Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Sympathy for the Devil?

Abdel Hamed Mowhoush fell for a lie, and it cost him his life: being a major general in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein in 2003 didn’t help. According to Human Rights First, Mowhoush’s four sons were taken prisoner by US forces. Assured that he and his children would be released if he turned himself in, Mowhoush did so. But rather than being let go, he was brutally tortured and subsequently murdered by an interrogator, Lewis Welshofer, who was courtmartialed and along with a few of his fellow soldiers, given a slap on the wrist for his role in the events. This killing raises all sorts of questions, from why the murder was committed – or sanctioned – in the first place, to whether or not such acts are ever justifiable. Seattle saxophonist Neil Welch addresses the incident with a chillingly and rather brilliantly orchestrated tone poem of sorts, Sleeper, out now on Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

Welch’s point of view here is clear. “May the darkest, most difficult moments of our lives be met with love instead of hate, compassion instead of rage,” reads the epigram on the album sleeve. As you would expect, this is a somber and intense piece of music, played sensitively but acerbically by Welch along with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos. It begins ambient and elegaic in the manner of a salute delivered by slowly shifting sheets of sound from which harmonies slowly begin to develop, as if in a flashback. Martial allusions bustle and reach anguished peaks, then recede: much of this has echoes of Stravinsky. Fullscale horror is kept under restraint here, to crushingly powerful effect. A menacing harangue, a possible good cop/bad cop interlude and furtively official-sounding scurrying eventually cede to atmospheric horror bleeding with microtones. When a more cohesive martial theme appears, it quickly takes on a cold blitheness. Figures dart around like extras shuffling around the set of an early black-and-white film. Ending on much the same note as it began, it makes a potent follow-up to Welch’s Bad Luck collaboration with drummer Chris Icasiano. That one rated in the top 25 jazz albums of the year here last year: this could easily do as well.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Punks Smash It Up

LA band Jazz Punks’ new album, Smashups is due out early next week: it’s one of the most entertainingly original efforts to come over the transom this year. Their claim to fame is something they may not have invented, but that they take to new extremes: the jazz mashup. Musicians have been spicing up songs with brief quotes and sometimes longer passages from other songs for a long time, but this band makes that device their signature shtick. Perfect example: Clash-Up, the second track. It starts out perfectly straight-up with the intro to Should I Stay or Should I Go, then Robby Elfman’s tenor sax comes in with the riff from Take Five. But they don’t just milk the joke for all it’s worth: they drop the heavy guitar and drums and swing it, take it halfspeed, give guitarist Sal Polcino a blithe solo which signals a detour into minor-key blues territory, and then they bring it back up again with a very good joke. To be fair, the band name is a little misleading: these guys are first and foremost a jazz band, albeit one looking forward to “busting out of the postbop ghetto,” in the words of drummer Hugh Elliott, who does an artful job switching in a split second between swing and four-on-the-floor stomp.

Another sly and very smart reinvention is Creep Train, which sets the riff to Take the A Train over two Radiohead vamps, from Creep and Paranoid Android: the way Elfman’s tongue-in-cheek microtonalities induce laughs and then goosebumps is an unexpected treat. Likewise, Heavyfoot slowly and cleverly morphs from a slow stoner soul take on Wayne Shorter’s Footprints to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy, Mike Polcino’s bass arpeggios setting up the punchline from the guitar and drums. More than any song here, the final track, Led Gillespie, manages to keep A Night in Tunisia and Led Zep’s Misty Mountain Hop together for almost the entirety of the cut, distant heavy metal thunder underpinning Danny Kastner’s swinging piano solo. You wouldn’t expect this to work but somehow the band pulls it off.

Foleo – a hodgepodge of Sonny Rollins’ Oleo and Purple Haze – swings a lot more than it rocks. And not everything here is a jazz/rock hybrid. 12 Steps to Hell – now there’s a title to raise a glass to!!! – gently but cruelly savages 7 Steps to Heaven. There are also serious compositions here. Mind Over Matter, by Kastner, takes a familiar Miles Davis riff, adds a little salsa, a lot of rhythmic shifts and a solo from Elfman that almost imperceptibly builds to a biting, vividly agitated crescendo. Little Chickens, a soulful shuffle by the Polcinos, juxtaposes a raw, funky guitar solo with a jape from Kastner which might be the single most amusing moment out of many here. The least successful track is Bo-So, which mingles Body and Soul with Coltraine’s Naima – with its constant rhythmic tug-of-war, it’s perfectly enjoyable, but the comedy factor doesn’t rate since Body and Soul has been mangled and butchered and had other things done to it so many times before.

There’s an element of jazz fans who are going to hate this album: “You guys swing, just drop the dumb rock stuff!” There are also rock fans who will hate it just as much: “Just play the song, don’t ruin it with all that weird jazz stuff!” But put this on at a party: heads will turn. And every musician in the room will secretly be thinking, “This is great, why didn’t I come up with that idea?”

May 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fun Stuff from Steve Horowitz’s New Monsters

Funny jazz – there just isn’t enough of it. Happily, there’s bass guitarist Steve Horowitz’s recent New Monsters album, which follows an often comedic trajectory into the future of where melodic jazz is going. It seems to be Posi-Tone’s entry in the youngish eclectic kitchen-sink combo sweepstakes, and it is a winner. Hijinks aside, it’s an elegant blend of purist postbop, irreverently wry Microscopic Septet-ish narratives and funky Ethiopian-tinged excursions that would be at home in the Either/Orchestra catalog. While the album is credited to Horowitz, the composer here is tenor saxophonist Dan Plonsey, a brilliantly eclectic, witty and consistently surprising talent, playing alongside Steve Adams on alto and soprano saxes and also flute, with Scott Looney on piano and Jim Bove on drums.

The humor here runs the gamut, from subtle – the opening track, Imperfect Life, a casually insistent study in jauntily biting un-resolutions – to vaudevillian, culminating in the closing cut, Cylinder, a swinging Looney Tunes march punctuated by the most amusing drum break in recent memory. Not everything here is comedic, either. For example, there’s Mirror Earth, a swinging Micros-in-Ethiopia groove bookending a glittery free interlude for piano and alto sax. There’s also Journey to the East, a distantly south Asian-inflected, echoey, swirling microtonal overture that sets up a jauntily delicious romp through Coltrane and Dolphy’s India/The Red Planet with vividly biting, jagged saxes and spot-on modal piano. The title track artfully switches its galloping Ethiopiques bounce from bass to piano, after an unexpected swing interlude capped off by swirling tenor sax over machinegunning drums. And Miracle Melancholy juxtaposes bittersweet Dave Valentin-inflected flute against wary Ethiopian modalities, with a twinkly, minimalist piano interlude that rises as an unexpected joke.

The rest of the record is a lot of fun. There are a couple of sly strolling numbers: Vision Pyramid Collapse, with prepared piano mimicking a violin’s pizzicato, and the faux New Orleans march Dragon of Roses, featuring satirically conspiratorial, increasingly off-center twin saxes. There’s also New Boots for Bigfoot, a reggae tune with scurrying, Monty Alexander-style piano and what seems to be an interminable bass solo that turns out to have multiple levels of meaning – intentionally or not, it works. And Herald of Zombies marches up to where Plonsey and Looney threaten to raid the horror film cliche cupboard. This Bay Area crew sounds like they’d be a ton of fun live.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Magnum Opus from Finland

Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto have a majestic, magisterial album, Conversations, recently out on the perennially adventurous Tum Records label. It’s a dark, classically-tinged mix of nocturnes, a soundtrack from the travelers’ lounge in Purgatory. The lavish double-disc set is best enjoyed as a cohesive whole. There isn’t an overwhelming amount of interplay here, actually: it’s less conversational than casually and intricately interwoven, the two players likely to juxtapose their lines, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes with piano as accompaniment to sax and vice versa. The compositions are all originals save for a surprisingly and vividly wistful take on You and the Night and the Music, more of a requiem for what might have been than joyous anticipation; they also deftly work up some unexpectedly anguished ambience in a version of Alone Together. Sarmanto favors resonant block chords and glimmering cascades; Aaltonen plays with the insistent, occasionally bursting Dexter Gordon-esque attack that’s been popular with many Finnish reed players over the years. Rhythm here tends to matter-of-fact and usually on the glacial side when it’s not completely rubato. Both Aaltonen and Sarmanto have a tendency to veer off course bracingly from warm consonance to icy atonalities, a trait they use judiciously and powerfully.

It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that the ultimate game plan here is pitch-and-follow on a series of modes, although that device is frequently employed with potently memorable results. September Song allusions, spiraling parallelisms, warmly consonant glimmer versus unease, a saturnine, elegaic ballad and a very long, moodily exploratory introduction of sorts complete the first disc along with the first of the aforementioned covers. It ends as Sarmanto hands off the melody to Aaltonen, whose understatedly plaintive lines carry a quietly explosive power. The second disc contains mostly Sarmanto compositions. More spacious and somewhat more eclectic, with quick bursts of latin, high Romantic or pop inflections, it works moody modes with subtlety and grace and thematic variations, ending with a series of cinematic, overlapping segments with lead melodies deftly handed back and forth between instruments. For those whose taste in jazz, or in music in general, leans toward the melancholy side, this is a must-own, one of the most richly satisfying releases in recent months and a stealth contender for best of 2012.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment