“This is very intense music in general,” violinist Monica Huggett remarked before the concluding piece on a whirlwind program last night by the newly formed Salon/Sancturay Chamber Orchestra in the quaintly historic, sonically indulgent Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium in Yorkville. Huggett wasn’t kidding. She’d been thinking out loud about how much angrier and stormier J.S. Bach’s earlier works were, by comparison to his later repertoire. “He expressed himself in very direct ways. Let’s hear it for the young Bach!”
Then she led the spirited, poised ensemble – also comprising violinists Karen Dekker and Dongmyun Ahn, violist Dan McCarthy, cellist James Waldo, bassist Dara Bloom and harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire – through the terse, angst-infused exchanges of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. It didn’t have quite the level of intricacy and interplay of some of the other, later material on the evening’s all-Bach program, but it gave the ensemble a launching pad for vivid, fleetingly incisive exchanges replete with unexpected metrical shifts and what Huggett aptly termed “blue notes.”
Waldo got the night off to a strong start with a nuanced, richly ambered take of the Suite for Solo Cello in G Major, BWV 1007. This is the most famous one: you probably know it from a million movies, commercials and NPR promos. Playing from memory, eyes closed, Waldo let the music breathe while he stayed true to the composer’s ssteady, circling pace.
Bach’s Sonata for Obbligato Harpsichord and Violin in A Major, BWV 1015, as Brookshire’s insightful progarm notes explained, probably dated from the composer’s Leipzig years, when he was as much an impresario as composer, feeling his big family booking shows all over town. In the hands of the ensemble, this piece for awhile brought to mind images of a comfortable one-percenter salon milieu, but quickly took a turn in a much darker direction as the musicians shadowed each other, following a long, minutely jeweled sequence of tradeoffs through to its somewhat calmer, stately conclusion.
The centerpiece of the show was Brookshire’s breathtaking performance of the lightning volleys of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903. It’s rare enough to hear on harpsichord rather than piano or church organ, rarer still to hear the instrument whir, and resonate, and sing as Brookshire made it do. There’s a diabolical character to a lot of it, and although Brookshire barely broke a smile, it was obvious that he was savoring its searing cascades, ripples and charges up and down the keys. One thing the program notes didn’t mention was how fond a nod this piece gives to the darkest side of Dietrich Buxtehude, Bach’s pioneering mentor and main influence. The performance was enough to make what seemed like at least half of the sold-out crowd make their way to the front of the hall at intermission to get a close look at the harpsichord, as Brookshire calmly peered inside and made a few adjustments in the wake of the storm he’d just unleashed from it.
Salon/Sanctuary Concerts have earned themselves a substantial following for their adventurous programming; their performances last year with soprano and impresario Jessica Gould, showcasing haunting Italian Jewish music by Salamone Rossi juxtaposed with works by his Christian contemporaries, were rich, and haunting, and got them a lot of press. Their next concert is December 10 at 8 PM with Hopkinson Smith playing moody lute music from Tudor England by John Dowland, William Byrd and the lesser-known John Johnson and Anthony Holborne, also at Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium; general admission is $35/$25 stud/srs.
The buzz at the reception after Sunday’s Greenwich Village Orchestra concert was electric. On one hand, that’s to be expected after a show full of thrills like this one was. But people were still raving about the season’s first program, one veteran concertgoer venturing so far as to call that particular performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 the best she’d ever seen. “I keep telling people, you can spend a hundred and fifty bucks for the New York Philharmonic…or you can drop twenty bucks here, and it’s every bit as good,” said another. Much as Alan Gilbert has done very good things with the Philharmonic, one thing he hasn’t – to be fair, this probably isn’t part of his job description – is to lower ticket prices. The cheapest advertised seats to a recent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances – a suite that’s a lot of fun but hardly the composer’s best work – were forty bucks. Suggested donation to the GVO is $20, $10 for seniors and kids. And afterward you can schmooze, grab a glass of wine or a snack if you’re so inclined and bask in the magic of what you’ve just witnessed.
And the GVO draws a crowd that’s more committed and critical than most, an artsy bunch, many of them musicians themselves. They’re considerably younger, more diverse and more representative of the population of this city as a whole, compared to your typical blue-haired Lincoln Center audience. This time out there were plenty of families and kids along with the expected slate of retired folks and just average everyday people. If you’d put everyone who’d been at this performance n the same train, you’d never guess that they were all coming from the same concert. What did they see that made them so excited?
Music Director Barbara Yahr led them through Verdi’s Forza del Destino Overture to get things started. It’s not heavy or particularly profound music, but it is a way to get a quick read on how ready an orchestra and conductor are to shift on a dime, from lush and sweeping, to lively and balletesque, or to wistful and pensive, and this performance quickly reminded how friendly and intuitive the long relationship between this orchestra and conductor continues to be.
Baritone Jesse Blumberg joined them for Mahler’s Songs of the Wayfarer, which posed different challenges, again an easy barometer for how well an ensemble can rise to meet them. The song cycle is typical Mahler in that it uses the entirety of the sonic spectrum, meaning that everyone in the group has to be on their toes, and they were. Especially Blumberg. There’s a point in this lovelorn suite where the singer really has to reach back and belt over the orchestra as the angst rises, and Yahr made it clear that she wasn’t going to sacrifice any passion in the dynamics of her interpretation, but Blumberg made clear that his destino was to go to the well for all the extra forza required. As a bonus – something that often happens at GVO concerts – the more somber, subtle Mahler song that followed, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), was a surprise, not originally on the program.
The piece de resistance was the best performance of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration that this blog has ever witnessed – and there have been several. Some will disagree with this opinion, but it’s the composer’s greatest work. In the hands of this orchestra, it became the most dynamic and explosive tone poem ever written, complete with a member of the violin section providing an informative reading of the poetry that inspired it. It was here that the thematic sense of this concert – the GVO loves theme shows – became most vivid, an uneasy and bittersweet late-life reflection heavy on dubious choices and missed opportunities. The confidently pulsing orchestration early on was steady and suspenseful, voicing the waves of regret as the narrative went on, all the more potently affecting in contrast to the silky calm as the strings took the piece out with a pillowy touch. The Greenwich Village Orchestra has been a downtown fixture for decades and has a devoted following, but this season looks like the best in years. The orchestra’s next performance, December 13 at 3 PM, is their annual interactive family concert, featuring the children of the Actionplay chorus along with works by Bizet, Beethoven and Richard Strauss.
Pianist Romain Collin is one of those rare artists who can’t be pigeonholed. His music defies description. Much of it has the epic sweep and picturesque quality of film music, although his noir-tinged new album, Press Enter is not connected, at least at the moment, to any visual component other than your imagination. Some of it you could call indie classical, since there are echoes of contemporary composers throughout all but one of its ten tracks. And while it’s not jazz per se, it ends with a muted, wee hours solo piano street scene take of Thelonious Monk’s Round About Midnight. For those of you who might be in town over the Thanksgiving holiday, Collin and his long-running trio, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott are playing a three-night stand, November 27-29 at Iridium at 8:30 PM.Cover is $27.50.
The opening track, 99 (alternate title, at least from the mp3s this blog received: Bales of Pot). Is it a reggae number? Nope. It’s a brief series of variations on a tersely circling, Philip Glass-inspired theme. If Rick Wakeman could have figured out how to stay within himself after, say, 1973, he might have sounded something like this. Like Clockwork, true to its title, takes that motorik riff and then expands on it, with echoes of both Glass and Keith Jarrett, slowing it down for more of an anthemic sweep. It sets the stage for how Collin will use his trademark textures – acoustic piano echoed by very subtle electroacoustic textures, from simple reverb, to doubletracking on electric keys, to light ambient touches.
Raw, Scorched & Untethered actually comes across as anything but those things: it’s a stately, brooding quasi horror film theme that picks up with a jackhammer insistence, in the same vein as Clint Mansell might do. Cellist Laura Metcalf adds elegantly austere textures as she does in places here. Holocene hints that it’s going to simply follow a rather effete series of indie rock changes but then edges toward pensive pastoral jazz before rising with a catchy main-title gravitas and then moving lower into the reflecting pool again. The Kids circles back toward the opening track, but with a wry, Monkish sensibility (although that whistling is awful and really disrupts the kind of subtly amusing narrative Collin could build here without it).
The darkest, creepiest and most epic track is Webs, alternating between stormy menace and more morose foreshadowing over stygian, bell-like low lefthand accents. Another menacing knockout is Event Horizon, which eerily commenorates the eventual exoneration – courtesy of the Innocence Project – of seven wrongfully convicted men. Separating them, San Luis Obispo is an unexpected and pretty straight-up take of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Color. Collin then reverts to no-nonsense macabre staccato sonics with The Line (Dividing Good and Evil). The album isn’t up at the usual places on the web, although there are three tracks streaming at ACT Records’ site, and Collin has an immense amount of eclectic material up at his Soundcloud page.
Pianist Lou Rainone keeps a busy schedule in the New York scene, playing regularly with the master of polytonal sax, George Braith and also with intriguingly enigmatic chanteuse Dorian Devins, among others. As a composer, he likes latin rhythms and mines a melodic postbop style; in the same vein as Brad Mehldau, he hangs out mostly in the piano’s midrange. Rainone’s latest album, Sky Dance is just out, and not yet up at the usual places online yet, although the clips up at cdbaby offer a hint of the unselfconsciously glimmering melodicism and postbop chops that characterize his work. Most of the tracks feature a quintet with trombonist Larry Farrell, trumpeter Richie Vitale, bassist Tom Dicarlo and drummer Taro Okamoto. Rainone leads this ensemble on November 29 at 9 PM at the Fat Cat.
The title track, with its shuffling, latin-tinged groove opens the album on a catchy, vintage Frank Foster-ish note; Dicarlo bubbles and percolates and the rest of the band follows in turn, spaciously. Rainone anchoring it with an artful staccato that alludes to a bustling milieu more than it actually depicts one. Little Dipper the first of the jazz waltzes here, creates a similarly lingering, distantly wistful atmosphere, everyone choosing their spots. Sweet Tooth, a trio piece with the rhythm section, brings back the shuffling latin inflections and adds wry wit, Dicarlo echoing the composer’s sardonic, Monk-ish figures.
The clave rhythm moves closer to centerstage in Aqua, Rainone’s majestic, ringing chords leading up to a carbonated Vitale solo, Farrell adding splashes of cool. A Late Arrival works slow, woundedly muted terrain, with hints of Asian tonalities and a rainswept gleam that slowly brightens; Rainone and the horns take it out on a lustrous note.
Devins’ vividly wintry vocals are a quiet knockout in Shifting, another jazz waltz, Dicarlo’s darkly dancing solo at the center. Cross Current brings back the bustling energy that opens the album; with Farrell’s purposeful solo, it’s the most straight-up swing tune here. Fly Away, a trio piece and the last of the jazz waltzes, is Rainone’s most expansive number. Devins takes the bandstand again on Time Is a Friend, her subtle gallows humor set to an irrepressible clave beat over Rainone’s judicious chords and Farrell’s similarly considered lines. The album ends with Rsvp, a lively, solo-centric swing shuffle and a synthesis of pretty much everything on this album. Rainone is a guy who should be vastly better known as a bandleader and this album should go a long way toward further establishing that.
Gato Loco got their start putting a punk-jazz spin on classic old Cuban son and mambo styles, with low-register instruments: baritone and bass sax, tuba, bass and baritone guitar, among others. Snice then, they’ve expanded their sound with a rotating cast of characters: it wasn’t long before they’d added originals to their set. They had long-running residencies at the old Bowery Poetry Club and the late, lamented Zirzamin. Since then, gigs have been somewhat fewer and further between, especially since frontman/multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk is so highly sought after as a sideman. It’s never exactly certain just what Gato Loco lineup is going to show up, but it’s a safe bet that their gig this Saturday night, November 21 at 10 PM at BAM Cafe will be a party.
Their most recent show at another frequent haunt, Barbes, was this past June, where they were joined by a hotshot Strat player along with Tim Vaugn on trombone, Tuba Joe, Ari F-C on bass and the brilliant Kevin Garcia (also of another similarly estimable noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns) on drums. They opened with an agitatedly pulsing chase scene of sorts that rose to a wailing, enveloping forestorm as the rhythm went completely haywire along with the rest of the band, faded down into cinders and then sprang up again in a split second. Zeniuk’s ghostly bass sax mingled with lingering, reverbtoned Lynchian licks from the guitar as the slow, slinky second number got underway, then shifted shape into a warmly moonlit tableau before rising toward macabre Big Lazy territory. From there they segued into a dark clave groove, Vaugn punching holes in the sky, Garcia tumbling elegantly in the background as the horns joined forces, terse and somewhat grim as they went way down low. The careening, axe-murderer sprint to the finish line was one of the most exhilarating moments of any show anywhere this year – and probably one of the loudest ever at little Barbes.
From there the band went epic, making a slow, big-sky highway theme out of a wistful Gulf Coast folk-inspired tune, slowly elevating to a lively, scampering fanfare, then down again, Vaugn pulling the rest of the group along with a long, tightly unwinding staccato solo. The low instruments’ murky noir sonics contrasted with the guitarist’s spare, sunbaked blues and Memphis soul lines as the next number got underway, Zeniuk finally signaling with a snort that it was time to build another funeral pyre on top of the serpentine groove. The best song of the night was a gloomy bolero, played in a dynamically shifting vein as Sergio Mendoza might have done it, featuring a muted trumpet solo, another pyrotechnically noisy interlude and an unexpected, clickety-clack dixieland outro. Name another band with as many flavors as these crazy cats.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Bring Their Intense, Politically Relevant, Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz to BAM This Week
Starting tonight, November 18 and continuing through November 22 at 7:30 PM, New York’s arguably most intense, poliitically relevant, cutting-edge large jazz ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays a stand they’ve earned many times over, at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. $25 seats are still available as of today. To credit composer/conductor Argue’s long-running vehicle – who made their debut in the basement of CB’s Gallery just over ten years ago – for maintaining an unflinching, uncompromisingly populist worldview is in no way intended as a dis to another mighty big band, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, whose latest album The Offense of the Drum confronts some of the most troubling issues facing urban areas, and this city in particular. But where O’Farrill’s music finds guarded optimism in a celebration of indomitable creativity among even the most impoverished, Argue’s Secret Society’s most recent album, Brooklyn Babylon, reaches much darker conclusions. At the band’s most recent New York concert, a ten-year anniversary bash at the Bell House, Argue spoke derisively of “the destruction of Brooklyn” when introducing songs from that wildly ambitious, tightly wound and often utterly chilling suite, a coldly sober narrative of gentrification and its discontents, seen through the eyes of a construction worker who ends up watching in horror as one grandiose project after another takes its grim toll.
Argue’s latest suite, Real Enemies – which the band is going to air out at BAM – is even more ambitious. Its central theme is conspiracy theories. At the Bell House, Argue explained with just the hint of a grin that “You have to choose which ones to believe.” And then offered a tantalizing preview with two new pieces, both with an epic, cinematically noir sweep, the first evocative of early 70s Morricone scores, with a relentless, driving clave rhythm and wide-eyed, terrorized brass crescendos, The second was more muted and brooding but also featuring a lot of moody latin riffage from drummer Jon Wikan.
A triptych of songs – and these pieces are songs in the most genuine sense of the word – from Brooklyn Babylon were just as gripping. The insistent, increasingly agitated staccato and tricky syncopation of Construction-Destruction and eventually the morose, defeated seaside tableau Coney Island were the centerpieces of the show, amidst some older material which, if probably inadvertently, made for a good career retrospective. Lower-register instruments, especially, were given prominent features in the hands of baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trombonists Mike Fahie and Ryan Keberle, everyone in the 24-piece ensemble firing on an extra cylinder, it seemed, through the epic outer-space flight of Moon of Mars, the stormy wave motion of a portrait of an island off the Canadian coast – a ruggedly crescendoing number that’s sort of Argue’s Hebrides Overture – as well as some unexpectedly straight-up oldschool swing.
Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis did double duty, adding her concisely soaring sonics to this group as well as opening the show with her innovative and richly melodic quintet featuring Sara Caswell on violin, Vitor Goncalves on piano and accordion, Matt Clohesy on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. It’s easy to see how Argue and Noordhuis would be drawn to each others’ music: both favor long upward trajectories, proportions that edge toward the titanic and intricate permutations on simple, repeating themes. Her group opened with a slowly crescendoing, rather epic trans-oceanic Australia-to-New York travelogue, then brought things down with a plaintive trio eletgy dedicated to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, moving through enigmatic nuevo tango and back up again into blazingly triumphant, anthemic territory.
One of the most exhilarating and cutting-edge jazz shows of the year happened Wednesday night at Symphony Space, where the Modern Art Orchestra became the latest group passing through town to pay homage to Bela Bartok in the 70th anniversary year of the composer’s death. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In roughly an hour onstage, the Hungarian large ensemble swung and slunk their way through bristling tonalities, goosebump-inducing crime jazz cadenzas and a mighty orchestral grandeur that was as richly tuneful as it was forward-looking.
Led by conductor/trumpeter Kornel Fekete-Kovacs, the group opened with a lickety-split, firestorming Gabor Subic arrangement of one of Bartok’s best-loved neoromantic early works, the Allegro Barbaro. The original version, for piano, looks back to Liszt; this version drew more heavily on the acidic close harmony that would come to define Bartok’s iconic, mature oeuvre.
Kristóf Bacsó’s strutting, irony-rich march The Visitor radiated suspiciously dramatic, staccato accents and eerily airy harmonies lingering overhead, like smoke from a battle that nobody wanted to admit ever happened. László Melis’ Tales of Uncle Pepin From the Great Patriotic War began with an enigmatically dancing solo bass intro and rose to lush Gil Evans-like lustre. Likewise, trumpeter Gábor Cseke’s On My Own swung with a brooding, instrospective intensity, with a woundedly expressive Fekete-Kovacs flugelhorn solo echoed by the composer’s own lingering, slowly crescendoing piano solo that drew the song upward toward anguishd tango territory. Playing a custom-made dual trombone through a thicket of otherworldly electronic effects, László Gõz opened Pèter Eötvös’ Paris-Dakar on a surreal, deep-space note before the brass lept in with a joyous pulse that eventually took over the entire sonic spectrum, from top to bottom, as the piece careened down the rails, taking a moody detour toward free jazz territory with some sinister cascades from the trombones..
Guest Dave Liebman first contributed pensive kaval to Kristóf Bacsó’s Variations on a Folksong and then switched to soprano sax as the group’s rustic, ambered ambience rose behind him in an elegaic tone poem of sorts that built to a fullscale, clave-driven blaze. The final three works on the bill drew from the Fekete-Kovacs catalog. The first, Full Moon, turned out to be an uneasily bustling, intricately voiced, noir-spiced vehicle for Liebman’s rapidfire hardbop flight. He fueled another long crescendo in the trickily syncopated Mr Hyde and again took centerstage on the frantically shuffling Traffic Choral. The group swung their way out on the most trad number of the night, which perhaps ironically was more or less a fullscale improvisation, the orchestra creating a 40s bop dance party out of thin air. It was as challenging and downright fun as anything Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society or the Maria Schneider Orchestra have done lately – big band jazz doesn’t get any more acerbic or interesting than this.
Pascal Blondeau Performs an Inspired Homage to Legendary Artist Ultra Violet at the French Institute
Pascal Blondeau paid a bittersweet, inspired tribute to his mentor, legendary multimedia artist Ultra Violet with the world premiere of his musical homage Only You Could Have a Face Like That (Avec ta gueule pas comme les autres) at the French Institute last night. The title refers to how Ultra Violet – a muse to both Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, a woman who truly did have a face like hers and nobody else’s – referred to Blondeau. He, in turn, became a younger muse to her. A better if slangier translation of that title might be, “With that grill of yours.” As he told it, the two were peas in a pod several generations removed, irrepressible hellraisers, party people, cynical to the extreme in the New York art milieu they could not escape, even if neither ever really wanted to anyway.
Pianist/songwriter Benjamin Swax opened the show playing spacious neoromantic ambience against a voiceover from Blondeau, recalling good times with his beloved, stingingly witty, barbed-tongued mentor. Née Isabelle Dufresne into a religious, aristocratic French family in 1935, she absconded for good to New York in 1951 where she became jailbait to Dali. By the time she and Blondeau crossed paths close to a half-century later, she’d built a vast and playful body of visual art. In the meantime, she’d been in and out of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, one that, as Blondeau told it, she held in contempt. The art world is a bitch.
With his “cheriii” pal, Blondeau recounted staging impromptu performance art on Brooklyn sidewalks, sharing songs and devastating wit and last-minute pre-performance sparring. The most telling of all his anecdotes might have been where Ultra Violet, having decided to collaborate with Blondeau for his Brooklyn debut, also decided at the eleventh hour to upstage him, just to leave the audience without any question as to who was in charge at the opening of a potentially harrowing, 9/11-themed exhibit. Blondeau’s frantic response was one of the night’s funnier moments.
Swax’s songs ran the gamut from elegant, elegaic art-rock, to jaunty neo-cabaret, to sly glamrock, which Blondeau sang with wistful panache. Performed and sung in French, the English supertitles, projected high above the stage so as not to interfere with the performance, were closely attuned to the the original text (although some of the snarkier commentary mysteriously didn’t make it into English). One cynic in the crowd described the stage set as “a piano in a bathtub,” referring to the vast waves of white plastic packing peanuts that Blondeau had to traverse (and occasionally toss at Swax) while crooning to the crowd. At the center was Smile, the ballad from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, enigmatically and opaquely delivered in homage to the irrepressible woman who left such a mark on this work’s creator. It made sense, considering that Ultra Violet was responsible for designing the muted, Roman numeral logo for the 9/11 Museum downtown. Perhaps ironically, her motto, as he recounted, was “What’s art? It’s freedom.”
The French Institute at 55 E 59th Street has taken a turn into live music, dance and all sorts of other performances in recent years, but it’s been one of New York’s best places to see French and foreign films for decades. The end of the year film series here pays homage to French actor and director Mathieu Amalric. The next screening in the series is Arnaud Desplechin’s erudite 1996 comedy How I Got Into an Argument (My Sex Live), at 4 and 8 PM on November 17.
True to their name, the Hot Jazz Jumpers‘s sound springboards off of oldtimey 20s and 30s swing. And in the spirit of those mostly unsung, regional combos who ripped up dancefloors back in the day, the Hot Jazz Jumpers mash up styles from all over the map. The seventeen tracks on their new album The Very Next Thing and live concert dvd comprise swing, delta blues, southern rock, C&W, Carolina Coast folk music, free improvisation and more. So their sound is totally retro – yet completely in the here and now, another case where the old is new again. they’re playing the album release show on Friday, November 6 at 11 PM in the cozy confines at Pete’s, which should be party in a box – literally. As a bonus, guitarist/bandleader Nick Russo does double duty, opening the night at 10 with a set with his ambitious large-ensemble jazz project Nick Russo +11, who’re celebrating their ninth year in business.
The new album opens with a scampering take of Back Home Again in Indiana, sung by banjoist/guitarist/dancer Betina Hershey. Lots of period-perfect, quirky touches here, from the twin banjos, to Walter Stinson’s sotto vocce bass solo, even a dinner bell. They follow that with Freight Train, a dobro-driven oldtime C&W tune, Hershey’s honeyed vocals evoking Laura Cantrell. The take of Caravan here is a long, loose, otherworldly-tinged shuffle with vocalist Miles Griffith’s rustic, impassioned gullah-inspired vocals, Russo’s spiraling solo echoing Gordon Au’s jaunty trumpet lines.
Griffith’s gruffly animated scatting contrasts with Hershey’s summery warmth on You Are My Sunshine, reinvented as a sprawling soukous jam. Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love gets an oldtimey banjo swing treatment livened with Josh Holcomb’s wry, amiable trombone. Russo and Griffith do both In a Mellow Tone and Manha de Carnaval as a duo, the ancient paired against the brand-new.
Driven by Russo’s slide guitar, Jock-a-Mo looks back to the Grateful Dead, if with considerably more focus. Dirty 40 slowly builds from stark delta blues to a Stonesy ba-bump Beggars Banquet groove. Fueled by the banjos and Hershey’s sassy delivery, Sweet Georgia Brown mashes up 40s swing, bucolic string band ambience and an Aiko Aiko Crescent City bounce. They keep the Aiko Aiko thing going through the spirited Jam for Lenny.
Hershey’s nuanced sense of angst breathes new life into a slowly swinging, bristling, banjo-propelled take of Ain’t Misbehavin. By contrast, they do Got My Mojo Working as a loose Mississippi juke joint jam, Russo’s slide guitar front and center. The upbeat dance vibe continues through the oldtimey swing of When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along, then the band mashes up gospel, gullah folk and bluegrass in This Little Light of Mine. There’s also a second take of Jock-a-Mo and a lively jam on the way out. The album hasn’t officially hit the street just yet, but copies are available at shows and the opening track is up at soundcloud.
It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.
Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.
Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.
Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.
The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.
One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.
Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.