Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Watch the Walls Instead – Get the Picture Yet?

Ghosts may come and go, but haunting music is the antithesis of evanescent: it lingers. As does bassist Giacomo Merega’s new album Watch the Walls Instead. It’s a suite, an overture and a coda played with a generally quiet but riveting intensity by two generations of improvisers. Merega gets credit as bandleader for the second time on album, alongside his bandmate, saxophonist Noah Kaplan – from equally eerie art-song warpers Dollshot – plus Italian veterans Marco Cappelli on guitar and Mauro Pagani on violin, and the perennially vital, transformative Anthony Coleman on piano. It opens with a five-part piece for quartet, minus the violin, then five shorter pieces for trios, concluding with the full quintet.

The titles of the quartet pieces refer to colors, although aside from the literally ghostly, spacious Absence of Color, they’re shades of grey, dark against light and every other possible permutation. The group’s singlemindness in maintaining that mood is striking to the extreme, to the point of minimalism. Each piece segues into the next, musicians remaining in their assigned roles. Merega plays electric bass, either muted and murky, or supplying low drones that hover below Coleman’s icy atonalities, moodily terse accents and macabre chordlets. Cappelli supplies pensive single-note lines and often handles the forward motion while Merega’s down in an atmospheric swamp; Kaplan, a master of microtonalities, gets the coveted role of raising the ambience from apprehension to fullblown terror. Whispery, abbreviated conversations between voices, a wary tone poem with Cappelli’s eerie guitar pushing Coleman’s waterdrop piano to new levels of menace lead through a practically silent interlude to an elegaic passage where Kaplan finally gets to introduce an element of pure terror, straining microtonally against the center as Coleman provides bell-like tones.

They segue into the trio section seamlessly, Kaplan and Cappelli working toward a deathly, echoing space-rock scene, following with variations on brooding, simple riffs which turn out to be the suite’s most vividly melodic motifs: they’re reaching for clarity amidst the fog and far from optimistic that they’ll achieve it. The suite ends with Things We Used to Know, a coldly noirish conversation – or argument – between Kaplan and Cappelli.

After the trio finally comes to a full stop, Pagani leads the quintet up with an energetic, biting series of eight-note runs, the rest of the ensemble establising a mood of longing and tension, Kaplan and Pagani circling each other and then joining the rest of the group as they pull hard against an invisible but inescapable center that won’t let them escape. That’s the overture: the coda has Kaplan out in the cold mist playing a mournful, allusively bluesy tune against a muffled parade of voices. Ostensibly this has a sci-fi angle (the cd package has a tongue-in-cheek short story, to be continued with some future project), but it just as easily can be interpreted as a reflection on our own difficult and often menacing times. It’s best enjoyed as a whole: you can get absolutely lost in this. While this isn’t catchy music by a long shot, it’s inescapably gripping, simply one of this year’s best jazz albums. It’s a must-own for fans of free jazz, and for anyone who plays improvised music, it’s packed with inspiration.

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

Ralph Bowen Flips the Script

If you were looking for a sequel to saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s 2011 release, Power Play, you won’t get it, at least not this time around. This blog called that one “hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief” and ranked it as one of last year’s five best jazz albums. Bowen’s new album Total Eclipse is quite a change. Although Jared Gold’s B3 anchors the tunes here, it’s hardly your typical organ-and-sax record. It’s as if Bowen decided to totally flip the script and do pensive and opaque instead of rigorously melodic. This one’s also a lot more rhythmically complex, but if you hang with it, it grows on you, with thoughtful and impactful playing from the rest of the band as well, Mike Moreno on guitar and the nonpareil Rudy Royston (of JD Allen’s trio) on drums. Bowen is playing a pair of cd release shows at Smalls this weekend, June 8 and 9 at 10 PM with a slightly different lineup, Gold on organ plus Freddie Bryant on guitar and Donald Edwards behind the kit.

All this is not to say that there isn’t memorable tunesmithing here. The closing cut, a soul ballad titled In My Dreams, begins with a nebulous, suspenseful sway and then artfully juxtaposes mysterioso ambience with Bowen’s warm, bucolic lead lines. A lickety-split showcase for Royston’s precise machine-gun attack, the funky Hip Check works clever rhythmic permutations on staggered sax clusters. Continuing in reverse order, the ten-minute epic Exosphere is the most ambitious and memorable track here. Beginning as a somewhat altered, anthemic soul tune held down by a signature Royston rumble, they go into tiptoe swing for a bit, Bowen adding some unexpectedly tasty microtones and chromatics, then bring it down ominous and suspenseful for a long, chordally-charged organ solo that Royston eventually can’t resist bringing out of the murk.

Arrows of Light alternates tricky funk with purposeful swing, Bowen setting an apprehensive tone early on that Moreno and Gold bring even higher in turn with a chromatic intensity. On Green (as in “go on green”), which precedes it, works a casual-versus-tense dichotomy, a pervasive sense of the unexpected finally resolving into a sense of triumph on the wings of Gold’s insistent, unpredictably stabbing chords. They set that one up with The Dowsing Rod, a similar tension (Bowen calm and bucolic, Gold on edge) resolving picturesquely when they suddenly hit the water table. There’s also the swaying, offbeat Into the City, sort of a polyrhythmic take on a go-go theme with some smartly intricate beatwise interplay between Bowen and Gold; Behind the Curtain, with pensive syncopation, Gold artfully shadowing a casually piercing Moreno solo (his fat, slightly reverb-tinged tone here always raises the intensity factor); and the opening, title track, brightly swinging but avoiding any type of resolution. Why explain these tracks in reverse? Because the album makes more sense that way: start with the catchy stuff and work your way back to the more abstruse numbers and everything makes more sense. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.

June 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Intriguing New Melodic Sounds from Ro Sham Beaux

Boston quartet Ro Sham Beaux has an interesting, individual sound and a new, self-titled album out, Zac Shaiman’s bittersweet alto sax lines sailing over high, ringing, echoing electric piano (it sounds like keyboardist Luke Marantz is playing a Nord Electro) and a hard-hitting rhythm section of Oliver Watkinson on bass and Jacob Cole on drums. Cole’s funky swing and crushing volleys add a welcome energetic undercurrent beneath the pensive, often bucolic melodies. Much of this reminds of the Americana-flavored jazz of saxophonist Jeremy Udden, but louder and with a funkier edge. And it’s catchy as hell – these guys are hookmeisters.

The opening cut, Bearblade sets the scene, optimistic sax over steady distorted electric piano, its gentle pastoral melody elevated by the drums. Slave to the Cube begins more airily but ends up hitting harder, while the possibly satirical keut str8 boiz begins as a series of impossibly A.D.D. phrases anchored first by the drums and the bass and then unexpectedly coalesces to a surprise theme. A characteristically crystalline Shaiman alto intro kicks off Town, a briskly wistful jazz waltz, Watkinson maintaining the uneasy mood with his solo. Soul Crusher bookends a resolutely unresolving, funky tune with big anthemic swells, while the album’s strongest track, Tejas Drive builds from an apprehensive minor groove to a high-anxiety crescendo and a hypnotically reverberating Marantz solo.

The wary/warm dichotomy returns with Meatballs Are the Way to a Woman’s Heart (?!?), Watkinson’s steady, punchy solo contrasting with Marantz’s nebulosity. They take Bjork’s Joga from dreamland to funky stadium rock, then sandwich the poignancy of Dreamulator with a clever glockenspiel melody and variations. The most epic track here is High Society, driven by Cole’s relentless, pummeling heavyweight attack, with a surprisingly plaintive sax interlude that gives way to an artfully insistent piano/drum passage that loosens as Shaiman returns to lighten the atmosphere. The album ends with the rather dark Anthem, which barely qualifies as one: it’s the most “free” moment here, hypnotically and atmospherically making its way out of the upper registers as it finally comes together on a surprisingly tongue-in-cheek note. There’s a lot of depth and good ideas here: they’re a group to keep your eye on. By the way, in case you’re wondering what the band name might imply, “rochambeaux” is French for the game rock-paper-scissors.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Believe the Hype: the New Live Bill Evans Trio Album Is the Real Deal

Here’s Gary Burton on Bill Evans: Live at the Top of the Gate, due out June 10 from Resonance – “When I first learned of the existence of a never-released Bill Evans recording, a double-cd set no less, I admit I had mixed emotions. Bill was one of the most influential musicians of all time and a new recording would be major news to all serious jazz fans. On the other hand, so often in these cases when tracks surface decades later, it turns out to be something taped on a home recorder from the back of a club and the quality of both playing and recording is inferior.” You might as well know that the punchline is that Burton was blown away by this album, and he’s right, serious jazz fans will want to get their hands on this.

How to describe Evans to someone who’s not familiar with his music? His playing has a luminous, singing quality. As a player of ballads, he has few equals. His chops were wickedly precise, but he didn’t take gratuitous solos, preferring to inhabit the songs with a nitty-gritty, clustering, chordal approach that invited the bass to participate, and so many bassists did. The emotional resonance of his music gives away his fondness for Ravel and Debussy. There’s so much implied melody in his playing that half the time what you’re hearing doesn’t actually exist – and nobody played hipper chord substitutions. If you want to learn to play jazz piano, there’s no better place to start than with Bill Evans.

So why didn’t this album see the light of day until now? Maybe because nobody knew it existed other than the guy who made it. Resonance’s George Klabin recorded two sets of Evans with his trio – a young, hungry Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morell on drums – at the restaurant above the Village Gate on October 23, 1968 for Brooklyn radio station WKCR. And then it sat in an archive for four decades. But unlike the bootlegs that Burton alludes to, this is a professional recording. It’s not pristine – the piano is noticeably if not painfully out of tune, and occasional crowd noise pops up here and there. But it beats anything you can make with your phone – and most everybody who grew up in the mp3 age won’t be able to tell the difference, or care. As far as the quality of the playing is concerned, this could just as easily be called Bill Evans Live at the Top of His Game.

It gets off to false start with the first of two versions of Emily. On this one, the phrase “Em-I-Lee, Em-I-Lee” becomes incessant and cloying: the song hasn’t aged well, and the album wouldn’t be compromised without it. Although by the time the considerably more adventurous second set comes around, Evans gives it a far more spacious, laid-back interpretation, Gomez taking over with one of several vigorously tuneful solos. By the time Evans has made his way through tightly unwinding, gleaming takes on Witchcraft and Yesterday, he’s found a groove and launches into a marvelously low-key, purist version of Round Midnight, then takes My Funny Valentine so far from its origins that when he finally hits the vocal hook, it sounds he’s quoting from another song. The set ends with a a slow, richly bittersweet, suspenseful take on Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, and then the lone Evans original here (awwwww!), Turn Out the Stars, steady and quietly triumphant.

The second set is looser, and more playful: Evans quite likely was high by now, and he lets Gomez take centerstage on a second version of Yesterdays and a bit later bounces energetically into In a Sentimental Mood, engaging the bass as sparring partner as was his trademark. Meanwhile, Morell, whose deftly terse, swinging brushwork is key to everything that’s good about the first set, moves deeper into the backseat. The intricate interplay between Evans and Gomez picks up with a second, more brisk Round Midnight, a propulsive Autumn Leaves and then Someday My Prince Will Come, Gomez wailing on his chords for a deliciously strange, banjolike tone. The highlight of the night is Earl Zindars’ gorgeously bluesy Mother of Earl, which comes across here as something like Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot as Scott Joplin might have written it – and might be the first trio recording of the song that Evans ever made. The band winds up the night with a literally wee-hours Here’s That Rainy Day. As emotionally impactful, cerebral piano jazz goes, it doesn’t get much better than this.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment