Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Get the Party Started at This Year’s Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing Festival

Smoky grey clouds trailed across the river from New Jersey amid spots of sun, a blanket of crushing humidity over Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center last night. Hardly optimum conditions for the opening of this year’s Midsummer Night Swing festival – but people came anyway. Who goes to these things? Millennials. And old people – Gen X and most of Gen Y seemed to be missing. Which in a way is strange, because it was Gen X who suppported the first wave of the oldtimey swing revival in New York back in the 90s.

Appropriately, New York’s kings of retro swing, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, were chosen to play opening night. The multi-instrumentalist bandleader recalled how his orchestra had played the festival thirty years ago, at a time when their main haunt was a lively (and long since vanished) cajun boite in Chelsea. In the years since, Giordano has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for all swing-related things: the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack is just one of many recent achievements.

The band didn’t seem the least phased by the heat. For Giordano,“We’re going to slow things down now” means midtempo; this was a dance party after all. On the other hand, the group’s vividness and attention to detail is astronishing, especially when you consider that a lot of the material in their first set was standards they’ve played over and over again. Maybe the change of venue, from the cozier confines of the Iguana, where they’ve held down a Monday-Tuesday residency for several years now, was a factor.

And Giordano is as much if not more committed to lost treasures as he is to standards. The set was a mix of both. With its tricky syncopation and klezmer echoes, Puttin’ On the Ritz was a big hit with the crowd. Moving from Detroit, to Kansas City, to Harlem and the south, the group painted a vast and eclectic panorama of the music that rose from the shadiest parts of town to become America’s default party soundtrack for decades.

They opened with Fletcher Henderson’s boisterous 1920s hit Stampede – which actually didn’t hit quite that velocity – and closed with the caffeinated dixieland of Rhythm Is Our Business, from about five years later. In between, they went into the Ellington catalog for a brisk early 30s obscurity as well as The Mooche, which Giordano called “highly seductive.” With its luscious, hazily lustrous chromatics, it was the high point of the set.

Throughout the orchestra, solos were incisive and tantalizingly brief – which they have to be if a band is limited to a single side of a 78 RPM record. Trumpeter Jon Kellso kicked off a relatively austere yet triumphant take of King Oliver’s West End Blues with a restraint that foreshadowed the song’s unexpected suspenseful quality: this was a night full of unexpected dynamics. On the more buoyant tip, Maurice Chavalier’s Isn’t It Romantic gave the group a chance to go full-steam symphonic. A simmering version of Moonlight Serenade later on also reached toward those mighty proportions.

Giordano’s residency at the Iguana continues next week; Midsummer Night Swing returns on June 29 at 7:30 PM with the fiery horn and electric tres textures of salsa group Los Hacheros. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

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June 26, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fresh New Take on Ancient Afro-Cuban Grooves

In Cuban slang, “¿Que Vola?” means “What’s up?” ¿Que Vola? are also a transnational collaboration between three members of legendary Afro-Cuban ensemble the Osain del Monte Orchestra, and several current and former members of French big band the Orchestre National de Jazz. Their debut album is just out and streaming at Spotify. They also have a popular youtube series which follows various band members as they roam around Havana.

In the first video, Ramon Tamayo Martinez performs an ancient, supernatural African drum ritual. In the second, bassist Thibaud Soulas throws a party in memory the beloved mentor who introduced him to Afro-Cuban music. Next up, percussionist Adonis Panter Calderon has to deal with the drama of trying to reschedule a concert cancelled by the Cuban government – all because the president of the country’s ally, Vietnam, has died. After that, Calderon and trombonist Fidel Fourneyron talk music and history in a gritty Havana barrio. The series finale features yet another memorial bash, underscoring how the Afro-Cuban tradition removes barriers between performers and audience. If you’re part of the party, you’re probably playing something.

The album is part rustic, animated streetcorner descarga and part terse, emphatic European jazz. Several of the tracks sound like ancient chants with the vocals switched out for simple horn lines. It opens with a mightily crescendoing salute to the god Chango, minimalist brass over a shapeshifting thicket of percussion: imagine an epic Amir ElSaffar overture percolating with Cuban beats. The second track, Nganga begins with jaunty call and response between Founeyron’s trombone and the rest of the horns: saxophonists Hugues Mayot and Benjamin Dousteyssier and trumpeter Aymeric Avice. Then Bruno Rude’s Rhodes piano takes over beneath a bubbly sax solo as the music gets crazier.

Calle Luz is a sparkling Afrobeat jam, drummer Elie Duris laying down a tricky beat as the horns punch in and out. The next track, titled ¿Que Vola?, builds from a neat implied clave to a starry Rhodes solo, then the horns burst in and accelerate toward warpspeed.

Iyeta comes across as variations on another lively chant with vocals switched out for horns. Fruta Bomba is a carnivalesque number with trickily polyrhythmic allusions to salsa annd Afrobeat. The sprawling Resistir closes the album, a mashup of clave syncopation, Afrobeat and Return to Forever with some deliciously unanticipated noirish swells. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. for free at 7:30 PM on June 27; then they’ll be at Dizzy’s Club on the 29th at 11:30 for $20.

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June 23, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic, Spine-Tingling Spanish Dances and a Queens Show by Fiery Violinist Maureen Choi

Violinst Maureen Choi found her muse when she immersed herself in Spanish music. She likes epics and big, explosive crescendos: her music is not for the timid or people with ADD. Her new kick-ass album Theia is streaming at her music page – and it’s one of the most unselfconsciously adrenalizing records of the year. Her slashing, often Romany and Arabic-tinged compositions rise and fall and leap all over the place, and the fun her band has with them is contagious. She’s playing Terraza 7 on June 29 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

Choi flurries and flares over drummer Michael Olivera’s suspenseful flickers throughout the dramatic intro to the album’s first cut, Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza); then bassist Mario Carrillo joins the party, pianist Daniel Garcia Diego firing off fiery, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics.

Phoenix Borealis is a diptych of sorts, hushed luminosity bookending a ferocious flamenco dance with a big explosion of drums and some of the most savagely bowed bass in recent memory. Choi follows the same trajectory in Dance of the Fallen, painting plaintively resonatn lines over Garcia Diego’s elegant chromatic ripples and graceful chordal work.

Canto Salamanchino is a cheery number that shifts in and out of waltz time, between major and minor, with a deliciously pointillistic, chromatic piano solo midway through and an unexpected detour into Chinese pastoralia afterward. Silverio O. Garcia has a hushed, elegaic quality, violin and piano echoing each other’s plaintive riffs. Steady pitchblende menace gives way to acerbic Andalucian flair and a series of crashing crescendos in Sinner’s Prayer

Love Is the Answer is a somewhat muted, almost wrenchingly bittersweet ballad: imagine Chano Dominguez taking a crack at Schubert. Choi kicks off Bok Choi Pajarillo with a big solo that shifts cleverly between Romany intensity and the baroque; from there, it’s a flamenco rollercoaster.

The album closes with its two most towering epics. Septenber the First, the album’s most haunting number, has a persistently uneasy late-summer haziness, part Palestinian-flavored dirge and anguished string-jazz lament. Choi closes the record with Danza Ritual Del Fuego: from an allusive intro that could be Dave Brubeck, through a long Afro-Cuban-inflected interlude, it’s more simmer than fullscale inferno, with a coy false ending. Count this as one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

June 21, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Simmering Comeback From This Era’s Most Potent Tenor Saxophonist

Although tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions gravitate toward concise, often slashing melodies, there’s just as much majesty and gravitas in his music. Often that ache and struggle and anger reaches Shostakovian proportions. Over the course of thirteen albums as a bandleader, Allen has concretized an intense, uncompromising style that draws heavily on bristling chromatics and every facet of the blues, from his breakout 2008 album I Am I Am, through his savagely insightful, blues-steeped Americana collection from 2016. His last couple of records have been a more improvisational quintet release with guitarist Liberty Ellman, and a collection of standards. And they have their moments, but his latest one, Barracoon – streaming at Spotify – is a return to form, a protest jazz collection initially inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It’s a more expansive take on the signature, three-minute “jukebox jazz” sonata-style records Allen started putting out a decade ago; the rage is more restrained, more veiled, but it’s still there.

Allen has a brand-new trio this time. Both bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo stick close to the roles that Gregg August and Rudy Royston held in Allen’s previous trio for the better part of a decade, although Kenselaar doesn’t dive as frequently into the pitchblende depths August would descend to, and Cacioppo’s rhythms here are closer to traditional New Orleans shuffle grooves.

Cacioppo punches out one of those second-line rhythms and expands a bit from there as Kenselaar slams his strings for darkly woody resonance, Allen blipping and dancing with a bluesy ebullience throughout the album’s title cut. The second track, G sus (that’s an insider musician joke) begins with Allen’s sparse, saturnine phrases and similarly sparse chords from Kenselaar (on electric bass this time) over scrambling drums, the bandleader picking up steam judiciously.

The Goldilocks Zone is a classic, catchy, suspiciously blithe Allen jukebox jazz number, with more than a few echoes of peak-era Sonny Rollins and an understated polyrhythmic interweave between the trio. In The Immortal (H. Lacks), Allen shifts back and forth between balmy resonance and acerbically wary lines as Cacioppo tumbles gracefully and Kenselaar – on electric again – shifts between stark chords and incisively trebly riffage, shadowing the bandleader,

The album’s fifth track, 13, shuffles along, catchy yet enigmatic, although both Allen and Kenselaar brighten as they move closer to a Veracruz-tinged bounce. Allen’s gravelly, darkly bluesy pulses grow more animated as the drums get busy in Beyond the Goldilocks Zone: titles really set the tone here.

Kenselaar’s anthemically dancing bass over shuffling drums opens Communion, Allen weaving his way through the methodical eighth notes of an unexpectedly triumphant song without words. EYE Scream is a longscale take on Allen’s I Am I Am modal brushfires, a plucky bass solo giving way to straightforwardly uneasy one from the bandleader

The album’s coda, and darkest track, is Ursa Major, Kenselaar returning incisively to electric, Allen shifting deftly between major and minor, Cacioppo exercising some welcome restraint. The trio close with the lone cover here, When You Wish Upon a Star, which despite all the fun the band have with it (Cacioppo’s cymbals are hilarious) seems tacked on. Where does this album fall in the Allen pantheon? Definitely in the top five, and that includes the killer Tarbaby record with Oliver Lake and Orrin Evans.

Now where is the album release show for this masterpiece taking place? The Vanguard? Jazz at Lincoln Center? Not yet. The trio will be warming up for much bigger stages when they play on July 26 at 8 PM at Bar Bayeux at1066 Nostrand Ave. in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The show is free; take the 2 to Sterling St.

June 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith Puts Out Another Riveting Civil Rights Epic

It’s hard to think of a more consistently relevant artist in any style of music than trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. Over the last seven years, he’s chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, celebrated the endangered ecology of our Great Lakes and National Parks, and suggested that we shouldn’t stop with occupying Wall Street: as the title of his 2013 album instructs, we ought to Occupy the World. His song cycle Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs – streaming at Spotify – is his most ambitious and often harrowing release since his epic 2012 Civil Rights era narrative Ten Freedom Summers. In general, this album is more atmospheric – and in that sense enveloping – maybe because it’s about a pivotal moment and the embryonic days of the movement it springboarded. Smith is playing a weeklong stand with a series of ensembles, including some of the artists on this album, at the Stone at the New School starting on June 25 at 8:30 PM; cover is $20.

As with Ten Freedom Summers, this album’s orchestration is lavish: Smith plays as part of the BlueTrumpet Quartet with Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, alongside the RedKoral string quartet and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. There are three singers: Karen Parks, Min Xiao-Fen and Carmina Escobar.

The opening instrumental prelude has a shattering, Shostakovian intensity: a horrified blaze of trumpets, sirening strings, disjointed anguish and yet, in the center of it all, a calm horn presenced which is probably Smith’s own portrayal of Parks’ determination to hold onto her seat and stand up for justice in the midst of assaults from all sides.

As the suspense mounts, there are keening highs over tense, expectant lows from the strings and slow exchanges with the brass. Maybe it’s the presence of Min Xiao-Fen and her spiky pipa, but the first vocal number, The Montgomery Bus Boycott has a big-sky Chinese pastoral vastness, a salute to solidarity and what it can accomplish.

Escobar’s fond but emphatic vocal matches the still sternness of the string quartet in The First Light, Gold, a shout-out to how Martin Luther King picked up the ball and ran with it after Rosa Parks got everything started. Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation [Smith likes subtitles] is a slowly shifting tone poem for the whole ensemble plus samples from early works by Smith’s AACM collaborators Anthony Braxton on alto and Steve McCall on drums.

Parks sings Change It!, a soberingly poetic contemplation of democratic ideals clashing with reality, with an operatic intensity over mutedly pulsing and then resonant strings, akLaff flickering behind them. His majestically cynical, dismissive solo is sublime. Escobar takes the mic on The Truth, alternately spacious and insistent, then hands off to Min Xiao-Fen for No Fear, a hauntingly resonant setting of Rosa Parks’ own simple explanation of how she got up the courage to kick off a revolution.

More than a tinge of the macabre permeates the shivery, slowly unfolding Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. Shalini Vijayan’s woundedly expressive viola solo introduces Min Xiao-Fen’s similarly moody vocal dramatics in The Second Light. Yet victory seems within reach as the trumpets enter in Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa; slipsliding strings remind that it won’t be an easy task.

Parks sings the last of the songs, Pure Love, a celestially lingering look at the Greek concept of agape via MLK. Smith saves his most dynamic solo for The Known World: Apartheid amid disembodied string horror. The brief postlude seems like a Pyrrhic victory until akLaff deliciously gets the last word. This music is as rich and as troubling as the history it commemorates: like Ten Freedom Summers, you can get lost in it. Count this among the half-dozen best albums of the past several months.

June 18, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Avant Garde All-Star Bass Clarinetist Ken Thomson Plays a Rare Greenpoint Gig

Ken Thomson plays reeds – mostly bass clarinet – in genre-defying art-rock/avant-rock icons the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Over the past couple of decades, he’s also led several other ensembles. His album Restless – an aply titled, troubled tour de force duo recording of two of his chamber works by allstar cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Karl Larson – is streaming at Bandcamp. That vinyl record makes a good listen if you’re considering his show tomorow night, June 16 at 5 PM at Arete Gallery where he’s leading his sextet on a twinbill with Larson’s indie classical trio Bearthoven. Cover is $15 – and the G train is running this weekend!

The album comprises two suites: Restless, nd MeVs,. The four-part, title partita rises from a wary, spare, fugal intertwine of cello and piano to an aching intensity and then an unexpectedly catchy, anthemic coda before fading down. The second movement, Forge is a study in contrasting leaps and bounds: the string jazz of Zach Brock comes to mind early on. Remain Untold is a relentleslsy uneasy stroll anchored by Larson’s low lefthand; then the piano and cello switch roles, rather savagely. Bathgate’s long, expressive, vibrato-tinged lines take centerstage over Larson’s mutedly minimal, resonant chords in the conclusion, Lost, building to an aching insistence punctuated by viscerally chilling glissandos from the cello.

MeVs, a triptych for solo piano, begins with Turn of Phrase, a practically rubato series of short, emphatic phrases amid extended pause that give it a glitchy feel. Quiet, calm, distantly Messiaenic resonance eventually prevails over the heavy whacks, slowly crescendoing with more than a hint of postbop jazz.

Part two, Another Second Try comes across as a more expansive remake of the famous Chopin E Minor Prelude, Larson runs steady eighth notes over surreal lefthand syncopation before the cruelling challenging, incisive series of staccato chords in the concluding segment kick in. Most definitely an album for our time.

June 15, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New York Philharmonic End the Season with a Turbulent, Epic Coda

In his Brooklyn debut this past evening in Prospect Park, conductor Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic through an electric, kaleidoscopically detailed, unselfconsciously transcendent version of Rachmaminoff’s Symphony No. 2. It’s impossible to think of a better way to introduce the orchestra to those across the lawn who either hadn’t seen the group before, or couldn’t afford to visit them at their Lincoln Center home base.

There’s a point in the second movement where a bassoon solo signals the symphony’s first bellicose theme. But van Zweden didn’t pull back the string section gratuitously. Resolute yet rather mysterious, it burbled just above the waterline amid a vast, extremely uneasy tide. The Red Sea didn’t part all the way: the orchestra gave this wanderer just enough room to make his way through without much stress. There were innumerable other moments like that throughout the rest of the evening.

The greatest composers like to keep orchestras on their toes and give audiences plenty of bang for their buck along with jokes and insider references for the diehards. Gloomy as most of it is, why is this symphony one of the most popular in the entire repertoire,? For all of those reasons. Rachmaninoff griped to his inner circle about how long it took him to orchestrate it, but as the dominoes fell one by one, the mosaic this orchestra created with it was viscerally breathtaking, in both scope and substance.

It’s a familiar theme in Rachmaninoff: the composer writing his way out of a very dark headspace. The opening movement bristled with a relentless, downcast intensity, livened with endlessly clever exchanges of riffs and a thematic interweave that finally paid off mightily, a wall of pictures at an exhibition, in the concluding movement. In between, the heartbreak of the third movement contrasted mightily with the anger of the fourth, which came across with more aggression than most orchestras tend to give it.

And that ho-ho-ho intro to the last movement? That’s an inside joke, one that may have completely evaded audiences for decades. It’s a reference to the opening motif of his Symphony No. 1, which was infamously performed only once in his lifetime – to a withering critical reaction that devastated him and left him unable to composer for three full years. After dazzling the crowd for the better part of an hour, Symphony No. 2 becomes Rachmaninoff thumbing his nose at anyone who thought he could never pull it off. For the record, the Rachmaninoff 1 is a frequently audacious work, which, had the composer decided to resurrect it during his lifetime, probably would have become a part of the classical canon much earlier than it did.

In front of the orchestra, van Zweden tends to bounce, but not a lot, as if he’s standing on a heavy truck spring that gives way ever so slightly As much strurm ung drang as this piece has, he didn’t exert himself much except when there was a jewel of a detail that had to be pulled from the storm in a split second. And when that happened, van Zweden seized those moments, one by one, whether fluttery ornamentation from the violins after the cartoonish laughter of the final movement, or a suddenly stark, martial stacccato from the cellos in the third. For all the calm in his body language, he’s exceptionally communicative with the orchestra. The audience afterward were marveling about the level of detail, range of dynamics and sheer freshness he and the orchestra had brought to a familiar piece they’d played several times just a few months ago.

There was other material on the bill: operatic buffoonery and jaunty orchestrated bluegrass, along with a couple of miniatures – one unexpectedly close to horizontal music, and the other very baroque – by a pair of gradeschoolers mentored in the orchestra’s Very Young Composers program.

But all that was just a warmup for the crowning jewel in a year that’s seen the ensemble revitalized like never before in this century. Not to be disrespectful to Alan Gilbert, a gifted conductor who in many ways set the scene for van Zweden to take the reins, but over the course of the past season, the Philharmonic’s programming and performances have been more ambitious and relevant than ever. What a great feeling it is to be excited about New York”s hometown orchestra again.

June 14, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Low-Register Reed Maven Scott Robinson Hits a High Note or Two

Scott Robinson is one of this era’s great masters of the low reeds – specifically, the low, low reeds, the contrabass clarinet and such. But he’s even more than that: it wouldn’t be extreme to call him a master of wind instruments in general. For example, he’s also a competent trumpeter. With that in mind, it’s less of a surrprise that his favorite horn is a vintage 1924 tenor sax he rescued from a Maryland junk shop more than forty years ago. He’s playing that horn at a two-night birthday celebration at Birdland this June 21 and 22 at 7 PM. You can get in for $30; if that seems steep, consider that this is a pretty rare opportunity to get to see him play a whole set (one presumes – you never know) on tenor..

He’s also got a new album out, Tenormore – streaming at youtube – celebrating the sound of that instrument. For a guy whose own compositions are so often imbued with a quirky sense of humor, and are sometimes way out there, this is a very straight-ahead record, in an early 60s Prestige (or late tteens Posi-Tone) vein.

He opens it solo with a wry ascent to the very top of his register, in a spaciously exuberant take of the Beatles’ And I Love Her. Likewise, Tenor Eleven is a sprightly swing shuffle, Robinson’s carefree clusters over the spring-loaded pulse of pianist Helen Sung, bassist Martin Wind and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Fans of Robinson’s irrepressibly weird sci-fi themes may hear this and ask themselves, is it really him?

The group’s slow, expansive remake of Put on a Happy Face is a platform for Robinson’s balmy side, along with some very subtle extended technique and a wee-hours solo from Sung. The band pick up the pace with the briskly strolling Morning Star, Sung engaging in some glittering, emphatic, stride-inflected work, Wind bubbling and Robinson closing with striking, modal bittersweetness.

The tasty, lush noir atmospherics the band use to open The Good Life hardly offer a hint of the genial sway the tune will eventually take on, They return to steady postbop swing with Tenor Twelve, punctuated by Robinson’s punchy riffage, then the sumnery, jubilant, gospel-infused Rainy River with Sung switching to organ. They revisit that mood a little later with their chugging version of The Nearness of You.

Robinson’s wife Sharon guests on flute on The Weaver, a tasty, edgy clave tune  and a launching pad for the bandleader’s canny explorations throughout the entire register of his horn. They close the album with the title track, its coy, clever rhythmic and thematic shifts more reminiscent of Robinson’s further outside work than any of the album’s other cuts.

June 13, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

June 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | Leave a comment