Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Another Landmark Collaboration From Sara Serpa and Ran Blake

For a singer, recording a live album with Ran Blake is a potential minefield. The iconic noir pianist is no mere accompanist: he’s a bandmate. To say that he’s hard to follow is an understatement to the extreme. What is there about Blake that hasn’t been said already? That he is to improvisation what Schoenberg was to composition, maybe? Other pianists would kill to be able to command the kind of otherworldly menace that Blake goes up onstage and pulls out of thin air. And while there’s more often than not a rigorous logic to his melodic sensibility, there’s no telling where he might go with it.

This past May, Sara Serpa took fate in her hands and recorded a live piano-and-vocal album with Blake, titled Aurora and just released on Clean Feed. Adventurous as this may seem at face value, Serpa and Blake have the advantage of being old friends: she’s been a protegee of his since their days together at the New England Conservatory. Which comes as no surprise: they’re peas in a pod, rugged individualists and formidable intellects who share a fondness for third-stream eclecticism and a fear of absolutely nothing. This new album builds on the often shattering camaraderie they shared on their initial duo recording, 2010’s Camera Obscura.

What’s not news is that this is Blake being Blake, chilling, unpredictable yet at the same time giving the songs here plenty of wit, sometimes cruel, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes surprisingly droll. What’s news is how much Serpa, already a distinctive singer, has grown. The disarming quality of her completely unadorned, crystalline, reflecting-pool mezzo-soprano pairs off memorably and not a little hauntingly with Blake’s broodingly opaque, occasionally savage tonalities. Although her approach to a song has every bit as much rigorous precision as Blake’s, she’s back at her old Lisbon stomping ground here (at the sonically superb Auditorio da Culturgest, recorded both in concert and live in the hall the following day) and is clearly feeding off a triumphant homecoming of sorts.

The first song is Saturday, a ballad recorded by Sarah Vaughn early in her career. From its defiantly icy intro, “Saturday…just a doesn’t matter day” becomes a coolly poignant lament. When Autumn Sings, the first of two R.B. Lynch/Abbey Lincoln compositions, finds Blake doing an offhandedly creepy waltz up against Serpa’s surprisingly bluesy melismatics. And yet, by the end, he’s lured her deep into the shadows.

The duo veer between phantasmagorical ragtime and various shades of macabre on a piano-and-vocalese improvisation on Konrad Elfers’ Dr. Mabuse, from the film soundtrack – it’s one of the album’s high points. From there they segue into Cansaco, a 1958 hit for fado icon Amalia Rodriguez. It opens with a moonlit mournfulness, Blake and Serpa exchanging motifs, always understating the song’s lovelorn drama

They follow that with a jauntily carnivalesque take on the bizarre 1950s space-travel relic Moonride, inspired by the Chris Connor version. Serpa sings Strange Fruit a-cappella with a chilling nonchalance, only digging into the melody when the imagery becomes grisly. Blake’s solo spot, titled Mahler Noir, defamiliaizes a couple of late Romantic theme with a tersely crystallized, crepuscular menace that wouldn’t be out of place in peak-era Pink Floyd. Then they romp twistedly through The Band Played On, chosen since the song appears on the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

Love Lament, another Lynch/Lincoln song, gets a broodingly spacious understatement, Serpa matching Blake ellipsis for loaded ellipsis. They keep the snowswept angst going with Wende: the way Serpa sings “pressing so deep into my soul” will rip your face off. By contrast, Fine and Dandy juxtaposes wry Van Morrison allusions with Serpa’s utterly trad, completely deadpan acrobatics. They close the show with a ballad Serpa selected, Last Night When We Were Young, underscoring this ode to defeat with an absinthe hush that’s as quietly powerful as anything these two artists can conjure. Like their previous collaboration, this album makes a mockery of any attempt to rank it against others from this year or for that matter any year. This is music for eternity, a bleak yet sometimes unexpectedly amusing antidote to the shadows encroaching around us.

Advertisements

November 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Catching Up with Ralph Peterson’s Duality Perspective

If there’s anything at all worthwhile that came out of the hurricane that hammered the east coast, it was in the almost complete shutdown of parts of New York. With no way of leaving the neighborhood, the issue of catching up with some albums that had been sitting around far too long basically forced itself. Veteran drum extrovert Ralph Peterson’s The Duality Perspective was one of those. His Larry Young-inspired Unity Project record from last year was a lot of fun; this one’s a lot more diverse. There are two bands here: the first an interesting, upper register-dominated quartet with vibraphonist Joseph Doubleday and clarinetist Felix Peikli out in front of Peterson and bassist Alexander Toth. The second, a sextet features the always formidable Curtis Brothers – Luques on bass and Zaccai on piano – plus Tia Fuller on alto sax, Walter Smith III on tenor and Sean Jones on trumpet. Both groups turn in terse and purposeful performances; the quartet handling most of the quieter material, the sextet getting the more upbeat fare. Peterson, who’s also a trumpeter, writes as vividly as ever here, and plays with a remarkable judiciousness for someone who’s always been best known for his robust boom.

The opening track, One False Move pairs off brightly spiraling clarinet against a circular bass/vibraphone hook and then a tight bass/drum interlude, Peterson at his most succinct. They follow that with a somewhat less phantasmagorical take of Thelonious Monk’s 4 in 1, Peikli’s nonchalant legato establishing a mood that the band never wavers from. Addison and Anthony, a ballad for a couple of younguns in Peterson’s life, has the terse, suspenseful feel of an early 70s Milt Jackson piece, while Bamboo Bends in a Storm joins the bass and vibes, tiptoeing yet carefree. They essentially segue out of that with Princess, a lively swing tune.

The sextet sequence opens with the ballad Coming Home, Fuller and the piano shifting from thoughtful and spacious to more carefree, Zaccai Curtis establishing a clenched-teeth focus that he uses to set the tone from this point forward: his intensity grounds these songs firmly even as solos fly away from the center. Their take on Monk’s Impervoius Gems gets bouncy Ethiopian-tinged metrics, a bright horn chart and progressively intense crescendos from the whole unit, while Fuller’s energetically purist melodicism fuels the staggered sway of the title track. On the considerably trickier You Have No Idea, Jones takes over that role with his romping, blues-infused spirals. The album ends with Pinnacle, which is everything we’ve come to know and love from Peterson: a flurrying horn chart, brisk swing, lively bantering from the whole band and a purposeful, volcano-on-the-loose solo from the bandleader. Good tunes, inspired playing, good listening on every possible level.

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

The Jeff Holmes Quartet Gets Tuneful and Thoughtful

Calling a jazz album “mellow” is usually the kiss of death. But consider: Birth of the Cool is a mellow album. So is Kind of Blue. For that matter, so is a lot of Time Out. The Jeff Holmes Quartet’s new Miles High release Of One’s Own follows in that tradition: tuneful and laid-back, with a nonchalant, warm camaraderie between the musicians. Though there are many subtle shades here, it’s a reminder that darkness isn’t a prerequisite for depth.

As lively as some of the music becomes, the band plays singlemindedly: pianist Holmes, reedman Adam Kolker, bassist James Cammack and drummer Steve Johns lock into the vibe, always on top of the moment when it’s time to chill. Holmes has a gift for writing lyrical songs without words: every one of his originals here is strong. The best of them is One for C.J., a deliciously catchy, understated cha-cha jazz hit, Kolker evoking his best work with Ray Baretto’s band with his swirling, smoky, chromatically fueled bass clarinet. Another standout is Rose on Driftwood , Kolker again on bass clarinet, Cammack and Johns artfully shifting the rhythm from a circular Ethiopian groove to a latin funk vibe while Holmes works vivid light/dark dichotomies.

That kind of slow, almost imperceptible trajectory to an unexpected crescendo happens again and again throughout the album. They take Toby Holmes’ Waltz #3 from warm ballad mode to more pensive, fueled by Kolker’s thoughtful, allusively bluesy tenor sax and then Cammack’s spacious bass solo, but then go up and out on a high note. It makes a good setup for Holmes’ title track, a clinic in judicious crescendos that winds up with a much more minimalist, goodnaturedly wry outro.

Macaroons reaches for a Bill Frisell/Jeremy Udden Americana jazz catchiness, building toward a ragtime-inspired feel, while The Senses Delight, a gentle ballad, stays far enough aloft to escape the tender trap, both Holmes and Kolker (on tenor here) both careful not to overstate their case. By contrast, they play Poinciana with a surreal, midsummer balminess, spacious and suspenseful – it’s a great song to begin with, and they really nail it, Holmes’ careful precision echoed by Cammack while Johns casually develops a slow samba pace. A carefree take of John Abercrombie’s Labour Day and a rather triumphant version of the Rodgers/Hammerstein standard So Long, Farewell complete the picture, an attractive one in every sense of the word.

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