Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

May 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Allegra Levy Brings Her Nocturnal Reinventions to Birdland

Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.

The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.

Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady,  roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.

Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.

A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.

May 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Minguet Quartet Play Beethoven and More with Vigor and Sensitivity at Lincoln Center

Thursday night, there was fundamental logic for the Minguet Quartet’s concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space. The string quartet take their name from Pablo Minguet, an 18th century Spanish philosopher dedicated to making the arts accessible to everyone. That’s the agenda at Lincoln Center’s “playground,” as Jordana Leigh, who’d booked this show in conjunction with the ongoing Great Performers series, calls it. Its raison d’etre is transparent: give the public a marathon slate of first-class programming from literally all over the map, and create a brand new supporter base in the process. Considering that these shows routinely sell out, it seems to be working.

The quartet opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. They gathered steam slowly with the stately nocturnal intro to the first movement ; its cleverly shifting voicings brought to mind Vivaldi at quarterspeed. The group – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Aroa Sorin and cellist Matthias Diener – dug in harder, but with a striking consistency, as the composer’s rhythm shifted and the exchanges grew more suited to a dancefloor at some European baron’s estate.

But this is a Rubik’s Cube of a piece: there’s symmetry, but it’s always changing. A hypnotically pulsing calm set in as the violins rose further up the scale, until Diener got to puncture it, gently. Beethoven doesn’t let an initial country dance theme cut loose, but he does with a second, which the group attacked with relish. There was puckish joy in fleeting pizzicato moments, but also sotto-voce suspense as the music dipped. And a cruel instant where Beethoven suddenly has the whole quartet shift to high harmonics for a couple of bars didn’t phase them in the least.

Sharp martial motives stood out alongside twilit lustre and dancing rivulets; the innumerable false endings were absolutely conspiratorial. Whoever might think the string quartet repertoire might be stodgy hasn’t heard this group play this piece.

The group closed with a stripped-down arrangement of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World), a morosely defiant artist’s kiss-off to a cruel world.

There will also be several hours’ worth of free events to celebrate Lincoln Center’s fiftieth anniversary taking place all over campus today, May 4 starting at around quarter to eleven in the morning: a thunderous all-female troupe playing Brazilian samba reggae, and a couple of Haitian ensembles, kick off the festivities on the plaza

May 4, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fearless Individualism and Fearsome Chops from Trumpeter Jaimie Branch

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch has made a lot of waves with her sepulchral extended technique, which is only one of the many, many weapons in her arsenal. She has a rich, resounding Wadada Leo Smith-like tone and fast fingers on the valves, yet she’s more likely to build a song without words around catchy riffage. In the proud AACM tradition, the native Chicagoan is a rare example of an improviser with a laserlike sense of melody, yet she also isn’t afraid of controlled chaos – and the other kind of chaos too. Her debut album Fly or Die, one of the most entertaining jazz releases of the year so far, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Roulette tomorrow night, May 4 at 8 PM with her drum-trumpet duo Anteloper and then with the quartet on the new album; advance tix are $18 and still available as of today.

Tomeka Reid’s cello and Jason Ajemian’s bass exchange funky riffs while the bandleader’s terse, bluesy hooks and spine-tingling flurries rise over drummer Chad Taylor’s splattershot shuffle as the opening number, simply titled Theme 001, gets underway. A gorgeous decay, guitarist Matt Schneider plucking his way into the picture, triggers a segue into Meanwhile, a hazy, horizontal intelude where Taylor gets to spin around his kit and keep everybody centered

From there they segue once again, into Theme 002, a catchy, plucky cello tune over Ajemian’s steady, wry vintage ska beat: Lloyd Knibb would be proud to hear what the guy does here. Branch and Reid walk slightly different paths on separate sides of the street

Cornetists Josh Berman and Ben Lamar Gay join Branch for Leaves, in a wistful and then anguished reverb-drenched, twistedly produced call-and-response: the repercussions, everybody milling around uneasily, take up half the track. The Storm draws on downward slides from the strings and emphatic, steady drum work awash in a sea of reverb, Branch untethered and alone but resolute, completely unafraid. The group march their ghostly way out.

Waltzer is not a waltz but a gently marching backdrop for Branch to make a slow trail in from desolation to vintage 50s Miles ebullience, Taylor and Ajemian bubbling as Reid eases her in with a hypnotic stroll. The album’s title track is a sputtering, spacious solo miniature, followed by the catchy, bluesily bustling Theme Nothing: Schneider’s evil waterslide runs are a highlight, as is Taylor’s quasi-Balkan, rat-a-tat rimshot attack behind Branch’s searing rattle. The gentle, nocturnal guitar miniature Back at the Ranch closes the album on an unexpected note. Expect similarly counterintuitive things from this fearlessly individualistic talent in the years to come.

May 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy Owens and Michael Barrett Unearth Rare Treasures from the Leonard Bernstein Archive

Like all great singers, soprano Amy Owens gets asked to cover a lot of territory. In her case, that means more than just racking up the frequent flier miles: she’s as nuanced and breathtakingly powerful with soul and cabaret music as she is in the classical realm where she’s best known. Her latest album with pianist Michael Barrett, It’s Gotta Be Bad to Be Good: Songs of Leonard Bernstein is notable for plenty of reasons. Bernstein fans are going to want it because there’s previously unreleased material on it: after all these years, you’d think that the Bernstein archive would have been completely plundered.

But actually not. Barrett worked closely with Bernstein in his later years and was able to enjoy unprecedented access to the maestro’s work, including his lesser-known repertoire as a songwriter. Unssurprisingly, this material has the same vast eclecticism, unselfconscious emotion and often great wit of the rest of Bernstein’s oeuvre. The album is just out and hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet- watch this space.

If you’re wondering how the duo could pack a grand total of 26 songs onto a single cd, everything here, other than a big showstopping coda from Candide, is either a miniature or close to it, nothing beyond the three-and-a-half minutre mark and many clocking in at less than two

There’s a misterioso slink along with a sotto-voce glimmer in Barrett’s playing in the opening title track: Owens cuts loose with a little tantalizing vocalese at the end. That calm/dramatic dichotomy recurs often here, from The Madwoman of Central Park: My New Friends, to the dips and mighty operatic peaks of that big tour de force Glitter and Be Gay, from Candide.

Of the unreleased material here, there are two takes of My Baby’s Baby, a poignant, muted nenromantic waltz. And Re La Mi shifts from arresting chromaticism to Debussy-esque lustre in just over two minutes.

Three songs from Peter Pan are infused with longing, arioso angst, and Owens walking the line between propriety and romantic ache. The two edge toward phantasmagoria in the miniature Jupiter Has Seven Moons, one of the five short pieces in the irresistibly funny suite I Hate Music. That’s where Owens gets to indulge her brassy side.

The duo tackle challenging Messienic tonalities iand tricky rhythms in Little Smary. The contrasts in Dede’s Aria, from A Quiet Place, in particular, are sharp and striking. Barrett winds up the album with six of Bernstein’s Anniversaries: short instrumentals the composer accumulated and doled out to friends on special occasions, or employed as eulogies.

At a Manhattan house concert last month staged by writer Philip Howard, Owens and Barrett not only delivered electric versions of many of the album’s highlights: they may have made history. Bernstein was always having friends over to share songs, but has there ever actually been a show devoted exclusively to Bernstein songs and solo piano instrumentals anywhere in this city, at least in the last few decades?

Owens’ next East Coast appearance is on May 18 at 8 PM, singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra.

May 2, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment