“Sometimes it’s good to forget the past so you can live in the present,” says the doctor examining the amnesiac (Robert Rees) who’s just wandered in from the beach to find refuge at the Greek island vacation hideaway belonging to strong-willed, stubborn proprietress Eleni (Katerina Misichroni). In debt up to their ears, she and her brother are at their wits’ end trying to stay afloat amidst crushing EU-imposed austerity, against the sobering backdrop of an ongoing refugee crisis. It’s the most subtly revealing moment, among many, in Vladan Nikolic‘s acerbic new comedy, Bourek.
It’s an unselfconsciously poignant, uproariously funny, profoundly relevant and bittersweet tale set in a charmingly bucolic Mediterranean milieu. Baggage Battles’ Billy Leroy stars, bringing some real depth to what could have been a stock Ugly American role in a way that evokes late 50s Brando without being imitative. On the advice of his televangelist friend (a deviously deadpan cameo by Paul Sevigny), Leroy’s W.C. (full name: William Cody Rupperts) has brought his petulant, restless girlfriend (Christina Aloupi) and a pile of cash to Khronos to witness the apocalypse.
Not to spoil anything, but be aware that nothing is as it seems in this film, one of its strongest assets. The other is the nonstop humor, some of it very broad, some of it far less so. Branislav and Sergej Trifunovic play a couple of hilariously boozy Balkan brothers sleeping in their rented Deux Chevaux, hell-bent on stretching their 27 remaining euros as far as they can and getting laid in the process. A stoner ex-baker (Marios Iouannou) lands on the beach, hash joint in hand – “It’s Turkish tobacco,” he relates in one of the film’s funniest moments – and joins the party A pretentious Berlin performance art duo (Jason Grechanik and Mari Yamamoto) linger on the fringes and spar with W.C. and his pouty lady. Meanwhile, Eleni has to contend with her failing business and her brother who desperately wants to sell to a smarmy speculator with ulterior motives.
Inspired by her new boarder and his childlike enthusiasm, Eleni decided to do an oldschool direct mail push to her fellow islanders. Suddenly her business starts to take off, an unlikely stone-soup cast of beach characters pitching in, notably Al Nazemian, who nails the bittersweetly surreal role of an obsessively Yeats-quoting Syrian refugee English teacher.
Then an unexpectedly catastrophic moment threatens to derail the venture. The ending comes as a surprise, considering how much foreshadowing leads up to it. A lot is left unresolved – will there be a Bourek 2, maybe? – and a lot of questions are left unanswered, but that’s part of the film’s appeal. One of its more vividly sobering messages is that sometimes less is more; sometimes making the best of that is the only option, but not necessarily a painful one if you follow your muse: hope against hope in an era of displacement and destitution.
And the musical score is gorgeous, a mix of brooding Greek, Serbian and Romany-flavored themes played by Theodore – Thomas Konstantinou on oud, bouzouki, guitars and lutes, Konstantinos Meretakis on multi-percussion and Elias Sdoukos on viola – plus songs by the trio of Sky Wikluh on keys, bass and guitar, Petar Trumbetas on guitar and bouzouki and Iva Pletikosic on vocals. The film – in English and several other languages, with subtitles – premiere is on April 29 at 7 and 9 PM at Cinema Village, 22 E 12th St., with a Q&A with the director and cast members afterward.
On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.
Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.
Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.
Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.
A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.
All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.
Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.
It’s hard to imagine a more darkly distinctive pianist than Sylvie Courvoisier. She’s a longtime member of John Zorn’s inner circle, which makes sense considering her blend of moodily resonant neoromanticism, jazz squall and fondness for extended technique….not to mention the often noirish sensibility and rich vein of sardonic, sometimes grim humor that runs through her work. She can sell out the Stone whenever she feels like playing there; it was good to see a much larger crowd than the Stone can hold watching her raptly last night at Roulette, in a vividly conversational set with her long-running trio, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The latter didn’t bring his gongs, but he often used his ride cymbal in tandem with mallets on the toms for the same lingering, otherworldly effect. Gress didn’t walk the changes as much as he danced them, when he wasn’t supplying ambered washes with his bow, or trading off jauntily with the bandleader.
When she wasn’t inside the piano, Courvoisier alternated between carnivalesque, dancing lines, grittily insistent minimalism, broodingly lyrical, resonantly chordal passages, and the occasional flight into frenetic hard bop. When she went under the lid, she muted the strings, then played them with her fingers, with the keys and with mallets, like a vibraphone. Other times she’d rub the strings for a resonance similar to what Wollesen did when he got a keening ring out of a cymbal or two, scraping them with his sticks. The best number of the night was a lengthy, suspenseful triptych incorporating all of those tropes.
Most of the humor involved good-natured jousting, although Gress’ “are we really going to take this to the very top of the fingerboard” jape was a lot of fun. Courvoisier threw elbows at her rhythm section and they threw back; the cleverest of these moments was when Gress hit a minimalist, pedal passage and Courvoisier doubled him….but with her strings muted, adding a ninth interval for extra creepiness. It would have been one thing just to play it on the keys, but the muted effect really drove the sinister effect home.
Qawwali-like, tensely circling low-register riffage expanded into austerely steady, coldly biting Louis Andriesssen-esque bell-tones, then stygian low lefthand pools, then a Lynchian ba-bump roadhouse theme. A sad minor-key waltz awash in cymbals decayed to a muted, mimimalist deep-space pulse that became a clenched-teeth Mission Impossible. Hushed, dusky, misterioso minimalism gave way to upper-register icicles. Phantasmagorical Frank Carlberg-like tumbles sandwiched a defiantly clustering Wollesen solo, followed by flitting, sepulchral piano motives rising to an agitated vortex. Name another pianist who does all of this in about an hour and fifteen minutes onstage.
Courvoisier’s next show is back at the Stone at 8 PM on April 22 in a duo performance with reedman Ned Rothenberg.
This week is Global Week for Syria. Over seventy artists around the world are performing to help raise awareness and help the citizens of war-torn Syria. Brilliantly individualistic Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh contributed to the cause with a matter-of-factly transcendent show last night with his City Band – acoustic guitarist Kyle Sanna, bassist Josh Myers and drummer John Hadfield – at National Sawdust.
Last week at Spectrum, Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu played a harrowing duo set of cinematically crescendoing, ominously enveloping themes meant to depict the trauma of life under repressive regimes. This performance was far more lively but had Azmeh’s signature, direct, purposeful melodicism, simple riffs with artfully elegant orchestration set to kinetically shapeshifting grooves. The most spare material had an Andalucian feel: imagine the Gipsy Kings but with trickier meters, depth and unpredictable dynamics in place of interminable cheer. The slowest numbers were the most traditionally Middle Eastern-flavored; the most upbeat featured purposeful solos from everyone in the band, drawing as deeply on psychedelic rock as they did jazz.
The opening song set Azmeh’s moody low-midrange shades over sparse guitar and bass, then picked up with an emphatic flamenco-tinged pulse, Sanna’s judiciously exploratory solo bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode until Azmeh took over and sent it sailing through an insistent, crashing crescendo.
The second number, by Myers, had echoes of Eastern European klezmer music as well as Mohammed Abdel Wahab and spiraling flamencoisms. Sanna contributed an austere, catchy tune that built enigmatic variations on what could have been an Elizabethan British folk theme, his guitar rising from plaintive, Satie-esque spaciousness to tersely energetic single-note lines.
Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by a cruelly aphoristic, recent Syrian poem, evoked the lingering shock and angst of wartime displacement. November 22, inspired by Azmeh’s first experience of an American Thanksgiving weekend, looked back with a mix of nostalgia and longing to places and eras erased by bombs and combat. Sanna set up Azmeh for a wild upward swoop and then flurries of suspenseful microtonal melismas. on a shapeshifting anthem meant to evoke the wildness and unpredictability of Syrian village wedding music. They closed by debuting a somber, pensive new song that Azmeh said he’d only written a couple of days previously. dedicated to the small town in the green belt outside of Damascus where Azmeh had spent a lot of time as a kid and which until very recently had been under siege, with barely any access to food or supplies. Azmeh’s next performance is in San Antonio on May 15 to kick off his US/European tour.
MATA Festival honcho Todd Tarantino’s program notes for last night’s concert in the plush downstairs Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House in Murray Hill are instructive, and worth repeating here. “For this year’s festival an astonishing 1156 composers from 71 countries submitted their work…In hearing so much of the music of early career composers, there are trends that still stand out: baroque ensembles like to play modern music too; the harpsichord is enjoying a renaissance; tonal microtonal music is scarce; like it or not, the accordion remains popular; IRCAM has a phenomenal sound system; performance is at incredibly high levels; and Schoenberg is dead.”
MATA has been showcasing the work of youngish (20s/30s) composers for eighteen years now, since Philip Glass and his pals figured that some of the scores he’d been receiving from admiring, up-and-coming colleagues were worth presenting. From last night’s performance, this year’s slate looks especially promising. The chamber group charged with delivering this particular evening’s worth of material was Norway’s astonishingly mutable Ensemble Neon: flutist Yumi Murakami; clarinetist/bass clarinetist Kristine Tjogersen; saxophonist Ida Kristine Zimmerman Olsen; pianist Heloisa Gomes do Amaral; drummer/percussionist Ane Marthe Sorlien Holen; violinist Karin Hellqvist; cellist Inga Byrkjeland; and soprano Silje Aker Johnsen. Magnus Loddgard conducted.
The first piece, for most of the ensemble, was an Alexander Kaiser reflection on current dystopia such as NSA surveillance and the Syrian refugee crisis. Flitting, pesky motives contrasted with murky horizontal textures, and spaces that grew further and further between as a series of false endings developed (a shtick that would recur throughout the night). The political narrative wasn’t obvious from the music itself; then again, music with an obvious political content can be strident, and this was more attuned to the push-pull of free jazz.
The piece de resistance was Sean Clancy‘s Fourteen Minutes on the Subject of Greeting Cards. Short titles from actual greeting cards were projected behind the trio of piano, violin and cello as variations on a brief series of cells unfolded dreamily, measure by measure, each with its own distinct time signature. Suddenly the infant is three, then he’s getting his license; woops, he’s had an accident. By now, it was obvious where this was going. Or was it? Hint: as a minimalist cavatina, it had brought MATA artistic director Du Yun to tears.
Diego Jimenez Tamame‘s Don’t Condescend followed the same pattern as the first piece, a drony/kinetic dichotomy. Jan Martin Smordal‘s All Play had the musicians playing transcriptions of a noise guitar solo by Astrid Marie Huvestad, whose solo performance via concert film – featuring a bangup job of how to max out the feedback from a Fender amp – upstaged the musicians. It brought to mind a recent chamber transcription of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
As a satire of indie classical self-indulgence, Neil Luck‘s Bubbles hit the mark, although the sight of the vocalist chugging from a big bottle of soda and then belching over a carefree cut-and-paste of an old English dancehall ditty went on to the point where parody became self-parody. Spike Jones would have nailed this in two minutes ten seconds. The final work, Matthew Welch‘s Comala’s Song, evoked the cumulo-nimbus art songs of Sarah Kirkland Snider as well as Glass’ oeuvre, with its circling, uneasy variations on a medieval bagpipe mode.
The MATA Festival runs through Sunday; tonight’s performance at 8 PM at National Sawdust features French group Ensemble Linea playing even more relevant, politically-charged works. Cover is $25.
Pedro Giraudo is one of the most sought after bassists in New York. Born in central Argentina, he’s unrivalled as a tango bass player, but he’s also immersed himself in several jazz styles. His dedication to the latter is borne out by not one but two albums of soaring, adrenalizing original big band music. The latest one, Cuentos, is streaming at Spotify. He and the latest incarnation of his long-running large ensemble are playing a couple of sets tonight April 12 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard. Cover is $25.
The album’s ambitious opening track, Muñeca makes very clever, blustery, pulsing fun out of a merengue groove, trombonist Ryan Keberle adding a long, bittersweetly soulful solo over pianist Jess Jurkovic’s practically frantic, incisive drive, followed by a precise round-robin throughout the band and then a return to moodily circling, Darcy James Argue-ish riffage. This doll is a trouble doll!
Giraudo dedicates the epic four-part Angela Suite to his daughter. Replete with various bulked-up Argentinian folk rhythms, it opens with a warily swinging, dynamically-driven, tango-inflected Overture – guessing that’s the excellent Alejandro Aviles on the spiraling alto sax solo that rises to a harried peak before Jurkovic’s powerful turn into brighter territory. The tiptoeing, misterioso false ending is a real trick since Jurkovic gets to take it out on a warmly bluesy note.
Part two, Ojos Que Non Ver (Eyes That Don’t See) opens with a moody trumpet/piano dialogue before the clouds break and the orchestra enters, but the trumpet takes it down again as the emotional roller coaster goes on. A waltz, creepily tinkling piano and a momentary. horrified, chaotic breakdown segue into the tiptoeing, suspenseful, lavishly lyrical La Rabiosa (The Rabid One). The bright, angst-fueled brass juxtaposed against the ominous pedalpoint of the low reeds – and a haggardly bristling Carl Maraghi baritone sax solo – brings to mind Chris Jentsch‘s cult classic Brooklyn Suite. This suite winds up with a mighty return to the opening theme
The ballad La Ley Primera (Rule #1) gives tenor saxophonist John Ellis a platform for a tender, lyrical solo as the ambience behind him grows more lushly enigmatic, up to swirling neo-baroque figures throughout the band. El Cuento Que Te Cuento builds off a circular Maraghi bass clarinet riff over a trip-hop rhythm, up to the most easygoing and retro swing theme here – although it quickly crescendos to an uneasily majestic bossa interlude capped off by a long, brooding trumpet solo.
Push Gift builds quicly out of individual voices to a catchy circle dance with a wry Dave Brubeck reference, restless (and sometims cynical) reeds and piano paired against lustrous brass, a creepy gothic piano/tenor duet and a bittersweetly lively coda. The final number, Nube (Cloud) is the most retro track here, an uneasily dynamic jazz waltz. This isn’t carefree, bubbly latin jazz: it’s an intense and richly nuanced, intense. thoughtful performance from a talented ensemble also including but not limited to trumpeters Jonathan Powell, Josh Deutsch and Miki Hirose; tenor saxophonist luke Batson; trombonists Mike Fahie, Mark Miller and Nate Mayland; drummer Franco Pinna and percussionist Paulo Stagnato.
Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Mimesis Ensemble delivered an insightful, often irresistibly fun, historically vivid performance of Spanish-themed works by Ravel as well as two New York premieres by Mohammed Fairouz. Violin soloist Rachel Barton Pine stunned the crowd with her wildfire cadenzas, rapidfire riffage and hair-raising high harmonics throughout the second Fairouz premiere, the violin concerto Al Andalus.
Fairouz’s music is as colorful and vividly lyrical as he is prolific – and he’s very prolific. And he doesn’t’ shy away from political relevance or controversy. This triptych was typical, and it made a tantalizing launching pad for Pine’s virtuoso sorcery. The first movement, Ibn Furnas’ Flight referenced the legendary eighth-century poet and philosopher whose attempt at human flight may be apocryphal, or may have made him the world’s first successful hang-gliding enthusiast. Expressive flutes and aggressively dancing motives leaping up throughout the orchestra contrasted with a muted low resonance, tension and suspense juxtaposed with moments of sheer joy, and a brief bolero. As the music told it, Furnas eventually got to take to the sky, but getting there wasn’t easy.
The second movement, meant to evoke a love poem by the 11th century intellectual Ibn-Ham, made a stark contrast, with slow, spacious, considered minimalist introduction and moody minor-key atmospherics that alluded to Middle Eastern modes more than it actually employed them. The final movement drew on a famous homoerotic poem, jaunty yet suspenseful, full of humor and drollery, from pianist Katie Reimer’s salsa-tinged tumbles, to a snippet of Hava Nagila and a big, pulsing, tango-flavored crescendo. Conductor Laura Jackson did an adrenalized ballet of sorts on the podium, seemingly willing the music to life with her muscles as as much as with her baton.
Fairouz himself conducted the other premiere, his Pax Universalis. In the program notes, he cited the piece’s carefree pageantry as the most lighthearted thing he’s ever written, and he was right about that. Echoes of Afrobeat and bubbly 1930s Hollywood film music livened the theme, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s concept of a universal peace fueled by citizen engagement, as opposed to a truce enforced by a major world power.
Jackson and the group set the tone for the evening with Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole: she really had them on their toes as they slunk their way suspensefully through the opening nocturne into the series of folk dance-themed variations that followed. This was all about tension and then a payoff, as the music rose and fell, through liltingly rhythmic crescendos and a triumphant conclusion. Then they tackled the Ravel Bolero, which actually isn’t a bolero at all: it’s basically a vamp, a one-chord jam. And it’s a real challenge to play, whether you’re one of the winds or strings who have to pedal the endless rhythmic pulses that push it along, or you’re picking up the melody for a fleeting few seconds. Everyone did their part, seamlessly: the only thing missing was Grace Slick belting, “Feed your head!”
The buzz after the Greenwich Village Orchestra‘s concert yesterday evening was that they’d just made their definitive live album. There were mics prominently set up toward the front at Murray Hill’s sonically magnificent Church of the Incarnation: if the recording is in any kind of decent shape, they’ve got as good a representation as anything the New York Philharmonic have ever put out. Some audience members credited this sleek, insightful, literally flawless performance to the church’s sonics. Others more cynical considered that the shock of having to adjust to new digs might have jarred the ensemble into one of their firest performances of recent years, considering that their usual Irving Place home base is currently shuttered and under repairs in the wake of a fire.
Whatever the case, conductor Barbara Yahr led the group through an exquisite performance. They opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Rondo, Andres Cardenes the soloist on violin. Playing from memory, he approached the music with a purposeful drive and a subtlety of tone, very light on the vibrato and incisive rather than keening, in a Yehudi Menuhin vein. Yahr’s interpretation of the Agadio was as a pillowy nocturne, strings and winds so seamless that they seemed like one single, plush instrument. Sometimes Mozart gets carried away with his stereo effects, but not in the Rondo, and the orchestra matched that subtlety, both with dynamics and detail, Cardenes sailing overhead.
Interestingly, the program notes mentioned how Max Bruch had some doubts about how to characterize his Violin Concerto No. 1. Was it contiguous enough to be a real concerto, or is it just, say, some kind of partita or fantasy? Bruch’s virtuoso violinist pal Joseph Joachim reassured him that it was plenty cohesive enough. Which is kind of funny, because it’s sort of all over the place… in a good way. It’s a study in contrasts, amplified by both orchestra and soloist, tenderness juxtaposed against a marching theme that, after a lustrous, meticulously moody, spaciously paced second movement, takes a long upward climb toward a rather droll coda. It made a good segue with the Mozart.
Yahr explained to the crowd that she saw Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, “The Reformation” as cycle of transformation on a very personal level, mirroring the religious paradigm shift that the composer sought to illustrate. We don’t know for certain, but some think that Mendelssohn didn’t think too highly of it since it was never published in his lifetime. What became crystal clear from the moment the orchestra launched into it is how clever, and often very funny, it is. It’s a big shout-out to Bach and has the same kind of drama as the St. Matthew Passion, with quotes from both Bach and the German Lutheran hymnal deftly interspersed amidst the increasing drama. Typical Mendelssohnian ebullience and optimism took a dip into a stately waltz and then an absolutely luscious, cantabile third movement before rise to epically anthemic proportions that had Yahr, usually a very meticulous and composed presence on the podium, caught it up its irresistible sway. Forget the album for a minute: this would have made a great DVD.
The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on May 22 at 3 PM, with works by Gershwin, Hindemith, Mozart and Tschaikovsky’s Capriccio Italian, the fantastic trumpeter Brandon Ridenour as soloist at a venue TBA. Watch this space.
The Brooklyn Blowhards Albert Alyer-ize sea chanteys. As bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Lederer told the crowd at their record release show at Joe’s Pub last night, they got their start when trumpeter Kirk Knuffke brought an album of sea chanteys by the Foc’sle Singers over to Lederer’s place. Ayler being Lederer’s “personal muse,” as he put it, the connection was made.
Connection? Isn’t this seven-piece band just a bunch of A-list New York jazzcats having absurdist punk-jazz fun with the last themes you’d ever expect these guys to be pilfering? Well, sort of. But there’s no denying the similarity between the singalong quality of sea chanteys and the disarmingly direct, simple, catchy ideas that Ayler liked to slice and dice. Being work songs, some chanteys have a sway and swing that also dovetails with jazz.
The rest of the band onstage playing these less-than-likely mashups included Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Brian Drye on trombone, Ches Smith on drums and Stephen LaRosa on marching bass drum and percussion. Art Bailey sat behind everyone, played accordion and was only audible during the show’s relatively few quiet moments. Guitarist Gary Lucas guested on resonator on a couple of numbers, alongside Lederer’s wife Mary LaRose, who supplied both low-key, soul-infused vocals and tongue-in-cheek recitations.
Beyond traditional numbers like Hull Away Joe, the band also write their own. Lederer dedicated Black Ball Line to its inspiration, the transatlantic freight company: They opened that one as a tenor sax duet between Lederer and Irabagon, turning on a dime into fullscale freakout and ending with a droll, deadpan marching vamp. Ayler’s Dancing Waters served as a showcase not only for sputtering and frenzy but a surprising, contrasting lyricism. They closed with another Ayler tune, Island Harvest, which with its jaunty calypso chorus and sardonic spoken-word passages juxtaposed with unhinged improvisation, capsulizes what this group is all about.
The night’s funniest moment, out of many, belonged to Iragabon, as you might expect. He opened a sopranino sax solo with a rapidfire practice pattern and wowed the crowd with his unwavering fluidity if not imagination. But then he went into the extended technique, maintaining the same breathtaking precision through all sorts of harmonics and overtones and finally capped it off with a series of defeated squawks. The crowd howled. And just when it seemed that all this would be about fun and games, they hit an unexpected plaintiveness with Santy Anno, kicking it off as a misty dockside tableau and then taking it into darkly resonant territory on the gentle, steady wings of Drye’s trombone. It was a reminder of just how serious the guys in this crazy band usually are.
Singer and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan headlined at National Sawdust Friday night with the epic title track to her new ep, Hedera. Onstage, depending on the piece she’s creating, sometimes she ends up doing a floor ballet of sorts, a constant, rigorously physical dialogue with the mixer and speakers and mics positioned around her. This was not one of those situations. On her knees, brow knitted, almost motionless, she switched on an old, broken tape recorder, amplified to the rafters, and launched into the piece..
On album, and to an extent on the new ep, Flanigan’s sonic creations often have a dreamy quality. Not so at this performance. The sound was LOUD. National Sawdust has banks of custom-designed speakers positioned way up in the ceiling- think Issue Project Room multiplied by a factor of ten. This amplified both the distant menace of the mechanical loop as well as the dichotomy between that and Flanigan’s bright, resonant vocals. In the studio, she’s a strong and nuanced singer, with an unadorned, pure pitch: she was even stronger here. Adding one layer of vocals after another, she built a many-faceted sonic Rothko, up to a sudden moment of insistent angst. The effect was viscerally chilling. The recorded version seems to reach a calm resolution; this performance was more ambiguous and unsettling.
The opening acts were a mixed bag. Singer Daisy Press and keyboardist Nick Hallett joined forces for a trio of Hildegard Von Binghen songs, which they reinvented as starlit, twinkling art-rock. Hallet supplied a kaleidoscope of deep-space textures and baroque-pop loops for Press to soar over. There was an allusively Middle Eastern quality to her ripe, wounded soprano, channeling buttery, lascivious allusions in Latin: a cantor or a muezzin might have sounded much the same around 1150 AD. Getting to hear Flanigan and Press back to back was a rare treat: the former gets credit for having the guts to follow the latter on the bill.
Turntablist Maria Chavez built a pastiche out of spoken word albums; the only thing missing was “Number nine, number nine, number nine.” There was a joke about noisy neighbors that drew some chuckles, otherwise, it could have gone on for half as long and nobody would have suffered. Or maybe you just had to be 420ing a little early to appreciate it.
As for the night’s first act, C. Spencer Yeh, it took nerve to give the crowd a fat, raised middle finger for as long as he did. Puckering up and running his vocal pop-pops through a mixer, he first created a rain-on-the-roof tableau that suddenly became just a single stream of liquid. That was hilarious, and foreshadowed the rest of his act. That quickly became the kid upstairs at 6 AM bouncing the basketball on your ceiling. Over. And. Over. Again. And then farting noises. Self-indulgent? Totally. Puerile? Uh huh. Pure punk rock? No doubt. Yeh gets props for being fearless, but be aware that if he’s on the bill, you may be subjected to something like this.