Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

January 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

January 9, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Broodingly Catchy, Lithely Orchestrated Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Pianist Edward Simon

Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.

The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.

The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.

The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.

With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.

The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?

Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.

Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.

January 4, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment