Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Titanic, Imaginatively Orchestrated Salsa Swing Album From the Iconic Ruben Blades

What an inspiration it is to see the most fearlessly original paradigm-shifter of all the salsa dura pioneers of the 70s still pushing the envelope. Ruben Blades‘ new album Salswing with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled, a lavishly symphonic latin jazz project. Blades’ voice is a bit more wintry than it was forty years ago, but he tackles the material here – an imaginative mashup of jazz standards and salsa – with his usual soul and gravitas. Listen closely and you discover that he’s overdubbed his own coros. Hearing him hit those high notes on the second track reaffirms his indominable stature as leader of the old school – which in his case makes him just as much a leader of the new school.

Delgado’s Panamanian ensemble and his colorful, edgy charts make a good match. They open with Paula C, the lushness enhanced by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Guest Eduardo Pineda’s Rhodes piano bubbles amid the brassy gusts, trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez reaching for the stratosphere and nailing it.

Blades lands somewhere between Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a blazing, ebullient take of Pennies from Heaven, trombone soloist Xito Lovell cascading down out of a sunburst brass break. The textures and exchanges between the reeds and brass in the instrumental Mambo Gil have grit to match their majesty, alto saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha taking a tantalizingly brief, spiraling solo.

Blades goes into nuanced crooner mode for Ya No Me Duele over the bandleader’s strolling bass pulse, Tom Kubis adding flourishes on alto sax amid the towering brass. The vocals on Watch What Happens are bordering on breathless, effectively driving home the song’s ironclad optimism over the sudden swells of the orchestra. Blades reaches for similar intensity, but with a more imploring feel in Cobarde and its intricate, understated polyrhythms.

Lopez’s balmy, straightforward trumpet solo flies over an elegant midtempo swing beat in Do I Hear Four?, the group’s counterpoint rising toward inferno levels. There’s a little more drama and mystery in Blades’ voice in Canto Niche, Juan Berna switching between piano and echoey Rhodes. The Way You Look Tonight is the closest thing to a coyly seductive, straight-up fifties Sinatra swing tune here,

Blades winds up the record with a couple of slinky barn-burners. Ricky Rodriguez’s low-key, tumbling piano and Alejandro “Chichisin” Castillo’s smoky baritone sax anchor the dynamically-shifting, colorful Contrabando, Raul Aparicio’s accordion popping in unexpectedly. Similarly, Tambó rises from a streetcorner intro from the percussion section to an insistent, driving oldschool salsa groove. A titanic achievement from a huge, semi-rotating ensemble that also includes percussionists Ademir Berrocal, Raul Rivera, Carlos Perez Bido, Jose Ramon Guerra and Luis Mitil; Francisco Delvecchio and Avenicio Nunez on trombones; Carlos Ubarte, Ivan Navarro and Luis Carlos Perez on saxes; Milton Salcedo, Dino Nugent, Ceferino Caban and Dario Boente on piano; Carlos Quiros on bass; Carlos Camacho on vibes; and Abraham Dubarron on guitar.

May 4, 2021 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dragon Quartet Tackle a Harrowing, Transgressive Masterpiece and Other Russian Works

Today it’s time to salute transgression, and freedom fighters, and one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written.

Is it transgressive for a Chinese string quartet to play play popular and less popular but underated Russian repertoire? That probably depends on who you ask, and where you ask that question.

The Dragon Quartet – violinists Ning Feng and Wang Xiaomao, violist Zheng Wenxiao and cellist Qin Liwei – released their second album in the spring of last year. It’s streaming at Spotify; the centerpiece is Shostakovich’s chillingly immortal String Quartet No. 8. Having outlived Stalin, who had murdered so many of his friends, the composer wrote this piece in less than a week, fearing that he might not live to finish it since the tyrant’s successor, Krushchev, had gone on the warpath against artists again. If you know classical music, you undoubtedly know this one, where the composer inserts his initials thousands of times into the score (in German). If you don’t, you are in for a treat.

The slow, sheer despondency of the first movement is an especially severe contrast with the haggard chase scene (and sarcastic Wagner quotes) in the second. The dynamics of the marionettish dance of death in the third enhance the relentlessly sinister quality, particularly its ghostly swirls.

The fourth movement is where the gestapo knock on the door, one of the most iconic sequences in all of classical music. The quartet really dig into the lushness and desperation that follows: Ning’s muted lines as hope runs out pack a wallop, quietly, as does the resonance of the conclusion and Qin’s stark, solemn cello.

Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Weinberg was for several years Shostakovich’s neighbor and drinking buddy, and a vastly underrated, wildly prolific composer. He’d escaped the Holocaust only to be jailed by Stalin: although Shostakovich advocated for him, it was Stalin’s death that saved his life. Here the group play his String Quartet No. 2, which he wrote in 1945. It makes a good segue.

Ning soars uneasily over moody, sometimes insistent lows, with the group supplying vividly aching low/high contrasts as the piece gets underway. They give the second movement a fin-de-siecle, Debussy-esque wistfulness but also a marching cynicism and then flurry vigorously yet very warily through the third. The melodies hypnotically circling over the ghostly backdrop of the fourth movement are another higlight of the album. The group find a melancholy song without words and then get their hands dirty with the bracing round-robin counterpoint of the concluding movement.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 is an attractive piece of music, played expertly and thoughtfully, but it’s not going to blow you away like Shostakovich. It’s a love song to Borodin’s wife that ends as the happy couple go on a brisk stroll together. Before that there’s clever, Haydn-influenced counterpoint and shadowing, old world pensiveness, some stately waltzing, balletesque grace, and hummingbird-like speed from Feng when the conclusion calls for it.

May 3, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imaginative, Energetic Jazz and Classical Mashups From Brother Duo Nicki and Patrick Adams

On their new duo album Lynx – streaming at Sunnyside Records – brothers Nicki and Patrick Adams come across as a classical/jazz mashup. Trumpeter Patrick typically carries an unhurried, lyrical melody line while pianist Nicki drives the songs forward with an often turbulent aggression and an erudite interweave of classical riffs. Jazz musicians have been having all kinds of fun with this kind of cross-pollination for decades; this one is packed with clever, unexpected connections and purposeful playing.

They open with Joe Henderson’s Shade of Jade, contrasting lively, upbeat trumpet with gritty, driving piano that slowly and subtly introduces a couple of Bartok themes until the Bulgarian influence is front and center…and then the duo bring it back.

Likewise, they reinvent Monk’s Pannonica by mashing it up with the Khachaturian Toccata and the Gigue from Bach’s Partita in Bb Major, trumpet soaring calmly over disjointed aggression from the piano which calms, and then returns with a leap.

Nicki gives John Coltrane’s 26-2 a coyly motoring Bach undercurrent as his brother chooses his spots. The duo’s brooding reinvention of Nick Drake’s Things Behind the Sun – or wait, isn’t that Al Stewart’s Life and Life Only? – is a quiet stunner.

These two are without a doubt the only ones to tackle Wayne Shorter’s E.S.P. while blending in bits and pieces of Gershwin and the Quartet For the End of Time – that’s Patrick sneaking in the Messiaen here.

The Gershwin influence lingers elegantly in the bouncily strolling Cool Blues, an original. They follow with a lively, Art Tatum-inspired take of Herbie Hancock’s Actual Proof and close by interpolating Debussy, Bartok and Satie with ragtime flair into the ballad I Wish I Knew. If outside-the-box entertainment is your thing, whether you’re a listener or a player, give this a spin.

May 3, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sizzling Live Set of Free Jazz in Williamsburg Before the Lockdown

The glut of live albums recorded before the lockdown doesn’t seem like it’s going to abate anytime soon. And that’s just as well: this blog has been agitating for years for more artists to get wise to the value of live recordings. For one, they’re infinitely more economical than studio projects. And for musicians who aren’t located in free parts of the world, what better way to energize the fan base than a sizzling live record? Guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, bassist Simon Jermyn, violist Mat Maneri and drummer Gerald Cleaver had the presence of mind to record their February 24, 2019 Williamsburg show and release it as at Untamed: Live at Scholes, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

This is free jazz for people who like thoughtful interplay, edge and groove. Throughout the set, the acidic interweave between Goldberger and Maneri is such that it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what. Case in point: the hammering, hypnotic interlude about midway through their first number, presented here as an uninterrupted thirty-six minute track.

After the quartet coalesce gingerly to introduce it with spare bits of allusive Middle Eastern melody, then a hint of qawwali emerging, Jermyn hits a steady swing pulse and the race is on. Maneri takes centerstage to fire off a deliciously enigmatic, tersely microtonal solo. Goldberger throws shards and knotty postbop runs into the fray, Jermyn clustering and Maneri returning with an anxious intensity. Cleaver, running a colorful floating swing on his hardware, is back in the mix as you might expect at Scholes Street Studios, where everybody else in the band is using an amp.

There’s hazy volume-knob resonance from Goldberger in tandem with the viola as Jermyn runs a loopy riff. Cleaver gets some welcome time to himself, getting the boom or an approximation thereof going with his toms, the rest of the band building a devious swordfight with their swipes and slashes. Jermyn subtly hints at stoner boogie; winding tensile lines from guitar and viola over a cleverly altered Diddleybeat from Jermyn and Cleaver grow more aggressively skronky.

Everybody diverges down to echoes and more menacingly sustained wafts. Cleaver’s refusal to lose the groove, no matter how quiet he gets, is the key to the record. The rainy-day soundscape when he finally drops to a cymbal mist, Jermyn playing voice of reason to Goldberger’s knotty, restless lines while Maneri adds psychedelic harmonics, is just as much fun as when the band is really cooking. Likewise, the brooding viola solo, hypnotically pulsing drive and devious echo effects on the way out.

They fade up a much shorter number, presumably an encore, on the brink of a bracingly assertive Maneri solo as Jermyn shifts between a folksy dance and a gallop, Goldberger in jaggedly lingering mode. The Grateful Dead during their late 60s fascination with Indian music come to mind. Won’t it be even more fun when these guys can make another live album like this – or maybe they have, and they’re just not telling us yet. In the meantime, Cleaver is scheduled to play a series of live concert recording dates with saxophonist Darius Jones‘ trio on June 6 through 8 at 1 PM in Central Park, as part of Giant Step Arts’ incredible lineup of free jazz shows. Take the 81st St. entrance on the west side, go north and up the hill about a block, follow the sound and you’re there.

May 2, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | | Leave a comment

A Vibrant, Evocative, Summery Album From the Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra

The Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra’s album Windward Bound – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with a mist of wave splashes and sounds of shorebirds. But those aren’t samples. That’s the band conjuring up remarkable facsimiles of both. It’s a characteristically playful touch for multi-reeedman Kwok’s six-part suite, inspired by sailing on Lake Ontario and the lore of the sea.

The opening theme, The Calling begins as a calm, baroque-influenced prelude for winds, the rest of the nineteeen-piece ensemble sweeping up and in with hints of a sea chantey. It has the same lush, bucolic familiarity as Maria Schneider‘s lake-themed compositions.

Pianist Augustine Yates’ expectant pedalpoint anchors Kwok’s balmy alto sax intro, singer Caity Gyorgy adding lustrous vocalese as Ready, Aye, Ready gets underway. Bassist Jonathan Wielebnowski and drummer Jacob Wutzke drive the orchestra to a triumphant series of peaks, then shift from a funky sway to suspense as the piece ebbs and rises again. There’s a moment where guitarist Aidan Funston takes over the pedalpoint that could be Darcy James Argue in  a foreboding moment…except that this album is generally upbeat and optimistic.

A Flat Boat Is a Fast Boat has driving latin flair, horns bursting above a rapid swing that threatens to get frantic, then the saxes – who include Naomi McCarroll-Butler, Sophia Smith, Brenden Varty, Kyle Tarder-Stoll and Jonathan Lau – battle it out with the brass. The fluttery false ending before Funston’s spiky solo is a cool touch.

The album’s big improvisational epic is The Tempest, beginning with stark low-register foreshadowing from the piano, followed by a series of skeletal accents throughout the ensemble as the bass growls in the distance. Slowly they rise out of muted skronk to an increasingly nebulous but agitated swirl as flute and trombones soar and resonate. The storm recedes quickly with a few fitful flourishes.

The fifth number, Elegy is where the whole group really coalesce with a shadowy power, in variations on a broodingly rising modal piano riff. Kwok’s misty, melancholy lines pack a quiet punch when the music recedes. The lakeside imagery as the upward drive returns is characteristically evocative.

Kwok brings the suite full circle with the final number, Red, Right, Returning, building on the original high-seas theme with carefree sax and a soulful muted trumpet solo. The rest of this inspired crew include trumpeters Megan Jutting, Matt Smith, Paul Callander, Marie Goudy and trombonists Nick Marshall, Andrew Gormley, Charlotte Mcafee-Brunner and Inayat Kassam.

So where the hell was this blog when this album hit the web in 2017? Focusing on the New York live music scene. Concerts: remember those? It won’t be long before we’re all going out again just like we used to. This summer, everybody’s going to bust loose. Lockdowners, you’re surrounded, time to raise the white flag or else.

May 1, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Augusta and Georgina McKay Lodge Unearth Colorful Rarities From 18th Century Germany

Violinist Augusta McKay Lodge and her violist sister Georgina are a throwback to a time when classical musicians were also routinely expected to be good improvisers. Their new album J.G. Graun: Chamber Music from the Court of Frederick the Great – streaming at the violist’s music page – unearths rare baroque treasures for a global audience. What’s most exciting about this recording is that it contains a small handful of world premieres. It’s also noteworthy for including two of the earliest known works for viola as a featured instrument. And in keeping with a mid-eighteenth century Germany esthetic, the ensemble revel in opportunities to add individualistic embellishments, dynamics, and even entire parts. Much as obscure archival works are becoming more and more of a meme, this elegant and often unexpectedly colorful album is a real find. The duo have assembled an all-star cast here which includes Eva Lymenstull on cello and David Schulenberg on harpsichord.

They open with Johann Gottlieb Janitsch’s somberly crescendoing Trio Sonata in G minor For Violin, Viola and Continuo. The pedalpoint of the viola and harpsichord build a hypnotic quality early in the second movement, then waltz through the conclusion. Music for the entitled classes from this era is seldom so dark; needless to say, this is a welcome rediscovery.

Schulenberg reaches for an opulent rubato to open Johann Gottlieb Graun’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Keyboard, Lodge rising from spare, plaintive phrasing to a long series of biting, lively fugal exchanges with the harpsichord. There are plenty of convention-defying surprises in this piece: kudos to the Lodges for resurrecting it.

Graun’s Sonata in B-flat For Violin and Keyboard is considerably more lighthearted, but this is a vigorous performance, lit up by Lodge’s steely legato, and Schulenberg’s playful ornamentation and pacing. The short phrases of the Sonata in C For Cello and Basso Continuo, by Carl Heinrich Graun, are more predictable, Lymenstull’s shifts in attack and dynamics front and center.

Franz Benda’s Sonata in C minor For Viola and Basso Continuo begins with elegantly wary pacing from Schulenberg behind Lodge’s gorgeously bittersweet resonance and melismas. The brooding counterpoint goes straight back to J.S. Bach and so does the sheer tunefulness: it’s arguably the high point of the album.

The Lodges save their most animated embellishments for the final work here, J. G. Graun’s warmly nocturnal, lilting Trio Sonata in A For Violin, Viola and Basso Continuo, anchored once again by Schulenberg’s uncluttered, nuanced harpsichord parts.

May 1, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment