Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Vivid, Richly Textured New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Todd Marcus

Along with Amir ElSaffar and Ibrahim Maalouf, Todd Marcus is one of this era’s great paradigm-shifters blending jazz with traditional Middle Eastern sounds. Like ElSaffar, Marcus came to his Middle Eastern roots from the jazz side; he’s also one of very few bass clarinetists to lead a large ensemble. He debuted his latest recorded suite, In the Valley, to a packed house at Smalls in late 2017 and recorded it on his latest album, The Hive, about a year and a half later. Like so many other great records originally slated for a 2020 release, it’s just out now but hasn’t hit the web yet. If luscious low-register textures and edgy chromatics are your thing, you can catch Marcus back at Smalls again, leading a quartet on August 11 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

In general, the album is a portrait of Cairo and its relentless energy. Pianist Xavier Davis provides an icy, spacious solo intro to the first number, Horus. On one hand, the interweave of the horns – Alex Norris on trumpet, Alan Ferber on trombone, Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Brent Birckhead on flute and alto sax – brings what could have been a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab arrangement for strings into the here and now. Bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Eric Kennedy slink and then kick up a storm behind the bandleader’s mentholated articulacy, then a punchy Norris solo. The band take it out with a series of allusively levantine conversations. This city is a pretty wild place.

Staggered but regal counterpoint, stately brass flourishes, and a restless, Mingus-esque urban bustle alternates with moments of calm throughout the album’s title track. Ferber chooses his spots as the rhythm section picks up more weight; Kirk negotiates the passing tones, matched masterfully by Tardy as he reaches for the sky.

Cairo Street Ride is a salute to city cab drivers’ agility behind the wheel, the brass drolly revving toward redline before giving way to precisely orchestrated exchanges, a portrait of controlled chaos. Reed racewalks precisely over an increasingly latin-tinged backdrop: control cedes to chaos and then back as the vehicle weaves from lane to lane.

Final Days descends in a flash from a bright intro to a somber, wintry reflection on farewells to people and places, anchored by Davis’ steely sway. A dirge punctuated by portentous, unresolved rises drops even further to a wistful, spare Marcus solo that becomes an angst-filled, restrained salute.

The final number is In the Valley, a Valley of Kings tableau with a Gil Evans sweep and majesty, from murky lows all the way up to the top of the pyramids, a majestic march loosening with a reflective swing. Tardy’s tantalizingly modal solo over increasing turbulence is one of the album’s high points. Davis glides with a quiet triumph to an expertly articulated, labyrinthine coda from the full ensemble. Marcus’ albums typically end up on this blog’s best-albums-of-the-year list and this one also earns that distinction.

August 7, 2022 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blazing Big Band Album and a Low-Key Trio Show From Pianist Steven Feifke

If you’re interested in checking out a musician in an intimate setting, why would you want to listen to his big band album? Because it shows how far he can take an idea and keep it interesting. Steven Feifke’s first big band album, Kinetic – streaming at Spotify – was one of those thousands of releases which were on track to come out in 2020 but didn’t hit the web until a year later…and still pretty much went down the memory hole. And that’s too bad, because Feifke’s compositions are ambitiously tuneful, colorful and have a sly sense of humor. For now, you can catch the pianist leading a trio on August 10 at Mezzrow, where he’s doing two sets at 7:30 and a little after 9; cover is $25 cash at the door.

The band – a revolving cast of characters – open the album with the title track, the bandleader spiraling and stabbing right off the bat with a chromatic snarl echoed by blasts from the brass. Leading a frenetically bluesy drive, he sets up a hard-hitting solo from trumpeter Gabriel King Medd followed by a vaudevillian couple of breaks from drummer Ulysses Owens.

Trumpeter Benny Benack III’s smoky muted lines kick off the cinematic, noir-tinged Unveiling of a Mirror, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas handing off briefly to Alexa Tarantino’s flute. After Benack takes his plunger out, the group hit a brassy swing, dip into some gorgeously gusty Ellingtonian harmonies, then tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon picks it up again. The intro is 180 degrees from what you might think.

Misterioso rising energy also pervades The Sphinx, although there is a good, long joke early on. Alto saxophonist Lucas Pino chooses his spots, sometimes coyly during a lull; the tensely pulsing, Mingus-esque drive toward to another counterintuitive coda is one of the album’s high points. Veronica Swift sings the first of the standards, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, anchored by ambered shades of low brass, more black-and-tan reed harmonies and a sotto-voce swing from bassist Dan Chmielinski. Alto saxophonist Andrew Gould’s flurries against shifting banks of brass and reeds brings the tune to cruising altitude.

Feifke takes a tantalizingly brief, McCoy Tyner-esque opening solo in Word Travels Fast, a playful latin-tinged shuffle, spiced with devious quotes and animated solos from Medd, Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride through to the album’s most anthemic coda.

Bright brass, shifting meters, a soaring Gould solo and a fiery flurry of individual voices over Feifke’s stern forward drive threaten to go off the rails but never quite do in the next track, Woolongong, It also has the album’s best joke.

Feifke’s big band version of Nica’s Dream is brisk and latinized; Benack goes from goofy to gruff as Tarantino shadows him. Swift returns to the mic over a hypnotic pedalpoint as a gorgeously dynamic stride through On the Street Where You Live gets underway. Trombonist Robert Edwards’ good cheer sets up Gutauskas’ ruminative solo as the blaze flares and flickers behind him.

The goofiest number here is Midnight Beat, which seems to be a satirically beefed-up take on cheesy 80s funk-fusion. Dillon takes centerstage in the warmly benedictory finale, Closure. It’s a memorable project from a cast that also includes trumpeters Max Darché and John Lake, trombonists Jeffery Miller, Armando Vergara and Jennifer Wharton, guitarist Alex Wintz, drummers Joe Peri and Bryan Carter.

August 6, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The East Coast Chamber Orchestra Provide a Lush, Sweeping Coda to This Year’s Naumburg Bandshell Concerts

Yesterday evening was this year’s final installment of the newly resumed and increasingly popular Naumburg Bandshell concerts. Needless to say, it’s been heartwarming to see attendance continuing to grow like it has in the last couple of weeks, although considering how this city was deprived of live music for the better part of the past two years, that turnout is hardly a surprise.

Self-directed string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra opened their own return to the bandshell with Adolphus Hailstork’s Sonata di Chiesa, a series of variations on allusively gospel-tinged themes. The orchestra quickly shifted from a stern march to a triumphant hymnal swirl with violin and cello front and center in majestic, restrained interplay which grew more carefree. A lively, buoyant dance interlude gave way to what might be termed a balmy southern soul pastorale which resonated in the early evening mugginess hanging over the park.

Slowly and methodically, the ensemble brought the theme down to the cellos out of a Dvorakian wariness, then rose with more than a hint of stately plainchant that grew more lush and windswept. The orchestra took it out with a return to a triumphant waltz.

Next on the bill was a triptych bookending a pair of rare Peruvian renaissance songs around a Josquin lost-love canon, arranged for strings by Maureen Nelson. Matching sumptuous sweep with an icepick precision from the violins, these fifteenth-century pieces reflected European grace more than any discernible indigenous influences.

The orchestra wound up the evening with a vigorous, richly dynamic, Mahlerian arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” A stiletto grace underpinned the initial heroic theme: the first of the series of blustering riffs from the cellos, before the false ending, packed a visceral wallop. The effect was much the same again after the group returned from a comfortably lulling counterpoint.

It didn’t take long for the orchestra to bring that anthemic edge back after the initial ballad theme in the andante second movement, where the heroine is reassured that she shouldn’t fear the reaper.

Awash in wistful lushness, the third movement rose to a High Romantic angst that a mere four strings couldn’t have hoped to match. Impressively, the coda was as balletesque as it was symphonic. They encored with an unhurried arrangement of the Bach chorale Schmucke Dich, o Liebe Seele, raising it to a plushness considerably beyond the spare version which is a staple of the organ repertoire.

One issue that needs to be resolved for next year, which wasn’t a significant problem earlier this summer, was when a Parks Department truck with a shrieking backup alarm interrupted the end of the Peruvian baroque suite…and then returned during one of the concert’s quietest moments. Stupidity? Sadism? There are two ways to deal with that issue. It couldn’t hurt for the organizers (and the New York Philharmonic, whose Central Park shows have been just as rudely interrupted) to get the word out to those behind the wheel. A simpler solution would involve a pair of wire cutters.

August 3, 2022 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment