The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album, Bloom is luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein. Although there are many different colors at play here, they tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music: both the composer/conductor and her nineteen-piece ensemble deserve credit for manuevering through so many intricate turns. One particularly luminous timbre among many is singer Sara Serpa, whose wordless vocals add either brightness or opacity, depending on context. She’s a particularly good addition considering how singable Kakitani’s themes are. Throughout the album’s eight tracks, there are allusions to Brazil, the Romantic and late 70s Weather Report in the more amplified moments, but ultimately she has a singular voice.
The title track opens, a clinic in almost imperceptible crescendos, syncopated, suspenseful swells making way for an expansive John Bailey trumpet solo and then spiraling Jason Rigby tenor sax over Mark Ferber’s energetically dancing drums. As it reaches final altitude, Rigby builds to rapidfire clusters as the banks of clouds coalesce and move around him.
Electric Images moves around a lot; hazy ambience becomes a bright jazz waltz, bubbly Mike Eckroth Rhodes piano signals a tempo shift that slowly rises with Serpa’s guardedly hopeful lines, then lushness alternates with austerity all the way through a jaunty series of exchanges with the drums. Nobody gets stung in the Bumblebee Garden; rather, it’s a serene place for reverie from Serpa, trombonist Matt McDonald adding bluesiness to a decidedly non-bluesy atmosphere that builds to some tremendously interesting counterpoint between orchestra subgroups.
Dance One, inspired by the Matisse portrait of dancers in mid-stride, kicks off at full steam, working a tune evocative of the Police’s King of Pain, rich with countermelodies, smartly crescendoing John O’Gallagher alto sax and a nifty series of trick endings. Opened Opened , the first of two pieces from Kakitani’s suite Reimagining My Childhood, expands a traditional Japanese folk melody with a bluesy minor-key edge fueled by serioso Serpa vocalese, smoldering Kenny Berger bass clarinet and fiery dynamics that turn the low brass loose with an unexpected ferocity in what at first appeared to be such a gentle piece of music. The second song from that suite, Dragonfly’s Glasses is basically a segue and considerably brighter, lit up by a casual, airy Ben Kono alto sax solo as it sways up to another false ending.
Islands in the Stream is not the Kenny Rogers schlockfest but an original (Kakitani may not have been born yet when that monstrosity hit the airwaves). That too makes a good segue: Afrobeat allusions give way to a jazz waltz, Berger’s baritone sax handing off to Pete McCann’s bell-like solo guitar, trumpeter Matt Holman building from wary to carefree before tenor saxophonist Mark Small darkens it again…and then McCann takes it up, unleashed and screaming. The final track, Skip, takes a gentle ballad melody, syncopates it in 9/4 up to a dancing Eckroth piano solo, lets trombonist Mark Patterson heat up the warm lyricism and takes it out with a joyous Weather Report pulse. Other contributors to this disarmingly attractive album include Jeff Wilfore and David Spier on trumpets, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Jeff Nelson on bass trombone and Dave Ambrosio on acoustic and electric bass.
The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra plays the cd release show on Feb 11 at 7:15 PM at Drom; advance tix are only $10. They’re also playing Shapeshifte Lab on Feb 28 at 8 for the same deal.
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new album Gamak, out from ACT, hits the street today. The jazz media genuflects to the alto saxophonist’s virtuosic, boundary-stretching technique, range and imaginative compositions: is this all it’s cracked up to be? Pretty much. It’s a major album, not just because it’s pushing the envelope further and further into microtonal territory, but because it’s exciting, hard-edged music. This is what happens when the core of Jack DeJohnettte’s band is left to their own inventive devices. Much has been made of how Rudresh (nice to be instantly recognizable in jazz by your first name alone, isn’t it) has drawn on his Indian background, but this isn’t “Indian jazz” – he has a singular vernacular As you would expect, the microtones keening and bending from Dave Fiuczynski’s guitar strings are more strikingly otherworldly than the single-note lines of the sax, but both musicians are often hanging in scales that don’t exist in western music – and so much the better. Bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss hit hard and keep it terse behind them.
The opening track slams along on a rapidfire bhangra riff from the sax, then they swing it down to a memorably wall-bending, creepily microtonal Fiuczynski solo and eventually crunch their way out. A long, memorably disorienting interlude from Fiuczynski leads to a spiraling exchange with the sax on the raga-inspired second cut, Weiss driving it purposefully as the bandleader evokes the eerie timbres of a Turkish ney flute. After a disarmingly lyrical, syncopated shuffle tune, they bring back the eerie tonalities with We’ll Make More, a more radical, pummeling yet funky revisitation of the raga melody that opened Rudresh’s pioneering 2003 album Black Water.
A track from that album, Are There Clouds in India is as balmy as the original but more surreal and uneasy, both guitar and sax building to bustling tension and then moving back toward a semblance of calm comfort, exchanging airy volleys in a mysterious new language. Lots of Interest makes all this look easy – it’s actually anything but – indulging Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torso side before reverting to staggered funk.
They follow a practically minimalist bass solo with Copernicus and its machinegun sax over nervous changes, then Wrathful Wisdom with its breath-stopping swoops, wry Fiuczynski humor and Middle Eastern allusions. That part of the world is referenced more directly on Ballad for Troubled Times, Rudresh driving it with a liquid legato, Moutin artfully choosing his spots to illuminate. The album ends with a miniature, Majesty of the Blues which is more of a math-jazz piece. What may be this album’s strongest suit is that it softpedals the strange scales: melody is so front and center that it’s sometimes beside the point that so much of this is blue notes. Which, ultimately, is what defined the roots of jazz and will define its future branches.
“We’re going to get through this together,” Attacca Quartet cellist Andrew Yee reassured the crowd last night at Lincoln Center. The measure of a musician is how well they perform under duress: this group’s trial last night was not by fire, but just the opposite. The atrium space where they were playing was freezing, yet the quartet of Yee, violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga and violist Luke Fleming muscled up, retuned their instruments between movements as the weather dictated, and turned in an unstoppably valiant performance of Haydn’s Emperor String Quartet followed by a brisk, nimble series of John Adams works.
They opened with the Haydn, which was as much about slowly revealing a depth that’s alwayas surprising as it is about teamwork, with the endless volleys of call-and-response and pass-the-baton. The first movement was assured and lively to the point of maybe being a way for the group to keep warm (Schroeder breathed deeply into her bow hand afterward). The dynamic shifts from the calm of the second to the jauntiness of the third were bright and poised; the arc from an approximation of storminess to a real storm in the fourth, a ride to savor.
Four John Adams works from his seven-part suite Alleged Dances (i.e. whose steps haven’t been invented yet) were next, and the group rose to their many demands: hazy overtones, insistent pizzicato and staccato, artful exchanges of diverging ideas all circling, sometimes hypnotically, sometimes aggressively, around a center. The ensemble closed with the second movement of Adams’ String Quartet, its briskly pulsing agitation getting a precise, knive’s edge performance, chilly early spring bite finally making way for a series of false endings that became irresistible: the audience fell for all of them, and the group had a mutual grinfest going as well.
The Attacca Quartet play from their ongoing cycle of the complete Haydn string quartets this coming Feb 7 at 7 PM at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 65th St. and Central Park West; suggested donation is $10. On March 26 at 8 they’re at the Poisson Rouge playing Adams works, with the composer in attendance.
If there’s anybody who doesn’t think that the contemporary string quartet repertoire is one of the world’s most exhilarating, they weren’t onstage or in the crowd last night at Carnegie Hall. In a multi-composer bill along the same lines as what the Miller Theatre does, Mimesis Ensemble staged a program featuring works of four current composers – Anna Clyne, Alexandra du Bois, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Mohammed Fairouz – to rival any Shostakovian thrills filling the halls further up Broadway.
These were dark, moody, otherworldly thrills, first from Clyne’s rhythmic suite Prima Vulgaris (meaning “evening primrose”), delivered with verve by violinists Alex Shiozaki and Curtis Stewart, violist Hannah Levinson and cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. She, in particular, is a player who relishes low tonalities, who’s not afraid to dig in and go deep into the well, taking charge to the point where she was essentially leading the ensemble. Austerity punctuated by pregnant pauses built to hints of an English reel, a long passage that gave Levinson a launching pad for vividly plaintive unease, then a pensive microtonal romp over an ominous cello drone. Tension-packed runs down a memorably uncertain scale set off an increasingly agitated series of variations that ended surprisingly quietly, but no less hauntingly. In its troubled way, it’s a stunning piece of music.
As was du Bois’ String Quartet No. 3, Night Songs, inspired by the journals of Holocaust memoirist and victim Esther Hillesum. As one would expect from a suite inspired by a philosophically-inclined bon vivant murdered at 29 by the Nazis, it has a wounded, elegaic quality. Dread and apprehension are everywhere, even in its most robust moments. It’s less a narrative than a series of brooding crescendos leading to horror, whether sheer terror or heart-stopping stillness. The melody and shifting motifs don’t move a lot, hinting and sometimes longing for a consonance that’s always out of reach. Levinson once again took centerstage with a series of raw chords, setting off a scurrying, pell-mell passage that led to keening overtones and then distantly menacing swoops. Hints of a dance gave no inkling of the considerably different tangent the piece would take as it cruelly but gracefully wound down. The audience exploded afterward.
The program wasn’t limited to string quartets. Roumain was best represented by an intricately woven, lively, dancing, George Crumb-inspired work played by a wind quintet of clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, oboeist Carl Oswald, bassoonist Brad Balliett and flutist Jonathan Engle, with Jason Sugata’s horn calm in the center of the storm.
Fairouz, who amid innumerable projects is reinvigorating the venerable art-song catalog, likes to collaborate with poets (maybe because his compositions tend to be remarkably terse and crystallized). For this he brought along poet David Shapiro, whose bittersweet Socratically-themed texts were fleshed out by a septet with strings and flute, strongly sung by soprano Katharine Dain and masterfully lowlit by Katie Reimer’s alternately vigorous and murkily resonant piano. Closely attuned to lyrical content, sometimes agitated, sometimes playful insistent, this quartet of songs seemed to mock death as much as dread it.
Mimesis Ensemble are at Merkin Concert Hall on May 4 at 8:30 PM playing a Lynchian elegy by Caleb Burhans, a cruelly sarcastic take on eco-disaster by David T. Little, powerful and historically aware chamber pieces by Fairouz as well as other works. Advance tickets are only $10 (students $5) and are highly recommended.
When you think of a songwriter with a string quartet, you probably imagine the end result being some kind of chamber pop or art-rock. What Matt Siffert has done is something entirely new. It’s not opera or arias but it’s not rock either: you could classify this as indie classical with vocals, or a style that Siffert has invented and has yet to name. Either way, his new album Cold Songs is is an extremely enjoyable, bracing ride.
Don’t let Siffert’s soft voice fool you: he has an edge. While there’s a lot of bitterness in the storyline here, Siffert has a sense of humor that often takes centerstage.The music follows the lyrics very closely, sometimes almost to the syllable, shifting from pensive and wistful to savage and vicious, or simply playful. The composition is lively and sophisticated, with intricate counterpoint, polyrhythms and harmonies that range from austere to harsh to hints of neoromanticism, serenely sustained passages up against slashing, turbulent interludes. Violinists Maria Im and Olivia Mok, violist Erin Wight and cellist Eric Allen dig in, soar and wail through this terse five-song collection
The first song, Figures from Your Past sets the tone, shifting nonchalantly from a rather blithe pizzicato intro to brooding and then insistant and angry. After a seething a-cappella verse -“Even a thief tastes my kiss, even a jackal hears my hiss, even a weatherman feels my fickleness” – the strings rise up again, agitated, to a cold ending.
The second track, October is the post-breakup scene, brooding and downcast, biting melody set to a lush arrangement. Showoff brings some welcome comic relief: “Sometimes I gotta show off,” is Siffert’s insistent mantra, as he turns the quartet loose with dancing countermelodies over a catchy cello hook and a jauntily suspenseful vamp on the way out.
Two Women at Once is a wryly rakish, theatrical Brecht/Weill-style cabaret number with an unexpectedly creepy interlude and an equally unexpected plaintiveness as it winds out: none of these songs follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus format. “I haven’t loved in weeks, maybe more, maybe none,” Siffert’s narrator asserts. The album returns to a pensive and eventually creepy ambience with When Is It Gonna Be Me, whose steady, apprehensive swirl foreshadows that this is no ordinary lovelorn ballad, and as it darkens it becomes genuinely sinister. Where Siffert goes from there is ts too good to spoil. You can hear all this at his Bandcamp page, where the album is streaming all the way through: Siffert and this string quartet play Zirzamin on Feb 1 at 8 PM.
Composer Bill Ryan’s Billband first made waves with their 2004 debut, Blurred, which added art-rock touches to vividly melodic, minimalistic indie chamber music. The ensemble’s new album, Towards Daybreak (due out on the 29th from Innova) is a suite, and it’s considerably darker. Which comes as no surprise, considering that it’s bookended by two elegies, the first for Ryan’s father and the second for his mother. Terse, elegant motifs shift shape and move between constantly changing combinations of woodwinds and strings, usually pensive, often somber and occasionally building to moments of sheer horror. The group assembled for this project is sensational: cellists Ashley Bathgate, Pablo Mahave-Veglia and Paul de Jong, pianist Vicky Chow, violinist Todd Reynolds, bass clarinetist Michael Lowenstern, saxophonist Jonathan Nichol, and Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist David Cossin.
Interestingly, the opening elegy exhibits more of an Indian summer nocturnal ambience, its simple but resonant Philip Glass-tinged three-note riffs growing more lush as it progresses. The title track works more spacious permutations on the theme, insistent piano or vibraphone pedalpoint anchoring a long series of harmonic exchanges between strings and woodwinds, the countermelodies of early dawn busying themselves and then reconverging with an aptly added brightness. The upward trajectory continues with syncopation and even a bit of a funky edge on Rapid Assembly, which hints at a Balkan dance as it rises and falls: it has a vivid austerity in the same vein as recent work by New York ensemble Build.
Counterintuitively dancing phrases alternate with airy sustained sheets over a gently insistent pulse in A Simple Place, followed by Solitude in Transit, the most gripping and darkest work here, much of it essentially a two-chord jam fueled by Reynolds’ gleaming, hauntingly hypnotic phrasing. Frantic gives the vamp a driving agression that, while far from frantic, builds tension with apprehensive close harmonies. By contrast, Sparkle is everything its title implies, a twinkling lullaby. The suite closes with a reprise of the opening theme, which then darkens immediately with an imploring, Julia Wolfe-esque relentlessness, rising to a big crescendo that only hints at the kind of anguish that comes from losing a family member unexpectedly. That Ryan never lets the music become mawkish or sentimental is its strongest suit: subtlety and grace triumph despite all odds. Billband play le Poisson Rouge on Feb 10.
Jonathan Kreisberg’s new solo release, One, is a very rhythmic album, which makes sense for somebody whose main gig is holding down the guitar chair in Dr. Lonnie Smith’s band. But rather than doing anything funky here, Kreisberg keeps his mostly midtempo-to-slow pulse very straight-up. For anyone who might take a look at the track list and think, good grief, do we really need another version of Summertime, this one actually breathes new life into the song, as Kreisberg does with a bunch of other mostly familiar tunes and a couple of originals. One guitarist whose solo work Kreisberg’s elegantly expansive, often lushly chordal approach evokes is another busy New York player, Peter Bernstein.
Throughout the album, Kreisberg plays with a mostly clean, uncluttered tone, limiting his use of effects to a guitar synth pedal for an organ-like sustain on the baroque-influenced miniature, Without Shadow and then a whole slew of them on the closing track, an Elliott Sharp-esque sci-fi theme. The opening track, Canto de Ossanha contrasts insistent, moody, suspenseful, chromatically-charged variations on the opening vamp with a bubbly La Vie En Rose brightness.
Kreisberg transforms Skylark into a blue-sky theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bill Frisell catalog, and does Wayne Shorter’s E.S.P. as a blithe samba. How does he get Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to work as an instrumental? By adding some unexpected ugliness, a brilliant move. His take on Caravan reminds of both the virtuosity – it’s amazing that Kreisberg pulls off as much as he does without overdubs – and creepy pointillisms of the version on the sensational Ulrich Ziegler debut album. It only takes a few seconds for the chorus of Tenderly to springboard a nimble improvisation, while a rather minimalist version of My Favorite Things revisits the baroque. And a nonchalantly swinging take of Johnny Mercer’s I Thought About You gets some subtle ragtime allusions. Notwithstanding Kreisberg’s consistency throughout the album, it’s remarkably eclectic.
Pianist Matt Herskowitz’ new solo concert album, Upstairs, captures a November, 2011 gig at Montreal’s popular Upstairs Bar & Grill. It has a similar lyricism and gleam as Fred Hersch’s Alone at the Vanguard album from a couple of years ago, albeit with more of a third-stream flavor. It’s a mix of nocturnes and energetic, upbeat material imbued with equal parts classical precision and Herskowitz’ signature improvisational flair and humor.
Amid the crepuscular glimmer and the hjinks here are two showstoppers. The first is a meticulously nuanced solo piano arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s Dzienkuye, a standout track from the late third stream icon’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia album. Somberly neoromantic, Herskowitz takes it up on a lively and lushly dancing note before a rapt, starlit interlude and then a triumphant outro – it’s no surprise that Brubeck gave Herskowitz the thumbs-up for this.
The quiet, Satie-esque surrealism of Waltz in Moscow builds more eerily and bluesily, veering between those idioms with a vividly pervasive unease. By contrast, Michel Pettruciani’s Cantabile juxtaposes jaunty, often rapidfire ragtime with a middle interlude that more accurately reflects the title. Herskowitz’ dreamy take of Schumann’s Traumerei reminds that he’s just as good at classical as jazz, while an instrumental version of Bella’s Lament – from the the play Bella, the Colour of Love, about Marc Chagall and his wife – reverts to a familiar trajectory from brooding neoromanticism toward a more upbeat narrative.
Herskowitz plays his famous Bach a la Jazz (from the film Les Triplettes de Belleville) like the lark it was to begin with, when he sent the playful knockoff of Bach’s C Minor Prelude from the Well-Tempered Klavier along with a lot more serious stuff to the film’s musical director. The album ends with rousing, impressively hard-hitting, expansive takes on Gershwin’s But Not for Me and I’ve Got Rhythm. It’s out now on Justin Time.
Russian-American pianist Yelena Eckemoff has made a career out of icily resonant, otherworldly themes that unwind at a glacial pace. Anyone who might hear her new album Glass Song and think “Windham Hill” isn’t listening closely enough. As brooding mood pieces go, this is just about as good as it gets: that the album’s catchiest and most upbeat track is titled Elegy pretty much says it all. The opening track, Melting Ice is characteristic. It begins so imperceptibly it’s almost unnoticeable, and then Eckemoff immediately engages Arild Andersen’s bass in a slow, prophetic conversation before the thaw sets in and the blues makes its way in through the cracks. Then they do it again, and again. What emerges is an uneasy blend of morose Satie-esque chromatics and casually bluesy tonalities.
The title track is even slower and more minimalist, Andersen’s wispy, keening overtones and tersely swooping accents mingling with the glimmer behind him as Eckemoff builds to a distantly imploring ambience that reminds of the Joy Division classic The Eternal. Throughout the album, drummer Peter Erskine adds the subtlest shades of grey, and occasional swashes of black. As any drummer will tell you, music this slow and spare can be murder to play. Here he introduces a whispered clave beat in the last place where you would expect to find anything tropical – and it works like a charm.
Cloud Break, laced with more of those deliciously creepy chromatics, follows a similar path out of a slow, suspenseful shuffle that Eckemoff ornaments with Lynchian lounge-isms as the bass and drums work hypnotic polyrhythms. Polarity grows from minimalistic otherworodly bass/piano interchanges to a plaintively deliberate, syncopated sway, as close to the hint of a bounce as there is here.
Dripping Icicles is a deceptively simple, surprisingly lively noir blues livened with Erskine’s masterfully suspenseful snare and Eckemoff’s refusenik ripples, reaching tantalizingly toward a resolution that’s always just out of reach. Sweet Dreams seems to be a rather sarcastic title: the ballad is as memorably dark as everything that precedes it.
Whistle Song takes the creepiness up a couple of octaves, yet the mood never wavers. Sunny Day in the Woods is more summery, but even this is a nocturne, Eckemoff juxtaposing lingering phrases against insistent upper-register raindroplets that mingle with the bass. This long, practically hour-and-a-quarter length album ends where it began with March Rain, which keeps the pace going, but with the bass rather than the piano, which remains mostly in a distant, desolate, reserved seat in the shadows. Although marketed as jazz – which this certainly could be called- another crowd this should resonate mightily with is fans of indie classical composers like Michael Gordon and Kirsten Broberg.