For the past four years, Svetlana and the Delancey Five have been recreating a magical, cosmopolitan world that time forgot with their Monday night residency at swanky Norfolk Street speakeasy the Back Room. Singer/bandleader Svetlana Shmulyian has fearsome chops, but she uses them very subtly, and her band follows suit. In a demimonde full of cookie-cutter swing jazz bands, she stands out with an approach that on one hand is completely trad yet is also completely individualistic, a sophisticated, globally-inspired take on a revered American sound. And it’s as romantic as you could possibly want: lots of couples make it a date with this band. She and the group have a show coming up this Friday, June 24, with two sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM featuring special guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon at Lucille’s, adjacent to B.B. King’s on 42nd St. Advance tix are $20 and still available as of today.
Last night, the band were on top of their game, everybody seeming to be in a goodnaturedly conspiratorial mood. Trumpeter Mike Sailors’ rat-a-tat solo against tenor saxophonist Michael Hashin’s more balmy lines on a deeply bluesy take of It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing set the tone immediately. The bandleader then joined them, decked out in a simple but striking black evening dress, heels and a big pearl necklace. Midway through the set, she left the band by themselves to play a blues while she made the rounds of the room, schmoozing and catching up with a circle of admirers that numbers as many women as men. It was as if this was 1952 and she was the mob moll in charge of the joint, teasing and toying with the shady dudes who made the secluded spot a favorite place for their own conspiracies, reputedly for many decades.
Shmulyian’s delivery is charmingly precise: there’s a distinctive Russian erudition and craftsmanship to how she constructs a phrase. While you can tell that she’s immersed herself in Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, she doesn’t sound much like any of them. Shmulyian’s voice is extraordinarily mutable; she can be misty on one number, and then disarmingly direct and crystalline as she was on her first one, a vividly uneasy swing through But Not For Me. She saved her vibrato for the very lowest and highest notes she’d hit all night, with a Powerglide fluidity, and made it look effortless.
Rather than scatting, Shmulyian keeps her improvisations within the lyrics, matching her interpretation to their mood, as she did with the coy melismas of the jauntily shuffling bounce after that. Likewise, she reached for the rafters with some blissful leaps to the top of the scale and then hung on for dear life throughout a pretty sizzling, uptempo take of Blue Skies over pianist Ben Paterson’s gritty, clenched-teeth phrasing underpinned by bassist Scott Ritchie (whose credits reputedly include Lady Gag) and Freddy Cole drummer Conerway Henry III. The low-key ballad after that gave the dancers a chance to get cozy with a slow drag, but also gave Shmulyian a launching pad to show off her forceful, poignant low register. Then she closed the set with an triumphantly smoky take of Exactly Like You that put KD Lang’s to shame.
And that was just the first set. The band are doing a couple of sets on Friday, so you can expect a more expansive look at the colorful personalities of everybody involved. And you can dance if you feel like it.
Per Norgard is iconic in his native Denmark, and deserves a global audience. The lucky crowd at Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue Friday night got to witness the Momenta Quartet turn in a purposefully flickering, often sepulchral, genuinely transcendent performance of string quartets, a suite of miniatures and a chilling violin/cello duet.
Norgard’s music is minimalist in the sense that everything counts for something, and that his melodies tend to be spare and follow a careful, meticulous path. But there’s a great deal going on, much of it rhythmic: constantly shifting meters, persistent wave motion and all sorts of oceanic and water imagery, unsurprising for someone from an archipelago nation. An unease on the brink of terror often lurks in the background, or in the distance. On the rare occasion that it takes centerstage – as in the coda of the duo suite Tjampuan, inspired by Balinese mysticism and waterways and performed with a hushed intensity by violinist Alex Shiozaki and cellist Michael Haas – the result can be spine-tingling, whichever way you want to imagine that.
There’s also a mathematical precision that sometimes brings to mind Steve Reich, but with vastly less playfulness and more foreboding. The awestruck terror of Messiaen’s most dramatic works also figures into the picture, if from a somewhat greater distance, as it did during the surreallistic time-warp of Norgard’s String Quartet No. 10. A contrast between calm if not exactly cheery harvest imagery, seemingly loaded with subtext, and a contemplation of time out of mind, it offered violist Stephanie Griffin a rare opportunity – at this concert at least – to vent, if only guardedly. There was no lack of cruel irony in how vexing such a concept can be to mere mortals, and Norgard seized on that.
His String Quartet No.3 – Three Miniatures, dating from 1959, juxtaposed brief, swinging, occasionally carnivalesque allusions with a dirge theme. Likewise, Playground, the suite of brief, flitting pieces, brought to mind a more mathematical, modernist take on Bartok’s Mikrokosmos etudes. The Quartet got to bring the most dynamism to the String Quartet No. 8- Night Descending Like Smoke, a World War I-themed piece based on a Norgard chamber opera, offering an offhandedly savage look at karmic payback to warmongers and their sympathizers. It’s characteristic of the relevance of Norgard’s repertoire, which really ought to be performed with this kind of meticulous attention far more often in this city.
One such performance to look forward to will be on July 29 at 8 PM when pianist Jacob Rhodebeck plays Norgard works at Mise-En Place, 678 Hart. St. in Bushwick. The other is by the Momenta Quartet June 23, with a delicious homemade vegetarian dinner at 6, show at 8 featuring Norgard’s String Quartet No. 3, Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi La Nuit and Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 135 on the fourth floor of 67 Metropolitan Ave. (Wythe/Kent) in Williamsburg. Sugg. don. is $20, BYOB, sharable food/drink are highly encouraged!
For the past couple of months, jazz singer Brianna Thomas has had a series of engagements at Ginny’s Supper Club uptown. Her next gig there is this Saturday night, June 18 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM; cover is $20. The secret to this place is to grab a space at the bar; otherwise, there’s a minimum if you want to sit, and it’s not cheap. During the week, the place draws a loud afterwork crowd: if it’s the same here on the weekend, Thomas is one of the few acts who could actually work an audience to the point where they’d listen, or at least holler back at her.
None other than Will Friedwald – the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing – anointed her as the best of the current crop of up-and-coming voices in jazz. Her formidable arsenal – a strong, expressive delivery, expert command of phrasing and a love for swing and the classics – is unquestionable. This blog caught her onstage most recently a couple years back at Tompkins Square Park, where she opened the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, leading a quintet featuring similarly soulful guitarist Russell Malone.
Thomas and the rhythm section gave a joyous, cha-cha-influenced groove to All of Me to open the concert, wasting no time to launch into a jaunty stairstepping scat solo, the piano following her leaps and bounds, sax rising from low-key contrast to a bustling exuberance. That set a tone for the rest of the show, purist and packed with gospel fervor and blues grit, as in the swinging next number’s sax/bass/vocal intro, foreshadowing a coolly slipsliding bass solo midway through. “Say ‘Joy!’ Thomas entreated the crowd, and got the response she wanted. It capsulizes her appeal.
The band hit an Afro-Cuban shuffle from there, bringing a nocturne out into the daylight, Thomas leaping in on the offbeat and leaping even further from soulful melismatics to towering heights through an all-too-brief vocal solo. From there she explored airy, vampy balladry, to a hard-hitting detour into the blues, then funky soul and finally back to classic swing as the band rose and fell behind her, with alternately ebullient and pensive solos all around. The highlight of the set – and the afternoon, as it turned out – was a haunted, dynamically charged minor-key duet with Malone, an original song akin to a 21st century update on Nature Boy.
Despite her gifts as a singer, Thomas is hardly a diva, just a down-to-earth midwestern musician establishing an individual voice, finding new places to go where so many icons have gone before. From a concertgoer’s perspective, this show didn’t involve daydrinking – a hallowed Charlie Parker Festival tradition – but it did involve an awful lot of moving around, partly to stay out of the blistering sun, partly to dodge gaggles of chatty people in order to get something approximating a decent field recording. Exercise in futility: you’d do better to catch Thomas Saturday night or at a similar venue with a good sound system to fully appreciate everything she brings to the table.
“I made the rain stop,” McCoy Tyner grinned, and the couple hundred or so diehards who’d stood patiently through three torrential hours at Central Park Summerstage last night roared in appreciation. As if by magic, the downpour finally abated at practically the second that the jazz piano icon and his quartet took the stage. Before the skies burst, there had been a couple thousand others, at the very least, who’d crammed themselves between the labyrinth of wire fences or stood longingly outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Coltrane collaborator as well as sets by a couple of other elder jazz statesmen, the slightly younger Ron Carter and his quintet, and an even older one, the ageless 91-year-old Roy Haynes and his Fountain of Youth Band.
Carter opened the show while the celestial drainpipe overhead got busy. There’s no press tent at Summerstage anymore, so pretty much everybody who went there to write about it went home afterward soaked to the bone. But the show was worth it. Intentionally or not, Carter set the tone for the night, segueing from one number into another, pushing an almost omnipresent clave groove with his dancing basslines as the group winkingly shifted from one meter into the next, holding the remaining crowd pretty much rapt in the process. Pianist Renee Rosnes distinguished herself with nimble, pointillistic cascades and thoughtful, lyrical pirouettes when she wasn’t finding deep blues in a slow, ambered, darkly latin-flavored take of My Funny Valentine. Carter’s percussionist took a droll talking-drum solo, later adding tongue-in-cheek flourishes on his timbales while the bandleader went deep into the murk. Trumpeter Wallace Roney joined them and spun through purposeful volleys of postbop as the rhythm section swung harder. At the end, they went back to the clave, a beat that’s typically associated with latin music but actually dates from the first civilizations in Ethiopia, a simple human heartbeat, tense and expectant and ultimately joyous.
Haynes was next on the bill. By this time, the rain was really out of control. Jazz Police‘s astute reporter and Shakespeare scholar Sheila Horne Mason dryly observed that most of the people who’d left actually had umbrellas; most of us who remained didn’t. The nonagenarian drummer is literally none the worse for the years, playing with the effortless vigor of a man a quarter his age, showing off some of his signature moves – lefthand-versus-righthand bicoastal time zone variations, and others – as he swung his brushes with a regal thwack. They opened with a sunny, upbeat trip to Bahia and made their way the golden age postbop the bandleader’s best known for after that. Out in front of the group, Jaleel Shaw played jaunty, spiraling soprano sax, then switching to alto as the groove grew more gritty. As Carter did, they began where they left off.
Tyner flipped the script with his misterioso modalities. His mighty left hand has lost none of its crushing drive; this time out, he began with a judicious chordal approach and as the groove loosened, his right hand went further into exploratory glimmer. Like Dave Brubeck before him, Tyner has always been more about melody and trajectory rather than blinding speed, although his attack is a lot harder. The set seemed to go by in a flash, although he got a full fifty or so minutes onstage. Uneasily vamping, circular passages moved purposefully, almost imperceptively toward majestic, otherworldly Northern African terrain, an area Tyner has explored more than anybody except maybe Randy Weston. He took the crowd to church with a blues and finally swung hard at the end. The crowd roared for an encore: considering overall exhaustion throughout the venue for crew and musicians as well as audueince, there wasn’t any.
Central Park Summerstage programs a wide variety of music, with the occasional jazz show. The next one is a hot swing triplebill on June 25 starting at 3 PM with trumpeter. Bria Skonberg and the NY Hot Jazz Festival All-Stars including Anat Cohen, Vince Giordano, Joe Saylor and Dalton Ridenhour, cosmopolitan female-fronted swing combo the Hot Sardines, and irrepressible slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s big blazing New Orleans-flavored piano-based nonet, Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9. Bring a sun hat, sunscreen and a big umbrella – in the age of global warming, you never know.
Svetlana and the Delancey Five Bring Their Poignant Cosmopolitan Swing to the Blue Note Jazz Festival
Among New York swing jazz bandleaders, singer Svetlana Shmulyian either has the best taste in supporting musicians, or has finagled her way to the best access to them. Maybe both. She distinguishes herself as an original songwriter, and she sings in character, bringing new life to old standards as well as her own dynamic, poignant originals. She and her band the Delancey Five are one of the highlights of this year’s Blue Note Jazz Festival coming up on June 24, with two sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at Lucille’s, adjacent to B.B. King’s on 42nd St. Advance tix are $20.
Her debut album, Night at the Speakeasy – inspired by her long weekly residency at Norfolk Street hideaway the Back Room – is streaming at Bandcamp. With a grand total of fourteen tracks, Shmulyian offers a lot of bang for the buck. And where others might have taken the safe route and opened with a standard, she kicks it off with a swinging, subtle midtempo original, All I Want, contemplating the hope for a summer solstice “in this winter city of my dreams” in a sunny soprano, shaping the blue notes with a coy bittersweetness.
Onstage, she draws from a semi-rotating cast of talent; the band here is killer, with Wycliffe Gordon on trombone (and some arrangements as well); Adrian Cunningham on saxes and clarinet; Charlie Caranicas on trumpet; Dalton Ridenhour on piano; Vinny Raniolo on guitar; George Delancey on bass; and the fantastic Rob Garcia (whose latest album is one of the year’s most brilliant jazz releases) on drums.
Much as the standards – and not-so-standards – here are choice, it’s her own material that stands out the most. It’s All Good has Shmulyian’s signature, precise articulation – she turns off her phone just to keep things nonchalant with the guy, but then she soars up into a big angst-fueled chorus. The way the sax and Shmulyian’s upper register flights mingle and then hand off at the very end is artful, and awfully fun. The most retro number is Temptations, a co-write with bassist Brandi Disterheft, bringing to mind Blossom Dearie with its jaunty litany of images.
The bandleader duets with Gordon on a couple of Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald tunes. You Won’t Be Satisfiied finds each reveling in their roles as wounded ingenue and similarly bruised rake, while Under a Blanket of Blue pairs dixieland flourishes with a nocturnal suspense and a bitingly good Ridenhour solo. The dynamic between Gordon’s signature, irrepressible humor and Shmulyian’s poignancy is a recurrent theme throughout the record.
Ridenhour and Caranicas bring some tempting latin allusions to Ellington’s Just a Sittin’ and a-Rockin’. Another Ellington tune, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me gives Ridenhour a lauching pad for some Otis Spann-class purist blues. Garcia pushes the band’s reinvention of the Beatles’ Because with a stark tango-infused pulse under Shmulyian’s surrealistically straightforward delivery. And his original, Dance In Between the Moments, is arguably the album’s strongest moment; a sardonic, vivid, indelibly New York salute to escapist behavior on the Lower East Side.
Lady Be Good showcases the band’s expertise in stirring up a crowd on the dancefloor, while Tea for Two goes in the other direction as a tasty guitar shuffle. Shmulyian and Cunningham duet on the album’s funniest number, Sometimes I’m Happy: intentional or not, there’s a whiff of Jamaican rocksteady here.
The album’s most exotic track is legendary Russian trumpeter Eddie Rosner’s You Are Like a Song, Shmulyian giving it a balmy, tender interpretation in the original vernacular. There’s also a Beach Boys cover: the whole band gamely puts everything they have into it, but god only knows the album wouldn’t suffer without it. As it is, Shmulyian and her crew have crafted one of the year’s most dynamically fun releases, rooted in the past but inescapably in the here and now.
Nobody in New York sings I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with more subtly resigned, haunting resonance than Heather Holloway. And she does it with a gentle, wistful smile. With her serene, almost ghostly presence in front of her eclectic, simmering swing combo the Heebie Jeebies, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical torch singer. She’s like a messenger from a lost era of smoky hotel bars and black-and-white film sets, quietly intimating that you should join her in a return to a more pleasant time when after work meant cocktail hour rather than trudging to the night job just to pay a share of the rent. She and the band have a Wednesday night 7 PM residency at the lobby bar at the Hotel Chantelle at 92 Ludlow St; they’re also at Radegast Hall, a regular haunt, on June 6 at around 8. If Lynchian sounds are your thing and you can handle the Ludlow Street strip – or, for that matter, if it breaks your heart to see how the area’s been devastated and turned into a playground for the entitled and pampered – her show might provide some solace.
She played at Radegast on a misty weeknight last month, the perfect ambience for her calmly bittersweet reinterpretations of a bunch of well-worn standards. Holloway’s delivery is disarmingly direct: she doesn’t use much vibrato, and then only at the end of a phrase, and there’s none of the over-the-top vampiness that so many other chanteuses work. Julie London comes to mind; so does Bliss Blood, although Holloway doesn’t have either singer’s sharp edges. What she does is more nebulous, and enveloping – and completely inscrutable. The band behind her provides the bite, particularly accordionist Albert Behar, whose terse spirals and fluttering lead lines added to the solitary Les Deux Magots atmosphere, matched by guitarist Adam Moezinia’s precise, distantly Django-influenced clusters and cadenzas. Meanwhile, bassist Joanna Sternberg showed off the same irrepressible sense of humor on bass that she does when she plays guitar and sings her front-porch folk songs, swooping up and down the scale and taking a couple of cheerily balletesque solos.
Maybe because the little front stage at the entrance to the big beerhall didn’t have room for everybody, Holloway placed herself out in front of them on the floor, almost motionless, but with the grace of a wirewalker or a mime. Even the upbeat material – Sunny Side of the Street and Blues Skies, for example – had an opaque quality and a distant unease. By contrast, she found deep-sky longing in When You Wish Upon a Star. St. James Infirmary was somewhere in the middle, part bitter blues lament, part confident self-penned requiem. With an understated confidence, Holloway has slipped into a niche just past the edge of the shadows before you hit girl-down-the-well Julee Cruise territory, and if you’re here in town you have plenty of chances to see her.
It’s hard to imagine a more colorful pianist in Manhattan than Karine Poghosyan, which comes as no surprise when you learn that she’s the daughter of the great Armenian-American painter Razmik Pogosyan. She’s got a larger-than-life stage persona, striking costumes, fearsome technique, and an irrepressible sense of humor. No other pianist seems to have as much fun onstage as she does: anyone who thinks that classical music is stuffy needs to see this fearless spirit in action. Last night at the DiMenna Center, she earned a couple of standing ovations for her signature, breathtaking pyrotechnics but also for her counterintutive insight and unselfconsciiously deep, meticulous, individualistic interpretation of a daunting program of works by Grieg, Liszt, Komitas Vardapet and Stravinsky.
She divided the program into two parts, essentially: reckless abandon, then spellbinding, rapidfire phantasmagoria. The attention to detail and revelatory, dynamic approach she brought to a trio of lyric pieces by Grieg – To Spring, Minuet: Vanished Days, and the famous Wedding Day at Troldhaugenand – gave each a cinematic sweep that puts to shame the kind of rote versions you might hear on WQXR. The first was as suspenseful as it was verdant: Poghosyan is unsurpassed at finding fleeting details and jokes that other players might gloss over, and then bringing them front and center, whether that might have been a defiant “take that!” swipe at the low keys, or a “yessss!” moment when a big crescendo reached exit velocity. And what a surprise the last of the three turned out to be. Where others find straight-up pageantry, Poghosyan channeled sarcasm and subtle parody. As the big processional took shape, Grieg might not have been throwing a stinkbomb at the assembly of Nordic gentry, but he was definitely putting something in the punch bowl.
Poghosyan did the exact opposite with the Liszt. Where other players would most likely find bombast, she looked for poignancy and then brought that out, with shapeshifting interpretations of three Hungarian Rhapsodies. After the intermission (and a new gown, and a ponytail to keep her hair in check as she swayed and flung her head back) she followed with her own innovative, harmonically rich arrangement of three bittersweet miniatures from the Komitas Vardapet book. Komitas, widely considered to be the father of modern Armenian music, was a sort of Middle Eastern amalgam of Allen Lomax and Bela Bartok, and his exhaustive archive – compiled under cruelly difficult circumstances – deserves to be vastly better known. Hypnotically stately motives gave way to what could have been the roots of Erik Satie as the balletesque pulse grew more prominent, glistening in its otherworldly unresolve.
Poghosyan wound up the bill with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: how she managed to maintain such fluid, legato phrasing at such high volume, with such a pummeling attack, defies the imagination. But it wasn’t always so seamless. As clever and amusing as the first part of the bill was, she was all business, matching surgical precision to chainsaw ferocity through the anvil chorus of the Russian Dance, then the surrealism and schizophrenic contrasts in Chez Petrouchka – in Poghosyan’s hands, a loony puppet to rival anything Schoenberg ever envisioned. The closing theatrics of Le Semaine Grasse were riveting in every sense of the word, her dynamic shifts giving her extra headroom for raising the rafters with its gritty, ironic, harrowingly difficult closing cascades.
This performance was staged by Project 142, whose popularity as a house concert series on the Upper West Side outgrew its original West End Avenue digs. They’ve since found a new home at the DiMenna Center: their next concert there, on June 12 at 3 PM features solo and chamber music by female composers Jessie Montgomery, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, Florence Price and Rebecca Clark. Cover is $15.
Indie classical music has a long way to go before it reaches critical mass, but there’s no lack of ensembles here doing new and important work. And no end of New York premieres, and world premieres, many of them one and the same. And while history is full of surprise discoveries, from the Brandenburg Concertos on forward, it’s still quite rare that a worthwhile piece of music by a New York composer would sit in a drawer for thirty-three years before its debut. Such was the case last night at Spectrum, where the Momenta Quartet premiered Steven Swartz‘s Alignment. It’s not a Brandenburg Concerto, but it has an unselfconscious, mathematical beauty and, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun. Swartz, who was present at the concert, self-effacingly told a festive audience that “I think it doesn’t suck.” It’s a good thing it’s out of the drawer at last.
On one hand, it was a trip to hear this time capsule open wide to reveal some very clear, in-the-moment, postminimalist influences. There was Steve Reich, whose what Swartz spent plenty of time with during his postgraduate years. There was also his faculty advisor, Morton Feldman, whose fascination with articulation, attack and decay were also reflected in the roughly forty-minute quartet. One work that came to vividly mind that did not influence Swartz was Philip Glass’ In the Summer House, putting Swartz a full decade ahead of Glass. By the time that was written, Swartz was doing his witty uke-rock project Songs from a Random House.
What did this rescued obscurity sound like? A clever, Reichian rondo. No two bars were alike, and meters changed with each bar, a snazzy trick that hasn’t waned in popularity. A quirky, puckish pizzicato filtered throughout the entire quartet amidst calm, methodical, clockwork gestures, following a very subtle upward tangent. There was a striking and irresistible, rather tongue-in-cheek tempo shift in the third movement, shades of early 1960s Terry Riley. And the ending was very smartly timed: just when the Escher-like cells seemed like they’d go on forever, there was a a trick ending, followed so soon by the real one that the jape was still resonating by the time the second one clicked into place. Asked afterward if a studio recording or future performance of the piece might be in the cards, Swartz explained that the concert made him realize that there were very specific segments that he felt deserved to be revised. It’ll be fun to hear how he tweaks it, although let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another thirty-three years for it. It’s not likely that Spectrum will still be on Ludlow Street – or that Ludlow Street won’t be underwater by then.
The Momenta Quartet’s next New York performances is June 17 at 8 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. (37/38), with an all-Per Norgard program. Admission is $20.
Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.
The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.
The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”
Isn’t it cool when you see a piece of music that’s so much fun that it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending? The world premiere of Michael Gordon‘s Material, a work for percussion quartet performed by Yarn/Wire last night at the Miller Theatre, actually ended pretty much where it started, on an vividly uneasy note. The trick ending about ten minutes before that was the highlight – and is too good to spoil.
In between, it was hypnotic to the point of being hallucinatory, and also troubling, and grew far louder than you would expect a single concert grand piano could possibly be without amplification. Is this roughly hourlong suite a cruelly sardonic commentary about how citizens of a city can be lulled into complacency? A bitter critique of the blight of gentrification that’s destroyed so many New York communities? Or just a playful exploration of all the cool sounds you can get out of a piano if you hit it in places where it usually doesn’t get hit? Maybe all of the above? What’s unquestionable is how mesmerizingly fun it is. Last night’s program was sold out, although there were a couple of no-shows. The group are reprising last night’s indoor fireworks with not one but two marathon performances, at 7 and 9 PM tonight, May 12, which are also sold out. But those with the energy to head up to the box office at 116th and Broadway in hope of earning some cred for being there – or just the sheer fun of it – might get lucky.
Was Gordon’s almost imperceptibly whispery intro a wry French-language pun on the name of the Tribeca street the composer calls home, where the incessant thud of a luxury developer’s piledriver inspired him to write it? Were the long, rapidfire, pointillistic passage – beaten out with metronomic, motorik timing via the mallets of Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg – a challenge to electronic composers to do it the old-fashioned way with real instruments, because that’s so much more interesting? Reduced to lowest terms, this roughly hourlong piece is a follow-up to Gordon’s rumbling, similarly hypnotic 2014 epic Timber, which is performed on a massive installation of amplified wooden sawhorses. But this is considerably different, packed with subtle rhythmic shifts, soothing lulls and contrastingly disturbing crescendos. Pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu joined the pings and rings and eventual rumble, beating steadily and using the entirety 0f the piano’s sonic spectrum, the strings muted in places with tape and what appeared to be tile grout.
The piano wasn’t the only object that got hit. Tubular bells suspended from the ceiling of the intimate, sixty-seat space custom-built right on the Miller stage provided gentle harbor buoy bell tones during a brief starry-night interlude. Other percussion instruments were also brought into the picture, an effect that’s also too funny to give away here. Let’s just say that if someone in the ensemble gets into your space, it helps to smile.