Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epically Relevant Tunesmithing and a Jazz Standard Gig From Fabian Almazan’s Trio

Fabian Almazan is one of the most brilliantly and tunefully eclectic pianists in any style of music. His Alcanza Suite is one of the most epic albums released in this century, as ambitious in scope as, say, Miles Davis’ Miles Ahead. It doesn’t sound anything like Miles Ahead, but Almazan’s lavish orchestration is just as radical as Gil Evans’ charts were at the time. At this point, we can call the album one of the great underrated masterpieces of the past couple of decades – hopefully the critics, or what’s left of them, will catch up with it someday.

But Almazan doesn’t limit himself to orchestral epics. His latest one, This Land Abounds With Life – streaming at Bandcamp – is a mighty trio release with his brilliant bassist wife Linda May Han Oh and drummer Henry Cole. They’re playing the Jazz Standard on August 27 and 28, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The opening track, Benjamin shifts from a punishing, pummeling, syncopated scramble to a fleeting reggae interlude…and back up again. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to call this the missing link between Gyorgy Ligeti and Orrin Evans.

Keening with delicately oscillating electronic touches, Almazan’s palette balances murk and dappled sunlight in the allusively gorgeous, thirteen-minute Everglades, with a broodingly emphatic solo from Oh, his piano chords rising with a crushing intensity. Is this about fighting alligators…or alligators fighting to survive?

The Poets has a wry spoken-word intro, lavishly circling chords that Almazan takes for a waltz, and Cuban percussion shuffling incisively in the background: McCoy Tyner’s 70s work seems to be an influence. Ella is more low-key, a return to the album’s opening mix of lustre and algebraic minimalism. Cole’s dirgey Middle Eastern boom and Oh’s sober, staggered pulse anchor the moody modalities of Songs of the Forgotten, with a viciously sarcastic sample springing up to drive its political message home.

The Nomads is all about contrasts, blippy syncopation versus lingering gravitas; it warms considerably as the trio follow a long crescendo. Reflecting-pool glimmer moves in and envelops the tone poem Jaula, until Almazan picks up the pace with equally colorful neoromantic cascades. 

The practically ten-minute Bola de Nieve (Snowball) is the album’s high point, Oh’s bows somberly beneath a stark string trio – Megan Gould on violin, Karen Waltuch on viola and Eleanor Norton on cello – while the bandleader’s achingly lyrical. kinetic, Piazzollaiano melodic shifts kick in with a stately, balletesque pulse. It might be the most unselfconsciously beautiful song of the year.

Just when Folklorism seems like it’ll be the album’s most lighthearted track, Almazan starts flinging icy, Messiaenic close harmonies into the mix: the thematic shifts are disorienting, but they leave a mark. Likewise, Uncle Tio (a jokey title: “tio” is Spanish for “uncle”) moves suddenly from a hypnotic, stairstepping tangent to more pointillistic variations, Oh dancing cautiously, centerstage. Along with the the coyly spring-loaded Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song, it’s the album’s most amusing cut.

Almazan winds it up with the warmly familiar, relatively fragmentary (three minute, ha) solo ballad Music on My Mind. Classic album comparison: McCoy Tyner’s Sahara. This one’s that good.

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August 20, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, review | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elegantly Riveting Intensity in Brooklyn with Luisa Muhr and C. Lavender

Last night at Spectrum dancer Luisa Muhr and sound sculptor C. Lavender improvised a literally mesmerizing, often haunting multimedia sonata of sorts, complete with variations on a series of recurrent tropes and gestures. It had all the intensity of butoh, but none of the brutality.

Muhr, dressed in a stark, loosely fitting black cotton top and pants, her hair back, typically moved in sync with Lavender’s electroacoustically-enhanced drumming –  even if that rhythm was often implied. Her timing was striking to witness. For much of the performance, Muhr swayed, turned, rose and fell at halfspeed, as if underwater. Much of her time onstage was spent contending with an invisible tether:, which seemed to encircle her, encumber her feet, hung in front of her face where she could analyze it, then became a sudden threat. But just when it seemed that it had finally sent her into a fetal position, and then a crumpled form at the very edge of the stage, she rose from the depths, slowly but ineluctably, in an understatedly steely display of athletic command.

Muhr’s green eyes are profoundly expressive: like a young Liv Ullmann, she excels at channeling very subtle or conflicted emotions. At times, Muhr’s features were undeterred yet shadowed with unease, especially toward the end of the show where she dealt with what could have been an unseen mirror, a hostile presence lurking beyond the stage, or both. Likewise, during the tether sequence, she fixed her gaze with an unwavering composure but also a profound sadness. This may have been a job she had to finish, but it was ripping her up inside. What exactly was responsible for that, we never found out, although any woman in the current political climate faces an uphill struggle with no comfortable conclusion in sight.

Lavender played a set of syndrums and also a dulcimer, which she hit gently with mallets. She ran the sometimes murky, sometimes much more pointillistic torrents of beats through a mixer for effects that diminished from turbulence to a trickle; then the river rose again. Meanwhile, even while the sound looped back through the mix, she doubled the rhythm, adding a layer of arid, blippy textures above the thump and throb. There were also moments when the sound subsided where she’d get the dulcimer quietly humming, or would build austere blocks of close harmonies and spin then them back through the vortex. Seated centerstage, there was as much elegance as restlessness in her performance, something drummers rarely get to channel: often, she was just as fascinating to watch as Muhr.

August 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Contrasting Styles at an Intriguing Prospect Lefferts Gardens Jazz Twinbill This Week

There’s an especially intriguing jazz twinbill this August 15 starting at around 8 at the Owl. Multi-reedman Mike McGinnis – who excels at both pastoral jazz and large-ensemble pieces – leads a quartet with the perennially tuneful Jacob Sacks on piano. They’re followed by alto player Jonathon Crompton – whose methodically drifting compositions blur the line between indie classical and free improvisation – doing the album release show for his new one, Intuit with Ingrid Laubrock, Patrick Booth and Patrick Breiner on tenor sax, plus bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Kate Gentile.

On this album – streaming at Bandcamp – Crompton and the group focus closely on echo effects and shadowing. Tempos, when they coalesce, are on the slow side: there’s a very baroque feel to much of this. They open with the title track, which is trippy to the extreme. A three-way conversation in birdsong-like figures develops into a shadow of a boisterous New Orleans march, shifting in and out (mostly out) of focus, sustain punctuated by squonk. From there, the group provide a hazy, flickering backdrop for Crompton’s forlorn, Mike Maneri-style microtonal wisps and cries before everyone joins in a surrealistic exchange of echoes. A backward masking pedal seems to be involved.

Courage, the pensive, drummerless fugue after that, is closer to indie classical than jazz. Breiner’s enigmatically balletesque bass clarinet and Hopkins’ peppy bass join in a duet to open Apathy; then the band come in and sway sardonically through a hangdog theme and squirrelly variations. In Dreaming, the group come together out of a quasi-classical hint of a round into a jaunty strut that the bandleader pokes at, but can’t quite derail.

The gently triangulated fugue Primacy of Gesture and Catherine (for Cathlene) make an increasingly lively diptych, increasingly cartoonish humor pushing the tightlipped, Bach-like riffs out of the picture. Crompton’s Suite in A Major first traces the deconstruction of a carefree second-line tune, everybody taking turns holding the center and then breaking free. The second part, with its brooding, muted, plaintively funereal harmonies, is the high point of the album. The concluding number, December makes a return to the neo-baroque: it’s deceptively simple, thoughtfully executed and speaks well to Crompton’s uncluttered, moody sensibility,

August 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Misty, Meditative Clarity with Saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan at the Drive East Festival

The early show this past evening at the ongoing Drive East Festival of Indian music was both lively and serene. In that sense, alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan‘s duo set with Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam represented a considerable shift from the harrowing poignancy of sitarist Hidayat Khan’s opening night raga, not to mention the ferocity and relevance of the following night’s Metoo-themed dance performance.

Early on, Radhakrishnan mused about how sound enables enlightenment: if only it was that easy to filter out the rest of the world and focus on it! Calmly and thoughtfully, the two musicians held up their end, establishing a peaceful and purposeful dialogue with a long mridangam solo midway through, punctuated by a ridiculously funny countdown sequence.

Radhakrishnan’s approach is more Coltrane (someone he quoted from, lyrically, in a brief interlude about three-quarters of the way through) than, say, Hafez Modirzadeh. Throughout the night, the tone of the sax was misty and enveloping, a warmly bounding presence anchored by a steady pulse and steely command of minute inflections, eschewing microtones for an often hypnotic fluidity. Optimism and a calm sense of triumph prevailed, beginning with a bubbly carnatic theme that Radhakrishnan finally brought full circle. In between, the duo shifted from a fleeting atmospheric passage or two to subtly morphing, deftly syncopated variations on classic raga riffs.

The effect on the audience – which kept growing after the show began and almost completely filled the auditorium – was womblike. Walking out to to the street afterward, still wrapped in a calm, meditative state, how pleasant it was to see that there’d been a storm and that the temperature had plummeted at least twenty degrees. Lord Indra was definitely smiling on the festival tonight!

The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 9, beginning at 6 PM with two of the most compelling violinists in Indian music, Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy and their carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet. Cover is $25.

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

A Harrowing, Mesmerizing Multimedia Meetoo Parable at the Drive East Festival

Sitarist Hidayat Khan‘s haunting raga last night at this year’s New York edition of the annual Drive East Festival could easily have upstaged the rest of the week’s performances. But it didn’t. This past evening, bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performed their seethingly relevant yet often sardonically hilarious Metoo parable, Unfiltered, to a series of standing ovations from a sold-out crowd. If this is typical, the rest of the week is going to be pretty amazing – and this blog is giving away tickets.

Singer Roopa Mahadevan‘s live score was every bit as compelling, to the point where it could easily be adapted as a stand-alone concert suite. And the three dancers’ forceful, stunningly imagistic performance works as well as theatre and mime as it does as a choreographed work. Each of the trio has a very distinct character and role. Perhaps ironically, Thekkek portrays the quietest of the three as she encounters a sexual predator. Kumar has to fend off a boss without boundaries; Sambamoorthi battles trouble on the home front.

We never get to see these womens’ male adversaries. There’s very little dialogue, and until the coda, everything spoken is in the form of a question. All the interaction is portrayed by facial expressions and gestures. Kumar’s many faces are absolutely priceless as she tries to maintain a sense of humor and inner calm while her situation deteriorates. Sambamoorthi imbues every aspect of her role – her arm movements, her determined attempts to get her point across, and her thousand-yard stare – with a simmering intensity. Thekkek endows her character with unexpected poise throughout an understatedly harrowing solo.

The narrative is hardly predictable. The grisliest details are only alluded to, and the constant cat-and-mouse game between the three women and their respective predators leaves much to the audience to figure out. Yet there’s also great humor – sometimes vaudevillian, sometimes grim – throughout the piece. The visual jokes, especially early on, are too good to give away – phones and social media are part the picture, at least to the extent that we can imagine it.

And the score is as dynamically rich, and haunting, as the dancing. Mahadevan’s famously powerful mezzo-soprano vocals remained mostly in a moody low register throughout the suite, backed by Arun Ramamurthy on violin – who supplied the biggest crescendos of the night – along with Rohan Prabhudesai on piano, Kavi Srinirasavagavan on mridangam and Malavika Walia on vocals and nattuvangam castanets. They opened with hypnotic, calm variations on a carnatic theme and then drifted toward slowy swaying horror-film tonalities. Constant rhythmic and stylistic shifts matched the dancers’ intricate footwork, whether lithe and slithery or stomping and emphatic. As the drama reached critical mass, Mahadevan and Walia countered the dancers’ defiance and reslience with an all-too familiar spoken-word refrain: “Get over it. This happens to everyone. What will people say? Do you really want the atttention?” Ad nauseum.Without giving away the ending, it’s fair to call this a capsule history of Metoo.

It’s also a good bet that the dancers may reference iconic bharatanatyam dance pieces from over the centuries: those more knowledgeable about classical Indian dance than anyone at this blog may get them. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 7 at 6 PM with tabla players Rohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Mitta’s North and South Indian Percussion Duo with the versatile Prabhudesai on harmonium at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St; cover is $20.

August 6, 2019 Posted by | concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

August 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, drama, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment