Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Skuli Sverisson’s Sad, Beautiful Box Tree Suite

One of the most enchanting albums to come over the transom here in recent months is The Box Tree, the duo collaboration by Skuli Sverisson and Oskar Gudjonsson. The production is muted, echoey and emphasizes the low midrange, enhanced by Gudjonsson’s breathy, cantabile timbre. Sverisson plays elegant, brooding arpeggios, terse chords and melodic lines on acoustic bass with a steady rhythmic pulse, as does Gudjonsson’s tenor sax. It’s a theme and variations, and most of it is very sad and poignant. With lyrics, this would be a haunting folk-rock or art-rock record: one can only imagine what the right singer (Erica Smith? Theo Bleckmann?) could do with this.

The suite has ten parts. It begins on an anthemic, angst-fueled note, then takes on a phantasmagorical edge, almost like the Simpsons theme: catchy, but with a dark undercurrent. It goes more lively and lyrical, the sax dancing around, then Sverisson introdues the fourth movement with an agile solo played baroque guitar-style. From there the duo allude to Mediterranean balladry, then contrast carefree sax with the ominous depths below. They sway through an atmospheric waltz and then take the theme more rubato. By now, the foreshadowing has reached a peak: it’s obvious where this will end. There’s a hint of brightness with a free, improvisatory interlude that has little to do with the main theme, then they revert to the sad anthem before ending on a pretty but utterly crushed note. Whatever you call this – rock, folk, jazz or even chamber music – it screams out quietly for a sequel.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | folk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noir Unease and Cinematic Wit on Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations

A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!

Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.

With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.

The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far

July 8, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Finlayson’s Debut As a Bandleader Is Everything You Would Expect

Jonathan Finlayson may have grown up as the teenage wunderkind in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, but he has a distinctive, lyrical voice as both a trumpeter and composer. Moment & the Message, his debut with his ensemble Sicilian Defense – pianist David Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid – is one of the most auspicious in recent memory. This album resonates on an emotional and intellectual level, packed with melody, depth and ideas worth stealing. The Coleman influence is there, no question, especially as far as counterpoint and a more or less continuously dancing rhythm is concerned. Finlayson’s tone is more bronze than brass: lively as this music is, there’s a lot of gravitas here. Verelles gets the enviable task of nailing that dark riffage, sometimes with echoes of another dark but irrepressibly funky pianist, Marc Cary (who has a phenomenal Abbey Lincoln tribute out recently).

The opening track, Circus, is a diptych, a playfully dancing, bouncy theme with a long series of eighths from Finlayson, followed by a brooding, almost stalking modal march anchored by Witty’s sepulchral washes. Bad segue, good music. (WARNING – SPOILER ALERT) Lo Haze works a very clever trajectory: it takes the old trope of stating the head and then messing with it and works it backwards. By the end, this majestic, shuffling march has become a gritty, minimalist soul theme, coalescing methodically through many divergences. Ruy Lopez segues out of it with nonchalant conversations between Finlayson and Okazaki, and later Reid and Virelles. Carthage is portrayed as a vibrant if somewhat ominous place, fueled by Virelles’ emphatic, hard-hitting lefthand.

Tensegrity shifts from an artful, baroque-tinged acoustic guitar intro to a wry scramble between Virelles and Reid, in contrast to the serioso melody. Le Bas-Fond also leaps out of an impressionistic intro, this time from Virelles – it’s the most trad, solos-around-the-horn type thing here. Okazaki’s nimble, spot-on vintage 60s staccato soul guitar spices the insistent chords and tersely pulsing trumpet melody of Tyre.

The big epic here is Fives and Pennies, a tone poem that slowly emerges out from under the piano lid – literally – to a long, methodically wary Finlayson solo and finally some unleashed menace from Virelles on the way out. They return to animated and somewhat more relaxed form to wind up the album with Scaean Gates. Pi Recordings, home base for many of the Coleman posse, gets credit for this one.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist JP Schlegelmilch Reinvents Bill Frisell

Among his many projects, multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch plays in the eclectically tuneful Old Time Musketry, whose debut album Different Times  was ranked among the top fifteen jazz releases of 2012 here last year. His latest album, Throughout: The Music of Bill Frisell, reinterprets compositions from across the career of this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. That these works would translate so well to piano almost goes without saying: Frisell is unsurpassed as a tunesmith. What’s most impressive and enjoyable here is that Schlegelmilch gets it: the lyricism, the bittersweetness, the darkness and also the wit. Most of the material comprises smaller-ensemble pieces from the mid-80s through the 90s, the period where Schlegelmilch probably fell under the composer’s spell.

Throughout, from Frisell’s collaboration with Petra Haden, opens the album, simple lingering rainy-day harmonies edging steadily through shifting shadows, an angst-fueled, elegantly waltzing nocturne. Rag – from the Is That You? album – is a particularly apt choice for piano, veering from lively, precise, Brubeck-esque precision to a more aberrant groove as the song picks up steam. Another track from that album, Twenty Years, the oldest one here, works a brooding modal vamp. Resistor, dating from the 1984 Rambler album, gets reinvented with a suspensefully witty minimalist syncopation and lefthand stride allusions. Hangdog, from Frisell’s 1991 live album, gets a similar, more melodically and rhythmically free treatment before Schlegelmilch gives it a dancingly phantasmagorical, Frank Carlberg-esque edge

There are three tracks here from Frisell’s landmark 1994 album This Land. Jimmy Carter Pt. 2 is reinvented as a hypnotic staccato bounce – this is the Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter, busy putting up shingles. Monica Jane gets a somber gospel noir interpretation, while the title track gives Schlegelmilch a lot of territory to cover and he does, from Lynchian modal ripple and gleam to a panoramic pastorale.

Child At Heart and Beautiful E – a diptych from 1991’s Where in the World – sees Schlegelmilch building guitarlike sustain with a rippling staccato attack before winding down to a judiciously resonant lyricism and then up again with a towering, majestic intensity: it’s the most breathtaking track here. The album winds up with a stunningly straightforward, haunting take of the Elvis Costello collaboration Deep Dead Blue, going deep inside to find its pitchblende core. It’s a brilliant way to end this fascinating and often riveting album, a good segue with Frisell’s just-released Big Sur.

July 4, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Uneasily Beautiful Album from Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell has a new album out, Big Sur. It’s Pacific Coast pastoral jazz commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist joined by his quintet: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. This may be the sunnier side of Frisell, but there’s a persistent unease that recurs throughout the album: lively and lithe as much of this music is, it’s deep. A couple of themes and variations are interspersed throughout a mix of songs that don’t miss the bass: in places, Frisell’s guitar loops or Roberts’ pizzicato carry a bassline, others don’t address it. Where that happens, the songs make tremendous practice pieces for bass, a challenge to match the minimalism and focus of the rest of the band.

There’s a dancing West African-flavored theme. There’s also a stately march with a considerably more apprehensive edge, moving from the emphatic Going to California with its warm, major-key jangle anchored in overdubbed lows with hints of noir, to the jaunty but wary strut and close harmonies of Gather Good Things, to the spare, understated title track. Highway 1 may be an elegant Sunday drive in one of Jay Leno’s old Pierce-Arrows rather than a hotrod theme, but again, Frisell grounds a persistent eeriness in the low registers: by the end, the funky beat has given way to a sway and a low roar.  The most gripping, and characteristically Frisellian track here might be Shacked Up, with its ambling, blues-tinted, almost cruelly surrealistic Lynchian Pacific Northwest atmosphere.

But there’s humor here too. The Big One has Frisell and the strings doing a tongue-in-cheek faux Ventures impression. If you want to hear Rudy Royston almost play a surf beat – he refuses to completely Mel Taylor it – this is for you. We All Love Neil Young is a playful homage to Shakey’s catchy folk side, Scheinman getting the lead line. And Walking Stick (for Jim Cox) is Frisell at his most jovial and carefree as the band switches up the meter from a ballad to an oldfashioned C&W stroll.

Other highlights include the lively, cinematic Hawks, a syncopated English reel of sorts; Cry Alone, which is more steadily reflective than plaintive; the swaying folk-rock Song for Lana Weeks and the closing track, Far Away, with its unexpected grit and ambiguity barely beneath its windswept terrain. Here, Frisell finally allows himself a few bars’ worth of a solo that quickly tiptoes into the shadows. Where does this fall in the Frisell pantheon? Somewhere in the middle, which makes it one of the best albums of the year.

July 2, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment