Svetlana and the Delancey Five Bring Their Poignant Cosmopolitan Swing to the Blue Note Jazz Festival
Among New York swing jazz bandleaders, singer Svetlana Shmulyian either has the best taste in supporting musicians, or has finagled her way to the best access to them. Maybe both. She distinguishes herself as an original songwriter, and she sings in character, bringing new life to old standards as well as her own dynamic, poignant originals. She and her band the Delancey Five are one of the highlights of this year’s Blue Note Jazz Festival coming up on June 24, with two sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at Lucille’s, adjacent to B.B. King’s on 42nd St. Advance tix are $20.
Her debut album, Night at the Speakeasy – inspired by her long weekly residency at Norfolk Street hideaway the Back Room – is streaming at Bandcamp. With a grand total of fourteen tracks, Shmulyian offers a lot of bang for the buck. And where others might have taken the safe route and opened with a standard, she kicks it off with a swinging, subtle midtempo original, All I Want, contemplating the hope for a summer solstice “in this winter city of my dreams” in a sunny soprano, shaping the blue notes with a coy bittersweetness.
Onstage, she draws from a semi-rotating cast of talent; the band here is killer, with Wycliffe Gordon on trombone (and some arrangements as well); Adrian Cunningham on saxes and clarinet; Charlie Caranicas on trumpet; Dalton Ridenhour on piano; Vinny Raniolo on guitar; George Delancey on bass; and the fantastic Rob Garcia (whose latest album is one of the year’s most brilliant jazz releases) on drums.
Much as the standards – and not-so-standards – here are choice, it’s her own material that stands out the most. It’s All Good has Shmulyian’s signature, precise articulation – she turns off her phone just to keep things nonchalant with the guy, but then she soars up into a big angst-fueled chorus. The way the sax and Shmulyian’s upper register flights mingle and then hand off at the very end is artful, and awfully fun. The most retro number is Temptations, a co-write with bassist Brandi Disterheft, bringing to mind Blossom Dearie with its jaunty litany of images.
The bandleader duets with Gordon on a couple of Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald tunes. You Won’t Be Satisfiied finds each reveling in their roles as wounded ingenue and similarly bruised rake, while Under a Blanket of Blue pairs dixieland flourishes with a nocturnal suspense and a bitingly good Ridenhour solo. The dynamic between Gordon’s signature, irrepressible humor and Shmulyian’s poignancy is a recurrent theme throughout the record.
Ridenhour and Caranicas bring some tempting latin allusions to Ellington’s Just a Sittin’ and a-Rockin’. Another Ellington tune, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me gives Ridenhour a lauching pad for some Otis Spann-class purist blues. Garcia pushes the band’s reinvention of the Beatles’ Because with a stark tango-infused pulse under Shmulyian’s surrealistically straightforward delivery. And his original, Dance In Between the Moments, is arguably the album’s strongest moment; a sardonic, vivid, indelibly New York salute to escapist behavior on the Lower East Side.
Lady Be Good showcases the band’s expertise in stirring up a crowd on the dancefloor, while Tea for Two goes in the other direction as a tasty guitar shuffle. Shmulyian and Cunningham duet on the album’s funniest number, Sometimes I’m Happy: intentional or not, there’s a whiff of Jamaican rocksteady here.
The album’s most exotic track is legendary Russian trumpeter Eddie Rosner’s You Are Like a Song, Shmulyian giving it a balmy, tender interpretation in the original vernacular. There’s also a Beach Boys cover: the whole band gamely puts everything they have into it, but god only knows the album wouldn’t suffer without it. As it is, Shmulyian and her crew have crafted one of the year’s most dynamically fun releases, rooted in the past but inescapably in the here and now.
Nobody in New York sings I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with more subtly resigned, haunting resonance than Heather Holloway. And she does it with a gentle, wistful smile. With her serene, almost ghostly presence in front of her eclectic, simmering swing combo the Heebie Jeebies, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical torch singer. She’s like a messenger from a lost era of smoky hotel bars and black-and-white film sets, quietly intimating that you should join her in a return to a more pleasant time when after work meant cocktail hour rather than trudging to the night job just to pay a share of the rent. She and the band have a Wednesday night 7 PM residency at the lobby bar at the Hotel Chantelle at 92 Ludlow St; they’re also at Radegast Hall, a regular haunt, on June 6 at around 8. If Lynchian sounds are your thing and you can handle the Ludlow Street strip – or, for that matter, if it breaks your heart to see how the area’s been devastated and turned into a playground for the entitled and pampered – her show might provide some solace.
She played at Radegast on a misty weeknight last month, the perfect ambience for her calmly bittersweet reinterpretations of a bunch of well-worn standards. Holloway’s delivery is disarmingly direct: she doesn’t use much vibrato, and then only at the end of a phrase, and there’s none of the over-the-top vampiness that so many other chanteuses work. Julie London comes to mind; so does Bliss Blood, although Holloway doesn’t have either singer’s sharp edges. What she does is more nebulous, and enveloping – and completely inscrutable. The band behind her provides the bite, particularly accordionist Albert Behar, whose terse spirals and fluttering lead lines added to the solitary Les Deux Magots atmosphere, matched by guitarist Adam Moezinia’s precise, distantly Django-influenced clusters and cadenzas. Meanwhile, bassist Joanna Sternberg showed off the same irrepressible sense of humor on bass that she does when she plays guitar and sings her front-porch folk songs, swooping up and down the scale and taking a couple of cheerily balletesque solos.
Maybe because the little front stage at the entrance to the big beerhall didn’t have room for everybody, Holloway placed herself out in front of them on the floor, almost motionless, but with the grace of a wirewalker or a mime. Even the upbeat material – Sunny Side of the Street and Blues Skies, for example – had an opaque quality and a distant unease. By contrast, she found deep-sky longing in When You Wish Upon a Star. St. James Infirmary was somewhere in the middle, part bitter blues lament, part confident self-penned requiem. With an understated confidence, Holloway has slipped into a niche just past the edge of the shadows before you hit girl-down-the-well Julee Cruise territory, and if you’re here in town you have plenty of chances to see her.
It’s hard to imagine a more colorful pianist in Manhattan than Karine Poghosyan, which comes as no surprise when you learn that she’s the daughter of the great Armenian-American painter Razmik Pogosyan. She’s got a larger-than-life stage persona, striking costumes, fearsome technique, and an irrepressible sense of humor. No other pianist seems to have as much fun onstage as she does: anyone who thinks that classical music is stuffy needs to see this fearless spirit in action. Last night at the DiMenna Center, she earned a couple of standing ovations for her signature, breathtaking pyrotechnics but also for her counterintutive insight and unselfconsciiously deep, meticulous, individualistic interpretation of a daunting program of works by Grieg, Liszt, Komitas Vardapet and Stravinsky.
She divided the program into two parts, essentially: reckless abandon, then spellbinding, rapidfire phantasmagoria. The attention to detail and revelatory, dynamic approach she brought to a trio of lyric pieces by Grieg – To Spring, Minuet: Vanished Days, and the famous Wedding Day at Troldhaugenand – gave each a cinematic sweep that puts to shame the kind of rote versions you might hear on WQXR. The first was as suspenseful as it was verdant: Poghosyan is unsurpassed at finding fleeting details and jokes that other players might gloss over, and then bringing them front and center, whether that might have been a defiant “take that!” swipe at the low keys, or a “yessss!” moment when a big crescendo reached exit velocity. And what a surprise the last of the three turned out to be. Where others find straight-up pageantry, Poghosyan channeled sarcasm and subtle parody. As the big processional took shape, Grieg might not have been throwing a stinkbomb at the assembly of Nordic gentry, but he was definitely putting something in the punch bowl.
Poghosyan did the exact opposite with the Liszt. Where other players would most likely find bombast, she looked for poignancy and then brought that out, with shapeshifting interpretations of three Hungarian Rhapsodies. After the intermission (and a new gown, and a ponytail to keep her hair in check as she swayed and flung her head back) she followed with her own innovative, harmonically rich arrangement of three bittersweet miniatures from the Komitas Vardapet book. Komitas, widely considered to be the father of modern Armenian music, was a sort of Middle Eastern amalgam of Allen Lomax and Bela Bartok, and his exhaustive archive – compiled under cruelly difficult circumstances – deserves to be vastly better known. Hypnotically stately motives gave way to what could have been the roots of Erik Satie as the balletesque pulse grew more prominent, glistening in its otherworldly unresolve.
Poghosyan wound up the bill with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: how she managed to maintain such fluid, legato phrasing at such high volume, with such a pummeling attack, defies the imagination. But it wasn’t always so seamless. As clever and amusing as the first part of the bill was, she was all business, matching surgical precision to chainsaw ferocity through the anvil chorus of the Russian Dance, then the surrealism and schizophrenic contrasts in Chez Petrouchka – in Poghosyan’s hands, a loony puppet to rival anything Schoenberg ever envisioned. The closing theatrics of Le Semaine Grasse were riveting in every sense of the word, her dynamic shifts giving her extra headroom for raising the rafters with its gritty, ironic, harrowingly difficult closing cascades.
This performance was staged by Project 142, whose popularity as a house concert series on the Upper West Side outgrew its original West End Avenue digs. They’ve since found a new home at the DiMenna Center: their next concert there, on June 12 at 3 PM features solo and chamber music by female composers Jessie Montgomery, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Rebecca Clark. Cover is $15.
Indie classical music has a long way to go before it reaches critical mass, but there’s no lack of ensembles here doing new and important work. And no end of New York premieres, and world premieres, many of them one and the same. And while history is full of surprise discoveries, from the Brandenburg Concertos on forward, it’s still quite rare that a worthwhile piece of music by a New York composer would sit in a drawer for thirty-three years before its debut. Such was the case last night at Spectrum, where the Momenta Quartet premiered Steven Swartz‘s Alignment. It’s not a Brandenburg Concerto, but it has an unselfconscious, mathematical beauty and, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. Swartz, who was present at the concert, self-effacingly told a festive audience that “I think it doesn’t suck.” It’s a good thing it’s out of the drawer at last.
On one hand, it was a trip to hear this time capsule open wide to reveal some very clear, in-the-moment, postminimalist influences. There was Steve Reich, whose what Swartz spent plenty of time with during his postgraduate years. There was also his faculty advisor, Morton Feldman, whose fascination with articulation, attack and decay were also reflected in the roughly forty-minute quartet. One work that came to vividly mind that did not influence Swartz was Philip Glass’ In the Summer House, putting Swartz a full decade ahead of Glass. By the time that was written, Swartz was doing his witty uke-rock project Songs from a Random House.
What did this rescued obscurity sound like? A clever, Reichian rondo. No two bars were alike, and meters changed with each bar, a snazzy trick that hasn’t waned in popularity. A quirky, puckish pizzicato filtered throughout the entire quartet amidst calm, methodical, clockwork gestures, following a very subtle upward tangent. There was a striking and irresistible, rather tongue-in-cheek tempo shift in the third movement, shades of early 1960s Terry Riley. And the ending was very smartly timed: just when the Escher-like cells seemed like they’d go on forever, there was a a trick ending, followed so soon by the real one that the jape was still resonating by the time the second one clicked into place. Asked afterward if a studio recording or future performance of the piece might be in the cards, Swartz explained that the concert made him realize that there were very specific segments that he felt deserved to be revised. It’ll be fun to hear how he tweaks it, although let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another thirty-three years for it. It’s not likely that Spectrum will still be on Ludlow Street – or that Ludlow Street won’t be underwater by then.
The Momenta Quartet’s next New York performances is June 17 at 8 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. (37/38), with an all-Per Norgard program. Admission is $20.
Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.
The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.
The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”
Isn’t it cool when you see a piece of music that’s so much fun that it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending? The world premiere of Michael Gordon‘s Material, a work for percussion quartet performed by Yarn/Wire last night at the Miller Theatre, actually ended pretty much where it started, on an vividly uneasy note. The trick ending about ten minutes before that was the highlight – and is too good to spoil.
In between, it was hypnotic to the point of being hallucinatory, and also troubling, and grew far louder than you would expect a single concert grand piano could possibly be without amplification. Is this roughly hourlong suite a cruelly sardonic commentary about how citizens of a city can be lulled into complacency? A bitter critique of the blight of gentrification that’s destroyed so many New York communities? Or just a playful exploration of all the cool sounds you can get out of a piano if you hit it in places where it usually doesn’t get hit? Maybe all of the above? What’s unquestionable is how mesmerizingly fun it is. Last night’s program was sold out, although there were a couple of no-shows. The group are reprising last night’s indoor fireworks with not one but two marathon performances, at 7 and 9 PM tonight, May 12, which are also sold out. But those with the energy to head up to the box office at 116th and Broadway in hope of earning some cred for being there – or just the sheer fun of it – might get lucky.
Was Gordon’s almost imperceptibly whispery intro a wry French-language pun on the name of the Tribeca street the composer calls home, where the incessant thud of a luxury developer’s piledriver inspired him to write it? Were the long, rapidfire, pointillistic passage – beaten out with metronomic, motorik timing via the mallets of Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg – a challenge to electronic composers to do it the old-fashioned way with real instruments, because that’s so much more interesting? Reduced to lowest terms, this roughly hourlong piece is a follow-up to Gordon’s rumbling, similarly hypnotic 2014 epic Timber, which is performed on a massive installation of amplified wooden sawhorses. But this is considerably different, packed with subtle rhythmic shifts, soothing lulls and contrastingly disturbing crescendos. Pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu joined the pings and rings and eventual rumble, beating steadily and using the entirety 0f the piano’s sonic spectrum, the strings muted in places with tape and what appeared to be tile grout.
The piano wasn’t the only object that got hit. Tubular bells suspended from the ceiling of the intimate, sixty-seat space custom-built right on the Miller stage provided gentle harbor buoy bell tones during a brief starry-night interlude. Other percussion instruments were also brought into the picture, an effect that’s also too funny to give away here. Let’s just say that if someone in the ensemble gets into your space, it helps to smile.
Considering how time-consuming it is just to keep a big band together and playing, it’s amazing how the likes of Arturo O’Farrill and Maria Schneider manage to do that and keep coming up with fresh and interesting material for their large ensembles, year after year. Count trombonist/composer Alan Ferber among that dedicated elite. His latest album, Roots & Transitions is a suite for an only slightly smaller ensemble, his long-running Nonet with trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Shane Endsley, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The album hasn’t hit the web yet, but there are a trio of tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ site. The band also have a weekend stand coming up this Friday and Saturday night, May 13 and 14 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.
The composer bases the suite on a series of variations on a cleverly rhythmic cell-like theme. Ferber’s music tends toward the lustrous and enveloping, and this is no exception. It’s no surprise that his charts give the material might and majesty that seems like it’s being played by a considerably larger group. Ferber’s moody solo trombone opens the first track, Quiet Confidence, a slowly swaying ballad that Roberts’ methodical, slowly spiraling solo takes into brighter territory over a cymbal-fueled scan of the perimeter, setting up the bandleader to take it up on an ebullient upward climb before bringing it full circle. The low, lustrous shifting low brass sheets of the miniature Hourglass segue into the misterioso trombone/guitar intro of Clocks, an alterered fanfare over a tense pulse building to a powerfully dark modal crescendo, Gordon’s nimbly bluesy phrasing throwing some light into the shadows, which Radley then shreds and scatters. It’s the most noirish piece here.
Wayfarer is an amiably buoyant tune, part retro, part Jim McNeely newschool swing with a judiciously low-key Ellis solo at the center. That tricky three-on-four feel really makes itself present throughout Flow, reflecting the tuneful, nonchalant drive of the suite’s opening cut, the bandleader’s imposing trombone contrasting with Radley’s blithe upward flights. And then its Morricone-esque ending brings back the shadowy intensity.
Perspective offers a warmly melodic take on lustrous teens pastoral jazz, a simple, gently modal piano riff underpinning its amiably rustic, syncopated stroll, Ellis adding his usual melodicism when his turn comes up. Echo Calling brings back the distant ominous feel: listen closely and you’ll discover a disquiting fugue underneath. The album winds up with the chatteringly cheerful barnburner Cycles and its gritty, pinpoint-precise staccato phrasing. Much as it’s got one of Ferber’s usual imaginative charts and plenty of high-voltage playing from everybody, it seems tacked on as as way to close this otherwise often gorgeously uneasy collection on an upbeat note. Maybe when the Ferber box set comes out sometime around 2030 (by then, box sets will probably be all vinyl, or who knows, organic vinyl), he can use it as an opening cut.
An Auspicious, Surrealistically Intense Performance of Denise Mei Yan Hofmann Chamber Works at Mannes College of Music
Up-and-coming composers on the conservatory track face the daunting challenge of having to assimilate an overwhelming amount of material, all the while being expected to establish an individual voice. Too often, that puts a young composer in the position of having to regurgitate whatever stylistic tropes happen to be in vogue at a particular institution. Sometimes that makes sense: you like ambient music? IRCAM’s your place. Just as obsessed with improvisation as composition? New England Conservatory might be where you want to be. Is melody your thing? Try Mannes. That’s where Denise Mei Yan Hofmann is finishing her Master’s in music. Sunday night’s standing-room-only performance of an almost impossibly diverse mix of her recent chamber and choral works revealed how popular she is there. And she ought to be. Her music has a richly sardonic wit and also an acutely relevant angst: she is most definitely in the here and now. Somewhere there’s a dark comedy, a Coen Brothers film or its more modestly budgeted equivalent, screaming out for her to write its score.
The trombone quartet of Aden Brooks, Jacob Elkin, Nathan Wood and Daniel Dunford opened the concert auspiciously with Les Dents du Midi. Awash in uneasy close harmonies, tricky counterrythms and subtle, wry trainwhistle effects, this imposing Alpine tableau was a triumph of ambered low-midrange sonics perfectly suited to the instrumentation. Its dark majesty brought to mind John Zorn’s work for brass.
Backed by pianist Dimitry Glivinskiy, mezzo-s0prano Caitlin Cassidy gave a dynamic, expressive reading to The Ink Dark Moon, a suite of miniatures based on based on disconsolate tenth-century Japanese love poems by Izumi Shikibu, Hofmann’s scampering neoromanticism juxtaposed with lingering balladry and jaunty hints of cabaret.
The a-cappella quartet of Rachel Rosenberg, Virginia Weant, Gardner Fletke and Robert Frost sang There Is No Rose, conducted by Glivinskiy. Based on a fourteenth-century carol, it was more straightforwardly rhythmic and insistent, fueled by an imploring, rising, looping cadenza.
Hofmann’s sense of humor came front and center with Morning Thoughts, for vocal quartet and large ensemble. Originally written as a piece for vocal and percussion, it subsequently took on a life of its own, complete with crowdsourced lyrics based on sunrise and predawn musings, obsessions and terrors. Hofmann deadpanned that this was an experiment she was not likely to revisit, although she’d found the project to be as much fun as it was ambitious. From all sorts of suggestions, ranging from ultra-silly to ultra-serious, she culled some pretty harrowing themes: addiction, existential angst, struggles with faith and body image included. Deep heartbeat percussion immediately established a Dark Side of the Moon milieu, with droll and tongue-in-cheek flourishes interspersed amid the uneasily shifting, surrealistically disquieting narrative. Recitatives of antidepressant warning labels twitched alongside petulant choral passages; echoey vibraphone was punctuated by nagging trombone; repeated food references started out as comic relief and then became troubling in themselves. The piece’s declamatory phrasing and constantly shifting rhythmic center sometimes reminded of Ted Hearne at his most acerbic. As obvious as the ending turned out to be, it was also cruelly funny.
This challenging, kaleidoscopic concert version of the suite’s first movement (yup – there’s more!) was ably conducted by Robert Kahn, leading Rosenberg alongside mezzo-soprano Chelsea Kluga, tenor Mark Nimar and bass Enrico Lagasca, with Robby Bowen, Karen Hida and Jessica Tsang on percussion; Michael Tropepe on violin; Minjee Kim on flute; Wood on trombone and Margaret Kim on piano.
Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.
Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.
Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.
The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.
Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village
Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.
There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.
Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.
She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.
Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.