John Scott, one of this era’s most extraordinary and beloved talents in both classical and sacred music, died suddenly on August 12 in Manhattan after suffering a heart attack. He was 59. The iconic organist and choirmaster had just completed a six-week concert tour of Europe and Scandinavia. He leaves behind his wife Lily and her unborn child, as well as two children from a previous marriage.
Scott was the rare artist whose virtuosity was matched by an intuitive, almost supernatural ability to channel a piece of music’s emotional content. If you want to understand Mendelssohn’s relentless drive, Messiaen’s awestruck mysticism or Bach’s neuron-expanding wit, listen to a recording by John Scott. It’s impossible to imagine a better or more emotionally attuned interpretation of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas than Scott’s 1992 double-cd collection.
A humble, soft-spoken man with a very subtle, distinctly British sense of humor, Scott was happiest when he could share his erudition and insight into the many centuries’ worth of music that he had immersed himself in since childhood. He worked tirelessly and vigorously despite what was often a herculean workload, first at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and from 2004 until his death at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan where he was organist, music director and led the world-famous choir of men and boys.
Scott’s legacy as a recording artist is vast: he both played and recorded most of the standard repertoire for organ including the major symphonic works of Vierne, Messiaen, Widor and Durufle. He toured and performed tirelessly: his Buxtehude and Messiaen concert cycles are legendary. While gifted with dazzling technique, Scott was not a flamboyant player per se: though he could fire off torrential cascades and volleys of thunderous pedal notes as nimbly as anyone alive, he made those pyrotechnics all the more effective through his meticulous attention to dynamics, and, especially when playing Bach, his imaginative and thoughtful registrations. And every now and then, he’d throw caution to the wind, drop his guard and play entertainer: one of his final recitals at St. Thomas featured a droll Jean Guillou arrangement of the march from Prokofiev’s Love For the Three Oranges (better known to a generation of Americans as the FBI Theme).
Scott’s knowledge of and passion for choral music matched his skill as an organist, beginning in his childhood years as a chorister in Yorkshire. A noted scholar and arranger of plainchant, he served as mentor and inspiration for literally hundreds of singers who passed through St. Thomas’ choir.
A memorial service will be held at 11 AM on September 12, 2015 at St. Thomas Church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd St. A memorial service in the UK will follow.
Singer and jazz composer Allegra Levy is a big-picture person. Her debut album Lonely City – streaming at Spotify – is less about the absence of affection and those who might provide it than it is about fullscale alienation. On a philosophical level, this New York jazz stylist captures the soul-crushing reality of a city where jazz artists under 40 are a rarity. On one level, there’s no lack of an indigenous talent base, as there should be in a city of ostensibly eight million. On the other, even native-born artists like Levy have never faced such a rigorous challenge simply paying the bills. Maybe that’s why she jumped at the chance to do a longterm Hong Kong gig last year. Singing in a cool, protean, enigmatic alto with a talented band behind her, she’s playing Cornelia Street Cafe on August 18 at 8:30 PM; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.
What sets Levy apart from the hundreds of women scatting around with microphones is that she writes her own songs: every number on the album is an original, no small achievement. The opening track is a sophisticated, swinging take on a cabaret sound that goes back to the 30s. “Anxiety, stay the hell away from me!” Levy warns, guitarist Steve Cardenas taking a ratber furtive solo that tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker picks up more lightheartedly. The snide I Don’t Want to Be in Love has mambo tinges and a scampering groove fueled by drummer Richie Barshay, trumpeter John Bailey and pianist Carmen Staaf: “Someone wake me from this nightmare!” Levy insists.
She opens the early 70s-style soul-jazz ballad Everything Green with some balmy vocalese, a trick intro as it turns out: as Mark Feldman’s violin dances overhead, Levy musing about carving out a safe space amidst the stress. “I don’t want to die alone,” is the mantra on the outro.
A New Face works a familiar, vampy postbop latin swing, Levy dipping into the lows with some clever wordplay: “Antiquity is where I long to be, take me back to our ancient history,” she smiles. She goes in the other direction on the languid Why Do I: “Why do I stumble when you say something humble, or you fidget or you mumble,”Levy ponders, and follows the tangent down from there.
“Time has treated me a bit too coldly,” Levy admits in A Better Day, a study in how a band can resist the temptation to just cut loose and swing the hell out of a song: it’s fun to hear how it inches that way, little by little, Levy adding some jaunty, clear-voiced scatting. The album’s tour de force is the melismatic, noir-tinged ballad I’m Not Okay: Levy’s damaged existentialist heroine looks straight back to Blossom Dearie, vibewise if not stylistically.
Clear-Eyed Tango (as opposed to the blurry-eyed kind, one supposes) is closer to circus rock, or, say, the sardonic Coney Island phantasmagoria of Carol Lipnik, Feldman adding an aptly menacing solo. The album’s title track blends clave jazz with some unexpected Asian flavor, “Drowning in the crowd of the hungry and the persevering…what is this goal that we’re all trying to battle for?” Levy wants to know. Our Lullaby is a head-scratcher – what guy wants to rest his head on a girl’s knee? The final cut is The Duet, a gorgeous chamber jazz ballad fueled by bassist Jorge Roeder’s ambered bowing. On one level, Levy is as retro as they get. On another, the world is overdue for how much fresh air she’s breathing into a time-tested idiom. Those who like the classics won’t find her hopelessly lost in the hashtag generation; likewise, those from this generation who might think what she does is dated are in for a serious wake-up call.
Hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the Undigables played their old stomping ground, 55 Bar. Sly, irrepressible singer Ollie Boy Lester’s popular saloon jazz combo had a monthly residency at that venerable West Village watering hole for what seems like forever, for all we know since Jack Kerouac ruled the roost there. And it’s good to see them back: their next gig there is on August 13 at 7 PM for a couple of sets, and there’s no cover.
What did their gig there last time out sound like? Lester is a gregarious, perennially young guy, a character who’s impossible not to like, a proud throwback to a largely vanished New York. In an unvarnished Brooklyn accent, he regaled the crowd with tales of growing up as a cool kid in the late 50s and early 60s, smoking weed and listening to Symphony Sid play Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Morgana King, Charles Mingus and King Pleasure on the radio. After a brief jump blues intro from the band – Stew Cutler on guitar, Jan Kjaer on piano, Roy Holland on bass and Nat Seeley on drums – Lester recalled walking to school in midtown, waving to Walter Winchell and Jack Dempsey, then launched into a shuffling, Mose Allison-inspired take of Broadway. The band gave it a characteristically droll outro as they segued into On Broadway for a second.
They did Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie as a swinging blues romp fueled by jaunty, spiraling triplets from the guitar. Then they went into the originals, which sound like classics from the 50s. Most of these were upbeat swing tunes and jump blues, spiced with Lester’s clever, torrential rhymes and hepcat puns. On You’re the One, Kjaer took a tumbling solo and then handed off to Cutler, who followed with an incisive, purist Chicago-style blues lead. Next was a a swinging take of another original, Later For Straighter, poking fun at killjoys who can’t bear to take a break from the nine to five: “Gimme a woman, some music, a little reefer, that’s all I need for my reliever,” Lester sang breezily. In a stroke of irony, Cutler shifted from surreal skronk to pretty straight-up blues
A pulsing, straight-ahead blues number, Mood You’re In kept the good-natured, altered vibe going, this one more of a drinking song with burning slide guitar at the center. One More Love Affair had an optimistic Rat Pack flair, with a purposeful Kjaer solo midway through. Then they took the energy even higher with the latin-tinged party anthem This Is Livin’, a shout-out to all the would-be Coney Island party animals in the crowd. They closed with the irrepressibly bouncy Better Days Ahead, then a hard-funk salute to the cowboy shows that Lester used to watch as a kid, and closed with the Symphony Sid theme song – and that was just the first set. So before 55 Bar turns into a Starbucks or a 7-11, go see this magical band and revisit a long-gone New York that won’t be coming back anytime soon, maybe ever.
On a filmmaking level, up-and-coming new director Jon Watts’ Cop Car is a clinic in how to get the most bang for the buck. With minimal dialogue and a relentless, nailbiter plot that’s all the more sinister for its simplicity, Watts wrings nonstop suspense out of a small, tightly wound cast of newcomers and veterans.
James Freedson-Jackson plays the nonchalantly type A Travis; Hays Wellford is his klutzy sidekick, Harrison. As the film opens, the two middle-schoolers are running away from home on a lark (the comedic opening dialogue, too obscenely funny to give away here, sets the stage perfectly). Armed with a single Slim Jim, they wander upon a police cruiser belonging to Sherriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon, projecting a chilling amorality via a worn but still dangerous presence that harks back to a million Old West archetypes). If you buy the premise that a couple of eleven-year-olds can steal a police cruiser without (sort of) crashing it, you’re in for a wild ride.
The cinematography draws heavily on the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple as well as David Cronenberg’s adventures slumming among the lower classes. The wide-open Colorado vistas predictably owe a debt to Terrence Malilck’s Badlands. In what ought to be a welcoming big sky milieu that turns menacing in a heartbeat, the two kids quickly establish a pattern: who’s going to get killed first? Is the arsenal inside the cruiser that will be responsible (there’s a rather heavyhanded anti-gun subtext throughout the film)? Simple lack of experience behind the wheel? Or will Bacon’s bad cop bring the incessant foreshadowing to a bloodthirsty peak?
Bacon is brilliant in his portrayal of the hypocritical Kretzer. What’s most fascinating to watch is how Bacon plays an actor: everything Kretzer is supposed to be, he’s not. His best moment of many is when he rehearses what he’s going to tell his dispatcher, to convince her to keep in touch with him via cellphone rather than the cruiser’s radio, since the kids are having a ball (for a time) with it. Whether with a slow break of a stony countenance, a hitch in an otherwise confident gait, or, finally, a smile into a feral snarl, Bacon slowly lets pure evil out of its cage. Camryn Manheim provides a brave contrast in a cameo toward the end of the film as the witness who could be the key to the kids escaping from Kretzer’s cat-and-mouse game.
The only Rotten Tomatoes moment is when Kretzer lackadaisically ignores some damning DNA evidence that no one with any basic knowledge of forensic science would ever leave behind. Otherwise, Watts sells the idea that these two clueless kids could go as far as they do on their joyride from hell. Even the ending is unsettled. The film hits theatres on August 7.
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.