Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Sizzling, Cutting-Edge, Wildly Funky String Jazz Collaboration in Long Island City

It’s impossible to think of a more capsulizing moment for music in New York in 2021 than the concert in a Long Island City parking lot last Sunday. Overhead, the skies blackened, but on the ground, string quartet the Lotus Chamber Music Collective and jazz quartet Momentum joined in a wild, ecstatic collaboration that spoke to the indomitability of New York musicians creating the newest sounds around.

Lotus’ charismatic cellist, Sasha Ono, didn’t bother trying to hide how amped she was to finally be able to play her first concert since last year’s lockdown. The electricity shared by all eight players – perched on the back of a trailer and the bed of a battered 1963 Ford pickup – was pure unleashed cabin fever. This crew had obviously been playing and refining their chops during the time live music was criminalized here. And a big crowd had come out for the fireworks, defying the thunderclouds overhead.

The quartet – which also included violinists Tiffany Weiss and Emily Frederick alongside violist Gizem Yucel – opened with a mixture of lushness and groove, Ono and Momentum bassist Isaac Levien doubling up on the fat low end riffage throughout most of JJ’s Dance, by drummer Elé Howell. It was a slinky, shapeshifting number that gave the band a long launching pad to rise through a blend of Afrobeat, trip-hop and psychedelic funk that drew a straight line back to Roy Ayers. From the back of the truck bed, guitarist Quintin Zoto drove it to a searing peak with a long, feral but erudite solo, capped off with some savage tremolo-picking.

Cultural Appropriation, by Julia Chen had a coy calypso bounce fueled by Howell’s loose-limbed clave, with a similarly slinky Levien bass solo, vibraphonist Grady Tesch rippling through what the clouds overhead were foreshadowing.

Ono told the crowd that she’d been inspired to come up with her arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s La Paloma Azul as a reflection on the South American refugee crisis, the strings introducing its lustrous initial theme followed by the rest of the ensemble’s lilting, bittersweet, Mexican folk-tinged rhythms.

The most ambitiously symphonic interlude of the afternoon was when the two groups mashed up Swing, Low Sweet Chariot with themes from Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet (her Symphony No. 1 was the most-played orchestral work by any American composer in the 1930s). Ono and Tesch had come up with that idea after doing a webcast focusing on Price, whose gospel and jazz-influenced music is getting a long-overdue revival. The highlight was Yucel’s stark viola solo amid the polyrhythms and the constant dynamic shifts.

The eight musicians closed the first set with a determined, lavishly funky take of Shunzo Ohno‘s Musashi, debuting string parts which the jazz legend had written for this performance. It was akin to a particularly energetic segment on the Crusaders’ live album with B.B. King, switching out King’s string-busting bent notes for a torrentially icy guitar attack channeled through Zoto’s chorus pedal. Welcome to the future of serious concert music in New York, 2021: if this is any indication, it’s going to be a hot summer.

The more-or-less weekly outdoor series in the parking lot out behind Culture Lab, 5-25 46th Ave in Long Island City continues at 5 PM tonight, July 24 with careening, microtonally-tinged electric blues band Jane Lee Hooker. The space is just down the block from LIC Bar, further toward the water; take the 7 to Vernon Blvd.

July 24, 2021 Posted by | concert, funk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beating the Heat With Baroque Subtlety at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park

Tuesday night might have been the quietest yet the most dynamic concert at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in several years. Harpsichordist and conductor Richard Egarr cautioned the crowd that they were in for a program of sometimes crazy, sometimes quirky material, and his comments were on the money, in the context of the very stylized world of 17th century British chamber music. Conducting animatedly from behind the keyboard, he led period instrument ensemble the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra through an often hushed, minutely detailed performance whose passion was in the subtleties.

Believe everything you’ve heard about soprano Rowan Pierce. The highlight of the night was a long, matter-of-fact but meticulously modulated lament from Purcell’s Fairy Queen suite, which she approached with a powerglide vibrato, completely in control yet emotionally bereft, over a poignantly waltzing, suddenly crescendoing backdrop.. She’s an old soul. There’s a lot to be said for classical singers being most empowered to channel emotion in their native tongue, and that may have had something to do with how vividly Pierce moved from a hint of goofy vaudeville in the second of three songs by the vastly underrated John Blow, to a very distant, very proto-circus rock menace, and then to the sorrowful interludes among the highlights of Purcell’s magnum opus which Egarr had cherrypicked for the second half of the program.

Christopher Gibbons, Egarr explained, had the misfortune to be the son of Orlando Gibbons, a name very familiar to any fan of British polyphony. Opening with the younger Gibbons’ Fantasy in A Minor immediately put the audience on notice that this would not be a sedate, predictable evening, the string orchestra nimbly negotiating the piece’s odd cadences and strikingly forward-looking harmonies.

The ensemble left no doubt that Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune, from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was an opening-credits theme. Pierce’s seething restraint in Bess of Bedlam, the third of a trio of Purcell songs – better described as partitas – felt visceral, over Egarr’s spacious harpsichord, Adam Cockerham’s elegantly plucked theorbo and William Skeen’s looming, stark cello.

Among many other captivating moments, there was also a coy Purcell rondo ostensibly written for monkeys and an absolutely gorgeous guitar-and-harpsichord song, Lovely Selina, predating the Moody Blues and other pastorally-inclined balladeers of the rock era by two centuries.

For 114 years, from 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg Concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual concert series in world history. Introducing this show, Christopher London, scion of the Naumburg philanthropic legacy, offered hope that 2021 will turn out to be the first of another 114. He didn’t assume any credit for the heroism of keeping classical music performance alive when it has never been more imperiled, but that credit is due.

Gallons of ink, virtual and otherwise, have been spilled over the greying of audiences for classical music, and the shortage of new generations to maintain it. But all that is a drop in the bucket in the face of the New Abnormal being schemed up by Facebook, and Microsoft, and the rest of the surveillance-industrial complex hell-bent on destroying the performing arts and moving all communication from the real world to a virtual one. That the Naumburg organization would seek simply to keep a universal human tradition alive is a braver move than founder Elkan Naumburg ever could have imagined. Although by all accounts, he would have been on the front lines fighting for it.

This year’s final Naumburg Bandshell concert is Aug 3 at 7:30 PM with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and pianist Shai Wosner playing works by Mozart, Golijov and others. Show up early – an hour and a half isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

July 22, 2021 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Overlook Champion Exhilarating, Riveting Works by Black Composers

Tuesday evening at the Hispanic Society of America, violinist Ravenna Lipchik of the Overlook flashed a knowing grin to her violist bandmate Angela Pickett, seconds before the string quartet launched into the third movement of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasie-Stücke. With a passionate, syncopated pulse, a breathtaking melody burst out from the strings of the four women gathered in the front of the basement-level gallery space. This wasn’t exactly a witchy tarantella, or a slashing Balkan dance, but it had elements of both, blended into a breathtaking High Romantic triumph that quickly became the most exhilarating interlude anyone in New York has played for an audience this year.

Wow.

Admittedly, by normal standards, the number of concerts in this city this year has been the lowest on record since probably the 1700s. Still, this was a reminder of everything that was stolen from us during the lockdown – and what we need to get back, and this new string quartet are at the front of the pack leading the way.

The Overlook dedicate themselves to resurrecting material by undeservedly obscure black composers, and championing this era’s crop. Coleridge-Taylor’s five-part suite – recently recorded by another paradigm-shifting group, the Catalyst Quartet – was the legacy piece. Until recently, this once famous composer, conductor and contemporary of Dvorak and Brahms was largely forgotten outside of the organ demimonde. Judging from the rest of his work that’s recently been revived, he’s long overdue.

Coleridge-Taylor’s chamber music is more Slavic than Dvorak and has the same kind of playfulness and intricacy as Razumovsky Quartet-era Beethoven, combined with sometimes stark, sometimes stirring elements of African-American blues and gospel music. This piece had all of that, a gorgeously bittersweet theme and variations along with a devious return to that blazing dance before a somewhat more mutedly heroic coda.

The ensemble – which also includes cellist Laura Metcalf and violinist Monica Davis – bookended the piece with two more recent but equally fascinating works. Guest Tanya Birl-Torres introduced Leila Adu‘s If the Stars Align with a brief meditation suggesting we connect to a comfortable space in between the earth that grounds us, and the world above which gives us life.

Adu is better known as a singer of ornate, soaring art-rock, in a Kate Bush vein, so this was a revelation The music was deceptively simple, built around a series of subtly, increasingly complex gestures that grew into a more complex web, following a steady counterpoint, a series of handoffs and catch-and-follow. There was also a bustling, vividly urban interlude complete with sirens and busy crowds, as well as a flurrying intensity with echoes of Kurdish folk music.

Birl-Torres also served as narrator during the hazy, enigmatic introduction to the concluding work, Shelley Washington’s Middleground. The quartet dug into the piece’s insistent minimalism, akin to a similarly rhythmic but somewhat gentler Julia Wolfe, expanding a steady interweave, its close harmonies and short, emphatic gestures echoing the night’s first piece.

The Overlook’s next scheduled performance is Sept 12 at 4 PM with music by Eleanor Alberga, Florence Price, and Chevalier de Saint-Georges at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace about a block south of 162nd St. in Washington Heights, The concert is free; take the A/C to 163rd St.

July 12, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jim Watt Leads a Riveting Jazz and Painting Performance to Benefit Musicians Imperiled During the Lockdown

Thursday night at Collab in Bushwick was a rare opportunity to watch painter Jim Watt creating art out of thin air. Beyond public murals, sidewalk art or the occasional landscaper dedicated to capturing a scene alfresco, painting is typically a solitary craft. What made the evening even more fascinating was that Watt was engaging with an allstar improvisational jazz quartet, in a multimedia spectacle that resulted in about twenty black-and-white Japanese Sumi ink washes, each of them projected on a screen behind the band as Watt worked, methodical but unhurried.

The night was part of Watt’s ongoing 1000W project, where he hopes to raise a hundred thousand dollars to benefit musicians imperiled by the lockdown through sales of these works through his dealer, Jim Kempner Fine Art. Filmmaker Danny Clinch is also working on a documentary about the project.

Watt’s setup was simple: two brushes, one in a container of ink and one in water, which he didn’t bother to change as it grew cloudier. Occasionally, he’d reach for a cloth when he felt the need for a broader brushstroke or smudge.

Bleed is the key to this Japanese technique. The most spectacular moment of the night was when he sketched out a geometric figure with his water brush, invisible onscreen until with one deft stroke of ink, the design filled up in seconds flat. With magic like that, who needs electronics?

Some of the designs were distinctly figurative, notably apartment buildings and a profile that resembled an Egyptian hawk hieroglyph. Other washes were more simple and geometrically-oriented. To what degree was interplay with the musicians involved? Watt was definitely the ringleader here. Drummer Alvester Garnett began the night solo, responding to Watt’s initial, stark design and then a murky, dense one by rising from suspenseful washes of cymbals to a shamanistic tom-tom tableau.

The rest of the band – guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Antoine Drye and bassist Barry Stephenson – then joined the festivities, rising and then falling away as Watt would finish up and then move on to the next drawing. A mysterious pedalpoint fleshed out with lots of bass chords figured heavily in the first set, where the band were  most closely keyed into the visuals unfolding on the screen. Drye’s austerely resonant, often mournful, blues-drenched washes maintained a contrast with Frisell’s thoughtfully spaced jangles and pings and chordlets. The exchanges between band members grew more vigorously conversational as the night went on.

They began the second set by seemingly conjuring up an early 60s Prestige style postbop swing shuffle, Frisell spicing it with a handful of devious quotes. After that, the guitar icon led the group down a noir alleyway, his desolate clangs drawing a hauntingly wafting solo out of Drye before Garnett shifted gears into funkier, spikier terrain. Then, subtly caching a clave into a slinkier groove, he drove the atmosphere to an almost aching, distantly troubled, Bob Belden-esque vamp before ending the night on a calm but similarly saturnine, blues-infused note. While concerts and public gatherings in general have been in painfully short supply in this city until the past couple of weeks, this was unquestionably one of the best of the year so far.

July 11, 2021 Posted by | Art, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.

They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.

That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.

Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.

Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.

The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.

Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.

This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.

July 7, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classical and Rock Acts Shake Off the Rust at the Naumburg Bandshell

It was weird seeing a rock band onstage at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night. There hasn’t been any rock there since the early teens, when some promoter put on a stupefyingly awful disco night. Then again, it wasn’t always unusual for rock acts to play there: it happened a lot back in the 90s.

Twenty years earlier, the Grateful Dead did a show there. Now that must have been weird.

There were other aspects relating to yesterday evening’s show that seemed weird. But most of them were welcome, and reason for guarded optimism at a time when we desperately need it.

The rock band onstage was singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and her low-key rhythm section. She was joined by a chamber orchestra subset of the Knights for a tersely symphonic, imaginatively arranged take of what seemed to a suite inspired by early 20th century suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. Although O’Donovan’s roots are in Americana, and she was playing acoustic, the songs had more of a classic 60s pop feel, sometimes in a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazelwood vein. O’Donovan’s work has never been more political, or relevant than this, another welcome development.

A number that quoted from a letter to Catt from then-President Woodrow Wilson had a mutedly rich, brass-infused chart. O’Donovan then led the ensemble into syncopated, Joni Mitchell-esque territory and closed with a more enigmatic, indie rock-flavored number. O’Donovan has obviously done her homework and is encouraging everyone to rise up and fight: a rousing amen to that.

The Knights shook off the rust of over a year of inactivity with conductor Eric Jacobsen leading them through a haphazard take of his arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor‘s exhilarating, Kurdish-tinged theme Ascending Bird. The way the low strings emulated the starkness and shivery intensity of an Iranian kamancheh was a tasty touch. The (presumably) new presence of brass and woodwinds seemed forced, and extraneous to the music’s ecstatic trajectory.

The orchestra left the bumps in that road behind for a sleek and empathetic version of George Walker’s Lyric For Strings, whose canonic cadences evoked the Barber Adagio with less angst, more fondness, and somewhat more modernist tonalities.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for the night’s coda, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 from memory. This may have been just another day at the office for him, but the technique he put to use was just plain sizzling. Which is not to say that this piece sizzles per se: it’s a carefully orchestrated celebration. Needless to say, Shaham’s quicksilver vibrato, the quartz crystal solidity of the endless volleys of high harmonics, and his unassailably confident attack in the most robust moments reaffirmed his vaunted stature.

The first movement seemed fast, at least in the beginning, the orchestra clearly relishing the opportunity to reconnect with their soloist since they’d recorded this together a couple of years ago. The second movement was unusually muted and practically a lullaby in places. The conclusion, with its rounds of triumphant, anthemic riffage, ended the night on an aptly ebullient note. There was no encore.

In a stroke of serendipity, this was the day when Andrew Cuomo apparently caved to the pressure to relinquish some of the dictatorial powers he’d seized in the March 16, 2020 coup d’etat – presumably to give a last-gasp shot of hydroxychloroquine to a political career that’s on a vent and flatlining. The details are still shaking out. It’s not unreasonable to worry that the psy-op squads at the World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg cartel, who have been pulling Cuomo’s strings over the past sixteen months, will attempt to sneak all sorts of New Abnormal surveillance or divide-and-conquer schemes into any so-called reopening plan.

Because the concert was arranged before yesterday’s unexpected events, the organizers had been giving out free tickets online. Trouble was, the ticketing system didn’t work. An anxious message at their webpage timidly asked for proof of needle of death or meaningless PCR test, presumably to satisfy Cuomo’s office: this isn’t the kind of demand the Naumburg organization, who have always been the epitome of genteel, would typically impose on an audience.

While ticketed patrons were being let into the seats – which never came close to reaching capacity – there was clearly no surveillance going on. As far as muzzle-mania goes, oxygen-deficient people generally took the seats, those of us breathing normally situated mostly in back. Standing five feet to the left of this blog’s owner was one of the world’s great cellists: she wasn’t muzzled, nor was one of the world’s great violists, a couple of paces behind her. Sea change, or sign of imminent New Abnormal apartheid? We’ll find out next time.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on June 29 at 7:30 PM when the Ulysses and Emerson String Quartets team up for music by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others. Since tickets for the performance have already been issued, rushing to the space early to score a seat – a winning strategy in years past – may not be worth the effort. You will probably be better off standing, taking a place on the benches immediately to the south, or on the lawn to the west where the sound is still reasonably audible. Bring a picnic and some wine!

June 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous String Jazz Sounds at Manhattan’s Best Facsimile of a Real Jazz Joint These Days

What a beautiful early Friday evening in Central Park, under the trees north of the 81st Street entrance on the west side, a few blocks from where cellist Marika Hughes grew up. Playing to a sparse but attentive crowd with her brilliantly unorthodox New String Quartet, she joked about not spending much time here as a kid since she’d had her sights on greener pastures. Since then she’s explored and conquered innumerable styles of music, from classical to jazz to soul and funk and traditional Jewish sounds.

Seriously: what’s more gorgeous than a stark minor-key blues riff played on the cello? In a show that probably went for well over an hour (it’s been a work in progress figuring out the start times for the ongoing series here) Hughes fired off scores of them. Some were poignant, some had extra bite, and there were funny ones too. The highlights of this completely unamplified evening were a couple of bittersweetly swaying, pensive minor-key instrumentals, Hughes sending stardust spirals of harmonics into the ether, bowing down at the tailpece during one of them.

The set was a comfortable, conversational blend of sharp individual voices committed to creating a warmly welcoming, hopeful, deeply blues-infused ambience. It was weird watching Marvin Sewell – one of this era’s great guitarists – reduced to strumming rhythm on an acoustic. It was also kind of strange, but rewardingly so, watching violinist Charlie Burham not only slithering through one rustic, otherworldly yet direct solo after another, but also singing into the breeze.

OK, there wasn’t much of a breeze: we got fragments of a haunting piney woods folk tune made popular by a regrettable grunge rock band, and also a triumphant, rhythmically shifting, gospel-infused minor-key soul tune, as well as more aphoristic ideas that would have been a perfect singalong had this show been in closer quarters. That may still be an eventuality in this city, legally at least, but it’s already a reality again in almost fifty percent of the country – and the opportunities for musicians on the road seem to be growing every day.

Beyond her understatedly poignant instrumentals, Hughes delivered a warmly lilting tribute to the late Bill Withers (who would likely be with us today if not for last year’s pandemic of malpractice). She and the band ended the show on a similar note with a gently soaring tribute to wake-and-bake stoner fun. Bassist Rashaan Carter set the flame that percolated the instrumental encore, which rose from suspenseful atmospherics to an undulating anthemic vamp.

The weekend series in this part of the park, produced by photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts remains subject to the vagaries of weather and the availability of musicians. Still, Katz has put on more brilliant programming this year than anybody outside of the speakeasy circuit. The concert today, May 23 at around 3 PM in Central Park on the lawn under the trees, about a block north and east of the 81st St. entrance on the west side, features drummer Nasheet Waits leading a high-voltage quartet with Mark Turner and Steve Nelson on tenor sax, and Carter on bass again.

May 23, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday in the Park: Not the Fourth of July, But We’re Getting There

Late Saturday afternoon, the faint smell of honeysuckle filtered down across the elevation inside Central Park at around 82nd St. on the west side. There wasn’t a huge crowd there, but on low-hanging tree limbs, rock ledges, an outer ring of a bench and across the lawn, a silent and rapt audience had gathered to see tenor saxophonist Mark Turner leading a trio with Vicente Archer on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. For free.

There was a gig bag for tips parked conspicuously in front of the band. This is what live music has come down to in New York in 2021: desperate times, desperate measures.

Before the lockdown, Turner would routinely sell out a weeklong stand at the Vanguard, and this crowd would have filled the joint. Until the Vanguard and whatever’s left of this city’s imperiled venues can legally reopen at capacity, we are at least blessed to have this weekend series which has been keeping hope alive…and keeping some of the world’s foremost jazz musicians at least somewhat employed.

Photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts not only sponsor the shows: they’re recording live albums here now. Genius move. People who missed this will be able to enjoy a series of defiantly strong performances made in the face of one kind of adversity after another. And future generations will hopefully take inspiration from the kind of heroism ordinary citizens displayed, staring down the absurdity of a global surveillance-state coup d’etat.

Sirens, helicopters and random chitchat notwithstanding, Katz, Turner and his band got a pleasantly and expertly conversational record out of this one. The saxophonist sussed out the scene: balmy atmosphere, gentle breeze, chill crowd and a set delayed about 45 minutes by a few droplets from an imposing but otherwise merciful bank of thunderclouds. He and the trio then explored a similar sense of calm, spiced with steady, lively, purposeful interplay.

Turner didn’t reach for the highs until about half an hour into the show, seemingly weighed evenly between canonic postbop hits and originals. But he did thrill the crowd with a real stunner of a downwardly spiraling, chromatically withering glissando in the first number. Archer followed shortly afterward with an undulating solo that grew grittier as Blake egged him on.

The second number established a pattern: Turner playing with a matter-of-fact lyricism, all subtle shades and understated optimism as Archer bubbled and grew slinkier while Blake added his usual blend of counterintuitive color and adrenaline. If you want to hear Johnathan Blake at his most mysterious – he’s done far more explosive shows as part of this series – this will be the record to get. Although his carnaval-esque groove on the third number eventually spilled over into exuberance, taking the whole band with him.

Giant Step Arts’ next concert in the park, this May 21 at 5 PM is an especially adventurous one, with cellist Marika Hughes‘ New String Quartet featuring Charlie Burnham on violin, Marvin Sewell on guitar and Rashaan Carter on bass. The show may be on the hill to the immediate north of the the 81st St. entrance, or in the space under the trees about a block north and east. Just follow the sound and you’ll find it.

May 19, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saxophonist Ralph Williams: A Familiar, Heartwarming Presence in Central Park

Who would have thought that the biggest memes in live performance in New York in 2021 so far would be chamber music, singer-songwriters and buskers? Almost fifty percent of the United States has been liberated and is back to normal, but some of the biggest names stuck in the other half of the country have been reduced to busking to make ends meet.

Not that there’s any shame in a performer doing that. Robin Aigner‘s hapless Mediocre Busker aside, there’s no better way to sharpen your skills than playing public spaces for hours on end, day after day. Now that spring is here, New Yorkers who’ve been starved for live music since the beginning of the lockdown need only look as far as the nearest park.

One of the most familiar sights in Central Park is saxophonist Ralph Williams, whose favorite spot is the edge of the benches just south of the Naumburg Bandshell. He’s been playing solo there for years. As you would expect from someone who’s put in thousands of hours on his instrument in frequently sub-optimal conditions, his chops are formidable.

But he’s not a showoff: his postbop style is very lyrical. Sonny Rollins seems to be an obvious influence, but where Rollins will self-combust, Williams likes subtle shades and ornamentation, and keeps his tempos, such as they are, on the slow side. He adds some gravel to his tone when he wants to drive a point home. Even though he’s playing solo, his approach is uncluttered, with lots of space. Any note in a particular phrase could be the springboard for a flurry or a melisma or a playful curlicue. While most of what he plays seems completely improvised, he’s anything but self-indulgent. And there’s a warmth and optimism, if not full-blown exuberance, in his music: this isn’t a guy who seems to want to exorcise demons with mournful wails or crazed extended technique.

He’s almost always at his usual spot on Sunday afternoons; he was there early Tuesday evening, after the clouds had passed. Too often we run across buskers when we’re enroute and in a hurry. This guy is a New York institution and will lift your spirits if you’re in the mood to hang, listen and recharge for the rest of the day.

May 6, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz on a Chilly Spring Day

.About ten minutes into the first number at his Saturday show, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter took advantage of a spring-loaded Joe Martin bass solo for a chance to pull on a windbreaker. That made sense: it was a raw, chilly, overcast afternoon.

It’s a little early in the year for outdoor jazz festivals. Was the air conditioning at the Village Vanguard working overtime? Before the lockdown, Potter would routinely sell out a weeklong stand there.

Nope. Potter was playing Central Park.

The chance to see him leading a chordless trio, featuring some breathtakingly masterful drumming from Nasheet Waits – for free! – was every bit the thrill it promised to be. Musicians are typically nocturnal creatures, but none of the acts in the ongoing weekend series that Giant Step Arts are booking in the park have phoned in their shows. Until we get back to normal – which is inevitable, if we are going to survive at all, let alone as a society – what photographer Jimmy Katz’s organization is doing is genuinely heroic.

At the series’ installment couple of weeks ago, the crowd was transient, many people lured away (or driven away) by a loud electric band up the block. This time, everyone had come to stick around and listen. The audience gathered around the rise at Central Park West close to 82nd Street wasn’t a mass sea of bodies, but they would have sold out the Vanguard.

The show was everything that everyone had come out for, maybe a little on the judicious, spare side. In over an hour onstage (or on bedrock, maybe), the group seldom hit a straight-ahead swing, shifting artfully and slyly between themes, JD Allen style, rather than playing anything all the way through. Potter was very generous with solos. Martin’s approach was a spring-wound intensity, sometimes very spaciously, echoing the bandleader at times.

Waits’ game plan was symphonic, starting with sticks, then moving to mallets, brushes and finally sticks again. While Potter waited til the closing number to swing hard, Waits was fueling a turbulent forward drive with hypnotically churning helicopter-wing rumbles, teasing out a very subtle clave at doublespeed on the rims of his snare, and taking charge of the suspense factor.

Potter didn’t waste time dispensing adrenaline: after the band had edged and shimmied themselves into the opening theme, he chose his spots to rise to trills, and slithery glissandos, and chilling microtones. The first number – if you count thirty-three minutes as a number – had a jaunty but spacious latin flair. About two thirds of the way in Potter, shifted to ominous modalities to match the encroaching grey clouds overhead.

Waits’ rolling thunder syncopation and Potter’s tantalizing, spacious cheer fueled an expansive, dynamically vast romp through I’m In the Mood For Love, the bandleader finally going for fullscale lyrical suaveness but also some wildfire spiraling as the trio wound it out. They went back to endless variations on a latin groove for the closing number, Potter’s crisply chopped blues phrasing, flurries and glissandos matched by Waits’ insistence and flourishes on his hardware as Martin chose his own subtle spots for victorious ricochets.

Giant Step Arts’ next Central Park show is on April 24 at around 1 PM (start time has been a work in progress here) with trumpeter Marquis Hill and his band on the little hill north of the 81st St. entrance on the west side. There will probably be Mister Softee and people with boomboxes within earshot in the quieter moments. What there won’t be is Bill Gates’ spyware, or a temperature gun, or a list of attendees which goes straight to Bloomberg’s trace-and-track gestapo to single out anyone who might be a threat to permanent lockdown surveillance. We’re going to win this war: this concert series is a small but enormously important step toward victory.

April 21, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment