Continuing yesterday’s theme about top-drawer jazz artists playing some unlikely spaces here in town, today’s is vibraphonist Behn Gillece, who’s doing a live rehearsal of sorts, leading a quartet at the Fat Cat on Jan 2 at 9 PM. You can be there to witness it for the three bucks that it takes to get into the pool hall – if you don’t mind the random polyrhythms of sticks hitting balls and some other background noise, you’d be surprised how many quality acts pass through here when they’re not headlining a place like Smalls, which is Gillece’s regular spot when he’s in town.
His 2010 Little Echo album with frequent collaborator Ken Fowser on tenor sax is one of the most tuneful, enjoyable postbop releases of recent years. Gillece’s previous album Mindset was considerably more ambitious, and on the knotty side; his latest one, Dare to Be – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a welcome return to form.
The album’s opening track, Camera Eyes begins as a sparkly ballad, shades of early 70s Milt Jackson until the rhythm section – Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Tiemann on drums – kicks in and then they’re off on a brightly shuffling, distantly Brazilian-tinged tangent. Gilllece’s shimmering lines cascade over a similarly brisk shuffle groove in From Your Perspective, Bruce Harris’ trumpet taking a more spacious approach.
Tiemann’s snowstorm cymbals push the 6/8 ballad Amethyst along, gently, Radley channeling some deep blues, Gillece just as judicious and purposeful. The group picks up the pace but keeps the singalong quality going with the lickety-split swing of Signals, Radley and Gillece adding percolating solos: the subtle variations Gillece makes to the head are especially tasty. His intricate intro to Drought’s End hardly gives away how straight-ahead and understatedly triumphant Harris’ trumpet and Radley’s guitar will be as it hits a peak.
The first of the two covers here. Bobby Hutcherson’s Same Shame is done as a crescendoing, enigmatically scrambling quasi-bossa, echoed in the goodnaturedly pulsing, tropical grooves of Gillece’s. Live It. The album’s anthemic title track grooves along on a brisk clave beat: it’s the closest thing to the lush life glimmer of Little Echo here.
The last of Gillece’s originals, Trapezoid is a rapidfire shuffle: Tiemann’s counterintuitively accented drive underneath the bandleader’s precise ripples and Radley’s steady chords is as fun as it is subtle. The album winds up with a gently resonant take of Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time For Love, looking back to both the Milt Jackson and Buddy Montgomery versions. Fans of engaging, ringing, tuneful music in general, as well as the jazz vibraphone pantheon spanning from those guys, to Hutcherson, to Gary Burton have a lot to enjoy here. If Gillece wasn’t already on this map, this has put him there to stay.
Guitarist Will Bernard is unique in the jazz world as someone with a serious postbop pedigree but also a dark side and a penchant for all sorts of interesting textures. The trouble with so many jazz guitarists who use a lot of effects is that they sound fusiony, i.e. like everybody in the band is on coke and soloing at the same time. Bernard’s music, by contrast, is very straightforward, tuneful and often cinematic: he’s easy to spot because nobody else really sounds like him. When he’s not on tour – he’s highly sought after as a sideman – his usual home in New York is Smalls. But sometimes some of these A-list jazz guys use small venues more or less as a rehearsal room, which probably explains how Bernard got booked into the small room at the Rockwood at 10 PM on Jan 2. It’s a great opportunity to hear one of the most distinctive talents in New York jazz guitar in an intimate setting with good sound.
Bernard’s latest album is the aptly titled Out and About, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. All but one of the tracks are originals and the band is fantastic. Drummer Allison Miller’s jaunty groove, a New Orleans shuffle beamed back to Africa, propels the wry wah-infused opening number, Happy Belated, John Ellis’ bright tenor sax contrasting with Ben Allison’s growly, sinuous bass. Bernard follows that with a wistful, Americana-tinged miniature, Not Too Fancy. Then the band go for offcenter harmonies and staggered rhythms with Next Guest, from some terse guitar-sax exchanges to Bernard tumbling alongside Miller’s steady crescendoing pulse, Allison weaving between the raindrops.
The heat in Habenera, the album’s best and most epic track, is the simmering kind, Brian Charette’s creepy funeral organ over a beat that almost imperceptibly shifts away from an uneasy tango toward roots reggae as Bernard growls and burns: it sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen at their most jazz-oriented. Then the band moves to an altered swing shuffle with Redwood (Business Casual), the bandleader’s enigmatic lines and Charette’s scampering riffage adding a suspiciously sardonic edge against Ellis’ irrepressible good cheer and a classic, expertly extroverted Miller solo.
A doggedly insistent clave groove, a catchy Americana turnaround and moody guitar-organ chromatics mingle throughout the Lynchian Homeward Bound, another killer cut: Bernard’s flickering resonance gives the impression that he wouldn’t mind staying on the road instead. By contrast, Ellis’ misty sax and Miller’s gently strolling rhythm take Homebody into pleasantly grey-sky current-day pastoral jazz territory.
With its pensive sway and surreal guitar efx channeling distant deep-space disturbances, Suggested Reading is another number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Brian Beninghove catalog – dig that trick ending! Miller rides the traps and Charette bubbles throughout the toe-tapping Full Sweep, which looks back to classic Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations. A slow, spacious number, Pan Seared veers warpedly toward pastorale territory The album winds up with the title track, a bleak bolero-jazz piece once again anchored in the murky depths by Charette, an apt way to wind up this shadowy, distinctive gem of an album.
Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.
The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.
The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crescendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.
The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.
Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.
Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.
Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.
Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.
The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.
Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.
A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.
Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”
If there’s a future for big band jazz, it’s in good hands with Christopher Zuar. Him, and Ben Kono, the ubiquitous multi-reedman who seems to be front and center at pretty much every good big band performance in this city these days, including plenty of lyrical work on alto sax and oboe at the Christopher Zuar Orchestra’s ecstatic, dynamic show Thursday night at Symphony Space..The nineteen-piece ensemble, including the composer out front on the podium, comprised members of the various Mingus repertory bands, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Alan Ferber Nonet. Notwithstanding this group’s camaraderie, never mind a program packed with strong tunesmithing and all sorts of ideas worth stealing, Zuar has staked a claim in an ever-shrinking field dominated by a few iconic composers and Jazz Hall of Fame personalities: Ron Carter, David Murray and Roy Hargrove, for instance. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, filthy lucre is not the name of the game: you have to do this out of pure passion. This group had plenty of that, as does Zuar’s debut album, Musings, this blog’s choice as best jazz debut of 2016.
The concert gave an impressively full house a chance to revel in the nuance as well as the big hooks that Zuar has made his stock in trade. To see that the night’s best number was not a richly conversational new arrangement of Egberto Gismonti’s rippling, tropical epic 7 Aneis, or the plaintive ballad Lonely Road, but Zuar’s newest number of the night, portends well for his career. He introduced that diptych, Native Tongue, as his way of writing his way out of a musical existential crisis in the wake of the album’s release earlier this spring. The composition turned out to be a dynamically crescendoing anthem matching brooding Bach, bright Brazil, an enigmatic second part fueled by Mike Holober’s incisive piano paired with Mark Ferber’s terse drumming, a moodily expressive Charles Pillow clarinet solo that finally soared skyward, and an almost defiantly fiery, brass-fueled coda
Otherwise, despite the grandeur and majesty of the rest of the program, it was the subtle moments that resonated the most. The subtle handoffs between voices to complete a phrase, and the sarcastic trick ending that Zuar spun inside out at the end of the opening number, Remembrance, were among the most memorable. But so was the sheerly cantabile, singalong balance between brass and winds in Of Certain Uncertainty, which matched the actual vocalese, sung with relish by Aubrey Johnson. She’s a major addition to this band. Jo Lawry does a fine job on the album, but Johnson brought a touch of sass and brass, found the inner blue-eyed soul ballad at the center of Vulnerable States and brought out every ounce of it. She may be best known for her bell-like clarity, but this show reminded how much else she has up her sleeve.
Guitarist Pete McCann got a chance to chew the scenery with a completely over-the-top metal solo midway through Ha! Joke’s on You – centered around a “uh-oh, here comes trouble” funk riff – winding it up with a just plain hilarious, furtive glissando at the end that had both the band and audience in stitches.
The second set was a bit shorter but every bit as eclectic, including a spiraling, achingly lyrical soprano sax solo from Jason Rigby on the blustery So Close, So Far Away, along with the wryly humorous Chaconne – with elements of both Bach and Led Zep – and the aptly titled Anthem. In sum, a lush and incisive performance by a crew that also included Dave Pietro on alto sax, Carl Maraghi on baritone sax; Tony Kadleck, Jay Owens, Dave Smith and Matt Holman on trumpets; Matt McDonald, Mark Patterson and Alan Ferber on trombones; another ubiquitously welcome presence, Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone; and Aidan O’Donnell on bass. If everybody here can find time in their schedules, it would be rewarding to see this band get a traditional Monday night residency somewhere. Jazz Gallery, are you interested?
Subtle Wit, Purposeful Mess, Enigmatic Tunefulness, Epic Stagger and a Barbes Show by Guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized
The cover photo of Tom Csatari‘s new vinyl album Melted Candy shows a golden retriever sitting on the curb, looking wistfully to the side. Straight ahead, across the street, urban folk art. Somebody’s taken the time to paint “ONE DAY we will PART” on what appears to be a jerry-rigged fence surrounding a construction site. Is this all-too-familiar tableau a commentary on the seemingly endless destruction of (relatively) affordable living spaces in this city? Or is it more grimly universal? From the music, played by the guitarist’s individualistic, genre-warping large ensemble, Uncivilized, it’s more complicated than that: all four tracks are instrumentals. You might get a better idea when the group brings their uneasy, distinctively tuneful, often purposefully messy yet psychedelically intricate sound – call it heavy pastoral jazz, maybe?- to Barbes on Dec 29 at 10 PM. Their most recent show there was back in August, the guitar-and-reed-fueled group slayed and the room was packed, so you might want to get there a little early.
The purpose of the ep – streaming at Tiny Montgomery Records – was to capture both large and small configurations of the group. The sarcastically opening miniature, Stupid Gurus takes its inspiration from an exasperated Paul Mann rant about the failure of underground art and any attempt to raise awareness about it. Mann’s primary argument concerns the incompatibility of art and commerce, echoed in the cloying, mealymouthed main melody as the instruments flutter and pull away.
Escarpments coalesces slowly out of jangly, rainy-day folk-tinged guitar as drummer Rachel Housle builds enigmatic ambience with her cymbals and hardware; from there, reeds and rhythm hover and huddle against an insistent post-Velvets vamp. Csatari is a master of implied melody, teasing you to think he’s playing more notes than he actually is, and this is a killer example, his slide guitar and Levon Henry’s bass clarinet leading a steady slide down into the murk. Is this a reference to edifices nobody wants?.
ScoJaVel® is supposed to be a mashup of John Scofield, Skip James and Maurice Ravel. It has more of a lingering 80s punk jazz feel, or like Mary Halvorson in offhandedly snide mode, the reeds flickering against Csatari’s reverbtoned swipes as drummer Coleman Bartels highfives him. Nick Jozwiak’s brisk, staccato cello pairs against Tristan Cooley’s brooding flute as the band strolls purposefully behind them on the final cut, BrandCore™, a tune they could have stretched out for five times as long as they did if they’d really wanted to. But then it wouldn’t have fit onto 7” vinyl. Just as they do onstage, these players build the sonic equivalent of a stone wall that looks like it could collapse any minute despite all outward appearances but never does, because everything is too tight. But demolition is always just as much of a possibility, which is as much fun live as you could possibly imagine. Other players on these songs include Michael Sachs on sax and clarinet, Casey Berman on sax and bass clarinet, Ben Katz on bass clarinet, Nick Jost on bass, Julian Cubillos and Sean Schuster-Craig on guitars and Dominic Mekky on organ, If you’re in town over the holidays and the F train is running, Barbes would be an awfully fun place to be on the 29th.
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.
Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.
The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.
As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.
From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.
The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?
What do you do when a storm takes everything you own? You buckle down and create a new body of work. That’s what Tony Moreno did. After Hurricane Sandy destroyed his compositions, and drums, and even memorabilia from his famous harpist mother, Nina Dunkel Moreno, the drummer/composer took a monthly residency at 55 Bar and worked up enough new material for an epic new double album, Short Stories, streaming at Spotify. Moreno’s compositions here tend to be on the lavish side, running seven or eight minutes at a clip: this album really feels like a couple of live sets. Uneasily clustering, distantly Lennie Tristano-ish piano is livened by expressive and sometimes explosive playing: Moreno comes off sobered if ultimately none the worse for all the trauma. It’s a chance to hear pianist Jean-Michel Pilc deliver some of his most otherworldly thrilling work and witness tenor saxophone powerhouse Marc Mommaas in unexpectedly rapturous mode alongside lyrical trumpeter Ron Horton, perennially popular bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Moreno swinging behind his new drumkit. Moreno and his group are back at 55 Bar this Wednesday, Dec 15 at 7 PM.
Moreno got a start on piano as a youngster but became a protege of Elvin Jones – with whom he later would share a stage, albeit on piano. Moreno is more chill than his mentor here, propelling the tunes with equal parts fire and finesse, drums up enough in the mix to capture his nuances without distracting from the whole. The album’s opening number, Foxy Trot (titles are not Moreno’s forte) opens with Pilc’s eerie, Mompou-esque belltones and quickly rises to a briskly floating swing with high-voltage solos from both Mommaas and Horton. By contrast, Mommaas’ ballad Little One features the saxophonist in rare, airy, delicate mode. The West’s Best juxtaposes Pilc’s Messiaenic gravitas with Horton’s similarly wary lines over Moreno’s elegant tumbles, then follow an increasingly gritty drive fueled by Mommaas and Pilc.
Errol Garner, a shout-out to the pianist, has a richly lingering unease carried by Pilc’s clustering lines and Mommaas’ enigmatically circling phrases. 55 Scotch builds from an acerbically catchy Frank Foster-ish hook to rapidfire swing and a neat handoff from Mommaas to Horton, Pilc playing good cop againt the bandleader’s blockbuster assault. Susan’s Dream is more of a lurking nightmare, through a surreal piano-bass dialogue, Mommass’ haggard solo turning it over to Okegwo’s misterioso ballet. It’s the album’s most harrowing number.
No Blues to You makes for a contrasting, lickety-split feature for Horton that Pilc pushes further into the shadows. The first disc closes with an expansively lush take of Ellington’s C Jam Blues punctuated by the occasional suspenseful pause.
Disc two opens with a similarly tender take of Kenny Wheeler’s Three for D’Reen and its judicious echo phrases. Oh, Henry, Moreno’s magnum opus here, shifts artfully in and out of waltz rhythm, Pilc’s glimmering neoromantic colors front and center, Horton’s blazing solo followed by an unexpectedly nebulous one from Mommaas and a triumphantly flickering outro. The band follows Grovelling, a lengthy, shapeshifting Horton vehicle, with the first of two versions of El Rey, a serpentine, majestic flamenco-jazz gem with that recalls Chano Dominguez.
M.O. follows a counterintuitive path downward from a bright opening into a spacious swing shuffle with solos all around, Pilc and Moreno each building back toward a big crescendo. Pueblo de Lagrimas is a return to slow, somber, latin-inflected majesty, lowlit by Pilc’s lyrical solo, Horton raising the ante while Moreno prowls and chooses his spots. The album wins up with the second take of El Rey, the king clearly back on top in what was once a very sad city.
Considering that string players ought to be ideally suited to writing string quartets, Caroline Shaw is not only a capable violinist but also a strong singer with a background in choral music. So the cantabile quality and sheer catchiness of her string quartets were hardly a surprise when the Attacca Quartet played a grand total of five of them at National Sawdust Sunday evening.
Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece whose ambition trumped content. The works on this bill made for a far more accurate and rapturously entertaining survey. The Attaccas chose well in championing her, and she deserves champions as committed to and capable of tackling her often dauntingly challenging if reliably tuneful and ever-growing repertoire.
The influence of Bach shone clearly throughout several of these pieces, but through the prism of Philip Glass, in terms of elegantly circling, hypnotic, subtly shifting motives and arpeggios. Distant echoes of late Beethoven and a “nested Bach cantata,” as Shaw grinningly put it, were present. There were also flickers of composers as diverse as Kaija Saariaho and Per Norgard, particularly during the music’s most shimmery, atmospheric moments, most of them a setup for Shaw’s next surprise. None of these pieces followed the traditional four-part mold. The most expansive was Plan & Elevation, an uninterrupted, seven-part suite inspired by the greenery at Dunbarton Hall, a Washington, DC area landmark. The shortest and most overtly triumphant was Valencia, the concluding number, its lithe, loosely tethered, balletesque flourishes celebrating the virtues of a particularly juicy orange, bursting with flavors both sweet and acidic.
Shaw writes very generously for string quartet. Second violinist Keiko Tokunaga got plenty of time in the spotlight, as did first violinist Amy Schroeder and violist Nathan Schram, as Shaw’s kinetic phrasing lept from voice to voice. She makes maximum use of a cello’s most stygian resonances, delivered exuberantly by cellist Andrew Yee. The opening work, Entr’acte, featured all sorts of hushed, muted harmonics, microtones and the occasional devious glisssando. Each member of the quartet seemed pushed, if quietly, to the limits of their extended technique with volley after volley of pizzicato, in addition to gentle doppler or siren effects.
One number explored a Roland Barthes concept about the perception of a particular tone. Punctum, the next-to-last piece, Shaw averred, means both “point” in Latin and also the opening of a tear duct: it turned out to be more of a pensive pavane than a cavatina. The sold-out audience was drawn in raptly and finally exploded in applause: nobody knew when the concert was going to end since there was no program printed or online, at least at the venue’s page. It’s hard to think of an ongoing string quartet cycle that’s going to be more fun to keep in touch with than this one.
The Attacca Quartet’s next New York concert is on January 20 at 7:30 PM featuring Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10, Op 74, “Harp” in E-flat Major, and String Quartet No 9, Op 59 No 3 in C Major, plus Michael Ippolito’s Big Sky, Low Horizon, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 3 W. 65th St.
Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums
While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.
It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.
Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work
Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.
The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.
Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.