It was about midway through jazz quartet 40Twenty’s performance last night at Seeds that bassist Dave Ambrosio took a purposeful, moodily strolling solo. As pianist Jacob Sacks played judiciously plaintive chords and the occasional flyswatter accent, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza got his floor tom crackling almost like a bass cab with a loose cone. Building a series of surrealistically altered press rolls, he was damned if he wasn’t going to max out the mystery, the perfect level of rattle and hum. You, too, would have been transfixed if you’d been there. Moments like that make it all worthwhile, justifying the shlep all the way out to what’s essentially an unairconditioned brownstone building foyer in what used to be deep Brooklyn and has become more and more Notbrooklyn.
40Twenty take their name from the golden-age jazz club tradition of playing a (frequently exhausting) series of sets, forty minutes onstage, twenty minutes off and so forth. But that’s as retro as the quartet gets. All the band members write, including trombonist Jacob Garchik, whose job in this crew is low-key, lyrical frontman. True to their name, their two sets, timed almost down to the second, explored the band’s two contrasting sides. The first was hauntingly resonant, neoromantically-colored themes. The night’s best number was one of those, a wounded, modal, slowly anthemic piece that built to a flurry of a false ending…and then the band took it doublespeed, swung the hell out of it and basically turned it inside out when Garchik and then Ambrosio aired out their variations on it. The other was another slow one, less overtly wounded but just as purposeful, where Garchik took charge of maintaining the overcast mood.
Much as this group looks back to Mad Men-era postbop, they don’t imitate it: the blues for them are more an allusion than any kind of statement one way or the other. The other side of their music involves deconstructing swing, especially in terms of metrics, and it’s here where they can be devastatingly funny. In fact, their jokes are too good to give away. One frequent jape involves beats that seem random but probably aren’t. Another is good old-fashioned jousting. There was one point where one band member (to tell you who it was would be a spoiler: you really should go and see for yourself) egged his bandmate on, the defensive player took his eye off the ball and the aggressor then went in for a slam-dunk that got everybody in the band laughing: especially the guy who’d allowed it. Maybe the funniest moment of all of them involved repetition and how much a band – or an audience – can stand.
This is an overgeneralization, but the upper-register side of the band – Sacks and Sperrazza – tend to be the cutups, and the guys on the low end – Garchik and Ambrosio – the serious ones. Although they all varied their roles, Garchik lightening up at the very end in a blithe swing romp as Sacks showed off some wicked chops with a breathtaking, lickety-split, precise series of cascades. He could play Liszt well, if he wanted to. But he probably finds this kind of music more interesting. And the cameraderie between the guys is familiar, and insightful: even during a more-or-less free interlude during the first number, everybody was listening, and waiting til there was a clear path to the basket to lay their shots in. 40Twenty are two nights into their five-night stand at Seeds, 617 Vanderbilt Ave. between Bergen and St. Mark’s; take the 2 or 3 to Bergen or the B/Q to Seventh Ave. Their shows tonight, July 24 and the next two nights start around 8:30; cover is just ten bucks.
Brian Charette gets a lot of ink here, partly because he’s been so ubiquitous. He’s gone back to his original instrument, the piano for some gigs including a turn with erudite, infectiously charismatic chanteuse Audrey Bernstein, as well as leading his own organ jazz groups. And he keeps putting out albums, all of them infused with his signature wit and penchant for pushing the envelope out of the organ jazz ghetto. If you’re down with the B3 jazz cult, toe-tapping gin lounge grooves are great fun, but like his fellow A-list organists Barbara Dennerlein and Jared Gold, Charette keeps reinventing the genre. His latest release, Alphabet City – most of which is streaming at Posi-Tone Records – is a characteristically eclectic, fun mix. of tunes. He’s doing a two-night album release stand uptown at Smoke on July 15 and 16 with sets at 7 and 9 PM; cover is just $15, which is a real deal at this place. And if the prix-fixe menu doesn’t match your requirements, you can always hang back at the bar where the sound is just as good as it is in the rest of the room.
The album is a trio session with Will Bernard on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. You probably wouldn’t associate Royston – another increasingly ubiquitous guy – with this kind of music, but his extrovert drive is a good match for the bandleader’s sense of humor. The album kicks off with East Village, a bubbly, bustling shuffle with a subtly carnivalesque undercurrent – which makes sense considering what’s happened to the neighborhood. The band follows that with They Left Fred Out, a catchy, jauntily syncopated soul-jazz strut with characteristic Charette wit. After that, West Village, a suave swing number, has a similarly erudite, nonchalant Bernard solo at the center – and toward the end, Charette throws a few jabs toward the snobs.
Royston proves to be the perfect sparring partner for Charette’s boisterous, googly-eyed ELP riffage in the sardonically titled Not a Purist. Sharpie Moustache, a funky shuffle with a droll Zombies quote and a gorgeous oldschool soul chorus, might be a Jimmy Smith homage – remember how he had that retro facial hair thing going on?
Bernard’s sparkly hammer-ons move front and center as the latin-tinged vamp Disco Nap gets underway. The album’s best and most riveting number is Hungarian Major, a creepy, chromatically fueled, genre-defying piece, Bernard’s bell tones glimmering against Charette’s funereal Balkan syncopation. Is this Eastern European art-rock? Romany jazz? Circus music? How about all of the above?
After the sly, satirically-infused previous two downtown New York numbers, Avenue A has a disarming wistfulness set to a calm clave groove. Damn, back when the LES was Loaisaida, it sure was a lot of fun, wasn’t it? Likewise, Detours, a catchy swing anthem, leaves no doubt that taking the long way this time around was the right move, Bernard’s catchy, looping riffage setting the stage for Royston to rumble.
Charette contrasts murky atmospherics and woozily loopy pedal lines with a deadpan, lackadaisical pop hook throughout Split Black – a psychological term for how borderline personalities go off the deep end. A hazy southern soul-tinged waltz, White Lies brings to mind similar low-key collaborations between Jimmy Smith and Jim Hall. The album winds up with the oldschool 60s-style shuffle The Vague Reply, both Bernard and Royston getting plenty of room to raise the energy level. By now, it’s clear that Charette doesn’t give a damn – he’s going to do what he always does without any regard for limitations. Best case scenario is that he brings some new fans into the organ demimonde while managing to to drag the purists into his camp without any kicking and screaming.
What makes jazz singer Audrey Bernstein so individualistic, and so special? For one, she writes her own songs. And you know how some jazz songbirds sing everything the exact same way? Lovey-dovey boudoir overkill, right? Bernstein sings in character: she’s a great storyteller, she mines new and unexpected content from old standards and she’s practically a different singer from number to number. She can go from misty, to disarmingly clear and direct, to coy and enticing, depending on how the story goes. As much as that takes fearsome vocal technique, what’s most impressive is how she puts those chops to work to deliver an emotional wallop…or just a wink, or a chuckle. She’s put together a tremendously good band: Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, plus Sean Harkness on guitar, Daniel Glass on drums, and Steve Doyle on bass for a show on July 12 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10 plus a $10 drink minimum.
Bernestein’s latest album is Alright, Okay, You Win, streaming at her webpage. One prime example of Bernstein as storyteller is how suspensfully she builds the litany of images in Jobim’s The Waters of March up to an ending that’s just short of ecstatic, bouncing along with some neatly counterinituitive drumming from Geza Carr and Joe Capps’ gently purist guitar. Likewise, her airy, wary approach to Detour Ahead, over Tom Cleary’s similarly judicious, subtly apprehensive piano: that it’s not fullscale Lynchian noir is what draws you in, waiting for something to jump out of the wee-hours shadows. Bernstein and Cleary follow the same trajectory, from overcast to tenderly misty, on Melody Gardot’s Love Is Easy.
Bernstein’s take of Comes Love is both rich with history and a clinic in subtlety: she gives it a matter-of-fact, vintage Molly Picon charm that harks back to the song’s klezmer roots, but without going over the top into vaudeville. Bernstein’s lone original here, Oh the Money, is arguably the album’s best track, a darkly scurrying, bitingly direct blues shuffle.
Bernstein kicks off the album with a jauntily insistent jump-blues take of Too Close for Comfort with scampering trumpet from Ray Vega and piano from Cleary. ‘Deed I Do gets a more dynamically rich interpretation than most oldtimey swing singers give it, Bernstein maxing out her bluesy wiggle-room, alto saxophonist Michael Zsoldos maintaining the vibe. She goes even further, Dinah Washington-style, in that direction on the title track, trumpeter Joey Sommerville pushing a joyously dixieland-inspired horn arrangement.
Bernstein channels raw, undiluted duende on a moody take of You Don’t Know What Love Is, yet with a restraint that makes it all the more poignant, matched by John Rivers’ carefully pulsing bass and Cleary’s lingering, angst-tinged lines. The album’s balmiest number is the steadily swinging You Made Me Love You, lowlit by Sommerville’s sax; and them Bernstein goes unexpectedly chirpy and clever as it winds out. There’s also a bonus track, a nebulously low-key guitar-and-vocal take of I Want a Sunday Kind of Love.
Fun fact: Bernstein’s sense of adventure extends to the kitchen. She’s got a bunch of tempting recipes here.
Conventional wisdom is that if you want to cover a song, you should either completely reinvent it, or improve on the original. Trying to improve on anything from the immense catalog of the late, great jazz poet/hip-hop/psychedelic funk icon Gil Scott-Heron‘s catalog may be an impossible task, but as far as reinventions are concerned, the field’s wide open. Singer Charenee Wade tackles that challenge on her ambitious new album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. She’s playing the release show at the Jazz Standard on July 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: cover is $25.
For those unfamiliar with his catalog, Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, ranks with Bob Marley, the Clash and Johnny Cash. Scott-Heron may not be quite as well-known, but his searing, fearlessly political music is every bit as powerful as anything those artists ever put out. Many consider him to be the first major hip-hop artist. Over the course of a forty-plus year career, Scott-Heron ripped racists and rightwingers to shreds, called bullshit on his own community and was one of the few American artists to call attention to the apocalyptic danger of nuclear power: his unforgettably ominous cautionary anthem We Almost Lost Detroit predated the Chernobyl disaster by a dozen years, and was the standout track on the otherwise forgettable No Nukes concert compilation album.
Maybe wisely, Wade and her band steer clear of most of Scott-Heron’s major works, instead focusing on more obscure tracks.There are two songs from Scott-Heron’s auspicious 1971 Pieces of a Man album, another two from 1975’s far more mellow The First Minute of a New Day. She and the band kick off the opening number, Offering, from the latter album with a strikingly straightforward delivery that actually manages to one-up the original. The genius of the arrangement is Brandon McCune’s steady piano augmented by Sefon Harris’ vibraphone, plus guitarist Dave Stryker’s brittle but triumphant cadenzas.
Another track from that album, Western Sunrise is a real revelation, bassist Lonnie Plaxico kicking it off with a catchy hook, Wade establishing a tricky tempo that ironically puts her unaffectedly strong vocals front and center, reinforcing Scott-Heron’s sardonic commentary on American exceptionalism. She ends it with a misty scat solo that the composer would no doubt appreciate.
Of the two tracks from Pieces of a Man – Scott-Heron’s first recording with a full band – Wade goes for fullscale reinvention with a scamperingly salsafied take of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, in her hands an even more chilling portrait of ghetto abandonment and alienation spiced with rippling solos from Harris and McCune. When she toys with the song’s haunting. concluding line, the effect is viscerally spine-tingling. Likewise, Wade reimagines the other track from that album, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, as a spirited if rainswept late 60s soul-jazz waltz as Roberta Flack might have done it.
Interestingly, the most epic number here is a shapeshifting take of Song of the Wind, an optimistic Afrocentric peacenik anthem from the 1977 Bridges album: the sparkly piano/vibes arrangement raises the energy of the undulating Fender Rhodes-driven original. A Toast To The People, one of the lesser-known tracks from the iconic 1975 From South Africa to South Carolina album, also gets an expansive treatment, Wade maintaining an enigmatic, misty distance from Scott-Heron’s snide, insistent delivery, Stryker channeling a period-perfect feel with his octaves.
Arguably the most apt choice of songs here is Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, from the 1974 album The First Minute of a New Day – simply being sung by a woman, let alone with as much conviction as Wade brings this, elevates Scott-Heron’s message of community solidarity. Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner narrates the historically biting proto hip-hop intro to Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, an improvisational tableau with a lively solo from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Likewise, Christian McBride provides a spoken-word intro to a lushly assertive take of the understatedly snide Peace Go With You Brother, from the 1974 album Winter in America. The most obscure track here is The Vulture (Your Soul And Mine), a clave-soul mashup based on a cut from Scott-Heron’s final and forgettable album I’m New Here.
Is That Jazz is the one song that would have been really awesome to hear Wade do here. Can’t you imagine Plaxico playing that bitingly bluesy intro…and then Wade scampering down the scale, or up the scale as that groove kicks in? And wouldn’t that be hilarious when she got to the chorus? Is that jazz? OMG, is that jazz! The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link: put out a Google alert for when it hits Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.
To steal a phrase from his fellow tenor saxophonist JD Allen, Tom Tallitsch plays jukebox jazz: hard-hitting, toe-tapping music enhanced by a shot and a beer. Esteemed by his peers in the New York jazz scene, it’s a crime he’s not better known. In a sense, he’s a throwback to guys like the Adderleys, but with more focus. His latest album is All Together Now, leading a sizzling sextet with Mike DiRubbo on alto, Michael Dease on trombone, B3 monster Brian Charette taking a rare turn on piano, with the hardworking rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Tallitsch’s next gig is at 10 PM on July 8 at 55 Bar with a similarly good sextet.
His compositions are full of hooks, and unexpected interludes, and ideas, and trajectories and narratives. The album opens with a characteristically catchy, bustling number, Passages, a harried latin theme with purposefully percolating solos from Dease and the bandleader himself. Hearing Charette, a brilliantly unorthodox organist, on his original instrument, the piano, is a trip, and he acquits himself well as a salsa jazz guy. Who knew!
You might not think that the Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down would translate to jazz, and apparently Tallitsch doesn’t think so either – this version finds the band reinventing it as brightly festive, summer-night southern soul. And it beats the hell out of the original. Then the band switches back to a wickedly good, original Jimmy Smith/latin jazz mashup with Slippery Rock, Charette’s offcenter chords – is that a DX7, or has he found a way to get that weird, echoey sound out of a Rhodes? – anchored by Tallitsch’s sailing lines, holding it together from way up high.
The aptly titled Big Sky opens with a pastoral theme but shifts in a second into shuffling wee-hours, distantly latin-flavored ambience, Ferber’s deliciously flurrying drums with Tallitsch and DiRubbo maxing out the red-neon flavor. The most epic track here, Border Crossing is classic Tallitsch, an almost viciously swinging, vampy number, the composer’s own lively opening solo contrasting with Charette’s tightly wound, scampering attack, Ferber driving the big, concluding horn chart home with an unexpected ending.
Curmudgeon is a subtly funny shout-out to Dave Brubeck, everybody in the band playing their cards close to the vest. The second cover here is a casually swinging, goodnatured take of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Remus, a launching pad for a long, warmly crescendoing Tallitsch solo. Medicine Man brings back the Brubeck edge and catchiness, with a tightly unwinding horn chart, DiRubbo working in reverse, taking it down gently from Tallitsch’s after-the-grenade smokiness.
Greasy Over Easy is a slow, genial minor swing number, Tallitsch adding a counterintuitive edge by bouncing around rather than going for gravitas, Dease doing the same thing. Dunes, a shapeshifting, vividly uneasy jazz waltz follows; the album winds up with the slowly swaying, boisterously and then very subtly gospel-infused Arches. This isn’t a collection of knock-you-off-your-stool moments – it’s more like keep-you-at-the-bar moments. You don’t want to get up and leave because the band is so good. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but you can get a good idea of where Tallitsch is coming from, with lots of audio at Posi-Tone Records and their soundcloud page, as well as Tallitsch’s own page.
The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.
Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.
Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.
Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?
Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.
Chris Dingman isn’t just a talented jazz vibraphonist: he’s a brlliant tunesmith. He probably scored his album release gig with his band the Subliminal and the Sublime this June 26 at 7 PM at the Greene Space because he wrote a popular WNYC radio theme that everybody in the organization knows, so nobody could say no to the idea. Cover is $15 and worth it: if magically enveloping, dreamy music is your thing, go to this show and get lost in it.
Truthfully, Dingman could probably write a catchy radio theme in his sleep. For this project, he’s assembled a crew of cutting-edge New York talent – Loren Stillman on alto sax, Fabian Almazan on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Ryan Ferreira on guitar and Justin Brown on drums – to play a warmly nocturnal series of longform compositions that in a previous century could be spliced into familiar tv themes, or film sequences. The opening track, Tectonic Plates works off a resonant, simple, echoing melody built by bowing the vibraphone, rising from the quietest, shifting shades to a balmy sax passage. Ferreira’s guitar switches from ambience to chords only as it ends.
The epic Voices of the Ancient is a throwback to the late 70s with its wavelike, dynamically shifting rhythm, Stillman taking centerstage judiciously. Much of Dingman’s work has a saturnine ambience, and this seventeen minute-plus piece is a prime example. From the intro, bassist Linda Oh manages to be both an anchor and a marionette simultaneously, Dingman and Almazan supplying a hypnotic glitter and then backing away as a 70s neon-jazz theme coalesces and then takes a long trajectory upward, Ferreira’s pinging guitar leading the way. They take it out with a long, gentle, steady postlude worthy of any Times Square documentary circa 1977.
The album’s gently but insistently cinematic centerpiece, The Pinnacles, rises from an intricately below-the-surface piano-and-vibraphone confluence of currents, making way for Stillman’s balmy sax. Dingman’s judiciously resonant lines bring to mind Milt Jackson, Stillman following a more offcenter tangent as Brown pushes the group to transcend 70s hippie tedium. And suddenly, just when you least expect it, there’s a long, pulsing moment of terror.
The lingering, expansive outro makes a comfortable segue into the album’s conclusion, All Flows Forth, with its gentle syncopation, insistent alternating rhythmic accents and interlocking, pointillistic polyrhythms. On the way out, the band swings it and sways it, emphatically and memorably. In an era where the Bush family, their collaborators and apologists are buying up global water assets, Dingman’s wary naturalistic themes makes more sense than ever.
There was a construction crane over Gracie Terzian‘s head. But she didn’t seem stressed – and as it turned out, it didn’t fall, or drop a megaton load on her.
OK, it wasn’t directly over her head. Any angst she might have been feeling, swaying in front of her jazz quartet earlier this evening in the corner of the rooftop bar at the new Hotel Hugo on Greenwich Street just north of Spring, was probably coming from a much closer place. Looking south toward the financial district, the crane was in the background directly behind her. Metaphorically loaded New York image, perfectly crystallized, 2015.
Although she’s comfortable singing jazz standards, Terzian distinguishes herself by writing her own songs. Watching her, the restlessness was visceral, a carefully channeled intensity just waiting to bust out. And there was more than a hint that she would be more at home under lower lights, on a bigger stage. Granted, this was a night where just about everybody wanted out of their skin and into a walk-in fridge. “Waited twenty years before I could breathe,” she sang in her disarmingly straightforward, airconditioned alto – another perfectly extemporaneous, metaphorical moment.
Young jazz chanteuses tend to throw themselves in an audience’s direction, but not Terzian. She opened the night’s first set with her original Saints and Poets, a dare to anyone to match her individualism and willingness to go out on a limb. She gave the song a low-key allure, but left the door ajar for menace to enter the room, bending her blue notes with a nonchalance that could have gone totally Lynchian but didn’t. Much of her material was taken from her auspicious debut album, including Love Rest, where she deftly built a jazz waltz out of an oldschool soul vamp. And the cajolery in the casually cheery bossa-jazz number Sleepwalker had a dark undercurrent: “I sleepwalk, I apologize” – yikes!
Terzian’s band is the New Dominion, since everybody in the group hails from the Washington, DC area. Old Dominion, New Dominion, cute, huh? But cuteness doesn’t factor into Terzian’s songwriting or stage presence, or for that matter, the band. The rhythm section – bassist Charlie Himel and drummer Graham Doby – gave her a lithe, slinky backdrop and guitarist Brett Jones supplied every hip voicing in the book, shifting dynamically without any worry whether the extended family assembled on the banquette or the trio of soccer hooligans on the balcony were in on the magic the group were working to create. Terzian closed the set with Exit Strategy, its tense contemplation of a breakup channeled through brooding chromatics and unexpected key changes that flew off the page.
Terzian and the New Dominion continue their residency throughout the summer every Monday night starting at around 6:30 PM at Bar Hugo on the roof of the Hugo Hotel, 525 Greenwich Street just north of Spring, just a few blocks from either the C/E to Spring St. or the 1 to Houston. To call this place laid back is an understatement: there’s plenty of fancy food and drink available, or you can just chill and watch the clouds from the balcony.
What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.
Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.
The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.
Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.
Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.
Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.
The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.
Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations. Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.
Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.
Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.
So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.
Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.
Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.
Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.
Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations. A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.
Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert last night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.
Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.
Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.
Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.