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.
John Yao is one of New York’s elite trombonists, and a frequent performer with both Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.Yao is also a first-class, ambitious and witty composer and leader of his own all-star large ensemble, John Yao’s 17-Piece Instrument. They have a new album, Flip-Flop, and a release show at 7 PM on June 17 at Brooklyn’s home for big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab, with sets at 7 and 8:15 PM and an enticingly low $10 cover.
As you might imagine from a trombonist, the album is a big, bright, brassy extravaganza. But it’s also full of unexpected dynamics, dips and rises, imaginative voicings and occasional sardonic humor. The title track bookends punchy brass exchanges around a couple of long sax-and-rhythm-section vectors upward, John O’Gallagher on alto and Rich Perry on tenor, the two engaging in a genial conversation midway through. New Guy is Yao at his sardonic best: a moody, syncopated vamp with fluttery brass gives way to punchy swing with cleverly echoing voices, Andy Gravish’s stairstepping trumpet leading into to more serioso trombone from Yao and then a pugilistic exchange that builds to a hopeful crescendo and then a memorable punchline.
Slow Children at Play follows a bright, balmy clave stroll, echoing Yao’s work with the O’Farrill band, with a warmly considered Rich Perry tenor sax solo that builds to a lively exchange with the brass, followed by a summery trombone-and-rhythm-section interlude. It’s very New York. For that matter, the same could be said for the two “soundscapes” here, group improvisation in a Butch Morris vein, the first a luminously suspenseful intro of sorts with shivery violin at its center, the second with a similarly apprehensive, cinematic sweep.
With a blazing brass kickoff, impressively terse yet punchy David Smith trumpet solo and bustling Jon Irabagon tenor sax solo, the gritty swing tune Hellgate is the most trad and also the catchiest number here. Opening with Yao’s own moody trombone, Reflection shifts toward noir, its resonant, shifting sheets building a tensely expectant ambience with a lull for pianist Jesse Stacken’s brooding excursion and then a rewardingly brass-fueled crescendo. Yao’s sense of humor and aptitude for relating a good yarn take centerstage on Ode to the Last Twinkie, its playful echo effects and Jon Irabagon’s droll, eye-rolling tenor sax offering a nod to Arnold Schoenberg.
Illumination also features those echoes that Yao likes so much, a much more serious piece with Alejandro Aviles’ spiraling flute and Frank Basile’s energetic baritone sax over a tensely hypnotic piano riff, the brass falling into place with a mighty domino effect, Stacken adding a cascading, neoromantically-tinged break. The album winds up with the hard-swinging Out of Socket. Taken as a whole, it’s a tight, adrenalizing performance by a collection of first-call NYC jazz talent that also includes trumpeters John Walsh and Jason Wiseman; Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald, Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton; Tim Armacost on tenor sax; Robert Sabin on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. As the album’s just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but Yao has lots of good stuff on his music page including several of these tracks.
One of the innumerable dangers of filming a documentary on the remarkable resilience of the octogenarian women who are essentially illegal squatters on their own land in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site is that taken out of context, it plays right into the hands of rightwing extremists and Fox News – and for that matter, the nomenklatura left over from the Soviet regime who mismanaged the disaster. “Look, that clod from Kiev just drank from the Pripyat River that runs right past the nuclear plant – and he didn’t die! And he says the water tastes better than it does in Kiev!”
Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s new film The Babushkas of Chernobyl makes its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival at 11:45 AM today at the Regal 14 and repeats there at 6 PM Wednesday, June 17. On the surface, it’s a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s also a chilling study in the psychology of denial. It’s a surreal, funny, and very disturbing portrait of the strange characters who’ve gravitated to the deadliest place on earth outside of Japan. It also raises the question of whether subtle, objectively inclined show-don’t-tell filmmaking leaves itself open to dangerous and potentially deadly misinterpretation. On one hand, the film’s only egregious inaccuracy is quoting one journalist’s claim that thyroid cancer is the only form of the disease that’s been definitively linked to the calamity. On the other, is it safe to leave it to the viewer to possibly assume that since a few hundred subsistence farmers can survive on toxic land and fish from a toxic river for thirty years, we can, say, build luxury condos across the street from Three Mile Island?
The women portrayed in the film are touching, and endearing. They’re all widows. They’re as dirt poor as villagers in the third world, yet they hang on, socialize with each other when they can, distill moonshine, drink a lot, sing ancient folk songs and celebrate the seasonal village holidays centered around the harvest cycle. And they’re batty. The most articulate of them – a first-responder on the fateful night of April 26, 1986, when Reactor #4 exploded – credits her vegaquarian diet and regular use of herbs for her longevity. Another brags that the women who snuck under brush and through barbwire to return to their ancestral land are more robust and longer-lived than their contemporaries who were evacuated scores or even hundreds of miles away and never returned. A physician in the area – who, in one of the film’s most most chilling scenes, keeps his thoughts under wraps even as he measures significant levels of cesium poisoning in one of the babushkas – credits the power of positive thinking, people content to be in their homes rather than miserable in exile.
The exclusion zone itself is a misnomer. Until the past decade, the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant were in use. In a twist of considerable irony, the area is now a dumping ground for nuclear waste from other area plants. Scientists regularly visit to gather samples and assess the longterm consequences, and there are regular guided tours. The film’s most surreal character is the chipper young tour guide. Like many of the area workers, she’s fond of the babushkas, visiting them and sometimes bringing provisions. How does she react when confronted with the risk of contamination from the spread one of the old women has put in front of her? “Eat and drink only the minimum,” she blithely observes in her fractured English, munching on a pickle that may well be coated with cesium, strontium or even plutonium isotopes that are virtually as lethal as they were the night the reactor blew up.
The film’s greatest strength is when Morris and Bogart let area workers speak. Doctors and scientists shake their heads:”These people are not living in reality,” one laments. Death lurks in the background everywhere: what’s implied but never addresed is that the “liquidators” sent in to collect and bury the most lethal debris, and the emergency personnel sent to the plant, were dying off fast just months afterward. And while the contamination isn’t spread evenly over the area, “safe” spots on the forest floor lie inches from soil that pins the needle on the geiger counter.
That clod from Kiev who drank Chernobyl river water – whose illegal camping trip in the exclusion zone was modeled on a popular video game – described the area as a “postapocalyptic romance.” It remains to be seen how long the romance will last for him beyond its fenced-off perimeter. If there ever was a documentary that screams out for a sequel, this is it.
Having followed JD Allen‘s career over the years, it’s validaing to see how much recognition the tersely stormy tenor saxophonist/composer has received lately. On the other hand, where the hell was the jazz media ten years ago? At that point, he had already concretized his signature style of “jukebox jazz” – concise, machete-sharp statements that for all their brevity packed a wallop as mighty as any other composer these days can deliver in any other style of music. What Darcy James Argue or Maria Schneider can say with eighteen musicians, JD Allen can say with three. He’s in the midst of a weekend stand at Minton’s for the release of his latest album, Graffiti, with his long-running trio, Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. It’s a group that like the Brubeck Quartet, or Coltrane’s early 60s bands, may someday be considered iconic. Sets tonight are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; your best and most economical bet is the $25 bar seats, since the sound travels well in the club’s historic space.
The new album both continues and refines the vision Allen began with on I AM I AM, the slashing 2006 variations-on-a-theme, a device he’s worked with each of his successive trio albums. You could call them jazz sonatas, spiced with ominous modalities, majestically savage, wickedly cutting minor-key riffage and key input from the rhythm section. One reason why Allen’s trio is so strong is that they’ve been together so long, a rarity in jazz these days. The other is that Allen’s compositions put the bass and drums as front and center as his magisterial, hard-hitting sax. While he’s capable of blustery volleys of hardbop, he rarely does that, eschewing gratuitous displays of fearsome technique for judiciously placed melody and embellishments, and both August and Royston maintain that dynamic. The former is as likely to add color and cumulo-nimbus ambience with his bow, while the latter – arguably this era’s most mutably colorful jazz drummer – gets to cut loose, completely off his leash, with explosive results.
At the closing night of this year’s Winter Jazzfest, Allen and his trio justified a headline status of sorts with a riveting hourlong midnight set at Subculture. Across town at the Minetta Lane Theatre, Rudresh Mahanthappa had just delivered a spine-tingling set of meticulously reinvented, Indian-tinged Charlie Parker themes, a spectacular display of wind-tunnel control, subtle dynamic shifts and commandingly turbocharged power. But Allen was the highlight of the evening and the festival. Much as the group kept a laser focus on the compositions, each number – drawing on a mix of material from the I AM I AM, Shine! and Grace albums – got an expansive yet purposeful workout, like a hitter methodically adjusting to a series of completely different pitchers and then hitting the ball out of the park. Royston volleyed and pummeled and shuffled, August supplied stygian gravitas, negotiating the pitchblende terrain with the night vision of a panther, Allen stunning the crowd with both purpose and technique, and a long series of duotone hooks to open the set. After an uneasy charge through a series of overcast, sometimes somber themes, Allen completely flipped the script with a couple of standards, as if to say, you think you knew me? But it was the originals that everybody in the room had come out for, and it wasn’t long before the band went back to them, shadowboxing with the weight of history and a relentless drive to bring some victory to the task.
After a raptly entrancing, magical hour and a half or so onstage and then a couple of encores Sunday night at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, trumpeter and existentialist sage Wadada Leo Smith addressed the crowd. He spoke of the difficulty of being in the moment, of pure, genuine existence without the distractions of history and an unknowable, as-yet nonexistent future – and yet, how that fleeting present is all we can possibly grasp. Smith also blew air kisses to a young gradeschooler in the crowd who’s made the decision to take up the trumpet herself, quite possibly with his influence. Which pretty much sums up what the iconic, eclectic jazz improviser and composer is all about: great affection and a deeply reasoned, carefully conceived approach to themes and variations.
Smith’s Golden Quartet has the rare kind of chemistry that comes from a collaboration that goes back years, a relative rarity in jazz these days. Drummer Pheeroan akLaff opened the show with a long, glistening, regal shower of cymbals, establishing a tone of unassailable victory that Smith would pick up on with similar resonance if a little less outright exuberance as the show unwound. From that moment, bassist John Lindberg took over, taking the atmsophere into smoky, stygian territory with his washes and swipes and some frenetic, frantic staccato bowing. Meanwhile, pianist Anthony Davis worked methodically to build a plaintive, often anguished, chromatic and tritone-fueled resonance that he’d soon throw to the lions via long, scampering cascades. Smith, for his part, chose his spots and his timbres with characteristic majesty and grace: somber, elegaic long tones; raspy, overtone-drenched duotones; steady flutters of bop, and the ancient-sounding, otherworldly, gracefully paced blues figures that have become his signature trope. Similarly, akLaff judiciously spaced his animated flurries, exchanging grins back and forth with Smith as the two brushed elbows for a dynamically charged push-pull.
Most of the material seemed culled from Smith’s recent Great Lakes Suite with his old AACM pal Henry Theadgill along with Lindberb and drummer Jack DeJohnette, but that was often completely disassembled and then reconfigured with an approach that was meticulous yet casually conversational: these guys seem to have more fun onstage than most people. Lindberg really got a workout, whether with his bandsaw bowing or pushing a couple of interludes toward an unexpectedlly kinetic, funky dance and an even more unexpected detour into straight-up 70s loft-jazz swing improvisation. Davis’ often mournful, lingering Satie-esque phrases provided contrast and sometimes an uneasy anchor. The interplay was as profound and considered as Smith’s themes: the occasional echo of just a single beat between a couple of group members signaling a change spoke to the repartee and focus of a group whose whole is as great as the sum of its parts. Descending from lofty, epic proportions, they closed the show with a trio of miniatures, including an especially spare, misterioso, deep-space concluding number.
As transformative as Smith’s performances of his epic Civil Rights-era suite Ten Freedom Summers at Roulette were in the summer of 2013, it was just as much of a treat to see Smith bring a similar gravitas and depth to more general emotional and philosophical terrain. Lucky Chicagoans can catch Smith with a trio of Douglas Ewart and Mike Reed on June 26-27 at 8:30 PM at Constellation, 111 N Western Ave.; tix are $15.
Rock bands do this all the time: bring a better-known artist into the fold for a show or a cameo on an album. It usually works like a charm: the crowd comes out and merch gets moved. For their new double-cd magnum opus, Heritage/Evolution – streaming at Soundcloud – the PRISM sax quartet team up with several of this era’s best-known and most ambitious saxophonists for a series of tunefully cuttitng-edge new longscale works. And they’re bringing all this excitement and intensity to the stage at Symphony Space on June 10 at 7:30 PM, where the group – Taimur Sullivan, Zachary Shemon, Timothy McAllister and Matthew Levy – are joined by jazzguys Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane. General admission is $22.
Rudresh Mahanthappa styles his opening number along the lines of a raga: slow, drony intro, then a lively theme and variations. While the ensemble pull out all the stops with an impressive display of circular breathing and then match the composer’s unreal, Bach-like precision throughout a long series of ideas that range from gracefully dancing, intricately conversational or raptly suspenseful, the pulse has a staccato energy rather than the lingering washes of classical sitar music. And yet, there are places here and on the rest of the album that cast the ensemble as more of a giant harmonium rather than a blend of individual voices.
Miguel Zenon contributes the hypnotically crescendoing X Marks the Square, as well as a new arrangement of the spirited, bubbling The Missing Piece, which make similarly lush launching pads for the composer’s energetic, tersely exploratory solos. And that’s Zenon providing the groove on percussion when he’s not joining the rest of the reedmen, with the addition of the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on the former for a total of six saxes in the band.
Ries provides the alternately bustling and brooding Name Day, allusively referencing the chromatically bristling harmonies of the Hungarian music he’s drawn so deeply on. Likewise, the album’s high point, Greg Osby‘s Covenant of Voices looks to the even more haunting, otherworldly close tonalities of Bulgarian choral music. Dave Liebman offers Trajectory, a clever study in multiple voices, and the effects of too many cooks in the kitchen. There’s a subtly satirical edge here – as a guy who’s been on the front lines of jazz improvisation for forty-plus years, Liebman has seen plenty of that.
Steve Lehman‘s mini-suite 15 Places At the Same Time creates a vertigo-inducing vortex of droning, flickering, pulsingly ghostly Japanese influences and all sorts of processing as well as some daunting extended technique for reverb and overtones. The album winds up with a bulked-up version of John Coltrane’s Dear Lord, also featuring Liebman. For those who might shy away from the idea of a sax quartet turbocharged with jazz talent, this is very tuneful, energetic, dynamic, accessible music: a wind quartet on steroids.