John Scott, one of this era’s most extraordinary and beloved talents in both classical and sacred music, died suddenly on August 12 in Manhattan after suffering a heart attack. He was 59. The iconic organist and choirmaster had just completed a six-week concert tour of Europe and Scandinavia. He leaves behind his wife Lily and her unborn child, as well as two children from a previous marriage.
Scott was the rare artist whose virtuosity was matched by an intuitive, almost supernatural ability to channel a piece of music’s emotional content. If you want to understand Mendelssohn’s relentless drive, Messiaen’s awestruck mysticism or Bach’s neuron-expanding wit, listen to a recording by John Scott. It’s impossible to imagine a better or more emotionally attuned interpretation of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas than Scott’s 1992 double-cd collection.
A humble, soft-spoken man with a very subtle, distinctly British sense of humor, Scott was happiest when he could share his erudition and insight into the many centuries’ worth of music that he had immersed himself in since childhood. He worked tirelessly and vigorously despite what was often a herculean workload, first at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and from 2004 until his death at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan where he was organist, music director and led the world-famous choir of men and boys.
Scott’s legacy as a recording artist is vast: he both played and recorded most of the standard repertoire for organ including the major symphonic works of Vierne, Messiaen, Widor and Durufle. He toured and performed tirelessly: his Buxtehude and Messiaen concert cycles are legendary. While gifted with dazzling technique, Scott was not a flamboyant player per se: though he could fire off torrential cascades and volleys of thunderous pedal notes as nimbly as anyone alive, he made those pyrotechnics all the more effective through his meticulous attention to dynamics, and, especially when playing Bach, his imaginative and thoughtful registrations. And every now and then, he’d throw caution to the wind, drop his guard and play entertainer: one of his final recitals at St. Thomas featured a droll Jean Guillou arrangement of the march from Prokofiev’s Love For the Three Oranges (better known to a generation of Americans as the FBI Theme).
Scott’s knowledge of and passion for choral music matched his skill as an organist, beginning in his childhood years as a chorister in Yorkshire. A noted scholar and arranger of plainchant, he served as mentor and inspiration for literally hundreds of singers who passed through St. Thomas’ choir.
A memorial service will be held at 11 AM on September 12, 2015 at St. Thomas Church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd St. A memorial service in the UK will follow.
Singer and jazz composer Allegra Levy is a big-picture person. Her debut album Lonely City – streaming at Spotify – is less about the absence of affection and those who might provide it than it is about fullscale alienation. On a philosophical level, this New York jazz stylist captures the soul-crushing reality of a city where jazz artists under 40 are a rarity. On one level, there’s no lack of an indigenous talent base, as there should be in a city of ostensibly eight million. On the other, even native-born artists like Levy have never faced such a rigorous challenge simply paying the bills. Maybe that’s why she jumped at the chance to do a longterm Hong Kong gig last year. Singing in a cool, protean, enigmatic alto with a talented band behind her, she’s playing Cornelia Street Cafe on August 18 at 8:30 PM; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.
What sets Levy apart from the hundreds of women scatting around with microphones is that she writes her own songs: every number on the album is an original, no small achievement. The opening track is a sophisticated, swinging take on a cabaret sound that goes back to the 30s. “Anxiety, stay the hell away from me!” Levy warns, guitarist Steve Cardenas taking a ratber furtive solo that tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker picks up more lightheartedly. The snide I Don’t Want to Be in Love has mambo tinges and a scampering groove fueled by drummer Richie Barshay, trumpeter John Bailey and pianist Carmen Staaf: “Someone wake me from this nightmare!” Levy insists.
She opens the early 70s-style soul-jazz ballad Everything Green with some balmy vocalese, a trick intro as it turns out: as Mark Feldman’s violin dances overhead, Levy musing about carving out a safe space amidst the stress. “I don’t want to die alone,” is the mantra on the outro.
A New Face works a familiar, vampy postbop latin swing, Levy dipping into the lows with some clever wordplay: “Antiquity is where I long to be, take me back to our ancient history,” she smiles. She goes in the other direction on the languid Why Do I: “Why do I stumble when you say something humble, or you fidget or you mumble,”Levy ponders, and follows the tangent down from there.
“Time has treated me a bit too coldly,” Levy admits in A Better Day, a study in how a band can resist the temptation to just cut loose and swing the hell out of a song: it’s fun to hear how it inches that way, little by little, Levy adding some jaunty, clear-voiced scatting. The album’s tour de force is the melismatic, noir-tinged ballad I’m Not Okay: Levy’s damaged existentialist heroine looks straight back to Blossom Dearie, vibewise if not stylistically.
Clear-Eyed Tango (as opposed to the blurry-eyed kind, one supposes) is closer to circus rock, or, say, the sardonic Coney Island phantasmagoria of Carol Lipnik, Feldman adding an aptly menacing solo. The album’s title track blends clave jazz with some unexpected Asian flavor, “Drowning in the crowd of the hungry and the persevering…what is this goal that we’re all trying to battle for?” Levy wants to know. Our Lullaby is a head-scratcher – what guy wants to rest his head on a girl’s knee? The final cut is The Duet, a gorgeous chamber jazz ballad fueled by bassist Jorge Roeder’s ambered bowing. On one level, Levy is as retro as they get. On another, the world is overdue for how much fresh air she’s breathing into a time-tested idiom. Those who like the classics won’t find her hopelessly lost in the hashtag generation; likewise, those from this generation who might think what she does is dated are in for a serious wake-up call.
Hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the Undigables played their old stomping ground, 55 Bar. Sly, irrepressible singer Ollie Boy Lester’s popular saloon jazz combo had a monthly residency at that venerable West Village watering hole for what seems like forever, for all we know since Jack Kerouac ruled the roost there. And it’s good to see them back: their next gig there is on August 13 at 7 PM for a couple of sets, and there’s no cover.
What did their gig there last time out sound like? Lester is a gregarious, perennially young guy, a character who’s impossible not to like, a proud throwback to a largely vanished New York. In an unvarnished Brooklyn accent, he regaled the crowd with tales of growing up as a cool kid in the late 50s and early 60s, smoking weed and listening to Symphony Sid play Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Morgana King, Charles Mingus and King Pleasure on the radio. After a brief jump blues intro from the band – Stew Cutler on guitar, Jan Kjaer on piano, Roy Holland on bass and Nat Seeley on drums – Lester recalled walking to school in midtown, waving to Walter Winchell and Jack Dempsey, then launched into a shuffling, Mose Allison-inspired take of Broadway. The band gave it a characteristically droll outro as they segued into On Broadway for a second.
They did Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie as a swinging blues romp fueled by jaunty, spiraling triplets from the guitar. Then they went into the originals, which sound like classics from the 50s. Most of these were upbeat swing tunes and jump blues, spiced with Lester’s clever, torrential rhymes and hepcat puns. On You’re the One, Kjaer took a tumbling solo and then handed off to Cutler, who followed with an incisive, purist Chicago-style blues lead. Next was a a swinging take of another original, Later For Straighter, poking fun at killjoys who can’t bear to take a break from the nine to five: “Gimme a woman, some music, a little reefer, that’s all I need for my reliever,” Lester sang breezily. In a stroke of irony, Cutler shifted from surreal skronk to pretty straight-up blues
A pulsing, straight-ahead blues number, Mood You’re In kept the good-natured, altered vibe going, this one more of a drinking song with burning slide guitar at the center. One More Love Affair had an optimistic Rat Pack flair, with a purposeful Kjaer solo midway through. Then they took the energy even higher with the latin-tinged party anthem This Is Livin’, a shout-out to all the would-be Coney Island party animals in the crowd. They closed with the irrepressibly bouncy Better Days Ahead, then a hard-funk salute to the cowboy shows that Lester used to watch as a kid, and closed with the Symphony Sid theme song – and that was just the first set. So before 55 Bar turns into a Starbucks or a 7-11, go see this magical band and revisit a long-gone New York that won’t be coming back anytime soon, maybe ever.
On a filmmaking level, up-and-coming new director Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a clinic in how to get the most bang for the buck. With minimal dialogue and a relentless, nailbiter plot that’s all the more sinister for its simplicity, Watts wrings nonstop suspense out of a small, tightly wound cast of newcomers and veterans.
James Freedson-Jackson plays the nonchalantly type A Travis; Hays Wellford is his klutzy sidekick, Harrison. As the film opens, the two middle-schoolers are running away from home on a lark (the comedic opening dialogue, too obscenely funny to give away here, sets the stage perfectly). Armed with a single Slim Jim, they wander upon a police cruiser belonging to Sherriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, projecting a chilling amorality via a worn but still dangerous presence that harks back to a million Old West archetypes). If you buy the premise that a couple of eleven-year-olds can steal a police cruiser without (sort of) crashing it, you’re in for a wild ride.
The cinematography draws heavily on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as well as David Cronenberg’s adventures slumming among the lower classes. The wide-open Colorado vistas predictably owe a debt to Terrence Malilck’s Badlands. In what ought to be a welcoming big sky milieu that turns menacing in a heartbeat, the two kids quickly establish a pattern: who’s going to get killed first? Is the arsenal inside the cruiser that will be responsible (there’s a rather heavyhanded anti-gun subtext throughout the film)? Simple lack of experience behind the wheel? Or will Bacon’s bad cop bring the incessant foreshadowing to a bloodthirsty peak?
Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal of the hypocritical Kretzer. What’s most fascinating to watch is how Bacon plays an actor: everything Kretzer is supposed to be, he’s not. His best moment of many is when he rehearses what he’s going to tell his dispatcher, to convince her to keep in touch with him via cellphone rather than the cruiser’s radio, since the kids are having a ball (for a time) with it. Whether with a slow break of a stony countenance, a hitch in an otherwise confident gait, or, finally, a smile into a feral snarl, Bacon slowly lets pure evil out of its cage. Camryn Manheim provides a brave contrast in a cameo toward the end of the film as the witness who could be the key to the kids escaping from Kretzer’s cat-and-mouse game.
The only Rotten Tomatoes moment is when Kretzer lackadaisically ignores some damning DNA evidence that no one with any basic knowledge of forensic science would ever leave behind. Otherwise, Watts sells the idea that these two clueless kids could go as far as they do on their joyride from hell. Even the ending is unsettled. The film hits theatres on August 7.