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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

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December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Wasted Notes From Guitarist Amanda Monaco and Her Killer Organ Jazz Quartet

Beyond the obvious Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations, there haven’t been a lot of jazz guitarists leading organ bands. Guitarist Amanda Monaco is a welcome exception – it’s a role she excels at, although hers is hardly your typical B3 group. She’s leading a trio with Justin Carrol on organ and Jeff Davis on drums on Dec 20 at 8 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 plus the usual $10 minimum. As a bonus, edgy, lyrical tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss leads her quintet afterward at 9:30.

Monaco pulled together a killer, refreshingly unorthodox lineup for her latest album, Glitter, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. Gary Versace plays organ, joined by Matt Wilson on drums and Lauren Sevian on baritone sax. Diehard organ types might feel that Versace is underutilized here, but ultimately this is all about the frontline: the way Monaco fills the role of a horn in tandem with the baritone is as interesting as it is innovative.

Monaco’s effervescent wit is in full effect right from the first droll around-the-horn echo effects of the album’s opening track, Dry Clean Only. Nicking the changes of Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, the group motors along throught tight, purposeful growl from Sevian, similarly spaced clusters from Versace and some delicious off-beat cymbal work from Wilson.

Monaco learned Tommy Flanagan’s jaunty “let’s go” theme Freight Trane from the Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane album; the way the group hangs back, refusing to hit a straight-up shuffle in the beginning is tantalizingly fun. Gremlin From the Kremlin – a shout-out to Monaco’s husband written before the disastrous events of November 8, 2016 – comes across as a gruffly edgy, bitingly chromatic strut, part klezmer and part noir bolero: Versace manages to find his creepiest tremolo setting before Monaco sets a vector for an uneasy stroll.

Monaco and Sevian go way back together, so Girly Day takes its inspiration from their years of brunching and comparing notes on the trials of being female musicians in a male-dominated genre. It’s catchy but unsettled, with some neatly diverging harmonies and a priceless what-now solo from Wilson.

Inspired by Holly Golightly’s method for pulling herself out of the doldrums in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Mean Reds is a gutbucket strut, part Chuck Berry, part Jimmy McGriff go-go and part T-Bone Walker. Step Counter has a slightly staggered clave beat, low-key Giant Steps changes and similarly amiable guitar-sax conversations. Fred Lacey’s Theme For Ernie, popularized by Trane, serves as a moody launching pad for poignant solos by Sevian and Monaco.

Meant to evoke what must have been a hell of a hangover, Mimosa Blues is the album’s darkest number, Versace climbing around tirelessly through his most menacing, Messianic voicings, Monaco echoing that surrealism. The album winds up with the title track, a catchy, anthemic look back at Monaco and Sevian’s days in the early zeros getting ready for big-band gigs  If Dave Brubeck had been an organist, he might have written something like it. Throughout these tracks, it’s refreshing to the extreme to hear a guitarist so purposeful and individualistic, who never feels the need to fall back on tired postbop comping mechanisms.

December 18, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

December 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughns White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

December 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uri Gurvich Brings His Fiery Latin and Middle Eastern-Influenced Jazz to a Cozy Saturday Night Spot

Kinship, the latest release by saxophonist Uri Gurvich and his quartet, is a rarity in jazz these days: a concept album. The central theme is connections: familial, ancestral, cultural and musical. Gurvich also deals with issues of non-belonging, including racism and discrimination. Musically, it’s extremely ambitious, with influences spanning from Argentine and Israeli folk, the Middle East and the Balkans. This album – streaming at Soundcloud – doesn’t have the white-knuckle intensity of Gurvich’s landmark 2013 Middle Eastern jazz collection, BabEL, but its scope is even more global. Gurvich is playing a rare trio date comprising three quarters of the quartet, with bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, at the Bar Next Door on Dec 16, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $12.

Pianist Leo Genovese’s glittering chords and Mela’s majestic cymbals anchor Gurvich’s tenderly gliding and swirling lines in the rhythmically shifting ballad Song for Kate, a dedication to his wife. Slavov’s leaping bass kicks off Dance of the Ñañigos, which shifts between an uneasy, altered boogie and more jaunty latin Caribbean tinges, inspired by a 19th century Afro-Cuban secret society.

Guest singer Bernardo Palumbo opens El Chubut with a harrowing poem written in the 1970s by a captive at that notorious Argentine torture site, then gives it a similarly plaintive edge over a moody waltz that elegantly shifts meters. The Argentine-Israeli Gurvich’s balmy lines seem to offer hope over Genovese’s gritty gleam.

Twelve Tribes is a gorgeously cantering mashup of moody Israeli riffage and stark blues over a circling, qawalli-ish groove, Mela shifting the ambience toward Cuba as he throws off sparks during a tantalizingly brief solo midway through. Im Tirtzi, a slinky cover of a 1970s Sasha Argov Israeli pop ballad, gets a gracefully shuflfing bolero rhythm and a low-key staccato solo from Slavov.

Gurvich makes a soaring soprano sax-infused jazz waltz out of the old spiritual Go Down Moses, whose “let my people go” message has significance far beyond its African-American and Jewish roots. Genovese’s energetically sun-dappled lines duet with Gurvich’s calm, summery sax throughout the album’s title track

Gurvich and Genovese spin off allusively Middle Eastern lines over Mela’s lithely churning rhythm in Blue Nomad. Hermetos – a Hermeto Pascual homage – is another dizzying cross-genre blend, Genovese spiraling and rippling from the Amazon across the Caribbean and back, then trading off with the bandleader. Ha’im Ha’im closes the album, rising from Slavov’s murkily insistent bass intro to a steady midtempo swing, Gurvich alluding to Coltrane, mining for inner blues in another 1970s Argov pop ballad.

December 14, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Quirk and Charm in David Lee Myers’ Analog Electronic Soundscapes

David Lee Myers released his debut, Gravity and Its Discontents, on cassette in 1984. Since then, he has a long history of coaxing unexpected sounds out of arcane devices, which was the name he recorded under for many years. His self-styled “feedback music” is 180 degrees from the shriek or whine of an overdriven amp. It’s both lively and atmospheric, which may seem like an oxymoron until you hear it, or find out that two of his major influences are electronic pioneer Tod Dockstader – with whom Myers collaborated – and also the Beatles. 

Myers’ extensive body of work comprises analog electronic music created completely free of interference from outside frequencies – which are almost invariably the reason why an amp will howl and scream if you push it under less than ideal sonic circumstances. His aptly titled yet dynamically diverse new album Ether Music is streaming at Starkland’s Bandcamp page, and he’s making a rare live appearance this Friday night, Dec 15 at 9 PM at New York’s Experimental Intermedia, 224 Centre St. at Grand, third floor; admission is $5.

Myers ges his sounds from what he calls a Feedback Workstation, which looks like Captain Sulu’s post on the Starship Enterprise but in the shape of an upright piano. Without getting overly technical, one of Myers’ great innovations is that each of its hundreds of channels is not only linked to every other one, but also loops back on itself. Myers at the controls is the orchestrator.

The result can be surreal, or lulling and peaceful, and deliciously psychedelic. The opening track has a subtly shifting drone behind what sounds like calm, matter-of-bact footfalls around a laboratory – this particular professor is anything but mad. Rigid and Fluid Bodies starts out as a bubbly aquarium, then goes into playfully echoey, blinking R2D2 territory and morphs into deep-space whale song.

Mysers works a series of shifts in Astabilized: cold, grim post-industrial Cousin Silas-style sonics, a quasar pulse through a Martian Leslie speaker, keening drones and sputters. What’s Happening Inside Highs and Lows is a rather wry study in slow fades and echoes. shifting between lathe and harmonica timbres. Arabic Science, as Myers sees it, is a contrast between calm ambience and and lava lamp waveforms rather than anything specifically Middle Eastern.

The Dynamics of Particles is sort of a sonic counterpart to those old screensavers where the ball rises until it bounces off the top of the frame – it becomes more animated as it goes along. Echoey long-tone phrases and sputters fade out, replaced by pitchy, asymmetrical loops in Radial-Axial: imagine Terry Riley at his tranciest.

Royale Polytechnique is Myers’ On the Run, followed by Growth Cones, the only instance where the music takes on a discernible melody in the traditional western scale – but it’s more Revolution 9  than, say, A Day in the Life. Myers closes with the epic Dorsal Streaming, neatly synopsizing the album with keening lathe tones, rhythmic and ambient contrasts, a mechanical dog in heat. Turn on, tune in, you know the drill.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Ilgenfritz’s Richly Textural Album Pushes the Limits of What Solo Bass Can Do

James Ilgenfritz’s second solo album, Origami Universe – streaming at Bandcamp – transcends the concept of solo bass, both in terms of performance and composition. He’s a ferocious improviser with daunting extended technique. Yet the album comprises four new compositions by major New York composers who date from an era when the downtown scene meant black-box former shooting gallery spaces instead of tourist bars.

The espionage-inspired Annie Gosfield’s mini-suite Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens opens the album, juxtaposing stygian bowing, elephantine snorts, oud-like reverberations, allusively jaunty, overtone-spiced harmonic riffs, gently bowed cello motives, swoops and dives galore. It’s catchy despite itself.

Miya Misaoka, classical Japanese koto virtuoso who’s taking the instrument to new places, contributes Four Moons Of Pluto. also a multi-part piece. Dark lows give way to uneasily hovering, insectile close harmonies and then slowly shifting, oscillating ocean liner diesel chords.Then Ilgenfritz ends it with a stately series of climbing variations.

He approaches the epic Xigliox, by master of the macabre JG Thirlwell, with a similarly ominous, matter-of-fact pacing. With its slowly crescendoing horror-film stroll and brooding bowed themes as it winds out, it’s both the most predictable and funniest piece here. When Ilgenfritz finally hits his first foreshadowing tritone early on, the effect packs a quiet wallop.

Guitar shredmeister Elliott Sharp’s Aletheia serves as a richly obsidian-toned coda that gets more mysterious as it goes along. Harmonics glisten and flicker against a cumulo-nimbus drone that fades to almost white noise and eventually a series of droll percussive oscillations. Thirlwell isn’t the only guy here with a sense of humor. In this piece and elsewhere, it’s amazing what a spectacular variety of timbres and textures Ilgenfritz creates without the use of any effects other than what appears to be a healthy amount of natural reverb.

Ilgenfritz gets around. He’s playing as part of guitarist Eyal Maoz’s fearsome Hypercolor trio with percussionist Lukas Ligeti at Spectrum on Dec 14 at 8. The Admiral Launch Duo – Jennifer Ellis on harp and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen on sax – headline at 9. Cover is $15.

December 11, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

December 9, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, children's music, classical music, concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Powerful, Relevant Performance by the Best Orchestra in New York Not Called the Philharmonic

There was a moment at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concert Saturday night at the Lincoln Center complex where the bassists got to share a brief, gleefully triumphantly grin. They’d just played the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, one of the most viscerally evil pieces of music ever written. It’s also one of the most viscerally thrilling. It doesn’t require the virtuoso technique of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra played with similar passion earlier this year. This was a different kind of adrenaline.

Conductor Barbara Yahr summed it up succinctly beforehand. “The first movement is conflict, and struggle…a memorial to the victims of Stalin. The second is pure evil: a portrait of Stalin. The third is like an old Russian guy with his tea and his vodka – something isn’t right, but we’ve managed to survive, and there’s hope. The fourth movement is revenge, Shostakovich going [she thumbed her nose] to Stalin, ‘Haha, I survived and you didn’t.’ But even there,” she motioned, “The music is still digging at you.”

And this was one for the books. Like the New York Philharmonic, the GVO typically record their concerts, so hopefully the rest of the world will be able to hear what the sold-out crowd here did. At the reception afterward, there was more than a buzz: it was more like a roar. Yahr had called out individual soloists for an ovation, something she never does, since she knew she’d caught lightning in a bottle.

Amid the turmoil, and bustle, and sheer horror – massed violins rising to a terrified, sustained shriek in the first movement – the composer allows for many momentary glimpses of hope, voiced starkly by soloists throughout the group. The effect is meant to be striking, and leaves zero room for error in in a cold and essentially merciless spotlight. And everybody was at the top of their game, including but not limited to oboeist Shannon Bryant, clarinetist Gary Dranch, french hornist Andrew Schulze, bassoonist Nisreen Nor, trumpeter Andrew Jeng and flutist Simon Dratfield.

They’d opened what turned out to be a very auspicious, aptly cantabile performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, glistening with Andrew Pak’s crystalline, powerfully poignant violin out in front of the orchestra. Then the group’s longtime timpanist, Gerard Gordon got a long-overdue turn in the spotlight with a resounding, lush romp through Michael Daugherty’s Raise the Roof. It’s a rare work that uses the timpani for extended melodic sequences – remember, those drums are tuned – as well as all sorts of dynamics, from misty washes to hailstorms and a few, tantalizingly thunderous volleys.

The night’s theme, in typical GVO fashion, was in the here and now. If the wheels of impeachment stall out, somebody’s going to have to vocalize and raise the roof and put an end to a bad idea gone viral – something the second movement of Shostakovich’s symphony expands on with withering sarcasm.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is their annual family concert, which is happening this year in the comfortable auditorium at the Third Street Music School Settlement at 235 E 11th St. on December 17 at 3 PM.

December 5, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment