Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

More Happy Crab Than Sluggish Snail: William Brittelle’s Joyous Homage to the Chambered Nautilus

The chambered nautilus is a snail-like marine creature native to the Pacific, prized for centuries for its intricate, spiral shell. With their debut recording, a collection of new William Brittelle compositions out recently from New Amsterdam, ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble) pays homage to this strange creature. The whole album, Loving the Chambered Nautilus, is streaming at Brittelle’s Bandcamp page (something that more composers should be doing!). Brittelle considers the nautilus to be part organic and part inorganic, and therefore a metaphor for the electroacoustic nature of these works – although that could be said about just about any creature with a shell. Come to think of it, this could just as easily be called Loving the Hermit Crab. Like the crab as it lurches across the sand, the music here has the same kind of jaunty, carefree pulse, albeit a vastly more elegant and precise one. Do Brittelle’s arrangements reflect an obvious organic/inorganic dichotomy? Not so much. The machine-made timbres here tend to be wry, playful and tongue-in-cheek: they ping, oscillate and swoosh, mingling with the more nuanced, emotionally resonant tones of Caleb Burhans’ violin and banjo, Nadia Sirota’s viola, Clarice Jensen’s cello, Eric Lamb’s flute and Megan Levin’s harp. And the playing is lively and animated, about as far from mechanical as you can get, enhanced by the use of electronic effects on the harp and violin and possibly other instruments. Some of the arrangements are so intricate that the consideration of who’s playing what takes a backseat to the overall effect of the work.

Which is more or less a party. The instruments swoop and dive, frequently in unison, when they’re not interchanging voices, sometimes tense and staccato, sometimes more casually and fluidly, with the feel of a round. Sometimes, especially when the synth is going full tilt, this reaches toward a sardonic Rick Wakeman-esque bombast. More frequently, it recalls Jean-Luc Ponty’s early 80s work, Jensen putting a considerably more soulful spin on Ralphe Armstrong’s busy basslines. The first work is Brittelle’s Future Shock (For String Quartet), in three parts. An irrepressibly joyous, dancing, cinematic piece of music, it intertwines a kaleidoscope of synth textures with the ensemble. They move from rhythmic and balletesque to a flurrying intro to the second movement that sounds like it was nicked from ELO’s Last Train to London (a defining piece of electroacoustic music if there ever was one). Sweeping ambience trades off with staccato flurries, big snowbanks of low lushness spiced with glimmering harp, stark cello, frenetic high string cadenzas and shimmering, sustained upper-register lines.

The ensemble follows that with the swirling midrange ambience of Acid Rain on the Mirrordome, a miniature tone poem, and then Future Shock (For Cello), a spirited, jauntily pulsing song without words that swoops up to a crescendo as the chorus kicks in, Jensen’s biting intensity paired off against woozy Dr. Dre-style portamento synth and similarly sardonic voicings. The darkest and most emotionally vivid piece here is Loons Lay in Crystal Mesh, both direct-miked and electronically processed individual voices exchanging pensive motifs over slowly shifting, sustained long-tone sheets. Unfortunately, the title track is just a mess: reaching for a more ornate take on a plinky Tears for Fears 80s-pop vibe, it doesn’t have the hooks to be a good pop song or the depth to be anything else. Poor nautilus: he deserves something as good as the irrepressibly entertaining material that comprises the rest of this album.

August 15, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez Is the Real Deal

A lot of people, this blog along with them, slept on Cuban-American pianist Alfredo Rodriguez’ debut album Sounds of Space when it first came out on Mack Avenue this past spring and that was a mistake. Quincy Jones produced, and has gone to bat for Rodriguez, whose dark, intense third-stream compositions and eclectic playing are auspicious to the point of putting him at the front of the pack for rookie of the year, 2012. Rodriguez’ training is classical; unsurprisingly, he’s just as adept at salsa jazz, but ultimately it’s his compositions that impress the most here.

The album’s most amazing number, Fog, is the only one of its kind here, a towering cinematic noir theme that could be a lost track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, featuring wind ensemble the Santa Cecilia Quartet. With brooding piano and terse bass puncturing the ominous mist of close harmonies, sudden horror cadenzas punctuating its creepy, nocturnal glimmer, it has a visceral power equalled by few other compositions released this year. Let’s hope that Rodriguez has more of these up his sleeve.

That’s the album’s final cut – getting there is an enjoyable and frequently bracing ride. The album opens on a disarmingly playful Carib jazz note lit up by Rodriguez’ balmy melodica phrasing and whispery piano over the suspenseful pulse of bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, who eventually return to join Rodriguez on the tuneful Oxygen, a vividly Cuban take on late 50s Brubeck, and as it goes on, ragtime. Bassist Gaston Joya and drummer/percussionist Michael Olivera supply the grooves the rest of the way, along with multi-reedman Ernesto Vega, whose soprano sax adds nostalgic lyricism to the second track, Sueno de Paseo. The strangely titled Silence is cinematic to the max, with furtively scurrying piano/bass crescendos leading up to an unexpectedly buoyant soprano sax interlude, Rodriguez veering from dark to light, eventually mingling salsa and gospel tinges into the rhythmic intensity. The genial, tinkling salsa jazz tune Cubop is more Cuban than bop, while the Schumann-esque April sets a chillingly rippling neoromantic mood: for Rodriguez, it’s still winter.

With its distant, uneasy modalities, spaciousness and tricky 9/4 tempo, the title track evokes Christian McBride’s recent work. Crossing the Border is another cinematic narrative, incorporating elements of boogie-woogie as well as salsa and the neoromantic. A Ernesto Lecuona homage has a lilting, Brubeck-ish pulse, juxtaposing biting atonalities with warmer, dancing spirals. The arc of the album reaches higher with the dynamically rich Transculturation, bristling with a succession of suspense motifs, off-center chromatics and biting Middle Eastern clarinet over a brisk clave beat. And then the fog rolls in. If you caught up with this before we did, good for you: if not, don’t miss the boat a second time around.

August 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

B3 Overkill? NEVER!

Isn’t it funny how the world’s full of bad guitarists…bad sax players…bad drummers…but when you think about it, how many bad B3 players are there? For one reason or another, that’s one instrument that seems to draw an endless supply of passionate players. One of the most energetic of all of them is longtime Pat Martino collaborator Tony Monaco, who has a massive double cd release, Celebration, a “limited edition” out from Summit. What Monaco writes and plays is a sophisticated update on boisterous afterwork 60s organ-lounge jazz, more Bombay martini than gin and water. Monaco’s typical m.o. – which he actually varies from frequently here – is to open with a blistering, machinegun solo followed by tuneful restatements of the melody. For someone as fast and furious as this guy, it’s impressive how he doesn’t waste notes. Just as impressive is his command of an eclectic mix of styles.

The first cd is mainly trio or quartet numbers featuring Ken Fowser on tenor sax, Jason Brown or Reggie Jackson on drums and Derek DiCenzo on guitar. With its jaunty, Bud Powell-esque hooks, the most memorable track here is Fowser’s Ninety Five, a cut that originally appeared on the saxophonist’s brilliant 2010 collaboration with vibraphonist Behn Gillece; Monaco takes it in more of a vintage soul direction. Throughout these songs, Fowser’s misty, airy lines create a nifty balance with Monaco’s irrepressible intensity, whether on the Lonnie Smith-flavored Daddy Oh, the lickety-split shuffle Aglio e Olio, or the lurid, minor-key boudoir jazz of Indonesian Nights, which nails the kind of vibe Grover Washington Jr. was trying to do in the 80s but didn’t have the right arrangements for.

The endless parade of styles continues with a pretty bossa tune turned in a much darker direction with Monaco’s funereal timbres beneath Fowser’s bracing microtones, followed by what could be termed a B3 tone poem. Guest pianist Asako Itoh’s You Rock My World takes a familiar soul/funk groove and adds a terse, biting edge; there’s also a gospel number complete with church choir; the off-center, bustling Bull Years, which eventually smoothes out into a soul/blues shuffle; the carefree, wry It’s Been So Nice To Be With You and a scampering Jimmy Smith homage.

The second disc is just as eclectic and features a rotating cast of characters including guitarists Bruce Forman, Ted Quinlan and Robert Kraut, drummers Byron Landham, Vito Rezza, Louis Tsamous and Adam Nussbaum, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Sarah Morrow and trumpeter Kenny Rampton. There’s even a Joey Defrancesco cameo (liner notes indicating who’s where would have been useful, at least in terms of giving credit where due). In general, this material is more funk-infused, with soulful, judiciously bluesy guitar (that Monaco could get such consistency out of so many players is impressive). Monaco’s rapidfire cascades and tidal chords set the tone on the opening number, Acid Wash; Rampton’s animated lines elevate the shuffling Backward Shack, the guitar throwing off some unexpected Chet Atkins lines. There are a couple of extended numbers here, both of them choice: the practically ten-minute, aptly titled Takin’ My Time, with its long launching pad of an organ crescendo, and the even longer Slow Down Sagg, where Monaco finally goes off into wild noise as it reaches critical mass. There’s also Booker T. Jones style soul, a couple of blues numbers, a jump blues and a couple of gospel tunes, all delivered with passion and virtuosity. Any fan of organ jazz who doesn’t know this guy is missing out: count this among the most enjoyable jazz releases of 2012, all 133 minutes of it.

August 15, 2012 Posted by | funk music, gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethel’s Latest Album Is Worth the Wait

Extrovert violinist Todd Reynolds may have left adventurous string quartet Ethel to pursue his solo career, but the group continues on with Mary Rowell filling his place. And the group’s long-awaited new album, Heavy – out from Innova in a charmingly vintage, oversize package – proves to be worth that wait. The title is a little misleading: the moods evoked here run the gamut from raw, unleashed menace to playful and fun. The centerpiece is an early Julia Wolfe composition, Early That Summer. It’s classic Wolfe: driven by a cruelly emphatic, incessant staccato rhythm that the ensemble never wavers from, it begins with creepy, tritone-fueled exchanges of machinegun fire between the ensemble with intricate dynamic shifts. Cellist Dorothy Lawson is the star of this one early on over the suspenseful ambience of the higher strings, Rowell plus violist Ralph Farris and violinist Neil Duffalo. Disjointed Giant Steps phrases bring on more relentless staccato and increasingly unsettling microtones, growing more stately and then fading. Like so much of Wolfe’s work, it takes your breath away – it might be the most viscerally intense piece of music released this year in any style of music.

John Halle’s Sphere [‘]s developes a summery plantation soul ambience, its rustic charm underpinning subtly alternating voices with bluesy allusions, trainwhistle slides, and variations that crescendo with an elegant spiritual feel. John King’s pensively bucolic No Nickel Blues moves from quavery off-pitch ambience to slow, soulful, judicious variations, steady over a tricky tempo. Another standout track, Raz Mesinai’s La Citadelle takes a swooping, diving gypsy dance and expands on it, alternately minimalist and cinematic – this particular citadel is as active as a busy airport, and fraught with chromatically-charged tension. By contrast, David Lang’s pensive, rather horizontal Wed works subtle variations on simple, memorable sostenuto motifs.

Kenji Bunch joins the ensemble for a lively take on his String Circle, blending Celtic and bluegrass motifs into its shapeshifting architecture colored by subtle microtonal shades and an intricate divergence of voices. As it builds, it becomes more classical than bluegrass, developing a warmly balmy, cantabile pulse. The album’s final track, Marcelo Zarvos’ Rounds ends the album on a resonantly cantabile note, a pretty, Britfolk-inflected song without words exchanging hypnotic, circular pizzicato passages with a swelling, cantabile pulse. There’s also a string quartet by Don Byron that opens the album and which you will probably want to leave off your phone, or your machine, whatever that may be, when you upload this. Otherwise, this is a rich and rewarding mix that ought to appeal to rock fans as well as those with a taste for more challenging sonics.

August 14, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deliciously Cool Reinterpretations from Mark Sherman

Vibraphonist Mark Sherman’s latest album The LA Sessions – out now on the Miles High label -has a visceral West Coast cool to it, occasionally to the point of being Twin Peaks music. Which is especially interesting considering that Sherman is a real powerhouse: his 2010 DVD recorded at the old Sweet Rhythm in Manhattan presents him in showstopper hard-bop mode. Tempos here are upbeat for the most part, but with playing that’s restrained and tightly focused, Sherman blending timbres with Bill Cunliffe’s B3 organ for a lusciously chilly sound and a seamless chemistry with veteran guitarist John Chiodini and drummer Charles Ruggiero. Sherman’s style here has a rippling, straightforward insistence, Cunliffe alternating between sostenuto scamper, lush washes of chords and frequent hard-bop runs over tirelessly swinging pedal lines. As is usually the case on a session like this, Ruggiero doesn’t get many opportunities to be ostentatious, but makes the most of them, whether signaling an unexpected shift or, in the case of the slinky opening track – an icily intriguing take of Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody ‘n You – trading artful and counterintuitive bars with each of his bandmates in turn.

Other than Sherman’s Far Away, an unexpectedly dreamy lullaby, the album puts an original spin on a collection of standards. Counting the bonus tracks, there are actually a couple of takes of Woody ‘n You, along with Bud Powell’s Celia – each of those done with a remarkably terse bounce, muting the creepy edges of the original – and Charlie Parker’s Quasimodo, in both instances swinging with a coy suspense. Even when Cunliffe cuts loose with a lickety-split, spiraling attack, there’s no crescendo per se other than the sheer velocity of the notes.

It Could Happen to You works its way out of a maze of syncopation to a brisk swing and a tersely memorable series of handoffs from guitar, to organ, to vibes. The version of Benny Golson’s Whisper Not ventures into noir territory, Chiodini’s casually bluesy solo providing contrasting brightness. From there they transform Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice into chicken shack bop. The longest cut here, Milt Jackson’s Bag’s Groove morphs matter-of-factly from pensive soul to a swinging, gospel-tinged blues before going back to its shadowy beginnings: in its own air-conditioned way, it more than does justice to the more raw but equally brooding original. And Miles Davis’ Serpent’s Tooth has Chiodini’s biting chordal attack setting up yet another direct yet expansive Sherman solo. All this sets a mood and pretty much doesn’t waver. Can we get another couple martinis over here? It’s still happy hour, isn’t it?

August 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rich Halley 4 Mess With Each Other…And With Your Ears

The Rich Halley 4’s previous album Requiem for a Pit Viper, from last year, hit hard with a frequently noir postbop vibe. Their new one, Back from Beyond, is considerably different. It might be even more improvisational, the tempos are considerably slower and the playing is more expansive. And it’s imbued with great wit. On one level, the operative question is if the listener’s going to have as much fun as the players – Halley on tenor sax and flute, his son Carson on drums, sparring partner Michael Vlatkovich on trombone and redoubtable bassist Clyde Reed holding it all together – obviously had making it. This is more of an album of ideas than melodies: with the exception of a couple of tracks, the quartet alludes to them much more often than they hit anything head-on for more than a few bars at a clip.

There are a handful of recurrent themes here, most notably an insistent pedal note interlude that makes for levity but also anchors the album’s most memorable number, Basalt. Bookended by terse minor-key funk, it’s a long modal piece featuring Halley’s most intense solo here, some tongue-in-cheek conversing with Vlatkovich, and a showcase for Reed’s ability to keep the suspense going as long as he can via hypnotically resonant chords that he veers away from just enough to ramp it up even further. That’s as dark as it gets on this album.

The opening track, Spuds, takes awhile to come together out of syncopated bop swing, Vlatkovich setting up a punchline with a phony fanfare introduction that becomes a recurrent jape for the horn players as the rhythm section rumbles and then the drums get in on the fun as well. Track two, Section Three morphs slowly from clave, to a hint of a jazz waltz, to reggae and then funk, packed with wry conversational jousting and and attempt by Vlatkovich to push the sax off the page just as Halley had done to him one track earlier. Reorbiting, a Sun Ra dedication, kicks off with a coy bass/trombone conversation, the sax hinting, as the rhythm coalesces, at Marshall Allen ozone-seeking blippiness but never going there. The longest cut, Solarium interweaves trombone and sax, sometimes shadowing each other, sometimes agitated, with more insistent, tongue-in-cheek pedalpoint. The freest and loosest, and maybe the funniest piece here is Continental Drift, which takes that idea to its most comedic level.

Or maybe the most entertaining composition here could be Broken Ground, Vlatkovich’s sirening trombone a centerpiece amidst deadpan alternate voicings, an almost too-casual-to-be-true Rich Halley solo and finally an interlude where trombone, bass and drum all line up on the head on the same pin. Track eight, The Mountain’s Edge is a jape kicked off by a flute call eventually answered by elephantine drums – cavemen in the Alps, or the Sierra Nevadas? The album ends with what appears to be an almost totally straight-up arrangement of the Burning Spear roots reggae classic Man in the Hills. Whether it falls apart, as it subtly threatens to do, is an ending that deserves not to be spoiled. Cerebral? Without a doubt. Funny? Absolutely. Who is the audience for this? Besides those who play this kind of music, anyone who perceives jazz as being just plain fun. Because that’s what this is.

August 10, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Sunny, Enjoyable Ernest Ranglin Album

Bassist Yossi Fine asserts that Ernest Ranglin is the world’s greatest living guitarist. And why not? Ranglin might not have singlehandedly invented reggae, but he was there in the studio the day that Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb came up with the one-drop. And he most certainly invented reggae jazz. Since then, Jamaica’s preeminent guitarist has made a career out of many other first-ever moments (including Bob Marley’s first studio session). One function of always seeming to pop up at the right place is that Ranglin is always on the road, the consummate live musician. As a result, much of his solo catalog has been recorded on the fly (and sounds that way, for better or for worse), as is the case with his new album Avila, recorded to dovetail with a one-off California reggae festival gig. It’s a throwback to Ranglin’s late 70s instrumental sessions as bandleader: backing the guitarist, and pretty much staying chill and out of the way, are Fine, plus the Mickey Hart Band’s Ian Inx Herman on drums, Jonathan Korty on piano and keyboards plus trumpeter Ryan Scott and saxophonist Alex Baky of the Monophonics.

It’s hard to believe that Ranglin will turn eighty this year, considering how fast and precise his fingers are on the fretboard after all these years. This is a particularly joyous session, a mix of originals plus inspired takes of compositions brought in by individual band members. Bookending those songs are a pulsing versions of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Manenberg and Return to Manenberg, full of good-natured call-and-response between Korty’s piano and Ranglin’s playful, bouncy pointillisms. Ranglin’s rhythmically tricky Memories of Senegal works a circular West African riff on the bass, the guitar’s modal waves strikingly evocative of Jerry Garcia at the top of his game during the 80s. Ernossi, a reggae jazz homage by Fine, gradually grows from an easygoing, funky organ-fueled sway as Ranglin adds an insistent staccato bite alternating with gently ascending runs. Ranglin’s own Ska Rango also follows a carefree arc up, down and back again, from ringing, sustained chords to a casually swing lit up with the occasional slithery filigree, quicksilver descending run, or the fluttering, rapidfire flourishes that have come to define Ranglin’s work as a jazz musician.

The unexpectedly wary Uncle Funky, by Korty contrasts pensive Wes Montgomeryisms, voodoo staccato and watery Leslie speaker tonalities over an echoey Rhodes piano groove. The other Ranglin composition here, Swaziland, kicks off with an insistent minor-key horn chorus that the guitarist follows with a characteristically expansive, thoughful solo, big bright chords mingling with biting single-note phrases. The album’s title track, by producer Tony Mindel brings back the mellowness, Ranglin once again reaching into his bottomless bag of island jazz riffs, warmly and judiciously. This isn’t heavy, intense music by a long shot: it’s a good-time collection of smart grooves and terse playing, a perfect soundtrack for the end of summer. It’s a worthwhile addition alongside the literally hundreds of good albums that Ranglin has played on.

August 9, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, ska music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Imani Winds Festival: Cutting-Edge Young Composers and Players

The Imani Winds are on a mission to create a repertoire for wind ensembles that rivals what string quartets have to choose from. It’s a daunting task, but the way they’re going about it is very savvy. They’re not only commissioning works by established composers, but starting on the ground floor with up-and-coming talent who in many cases may still be in conservatory. If the idea of witnessing a performance of student works doesn’t exactly set you on fire, then you obviously missed Sunday’s concert at Mannes College of Music, one of the highlights of this year’s Imani Winds Festival, cleverly designed to entice the next generation of topnotch composers to join the crusade.

The big drawing card on the bill was Mohammed Fairouz. Still in his twenties, Fairouz is one of this era’s enfants terribles, an astonishingly eclectic and vivid composer with a knack for small-ensemble works – and an auspicious, recently released collection of chamber pieces on Sono Luminus. He and the Imanis had selected and then coached the composers whose works were being showcased, which goes a long way toward explaining the impressively high level of the compositions on the bill. Not everything was memorable, but most of it was. And Fairouz himself contributed a bracingly airy, microtonally-tinged work carried matter-of-factly to a warmer crescendo by clarinetist Patricia Billings and the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz, taking an impressive turn on vocals.

If Amorphous Moment, a pensive trio piece by Sam Parrilla, age nineteen, is typical of his work, he’s someone to keep an eye on. Driven by Parrilla’s brooding piano, Matthew Bennett’s violin and Madelyn Moore’s clarinet carried it suspensefully and rather minimalistically through tense microtonal shifts to a terse, impactful exchange of voices. The most ornate work on the bill, Molly Joyce’s Vintage (another world premiere) balanced dancing contrapuntal harmonies within a vividly tense, pensive framework, carried to more towering heights with poise and assurance by flutist Briana Oliver, oboeist Marissa Honda, clarinetist Lara Mitofsky-Nuess, french hornist Amr Selim and bassoonist Blaire Koerner. The biggest audience hit was a third world premiere, Matthew Taylor’s The Sphinx’s Riddle, a subtly rhythmic triptych illustrating Oedipus’ three stages of life (quadruped, biped and limping triped). Insistent and defiant but envelopingly hypnotic as well, the first movement set the stage for the second’s steadily paced, biting atonalisms and the quietly raw, elegaic power of the third, delivered with both vigor and nuance by Phil Taylor on piano, Bennett on violin, Genesis Blanco on flute, Lee Seidner on clarinet and Brian McKee on bassoon.

Yuan-Chen Li’s rippling, balletesque Butterfly, another triptych, got a lively New York premiere from flutist Ileana Blanco, oboeist Ross Garton, clarinetist Katherine Vetter, bassoonist Nick Ober and Li herself on piano. Pianist Taylor’s Watercolors (also a New York premiere) launched spaciously and dreamily and then vaccillated for awhile before being pulled out of the ether with considerable, welcome oomph by flutist Jessie Nucho, oboeist Perry Maddox, clarinetist David Valbuena, french hornist Kalyn Jang and bassoonist Tyler Austin.

In its own quiet way, Alex Weston’s GOST 7845-55 was a knockout. The composer explained it as an attempt to mimic the wavering quality of poor radio reception, but that was just the beginning. With its interchange of straight-ahead tonalities and fluttering on/off-pitch microtones, it was a workout for the ensemble, but they were up to it, JT Tindall’s flute, Katie Haun’s oboe and Jeffrey Boehmer’s clarinet austere and enigmatic (and then swooping with unexpected delight) over the autumnally hued resonance of Dakota Corbliss’ french horn and Ronn Hall’s bassoon.

Obviously, not all of these performers, nor perhaps all of the composers, will go on a career in concert halls. But a lot of them will. If staying in touch with the most exciting developments in serious music is important to you, ignore these people at your peril. A big shout-out to the Imani Winds for giving them a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

August 7, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Eddie Palmieri Sets SoHo on Fire

In this era’s maze of weird tempos and microtones, sometimes some of us forget that jazz was the world’s default pop and dance music not for years but for decades. The crowd that packed SOB’s Friday night to see Eddie Palmieri hadn’t forgotten, though. It was as if it was 1965 all over again, in the best possible way. El gente were an eclectic mix of dancers, but just as many of them had come out for a concert experience, to listen and be blown away by the intensity of the music. Even the pianist at least partially responsible for the invention of salsa jazz was impressed by his 14-piece orchestra’s raw, feral power. There was a point where after Palmieri had wrung all the apprehension he could find out of a gleefully cautionary, Monkish riff, trombonist Chris Washburne grabbed a mean handful of low chromatics, ran with them and headed straight to the rafters, the band close behind. Would they ever back away and let it breathe for a minute? No way, Jose! The band’s stampeding ferocity could not be stopped, and at age 75, Palmieri is every bit as vital as he’s ever been, maybe better than ever.

He looked out at the crowd, remarked that the ambience was the same as it had been way back in day at the Palladium, then dedicated an expansively crescendoing version of Azucar Para Ti to Barry Rogers, the trombonist on that landmark album. The band had begun on an improvisationally-charged note – probably a good idea to tweak individual sound levels right off the bat considering how loud it was in the club, with the occasional howl of feedback bleeding from the PA early on – and as the heat rose, eventually took a turn into more hypnotic, two-chord-vamp Afro-Cuban grooves for the sake of the dancers. Crooner Herman Olivera held suave and resolute while the percussionists went deeper into a thicket of tropical polyrhythms punctuated by the incisions and roars of the horns, ablaze with minor-key fury. Palmieri is a generous leader, to a fault, playing to the strengths of the band and doling out solos throughout the orchestra. One particular star was the absolutely brilliant tres player Nelson Gonzalez, who was running his guitar through a watery, flanged effect that gave him almost as much volume as the trombones, making his way matter-of-factly through several slinky, unstoppably crescendoing solos, moving from fluid, sinuous melody lines to frenetic chord-chopping way up the fretboard. It looked as if he was about to break a string at any second, but he never did.

When Palmieri did take a solo, he was probably the most adventurous of everyone, slowly uncoiling from swinging broken chords, to insistent pedal motifs, to outright menace as he fired off several series of resonant atonal clusters anchored by his powerful low lefthand attack. Avant garde as it may have been, it made sense: this is a guy who’s been pushing the envelope all his life. And that was just the first set. Palmieri – who’s just been made a NEA Jazz Master – is off on world tour, with a return engagement at the New York Salsa Congress on September 2 at the Hilton at 6th Ave. and 53rd St. You have to wonder if the rest of the world is anywhere near ready for the kind of energy that the crowd here seemed to take for granted.

August 5, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Contrarian View of Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E

From a music writer’s perspective, the question of how to approach Anthony Braxton’s recent four-disc opera, Trillium E begins with whether or not to cover it at all. Consider: it came out at the very end of last year (on the Firehouse 12 label), meaning that a large percentage if not all of its intended customers have already acquired it. It’s a massive achievement, over three hours of music, five if you count the avant garde jazz titan’s intended hourlong pre- and post-performance processionals. Innumerable, less challenging – at least in terms of sheer time – Braxton works exist which deliver his signature blend of wondrously defamiliarizing harmonies and rigorously cerebral thought. Yet Braxton is one of those artists whose cult grows every year, as another senior jazz performance class initiates a small but trustworthy percentage of the freshmen with something of a secret handshake: “Of course you know Albert Ayler..but do you know Braxton?” So in light of that consideration, a work of this magnitude from such an important composer demands some kind of examination, critical or not.

Some will take this as utter hubris, but this is an album whose zeniths are as exquisite as its nadirs are maddening. The 45-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra is the star of the show. Braxton’s close harmonies, use of microtones, melismas and minute rhythmic shifts make demands that few composers can or dare ask of performers, yet this ensemble pulls them off singlemindedly: very frequently throughout the piece, it’s as if it’s one mighty, majestic voice. The music is more horizontal than rhythmic, nebulously floating banks of sound with understatedly dramatic low/high contrasts, and throughout much of Act I, momentary, flitting motifs filtering through the murk with an intriguing, enigmatic dubwise effect similar to backward masking. The high woodwinds get more lively at the beginning of Act II, followed by long, slowly oscillating, rivetingly otherworldly tones leading into an absolutely luscious segment where Braxton explores the kind of creepily lush, jarringly rhythmic things you can do with a choir, taking a page out of Pauline Oliveros – or Jeff Lynne – both of whom were doing the same thing back in the 70s. Act III adds roughhewn string motifs and simple, vivid battering-ram percussion and a brief but chilling reprise of the creepy groupthink vocalese of Act II: the wavering, pitchy alien mantra “I am here and you are not” delivers a visceral chill.

This album is maddening because it’s an opera, pure and simple. Here’s a radical idea (something Braxton knows well) – eliminate the libretto. That’s right – 86 the vocals. That’s not to say that its rather academically worded existential philosophy isn’t worth considering, or that the sci-fi narrative’s heavy foreshadowing doesn’t maintain interest, or that it isn’t imbued with Braxton’s signature dry, ironic humor, only that there are parts where he actually seems to be mocking the art form itself. And the lyrics themselves, such as they are, hardly lend themselves to being sung. Here’s a random sample:

Bubba John Jack/Herald: I’m thinking more in the way of my own complete set of baseball cards – something more from the forties/fifties vintage series.

Zakko/Arfthro: You can’t be serious.

This also isn’t to belittle the singers, notably coloratura soprano Kamala Sankaram and mighty bass Michael Douglas Jones, who along with most of the rest of the cast do their best to bring some kind of cantabile phrasing to Braxton’s plainspoken, singsongey vocal melodies. But as the opera goes on, the singers veer in and out of voice to the point where they’re practically speaking – as perhaps they should. Consider: the bel canto style came to prominence in a language defined by its fluid, polysyllabic vowels. In general, the technique doesn’t translate well to the clipped sibilances of American English, and this opera is a prime example. Braxton has said that the style is well suited to putting his point across, and he’s just plain wrong. Since he imagines the work taking on many possible adaptations – for shadow puppet theatre, for example, an especially appealing proposition – then why not hip-hop? Or simply spoken word? Or…as a purely symphonic work. Orchestras worldwide have been doing instrumental interpretations of opera practically since it first existed, which ultimately may be the fate best suited to this perplexing, complicated, flawed yet often unearthly beautiful piece of music.

August 2, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments