Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

JD Allen Reinvents Boudoir Jazz

There used to be a NPR clip of Betty Carter playing a New Year’s Eve show where in one of the night’s closing swing ballads, a young JD Allen took a solo that was absolutely perfect for what it was: wee-hour contented bliss. Many years later, one suspects that’s not what jazz fans are counting on from him. If anybody has that clip or knows where it is, holler back: it’s relevant to this discussion.

For the last ten years or so, Allen has been the Mingus of the tenor sax, this era’s most darkly tuneful, ferociously relevant and often witheringly intense player, composer and bandleader on that instrument. Over the past couple of years, he’s deviated from his often searing, modally-infused three-minute “jukebox jazz” to embrace the blues in all its many forms, with his savagely terse 2016 release Americana. Then he completely flipped the script with his 2017 quartet album Radio Flyer, a far more expansive and improvisational excursion, adding guitarist Liberty Ellman to his long-running rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This time out, Allen has flipped the script yet again with Love Stone (streaming at Spotify), a cover album of ballad standards that bring to mind that mysterious, contentedly celebratory NPR moment but hardly settle for replicating it. He and the quartet are playing the release show on June 18 at Nublu 151, with sets at 8 and 10 PM. Cover is $15.

While some of these numbers are pretty standard Netflix-and-chill, a lot of them aren’t. Many of them are among the starkest and most spacious Allen’s ever done. “Playing the melody while knowing the lyrics is like drinking champagne and laughing at yourself all night long,” Allen asserts in the coy love note in the cd booklet. He also shares specific lines culled from those lyrics as a guide to where he’s going musically.

For starters, he and the group don’t reinvent Stranger in Paradise as much as they take it out of a straitjacket, substituting a gently and loosely syncopated, thoughtful if not exactly carefree sway, Ellman’s lingering chords first foreshadowing and then switching roles with Allen’s smoky, wafting phrases. Harry Allen (no relation) is more of a comparison than you would ever think, knowing this bandleader’s back catalog.

The take of Until the Real Thing Comes Along is closer to that other Mr. Allen with a similarly oldschool swing guy like Ed Cherry on guitar, the rhythm section a sotto-voce, slinky presence. Royston, playing with greater subtlety than he’s ever been called to do on album, goes to that same well again with August in Why Was I Born. Likewise, Allen’s melismatic tendrils curlicue and entwine, introducing what’s probably been the most spacious, Barney Kessel-ish solo Ellman’s ever recorded,

Fueled by Allen’s almost grimly acidic highs, “You give me chills” is the not-so-subtext for the quartet’s skeletal take of You’re My Thrill: August’s easygoing but spring-loaded chords over Royston’s misterioso brushwork make for one of the album’s most rapturous moments. The remake of the old folk ballad Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies has a distant, rivetingly Frisellian bittersweetness – it’s the closest thing to an original here and the best song on the album.

Likewise, while Put on a Happy Face has a muted swing, Allen’s occasional flicker of a microtone or sinuous cluster offers split-second context, a place in a much bigger picture. Prisoner of Love is anything but a prisoner’s tale – with a focus that’s both prayerful and gimlet-eyed, Allen and group leave no doubt where they’d like to go with it…and suddenly Allen throws the blinds open and the sun streams in.

True to the lyric, Allen brings more than a hint of his signature defiance to Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You). The album comes full circle with the subtly shifting metrics of Gone with the Wind. The most trad thing about it is how it’s used: it’s best appreciated (and most useful, believe it) with a snifter of bourbon and your dearest one close by. If your dearest one has enough lust for life to go out on a Monday night, Allen’s album release show could be your best date of the year.

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June 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Defiance, Relevance and Transcendence With the New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park

So many inspiring conclusions to take away from the New York Philharmonic’s phantasmagorically majestic performance this past evening in Prospect Park. In the year of the Metoo movement, that the orchestra would choose a centerpiece celebrating a mythic heroine who disarms a psychotic dictator using only her wits spoke volumes.

As does the organization’s long-running Very Young Composers mentorship and advocacy program. Two of those individuals were represented on the bill, each a young African-American woman and a native Brooklynite. And in what’s been a challengingly transitional interregnum between music directors, the choice of James Gaffigan to lead the ensemble through some stunningly fresh, meticulously articulated, relevatory interpretations of material they’ve probably played dozens of times before paid mighty dividends.

At a concert pitched to pull a family audience, local city council representative Brad Lander’s commentary on the ongoing anguish of families being broken up by the ongoing extremist clampdown on immigrants was the night’s most overtly political moment. A polyglot crowd echoed their fervent, familial solidarity, then the orchestra spoke to how triumphantly this scenario could actually play out.

They foreshadowed the suspense and splendor of their romp through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade with an arguably even more carnivalesque stampede through the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Delilah. Even if its creepy chromatics aren’t much more than Hollywood hijaz, those Arabic inflections were another crushingly relevant reference point.

If the program’s two brief, kinetic works by young composers Jordan Millar and Camryn Cowan are any indication, the blues are as much alive in Brooklyn as they were during the Harlem Renaissance, a most welcome meme throughout the New York City public schools this year and a vivid theme for these two gradeschoolers. Each compose’s piece put simple, emphatic blues hooks front and center in lieu of expansive harmony or flourishes, the former with a neat, cold stop midway through and some unexpected, Mozartean lustre afterward.

The orchestra made it to the concert’s midway point with three jaunty, frequently coy excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Town. The Philharmonic’s pretty-much-annual tour of the New York City parks system, from the Bronx to Staten Island, always feature a little bit of everything, including what in another century would have been called “pops” material from outside the classical canon. But as with the rest of the program, Gaffigan didn’t deviate from the game plan or phone these in, airing out the composer’s exchanges of voicings with a painterly charm.

And as much as the park programming is standard repertoire, the Philharmonic never picks tired or cheesy material. Over the last few years, we’ve been treated to plenty of Stravinsky – notably a conflagration of The Firebird in Central Park a couple years back – as well as a similarly colorful tour of Respighi’s Pines of Rome a little before then. Considering both the political subtext and the stunning attention to detail from both Gaffigan and the orchestra, this could have been the best of all of them since the turn of the decade.

Getting to witness it from the best seat in the house – about the equivalent of row L at their Lincoln Center home – no doubt colored this perception. Looking out into the wide swath of greenery in front of them, it must be tempting for everyone onstage to want to play loud, but Gaffigan mined the entirety of the sonic spectrum in keeping with the composer’s top-to-bottom orchestration. When there was suspense, it was relentless; when there was menace, it was a carnival of potentially dead souls; when there were dreamy interludes, they had a celestial vastness.

And the solos, tantalizingly brief as they were, were mesmerizing. Concertmaster Frank Huang spun joyously expert filigrees and flickers, up to an almost shocking cadenza in the final movement where he dug in so hard it seemed that he might break a violin string. Similar effects – especially bassoonist Judith LeClair’s silken, mutedly bittersweet solo – further underscored a triumphant narrative mirroring both the angst and transgressive victories in so many of the world’s ongoing struggles and rebellions.

The Philharmonic’s 2018 tour of the boroughs concludes on Sunday, June 17 indoors at 3 PM at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.

June 15, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Phenomenally Tuneful, Catchy New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Multi-Instrumentalist Gordon Grdina

There’s a consensus among many musicians that if you can play one stringed instrument, you can learn to play them all if you put in the practice time. Gordon Grdina is persuasive proof: he’s as much of a force on the guitar as he is on the oud. And these days, when he’s not on tour, he’s become a welcome addition to the New York jazz scene. He’s got a couple of very different, very enticing gigs coming up. Tonight, June 14 at 8 he’s at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with Marrow, his oud-driven Middle Eastern jazz quartet with Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass and Hamin Honari on Persian percussion. Then this Saturday night, June 16 at 8 Grdina leads his more western-inflected guitar band with Oscar Noriega on reeds, Russ Lossing on piano and Satoshi Takeishi on drums at Greenwich House Music School. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

Grdina has new albums with both bands as well. To say that one is edgier than the other is a hard call, attesting to the unhinged intensity the guitar quartet is capable of – especially live. It was pretty hair-raising to catch that latter ensemble doing what was essentially a live rehearsal in the middle of nowhere in Bed-Stuy a few weeks back. Grdina’s latest album with that group, Inroads, is streaming at Bandcamp. The latest Marrow album, Edjeha – Farsi for dragon – isn’t officially out quite yet. And it’s nothing short of extraordinary, genuinely pushing the envelope in terms of how far an artist can take both Middle Eastern maqam music and American jazz.

As Edjeha gets underway, Grdina takes a sparse, incisive approach to the misterioso opening cut, Telesm, almost imperceptibly building to a series of scrambling clusters as Honari keeps a muted, funereal frame drum beat going. Then Roberts builds a plaintive solo as Helias and Honari run a hypnotic groove that eventually hits a triumphant scamper. It’s closer to Levantine classical music than is it to postbop swing.

Helias takes a turn in deliciously suspenseful mode to introduce Idiolect, an insistent, anthemic Middle Eastern jazz epic that veers into waltz time for a bit, both the bassist and cellist having unselfsconscious fun mining the microtones for all the unsettled intensity they’re worth, up to a joyously otherworldly Roberts solo.

Grdina rises out of a broodingly exploratory taqsim to a circling, stabbing theme in the album’s title track, Roberts taking an emphatic, steady solo as the group spin the central riff behind him. The deceptively catchy Bordeaux Bender juxtaposes Grdina’s spare oud against similarly terse bowed strings, intimating at a casual stroll but never quite going there.

The wyrly titled Wayward begins with a darkly haphazard improvisatory interlude before Honari leads the band through a series of grinningly machinegunning motives; then they bustle along with a devious, marionettish pulse, Roberts again jumping at the chance to give it a coda. Grdina’s plaintive intro to Full Circle is a pretty radical contrast, echoed by Roberts; then Grdina completely flips the script with his genial ballad phrasing. The album’s final number is Boubacar, a surrealistic mashup of Mali, boogie and stark 19th century country blues, a shout-out to the great Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore.

Whether you consider all this jazz, Middle Eastern music, both, or a brand-new style that Grdina’s just invented, this is one of New York’s best bands, bar none. And this is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year so far in any style of music.

June 14, 2018 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ambitious, Counterintuitive Tunefulness from Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill didn’t exactly burst onto the Manhattan scene – he eased into it, mentored by his father, the brilliant pianist/composer/activist Arturo O’Farrill. The trumpeter’s big splash was when Vijay Iyer enlisted him while barely out of his teens. His technique is astonishing, from the top to the bottom of his register, and with amazing subtlety for someone with such fearsome chops. He’s also a very soulful and playful composer, which takes some people by surprise, which it shouldn’t. Depth isn’t a quality that necessarily comes with age. Think about it: were you stupid when you were in your early twenties? If you’re reading this, probably not.

Adam O’Farrill’s second album with his chordless quartet, Stranger Days – with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax, Walter Stinson on bass and similarly brilliant older brother Zack on drums – is titled El Maquech. It’s a step forward for an already talented bandleader, who’s bringing his crew to the album release show at 55 Bar tomorrow night, June 13 at 10 PM. Much as the club is a rare remaining fortress of (very) oldschool West Village cool, this is the kind of show that really ought to happen at, say, Lincoln Center. If the late, great Lorraine Gordon was still with us, she unquestionably would have given this guy a week at the Vanguard.

The album’s opening number, Siiva Moiiva – which you can hear on Bandcamp along with the rest of the tracks – is a reinvented Mexican folk tune, both a showcase for shivery, allusively Arabic extended technique and some jubilant New Orleans rhythms, veering back and forth between the two. Stinson’s wryly syncopated groove underscores horn harmonies that shift from carefree to defiantly haggard in Verboten Chant, inspired by the dilemma faced by Japanese monks who were prohibited from chanting.

The title cut – named after a Mexican beetle depicted in ancient Mayan jewelry – is a darkly blazing, gorgeous New Orleans/bolero mashup, trumpet soaring, sax smoking, drums adding innumerable colorful textures and cadenzas. Erroneous Love – based on Thelonious Monk’s Eronel – blends Rudresh Mahanthappa-inspired bhangra riffage balanced by Lefkowitz-Brown’s tongue-in-cheek, Jon Iragabon-ish microtones.

LIkewise, Shall We (If You Really Must Insist) is a phostbop bhangra fanfare, done as a a brightly stripped-down trumpet-and-drums duo. Irving Berlin’s Get Thee Behind Me Satan – originally a lushly orchestrated Ella Fitzgerald vehicle from the trumpeter’s favorite film, The Master – gets reinvented as an expansively bittersweet, semi-rubato solo piece.

Henry Ford Hospital – inspired by the Frida Kahlo painting – shifts between strolling and frantic meters, matched by the horns’ pounces and shrieks. Pointilllistic cymbals contrast with foghorn harmonies as the album’s final cut, Gabriel Garzon-Montano’s Pour Maman, gets underway, edging between astigmatic Krzysztof Komeda-esque noir and mariachi majesty. Many flavors to savor here.

June 12, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Lively, Inventive Cuban String Sounds From the Toomai String Quintet

Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.

Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates  – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.

You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.

A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.

There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.

The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.

June 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casually Spectacular Violinist Olivia De Prato Closes Out This Year’s Concert Series at the Miller Theatre

This year’s beguiling series of free early-evening concerts of new and mostly-new concert music at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway comes to a triumphant close this coming June 12 at 6 PM with Olivia De Prato, the unselfconsciously brilliant first violinist of the fearless Mivos Quartet. She’ll be playing solo and duo works as well as leading an all-violin string quartet. That’s a typical move for an artist who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t seem to want to turn down a challenge.

De Prato’s debut solo album, Streya, which came out earlier this year, is as a remarkably accessible as it is daunting to play. Yet De Prato seemed to relish getting the chance to tackle its sharply contrasting nuts and bolts at her album release show this past spring upstairs at the Momenta Quartet’s Rivington Street second-floor hotspot. She told the crowd beforehand that what she enjoyed the most about making the record is that it gave her the opportunity to capture every possible sound that can be coaxed or wrestled from a violin. Then she did exactly that over the course of more than an hour.

This wasn’t the first time she’d played the title track solo. At an earlier Miller Theatre show, she opened a Mivos program with its uneasy, jaggedly dancing mix of resonance, ghostly flitting motives and even more sepulchral harmonics, planting her feet with the determination of a ballplayer intent on launching a long drive deep into the stands. While the classical tradition calls for playing a piece in perfect sync with a composer’s intentions every time out, the reality is that the best classical players will feel a room and adjust accordingly, just as a smart jazz or rock musician will. In this intimate Lower East Side space, it was fascinating to watch De Prato back away from that tenacity and let the spectres of her husband Victor Lowrie’s work waft with considerably more whispery mystery.

Beyond daunting displays of extended technique – insistent percussive accents, endlessly shifting deep-snowstorm washes and acidically shivery overtones – she let the sheer tunefulness of the material speak for itself. A Ned Rothenberg pastorale circled and circled, tensely, before De Prato pushed up the roof and let in the sun – metaphorically speaking, anyway. She danced through the distantly baroque and then Asian inflections in a Reiko Fueting number before closing the show by inviting up the great Missy Mazzoli to join her on keyboards for a rare duo performance of Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin.

Based on her darkly meticulous, moodily clustering Vespers For a New Dark Age, this seemed more kinetically starry than the artfully overdubbed album version. For anyone who remembered Mazzoli’s magically articulate performances with her swirling chamber-rock band Victoire back in the late zeros, this was a fond look back at a time and place gone forever. Mazzoli’s chops are just as sharp now as then, and the push-pull between the instruments, its contrasts between austerity and more hopeful, cascading phrases were brought into stark focus. It’s unlikely that Mazzoli will be part of the concert at the Miller on the 12th, but there will definitely be special guests, including Rothenberg on clarinet.

June 9, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thrills and Rare Insight From Tosca Opdam and Victor Stanislavsky at Carnegie Hall Last Night

Last night at Carnegie Hall, violinist Tosca Opdam was one step removed from the hardest kind of performance a musician can deliver: a solo show. She settled for second hardest, a duo set with pianist Victor Stanislavsky that was both a guided tour of the innermost secrets of music stretching across four centuries…not to mention a lusciously tuneful ride.

There’s a point during the first movement of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Harpsihcord, BWV 1016 where the rhythm takes a subtle shift behind a vastly more dramatic turn, as the melody leaves a calmly lively fugal motion for a sudden descent into the shadows. Over a hundred years later, Debussy did exactly the same thing – in a completely different idiom – in his only Violin Sonata. Did the godfather of Modernism know of his predecessor’s work? From how Opdam and Stanislavsky approached both of those moments, moving in unison with a judiciously wary, balletesque grace, the answer seemed obvious.

On one hand, that’s why Juilliard exists, to steep the next generation of serious concert artists in the tradition so they can make connections like these. On the other hand, programs like this too seldom do. For whatever reason, Stanislavsky played the Bach with a lilt, just a hair behind the beat, an unusual approach. Then again, Bach didn’t write for the piano, so there’s bound to be something unusual about anything by Bach played on it. The effect was well-suited to Opdam’s spun-silk filigrees, jaunty leaps and bounds and contrastingly plaintive washes.

Another parallelism later in the program was just as stunning. The second of two Korngold miniatures from his Much Ado About Nothing Suite built a rather twisted, carnivalesque, marionettish pulse. A similarly sardonic danse macabre recurred in the second movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D, Op. 94.5, and once again the duo brought out every bit of grimness and greasepaint.

And that’s where Opdam built what had already been a thrilling program to exit velocity. Violin sonatas exist first and foremost for showcasing dazzling technique, and up to this point she’d parsed the stately baroque, the wistful late Romantic and some playful phantasmagoria. As the concert built momentum, she allowed herself a smile after each piece was up – if you could have played these pieces like she did, you would have been smiling too. It wasn’t until a particularly slithery hairpin turn in the third movement of the Prokofiev that she allowed herself an unselfconscious bit of a grin midway through, a whispery of a “yesssss!”

There was also a new commission on the bill, introducing the Prokofiev with what was supposed to be a shifting seaside tableau, matched by Opdam’s lavish costume change, but which came across as more of a portrait of peevish obsessiveness. Stanislavsky, who excels particularly with the Romantics, seemed absolutely baffled as to how to approach it and he wasn’t alone. The duo seemed to be trying as hard as they could through some awkwardness and got some polite applause for their efforts. They’d be rewarded with three standing ovations after treating the audience to a warmly welcoming, neoromantic miniature of an encore by Dutch composer Henriette Bosmans.

Opdam’s next  concert is on her home turf at the Stedelijk Museum, Museumplein 10 in Amsterdam, on July 7. 

June 5, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment