Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

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September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Missy Mazzoli’s Grim, Grisly Great Plains Gothic Tour de Force

As a sold-out crowd filtered into the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, a strange interweave of short melodic phrases rose from the newly reopened orchestra pit, played more or less in turn by a large subset of International Contemporary Ensemble’s rotating multi-city cast. They weren’t warming up for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing opera, Proving Up: the surreal, acidic exchange was foreshadowing in disguise. It only hinted at the ghastly narrative to come.

Royce Vavrek’s libretto, based on a Karen Russell short story, follows the misfortunes of a family of 19th century Nebraska homesteaders. The only possible hardship they don’t have to face is Indian raids: presumably the original occupants of the land to which the Zegner family hopes to claim the deed have already been murdered. A cast of seven, both the living and the dead, carry out a grim narrative, clinging to the illusion of a destiny they can manifest despite all odds against that ever happening. They’re forced to recycle things you never would. Such a sobering wake-up call, from an American dream that has historically eluded most of those who embraced it, could not be more relevant than it is now.

Mazzoli’s score mirrors the Zegners’ determination to prove to a Godot of a government inspector that they’ve fulfilled every surreal requirement to make the land their own. The melodies are elusive, often maddeningly so. Folksy themes gather momentary momentum, only to be twisted into cruel shadows of themselves. Mazzoli’s orchestration is sublimely strange and counterintuitive: a melodica and a big gong figure notably in the score alongside aching strings, spare brass, sepulchrally glittering piano and woodwinds.

The singers take similarly challenging melodies which seldom stayed in any one particular scale or mode and deliver a confidently chilling performance. John Moore gives poignancy to the family’s drunken, abusive yet fiercely populist patriarch. Soprano Talise Trevigne brings an immutably soaring strength to his wife, the family’s truest believer and possibly truest victim. As their son, riding across the lone prairie on a joke of a horse, Michael Slattery witnesses the mark of the beast on midwestern sentimentality  As a very differently imperiled brother, Sam Shapiro has to hold some contorted poses, and his ballet training doesn’t let him down. Bass Andrew Harris plays a grim reaper figure with relish. And Abgail Nims and Cree Carrico, as ghost Greek choir, channel diabolical schadenfraude. Director James Darrah’s decision to stage an exhumation in the midst of all the drama packs grand guignol wallop.

The opera’s totemic central symbol is a glass window, something every verifiable homestead needed to have. A question of provenance arises, with lethal results. As the story plays out, Mazzoli’s sinister, looming ambience is relentless. Her music has no shortage of troubling undercurrents, but this is the darkest and arguably best work she’s ever composed in a career that probably hasn’t even hit its high point yet.

Downward glissandos from both the singers and the orchestra cap off some of the night’s most emphatic crescendos, one crushing defeat after another. Solid grooves are dashed away in an endlessly daunting series of rhythmic shifts: nothing is solidly underfoot here. When the orchestra finally cuts loose with fullscale horror in the final act, the long build up to that point, through vast long-tone desolation, eerily twinkling piano, marionettish rhythmic jerks and sepulchral flickers throughout the ensemble, the takeaway is unmistakeable. We should be able to see the final results of this particular promise a mile away.

There’s one more performance tonight at the Miller, and that’s sold out. Programming here this season is characteristically diverse, from Brazilian rainforest nocturnes on Oct 9 at 6 PM, to one of the theatre’s signature composer portrait performances featuring the work and vocals of Kate Soper on the 27th at 8.

September 28, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Cinematic Jazz Nocturnes From Aakash Mittal at Lincoln Center

“Tonight’s show is going to be very meditative and very beautiful – you’re going to want to soak in the piece, in one full bite,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused before Aakash Mittal took the stage with his trio this past evening. She was on to something. “My mind was blown by the variety of artists here,” Mittal agreed, being a regular at the atrium space where Dugal brings in talent from around the world (the Asian American Arts Alliance and India Center Foundation  partnered with Lincoln Center to make this happen). Then the group launched into the world premiere of a piece Mittal had just finished at 11 PM the night before

It’s a shout-out to three artists Mittal has worked with in recent years: avant garde soul singer Imani Uzuri, paradigm-shifting microtonal saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh and similarly legendary drummer/cardiac medicine guru Milford Graves. That eclecticism perfectly capsulized what Mittal is all about: a rugged individualist with sax (and clarinet, and flute) building on some of the catchiest tunes in a five thousand year tradition for something completely new and different.

He began the show on his usual axe, alto sax with a characteristically simple, crystallized, resonant series of phrases as guitarist Miles Okazaki jangled and plinked, Rajna Swaminathan nimbly firing out boomy syncopation on her double-barreled mridangam drum. As this enigmatic tone poem built up steam, it made an apt introduction for the series of nocturnes, each inspired by an individual Indian raga, which followed on the bill.

Swaminathan was energized right from the beginning, so Mittal and Okazaki chilled out before leaping back in and taking the introductory theme skyward, high-voltage bhangra melismatics balanced by punchy pedal phrases from the guitar. Rudresh Mahanthappa at his moodiest and most concise came to mind.

As the trio gently launched into the first nocturne, Mittal’s brooding blue-light curlicues contrasted with Swaminathan’s knock-knock beats, Okazaki again holding the center but pulling hard against it with his acidic chords. Mittal ceded the foreground, hanging on a long, mysterious drone, then picked up the pace with a coyly furtive, noir-tinged melody and variations that methodically drifted toward a tight bhangra pulse.

Okazaki sputtered out basslines and a little muted skronk; Mittal alluded to the slashing chromatics of Arabic modes, finally leiving the mist behind with a couple of wildfire flurries and some otherworldly duotones. Deviously dancing phrases occupied moody ambience; Mittal’s insistence paired off with Okazaki’s resilient chordal steadiness and cheery bubbles, occasionally hinting at Cuban riffage. With the boom from the mridangam, the absence of bass wasn’t a big deal. Ironically, the final nocturne was the sparest yet most hypnotically anthemic.

They pared the sound down to the bone for a plaintive rainy-day duo soundscape, Swaminathan eventually providing some distant thunder beyond the gloom. The funky number after that was closer to straight-ahead postbop jazz, but still Okazaki’s tense modal attack didn’t stray far from the center while the dance grew more agitated.

A flute duo between Mittal and guest Pawan Benjamin drew on Anthony Braxton’s modular writing but even as the notes rose higher up the scale, Mittal’s circular, nocturnal phrasing remained consistent,up to a shadowy ambient interlude where he switched to clarinet. The full quartet closed with a rivetingly microtonal, slashingly melismatic take of Street Music, Mittal’s evocation of late-night jamming in Kolkata, where he studied classical Indian music on a scholarship.

Mittal’s next gig is part of the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon starting at 5 PM on Oct 5 and going all night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. And the free, mostly-weekly series of shows at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues this Oct 4 at 7:30 PM with firebrand Egyptian accordionist/songwriter Youssra El Hawary, best known for her hilarious Arab Spring youtube hit Piss on the Wall.

September 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Impromptu String Jazz Summit at Shapeshifter Lab

Last night at Shapeshifter Lab was a transcontinental string jazz summit. Ironically, that wasn’t the plan. But immigration trumped violinist Hakon Aase’s chance to get into the country, so bassist Sigurd Hole enlisted a great counterpart, Mark Feldman, to step in with barely two weeks notice. The result was a clinic in just about all the tuneful possibilities a violin, bass and most of a drumkit can create when manned by three of the world’s great minds in creative music.

Hole began with a solo set, which quickly established two of the night’s sustaining tropes: catchy minimalism and vast, brooding soundscapes. Often, he’d use his pedal to loop a low drone and then play tense close harmonies against it, often rising to keening, high-sky ambience for stark contrast. Most of the time he played with a bow, although he fingerpicked his most minimalist, catchiest grooves. The most entertaining moment was when he tuned his E string down a full octave for maximum ominous resonance. Hole’s long, sustained raga-like phrasing quickly established an Indian influence; at other times, grey-sky Norwegian folk tunes and more than distant echoes of the Balkans filtered through his somber washes.

Feldman and drummer Jarle Vespestad then joined him for the second set, which was catchier yet no less dark and intense. Playing a kit with no cymbals other than a hi-hat, often building a resonant, boomy sway on a dumbek goblet drum, Vespestad alternated between steady, syncopated quasi-trip-hop and slowly undulating Middle Eastern-flavored dirges.

Considering that it would be a stretch to call any of this music midtempo, Feldman saved his most exhilarating cadenzas to cap off the end of a few long upward spirals. Otherwise, he stuck close to Hole’s moody, plaintive themes, often in tandem with the bass. Hole dug into the pocket and stayed there for the majority of the set, although the more nocturnal numbers – especially an allusively Arabic-tinged mini-epic named for a street in Jerusalem – featured the same shadowy orchestral sweep as the material in his first set. Everything was filtered through a glass, darkly: Hole’s compositions peered around corners toward Egypt, and Mumbai, and fullscale angst, which made the few moments when the band let the menace off its leash all the more chilling.

September 25, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Macabre Piano Epics and Deep-Space Ambience From Elizabeth A. Baker

Pianist/multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth A. Baker’s new album Quadrivium – streaming at Bandcamp – is extremely long and often extremely dark. Her music can be hypnotic and atmospheric one moment and absolutely bloodcurdling the next. Erik Satie seems to be a strong influence; at other times, it sounds like George Winston on acid, or Brian Eno. It was tempting to save it for Halloween month – when all hell could break loose here – but Baker’s playing the release show tonight, Sept 22  at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint at 7 PM. Cover is $15 – be aware that there is no G train between Nassau Ave. and Queens this weekend, so your options are either taking the L to Bedford and about a 20-minute walk, or the G to Nassau if you’re coming from Brooklyn and then hoofing it from there.

Baker’s striking high/low piano contrasts follow a hypnotically circling, glacial pace in the thirteen-plus minutes of the album’s opening track, Sashay. Subtly and slowly, her icicle accents grow more spacious, with the occasional unexpectedly playful accent. The second track, Command Voices – 251A is a lot more sinister, laced with Baker’s emphatic menace amid sepulchral rustles. Its eleven-minute second part is a pitch-black haunted house soundtrack complete with creaky inside-the-piano sonics and ghostly bells that finally come full circle with a long parade of macabre close harmonies.

Four Explosions Expanding From the Center is an awfully sardonic title for a deep-space Satie-esque tone poem echoing the album’s opening track as it grows more energetic. Quarks is a study in coy, fleeting accents followed by the brief spoken-word piece Identity Definitions, which contemplates how primitive attempts to rationalize existence still have resonance today.

The far more epic Lateral Phases & Beat Frequencies addresses interpersonal quandaries over drones and spacy squiggles. Headspace is as ambient and drifty as you would think. What Is Done in Silence builds a spot-on, sarcastically robotic cautionary scenario about getting caught in a digital snare. Baker works trippily oscillating loops in An Outcast; the album’s final cut is a coldly glimmering, practically 24-minute portrait of a dangerous powder drug, or so it would seem. It brings to mind the early loop collages of Phil Kline. Lots of flavors and lots of troubling relevance in an album which has a remarkably persistent awareness even as Baker messes with the listener’s imagination.

September 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

September 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitar Goddess Mary Halvorson Plays an Epic Double Album Release Show

There was a point Monday night at the Poisson Rouge where guitarist Mary Halvorson landed on a disarmingly disconsolate four-chord phrase and then ran with it, methodically and gracefully, for longer than she did with any other idea throughout two sets onstage. She doesn’t typically go for the jugular until she’s built up to it, but this was different. Square in the middle of the fretboard, on the middle strings…on an vintage acoustic guitar miked through the PA. Meanwhile, flutist Robbie Lee wafted further and further behind her, realizing that it was the most gorgeous moment in a night that would be full of them.

By the end of the second set, a duet with Bill Frisell, Halvorson had gone back to her hollowbody Gibson electric – and played with a slide. Her brooding, flickering solo was a subtly potent payoff in the wake of a long series of gently keening incisions, Frisell providing a backdrop of warmly wistful pastoral riffs. She’s hardly known as a slide guitarist – this, and the rest of the evening was a message that she’s even more of a polygon than anybody knew. Does she have a Rickenbacker twelve-string stashed away behind the 19th century harp guitar she employed for much for the first set? After almost two hours of a fairly radical departure from her usual enigmatic intensity, that wouldn’t be a surprise.

Some acts make a whole tour out of “album release shows.” Halvorson packed two into one night, celebrating duo releases with both Lee and Frisell. After watching the first set, her album with multi-high-reedman Lee seems to be more composition-oriented than its liner notes indicate. And her set with Frisell, rather than being a high-voltage summit meeting between two of the three greatest jazz guitarists alive, was more introspective and casually conversational. But that made sense, considering that the two guitarists’ new album The Maid with the Flaxen Hair salutes Johnny Smith, one of the godfathers of pastoral jazz.

Goodnaturedly and judiciously, Frisell played second fiddle to his younger colleague, a clinic in spare, purposeful, lingering folk-inflected fills. There were a couple of points early on where he went to his trusty loop pedal while Halvorson went warp-crazy with her octave pedal for some collegial messiness before regrouping for pensive, wistful melody. Otherwise, he gave her a wide berth to indulge in a lot of sarcasm before she pulled back on the pedal and used it for bent-note plaintiveness rather than bizarre space lounge sonics. When they got to Walk, Don’t Run, Frisell seemed poised to leap into the surf, but Halvorson went for restraint instead. Frisell has done a lot of duo work lately and this was a typical example in peak subtlety.

Halvorson’s set with Lee was as allusively haunting as the one with Frisell – a connoisseur of noir, by the way – was warmly tuneful. Although Lee also ceded centerstage to her, his Middle Eastern chromatics and quavering microtones behind her steady, modal single-note lines were exquisitely chosen. Playing the harp guitar – an acoustic predecessor of double-necked Spinal Tap excess – she hammered on the open bass strings and picked out delicate melody against them, sitar-style. Mixing in tense, clenched-teeth tremolo-picking, she held the crowd rapt with her resolutely unresolved rainy-day chords as Lee built a gentle mist in her slipstream.

Frisell’s next appearance is on Sept 23 at the Pacific Jazz Cafe as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

September 19, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Halvorson Releases Her First Acoustic Album on Bleecker Street with Amazing Duo Sets Monday Night

The guitar summit of the year is this Monday night, Sept 17 at 8 at the Poisson Rouge, where Mary Halvorson is playing two duo sets, one with fellow six-string mastermind Bill Frisell and the other with multi-reedman Robbie Lee. Her set with the former promises to be as good as, say, B.B. King dueling with David Gilmour. This bill isn’t just two of this era’s greatest guitarists sharing the stage: it’s two of the greatest guitarists ever. The set with Lee is also auspicious since the two have a brand new album, Seed Triangular, streaming at New Amsterdam Records. $20 adv tix are still available as of today.

Halvorson has done plenty of strangely entrancing work over the years, but this is her weirdest album, not only because it’s her first acoustic record. Here she plays a late 19th century 18-string Knutsen harp guitar, a1930 Gibson L-2 model and a 1888 SS Stewart 6-string banjo. Lee, whose background spans from indie classical to chaotic free improvisation, plays antique flutes plus chalumeau (a medieval clarinet), soprillo saxophone, melodica and bells. Many of the album tracks are miniatures, carefully edited from a one-day, completely improvised studio session earlier this year. Some of it sounds like John Fahey on acid; other moments bring to mind the quasi-baroque minimalism of frequent Lee collaborator and lutenist Jozef van Wissem.

The duo open with an alternately precise and fluttery little intro, then make their way carefully but emphatically through Seven of Strong, Halvorson’s enigmatic strums shadowed by Lee’s wandering microtones. Like a Ripple Made By the Wind builds a memorably desolate minimalism. Then, in A Forest Viol, Lee runs his melodica through a weird distortion patch while Halvorson picks elegantly.

After the uneasy strum-and-flutter of Potamogeton, the two make their way through Fireproof-Brick Dust (Halvorson is unsurpassed at song titles) with a squirrelly, loopy, distantly flamenco-tinged elan. The Stuttering Note of Probably turns out to be an obstinate little mini-tone-poem for harp guitar, while Pondeteria contrasts Lee’s quavers with Halvorson’s tuneful steadfastness.

The album’s funniest cut is Rock Flowers, Lee’s over-the-top microtonal sax drama against Halvorson’s tongue-in-cheek banjo. She hints at a handful of pretty folk themes but never quite makes it out of the mist in Spring Up Here. Lee makes short work of his solo bubbles in Sing O-Gurgle-ee This Evening, the album’s shortest number.

The album’s best track is Shoots Have Shot, veering between stately quasi-Andalucian riffs, off-the-rails wreckage and wryly spacious minimalism. The Tawny Orange is similarly spare and allusive, while Early Willows edges toward wistful pastoral jazz. The album closes with the rather epic title track, which could be Gabor Szabo taking a stab at the neo-baroque. Much as this release doesn’t deliver the raw thrills of Halvorson’s electric work, there’s plenty of her signature humor here – and you have to give her credit for having the nerve to record on those tinny old acoustic axes.

September 15, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bobby Sanabria Brings His Brilliant, Electrifying Reinvention of the West Side Story Score to Harlem This Weekend

Latin jazz drum sage Bobby Sanabria’s mission to tackle Leonard Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story score is ambitious, and a little hubristic. And it’s been done before: The Oscar Peterson Trio, the Stan Kenton Big Band, Dave Brubeck (obviously), Dave Liebman and Dave Grusin have all recorded various sections of the most radical Broadway score prior to Fela, with results from the sublime to….you get the picture. Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band debuted their West Side Story Reimagined at Lincoln Center last month (sadly, this blog was in Brooklyn that night). Good news for anyone who missed that show: the band are reprising it at the amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park this Friday, Sept 14 at 7 PM. If you want a seat, you need to get there early.

As you would expect, the new double album – streaming at Spotify – adds plenty of welcome texture, sonic color and emphatic groove to Bernstein’s orchestration. Compared to previous jazz interpretations, what’s new about it is how heavy it is. The original is a lithe ballet score livened even further by Bernstein’s puckish wit. This version is gritty and in your face.

Sanabria is a connoisseur of just about every rhythm from throughout the Afro-Latin diaspora and beyond, and locks in on how eclectically inspired Bernstein was by all sorts of different rhythms from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and beyond. Yet Sanabria is also very highly attuned to the Stravinskian severity that makes such a stark contrast with the score’s lyricism, particularly as far as the ballads are concerned. Maybe it’s the focus on how much of a clave underscores so much of the music here, with charts by a grand total of nine separate arrangers, Sanabria included. Or maybe it’s just as much of a focus on the storyline’s stark relevance to current-day anti-immigrant paranoia.

This is not a solo-centric album: brief, punchy features for members of the ensemble go on for maybe eight bars at the most, with as many deft handoffs as momentary peaks amidst what Sanabria has very aptly described as a pervasive unease. Since the days of Tammany Hall, the ruling classes have pursued a relentless divide-and-conquer policy among New York’s innumerable ethnic groups, and the 1950s were no exception. In this hands of this mighty band, Bernstein’s keen perceptions are amplified even further.

Much as the new charts put the spotlight on the group’s amazingly versatile percussion section – alongside Sanabria, there’s Takao Heisho, Oreste Abrantes on congas and Matthew Gonzalez on bongós and cencerro – they hew closely to the original score. The deviations can be funny, but they have an edge. A Yoruba chant and a sardonically blithe dixieland interlude appear amid noir urban bustle, toweringly uneasy flares and noir urban bustle. Even the ballads – not all of which are included here – are especially electric. The band that rises to the challenge and succeeds epically here also includes Darwin Noguera on piano; Leo Traversa on bass; trumpeters Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché and Andrew Neesley; saxophonists David Dejesus, Andrew Gould, Peter Brainin, Jeff Lederer and Danny Rivera; trombonists Dave Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara and Chris Washburne; flutist Gabrielle Garo and violnist Ben Sutin.

September 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment