The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s performance of Duke Ellington classics from 1930 through 1971 yesterday at JALC’s Rose Theatre was like being invited to the meeting of a secret society all too eager to let you in on the biggest secret of all. Anybody who dismisses the later Ellington needs to see this band play it. Although this was a rare early-afternoon show, as Wynton Marsalis went out of his way to mention, he was in top form both on the horn, and as raconteur and Ellington advocate.
Marsalis underscored what was on the bill by reminding how Ellington took the blues further than anybody else – and that the composer remained such a fan of the blues that when Count Basie saw Ellington in the audience, he’d keep an eye on him; when Duke would get up to leave, Basie would lead the band into a blues to keep Ellington in the house, which apparently worked every time. Marsalis reminded that Paul Gonsalves’ famous long solo on Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue (a piece not on the bill, actually) wasn’t a concession to hard-bop convention: it was an attempt to make Gonsalves break a sweat and sober up a little. Introducing a particularly harmonically challenging arrangement for the saxophone section, Marsalis quipped that “Tf there’s an entrance exam for Hell, this is it,” And in going back and reading the corrosively critical jazz press that followed the Carnegie Hall debut of Black, Brown and Beige, Marsalis acknowledged that “There’s such a pervasive and deeply held ignorance about Duke Ellington that I found myself getting upset.” And he’s right: how anyone could mistake that masterpiece for anything other than what it is makes no sense.
It’s amazing how fresh and new this ensemble makes the music sound. They played two numbers from that iconic suite, a boisterously joyful take of Emancipation, trumpeter Kenny Rampton using a floppy hat for a mute at one point, and closed the show with a version of Symphonette and its serpentine exchanges of voices over ultraviolet lustre. The biggest “oooh” moment of the set was a rapt, simmering, low-key purist septet take of Mood Indigo; then again, Marsalis’ own rapidfire, register-expanding, subtly polyrhythmic solo on Braggin’ in Brass right before that was pretty sensational. The lushly sophisticated Lady of the Lavender Mist, as Marsalis noted, wasn’t written as a baritone feature, but this version put bari saxophonist Joe Temperley front and center with his nuanced tremolo buildling to a tenderly lyrical crescendo. The orchestra sank a collective set of fangs into the gritty minor-key triplet riff of Portrait of Wellman Braud – an early Ellington bassist and distant Marsalis relative – as it percolated through the arrangement. They picked up Island Virgin and quickly moved it from lighthearted calypso jazz to baroque swing, pulsing with misty colors and a lively Ted Nash clarinet solo.
The waltzing Paris Steps reveled quietly in this same kind of luminosity, with an optimistic Sherman Irby alto sax solo. Two Trains that Pass in the Night, a droll exercise in stereo effects, was Ellington at his most wryly vaudevillian. And a vigorous romp through Harlem Airshaft – a sardonic depiction of neighborhood chatter – gave voice to the Facebook of the 1930s, i.e. real life. There’s nothing better than some Ellington in the afternoon to send you flying, completely blissed out into the street afterward (OK, maybe some Ellington at night). A shout out to the rest of the cast, whose intricate and inspired contributions were too numerous to count: Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup on trumpets; Vincent Gardner, Elliott Mason and Chris Crenshaw on trombones; Victor Goines and Walter Blanding on tenor saxes; James Chirillo on banjo and guitar; Dan Nimmer on piano; Ali Jackson on drums; and bassist Carlos Henriquez, who on the spur of the moment led the remaining crew onstage through a few triumphant walk-off bars of Take the A Train.
A special shout out was also earned by the crew at the box office and the unexpectedly affable house manager, who graciously fixed a ticket snafu which for a second threatened to derail this review. Thanks guys!
Kathleen Supove, the go-to pianist of the New York underground, debuted her most recent, hauntingly surreal theme program, modestly titled Digital Debussy, last night at the Flea Theatre in Tribeca. It continues with shows tonight, April 26 at 7 PM and two on Saturday the 27th at 3 and 7 PM. If cutting-edge piano music is on your agenda, don’t miss this. Supove, who doesn’t shy away from a challenge, put herself in the position of having to play along to a collage of keyboards mixed with found sounds of storms and god knows what else, and she was up for it, even though that meant taking cues not from melody but from stormclouds and seemingly random, possibly backward-masked sonic markers.
And she nailed it! Supove – who is always great fun to watch, opening the show decked out all in white with a white piano along with watery film projections – began by negotiating her way through the rain-drenched, hauntingly immersive, deceptively minimalist funhouse mirrors of Joan LaBarbara’s Storefront Diva: A Dreamscape. Inspired by Joseph Cornell’s dreams of Debussy playing in a storefront window, it was like being transported to a sonic Cornell box. Supove chose her spots As much fun as this was to witness, it would be fantastic to hear on album (reputedly there’s a DVD in the works). There’s a visual aspect that gives Supove – a very physical performer, albeit a lithe, graceful one – lots of room for balletesque movement. Throughout LaBarbara’s otherworldly, Lynchian resonances, Supove played Lynch Girl at the keys to the hilt, exchanging melodies between hands whether or not she was playing them. The surrealism of it all hit hard, a hurricane tableau as seen from a safe interior, resonantly comforting despite itself.
Annie Gosfield’s Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind – like all of the pieces on the program, a new commision from Supove, this being an update on Debussy’s What the West Wind Saw – seemingly illustrated a triumphant human spirit in the face of cruel distractions. Ostensibly, the sound collage that Supove played against reimagined Debussy fragments along with samples from Hurricane Sandy. Aside from a gusty, swooping interlude late in the piece, it was hard to tell what was organic and what was machine-made. Perhaps that was intentional. Throughout it all, beauty triumphed amid chaos, Beatles quotes and endless, hypnotic circularity.
Up to this point, Supove hadn’t been able to indulge in much humor (give her an inch and she”ll take a mile or two: she can be hilarious). So it was fun to watch her tackle her longtime Dr. Nerve art-rock bandmate Nick Didkovsky’s Triumph of Innocence, a sarcastic title if there ever was one. Supove played hypnotic, distantly Indian-tinged cascades and circular motives while narrating fragments from a Bette Page memoir, actress Georgia Ximenes Lifsher acting out the stripper’s deadpan, seemingly innocent recollections of Estes Kefauver’s foreshadowing of the Meese Commission, Page’s fondness for her photographer/pimp Irving Klaw (what a name, huh?) and her terror of growing old and losing her looks. As it crescendoed, Supove’s breathless narration channeled an increasing violence to match her rapidfire work on the keys. It was enough to make you forget that there was, at least ostensibly, a stripper onstage, no mean feat. Tickets for this explosive and entertaining show are still available as of now. Supove also books the intriguing, vastly cross-pollinational annual Music with a View series here: watch this space for a series of June concerts that promise to match this kind of excitement.
One of the unfortunate repercussions of the 12-tone revolution is that narrative often ended up taking a backseat to structure. For a composer, the decision to deliberately avoid any kind of melodic consonance makes it considerably more difficult to create a portrait or relate a story other than “life is painful and chaotic.” True as that may be, it’s only part of the picture. That’s where composers like Ayumi Okada come in. Saturday, as part of the up-and-coming Listen Closely chamber music series in Inwood, Okada’s vivid, painterly neoromantic compositions and their influences got a meticulous, detailed workout via a series of group and solo performances. Cellist/impresario James Waldo paired a matter-of-fact take on the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor with Okada’s naturalistic tableau In the Ancient Forest, the woods bursting into life with playful activity, making a memorable dichotomy with the piece’s rapt, underlying ambience. Flute virtuoso David Ordovsky followed a colorful, wryly entertaining take on Debussy’s Syrinx for Solo Flute with Okada’s 2010 partita Daydreams for Solo Flute. Utilizing the entirety of the instrument’s register, Ordovsky worked the same kind of lively/still contrasts as the cello piece, moody suspense giving way to catchy, animated motives that reminded of the work of Robert Paterson.
But the most gripping pieces on the bill involved multiple instruments. Waldo described Okada as someone whose music manages to be both “tonal, but fresh and new,” and he’s right on the money. An all-too-brief single-movement String Quartet No. 1 , from 2009, blended a poignant sense of longing into stately baroque counterpoint, shifted to an animated, suspensefully bustling atmosphere and then a warmly dreamy song without words. Violinists Yijia Zhang and Jacqueline Jove joined Waldo and violist Rose Hashimoto for a precise yet lush interpretation.
The other real stunner on the bill was Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, Waldo and Zhang teaming up with pianist Alyona Aksyonova. Uncluttered and brightly lyrical, it was the only work on the bill where the Kyoto-born Okada referenced any Asian tonalities, and even here she cached them within a thicket of western chromatics. Graceful exchanges of voices throughout a strong, cinematic theme led to marvelously stilletto, spacious piano motives, a quick upward sweep and a sudden ending. All together, this was a tantalizing introduction to a composer whose distinctive, colorful voice is making a strong contribution to new music in New York.
As a bonus, it turns out that Hashimoto has a side gig as a pastry chef. Her hand-dipped chocolate cookies are delicious.
Thursday night at the Morgan Library, in a program sponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) played a wrenchingly powerful trio of requiems for victims of the Holocaust and World War II. While there’s so much live music in this city that it’s never really safe to pick a particular concert as the year’s best, for 2013, this one was as transcendent as they get.
First on the bill was Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, Op. 18. The Polish composer had an extraordinarily prolific career as both a concert pianist and composer in the former Soviet Union, supporting himself mainly by writing scores for film and animation. He had musical roots: his mother was a pianist and his father ran Warsaw’s Jewish theatre. Both were murdered in the Holocaust. The cinematic aspect of Weinberg’s compositions is potently foreshadowed in this work, witten in 1944 when he was 25. It’s essentially a narrative about a cabaret gone horribly wrong. Its phantasmagorical menace, savage irony and gallows humor may reflect both Weinberg’s dread concerning the fate of his family, and also a contempt for the low-rent theatre types of his new digs in Tashkent, a safe if backwater haven where he ran the local opera company until the war’s end.
The piece has three main themes. Pianist Timothy Andres led the distantly macabre, title theme of sorts with a moody, nonchalant foreshadowing, setting up the series of twisted, tumbling circus interludes, the frantic horror of a couple of chase scenes and the funereal bell motif that eventually serves as its coda. In between there were twisted waltzes, a bit of a lurid stripper vamp and sarcasm in abundance, their edgy counterpoint delivered dynamically by violinists Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw, violist Nadia Sirota and cellist Clarice Jensen.
Henryk Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1992 Kronos Quartet commission, was next, quite the contrast with the savagery that preceded it. Taking its inspiration from an elegaic poem by Velimir Khlebnikov, it juxtaposes grief-stricken cumulo-nimbus ambience with a hushed, prayerful theme. Jensen probed sharply for plaintive tonalities and struck gold, Sirota bringing a similarly cello-like richness to the raw, austere passages where Gorecki spotlights the viola.
That Shostakovich’s 1944 Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 was almost an anticlimax speaks to the power of what preceded it. And this is Shostakovich at his most savage: the piece introduces a wounded klezmer melody that would reappear in his String Quartet No. 8, as well as a mincing, cowardly caricature in the warped, marionettish closing danse macabe. The composer never alluded to exactly who its target was: it could be Hitler, but it could also be Stalin. Pretty much every classical ensemble not specifically dedicated to a particular era claim to be advocates for new music, but ACME really walk the walk. That this adventurous collective would go as far back in time for this particular program is unusual; that they’d advocate so powerfully for the underrated Weinberg, and go as deeply into the rest of the program as they did is characteristic.
Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord recorded a live album at Brooklyn Fireproof in Bushwick last night. It’s going to be a good one. It’s surprising that more artists, even in jazz, don’t record more concert albums, considering how much more energy there almost inevitably is performing in front of an audience. Much as the band seemed well-rehearsed, as it turns out, they weren’t: their confidence and lively, electric interplay stem from years of playing together. That, and a shared esthetic. Lundbom is an eclectic guitarist and composer who can play perfectly straightforward postbop but more often than not brings sardonic humor or downright viciousness to the music. This time out, Lundbom alternated between restless unease and a more relaxed, legato attack, setting the tone for a night of goodnatured jousting and moments of pure ecstatic bliss. Joining him were Bryan Murray on the small and unexpectedly low-register “balto” and tenor sax, intertwining and conversing with Jon Irabagon‘s alto sax, Matt Kanelos’ electric piano, Moppa Elliott’s bass and Dan Monaghan’s drums.
The first set was swing shuffles. It was practically comedic to watch Elliott (ringleader of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, arguably New York’s most entertaining live band) walking the bass tirelessly: it was obvious that he couldn’t wait to leave the rails. When he did, it was usually to run permutations on clenched-teeth, percussively circular riffage. While there ws a sextet onstage, the moments when the whole unit was playing were mostly limited to intros and outros, much of the soloing supported simply by bass and drums, Kanelos holding back to a spare, spacious, sostenuto suspense. As Murray swayed and built from a sputter of sparks to a fullscale wail, Elliott’s fingers became a blur of roaring, tremoloing chords, enhanced by the room’s natural reverb. When the song came back to Lundbom – playing a Telecaster through a Fender amp – he took his time, letting the sonics echo for all they were worth.
Kanelos shadowed Lundbom’s murky, enigmatically insistent single-note runs over swirling snowstorm cymbals as the opening number went on, Irabagon taking over the center, nonchalantly holding it together as the rhythm loosened. Lundbom has a kinetic, spring-loaded stage presence, opening the second number with a long solo, working tensely against a central tone, Kanelos echoing that device a little later on with an aching intensity before leaping into unexpectedly purist blues, the band joining him in a split second. Good jokes abounded: Irabagon falling into a deadpan bup-bup-bup until Lundbom finally stepped all over it and wiped the slate clean; Murray and Irabagon playing good cop vs. bad cop on the second of three Lundbom arrangements of old wiccan songs until both horns decided to make a mockery of the blues. The last of the wiccan songs was the only one that the band allowed to go on long enough to reveal its origins as a sad folk tune in waltz time. Ultimately, they made their own sorcery out of it. If the second set was anything like the first, it’s a good thing they got this whole thing in the can.
The new Monika Roscher Big Band album, Failure in Wonderland is a wildly fearless, uncategorizable thrill ride. What is this? Noir cabaret? Psychedelic rock? Big band swing? Horror movie music? All of the above and more. As she tells it, guitarist/singer/composer Roscher spent a year in Illinois as a German exchange student. While her peers were watching tv, she was practicing, soaking up musical scores and learning Frank Zappa licks. Her young band has been together a bit over a year and already has this monstrous masterpiece to show for it. It’s sort of like the missing link between Mucca Pazza and Sexmob (who have a phenomenal new album of Nino Rota film pieces due out soon).Like the latter group’s leader Steve Bernstein, Roscher likes long, crescendoing vamps and seems to be noir to the core. If you like the idea of a Jeff Lynne-esque vocoder trip-hop intro into a creepy noir cabaret piano loop that builds to a stomping, surreal menace with marching Zappaesque guitar line as the brass pulses behind it, that’s just the first half of the first track. From there, the circus rock menace rises with Josef Ressle’s biting piano and squalling, smoky bari sax from Heiko Geiring – and it only gets better from there.
Deadpan, fractured English lyrics move in over another trip-hop intro on the second track, Future3, followed by pillowy reeds, Roscher shredding the scenery with some wild tremolo-picking punctuated by big incisions from the band as the arrangement grows more stately. The catchy yet utterly dissociative Irrlicht works big Gil Evans-ish swells into a carnivalesque pulse, up to a scorching crescendo that hands off to Matthias Lindrmayr’s rapidfire muted trumpet and then a slowly spinning, pitchblende vortical sway.
Wuste works a creepy minor-key come-hither Blonde Redhead-ish intro and then takes on a brooding, low-key gypsy rock feel that grows more and more macabre, spiced by Roscher’s surealistic, processed vocals, Ressle’s sepulcural wee-hours piano and Jan Kiesewetter’s lonesome soprano sax. Die Parade is a twisted funeral march, as plaintive as it is blackly amusing. As with the rest of the tracks here, the voicings are imaginative and often pack a wallop, here with Andreas Unterreiner’s trumpet nonchalantly pairing off with Peter Palmer’s even more morose trombone. The way the procession disintegrates is too clever and amusing to give away here; the trick ending is typical of the sheer unpredictability and gleeful menace of Roscher’s compositional style.
Human Machines establishes a torchy Lynchian atmosphere, a sardonic commentary on the human tendency toward conformity, fueled by Roscher’s noir tremolo lines and torchy vocals – she’s the rare bandleader who’s also a first-class singer – and Ressle’s incisive piano. Unlike the other tracks here, this one ends optimistically: humans win! By contrast, Schnee Aus Venedig is a defiantly macabre, tiptoeing sideshow theme that eventually follows a breathless trajectory up to a wry Beatles allusion. It foreshadows the Montenegrin cabaret gloom of When I Fall in Love, Kiesewetter’s Jon Irabagon-esque japes, Geiring’s baritone squall and Roscher’s wah-infused, funky menace taking it in a vintage P-Funk direction. The album ends, appropriately enough, with Nacht, rising from skeletal tango to a noir flamenco overture, reaching peak altitude on Roscher’s rippling, weirdly processed arpeggios.
Fans of dark ornate acts as diverse as Botanica, Gil Evans, and Sexmob will eat this up. Best jazz album of the year? Maybe. Best rock record of the year? Probably. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. And in case you’re wondering what the title refers to, here’s Roscher: “The blemished beauty of Alice…the tension between harmony and disharmony that I can only vaguely approach with my lyrics. To me words cannot nail it the way music does.” It’s out now from Enja Records.
Most music about water doesn’t do it justice. As Dick Cheney knows better than anyone, water can be absolutely terrifying. Florida outdoors enthusiast and bandleader/composer Chuck Owen portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south in all their fearsome glory on his new album River Runs with his large ensemble the Jazz Surge. But far more than mere musical portraiture, it’s as if Owen has captured an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like water, Owen’s music will go everywhere it can: his colors are amazingly diverse. Outside of western swing, is there another big jazz group that uses a dobro? That’s just one example of how imaginative, paradigm-shifting and often exhilarating this album is, combining elements as diverse as swing, heavy metal, bluegrass and the avant garde and making them work together seamlessly.
Solo instruments, notably Jack Wilkins’ dynamic tenor sax, LaRue Wilkinson’s often searing electric guitar, Per Danielsson’s versatile piano and Rob Thomas’ even more eclectic violin hold the center as the towering, majestic arrangements whirl and crash behind them. In jazz terms, Owen’s unorthodox, symphonic instrumentation extends further to include Corey Christiansen’s slide guitar, Maurizio Venturini’s bassoon and Anna-Kate Mackle’s concert harp as well as a 24-piece string section. Solos maintain a thematic consistency with the pulsing backdrop of the orchestra to a point that while they sound improvised, they might not be: Owen’s attention to detail is that focused.
The suite begins with a brief, creepy string prologue that slowly brightens with a lush intensity as the reeds and eerily pinging percussion rise and then recede back into the ether. Movement one, inspired by West Virginia’s Greenbrier and New Rivers begins with a rippling excitement and rises from there, an endless series of voices – tenor sax and dobro, violin and bass, guitar and strings – exchanging motives, the tenor eventually leading it up to a subtle quote from the similarily high-voltage Brooklyn Suite, by Chris Jentsch (whose first work for big band, appropriately, was the Florida Suite – maybe there’s a connection here). Rising strings, a scampering bluegrass theme and amiably spiraling guitar lead back to a pensive grandeur: the coda is surprising, given the white-knuckle intensity of everything that came before.
The second movement depicts the Everglades and neighboring Hillsborough River with a misty, Gil Evans-ish menace. A storm brews with brooding, cinematic atmospherics and flamenco-tinged guitar, swells upward, descends to a tense ominousness punctuated by eerie bells and then all of a sudden it’s a jaunty clave tune! Movement three explores the Chatuga River, featured in the film Deliverance: here, it gets a lively, balletesque depiction. It’s album’s most avant garde number, hints of latin melody dancing against each other and the orchestra’s austere close harmonies with a funky unease that once again brightens when least expected. The arc toward blue-sky cheer continues with a reminiscence of a family river trip: it isn’t long before moody strings give way to an animated exchange between sax and violin, then the sun comes out and then ripples with a terse, Brazilian warmth over a languid, summery backdrop.
The album winds up with a ferocious cliffhanger, a heart-stopping trip down the Salmon River. Peril is everywhere, from the horror-movie foreshadowing from the strings, a roller-coaster ride with the orchestra pulsing in and out of the arrangement. Lulls appear out of nowhere and then disappear as the waves come crashing in, eventually with a menacing, funky pulse, as if the rocks underneath were making contact with the vessel inches above them. This could just as easily be a portrayal of war, or an escapee on the run from something predatory and lethal. It’s darker and more gripping than anything else here, an apt coda for Owen’s magnum opus.
If bassist Charnett Moffett’s new solo album The Bridge – just out from Motema – is anything like his solo show last night at Iridium, it’s phenomenal. Solo bass concerts are rare – Jay Leonhart did a bunch of them around town a year ago. And as much as Moffett’s performance was a master class – he played enough tantalizing licks to fuel a year’s worth of shedding – it transcended the concept of a solo instrumental performance. It was just plain good music. Extended technique – and there was a lot of that, from slapping, to harmonics, to all kinds of subtle bowed tricks – took a backseat to melody and groove.
Moffett smartly kept the songs short, four minutes or considerably less. He related a wry encounter with an aging Charles Mingus, who gruffly encouraged him to “keep playing,” in every loaded sense of that phrase. So Moffett made the high point of his set a feral, ferocious arrangement of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song that threatened to pop strings, a fang-baring, assaultive feast of chords and chromatics. He opened with an arrangement of Caravan that owed as much to the Ventures as to Ellington, simultaneously playing the Bob Bogle and Mel Taylor roles and made it look easy. He found the inner Strayhorn ballad in Sting’s Fragile (don’t laugh – it was good) and bounced his bow jauntily off the strings on a triumphant take of his longtime bandmate Wynton Marsalis’ Black Guides, complete with a cresendoing call-and-response. Surprisingly, he kept the album’s title track – a haunting, Middle Eastern-tinged exploration – pretty close to the ground, as opposed to the searingly expansive version on the album.
A blues-infused mashup of Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho with an Adele pop hit became a launching pad for galloping, machinegunning staccato contrasting with austere, majestically spiritual motives, followed a little later by an alternately swinging and explosive Monk medley working increasingly intense, jackhammer permutations on Round Midnight, Well You Needn’t and Rhythm A Ning. As the show wound out, Moffett added a wah effect, most memorably on a starkly ethereal take of Miles’ All Blues. The set ended with Ray Brown’s Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, packed with keening harmonics, deft bowing, booming chords and a weary bluesiness that captured the song’s meaning as vividly as any ensemble of twenty players could have done. And Moffett has more solo shows coming up: he’s he’s at Birdland tonight at 6; April 14 he takes a bit of a break from the solo marathon with a duo gig backing devastatingly eclectic chanteuse/composer Jana Herzen at the Blue Note for a brunch show starting at half past noon. His “tour” of Manhattan venues winds up that night with the final solo gig at Joe’s Pub at 9 PM.
[Over the past couple of weeks, this blog has supplied its sister blog New York Music Daily with lots of content. Today it’s payback time]
Budapest Bar made their North American debut last night at CUNY’s sonically superb Elebash Hall just north of the Empire State Building. The Hungarian band works a cosmopolitan gypsy vibe, as opposed to a rural one, meaning that they play a more concert hall-oriented mix of styles which include both jazz and classical music. They outdid Nick Cave at noir, did the “most famous Hungarian song ever,” Gloomy Sunday, as an elegant funereal instrumental, and covered Haydn and Lizst, including the latter’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 complete with rapidfire cimbalom solo by Mihaly Farkas. A bit later on, the cimbalom virtuoso ended his solo with a blindfold on and didn’t miss a beat: it was the biggest crowd-pleasing moment of many.
Frontman Robert Farkas began with a boisterous number that he spiced with some droll flourishes, pulling a string over the bridge of his violin for some creepy horror movie door-closing tonalities, switched to guitar a couple of times midway through the show and ended with a high-spirited series of birdsong voicings on the final encore. Keyboardist Karoly Okros wore a path into the stage, alternating between piano and accordion – if he’s not the only guy who’s equally adept at Liszt and noir Americana, then Hungary has something on the US. Bassist Richard Farkas (this seemed to be a family event, no surprise in gypsy circles) held the careening monstrosity to the rails, whether with a terse minimalist pulse on the gypsy numbers or nimbly walking the scales on the jazz tunes. The speed, virtuosity and soul these guys and women channeled makes most American gypsy bands pale by comparison.
The band brought two singers. Juci Nemeth sang the higher, more ethereal numbers; Tania Saedi, with her sultry alto voice, handled the jazzier material with a sassy aplomb worthy of Ella Fitzgerald. But it was Nemeth who took the most spectacular flights of the night on a rapidfire, diabolical shuffle right before the encores. Gypsy bands in Budapest bars from the turn of the 19th century through the Nazi invasion played a vast spectrum of music from the dead-serious classical pantheon to the wildest jazz: this concert, with its tangos, swing tunes, explosive cadenzas and expert showmanship brought that world alive again in all its pyrotechnic glory.
Everyone talks about Steve Coleman (who’s got yet another good new album due out, by the way) as being a major influence on the current generation of up-and-coming jazz players, but let’s hope that Dave Douglas is as much of an inspiration. Douglas’ genius is not only as a composer and a player but as a bandleader. Consider the cast he assembled for his most recent two albums. The new one, Time Travel, is missing Aiofe O’Donovan but otherwise the core remains the same: Jon Irabagon on tenor sax; Linda Oh on bass; Rudy Royston on drums, and Matt Mitchell being the one up-and-coming player on piano and immediately elevating himself to the level of the rest of the group. The music here is considerably more exuberant than on Be Still, but it’s just as eclectic, and melodic. Douglas sets a good example with his terseness and focus: the refreshing absence of wasted notes is all the more enjoyable considering that this is rhythmically tricky stuff with plenty of room for expansive soloing.
Oh reconfirims her status as one of the most consistently interesting and purposeful bassists in jazz – she’s always searching, never willing to settle for cliches or a comfortable repetition. Irabagon gets to indulge his various personas, both good cop and bad cop but not mohawk-headed psycho cop or gasp-I’ve-been-wailing-for-ten-minutes-where-now cop. Royston does the Royston Rumble a little less than usual, but that ramps up the suspense. Likewise, Mitchell’s role here is sort of akin to the rhythm guitarist in a rock band, a perfectly executed and architecturally essential if sometimes almost invisible presence.
The opening track, Bridge to Nowhere starts out as a pretty standard postbop swing tune and then adds subtle elements like Irabagon’s microtonal japes, offcenter close harmonies between trumpet and sax and a sotto voce piano solo as the horns drop out. The richly uneasy title cut manages to stagger and be steady at the same time, no mean feat, winding down to a creepy circular piano riff over tense syncopation, Royston kicking off a skittish Mitchell sprint. The real stunner here is Law of Historical Memory with its tense pedalpoint, cumulo-nimbus ambience and brooding anthemic arc, Douglas shadowed by Irabagon, Mitchell and Royston teaming up for an unexpectedly delicious misterioso groove.
Beware of Doug is a fantastic song. It’s inspired by dixieland, but not reverential, a goodnatured slide-step stroll, Oh keeping her solo short and sweet, Royston edging wryly toward surf music. Little Feet gives Douglas a launching pad for some triumphant spiraling over Royston’s judiciously crescendoing clusters and a long, similarly exuberant, swinging statement from Mitchell.
Garden State works a bustling Mad Men era groove. There’s a point early on where Royston hits a clenched-teeth four-bar run of sixteenth notes that makes this whole album worthwhile: the point seems to be that there’s always something in Jersey that makes it impossible to finish the job, and it’s the efforts of everybody involved (especially Oh) that keep it entertaining. The final track is The Pigeon & the Pie, a mini-suite that seemingly could go anywhere and ends up hitting an absolutely gorgeous, lyrical yet bitingly funky Mitchell solo enhanced by Royston’s nimbly jaunty toms and cymbals. On one hand, this album is old news: the world is buzzing about it. On the other hand, this is why.