Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Darkly Thorny New Album and a Nublu Release Show From Gordon Grdina’s New Trio

Like Adam Good and Brian Prunka, Gordon Grdina is the rare double threat on both oud and electric guitar. His style is closer to Good’s savage attack than Prunka’s more spacious, spare approach. Grdina’s often seethingly complex new album Nomad, with his recently formed trio including pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black, is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s playing the album release show on Jan 17 at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C (4th/5th Sts.), at a very early hour for that venue, 6 PM; cover is $10.

Grdina’s writing for piano here is exquisitely grim, and Mitchell returns the favor with some of his most sharp-fanged playing. The opening track, Wildfire skronks and prowls around, the pianist’s enigmatic chords and loopily twisted boogie holding the center. After piano and guitar wind into a tight spiral, everything falls apart, Mitchell’s ominous minimalism finally gaining grativas and pulling the band together again.

Grdina gives the album’s title track a thorny solo intro, Mitchell nimbly handling some daunting, darkly insistent lefthand/righthand polyrhythms, Black’s flurries keeping this one on the rails. Ride Home, meant to evoke the wear and tear of the road, is simultaneously steady and staggering, Mitchell’s eerie stairsteps against Grdina’s weaving, wandering lines, shadowed by Black; Grdina’s final, savage coda packs a wallop.

Benbow, inspired by a California hotel which reminded Grdina of the one in The Shining, gets a spacious but gritty solo guitar intro, a long, tightly clustering crescendo and an evilly glittering Mitchell solo. Loopy, disconcerting belltone phantasmagoria and surprise funk from Black permeate Thanksgiving; the trio wind up the album with Lady Choral, a wry paraphrase of “Larry Coryell” that came to Grdina in a dream. Mitchell’s disorientingly Messiaenic solo sets the scene, Grdina taking his time with his oud for the album’s most unselfconsciously majestic interlude. This is an artichoke of an album: you have to get past the spines to find the reward inside.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World-Famous Big Band Celebrates Pantheonic Painters

Since prehistory, musicians have been inspired by visual art. But there’s never been a big band jazz album featuring works by multiple composers referencing paintings from across the decades. The new Jazz and Art record by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – streaming at youtube – took almost a decade to create. New York’s most renowned big band premiered it live in 2010, playing to projections overhead. The vast stylistic range of the music mirrors the art that springboarded it, including works by Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer and Piet Mondrian.

The sheer fun that the composers here had writing for this mighty beast of an ensemble is visceral, and the orchestra reward those efforts lavishly. The album opens with a Stuart Davis-inspired triptych by Doug Wamble. The first segment, The Mellow Pad, is a moody, New Orleans-tinged cha-cha in the same vein as Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole, with spare, bluesy Vincent Gardner trombone at the center. Likewise, the second part is a paraphrase of When the Saints Come Marching In, with bright spotlights on Marcus Printup’s trumpet and Sherman Irby’s alto sax. The group take a pointed, almost tiptoeing swing through the ragtime-tinged conclusion, Dan Nimmer’s piano pushing it further into postbop.

Gardner contributes the epic Sam Gilliam shout-out Blue Twirl, developing slowly from Messiaenic birdsong-like chatter, to wry jesting, a silky clave and a brisk swing, bassist Carlos Henriquez signaling the changes. Marsalis, altoist Ted Nash and trombonist Elliot Mason punch in hard with solos.

Trombonist Chris Crenshaw gets the plum assignment of tackling Bearden’s iconic collage The Block with sweeping, jump blues-inspired swing, Nimmer pouncing, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines leading the group into a balmy Harlem evening. Coming full circle with a triumph at the end, it’s the album’s most vivid, memorable number.

Low brass and percussion build ominously looming ambience as trombonist Papo Vasquez’s salute to Wilfredo Lam, the Orisha Medley: Air, Earth, Fire, Water gets underway. Anchored by a steady Afro-Cuban groove, the composer hands his imposing solo off to Marsalis, who raises the roof, the whole crew joining the blaze.

Bill Frisell was an apt choice to pitch in a Winslow Homer-inspired diptych, an allusively folksy, bittersweet waltz and a boisterous jump blues, the latter of which is the most modernist number here. Nimmer’s elegant cascades and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding’s enigmatic, airy work liven Andy Farber’s colorful, cinematic arrangements.

The lustrous introduction to trumpter Tim Armacost’s Mondrian tribute The Repose in All Things is a false alarm. It turns out to be a bright, bustling excursion, Irby buoyantly setting up trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s crescendo. The album winds up with Irby’s Twilight Sounds, for Norman Lewis, expanding joyously on a vaudevillian theme. If you like your jazz blazing, brassy and evoking decades of history, crank this record.

January 11, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense, Purist Party Jazz and a Lincoln Center Gig with Zaccai and Luques Curtis

Completion of Proof, the 2011 debut album by Zaccai and Luques Curtis, was a fierce, latin-tinged protest jazz record whose centerpiece was a chilling, caustically Mingus-esque triptych titled The Manifest Destiny Suite. Their long-awaited follow-up, Algorithm – streaming at Bandcamp – has much of the same veteran lineup. But it’s somewhat of a thematic shift, a similarly vivid, often intense but otherwise much more optimistic shout-out to Art Blakey and his associates who’ve mentored them over the years. It’s first-class, golden-age style party music. They’re playing the release show on Jan 15 at 7:30 PM at Dizzy’s Club. Cover is steep – $35 – but it’s a chance to hear two of the most sought-after sidemen around doing their own material, alongside the allstar vets who helped them get to where they are now..

They open the album with the Jackie McLean salute Three Points and a Sphere, drummer Ralph Peterson’s loose-limbed drive paired against Zaccai Curtis’ jaunty piano, their longtime bandmates Donald Harrison on alto sax and Brian Lynch on trumpet following with long solos, choosing their spots. Onstage, it would be a high-voltage set-ender that gives everybody a chance to cut loose.

The album’s mathematically-inspired theme continues with Phi, a salute to the circular ratio that kicks off with a shamanistic drum solo, then goes vamping with a cheery, funky latin soul groove and a good-natured piano-bass conversation between the bandleaders. Chief gives the guy it’s dedicated to, their longtime employer, a platform for sailing, spiraling sax solos over a similar but punchier rhythmic drive. ”

Parametric has an edgily familiar, moodily modal salsa-influenced simmer that Lynch latches onto with a fanged intensity echoed more distantly by the piano. Torus has to be the most gorgeous jazz waltz ever dedicated to a donut, while The Professor has a similarly dark, gospel-tinged majesty, Lynch taking a saturnine climb to redemption.

The album’s final trio of numbers were written as a sequel to The Manifest Destiny Suite. Lynch, Peterson and then Harrison wail up a storm in the somewhat uneasily tumbling Undefined (that’s what you get when you divide anything by zero). The allusively regal, briskly swinging horn showcase Staircase of Mount Meru sends a shout to the Indian mathematician Pingala, who discovered the construction commonly known as Pascal’s Triangle. They wind up the album with Sensei, a carnaval-esque vehicle for incorrible extrovert Peterson to do some flexing, This is one of those albums where afterward you might say to yourself, “Damn, good thing I didn’t just write this off as a bunch of road warriors recycling old ideas.”

January 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Connie Han Brings Her Relentless, Uneasy Urban Bustle to Birdland

If you follow jazz, you may have been put off by the way pianist Connie Han has been marketed. But musically, there’s no denying that she hit the ground running with her debut album Crime Zone, streaming at youtube. The album title reflects her relentless, hard-hitting attack, fondness for disquieting modes and bustling vamps that sometimes inch over the line into urban noir. And her career is still young: she’s got plenty of room to grow. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 12 at 5:30 PM; you can get a bar seat for $30.

The album opens with Another Kind of Right, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III dancing tensely between the raindrops, either in front of the band or in tandem with trumpeter Brian Swartz over Han’s icepick chords. Even when she switches abruptly to Rhodes midway through, the snap of Edwin Livingston’s bass and swing of Han’s frequent co-writer Bill Wysaske’s drums save the tune from falling off the edge into fusion territory.

The album’s title track pounces hard, the bandleader indulging in some wry polyrhythms before pulling the music down into a dark reflecting pool. Then Smith brings it up again, incisively, to a long (some might say overlong) series of bluesy Han cascades. The allusive, wary modalities in By the Grace of God more than hint at a narrow escape in contrast to Smith’s gritty, genial upper-register riffage; Han eventually drives it into sunnier territory.

Her eerie belltones and Smith’s microtonalities, and the two’s moody conversation to wind out the song, help elevate Sondheim’s Pretty Women above the level of Broadway schlock. As hard-charging as Southern Rebellion is, it takes awhile before Han rises beyond standard blues and postbop tropes; Wysaske takes it down into some misterioso press rolls before one of the false endings that Han loves so much.

Gruvy is an expansive Rhodes tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the later Steely Dan playbook. The album’s arguably best numnrt is a solo piece, the determined, grimly clustering quasi-boogie A Shade of Jade: with this kind of intensity, who needs a band?

The solidly strolling swing tune Member This is another number that brings to mind Donald Fagen, but the 1970s version. Is That So? Looks back to Dizzy Gillespie’s early adventures with samba rhythms, with some welcomely spacious playing from both Smith and Han. They close the album with the edgy, racewalking Extended Stay, Han coyly accenting a balletesuqe bass solo. When Han reaches the point where she can take extended solos without falling back on a lot of well-worn chromatic and blues runs, she could be dangerous.

January 6, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian Charette Takes Organ Jazz to Edgy, Entertaining New Places

As Brian Charette tells it, his first solo organ record was a hit with his colleagues at baseball stadiums. Which makes sense. If an organist is a serious team player, he or she (thinking of Eddie Layton and Jane Jarvis here) can influence the outcome of a game. But first they have to engage a screaming mob, and be heard over them (unless it’s the Mets and there’s nobody there). Charette can’t resist an opportunity to entertain, although his sense of humor usually comes out in jousting with bandmates and making deadpan insider jokes rather than outright buffoonery. His follow-up solo album, Beyond Borderline – streaming at youtube – doesn’t seem to have any baseball subtext: it’s an endless supply of WTF moments interspersed among just about every possible style that might fit what Charette obviously sees as the very broad category of jazz organ. His next gig is not as a bandleader, but a relatively rare one as a sideman with hard-hitting saxophonist Mike DiRubbo‘s quartet at 10:30 PM this Friday and Saturday night, Jan 3 and 4 at Smalls.

The new album is a mix of solo versions of originals along with a couple of organ arrangements of Ellington tunes. Charette opens it with Yellow Car, a briskly strolling Jimmy Smith-style blues spiced with sly jabs and blips. He really cuts loose with his signature unpredictability in Wish List, a punchy, rhythmically shifting mashup of creepy Messiaen and jaunty Booker T. Jones (don’t laugh, it actually works). The first of the Ellington tunes, Chelsea Bridge gets reinvented with a triumphantly crescendoing resonance. The other one, Prelude to a Kiss validates Charette’s decision to go for grandeur.

The rest of the originals begins with Girls, a straight-up, catchy swing tune with a disquietingly atmospheric interlude midway through. The dark blues and latin influences really come to the forefront in Good Tipper – the title track of his 2014 album – Charette walking and strutting the bass with his lefthand beneath the mighty chords and spacious riffs of his right.

His solo take of one of his creepiest and best numbers, Hungarian Bolero, is evenmore minimalistically menacing as he fades the volume back and forth: it’s a little early in the year to be talking about best songs of the year, but this is one of them.

Silicone Doll is an organ arrangement of Satin Doll: Charette speeds it up a little. By the time you hit 5th of Rye, you may find yourself wondering, who needs bass and drums? His love of dub reggae and penchant for wry quotes come through in Aligned Arpeggio. Herman Enest III, a shout-out to Dr. John’s longtime drummer better known as Roscoe, has a recurring riff nicked from Joni Mitchell (or did she steal it from the Night Tripper?)

Charette winds up the album with Public Transportation, a bubbly, lickety-split tune that obviously  refers to some city other than New York, where the subway and buses actually run. As organ jazz records go, this is vastly more purposeful, original and less outright funky than what’s usually found in that demimonde.

January 2, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment