funk groove, then leaps away, spiraling over the wash of the cymbals. Their version of Laura pushes the beat with a tense rubato, bass again pacing through the raindrops scattered by Jamal’s leaps, bounds and a wonderfully syncopated, pointillistic upper-register interlude that circles around a simple fifth interval.

The aptly titled, bracingly modal Morning Mist has more Asian inflections, with a biting samba-tinged melody emerging from the torrents, submerging and resurfacing, hard-hitting rhythmic insistence switching on and off with Jamal’s polyrhythmic, rolling attack. The album winds up with the funky This Is the Life, Jamal coloring the attractive, remarkably accessible tune with pools of glittering, majestic sound, and then Woody n’You, a shuffling ballad disguised as tropicalia, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this album, and Jamal in general: straightforward melody with an irrepressibly bright improvisational flair. 81 years young and no less inspiring than he was sixty years ago.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps: In the Right Direction

There are several string quartets whose repertoire focuses on current composers (the Mivos Quartet, JACK Quartet and Chiara String Quartet, to name three especially good ones). There are others who play their own compositions, and even some who improvise, but it’s hard to think of another string quartet who manage to simultaneously carry the weight of being leaders in the world of new music, and have as much fun doing that, as Brooklyn Rider does. Pretty much every musician who makes it to major concert halls has virtuoso chops; what sets this ensemble apart is their irreproachable preference for material with substance and depth. And they are eclectic to the extreme, just as likely to dive into Armenian folk melodies or gypsy music as they are Philip Glass and Kayhan Kalhor (two composers for whom this group has become the go-to quartet). Their latest album Seven Steps is in many ways a distillation of their career, and yet a new starting point. Even if you may not agree with everything they’re doing, there’s no question that they’re shifting their paradigm.

The title track is a collective composition by violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen, with echoes of just about every place this group has been. Kicking off with a minor-key chromatic riff that bounces warily from the cello, there are allusions to Eastern Europe, Iran and hushed IRCAM-era ambience. The group matter-of-factly works its way through this eclectic mini-suite, from suspensefully slow tectonic shifts, to swirls of harmonics from the violins, to terse but lush melodicism, atonal atmospherics that rise to a hypnotically echoey Kalhor-esque crescendo and then a whispery conclusion. The second composition is Christopher Tignor’s Together Into This Unknowable Night. Simultaneously an anthem and a tone poem (which might sound paradoxical, but it’s not), it alludes to the hook from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, swooping energetically against the ambient wash of noise from the composer’s AM radio (utilized to add texture: it never becomes intrusive). Flickering, insistent Philip Glass-like motifs (and a direct quote, maybe?) lead to a long, organlike swell fueled by the majestic gleam of the cello in tandem with the viola; like the opening track, it whispers its way out. Played at low volume, it’s a gentle nocturne, but for the musicians, it’s an inescapable vortex, a fact which makes itself loud and clear if you turn it up. It’s a characteristically vital work in the growing catalog of this ensemble’s memorable commissions.

The final piece here is an eye-opening, idiosyncratic and utterly original interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131. While there is an improvisational feel to some of this, notably the slinky, slippery dynamics in the introductory adagio (which begins more lento, actually), the end result is simply the logical result of the group’s interpretation of this work as the summation of a life. Essentially, what they’ve done here is tie up the loose ends, formatting Beethoven’s short, punchy phrases into a more legato architecture: Mendelssohn might have been tempted to do the same thing with it. The ensemble expands the dynamic range in the faster passages, notably in the second, Allegro Molto Vivace movement, emphasis on the vivace for awhile, but then they revert to an elegant cohesiveness: if there was ever a singleminded interpretation of this work, this is it. And yet by the end, they’re playing it pretty straightforwardly, letting Beethoven’s emphatic, unassailable confidence speak for itself: for all its apprehension, especially in the middle passages, it’s testament to a composer who simply would not be deterred, not by fashion, self-doubt, his own self-destructive tendencies or even the eventual inability to hear what he wrote. In that light, Brooklyn Rider’s approach is less radical than it is emotionally intuitive. It’s one of the most delightfully challenging recordings of the year.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nick Moran Puts a New Spin on Old Grooves

Nick Moran’s second organ trio album, No Time Like Now is “not a Chicken Shack band” record, the jazz/funk guitarist asserts. It’s not that he doesn’t love classic B3 grooves, it’s just that he wants to be freed from the constraints of that idiom, which he makes absolutely clear right from the album’s opening track, a funky reinvention of Cream’s Strange Brew. Drummer Chris Benham pushes it along with a steady, somewhat restrained pulse as organist Brad Whiteley cascades and swirls with a similar terseness before they bring it way down for a relaxed, starry halfspeed guitar interlude. Moran’s bluesy bends, unclutted, clear tone and precise staccato reach back for a Memphis soul feel as much as they do to George Benson. As the album goes on, the group expands their palette to include soul, rock and a whole lot of funk.

The rest of the compositions are Moran originals. My Beautiful is a carefree bossa nova ballad given extra heft by Whiteley’s washes of sustain, and then an alternately smoky and spiraling solo before Moran takes an effortlessly cheery one of his own. The next cut, Intention is a slow, warmly catchy soul groove that wouldn’t be out of place in the early Grover Washington, Jr. songbook (a good soprano saxophonist would have a field day with this melody). Then they pick up the pace with the deep-fried southern funk of Slow Drive, Moran channeling vintage Larry Carlton circa 1976 with his agile pull-offs and coppery vibrato, segueing into the trickily rhythmic Wishful Thinking with its artful dynamic contrasts, subtly plaintive, crescendoing chords and then an off-center, Walter Becker-ish guitar solo.

Not everything here is as easygoing. The title track, a casually hopeful, warmly pulsing, nostalgic ballad, underscores the irony of Moran’s final conversation with a friend who died suddenly afterward. Say Hi to Paris is an aptly wry, funky, vintage Crusaders-style homage to the late New York blues singer and bandleader Frankie Paris, an irrepressible character who played pretty much every dive bar in Manhattan that had music 20 years ago. The Physicist Transformed, a biting, minor-key elegy for a friend who was a scientist by day, bluesman by night, builds from a Balkan-tinged circular riff, through suspensefully crescendoing nocturnal cinematics to a drum solo that stops just thisclose to crushing. And Natalya, inspired by Natalya Estemirova, the Chechen human rights activist murdered in 2009, maintains a stunned, brooding ambience, Moran stately and wistful against Whiteley’s eerie, funereal chords. The album closes with on an upbeat note with Renewal, a steady, purposeful clave tune lit up by Whiteley’s insistent volleys and Moran’s casually propulsive, loping single-note lines. The Nick Moran Trio plays the album release show for this one this coming Friday, March 9 with three sets starting at 7:30 PM at the Bar Next Door.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Herve Duteil Pulls Out All the Stops Uptown

On one hand, musicians are always highfiving each other in public. But when an artist as imaginative and original as Kent Tritle introduces a fellow organist as having those exact same qualities, that endorsement carries a lot of weight. Yesterday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, concert organist Herve Duteil stepped into the console and delivered a program that was as impressively eclectic as it was thrilling. He began with his own arrangement of the opening theme from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Other organists should track this down: it’s every bit the showstopper it should be. Duteil built a suspenseful wash of murky pedal tones before hitting the big explosive riff, which reverberated throughout the cathedral from the dramatic trumpet stops located in the ceiling. And just for fun, he played the timpani’s bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP on the pedals.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to the quality of the musicianship and diversity of the program that Duteil brought along. He gave Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations an aptly saturnine restraint, after which soprano saxophonist Daniel Glaude joined him for a vivid rendition of contemporary composer Paul Halley’s The Lake. As it rose from plaintive, desolate atmospherics to more lively, wavelike imagery, the two paced it expertly to maximize the cathedral’s cavernous echo sonics: it was as if there was a whole saxophone section playing a rondo along with the organ. On Gabriel’s Oboe, by Morricone, oboeist David Diggs joined Duteil for a rapt, hymnlike version of this well-known (and decidedly un-Morricone-esque) theme from the soundtrack to the film The Mission.

Duteil played the rest of the program by himself. Again, he paced sections of the Bach transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) to match the echo in the space, notably the fugue and then the Largo e Spiccato movement, which became more of a matter-of-fact, guardedly optimistic march. He followed with the rapidfire echoes of the Joseph Jongen Toccata, whose barrage of tradeoffs between hands Duteil said in the program notes would acoustically generate a “pat on the back.” This was an understatement: it’s not every day when a rousing, cascading finale like this one can be so reassuring at the same time. Before its concluding chord had echoed into silence, the large crowd – Duteil’s passionate wizardry has earned him a considerable Manhattan following – exploded in applause and wanted more, but it was time for the church to revert to being a house of worship once again. By the way, fans of organ music should know that Tritle himself will be playing one of these Sunday evening recitals on March 18 at 5:15 PM.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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