Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stephanie Chou’s Chinese Jazz Shifts the Paradigm at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center booked Stephanie Chou and her quartet to celebrate International Women’s Day. They couldn’t have made a more imaginative choice. Chou is a strong singer with an unadorned mezzo-soprano, a strong saxophonist and a brilliantly individualistic composer who’s shifting the paradigm, blending Chinese themes from over the centuries with jazz, classical and more than a little rock in places. Her show last night drew heavily from her latest, innovative album, Asymptote. Her music is relevant, and lyrical, and amazingly eclectic, typical of the programming here lately.

The concert began with Isamu McGregor’s pointillistic, twinkling upper-register piano, joined by Andy Lin’s stark erhu fiddle. Then in a split second he picked up his viola and plucked out a spiky pizzicato riff before returning to the erhu as In the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a new version of the famous 1970s Teresa Teng Chinese pop hit, picked up steam.

Chou picked up her alto sax for General’s Command, reinventing an old Fujianese zither song as hard-hitting, kinetic postbop with more than a hint of gospel, Lin’s violin adding shivery ambience behind Chou’s calm, resolute melody.

“We’re gonna switch gears a little bit,” the college math major and bandleader explained, introducing the lustrous title cut from the new album. “The more you look the less you really see,” she sang: the enveloping, enigmatic sweep of the sax, viola, piano and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza’s muted mallets on the toms dovetailed with the philosophical paradox it alludes to, two lines converging infinitely but never reaching the same point.

Quiet Night Thought – a tropically-tinged setting of a Li Bai poem – followed a similarly lush, distantly brooding nocturnal tangent, Chou singing in Chinese. Then they switched gears again: Lin’ s solo version of an old folk song about birds flutttered, and chirped ,and soared, but with a fluidity that would make any feathered friend jealous.

Chou illustrated Odysseus’ arduous journey home to his true love with Penelope, a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo. It would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago.

Chou returned to Chinese with her vocals in Making Tofu – inspired by a funny proverb about an only slightly less arduous process – a moody jazz waltz with a gorgeous, sternly crescendoing meteor shower of a piano solo and ominously modal sax work. Who knew so much energy was required to make those innocuous little cubes!

She led the crowd in a Chinese tongue-twister – the gist of it was, “If you eat grapes you spit out the peel, if you don’t eat grapes then you don’t” – then scatted it as Sperrazza rattled his toms and woodblock. She got serious again with the somberly verdant, astringently crescendoing tonalities of In the Forest, inspired by Johann Stolting, a 19th scientist turned hermit and something of a tragic character in her Irvington, New York hometown

Chou’s latest project explores the struggles of the women forced into prostitution by the Japanese in World War II. The world premiere of Manchurian Girl, a reworking of a 1938 Chinese pop song, had a sardonic martial beat: the longing and disillusion in Chou’s voice was visceral and transcended any linguistic limitations. She followed with a dramatic ballad, McGregor’s lingering glitter contrasting with Lin’s insistent attack and closed with a brief tone poem of sorts, part Debussy and part stately Chinese folk.

The next jazz show at Lincoln Center the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is an especially amazing one, with ageless latin jazz piano icon Eddie Palmieri and his band on March 16 at 7:30 PM The show is free so get there early or else.

March 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And she picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

March 8, 2018 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Strikingly Accessible, Dynamic Solo Album from Mivos Quartet Violinist Olivia De Prato

Olivia De Prato is a founding member of the perennially fearless Mivos Quartet and one of the most highly sought-after violinists in new music. Her technique is stunning: depending on the needs of a piece, she can deliver flash, nuance, lyricism or the kind of acidity that one often finds in the edgy kind of repertoire the quartet specializes in. And all of the above, as she does throughout her new solo album Streya, streaming at New Focus Recordings. She’s playing the album release show on March 13 at 7:30 PM at the second-floor space at 1 Rivington St. at the corner of Bowery. Cover is $20.

The opening number, Samson Young’s Ageha.Tokyo gives De Prato a vast playground to air out her extended technique and effects pedals: crunching lows, enigmatic microtonal swoops, jarring scrapes, twinkly electronics, rhythm-shifting loops and subtle variations on a disarmingly simple central theme. You could call parts of this cello metal – although it’s not played on one.

The title track, a diptych by her Mivos Quartet bandmate, violist Victor Lowrie is a fragmented study in extreme dynamics: whispery harmonics, caustic close harmonies, brooding lyricism side by side with splashes of pizzicato and austere washes. Playing this to open the quartet’s show last month at the Miller Theatre, De Prato didn’t make it look easy, but clearly relished the challenge of Lowrie’s constant gear-shifting. The second half is calmer and disarmingly catchy.

Ned Rothenberg’s Percorso Insolito is a picturesque, shapeshifting pastorale that De Prato builds from a quasi-stroll to cheerily soaring flights as the sun lights up the hillside. Taylor Brook’s slow, methodically crescendoing, microtonally rich Wane is constructed out of cleverly assembled multitracks: what appear to be echoey, furtive glissandos are actually simultaneous smeared notes from the five individual voices, each in a different tuning. There’s more reverb on this piece than the others, amping up the wash of delicious overtones.

In its jaunty octaves and variations, Reiko Fueting’s Tanz.Tanz rather obliquely references both the chorale riffs woven into the famous Bach Chaconne, and also the Haruki Marakami novel Dance Dance Dance. The final piece is Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin, based on her intense, dramatic chamber work Vespers For a New Dark Age. But aside from the arresting, opening echo phrases, this electroacoustic work is considerably different, mournful motives leaping and lingering against a somber deep-space backdrop. Either De Prato is singing vocalese here, or she’s running her violin through a vocal patch. Spin this colorful mix for any curmudgeon who might dismiss avant garde music as shrill or pointless.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Irrepressible Trumpeter Steven Bernstein Brings His Two Hottest Bands to the Jazz Standard This Week

Sexmob – trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen – have been making magically surreal, darkly cinematic sounds since the late 90s. As you will see below, good things happen when they turn up. They’re at the Jazz Standard tomorrow, March 8 and Friday, March 9 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; $30 cover isn’t too bad considering that the club has no minimums (but good food, incidentally).

Then Bernstein leads his historically-infused, hard-swinging Millennial Territory Orchestra – whose reinventions of Sly Stone songs are a real trip –  there on the 10th and 11th. Check out this lineup: Charlie Burnham on violin; Curtis Fowlkes on trombone; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax; Erik Lawrence on baritone sax; Matt Munisteri on guitar; Ben Allison on bass; and Ben Perowsky on drums. It’s as if legendary Lower East Side hotspot Tonic – where an empty “luxury” condo now stands – was still open.

Here’s what Sexmob sounded like last July in Prospect Park:

“…a wickedly amusing, entertaining score to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno…it’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet…part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.”

They’re saving the fire for the Jazz Standard gigs.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Piano Icon Satoko Fujii Launches Her Ambitious 2018 Album-a-Month Project

What Wadada Leo Smith is to the trumpet, Satoko Fujii is to the piano: one of the most riveting improvisers to ever play the instrument. Like Smith, her themes can be epic and ambitious to the nth degree, yet her playing is meticulous and nuanced. Where a lot of musicians think in short phrases, Fujii thinks in paragraphs. Her most recent big band album, the harrowingly relevant Fukushima suite, topped the Best Albums of 2017 list here. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. In person, beyond the sheer depth of her music, her indomitable joie de vivre, sense of wonder and daunting chops transcend preconceptions about age. The first release in the series is simply titled Satoko Fujii Solo.

Full disclosure: many of these albums seem to already be in the can. This first one was recorded live in concert in the fall of last year in Yawatahama, Japan. From the first magnificent, moody neoromantic chords of her eight-minute opening number, Inori, the way she distills them down to a simple, catchy three-chord riff and variations is a clinic in tunesmithing. Fujii is also a very site-specific pianist: she feels the room, figures out how long the reverb lasts,  then makes it an integral part of the music. She does that here with stabbing chords that build to a series of leaps and bounds. then a starlit outro. Chopin probably worked up a lot of his material this way.

This is a very otherworldly record, bristling with uneasy, insistently modal tangents. Don’t be fooled by the high drone that opens the second number, Geradeaus. That’s not a defect – that’s Fujii bowing and rustling around inside the piano. She finds a low pedal note, expands around it in an emphatic Keith Jarrett way, goes back inside and adjusts the timbre ever so slightly, then lightens a bit and dances around with uneasy chromatics. The few carefree flourishes turn out to be a red herring as this mood piece turns more savage and enigmatic.

As the twelve-minute Ninepin gets underway, Fujii juxtaposes muted gamelanesque taps on the strings…and what sounds like an electric sander on them. Slowly and methodically, she develops what could be a misterioso Indian wee-hours raga…but cuts off the pedal on each phrase suddenly – wherever this is going, we’re not there yet.  Some of it could be Satie, or Lennie Tristano, severity balanced against tongue-in-cheek humor.

The even longer Spring Storm is all about foreshadowing: stygian low torrents rise and then subside, give way to hints of a clearing, but that big black cloud is going to hang awhile! It’s Debussy’s garden in the hailstorm, but feeling the force of the elements row by row instead of the cloudburst simply shredding everything in its path.

In Gen Himmel, Fujii lets her Mompou-esque belltones linger, flits around under the lid, and cuts off phrases sharply, Intimations of gospel enter the picture, only to be elbowed out by funereal motives and restless close harmonies. The wryly titled Up Down Left Right begins as a funny study in how gremlins can pop up all over the keyboard, then morphs into twisted, bellicose quasi-boogie-woogie  Fujii closes the show by reinventing  Jimmy Giuffre’s Moonlight as a distantly menacing, saturnine elegy. “The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie,” Phil Ochs sang. Boy, do they ever.

Where does this rank in the immense Fujii catalog (over eighty albums)? Probably in the top ten, alongside her magical, mordant duo album with fellow pianist Myra Melford, for example.

Now where can you find this magical album…other than a Soundcloud page? Stay tuned!

March 2, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment