Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mostly Other People Do the Killing Rip Decades of Hot Jazz to Shreds

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest release on their Hot Cup label, Red Hot, is the great lost Spike Jones instrumental album. It’s the New York band’s most cartoonish, and also most accessible album: punk jazz doesn’t get any better, or more caustically funny than this. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott insists that this is the best thing the group has ever done, and he’s right. Over the past few years, MOPDtK have parodied everything from post-Ornette sounds to 70s and 80s elevator jazz. But with 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give this genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. This is one sick record. This time out, the core of the band, including Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans is bolstered by bass trombone legend David Taylor, pianist Ron Stabinsky and banjo shredder Brandon Seabrook.

Underneath the incessant jokes, there’s a method to the madness. They bedevil each other with the uneven meters common in hot jazz.  Seabrook adds an ever-present mosquito buzz as he tremolo-picks his strings, ad nauseum: even if you love the banjo, you will get sick of hearing from him. That’s part of the plan. Taylor, the first bass trombonist to ever play a solo show at Carnegie Hall, is in his eighth decade and has never tired of taking on a challenge, and fits in perfectly: he’s one of the funniest members of the cast.

As usual, most of the song titles refer to Pennsylvania towns. The Shickshinny Shimmy works a vaudevillian swing with droll comedic japes from the banjo and bass trombone,  morphing into a vaguely latin vamp and then back; a simplistic three-chord cliche gets in the way. Zelionople opens with a ridiculously long drum solo and then shuffles along with repeated breaks for tomfoolery every time the bass and drums drop out, a trope that repeats throughout the album with surprisingly interesting results. Taylor’s silly downsliding hands off to Evans, who disappears with a clam in his throat, then reappears as Irabagon shadows him with his tongue stuck out.

The title track,  a tongue-in-cheek march, goes doublespeed a la Spike Jones, Irabagon having a field day, mealymouthed and psyched to halfheartedly spoof dixieland along with the rest of the band. King of Prussia has a priceless ADD piano intro and solo from Stabinsky, spitball-in-waiting suspense from Seabrook and dorky acents from Evans. Turkey Foot Corner has Elliott imitating a tabla and introducing a barnyard scenario, Taylor aptly quoting a familar Wizard of Oz lick, Evans’ not-quite-there solo over Seabrook’s omnipresent deadpan woodpecker banjo.

Seabrook, Power, Plant explores the Romany influence on hot jazz, working its way down to a Nino Rota-on-acid bolero. Orange Is the Name of the Town jams out a faux sentimental waltz with weepy muted trumpet accents and a long interlude that Stabinsky slowly and hilariously unravels, lefthand and righthand oblivious to each other.

There are two more tracks. Gum Stump makes fun of blues cliches, Shea’s refusal to stay on track one of the album’s best jokes, Seabrook and Taylor muttering their disapproval. The last track, a hi-de-ho Cab Calloway shuffle, is a mess by the time they hit the second turnaround, Irabagon mealymouthing his first solo and practically regurgitating his second one, going out on a deadpan serious note. Don’t count on that next time around. The album comes complete with liner notes by “Leonardo Featheweight,” this time taking the story of a smoldering Pennsylvania ghost town to its logical conclusion.

August 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Spermic Brotherhood Fathers a Poltergeist

Despite the sepulchral allusions of the title, free jazz trio the Spermic Brotherhood’s new album Ghosts of the Holy Spermic Brotherhood is high-energy and somewhat assaultive. They’re more of an animal poltergeist. Drummers Michael Evans and David Grollman utilize a large toolshed of bangable objects – and balloons – while Andy Haas supplies alto sax as well as piri and hojok. There’s also an electronic component here which doesn’t usually make itself clear, nor does it turn out to be intrusive. Much of this album is a big game of hide-and-seek: who’s playing what, and who’s behind that sheet? What sheet? What do you mean, where did it go?

The album’s eleven tracks are numbered rather than titled, per se. Long sostenuto tones over furtive, muted cymbals and metallic rustle and bustle rise to a squall over a small snowstorm, and then recede to blippiness. Eerie washes of scraped cymbals against rising rubato percussion accents grow to an evil, swirling vortex of keening overtones. A distant moan bobs to the surface and then hovers just above it as a wood flute joins the thicket, receding to an ominous echoey circular riff. Squirrelly clusters with shards of a fanfare, theremin-like wavering tones hand off to an imitation of shortwave radio signals over stately rhythm and then give way to a tense, portentous rattle, wipes of overtones (is that the balloons?) and calm wood flute against an anxious, muted bustle. The suspense is relentless.

Ghostly gamelan allusions pave the way to more of the agitated/calm dichotomy, crescendoing and then quavering for a haunted house atmosphere where Haas establishes the album’s most genuinely ghostly ambience. The ninth track is where the most animatedly sepulchral hijinks take place, followed by a jajouka-ish interlude – the most melodically interesting thing here- and then a more subdued shadow image of the opening theme, such that it is. It’s an interesting blend of the unexpected along with purposeful teamwork that holds the mood together, something for adventurous listeners as well as fellow free jazzers looking for good ideas.

August 13, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christian McBride Strips It Down to a Trio

How does Christian McBride keep making albums? Between the PBS gig and the constant touring, whether as bandleader or sideman, it’s a wonder he gets anything else done. And he’s got another album out, Out Here, on Mack Avenue, a trio project of all things with Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owens on drums. This particular configuration took shape when Steve Wilson and Warren Wolf couldn’t make an Inside Straight gig and instead of calling out for subs, McBride decided to do the show as a trio. First thought, best thought. Conceptually, it pretty much follows the same tangent as McBride’s latest album of originals with Inside Straight, People Music. If that was the party, this is the afterparty. It’s a blues album, more or less.

They open by sneaking their way into the minor blues Ham Hocks & Cabbage – Owens crashes a bit, McBride walks, Sands pounces a little, underscoring Owens’ emphatic solo. I Guess I’ll Have to Forget gets an expansve, low-key bolero simmer, McBride’s wry tiptoeing solo handing off to an impressionistic, Debussyesque Sands – and they then join voices and raise the dance. Easy Walker starts out genial, with a slow build, and then they swing it with a Wouldn’t You Be Nice to Come Home To vibe.

While My Favorite Things might seem a nonsensical choice without the sax, they reinvent it as an explosive romp: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS, DAMMIT! East of the Sun & West of the Moon works its way slowly into a spacious, syncopated swing, a vehicle for precise, animated McBride solos. Cherokee messes up the tempos with Sands’ wicked, blistering solos, McBride’s solo trading with the drums and offering relief from the red-zone intensity. More bitter than sweet, I Have Dreamed sees McBride bowing somberly over wary, judicious piano, a stark contrast with what preceded it. The album winds up with Who’s Making Love and its pulsing Another One Rides the Bus vibe, and seems like it could be a lark until a solid, hard-hitting, bluesy Sands solo. The one track here that sounds like an alternate take is the rapidfire Hallelujah Time – they come soooooo close to nailing it but don’t quite hit it, and given that they’re confident enough to tackle it at all at such high velocity, it’s a good bet that another take would have been the one.

August 9, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Halvorson’s Vivid Illusionary Sea: One of 2013’s Best Albums

One night at Issue Project Room [wild guess], Anthony Braxton took guitarist Mary Halvorson aside. “You know, you should write more for large ensemble,” he told her. And she did. Her latest Firehouse 12 release with her all-star septet –  Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Jacob Garchik on trombone, John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums – is a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. She’s leading a series of ensembles at the Stone for a week starting August 13 with sets at 8 and 10 PM. It’s a great opportunity to see one of the most individualistic and intelligent composers in jazz – who’s also an equally individualistic, intelligent player – for relatively cheap in a comfortably intimate room.

Google Halvorson and you may get the impression that she’s somebody at the fringe of jazz, which isn’t true at all. Cutting-edge as her music is, it’s extremely accessible. Here she keeps a group of extremely strong personalities on task throughout a collection of lush but biting compositions, all but the concluding track hers. Smith’s drumming in particular is fantastic – it’s amazing how straightforwardly he plays these tunes while coloring them with his signature, irrepressible, playful wit.

The title track deftly works a circular hook into shifting shades, rising and falling, Finlayson leading the way early on, alternating voices and then Halvorson adding a hint of plinky unease before the arrangement fades down elegantly with dissociative echo effects. Complex yet memorable and not a little suspenseful, it sets the stage. Smiles of Great Men offers low-key sarcasm, a sense that not all is as it should be growing from Halvorson and Hebert’s chordal teamwork to a steady horn-driven crescendo, Halvorson bobbing and weaving uneasily and allusively toward a steely modality. Irabagon steps out of character to provide a sense of calm and then is himself as he veers away, the rhythm section holding it together as the horns chatter.

The richly vivid tableau Red Sky Still Sea builds from skeletal to lustrous, Halvorson’s eerily gorgeous solo elevating to a majestic sway and then the band backs away, Finlayson sailing it to a flamenco-tinged guitar-bass part. Halvorson’s gentle tremolo-picking counterintuitively brings it down to a mutedly dancing Hebert solo – as Finlayson quietly flutters, is this the seaside bugs coming out at night? The sarcasm returns with Four Pages of Robots, essentially a one-chord jam, its coldly mechanical cheer lit up by deft handoffs all around, Irabagon’s faux-dramatics, Garchik echoing Finlayson’s solo on the previous track, Halvorson back in the mix but wailing with a snarling, skronky, noisy attack that finally takes it out with a bang. That’s where she stays through pretty much the whole album: she always leaves you wanting more.

She evokes Steve Ulrich via creepy, tensely reverbtoned lines painting it flat black and then eventually spiraling down to flamenco allusions on Fourth Dimensional Confession, Smith’s low-key cool anchoring a moodily pulsing backdrop: it might be the album’s best track. Another killer cut is Butterfly Orbit with its tango allusions, sharp-fanged guitar hooks, Halvorson using an envelope pedal for an Elliott Sharp-like tone. A squirrelly alto-and-drums duel goes machinegunning and then the whole thing completely falls apart, Halvorson leading the way, keening and burning as Hebert pulls everybody away from the flames. The album closes with a take of Philip Catherine’s Nairam, its long crescendo evocative of the Ravel Bolero, Halvorson in echoey, pensively atmospheric mode as the clave kicks in and then recedes. This is a great late-night album, ominous yet jeweled with shifts in mood, tempo and dynamics – and not a little dry wit – to keep you awake and on edge.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Banjo Player Jayme Stone Explores Lush, Global Jazz and Classical Sounds

Jayme Stone is the world’s most adventurous banjo player. His previous album World of Wonders explored music from across the centuries from Bulgaria, Ireland, Brazil, Germany and Italy, to name a few places. His album before that was a collaboration with Malian Kora player Mansa Sissoko  As you might expect from someone with such a global appetite, the theme of his latest album The Other Side of the Air is travel. While the banjo is a featured instrument on several of the tracks, others focus more on Stone’s eclectic compositional skill. It turns out that he’s also adept at modern big band jazz and indie classical as well as the innumerable other styles he’s parsed over the years. Is there anything this guy CAN’T do?

What’s also interesting is that there’s hardly a hint of bluegrass here: more often than not, Stone’s banjo sounds more like an African lute – which, when you think about it, it is. A couple of tracks here revisit Stone’s African fascination, one a bounding number with  Rob Mosher on tenor sax, Andrew Downing on bass and Nick Fraser on drums, the other a catchy tune with echoes of both the blues and Malian folk, no doubt inspired by Stone’s work with Sissoko. The Cinnamon Route features Stone and the band along with a chamber orchestra, imagining the spice trade as it makes its way from India, through the Middle East, to North Africa. Kevin Turcotte’s trumpet gets a lively conversation going with the banjo as they cross the Mediterranean and reach anthemic heights.

The rest of the album mines a vivid third-stream milieu. Sing It Right, one of Stone’s first compositions, works an uneasy circus rock theme, Stone plinking steadily as the orchestra rises and falls, nocturnal and enveloping, Mosher adding jaunty soprano sax as the arrangement grows to a lush exuberance a la Chris Jentsch.  A Poet In Her Own Country makes a sharp contrast, an allusive, pensive  theme. exchanges of voices within its tight arrangement. Debussy Heights reminds more of Schubert with its triumphant baroque-tinged counterpoint and cinematically pulsing crescendo.

The album’s centerpiece is This County Is My Home. an even more cinematic, four-part concerto for banjo and chamber orchestra by Downing, who conducts. A droll but disquieting cartoonish theme recurs throughout its eclectic segments, including but not limited to a brisk but wary march, a bit of a ragtime stroll, minimalist banjo passages over nebulous strings and winds, a brief, apprehensive solo banjo interlude and a long, dynamically charged, blustery, carnivalesque coda. The other tracks here are Alexander Island, a  stately banjo-and-strings miniature, and a nocturnal version of the Tennessee Waltz, with just the banjo, rhythm section and sax. You want eclectic? Look no further. Stone and a somewhat smaller ensemble than he has on this album are at Joe’s Pub on Aug 11 at 7:30 PM for $15.

August 5, 2013 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frank Wess’ Magic 101: Truth in Advertising

Tenor sax legend Frank Wess has a new album out, Magic 101 with Kenny Barron on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Winard Harper on drums. The title is apt. If you heard this without knowing the backstory, you might think that it makes a good, warmly purist companion piece to the recent Harry Allen/Ehud Asherie albums, and you’d be right. The backstory, of course, is that Wess was 89 when he recorded this (he’s 91 now) and is at the absolute top of his game as tunesmith through a mix of familiar standards, a couple of awe-inspiring duets with Barron, an original and a solo piece. The vibe is the same as on the two memorable Hank and Frank albums he made with Hank Jones in the past decade; casual but deep in the tradition, and in the feeling that tradition implies.

From the first note, it’s obvious that the band is amped through the roof to play with him – and they hang back, and they chill because that’s what he’s doing most of the time. Wess hits the opening track,  Say It Isn’t So with a blippy Dexter Gordon-ish nonchalance that  picks up as it goes along. There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment here where Harper switches to a vaudevillian shuffle on the ride cymbal, and then it all comes together. Barron’s solos here rank with anything he’s ever recorded: the neoclassical fanfare he hides in the middle of the third verse is absolutely delicious.

The Very Thought of You is a Barron feature, with some richly lingering upper register lines that sound as it he’s playing an electric piano. Harper’s subtle brushwork underscores an unselfconsciously deep, nunaced Wess solo on the first verse – it’s amazing how much control and range he still has, to rival anyone a fifth his age!  The sole Wess original here, Pretty Lady, is a duet with Barron, the pianist’s coloristic, judicious lyricism against balmy sax, picking up unexpectedly with My Funny Valentine echoes. Another duet,  Come Rain or Come Shine works the same vein, Barron in more of a ragtime mode against Wess’ mistiness, moving through gospel and then hitting an unexpectedly chilling couple of bars and then lingering in a noir ending. Wow!

Easy Living serves as an almost ten-minute launching pad for Wess’ warmly exploratory, richly blues-infused soloing, Davis leading the band through a subtle series of tempo shifts as it slowly picks up steam. Likewise, the bassist tackles Blue Monk with a determination not to walk simple blues change and the rest of the band follows, Barron choosing his spots, Wess taking it as high as he goes on this album. Wess ends it with a solo tenor rendition of All Too Soon, a clinic in allusive implied melody and how to choose a spot. Long may he play things like this.

August 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment