Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

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February 8, 2019 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Intensity from the Navarra String Quartet at Lincoln Center

Just about every month this spring, there’s a free classical concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street in conjunction with the current Great Performers series. There’s also just about every other stye of music made in every community in New York here too. It’s especially interesting to see who turns out for the classical shows. Last night a packed house representing just about every age group and community here in town was treated to a performance by UK group the Navarra String Quartet.

Cellist Brian O’Kane introduced Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks’ music as “Full of beautiful landscapes, very atmospheric…one can hear his love of nature and quite a lot of spirituality. In contrast, there are quite a few episodes of struggle after a very horrible regime in the Eastern Bloc.”

The group moved gently into the stillness, ghostly glissandos and subtle trills of the opening movement of his 1999 String Quartet No. 4. O’Kane anchored the group’s slow climb from brooding austerity to agitation and then back, violinists Magnus and Marije Johnston rising alongside Sascha Bota’s viola.

Furtively circling, rhythmic variations on a chase theme grew to a blaze, reflecting O’Kane’s comments about the music’s political content. The group channeled desolation and loss in a muted series of ominously stacked, Arvo Part-like harmonies, going deep into the relentless angst as the music peaked in a series of waves.

The contrast between the violins and the lower instruments underscored a growing terror as the chase scene recurred: no doubt this kind of thing happened all the time when the KGB were prowling Vasks’ home turf. Exchanges of guarded prayerfulness and forlorn resignation mingled in the mist; Bota adding  hushed, somberly tremoloing pedalpoint. The eerily wafting conclusion offered no sense of closure: the audience, who’d already been taken by surprise by the composer’s many full stops earlier i the work, slowly processed the intensity.

Right at the second the group returned to the stage for Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a siren wailed down Columbus Avenue. Undeterred, the quartet built Parisian wistfulness toward a heroic overture, Magnus Johnston’s silken but aching lines telgraphing that all would not be fin de siècle contentment here.

The group’s vigorous pizzicato had the same effect in the waltzing second movement, foreshadowing the twists and turbulence that ends up infusing the dance. The wounded calm the ensemble built in the third was as it was gorgeous, especially when they hit the big crescendo. Likewise, their fiery launch into the fourth. Credit the quartet for realizing what a perhaps surprisingly good segue it made after the harrowing intensity of the first half od the program.

They encored with a moody miniature by Kurtag, “To calm ourselves down,” as O’Kane grinned. The next Lincoln Center atrium concert is on Valentine’s Day at 7:30 PM with energetic, individualistic Cape Verde islands singer/guitarist Tcheka. Show up early if you want a seat.

February 8, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kyle Nasser Brings a Rogues Gallery to a West Village Gig

The genially ambling final track on tenor saxophonist Kyle Nasser’s latest album Persistent Fancy – streaming at Bandcamp – is titled Coffee and Cannabis. If you like those two things, you’ll probably like the album. He’s playing a trio show at the Bar Next Door on Feb 21 at 8 PM; cover is $12..

True to the title, that song has a dichotomy: balmy sax over guitarist Jeff Miles’ growling, expansively resonant chords, the loose-limbed 4/4 groove supplied by pianist Dov Manski, bassist Nick Jost and drummer Allen Mednard. Nasser takes his album title from the same poetic source that Iron Maiden drew on for their longest epic, which might explain Miles’ shreddy solo later on.

For those who can think outside the box enough to handle boisterous P-Funk buffoonery and enigmatic postrock in a jazz context, this is an entertaining record. Yet much of it is also very serious. Nasser takes considerable inspiration from literary rogues from throughout history: as he points out, they’re invariably more interesting than the good guys.

His fluttery microtones in the opening cut, Split Gut brings to mind Joe Maneri, but more straight-ahead, harmonizing and then trading off with altoist Roman Filiu. The second track, Arrival, foreshadows the carefree/gritty sax/guitar dialectic of the closing number, Manski taking off for Mars with his wry Bernie Worrell-ish portamento synth.The epic Ascent of Henry Monmouth traces a certain Shakespearean king’s journey from Falstaff sidekick to conquistador, a pensive stroll punctuated by moments of wary humor and sharply focused solos. The title track is also a study in contrasts: goofy wah-wah riffs versus tightly wound horns over insistent syncopation, woozy synth solo followed by Miles’ sharp-fanged attack. CBD espresso, anybody?

The Baroque Suite, a triptych, is divided up into a prelude, fugue and improv. The first part juxtaposes a more easygoing take on Rudresh Mahanthappa’s bhangra jazz with glimmering neoromanticisms and trippy Sun Ra twinkle. The second has a playful, shuffling interweave, which goes doublespeed up to an irresistible quote for a coda.

Sticky Hipster is a catchy, distantly latin-tinged, offbeat instrumental rock tune, Nasser following Miles’ uptight shred with a cool-headed solo, Mednard’s sotto-voce vaudevillian romp kicking off a final anthemic verse. The Eros Suite, another triptych – hmmmmm – opens with the saxes and drums playing cat-and-mouse, then Mednard predictably drives it home. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek boudoir theme for a postlude:. It’s allmost painfully obvious, but it’s going to go viral once enough college kids discover it.

3-Way, Nasser insists, does not refer to the preceding topic but to a conversation, in this case mostly between edgy guitar and bright sax work. The album also includes a jazz remake of a Hindemith theme

February 8, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment