Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

John Funkhouser’s Darkly Glimmering New Album: One of 2013’s Best

Pianist John Funkhouser’s previous album, Time, was a rhythmically challenging but tunefully Brubeckian trio effort. His new one, Still, puts more of an emphasis on the tunesmithing, with potently dynamic results: it’s one of this year’s best piano jazz albums. Two of the top players in the Boston scene, Greg Loughman and Mike Connors, play bass and drums, respectively, along with guest appearances from guitarist Phil Sargent and chanteuse Aubrey Johnson.

The opening narrative, Indigo Montoya’s Great Escape sounds like Marc Cary’s Focus Trio burning through a Kenny Garrett tune, rippling its way quickly to a percussive latin vamp, its back-and-forth variations from murky and minimal tracing a memorably moody upward trajectory. The band practically segues out of it with a dirgey version of House of the Rising Sun, a feature for Loughman’s tersely mournful bowed lines juxtaposed with the bandleader’s similarly terse piano and an expansive gravel-pit of a drum solo that makes an understatedly potent coda. One of Funkhouser’s standout compositions here, The Deep contrasts his stygian, judiciously spaced block chords and Sargent’s atmospherics with Loughman and Connors’ increasingly funky polyrhythms, psychedelic funk up against warmly Frisellian pastoral colors…..and then a boogie?!?

Funkhouser and Loughman reinvent Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance as a duet with a lyrical third-stream glimmer, Connors finally roaming in from the perimeter and introducing some unexpected metric shifts. By contrast, Monk’s Little Rootie Tootie is a dancing, wryly syncopated feature for Sargent’s reverb-drenched, methodical, crescendoingly insistent lines. Leda coalesces from a gothically catchy neoromantic theme to a dark waltz, Johnson working the eerie/calm atmosphere with her icily opaque, literally bone-chilling upper-register vocalese, Loughman’s balletesque solo echoing her later on. Then they pick up the pace with Shakedown, a witty, richly nuanced noir stroll that’s essentially a Monk homage. The concluding, title track is Funkhouser’s Middle Eastern noir piece de resistance, echoing both Vijay Iyer as well as Cary’s take on the Erik Satie book with its resonant, hauntingly allusive midrange piano, Loughman and Connors in turn working the mysterioso depths and then rising in tandem with Funkhouser as the other solos. It’s too slow and haunting to be dizzying; Krysztof Komeda (whose darker themes Funkhouser sometimes evokes here) might well have called it astigmatic.

October 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra Resurrects Rare, Darkly Pioneering Cinematic Swing

Trumpeter Brian Carpenter‘s Ghost Train Orchestra has most recently capitalized on the nuevo moldy fig jazz market; their 2011 album Hothouse Stomp was an irresistibly frantic romp through the books of obscure hot jazz bandleaders Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams. But Carpenter has roots in noir music, from his days with Boston band Beat Circus in the early 90s, so the Ghost Train Orchestra’s new album Book of Rhapsodies is something of a return to form. When it’s not, it’s a mix of early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s. There will be some listeners who see the cd sleeve art or the Raymond Scott compositions and assume that this is kitsch, or will misuse the word “ironic” in describing it, both of which would be a mistake

Beyond the frequent noir, there’s a winking, sotto vocce “see if they get it” to many of these compositions, but that’s less musician-insiderness than simply tongue-in-cheek fun. The album opens with Charlie’s Prelude, by Louis Singer (who wrote charts for the pioneering cult favorite John Kirby Sextet in the 30s), turning the immortal Chopin E Minor Prelude into a borrowed Black & Tan Fantasy with a bluesy slink and a broodingly resonant trombone lead from Curtis Hasselbring. Beethoven Riffs On, also by Singer, swings a theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with a latin-tinged hi-de-ho bounce. Carpenter and ensemble rescue British composer Reginald Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra) from obscurity with a dixieland scamper spiced with the occasional eerie flourish from Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet. And Carpenter’s arrangement of another Foresythe track, Revolt of the Yes Men gives banjoist Brandon Seabrook a chance to buzz and be a tremolo-picking thorn in the side of the orchestra and their intricate exchange of voices; it’s more revolutionary than simply having been ahead of its 1936 era.

Dawn on the Desert, by Kirby Sextet trumpeter Charlie Shavers, does Gershwin’s Summertime as a Hollywood hijaz nocturne, Carpenter’s moody trumpet exchanging with Avi Bortnick’s ominously tremoloing guitar, then morphs into a skronky march reminscent of late 80s John Zorn. The album’s centerpieces, more or less, come from the Alec Wilder catalog: the lushly orchestrated, suspiciously deadpan Dance Man Buys a Farm (an apt juxtaposition with Raymond Scott’s The Happy Farmer); the more moody, tensely pulsing It’s Silk, Feel It; The Children Meet the Train, which is Old Man River thinly disguised at doublespeed; and Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious, which with its sudden jump-cut phrasing is the closest thing here to Scott’s Looney Tunes soundtracks.

There are also a couple additional, absolutely killer tracks from the Scott catalog. At An Arabian House Party works a creepy noir swing fueled by Bortnick’s jagged, Steve Ulrich-esque guitar in place of the original harpsichord part, like Beninghove’s Hangmen playing it very close to the vest. And Celebration on the Planet Mars, with its surreal,  atmospheric swells and fades, serves as a magic carpet for the rest of the ensemble to take for an unselfconsciously joyous, vaudevillian ride. The rest of this edition of the band includes Andy Laster on alto sax; Petr Cancura on tenor sax and clarinet; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba, Michael Bates on bass and Rob Garcia on drums. Their previous album spent a long time at the top of the Billboard jazz charts; one suspects this will do the same. They play the album release show at Subculture at 8 PM on Oct 26.

October 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweeping Orchestral Big Band Jazz from Idan Santhaus

The big band compositions on Idan Santhaus‘ new Posi-tone album There You Are have steady tempos, bright colors and a slowly unfolding melodicism, sort of a reverse image of Bob Belden’s darkly panoramic Animation project. Santhaus honed his chops as a teenage flutist with the Haifa Youth Orchestra in his native Israel; as you might expect from someone with a classical background and a stint in Jim McNeely’s BMI Composers Workshop, his compositions are third-stream, straight down the middle between classical and jazz, sort of a Maria Schneider Junior. This is big band jazz with an orchestral sweep rather than beefed-up blues or swing, an ensemble project rather than a launching pad for a lot of expansive soloing – which isn’t a bad thing at all. If you can’t wait til Schneider’s next album, this will tide you over.

Much of the opening track, After All is a simple one-chord overture whose waves grow harder the brass rising over an insistent Jon Gordon alto sax solo. Tempo Rarely climbs out of a tensely suspenseful intro to rising and crashing flamenco allusions, then bookends a slinkily swinging, noirish interlude with a funky full-ensemble pulse. The title track begins with suspenseful low sheets punctuated by drum bursts, Santhaus’ own flute terse over a bossa beat. Frank Basile adds a goodnatured, even wry counterbalance on bari sax  as it builds.

Now I Feel Like It, Now I Don’t works variations on a catchy singalong hook around a moody bridge of sorts, Matt Garrison’s lingering tenor sax exchanging with Thomas Barber’s more carefree trumpet. Purple and Yellow, a slow late summer tableau sets resonant sostenuto harmonies under James O’Connor’s emphatic trumpet and another smoky excursion from Basile. A Place I Know brings back a summery bossa soul groove, a feature for Michael Dease’s lyrical trombone and Ben Kono’s lively soprano sax, pianist Deanne Witkowski underscoring it with a purist bluesiness.

Change of Season plays off a brightly funky central riff, Mark Small’s tenor solo following the ensemble on a darker trajectory, Andy Hunter’s trombone holding the center over a marionettish dance fueled by the high reeds. High Maintenance starts out as a lustrous ballad and morphs into a pouncing swing tune: it’s the most trad track here. The album winds up with Nothing Yet?!?, taking a somber minor blues riff slowly upward with a brooding bolero pulse. There are two ensembles here, one with eighteen members, the other with sixteen, many of the players appearing in both, tight and seamless all around.

October 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dan Willis’ Satie Project II: Best Album of the Year?

Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen’s second Satie Project album is arguably the best jazz album of 2013. That is, if you buy the idea that there could be such a thing as a single top album among this year’s best releases, or that twisted covers of proto-minimalist late Romantic/early Modernist music should be allowed to count alongside original compositions. Willis’ new arrangements of Satie pieces might as well be originals, considering how gleefully and evilly he reimagines them.  Most of Erik Satie’s repertoire was actually much more upbeat than the macabre pieces Willis has selected for inclusion here, but it’s the macabre that has stood the test of time far better than the clever and often droll ragtime hits Satie wrote to pay the bills. Willis plays pretty much every reed instrument ever invented here, including but not limited to oboe, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. Ron Oswanski gets many of the choicest moments here, on B3 organ, Wurlitzer and accordion, alongside Pete McCann on guitar, Kermit Driscoll on bass and the Claudia Quintet’s John Hollenbeck on drums.

Gnossienne No. 7 gets reinvented as murderously twinkling, shuffling Isaac Hayes wah funk, Gnossienne No. 6 as jaunty swing tune driven by Entcho Todorov’s suspiciously carefree violin. Although the versions of Pieces Froide No. 1 and the first of three takes of the main theme of Vexations (Satie’s famous eighteen-hour loop) here follow a steady beat, the way the band completely veers off center while keeping steady and totally deadpan is as amusing as it is disconcerting – this music literally makes you dizzy.

Gnossienne No. 5, a pensively atmospheric oboe feature, is the closest thing to the original here. Gnossienne No. 3 gets whispery noir vocals and a slippery, icy lead line that might be a slide guitar, or Willis’ EWI (electronic wind instrument). Pieces Froide No. 7 is redone as a chamber work that also doesn’t deviate far from the source, while the second alternate take of the Vexations theme goes completely off the rails as the organ and alto sax, and then the rest of the band diverge.

Gnossienne No. 4 gets a creepy crime jazz interpretation with plaintive soprano sax over lingering, red-neon tremolo guitar arpeggios. Gnossienne No. 2 follows a similarly noir trajectory up to a lurid if more energetic ba-BUMP organ groove. Pieces Froide No. 2 brings back a stately chamber jazz ambience; the album winds up with its longest number, the Vexations theme revisited with a wicked, diabolically surreallist microtonal flair that the composer would no doubt love if he was still with us. For Satie fans, this is a must-own; for that matter, this is a feast for any fan of dark, creepy music. Forget just about any other Halloween soundtrack you might have: this is the real deal.

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

A Lustrously Balanced, Cohesive Opening to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s New Season

It was good to see a pretty packed house for the Greenwich Village Orchestra ‘s first concert of the 2013-14 season earlier this evening in the big, newly renovated auditorium cattycorner from Irving Plaza on lower Irving Place. They’ve been a downtown favorite since the 90s, serving up Carnegie Hall-class programming at considerably reduced prices (a $15 donation, which would get you a nosebleed seat, at best, on 57th Street, was all that was being asked, including a reception to follow). First on the bill was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, one of those famous pieces that you know even if you think you don’t (classical radio stations often program it at about 45 minutes past the hour since it will take you pretty much all the way to the top). Early on, it was clear that this would be about pillowy nocturnal sonics contrasting with deftly pulsing insistence. There was a calm methodology but also an unselfconscious joy in conductor Barbara Yahr’s presence on the podium – and a twinkle in her eye when Beethoven’s signature humor made itself known, whether there and gone in a second, or in the when-is-this-going-to-end series of surprises as it wound out.

A slightly lesser-known work was next on the bill, the orchestra’s Raman Ramakrishan the featured soloist in Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. Yahr and the ensemble gave it a seamless, matter-of-factly assured rendition. The work follows a familiar trajectory from apprehension to triumph with many stops in between, the orchestra reaching into its nuances, playing up the composer’s highly balanced approach. Lustrous winds and brass countered balmy strings, with Ramakrishnan taking more the role of a complementary player than front-and-center soloist. Which fit the piece perfectly: aside from some bracing Romany-tinged acrobatics for the cello, this particular role is more about melody and purpose than ostentation, embraced warmly by the whole group.

The piece de resistance was Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a deftly and intricately orchestrated and altogether underappreciated work. From the unfettered angst fluttering from the cellos as it opened, this turned out to be a richly epic, minutely jeweled, darkly sweeping interpretation, a storm to get completely lost in. Franck’s main axe was the organ – his works for that instrument are some of the 19th century’s most memorable – and there are places in this symphony which hint that it might have been composed on that instrument, with particularly choice, tersely delivered moments from Phil Rashkin’s english horn, Margery Fitts’ harp, Phil Fedora’s bassoon and Shannon Bryant’s oboe. What’s most artful about this piece is that the composer juxtaposes two radically different main themes, one troubled, the other a series of rather cloying, sentimental, pastoral varations that gradually and almost imperceptibly become more enigmatic and ultimately triumphant – rags to riches, musically speaking. And considering the era this piece comes from, there would seem to be a temptation to go for schmaltz with them. But that wasn’t the case: again, calmly and matter-of-factly, Yahr brought them in at the end with an emphatic sense of victory. Depth had won out against what for a moment seemed would be difficult odds.

Yahr leads the orchestra again on November 17 at 3 PM with guest violinist Itamar Zorman playing Moshe Zorman’s Galilean Suite plus Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and the Brahms Violin Concerto at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place at 17th St., $15 sugg don, reception to follow.

October 6, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Auspicious Peek at Next Year’s Montreal Chamber Music Festival

What’s the likelihood of being able to see a meticulously dynamic performance of Anton Arenski’s rarely staged String Quartet No. 2, Op, 35? This work – the only one in the string quartet repertoire for violin, viola and two cellos – was the pièce de résistance, a feast of low tonalities, at a private preview concert in midtown two nights ago for the upcoming Montreal Chamber Music Festival, scheduled for May 8-31 of next year. Whether this particular piece will make a reappearance onstage there is a mystery, but if the performance is any indication, this edition of the festival is going to be a hard-to-resist excuse for a Montreal vacation next May.

That the festival’s impresario, Denis Brott, is one of the world’s prominent cellists, gives the annual celebration an instant boost. He opened the night’s program, paired up with Benoit Loiselle (of Les Violons du Roy), for the Duet for Two Cellos, No. 1, Op. 22 by Friedrich August Kummer. This German composer was one of the 19th century’s prominent cellists and knew everybody from Beethoven through Brahms – and played their music, said Brott. Together, the former teacher and student gave the triptych a darkly dancing pulse through its animated counterpoint and stern, ambered passages. Brott then teamed up with violinist Giora Schmidt for a jaunty, rhythmic romp through four selections from Reinhold Gliere’s Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello.

Before the night’s full ensemble played the Arenski quartet, violist Barry Shiffman (formerly of the St. Lawrence Quartet), emphasized the festival’s role as crucible for musicians looking to make serendipitous connections with their fellow performers, not to mention the kind of alchemy that can result when like-minded players are inspired to join forces onstage. The implication, of course, was that this was a typical example. And much as the work has a brooding aspect that draws heavily on Russian Orthodox plainchant (and a familiar Tschaikovsky theme), it was a fun choice. The group could just as easily have done the Grosse Fugue – imagine the wheels turning, “why not, it’s a showstopper, a finger-bruiser, but everybody loves it?” But that would have been obvious. It’s good to see a group that wants to avoid the obvious, especially when it comes to music that’s a hundred years old or older. The full lineup for 2014’s festival isn’t up yet, but their website is here.

October 4, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerful, Purposeful New York Concert by Pianist George-Emmanuel Lazaridis

Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall, Greek pianist George-Emmanuel Lazaridis played a powerful, determinedly intuitive performance of Schubert and Liszt plus his own works, which were the most interesting and dynamic of all the pieces on the bill. Lazaridis showed off world-class technique but also world-class touch: the murmurs carried just as much weight as the crushing cadenzas.

He opened with Schubert’s “Wanderer” Sonata, which as he played it didn’t wander at all: this was an epic with a clear trajectory and denouement, through the cruelly difficult, machinegunning counterpoint of the big block chords on the opening allegro movement, a vividly cantabile take of the adagio and then a dazzling climb to the big, Beethovenesque payoff at the end. Lazaridis’ unwaveringly decisive central tempo and matter-of-factness gave him a strong central anchor for Schubert’s colorful digressions and ornamentation.

He closed the program with Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, S. 178, which is sort of Liszt for people who don’t like Liszt. He began and eventually ended with an almost rubato approach to the composers’s lingering, minimalistically rapt themes, saving plenty of firepower for the characteristically Lisztian, wide-angle pyrotechnics. But the highlight of the bill was a trio of segments from Lazaridis’ own Trojan Cycle. The concert’s emcee explained beforehand that the suite is not meant to be a blow-by-blow portrayal of the Iliad but an exploration of its characters’ emotional currents, particularly their overwhelming sense of doom. This came immediately to the surface on the enigmatically brooding Achilles Mourning, where the warrior sees his own end and everyone else’s around him coming up over the horizon. Artfully blending twelve-tone acidity and moodily narrative neoromanticism, it set the stage for Andromache, which in many ways was a history of the piano beginning with Schumann, through Alban Berg and Schoenberg and then back in time again, a hauntingly surreal portrait lit up with all sorts of unexpected rhythmic and dynamic shifts. The final piece was the Battlefield Toccata, which segued aptly with the Liszt: it was the most cinematic, and explosive, of all Lazaridis’ original works on this bill and a tantalizing encouragement for the packed house to go looking for the rest of the suite. This concert was presented by the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation; if the rest of their programming is like this, it’s worth seeking out.

October 2, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment