Every string quartet worth their salt eventually get around to the Bartok cycle,Chiara String Quartet cellist Gregory Beaver hastened to remind the sold-out crowd at National Sawdust this past evening. “Because we’re crazy,” he added sheepishly. This extremely ambitious, relatively young (mid/late 20s) ensemble’s take on Bartok’s string quartets stands apart from what the rest of their colleagues are doing in that they’ve been playing all six of these iconic works from memory. A fluke of rehearsal became a lightning bolt of inspiration. – the group discovered by accident that the most difficult passages, which they’d had to shed until they had them in their fingers, enabled more chemistry than the parts they were reading off the page. And much as the quartet’s new album, Bartok By Heart, bristles with all sorts of electric moments, watching this group play Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 was even more transcendent.
There’s an argument that every civilized home should have at least a few recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. For the sake of argument, here’s another: everyone, civilized or not, ought to experience the entire Bartok cycle in concert at least once.
Why? This music is as relevant – never mind cutting-edge – now as it was a hundred years ago, or more (the relatively rarely played String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1909). This evening’s themes included but were hardly limited to heartbreak, war, exile, loss and bereavement. And to illustrate just to clever Bartok’s harmonizations of folk tunes from his native Hungary, to Turkey, to North Africa were, Beaver introduced the program with a snippet of one of the ancient Magyar folk songs that the composer collected early in his career as a proto-Alan Lomax. Later, offering some insight into the night’s final piece, String Quartet No. 5, violist Jonah Sirota entreated the crowd to pay close attention to the piece’s concluding movement and the “delicious” series of chords that he clearly couldn’t wait to sink his fingers into.
The uneasy, verging-on-microtonal harmonies unravel so kaleidoscopically that there’s no end how fascinating this material is. Bartok wasn’t a string player, but he knew these instruments inside out and was generous to the extreme with virtuoso moments for everyone. Second violin seldom gets to have as much white-knuckle, intense fun as Hyeyung Julie Yoon had with the slithery slides in the rather vindictively matter-of-fact second movement of String Quartet No. 1. Out of the many, many challenges first violinist Rebecca Fischer had to pull off, possibly the most striking was how deftly she bounced her bow off the strings to provide stark high harmonics during the third movement of No. 5, the warped ghost dance where the whole group was forced to the limits of their extended technique.
Other riveting moments took shape less sharply and immediately but no less forcefully. The subtext of the first quartet seemed in this context less of a lovelorn lament and more of a cynical, I-told-you-so kissoff. The third, its horrified staccato growing as troops amassed along the border, was dynamically a world apart from heavy metal but no less ghoulish. And the dirge that ties up Quartet No. 5 came across as a cavatina that was arguably the most conversational passage of the entire evening. The crowd responded with three standing ovations before jazz started wafting through the room ,softly, as it had before the show. They’re playing the even-numbered quartets in the six-quartet cycle back at National Sawdust tomorrow night; advance tickets are gone, but $30 day-of-show cover is still a bargain for how this group delivers the material.
There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.
As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.
How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.
Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all
August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here
Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.
That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..
The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.
Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.
If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.
The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.
Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.
Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.
Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.
Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.
Let’s say you’re the world’s most famous classical pianist, or one of them, anyway. And you’re a real rock star. You’re riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, after having rescued your career with one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written, namely the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.
And you need an encore. Instead of coming up with another completely original work, you throw caution to the wind. Without a moment’s hesitation, you use a similarly haunting theme by Chopin – one of the world’s best-loved and most morose melodies – as a stepping-off point for an ambitious, dynamically gripping suite. That’s what Sergei Rachmaninoff did in 1903 with his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. Trouble was, it bombed.
Although considered by many to be the greatest pianist in the history of recorded music, Rachmaninoff’s surviving recordings – dating from the early 1900s through 1943 – do not include many of his compositions. Sadly, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin are one of them. Which is why pianist Marianna Prjevalskaya’s new album of that suite, along with the vastly better known Variations on a Theme of Corelli, is so vital, and such a revelation. Thousands of artists have released versions of the latter, and we know how the composer played them – far more quietly, and broodingly, than most have since. And you can hear them on Spotify, along with Prjevalskaya’s album.
But other than a handful of recordings by famous pianists – Vladimir Ashkenazy probably foremost among them – we don’t have anything of the Variations on a Theme of Chopin. It’s one of the real rarities in the composer’s canon. The critics didn’t like it, and audiences responded indifferently, which explains why the thin-skinned, angst-ridden Rachmaninoff quickly abandoned it and never picked it up again. Which is too bad. In its own idiosyncratic way, it’s every bit as gripping as the Corelli variations. Why isn’t it better known? You’ll be asking yourself that over and over again after you hear how Prjevalskaya approaches these 22 variations on the iconic Chopin C Minor Prelude. Where other pianists play it either raptly, or go to the other extreme and make heavy metal out of it – and is it ever heavy! – Prjevalskaya plays the prelude sparely, and spaciously, and lingeringly.
And then completely flips the script and plays the first variation with a liquid, Bach-like legato. The contrast is stunning, and may have something to do with why the suite went over like a lead balloon. Clearly, fans of the music weren’t ready to hear that iconic, funereal piece sliced and diced and spun through a prism as Rachmaninoff did with it – and as Prjevalskaya does here.
She finally picks up with the stern, emphatic (some would say interminable) gravitas associated with the composer, and then follows the logical trajectory as it spirals up and out. Both far more ornate and colorful than the original, it’s sort of proto art-rock from 1903.
Contrast the composer’s own version of the Corelli Variations with Prjevalskaya’s and then ask yourself how Corelli would respond. One suspects he’d be more at home with Prjevalskaya’s dancing, lilting Italianate performance than Rachmaninoff’s Slavic gloom. In so doing, she skirts both the temptation to go grand guignol on them, or fall into the trap of lefthand-versus-righthand that becomes almost a shtick if you want to ramp up the underlying menace. While it’s certainly worth a listen on Spotify, as is the case with so many classical recordings, some of the segments are flittingly brief, and ads pop up at the most inopportune times. One suspects that an awful lot of fans of dark, troubled music will be adding this to their cd collection so as to experience its dips and swells and tormented flurries as an integral whole.
Rosie & the Riveters sing irrepressible, irresistible, original four-part-harmony swing tunes inspired by 30s girlgroups like the Andrews Sisters, spiced with equal parts jump blues, 18th century African-American gospel, and vintage soul music. Their vocal arrangements are packed with clever, amusing twists and turns. Likewise, their lyrics have a playfully retro charm. Their delightfully electic new album Good Clean Fun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re making their New York debut at the small room at the Rockwood on August 11 at 8 PM.
The album’s opening track, Red Dress gets a gentle, coy intro and then a jaunty shuffle, fueled by piano, acoustic guitar and a.swinging rhythm section. Everybody in the band, each a strong solo artist in her own right, sings; Allyson Reigh takes the lead here, working every slinky angle in the blue notes, the band punching in with gospel harmonies on the chorus. All I Need, with its clever rhymes and blend of dixieland and Lake Street Dive blue-dyed soul, is a showcase for Alexis Normand’s pillowy delivery:
I don’t need a Strat guitar
I don’t need a limo car
I don’t smoke a fat cigar
To know I’ve found success…
And the list goes on. Likewise, A Million Little Things. roses out of a slow intro, into a cheery, resolute, accordion-driven bounce, Melissa Nygren’s wise, knowing vocals channeling optimism in the midst of everyday annoyances, the women in the band taking a droll round-robin midway through. The group take an unexpected and bristlingly successful turn into noir oldschool soul with Bad Man:“Behind that liar’s tongue are sharp,sharp teeth,” Farideh Olsen asserts. “Love won’t even find you in the grave.”
The band keeps a brooding minor-key groove going with the rustic, oldtime gospel-flavored Ain’t Gonna Bother, Reigh channeling a murderously simmering nuance. Honey Bee, a cha-cha, contrasts the tenderness of Nygren’s lead vocal with a spiky, biting undercurrent, fueled by moody clarinet. Hallelujah Baby follows a briskly scampering country gospel shuffle on the wings of banjo and steel guitar. Milk ‘N Honey is sort of the shadow image of that one, a bluesy minor-key number that brings to mind the Asylum Street Spankers.
With its “we don’t get out of here alive:” chorus, the stark, spare Go On Momma has a chilling mid-50s country gospel feel. The slinky, latin-flavored take of Dancing ‘Cause of My Joy, sung with a retro soul triumph by Normand, makes a striking contrast. The band returns to a darkly bluesy, banjo-infused atmosphere with the creepy global warming-era cautionary tale Watching the Water Rise. The album winds up with another period-perfect 1950s style gospel number, the gentle, resolutely sunny Yes It’s True. Pretty impressive for a quartet of gals from Saskatchewan. Sometimes if you come from outside of a musical idiom, you have to do it better than the original to earn your cred, and that’s exactly what Rosie & the Riveters do here.
Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.
Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.
Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.
As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.
Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.
Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.
Multi-instrumentalist Tamalyn Miller‘s sepulchral, microtonally-infused one-string fiddle textures are just as essential to Brooklyn art-rockers Goddess‘ sound as frontwoman Fran Pado’s phantasmagorical vocals and creepy storytelling, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Newman’s cinematics. Although Miller is no stranger to building her own instruments and then enhancing others’ music with them, it wasn’t until last night that she made her debut as a solo artist…in the Camera Club of New York’s Baxter Street tenement backyard.
The scene was as anachronistically surreal as a Ben Katchor illustration. The garden itself, with its overgrown brickwork and what looked like a toolshed for hobbits tucked into a shady corner, seemed straight out of 1850. Over the back fence, vehicles were racked up three high at the adjacent carpark. And a reverse gear alarm kept shrieking at the least opportune moments, courtesy of a driver too clueless or sadistic to silence it while waiting for a spot to open up.
But Miller made it all worthwhile. In another trippy juxtaposition, she ran her ancient-sounding homemade instrument through a series of loop pedals and effects, a one-woman orchestra from a village five thousand years ago beamed into the 21st century. She opened by building a hypnotic, texturally shifting vamp out of a simple, allusively dark, bluesy riff. Next was a whispery tableau alluding to a funeral procession, perhaps. Alternately nebulous and stormy loops created by breathing and blowing through a reed became a platform for a couple of enveloping vocal numbers that brought to mind Lesley Flanigan‘s sound sculptures.
The most striking moment in a set that went on for only a tantalizing half an hour was a starkly individualistic version of the old Scottish folk song Two Sisters, its doomed dichotomy brought to life by Miller’s somber low-register melody, spiced with keening, eerily reedy high harmonics that took on an even more menacing edge when run through the reverb pedal. Miller closed on a rapt, still note with a miniature in the same vein as Carlo Costa’s minimalist Natura Morta soundscapes. Throughout this strange, exotic performance, Miller sat calm and inscrutable, her presence matching the music’s enigmatic, quietly feral quality. By contrast, the flamenco band playing outdoors in the park behind Lincoln Center about an hour later seemed impossibly tame. Miller has playfully described her music as straddling the line between a medicinal dose and a lethal one, which made more sense than ever after seeing her perform her own material.
This performance was part of the opening festivities for the provocative, relevant decay-themed current group show at the Camera Club of New York, 126 Baxter St. south of Hester. Curated by Abigail Simon, artists on display include Miller, Simon, Esther Boesche, Anthony Hamboussi, Rania Khalil, Izabela Jurcewicz, Wayne Liu, Theresa Ortolani, Hannah Solin, Andrew Spano, Stephen Spera and Marina Zurkow. The closing reception is August 7 starting at 2 PM.