Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Allstar Jazz Crew the Analog Players Society Slink Into Psychedelic Territory

The Analog Players Society live up their name in a way: they definitely are players. Check out this lineup: Donny McCaslin on tenor sax, Orrin Evans on piano, Dezron Douglas and Ben Rubin splitting the bass duties and Eric McPherson on drums. With officially sanctioned gigs hard to find outside of Sweden, they’ve joined the brave few making new records these days. Their three-song ep Tilted – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first in a planned two-part series and it’s actually like nothing you would expect from this an allstar cast. Is this lounge music? Psychedelia? Trip-hop? Acid jazz? Postbop? All of the above – and it’s not totally analog either.

They open it with a twelve-minute version of Jobim’s One Note Samba. McCaslin starts out airy and wary over Evans’ judiciously expanding modalities, then brings his echo pedal into the mix while McPherson introduces some slinky funk. They bring it down to a mutedly dancing, hypnotic bass solo while McPherson edges into trip-hop, Evans suddenly breaking the mesmeric mood with tinkling phantasmagoria. One of those “this is why we love jazz” moments.

Evans opens the second number, a wry reinvention titled Epistrophe, on toy piano, as McPherson more or less loops a New Orleans funk riff. McCaslin figures out echo effects both analog and digital over the circular groove. Evans’ restraint and commitment to keeping the mood going with just a handful of sudden “are you awake” riffs is pretty amazing for a guy with his chops. Taking Monk tunes apart and reducing them to most basic terms is fun!   

For now, the final cut is Freedom is But a Fraction of Humanity, the quartet fading up into misterioso, triangulated piano/bass/drums polyrhythms before McCaslin expands beyond uneasy loopiness, only to back away for Evans’ darkly glittery cascades. Everything coalesces over a spring-loaded, rumbling groove: then everybody backs down for a whispery bass solo as McPherson finds the clave with his woodblock and Evans pedals his upper-register chords. This is a very fun and often very funny album.

August 29, 2020 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rare, Individualistic Indian-Inspired World Premieres from the ARC Ensemble

In recent years the ARC Ensemble have made an extraordinary commitment to rescuing the works of relatively unknown but brilliant Jewish composers from obscurity. The latest in their series is the world premiere recording of Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann, streaming at Spotify. Kaufmann, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, fled Prague for the seemingly unusual destination of Mumbai in 1933, just ahead of the Nazis.

The choice of Mumbai was more than just an attempt to find a safe haven: as a student, Kaufmann had fallen in love with Indian music, and that passion would eventually lead him to become one of the foremost European-born authorities on it. After almost a century, his 1936 violin piece based on Raga Shivaranjani remains Air India’s main theme.

This fearlessly individualistic album features string quartets as well as pieces for smaller and larger ensembles (Kaufmann also wrote symphonies and operatic works), all composed during Kaufmann’s time in India. The first work here, played by violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe, is the String Quartet No. 11. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A somber cello drone anchors an enigmatic, whole-tone-centric raga melody that the quartet take dancing in the brief, five-minute opening movement.

The searching quality of the second movement is visceral; the wistfulness afterward evokes both Indian and Celtic music. The four musicians follow the warmly fleeting third movement to a triumphantly strutting coda.

Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat open the Sonata No. 2, Op. 44 for Violin and Piano in the poignant netherworld where carnatic music meets the blues scale, and follow a much livelier tangent: listening to the tracks here in sequence, it becomes clear that Kaufmann doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. Ahfat’s motives ring sparely and spaciously behind Raum’s lyricism in the second movement; the two pick up the pace to bring the piece full circle.

String Quartet No. 7 is basically a raga for strings. It begins lustrously and more chromatically charged, with an uneasily bustling sway and clever echo effects that add unexpected Iranian flavor. The contrast between somber foreshadowing and shivery intensity in the second movement is intense; the stark third movement brings to mind Bartok if he had taken his recording rig across the Indian Ocean instead of the Mediterranean. The group wind it up with a jaunty, acerbic final two movements that Kaufmann manages to wrap up in one big, bouncy ball.

Ahfat and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas play a clarinet arrangement of the Sonatina No. 12  for Violin and Piano, its broodingly hypnotic ambience punctuated by eerie chimes and more than a distant shadow of klezmer music. The two hit an unexpected romp and ending with a pastorale that’s the most distinctly European interlude here.

Violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join Ahfat and the string quartet for the album’s concluding work, the Septet for Three Violins, Viola, Two Cellos, and Piano. Rimsky-Korsakovian glitter and phantasmagoria pulse through its dynamic shifts, the strings serving as rhythm section much of the time.

Kaufmann was an interesting guy, but sadly his early success in Europe did not springboard the same kind of acclaim elsewhere, and his father and many relatives were murdered by the Nazis. He composed for Bollywood and the radio; became the first conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony (and drew an impressive amount of European talent there); played piano alongside a promising violinist named Albert Einstein; and ended his career at the University of Indiana. Fans of pioneering cross-pollinators like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and innovative violinists like Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu, will love this music.

August 28, 2020 Posted by | classical music, indian music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearlessly Kaleidoscopic, Diverse Album of Modern Harpsichord Music From Mahan Esfahani

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani bristles at the idea that his instrument could possibly be archaic, or that its usefulness is limited to music from the Renaissance or before. In the liner notes to his paradigm-shifting new album Musique, he credits “One perhaps unlikely source of inspiration…the people who, over the years, booed, cat-called and/or walked out of halls worldwide in anger and confusion (in other words, fear) during the live performances of these and many other modern and contemporary works. Be assured, my friends, that much more of this is on its way.”

If fearlessness is your thing, this album – streaming at Bandcamp – is for you. Esfahani plays a custom-made 2018 model by Jukka Ollikka, with an additional soundboard which essentially turbocharges the sustain – and Esfahani uses all of it. The album’s first piece is Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming, Esfahani’s steady, precise, eerily twinkling close harmonies contrasting with spare, pensive phrases. The washes of overtones reverberating from inside are nothing short of otherworldly: this piece alone proves Esfahani’s point about the harpsichord’s enduring vitality.

Henry Cowell wrote his Set of Four in 1960, twenty-six years before Takemitsu’s piece. The first, a rondo, is a disquietingly flamenco-inflected number with big, splashy glissandos and crashing, reverberating chords intermingled within shifting, stairstepping phrases. The ostinato of a second movement is a darkly bristling twelve-tone baroque invention that gives Esfahani a chance to take some jubilant leaps out of its otherwise rigid, brisk counterpoint. The third movement, a chorale, comes across as both homage to and devious parody of Bach. The conclusion blends quasi-Chopin with more conventional twelve-tone exchanges and a fleetingly deliciously chugging low lefthand attack

Kajia Saariaho‘s Jardin Secret II, written in the same year as Takemitsu’s work, is a rapidfire, minimalist electroacoustic piece with electronics by the composer herself: the contrast between organic and robotic is striking. A swordfight ensues: it’s not clear who wins.

Gavin Bryars‘ 1995 partita, After Handel’s “Vespers” is a rhythmically shifting exploration of baroque gestures, alternating methodically between harmonic worlds old and new, minimalism and medieval loquaciousness.

Esfahani has his hands full with the pointilllistic needles and epic, organ-like crush of Anahita Abbasi‘s 2018 Intertwined Distances, but his attack is unrelenting, the cumulo-nimbus ambience amplified by light electronic enhancements. A distant carillon effect is a clever touch.

He closes the record with Luc Ferrari’s 1972 Programme Commun – Musique Socialiste?, which could be a sardonic commentary on Pompidou-era French politics, or a prescient attempt to replicate the staccato sound of a Fender Rhodes elecric piano via one of its most venerable predecessors. This is the album’s most overtly amusing and pulsingly accessible piece, Esfahani reveling in how it seemingly inevitably falls apart, held together only by a pulsing electornic drone.

It’s a good bet that even the most diehard devotees of new music have never heard timbres or textures anything like this, especially not over the length of a whole record. Let’s hope Esfahani lives up to his vindictive promise in the album booklet, many times over.

August 27, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Niv Ashkenazi’s Lyrical Debut Album Celebrates Obscure Composers Imperiled or Murdered During the Holocaust

On a musical level alone, Niv Ashkenazi’s debut album Violins of Hope with pianist Matthew Graybil – streaming at Spotify – is a work of extraordinary beauty that reflects the vast scope of Jewish music throughout history. The backstory is even more inspiring. On one hand, this is a collection of both virtually unknown and relatively obscure repertoire by Jewish composers who were either driven from their homes or murdered during the Holocaust, along with a couple of famous pieces from the classical and film music canons.

Ashkenazi’s axe is one of dozens of violins played by Jews during the Holocaust, rescued by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein and detailed in James A. Grymes’ book, which shares its title with this album. This particular European model, crafted sometime between 1900 and 1929, has a remarkably warm tone and a Star of David inlay in mother of pearl on the body. It may have been played in the death camps, or one of the ghettos: no one knows for sure. The purpose of the project, and this album, is to return both the music and these instruments to their rightful place in our culture.

Robert Dauber’s Serenade, a song without words, is the cellist-composer’s only surviving work. Graybil’s lightly acerbic staccato and Ashkenazi’s aching lyricism echo both Schubert and Rachmaninoff. Dauber – son of jazz violinist Dolf Dauber – wrote it while imprisoned at Terezin. He died in captivity at Dachau in 1945.

Ernest Bloch’s 1923 Nigun features Ashkenazi soaring, spiraling and trilling against a drone over Graybil’s alternately hypnotic and rippling chromatics, a theme and variations on a gorgeous, dramatic medieval cantorial melody. John Williams well-known, klezmer-inspired Theme from Schindler’s List gets apt contrast between Graybil’s austere piano and Ashkenazi’s wounded, almost imploring intensity.

Julius Chajes’ 1939 piece The Chassid slowly rises to a triumphant strut in the Middle Easter-tinged freygish mode, the composer obviously inspired by the short time he spent in exile in the Holy Land before settling in Detroit.

Rising from hypnotic minimalism to a vigorous, neoromantic peak, contemporary composer Sharon Farber’s Bestemming: Triumph celebrates Dutch Resistance hero Curt Lowens, who saved not only scores of Jews but also a pair of downed American airmen during the war. The composer joins Graybil at the keys; Tony Campisi speaks Lowens’ own words, watching the survivors make their escape.

Szymon Laks’ resolute spirit shines through in his 1935 work Trois Pièces de Concert. The composer and Holocaust hero saved several of his fellow musicians from death at Auschwitz, survived the death camp and continued his career after he was liberated. Here the duo shift from a carefree baroque dance to unexpectedly marionettish riffage, a balmy barcarolle, and a lively conclusion which comes across as an update on Corelli.

The Ukrainian-born George Perlman taught violin in Chicago until his death at 103. His 1929 Dance of the Rebbitzen is a beautifully lilting miniature in freygish mode. As its title implies, pioneering Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim’s tenderly waltzing 1945 Berceuse Sfaradite looks back to Sephardic traditions.

The well-known classical number here is Kaddish, from Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraïques, in a terse, crystalline 1924 arrangement by Lucien Garban. The duo conclude the album with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words, a partita from 1952. They follow a steady upward trajectory through the brooding opening pavane, to a similarly wary Ballad and conclude with a Sephardic Melody that echoes the composer’s early immersion in European neoromanticism.

August 23, 2020 Posted by | Art, classical music, klezmer, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Another Eclectically Swinging Album From Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino

“As memorable as all these tunes are, it’s a good bet Tarantino has even more up her sleeve,” this blog enthused about saxophonist Alexa Tarantino‘s debut album as a bandleader, Winds of Change, just over a year ago. It’s always validating to see that kind of prediction come true. Tarantino’s follow-up, Clarity, is just out and streaming at Spotify. The lineup is a little different this time, pianist Christian Sands switched out for Steven Feifke, with Joe Martin and Rudy Royston returning on bass and drums respectively.

Interestingly, Tarantino plays alto flute on the brooding opening number, Through, working variations on a morosely memorable three-chord riff. Feifke signals a break in the clouds, the loose-limbed rhythm section pushing them pretty much out of the picture. What an anthem for our time – let’s hope Tarantino’s ending is an omen.

A Race Against Yourself comes across as something of an even brisker variation – a long, triumphant coda, essentially, Tarantino on alto sax. She gets balmy on the summery clave ballad, Luis Demetrio ‘s La Puerta, followed by A Unified Front, which has a similarly cheery drive, but at a faster pace. Royston getsthe chance to be his usual extrovert self, Feifke indulging in some blues.

The pianist plays spare, echoey upper-register Rhodes on a funky take of Horace Silver’s Gregory Is Here, Tarantino working her way up to some breathtaking, rapidfire volleys. Karma, a Feifke composition, has bright, incisive hooks, bits and pieces of funk and a smoldering Royston rumble at the end.

The lingering Rhodes returns in Who Saelua’s Breaking Cycles, the band edging their way into moody bossa territory: a real piano playing those same spare lines would enhance the song’s underlying disquiet. Thank You For Your Silence is a briskly swinging golden age-style postbop song without words. Like a lot of Tarantino’s work, this tune has an edge: a revenge number, maybe?

She closes the album, returning to alto flute for a slowly swaying, low-key reinvention of Kurt Weill’s My Ship. Martin’s piano voicings on the intro are a cool touch, as is his judiciously dancing solo midway through.

August 22, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bracing, Vividly Uneasy New Album of Eric Nathan Orchestral Works

“I compose for my music to be performed live and to be experienced from beginning to end,” Eric Nathan explains in the liner notes for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s new album of his compositions, The Space of a Door, streaming at Spotify. He’s hardly alone in that viewpoint – and these days, it’s against the law in New York to perform most of what’s on the record. If we want our culture to survive, we have to end the lockdown ourselves. Nobody’s going to do it for us.

Back to the music: the album is bookended by both a full symphonic arrangement and a chamber orchestra version of the bracing, persistently uneasy Paestum, inspired by the ruins of a Greco-Roman temple. The large-ensemble version begins with a bang – literally – which sets off an agitated, swirling flock of birds, or so it would seem. Conductor Gil Rose brings out a lustrous calm which is all the more suspenseful in contrast to the composer’s unwillingness to let it settle in: those ruins obviously left an impact. In both versions, the disquieting bustle returns with a fanfare and ends with unresolved Messiaenic clarinet.

With its lushly acidic close harmonies, slow doppler-like phrases, tense flutters and bubbles, Omaggio a Gesualdo has less in common with pre-Renaissance Italy than Henryk Gorecki (with some spiky Bartok thrown in for spice).

The album’s title track begins with a robust nod to Brahms but quickly shifts to an uneasy lustre and decays to a suspenseful stillness before Rose pulls one of many sudden upward spirals – a persistent trope here – out of the calm again. In many ways, the shifts between atmospherics and bordering-on-frantic activity mirror the album’s opening and closing segments.

Timbered Bells is a triumphantly brassy, regal shout-out to the distinctive echoes off the hills surrounding the Tanglewood complex, The triptych Missing Words has similarly playful origins, in this case the illusion of motion that passengers on a stopped train experience while watching one that’s actually moving – and also the joys of romping through piles of autumn leaves. Glissandos and razorwire microtones build vividly dissociative ambience. Big brass gestures answered by ghostly flickering strings pervade the middle miniature and the coyly furtive conclusion.

Flutter and bluster – Nathan really likes those clustering high winds and reeds – stand out in front of increasingly somber ambience and dramatic, windswept counterpoint in Icarus Dreamt, a Matisse reference  Nathan’s repertoire has been well represented by major new-music ensembles in concert here in his hometown in recent years; it’s good to have this record to spread the word about this distinctively compelling composer’s work

August 21, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

August 19, 2020 Posted by | Film, Literature, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gregg August’s Shattering, Epic New Album Confronts Racist Evil

Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.

Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.

There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.

In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.

August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.

The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.

Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John  Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.

Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.

August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.

The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.

Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.

And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..

August 17, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gorgeously Spare, Intimate New Trio Album From This Era’s Foremost Jazz Guitarist

The last time this blog was in the house at a Bill Frisell show, it was at the end of August, 2018. The iconic guitarist played that gig solo, seated in the front window of the Russ and Daughters cafe on Orchard Street. The only way to get in right before the show started was by sneaking  around the back. As you would expect, the place was so crowded that it was pretty much impossible for everybody but those in the very front to actually watch.

Frisell sized up the space and built a sonic cocoon, full of lingering poignancy and bittersweet rusticity, using his loop pedal sparingly as he built multitracks and then played over them during the set’s most hypnotic and intricate interludes. He delivers that same kind of intimate ambience on his latest album, Valentine, streaming at Spotify. Considering how prolific Frisell has been lately, it’s something of a surprise that this is his first album with his current all-star trio, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston.

As usual, the material is a mix of Frisell originals and covers. He opens by reinventing Malian guitar legend Boubacar Traore’s Baba Drame as a spare, slinky blues, Morgan artfully works his way outward from starkness and then back as Royston hypnotically rides the traps, the bandleader switching up textures to loopy twinkle and then a fade down into the first of his own tunes, the atmospheric Hour Glass.

The title track is a playfully cuisinarted, strolling blues as Big Lazy (or Tal Farlow) might have done in a lighthearted moment: it gets funnier the more spare the playing becomes. The rhythm section supply the atmospherics in Levees as the bandleader evokes a hazy but restless Mississippi delta of the mind.

He sticks with a slow tremolo for the spacious, distantly haunting, chilly Winter Always Turns to Spring, Morgan a steady reminder, Royston a more ghostly presence. Keep Your Eyes Open, a somewhat wry front porch folk-tinged song without words, has some of the rhythm section’s most subtly colorful work here.

The trio strip Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing to simplest, most strikingly direct terms, Morgan as spare as the bandleader, Royston contributing a skeleton of a shuffle on his snare. They go back toward the delta in Electricity: Morgan’s intricately interwoven harmonies are a clinic in imagination and good taste.

Likewise, the bassist can’t resist cowboy voicings as Frisell adds southern soul and resonant reverb riffage to Wagon Wheels, an early 30s western swing tune. He goes back to enigmatic blues tuning, shadowed by the bass and drums, in Aunt Mary, sparkling with judicious overdubs.

The trio wind up the record with a socially conscious triptych, first slowly coalescing into a reflective take of the Burt Bacharach hit What the World Needs Now Is Love. Frisell switches to acoustic for his own warmly matter-of-fact, pastoral Where Do We Go. The trio close with a 6/8 soul version of a Frisell favorite, We Shall Overcome. He’s made much darker and more intense albums than this, but none more entrancing. This isn’t big news, but you’ll see this on the best records of the year list in December, Lots of big changes coming in the months between – let’s hope we get there without everybody taking the needle of death. 

August 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cosmopolitan Gershwin-Centric Album From Haerim Elizabeth Lee and Alex Brown

Today’s album is an elegantly fun one. Violinist Haerim Elizabeth Lee and pianist Alex Brown‘s My Time is Now – streaming at Spotify – includes relatively rare duo arrangements of Gershwin music along with works by living composers. The model is the same as Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz: classical violinist, jazz pianist. But true to their New England Conservatory roots (and Gershwin’s as well), these two like to improvise. They do that a little in a jaunty take of It Ani’t Necessarily So and a lot in Summertime, Brown building an enigmatic reflecting pool until Lee brings in the blues.

Most of the Gershwin arrangements (and frequent embellishments) are by his longtime violinist pal Jascha Heifetz. The Three Preludes have jaunty ragtime-flavored tradeoffs bookending a slow, somber, lyrical stroll. The duo allude to but never quite hit a bluesy strut with A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.

Their take of Bess, You Is My Woman is aptly fond, quite a contrast with the plaintive gravitas of My Man’s Gone Now. The duo bridge both those moods in Tempo Di Blues.

Short Story, a rarity, is a mashup of two early, Dvorak-influenced Gershwin miniatures, Lee’s swoops and dancing lines contrasting with Brown’s steady calm. The condensed version of An American in Paris is a playground for the two musicians, from coy exchanges to gentle rapture and an unexpected steely intensity. The album also includes three arrangements by Brown: Embraceable You, reinvented as a rather hazy nocturne; a High Romantic version of Sleepless Night; and an achingly vivid interpretation of a late work, Violin Piece to close the album.

The more recent material is hit and miss. The atonalities in Patrick Harlin‘s Tbt seem jarringly miscast in this otherwise allusively Gershwinesque, vamping prelude. Lee sails and stabs in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich‘s acerbic Fantasy For Solo Violin and Michael Daugherty‘s kinetic, distantly Appalachian-tinged Viva For Solo Violin, neither of which sound anything like Gershwin. William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost comes across as a Scott Joplin-ized bolero.

Fun fact: this is the debut recording made with George Gershwin’s personal 1933 Steinway, now housed at the University of Michigan after sitting dormant for decades in a Manhattan apartment

August 15, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment