Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

May 31, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iconic, Haunting Schubert Song Cycle Reinvented For Our Time

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin‘s new live recording of Schubert’s Winterreise – streaming at Spotify – is heartbreaking on more levels than usual. DiDonato isn’t phased by singing a male role: she’s done that before. Unquestionably, she brings new levels of depth and angst to Wilhelm Muller’s interminable, metaphorically loaded journey through a winter wasteland. Maybe listening to this from a male perspective actually doesn’t give her enough credit, considering how troubling it is simply to hear a woman channel so much emotional devastation. In her liner notes, DiDonato relates how she’s been intrigued by how little we know about the nameless love interest whose ex was sent off stumbling into the snow. In this interpretation, the breakup was just as hard on her.

Nézet-Séguin’s clear-eyed, meticulous focus is a welcome backdrop and guide for everyone involved. He lets what might well be the most famous classical song cycle ever written tell itself, carving out a path of subtly blinding lucidity. The elephant in the room here is that this is a concert recording, from Carnegie Hall in December 2019. Just over four months later, the venue was shuttered and remains cold and dead. That context is as heartbreaking as the story itself. How much longer are New Yorkers going to tolerate Cuomo and the lockdowners’ relentless campaign of terror?

With that in mind, the suite is an even more potent metaphor – it’s hardly a stretch to read Muller’s tale of lost love as a parable of freedom lost to forces of evil, followed by an escape attempt whose end remains in doubt. Take The Signpost, a muted, troubled, spare interlude about eighty percent of the way in: is this simply an embattled individualist’s lament, or a subtle revolutionary cry? This duo leave that possibility wide open.

DiDonato’s downward cascades in the sarcastically titled overture pack quite a wallop as Nézet-Séguin maintains a very light-footed stroll, eschewing any temptation to go for either grand guignol or florid operatics. It’s a portent for the rest of the record.

There’s an almost furtive scramble to the fourth segment, Numbness, the anguish of DiDonato’s narrator wanting to melt the ice with her tears and rekindle the affair. Happy memories under the linden tree seem more ghostly here, at a distance: sleep in heavenly peace, ouch!

Rivers rise with DiDonato’s voice as Nézet-Ségui serves as anchor, both musically and emotionally. Rest proves tantalizingly elusive, a spring thaw vastly more so, in a rare crushing crescendo. Increasingly somber intimations of mortality are much more vastly spacious and funereal. The scene where the traveler ends up sleeping in the graveyard because the inn is full seems only logical, and Nézet-Séguin really makes those cruelly conclusive chords sink in. And the hushed coda, out on the ice with the homeless, drunken hurdy-gurdy player, makes for sheer horror. These two really go to the core of this music. Newcomers to the Winterreise who discover it through this recording are especially lucky.

May 30, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Electrifying, Entertaining, Amusing Magnum Opus From Multi-Reedwoman Anna Webber

Damn, this is a funny record. Multi-reedwoman Anna Webber‘s mammoth new double album Idiom – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious yet. She’s no stranger to large-ensemble work, most memorably with her Webber/Morris Big Band album from a couple of years ago. The loosely connecting thread here is extended technique, something Webber has plenty of and uses liberally but not gratuitously. The jokes are relentless and irresistible. Webber gets extra props for having the nerve – and the optimism – to put out another big band record at a time when big band performances in New York have been criminalized. Hopefully for no longer than it takes for a Cuomo impeachment!

There’s also an opening disc, Webber joined by her long-running Simple Trio. The first number is a creepy, circling flute and piano theme and variations, with sudden dynamic and rhythmic shifts. It’s closer to Terry Riley than jazz. Drummer John Hollenbeck adds flickering color to the steady sway, pianist Matt Mitchell setting off a lake of ripples from the lows upward. Furtiveness becomes spritely, then the hypnotic spiral returns.

The second of these Idiom pieces has even more of an air of mystery in the beginning, its spaciously wispy minimalism growing more herky-jerky, up to a clever piano-sax conversation over Hollenbeck’s funky drive. Forgotten Best is a great track, beginning as a very allusive, rhythmically resistant take on hauntingly majestic Civil Rights Coltrane, then hitting a triumphant, quasi-anthemic drive. The trio follow with a coyly comedic, hypnotically circular, flute-driven march.

Webber subtly employs her pitch pedal for sax duotones and microtones in the third of the Idiom series over Hollenbeck’s straight-ahead funk and Mitchell’s surgical staccato, then clusters wildly over the pianist’s various vortices. The drummer’s persistent gremlin at the door signals a shivery shift.

The twelve-piece large ensemble play an epic, largely improvisational seven-track suite on the second disc. Emphatic swats over a murmuring background, with a wryly funny low/high exchange, pervade the opening movement. One assume that’s the bandleader’s distant squall that sets off a racewalking pace. Sounds like somebody’s using a EWI for those Marshall Allen-style blips and squiggles.

An airy, increasingly suspenseful interlude introduces movement two, Webber back on flute, fluttering in tandem with Yuma Uesaka’s clarinet over the tiptoeing Frankenstein of the rhythm section – Nick Dunston on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. A swinging fugue follows, the rest of the horns – Nathaniel Morgan on alto sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, David Byrd-Marrow on horn and Jacob Garchik on trombone joined by the string trio of violinist Erica Dicker, violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts. Webber’s mealy-mouthed meandering, picked off by the trombone, is another deviously amusing moment.

O’Farrill punctures the mist of the second interlude and then wafts optimistically, a goofy faux-takadimi duel between horn and trumpet finally disappearing into a chuffing shuffle; ersatz qawwali has seldom been so amusing. Everybody gets to make a Casper the Friendly Ghost episode out of the fourth movement. Movement five slowly coalesces out of looming mystery, O’Farrill playfully nudging everybody up, Webber’s acidic multiphonics over a slinky quasi-tropical syncopation and an ending that’s predictably ridiculous.

The group rise out of the ether a final time to impersonate a gamelan for awhile the string section leading the ramshackle parade this time. It’s as if Webber is daring us to go out and have half as much fun as she did making this album.

May 29, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jitro Czech Girls Choir Celebrate Owls, Mudpuddles, and the History of Western Music

Today’s album falls into the fun classical category. Czech composer Ilja Hurnik liked bright, singable melodies but also enigmatic harmonies. His music is picturesque to the extreme, deceptively playful and more complex than it might seem on the surface. The Jitro Czech Girls Choir’s new album Gratias, a Hurnik retrospective streaming at Spotify, contains two numbers about owls and more than one vignette of children having fun in the rain…alongside an improbably successful capsule history of western choral music. That speaks volumes. Jiří Skopal conducts these young women in an evocative performance of very serious unserious music.

Variations on a Mouse Theme are actually an ambitious attempt to trace the entire history of choral music, from the pre-Renaissance to the present, in less than ten minutes. After a coyly bustling bit of an intro, there’s a trio of leaping, Handel-ish miniatures followed by a more austere interlude punctuated by incisive bursts in the high harmonies. The false ending to the fourth segment is irresistibly funny, the group gamely tackling the thorny harmonies and tricky rhythms of the modernist coda.

June Night, for piano and choir, comes across as a more sober series of etudes: counterpoint, Romantically-tinged glitter with an affecting soprano solo, and a study in slowly shifting long tones are part of the picture. If the chromatics of the fifth segment are to be taken on face value, they’re a headache.

The Children’s Tercetta suite is more piano-centric. Icicles drip busily, a sparrow and swallow banter, a colt romps for a bit, a butterfly dips and lingers gracefully. Pianist Michal Chrobák’s poignancy alongside the voices in that second owl miniature make a strikingly somber contrast: it’s one of the album’s high points.

Water, Sweet Water is a triptych for choir and the most lushly enveloping piece here. The ensemble wind up the album with the brief, strikingly translucent six-part Missa Vinea Crucis for choir and organ. The opening kyrie is stunningly dark and chromatically bristling: organist František Vaníček brings to mind the great French composer Maurice Durufle, as he does again in the disquieting twinkle and gusts of the gloria. The lively counterpoint of the credo and ethereal agnus dei each make quite a contrast.

Much as all this music is essentially etudes, the fun Hurnik obviously had writing it translates vividly in the girls’ performance.

May 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cellist Arlen Hlusko Finds Mesmerizing Beauty in Scott Ordway’s New Solo Suite

Cellist Arlen Hlusko’s new recording of Scott Ordway’s Nineteen Movements for Unaccompanied Cello – streaming at the composer’s music page – is a bundle of contradictions: sprightly and immersive, old and new. Drawing equally on the baroque and current-day minimalism, it’s on the slow, pensive side, but with all sorts of dynamic shifts and demands on extended technique. Hlusko really sinks her teeth – and her bow, and her fingers – into this. It’s quite beautiful in its own austere way, emphatically rooted in the lows. Some of this could be a work for solo bass.

She begins the suite with a stately, minimal, circling baroque-tinged pizzicato theme which  instantly reveals the room’s rich natural reverb. She picks up her bow for the echoingly brief second movement, its long, rising tones and harmonically-spiced chords.

Her attack grows spikier and more forceful, occasionally with percussive boom or plucked glissandos, There are a handful of passages with striking low/high contrasts and uneasy close harmonies, as well as one centered around expressive allusions to a well-known Bach theme.

Movement nine has rich contrast between the almost feral attack of the first part and the wistful, wispy ending. From there, Hlusko shifts energetically from increasingly complex, raga-like variations around a pedal note, to aching, slowly crescendoing single-note lines, to what could be a fondly anthemic 19th century folk ballad. Ordway brings the suite full circle as a warmly resonant pavane.

May 27, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Box of Fresh Takeout From 2012

Of all the offbeat off-off-Broadway productions of the last decade, In Appetizing Proportions has to be one of the most original. Premiered at the now-defunct Tank in 2012, it parodied foodie memes and obsessions. Taking the meaning of slow food to new levels of deceleration, over the next eight years the musical members of the cast sporadically worked on a five-song ep of tracks from the show. Finally, this strangely compelling music is out and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The press release for the album describes it as “surreal scenes plucked from the thoughts of an Upper East Side woman attempting to cook her way into her mother-in-law’s good graces.” Guitarist Fritz Myers’ elegant, incisive compositions don’t seem to reference any specific kind of cuisine, or ingredients: you won’t hear anything that sounds remotely like Back at the Chicken Shack, or Rev. Vince Anderson’s tribute to fried lettuce, or the Cramps’ Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk here. Clare Drobot’s lyrics are very straightforward, with surprisingly subtle humor.

The album begins with an austerely circling art-song in 6/8 time, Myers’ steady fingerpicking over Andie Tanning’s resonant violin. It’s probably the only song in history to have a lyric soprano (Samantha Britt, in an impressively focused, dramatic role) singing “chicken paillard.” Jay Vilnai‘s work for small ensemble comes to mind in places here.

Tanning’s violin sails on a sea of reverb in A Caloric Devotion, which is even more hypnotic and psychedelic beneath Britt’s unshakeable optimism and spine-tingling upper register: come hell or high water, she’s going to get this recipe right. Track three, Dumplings has even greater determination, if that’s possible.

Britt’s angst reaches fever pitch over contrastingly muted guitar and violin in Moral Obligation. The final track is I Float, a bittersweet, lemon-and-herb-flavored waltz of sorts.

2012: those were the days, weren’t they? Funny how the global death rate that year was practically identical to what it was in 2020. Yet back then, for some mysterious reason, we thought people who walked around wearing surgical masks were paranoid and creepy. And there were black-box theatres like the Tank where crowds of people would squeeze in to see strange, individualistic performances like this, and if anybody asked you for your phone number, you told them to go to hell. Freedom was so much fun!

May 26, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, opera, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Calm Transcendence, Gravitas and Haunting Film Noir Sonics on Wadada Leo Smith’s Latest Epic Triple-Disc Album

It’s hard to imagine another artist who has been as prolific and perennially relevant in his seventh decade as Wadada Leo Smith. His epic Civil Rights Era-themed 2013 triple-disc set Ten Freedom Summers is probably one of the hundred best albums ever made in any style of music.

Occupy Wall Street? Why not Occupy the World, as Smith suggested with a transcendently good orchestral album. He’s also saluted America’s National Parks, composed a rapt, oceanic Great Lakes suite, played huge amounts of solo Monk on trumpet, and now has a brand new triple-disc set of often darkly inspiring duo and trio recordings, Sacred Ceremonies, streaming at Spotify, It’s music to get completely lost in and will give you hope at a time when we really, really need it.

The sad undercurrent here is that we lost the iconic Milford Graves last year. In a crushing stroke of irony, it was a heart ailment that claimed the greatest cardiac medical pioneer to ever play the drums. Fortuitously, two of these discs feature Graves, the first in a duo with Smith, the other in a trio set with bassist Bill Laswell. In between, Smith and Laswell explore less friendly atmospheres.

Graves’ shamanic toms, oscillating cymbals and mystical rimwork back Smith’s characteristically spacious, terse lines on the opening disc’s five expansive tracks. Sometimes Graves’ boom is such that it’s as if he’s playing a tapan barrel drum from the Balkans. In what could have been a stroke of intuition on Smith’s part, he gives his bandmate centerstage much of the time, when he’s not channeling somber 19th century blues and gritty variations, mournful foghorn washes, austerely sailing lines punctuated by deft trills and clusters, and the occasional call of the wild.

The two slowly bring in a fond, mutedly suspenseful ballad, in just short of fifteen minutes, in the fourth track. As the two make their way upward, part of Graves’ kit sounds like a giant tabla from the great beyond. And his chugging, gnawa-like cymbals behind Smith’s coy Stevie Wonder paraphrases in the final duo number are a stunningly surreal touch.

The Smith/Laswell duos on disc two are 180 degrees from that, typically edging toward a Bob Belden post-Miles noir atmosphere, with a more defined low/high dichotomy and less interplay. To Laswell’s infinite credit, he chills – literally – in the background as Smith takes flight, frequently with a mute. Feeling some low pressure here, the trumpeter picks up the energy and the catchy riffage significantly. If you want to hear Wadada Leo Smith playing parts – well, a little bit – this is it. Laswell loves loves loves that flange pedal, or its digital equivalent, set to deep freeze, and sticks with it, sometimes in tandem with a wah, a loop box and an arsenal of light sabers. Smith’s utterly Lynchian chromatics over spare pedalpoint in Mysterious Night and then the concluding Minnie Riperton elegy are the highlights.

Smith’s spine-tingling flares and Graves’ churning, kaleidoscopic murk (who knew such an oxymoron could exist? He did) pair off over Laswell’s warp and wooze to open the third disc, essentially a reprise of the second disc with more of a dystopic drive. Smith holds the whole thing together, more or less, playing with a mute, a white-knuckle angst and a clenched-teeth smile as Graves motors along the stygian underground, Laswell’s robotically cold calculations piercing the veil now and again. Yet Smith’s saturnine solo intro to the fourth track here could be the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the whole record.

May 25, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Could a Solo Sax Album Be of Interest to Anybody Who Doesn’t Play One?

True crime writer Arthur Herzog once pondered whether the history of Siamese cats would make a good book. He concluded that it couldn’t. Is a solo sax album pretty much the same thing? Seriously – beyond Colin Stetson‘s deep-space adventures in electronically-enhanced solo bass sax, or Paula Henderson‘s deviously multitracked baritone sax work, is there anyone alive who’s not a sax player, or the most diehard of diehard free jazz fans, who would possibly be interested?

Rachel Musson is betting there is, and she’s as good a candidate as any to pull off that daunting feat. Like so many other artists during the lockdown, she’s released her first-ever solo album, Dreamsing, streaming at Bandcamp. As strong an improviser as she is, she’s used to pulling a tune out of thin air. Her tart sense of humor becomes a more valuable asset as the album goes on. What’s most impressive about it is that although she has spectacular extended technique, she doesn’t use it gratuitously, or as a fallback device. And despite this being almost completely improvised, it doesn’t sound like a bunch of practice patterns. This record is best appreciated as a cohesive whole rather than discrete tracks.

The first track is Reeling, something we’ve all been doing these past fourteen months and counting. But there’s low-key lyricism and the occasional tortured, muted trill amid blippy, dancing motive in between the clustering riffage

In no particular order, many other things she does here make this worth your time. There’s a gently invigorating reveille theme of sorts, up and out quickly. She uses shivery trills as a stepping-off point for doublestops, taking them sort of halfspeed, quarterspeed and even slower.

There are hints of a bluesy ballad punctuated by nimble eight-note runs and screaming swipes. For Pauline, a series of miniatures seemingly based on verbal scores, could be a Pauline Oliveros homage: agitated bursts, tentative minimal outbreaks of hope, and increasingly amusing interludes relating to blood pressure and musical authoritarianism.

Musson does pretty much everything you can do with her horn. There are vocalizations punctuated by squalls and shrieks, and percussive moments. A series of stairstepping phrases shedding harmonics and skin-peeling duotones are impossible to turn away from: it’s as if she’s playing through a phaser at one point. There’s also an irresistibly funny etude for the valve buttons interspersed among upward bursts and climbs.

Herzog could spin a yarn with the best of them, so it’s surprising he would dismiss the feline species so offhandedly. Considering how little they give away, cats are interesting under almost all circumstances. Paradoxically, this album gives away just about every trick Musson has up her sleeve – and that’s why, if you’re a jazz fan with a sense of adventure, you should hear it.

May 23, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous String Jazz Sounds at Manhattan’s Best Facsimile of a Real Jazz Joint These Days

What a beautiful early Friday evening in Central Park, under the trees north of the 81st Street entrance on the west side, a few blocks from where cellist Marika Hughes grew up. Playing to a sparse but attentive crowd with her brilliantly unorthodox New String Quartet, she joked about not spending much time here as a kid since she’d had her sights on greener pastures. Since then she’s explored and conquered innumerable styles of music, from classical to jazz to soul and funk and traditional Jewish sounds.

Seriously: what’s more gorgeous than a stark minor-key blues riff played on the cello? In a show that probably went for well over an hour (it’s been a work in progress figuring out the start times for the ongoing series here) Hughes fired off scores of them. Some were poignant, some had extra bite, and there were funny ones too. The highlights of this completely unamplified evening were a couple of bittersweetly swaying, pensive minor-key instrumentals, Hughes sending stardust spirals of harmonics into the ether, bowing down at the tailpece during one of them.

The set was a comfortable, conversational blend of sharp individual voices committed to creating a warmly welcoming, hopeful, deeply blues-infused ambience. It was weird watching Marvin Sewell – one of this era’s great guitarists – reduced to strumming rhythm on an acoustic. It was also kind of strange, but rewardingly so, watching violinist Charlie Burham not only slithering through one rustic, otherworldly yet direct solo after another, but also singing into the breeze.

OK, there wasn’t much of a breeze: we got fragments of a haunting piney woods folk tune made popular by a regrettable grunge rock band, and also a triumphant, rhythmically shifting, gospel-infused minor-key soul tune, as well as more aphoristic ideas that would have been a perfect singalong had this show been in closer quarters. That may still be an eventuality in this city, legally at least, but it’s already a reality again in almost fifty percent of the country – and the opportunities for musicians on the road seem to be growing every day.

Beyond her understatedly poignant instrumentals, Hughes delivered a warmly lilting tribute to the late Bill Withers (who would likely be with us today if not for last year’s pandemic of malpractice). She and the band ended the show on a similar note with a gently soaring tribute to wake-and-bake stoner fun. Bassist Rashaan Carter set the flame that percolated the instrumental encore, which rose from suspenseful atmospherics to an undulating anthemic vamp.

The weekend series in this part of the park, produced by photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts remains subject to the vagaries of weather and the availability of musicians. Still, Katz has put on more brilliant programming this year than anybody outside of the speakeasy circuit. The concert today, May 23 at around 3 PM in Central Park on the lawn under the trees, about a block north and east of the 81st St. entrance on the west side, features drummer Nasheet Waits leading a high-voltage quartet with Mark Turner and Steve Nelson on tenor sax, and Carter on bass again.

May 23, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Breathtaking, Epic Debut Album From the Fabia Mantwill Orchestra

There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz album on as ambitious a level as the Fabia Mantwill Orchestra’s initial release, Em.Perience (streaming at Spotify) in a long time. Maybe since Asuka Kakitani’s similarly symphonic first record. The vast scope of the saxophonist/singer/bandleader’s ideas, her lush East African-inspired melodicism and outside-the-box arrangements will sweep you off your feet. To compare a lot of this to Darcy James Argue and Maria Schneider would not be overhype. Albums like this are what people who run music blogs live for. Mantwill has an exceptional ear for textures and a penchant for unusual pairings of instruments, and alludes to an amazingly eclectic range of influences without aping any of them.

The first sparkling riffs over the lush string section on the first song, a lavish arrangement of Becca Stevens’ Ophelia, are from Milena Hoge’s harp. After the second chorus, a spiky Portuguese guitar takes over. Stormy low brass kicks in beneath muted trumpet and orchestral percussion, foreshadowing the moment when the wounded warrior gazes into the ocean, sees the suicide girl’s ghost and decides life is worth living after all. It’s part Moody Blues, part Gil Evans, part Nico’s Chelsea Girl with a singer who hits all the notes. What a way to open the record.

The rest of it is almost all Mantwill compositions, the first titled Pjujeck. Trombonist Nils Landgren kicks it off, hard, answered tersely by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the strings ushering in the most vastly expansive, exuberant dance theme you will hear this year. The two soloists engage in a funky upward drive, Landgren’s jaunty New Orleans-isms eventually giving way to Rosenwinkel’s surreal, 180-degree detour into deep-space ambience, which Mantwill ties up in a neat package at the end.

She sings in Swahili in Sasa Ndio Sasa (Here and Now), inspired by her travels in East Africa. A suspenseful, droning bass intro bows out for a bouncily hypnotic, circling rondo featuring the “Tanzanian Kids Choir.” As symphonic African music, it brings to mind Toumani Diabate’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra, although Mantwill’s composition is somewhat more intricate, from Maria Reich’s warily kinetic viola solo, to Rosenwinkel’s EWI-like envelope-pedal solo, to the jubilantly cantering coda.

Erwachen (German for “Awakening”) is a lavish, balmy Isle of Skye seascape, Mantwill’s sax looking back to a famous 70s ballad: it’s the album’s most straightforwardly beautiful interlude. Marcio Doctor’s shamanic percussion and vibraphone fuel the dynamically expansive Serengeti-scape Kumbukumbu, flugelhornist Konstantin Döben adding a resonant but enigmatic solo before the group shift toward a string-infused pulse that brings to mind McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind.

The lively African-flavored rhythms and riffs continue in Triology. The addition of steel pan in contrast to Daniel Buch’s chuffing baritone sax is an especially clever touch, as is the bari/bass/drums breakdown in the middle, Morphine on whippits.

Tilmann Dehnhard’s alto flute sprouts, afloat in what’s left of the snows in Melodie de la Riviere. a French Riviera early spring tableau. Yet even here, there’s a circling, mutedly leaping African rhythm, Hoge introducing baroque austerity in her solo harp interlude, Döben’s steady, calm flugelhorn following to signal a determined, verdant crescendo. They tiptoe their way out.

The album’s final number is Festival at High Noon, by Megan Ndale, which may have been inspired by a music festival in Nepal but sounds more distinctly Tanzanian or Kenyan…and then Balkan. Violist Reich reaches to the bottom of her register and then swoops skyward, bristling with reverb; tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel memorably follows that same pattern. This is the top contender for best jazz debut of 2021 so far.

May 22, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment