ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.
Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.
Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”
The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.
The Ochion Jewell Quartet Play Haunting, Sepulchral, Deep Blues and North African-Infused Jazz in the West Village
Of all the possible universes where improvised music can go, the Ochion Jewell Quartet chose to explore one of the most interesting ones last night at Cornelia Street Cafe. The opening set of their album release party for their new release, Volk, was the reverse image of your typical cutting contest, everyone trying to say as much as possible in the fewest possible notes, a challenge to see who could play the quietest. The four – tenor saxophonist Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Qasim Naqvi – displayed the camaraderie that comes from years of close collaboration (in this case, in a much more frenetic unit, the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble). Mirroring each other and framing each others’ time in the spotlight – a sepulchral, ultraviolet one, such that the music was – their commitment to the subtle architecture and unselfconscious gravitas of Jewell’s slowly unwinding, blues- and North African-infused melodicism was singleminded. And beyond the chatty staff at the bar, the crowd locked in on the alchemy being created onstage.
Jewell rose from a predawn smokiness to a squawk or a squall a grand total of three times in maybe fifty minutes onstage, and the first lasted just a millisecond. Otherwise, he he held to a rustic, carefully considered approach, even when spiraling through one of the many looping Andalucian or Berber-inspired phrases that brought to mind an especially tuneful take on Steve Reich just as much as they echoed rai or gnawa themes. Only on occasion were the four all playing at once, both Jewell and Belyamani letting the bass and drums – who in places on the new album are so sepulchral that they’re almost invisible – take centerstage. What a treat it was to hear Miniae go to the bottom of his sonic well for the pitchblende bowing that opened the set – and what a thrill it was to watch him interpolate high harmonics into those deep-riverbed washes so seamlessly as to become a one-man string section. Likewise, Naqvi went for extended technique only when it really counted: his flickering use of his hardware, muted hand-drumming and a single bowed cymbal riff brought to life a phantasm rather than a poltergeist.
Belyamani – whose allusively chilling, judiciously resonant phrasing is one of the album’s most powerful assets – was especially chill here, holding much of that in reserve as he painted lowlit lustre and aurora borealis glimmer with minute variations on open fifths and minimalistically ornamented Middle Eastern phrases. They picked up the pace midway through with a mashup of the blues and gnawa, Jewell’s aching red-clay lines low and somber beneath Minae’s artfully plucked, bouncy riffs, articulated with the lively pop of a Moroccan bendir lute. They finally went around the horn with a fleeting, somber reinvention of Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe – “You’re never heard it like this before,” Jewell grinned – but they did that with the song’s head, nobody getting more than a bar at a time, a rapt, wounded one at that. Sometimes less is more than most people can possibly imagine.
In prosaic terms, tenor saxophonist Ochion Jewell‘s second album, Volk – streaming at Bandcamp – is Ghanian music reinventors the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble playing moody third-stream jazz. And it’s often as far from that group’s joyous exuberance as you can possibly imagine. The band’s multicultural personnel – Moroccan pianist and Dawn of Midi founder Amino Belyamani, Persian-American bassist Sam Minaie, and Pakistani-American drummer Qasim Naqvi – join their bandmate in a magnificently ambered tour de force. The album’s backstory is troubling, but has a happy ending – more or less – taking inspiration (and financed by the settlement Jewell received) from a police brutality lawsuit stemming from a harrowing brush with death at the hands of an undercover NYPD narcotics squad run amok a couple of years ago. Drawing on idioms as diverse as Persian classsical music, pensive Keith Jarrett-style improvisation and elements of noir, it’s one of the best albums released this year in any style of music and should draw a wide listenership that transcends a jazz audience. These tracks unwind slowly, allowing for plenty of carefully considered improvisation: this album is all about building a mood and maintaining it. The complete ensemble are playing the album release show on Sept 23, with sets at 9 and 10:30 PM at at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 + a $10 mininum.
The album opens with a triptych of sorts, the interaction between Jewell and Belyamani gradually developing from a brooding coversation to more agitated and then back again as Naqvi’s toms prowl tensely, the piano adding a Rachmaninovian undercurrent. Jewell opens the third section, Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi with a plaintive, dusky, blues-drenched riff and variations as the dirge behind him rises to macabre proportions and then subsides. His rain-drenched, wee-hours black-and-white streetscape sax as the piano’s rivulets rise and fall, bass and drums adding rustling suspense, is vivid to the extreme.
The band picks up the pace with Give Us a Drink of Water, its frequent rhythmic shifts, funky syncopation and lively sax constrasting with murky piano riffage, Minae stepping out with a dancing solo mirrored uneasily and opaquely if energetically by Jewell. Likewise, they shift between dancefloor exuberance and a knifes-edge tension fueled by Belyamani and Miniae as it winds out.
Pass Fallow, Gallowglass reverts to moody, wounded piano-sax interplay, Naqvi’s elegant cymbals and toms again enhancing the sepulchral ambience. They continue the theme with Radegast, eventually rising to a briefly stomping interlude, flutters and squawks returning quickly to the shadows, driven by Belyamani’s sinister low lefthand. Guest guitarist Lionel Loueke’s tersely bending David Gilmourisms open The Master, a hypnotically bouncing mashup of North African proto-funk and bluesy minor-key rusticity. He also joins a similarly hypnotic if much more spikily energetic sonic web on Gnawa Blues.
While folk themes here are a frequent inspiration, they seldom rise to the surface to the extent they do on the take of Oh Shenandoa, a Matthew Brady early-morning post-battle Civil War tableau in sound. The album ends appropriately with a wee-hours solo sax take of Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair).
Composer Jane Antonia Cornish has scored some big hits (pun intended) with her film music. Her signature style tends to be reflective and atmospheric, meticulous to a fault: a wasted note would be a serious crime in her universe. Her latest album, Continuum opens with Nocturne 1, a starkly minimalist, Lynchian series of very subtle variations on a very simple motif for strings that Angelo Badalamenti would no doubt approve of. As it grows darker and louder, bringing to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula soundtrack, the ghosts of the deep, robust roots of the trees whose wood became cellos and violins begin to flicker, their microtones dancing across the bows of the string ensemble Decoda. Composers tend to write best for their own instruments, and Cornish being a violinist, that strikes particularly true here. For that matter, the whole album – out from Innova and streaming this week at WQXR – is as starkly gripping as its opening track.
Nocturne II opens with such precision and clarity that its sonorities could be produced by winds instead of strings – and then that macabre theme kicks in! The third and final Nocturne is an achingly crescendoing grey-sky tone poem. Again, the cello quintet achieves such a crystalline timbre that they could be french horns.
Cornish’s cinematic prowess stretches across the horizon on Continuum 1, a spacious, moody Great Plains tableau of sorts – it’s tempting to say that it reaches Spielbergian heights. The second movement refers obliquely to the Glassine pulse of the opening Nocturne, with a series of wavelike echo effects as hypnotic as anything Glass ever wrote. The solo cello piece that follows offers a fond nod back to the Bach cello sonatas, adding both Cornish’s signature spaciousness and minutely honed sense of tasty string overtones. The album winds up with Tides, a vivid illustration of waves and echoes. A thousand electronic composers have used machines to follow similar tangents, but Cornish’s triumph is one of echoing nature exactly as it exists rather than through the bottom of a laptop.
And it wouldn’t be fair to end without mentioning the rapturously precise and inspired solo performance by Decoda cellist Hamilton Berry at the album launch party last month at Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, where he gave voice to an austerely poignant Cornish sonata as well as a colorful solo pastorale by George Crumb that required considerable split-second extended technique.
“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. He’s joined by his entire massive, seventeen-piece Two Rivers Ensemble – comprising all of these players – for the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.
Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.
Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.
After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.
The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.
If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.
Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.
And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.
Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.
John Zorn assembled vocal quartet Mycale in 2009 to create new arrangements from his exhaustive magnum opus Book of Angels – Volume 2. The group’s debut, Mycale: Book of Angels, Vol 13 (hard to keep track of all of this, isn’t it?), came out a year later. Now the quartet – Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa and Malika Zarra – have a brand new release, Gomory, and a weeklong stand at the Stone starting on September 15 and continuing through the 20th with sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15. Two choice options among many standout lineups include the late set opening night at 10 PM with Serpa’s City Fragments Ensemble – Serpa, Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson (voices); Andre Matos (guitar); Matt Brewer (bass); and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), and then the official album release shows with the full Mycale quartet at 8 on Saturday the 19th.
That much of Zorn’s more recent oeuvre has been thorny and challenging has somewhat overshadowed the sheer fun and liveliness of much of his previous output, and this album is a prime example. All the singers here are composers and bandleaders, and offer their individual lyrics and arrangements to the album’s eleven tracks, each of then named for a specific angel. The choir members also bring their own strongly distinctive vocal styles. Here, Gottlieb is the most plush and powerful, Serpa the most individualistic: she is unsurpassed in the world for awestuck reflecting-pool clarity. Zarra is the most down-to-earth and gives Gottlieb a run for her money in the power department. Sofia Rei is the most versatile and hardest to pin down: she hasn’t yet settled on a style that’s distinctively her own, maybe because she’s so good at so many things.
The album opens with her ticklishly polyrhythmic chart (a theme that develops into many subsequent variations) for the opening track, Huzia, equally informed by tango and takadimi drum music, with a numerological Spanish lyric by Lindy Giacomán Canavati that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavy metal record. In the same vein, Sofia Rei also provides the arrangement for the Renaissance-tinged, austerely angst-laden Yofiel, as well as an ominous lyric for Peliel (translated from the Spanish):
Pouring your soul into a paper river
You broke the silence and its accomplices.
Afternoon charm, dawn betrayal,
The feeble knife quenched your thirst
Zarra provides Arabic lyrics and an boisterously crescendoing arrangement for Tzadkiel, a mashup of Veracruz folk and West African traditions. In Grial, she switches to French to illuminate an playfully dancing atmosphere that’s “Seductive as a sign…magical, ephemeral, that we cannot keep in a corner or hold in our hands.” Gottlieb’s contributions include arrangements for Mumiah – with text by Almog Behar – as well as the swinging Qaddisin – a blend of Bulgarian and klezmer tonalities – and Shahariel, a canon that turns hilariously goofy in a split-second.
Serpa – who seems to be the ringleader of this merry band – provides the architecture for Achuston, a primordial ocean tableau, akin to the Swingle Singers covering an uneasily creeping Procol Harum song, maybe. She also gets credit for the distant, ominously circling arrangement for Belial, and also Paschar, the starkest track here. For whatever reason, at least from this small sample, she seems the most at home with Zorn’s signature Orientalisms.
Musical mystery fans will have a field day trying to figure out who’s singing what – for purposes of enjoyment, it’s best just to let these four singers draw you into their alternate universe. If the angels had a party, this is what it would sound like. There’s tantalizingly little of this online right now, but you can get a taste at Gottlieb’s music page.
The second the supertitle of a 2003 pre-Iraq War George W. Bush television address hit the screen, chuckles made their way through the audience at Joris Lacoste‘s Suite No. 2 at the French Alliance this past evening. The same thing happened a little earlier with a less unintentionally funny announcement from a Donald Trump property. But those were the coarsest jokes in an evening full of them, most of them vastly more subtle and just as crushingly relevant. It’s something of a shock that as of late this evening, tomorrow’s performance is not sold out. Seriously: if you need a laugh, this is is for you. Friday’s show, in comfortable, plush Florence Gould Hall at 55 E 59th St. is at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
Is it choral music? Not really, although there are moments where the five-person lineup (three men, two women) join voices seamlessly. Is it theatre? In the sense that the cast are narrating material from the vast online archive L’encyclopedie de la parole, yes. Is it comedy? Extremely. Central to this performance is a reading of the Portuguese parliamentary decision – rendered in a deadpan monotone in the original language, with English supertitles – to cut salaries and necessary services in order to meet the German bankers’ Euro membership requirements. Superimposed amidst this are dialogue from a porn video, a mallstore opening celebration, a frustrated cellphone customer telling off her provider network, and other reconstructed random moments too good to give away here.
Some of the more obvious LOL sequences are a soccer coach’s predictably over-the-top pregame address to his team, a cruelly inept song performed at an open mic, a drunk girl on reality tv and a family video where a fascist Christian family – their most likely closeted gay patriarch included – publicly disown their openly gay son. Less obvious and arguably funnier found footage, all narrated in a deadpan, straightforward fashion that only amps up the LOL factor, includes a haphazardly spot-on diatribe on racism from a drunken, homeless African immigrant in the Paris subway (in French) and a scary manifesto from a wannabe Islamofascist terrorist in Australia (in Arabic).
Cornered after this past evening’s show and asked whether the more seemingly private moments were hacked, Lacoste cited the web, and particular Youtube and Facebook as endless sources of inspiration…and raw material. And he’s site-specific: he tailors this performance to every location where it’s staged. The most New York-centric quote of this particular show was also among the most touching. Where, among all available historic landmarks, does Lacoste’s breathless teenage pal want to convene with all her friends? At Anthology Film Archives. Otherwise, be careful – your online indiscretions might just show up in Lacoste’s Suite No. 3!
Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed‘s kinetically hypnotic, thought-provoking performance last night at Dixon Place was a booster shot to the synapses. Becoming immersed in their performance was like re-reading Steppenwolf, or La Nausée, a gut check to make sure all systems are still working. Reed played not his famous invention, the pencilina, but a thicket of multicolored wires and effects, like something from under the hood of Martin Rev’s earliest synthesizer. Reed activated it by beating out a steady, syncopated groove on a snare and and an ominous-looking, upside-down, jet-black steel chemical drum, then running those beats through the maze of wires and boxes for textures that varied from bleeps and bloops to gentle pulses and washes. The chemistry between the two performers was intuitive, varying the dynamics as the emotional arc of LeCroy’s vocals and poetry rose and fell. Meanwhile, time-lapse footage of boats on the Hudson and cloud formations overhead flitted and shifted shape, projected on a screen above the stage.
LeCroy alternated between a tersely considered spoken-word delivery imbued with a puckish existentialist humor, and hazy, dreamy vocals informed by vintage boudoir soul music. On the night’s most dramatic and intense piece, her voice took on a stern, stark, defiant quality that drew heavily on centuries-old African-American spirituals. Steadily and methodically, she drew the audience in and never let them go. Trying to figure out what was improvised and what was not was a lot of fun. As the music and grooves unwound, it was hard not to get lost in them, but LeCroy’s sometimes gentle, sometimes biting challenges to the audience peppered the reverie and, intentionally or not, jarred the crowd out of their dream state.
The grim progression of time, and by implication, the ravages of age, were recurrent themes. LeCroy offered matter-of-fact cajolement to anyone willing to listen, to exercise their freedom and seize the moment. But her tightly crystallized litany of images and mantras owed far more to Sartre or Kierkegaard than to any new age source. Her funniest stream of consciousness rap involved teeth and what happens to them when they’re neglected. Her final piece was an improvisation based on themes suggested by the audience, which turned out to be kindness and smoke. How she wove those images together into a bigger picture, bringing her calmly determined, angst-fueled contemplation full circle, was as subtly amusing as it was nonchalantly and unselfconsciously profound: LeCroy loves double entendres and subtext and can’t resist employing as much as she can come up with, on the fly, plotting her next move. The experience was as therapeutic as it was challenging.
Every time you turn around, another oldtimey swing band pops up somewhere around town. And venues have gotten wise: even grungy old Arlene’s has swing bands now! Ten years ago, who would have thought? One of the most original and distinctive groups in that feverishly followed demimonde is the Pre-War Ponies. Where most 20s hot jazz outfits play lickety-split, uptempo material, the Pre-War Ponies specialize in warmly swinging, mostly midtempo songs anchored by the plush, balmy, disarmingly clear vocals of frontwoman/baritone uke player Daria Grace (a founding member of another iconic New York swing band, the Moonlighters). And while many of the other swing crews in town play the same old standards, the Pre-War Ponies have been known to scour junk shops in search of rare gems from eighty and ninety years ago. They’ve got a fantastic new album, Get Out Under the Moon due out soon and a show on Sept 10 at 10 PM at Barbes. Auspiciously, Pierre de Gaillande (former frontman of brilliant New York art-rockers Melomane, with whom Grace played bass) debuts his new band, Open Kimono to open the night at 8.
The Pre-War Ponies’ Barbes show last month was as pillowy, and romantic, and fun as you could possibly want, enhanced by the erudite wit and groove of polymath latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez. Grace ran her uke through an effects pedal, adding subtle tinges of reverb as well as some psychedelically oscillating timbres on a couple of numbers. J. Walter Hawkes doubled on uke and trombone, alternating between boisterous – and sometimes droll – and comfortable, nocturnal ambience on both instruments. Martinez’s ambling brushwork and artful cymbal work propelled the forthcoming album’s 1928 title trac;, then he gave a lowlit slink to Grace’s subtly moody take of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So as Hawkes added shadowy resonance.
They played what’s more or less their signature song, Moon Over Brooklyn – a onetime Guy Lombardo recording – early in the set. Other than the Flatbush Avenue reference, it could be set pretty much anywhere, but as Grace sang it, it had a coyly strolling charm that was impossible to resist. From there they picked up the pace with a jaunty take of Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me with Hawkes’ trombone front and center. Then they went back toward bittersweet territory as Grace’s expansive chords anchored a brooding shuffle take of The Lamp Is Low, a showcase for Martinez at his most articulate and expressive.
You wouldn’t think a band could raise the energy level with a suicide song, but that’s what they did, with a bouncy take of Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River. Amapola, a tongue-in-cheek cha-cha shout-ou to a pretty little poppy (you do the math) was another springboard for Martinez’s spring-loaded subtlety behind the kit, Hawkes adding foghorn trombone ambience. Al Dubin and Harrry Warren’s risque swing tune Pettin’ in the Park bore a mysterious resemblance to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with a pulsing Ian Riggs bass solo midway through. Hawkes’ eyeball-rolling muted trombone solo took centerstage in the Boswell Sisters’ Got the South in My Soul to wind up the band’s first set. The crowd responded warmly: it was date night, lots of couples, from their 20s to older Slopers out for a romantic evening in Barbes’ cozy back room. That’s probably the biggest reason behind the unwavering popularity of the stuff the Pre-War Ponies play.