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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Bang on a Can Marathon 2018 – A Marathon Report

“I know so many of you have followed our nomadic trail to so many locations,” composer Julia Wolfe demurred, introducing today’s 31st anniversary of the Bang on a Can Marathon at NYU’s Skirball Auditorium. 

“Great to be in a space where we can all listen,” mused her fellow composer and husband Michael Gordon, possibly alluding to less sonically welcoming venues the annual New York avant garde music summit has occupied.

This year’s program was the most compact and New York-centric in a long time, and considering the venue, it’s no surprise that NYU alums mentored by the Bang on a Can composers featured prominently on the bill. Terry Riley’s influence circulated vastly throughout much of the early part of the show; the ageless lion of indie classical took a turn on vocals as the concert wound up.

“We have a duty to go up to the people who come in afterward and brag,” grinned Bang on a Can’s David Lang, referring to the afternoon’s first piece, Galina Ustvolskaya’s relatively brief Symphony No. 2. The NYU Contemporary Ensemble – with woodwinds, brass and percussion – negotiated it calmly but forcefully. David Friend’s steady hamfisted piano thumps ushered in and then peppered steadily rhythmic, massed close harmonies from the rest of the group, Vocalist Robert Osborne implored a grand total of three Russian words – God, truth and eternity – over and over in between pulses as the music veered between the macabre and the simply uneasy. The ensemble really nailed the surprise ending – gently.

Michael Gordon’s Sonatra, the composer explained, is the only solo piano piece in his repertoire, quite a surprise considering that he’s a strong pianist and the best musician among the Bang on a Can hydra. “Somehow Vicky Chow has learned how to play it,” he deadpanned. She made Gordon’s vast, subtly contrasting, rigorously crosshanded Terry Riley-like expanses of steady eighth notes seem easy, engaging every single one of the piano’s eighty-eight keys.

Murky faux-boogie woogie lefthand paired against relentlessly twinkling righthand riffage; that Chow could incorporate Gordon’s relentlessly tongue-in-cheek glissandos with as much aplomb as she did reaffirms her mighty chops as one of the world’s foremost avant garde musicians.

Chamber orchestra Contemporaneous tackled a carbonated, caffeinated, endlessly circling fifteen-minute slice of cellist Dylan Mattingly’s similarly daunting, epically ecstatic six-hour opera Stranger Love. The Bang on a Can All-Stars – as amazingly mutable as ever – made the first of their many appearances with Gabriella Smith’s Panitao, evoking the swoops and high swipes of whale song amid increasingly animated, rippling, sirening ambience. Then they pounced their way through the staggered math steps of Brendon Randall-Myers’ Changes, Stops, and Swells (For B).

A sextet subset of Contemporaneous returned for Fjóla Evans’s turbulent tone poem Eroding, an Icelandic river tableau. With its sharp contrasts – bass clarinet, cello and piano gnashing and swirling amid the flickers from violin, flute and vibraphone – and disarming trick ending, it was the first real stunner among the new material on the bill.

Purple Ensemble – a string trio augmented with vibes, viola and vocals – played three Yiddish songs from Alex Weiser’s cycle And All the Days Were Purple. Singer Eliza Bagg channeled joy shadowed by angst and longing, Lee Dionne’s piano beginning low and enigmatic and then slithering in a far more Lynchian direction over the strings.    

The All-Stars’ were bolstered by Contemporaneous’ strings and percussion for a trio of  commissions. Jeffrey Brooks was first represented by After the Treewatcher,  based on a trancey earlier work which was the composer recalled being vociferously booed when Gordon premiered it back in the early 80s. Guitarist Taylor Levine’s warily oscillating lines undulated amongst emphatic strings and rustling, peek-a-boo suspense-film percussion riffs, building a Riley-esque web of sound that was as gorgeously hypnotic as it was hard-hitting.

A second new work, Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, featured additional reeds and brass along with pointillistic twin electric pianos. A bustlingly circular, Bollywood-inflected theme gave way to austere, lingering ambience and then a wryly gritty Beatles guitar knockoff.

The Flux Quartet played their first violinist Tom Chiu’s Retrocon, a meteorologically-inspired, spiraling, Philip Glass-ine series of rising and falling microtonal cell figures. Violinist Mazz Swift and keyboardist Therese Workman juxtaposed electroacoustic string metal, new wave pop, a classic spiritual and faux-EDM in their mini-suite Revolution:House.

The big hybrid ensemble reconfigured for a final Brooks work, The Passion – the triptych “Reflects the kind of suffering that goes on every day, not the biblical kind,” the composer emphasized. Lavishly kinetic pageantry with wry Black Sabbath allusions shifted to dissociative, Laurie Anderson-ish atmospherics, Bagg narrating sobering advice from the composer’s terminally ill sister to her children. The leaping, trebly counterpoint of the final segment brought to mind My Brightest Diamond.

Sō Percussion took the stage for Nicole Lizée’s increasingly dissociative, gamelanesque electroacoustic instrumental White Label Experiment, echoed with considerably louder hi-tech energy later on by neosoul singer/keyboardist/dancer Xenia Rubinos and drummer Marco Buccelli.

Veteran new-music string quartet Ethel’s percussively insistent, clenched-teeth performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Balkan-infected Logbook, Part II took the intensity to redline in seconds flat: it was the highlight of the night. Fueled by cellist Dorothy Lawson’s darkly bluesy glissandos, their take of Jessie Montgomery’s rousing dance theme Voodoo Dolls was a close second. They wound up their trio of pieces, joining voices,instruments and eventually their feet throughout the bracing, allusively Appalachian close harmonies of Wolfe’s enveloping, driving Blue Dress for String Quartet.

The Bang on a Can All-Stars took back the stage alongside narrator Eric Berryman in a cinematic, suspensefully rocking arrangement of Frederic Rzewski’s Attica-themed Coming Together, cellist Ashley Bathgate and bassist Robert Black’s heroically furtive pedalpoint anchoring the story’s grim foreshadowing.

Cellist Maya Beiser and narrator Kate Valk teamed up for Lang’s pensively minimalist, gently amusing loopmusic piece The Day, its lyrics mostly a litany of tongue-in-cheek mundanities sourced off the web via a search on “I remember the day.” He explained that he’d deleted the product references and lewdness – a lot, he admitted. 

The night’s coda was Riley’s Autodreamographical Tales & Science Fiction, the composer joining the All-Stars on vocals. Chow’s bluesy Rhodes piano made a smooth segue out of the Lang work in tandem with Riley’s wry beat-poetry reminiscence. Levine’s Pink Floyd echoes added bulk and bombast; Bathgate’s powerhouse soul vocals were an unexpected treat. As was Riley’s turn solo at the piano, part Satie, part Tom Waits.

What’s the takeaway from all this? This year was less a sounding of what’s happening on a global level, as past years’ and decades’ marathons have been, than a simple celebration of the Bang on a Can inner circle, with a few tentative ventures outside. But that’s ok. They earned that a long time ago.

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May 13, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

May 12, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitarist Chris Jentsch Air Out His Latest Vivid, Cinematic, Politically Relevant Suite

Where so many jazz musicians write riffs and then jam them out, guitarist Chris Jentsch writes lavish suites – which he then plays with remarkable terseness and attention to detail. His narratives are vivid and often very funny. His latest, Topics in American History, couldn’t be more relevant. Leading his sardonically titled No Net in what was the final live performance of those songs last week at Greenwich House Music School, Jentsch played with his usual purposefulness. restraint and sense of the musical mot juste, joined by an all-star cast including Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet, David Smith on trumpet, Brian Drye on trombone, Michel Gentle on flutes, Jacob Sacks on piano, Jim Whitney on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums.

Last-minute substitution Jon Irabagon did a heroic job reading his parts, as Jentsch acknowledged, adding both volleys of postbop purism on tenor sax along with wry, microtonally-tinged humor that dovetailed with the bandleader’s own sensibility.

The centerpiece of the show was Dominos, a forebodingly expanding tableau that brought to mind Darcy James Argue in particularly sinister mode. A sotto-voce, latin-tinged, quasi-Lynchian spy theme that explores Cold War-era paranoia, its high point was a distantly grim, hazily sunbaked Jentsch solo midway through.

The evening’s coda, Meeting at Surratt’s, was arguably even better. The band built hushedly marching, conspiratorial ambience around a wistfully folksy Ashokan Farewell-ish theme to commemorate Mary Surratt, the first woman in US history executed for a Federal crime. The proprietor of the Washington, DC boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot for the Lincoln assassination, she may well have been innocent. Ineluctably and somberly, the band made their way through its mighty, cinematic sweep, from southern gothic to Morricone-esque insistence, down to a single macabre swoop from Jentsch’s guitar, a body falling from the gallows.

The rest of the set was just as diverse and no less gripping. Tempest-Tost, inspired by an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, followed the steady if turbulent path of Ellis Island immigrants, Jentsch’s low, looming solo front and center. Smith and Drye’s irresistibly cartoonish dueling personalities brought jaunty banter to the New Orleans-tinged Lincoln-Douglass Debates. The uneasily expanding vistas of Manifest Destiny – with incisive solos from Whitney, McGinnis and Irabagon, the latter on soprano – grew more satirical in Suburban Diaspora, its vintage soul roots subsumed by blustery faux-optimism. And the night’s opening number, 1491, bookended a jaunty tropical-tinged shuffle with wryly jungly atmospherics – clearly, the continent was in a lot better shape that year than the next, when the slaver Columbus arrived.

May 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Serpentine Majesty with the Tomeka Reid Quartet at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, the Tomeka Reid Quartet limited their savagery to when they really needed to drive a point home. But when they unleashed their inner beasts, the results were sublime.

On one hand, the music swung like crazy, driven by the relentless pulse of bassist Jason Roebke and ever-more-ubiquitous drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who was in as trad mode as he ever gets). On the other, Reid’s compositions can be as dark, and frequently haunting, as they are kinetic and rooted in decades of swing tradition.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson brought her big hollowbody Guild. Was this going to be showcase of too-cool-for-school hardbop voicings? No way. She was a little more restrained than usual, but it wasn’t long before she worked up a murderous thicket of machete tremolo-picking. It would be several songs into the set before she hit her pedalboard and took the tonalities into Jabba the Hut’s outer space lounge. Otherwise, she anchored the songs with expansive series of chords, sparred with Reid, or let her enigmatic phrases linger during the set’s more brooding moments.

Reid also chose her spots. Conventional wisdom is that low-register instrumentalists have no fear of the dark side, and that’s certainly true of Reid, although most of  this set was pretty upbeat. She saved her menacing upward swipes, stark stygian chords and ghostly glissandos – as well as some droll theremin-like harmonics – for when she really needed them. Otherwise, her melody, whether bowed or plucked, swung close to the ground.

The night’s darkest number was a sort of a terse Big Lazy noir cinematic theme with pedaled bass, a cello melody, martial beat and a harried crescendo that more that hinted at cello metal. Another ominous tune embodied resonant, uneasy Wadada Leo Smith blues and starkly modal Amir ElSaffar tonalities, the trio of Reid, Halvorson and Roebke following a tense rubato path.

They opened with a spiky, New Orleans-flavored shuffle and closed with a wary, serpentine piece spiced with the bandleader’s ominous, modal cello trading against Halvorson’s judicious rises and falls, which was a frequent dynamic throughout the show. In between, other highlights included a tune that came across as loopy, dark soukous, along with a staggeredly enigmatic saloon-swing mini-epic, in addition to unexpected detours toward roots reggae, dub and early 80s Pat Metheny. Notwithstanding all the gravitas, everybody in the band seemed comfortable with throwing in an occasional rhythmic swipe for levity’s sake.

Reid’s next New York show is on May 23 at 8:30 PM at the new Stone as part of guitarist Joe Morris‘ quartet. The Bang on a Can organization, who booked this show as this month’s installment of their monthly series at the Jewish Museum, are putting on their annual ten-plus-hour marathon this May 13 starting at noon at NYU’s Skirball Center at LaGuardia and Washington Square South. Admission is free, but get there early if you’re going.

April 28, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vast, Turbulent, Troubled Oceans of Sound From the Chelsea Symphony

The Chelsea Symphony’s performance in the vast downstairs oceanically-themed space at the American Museum of Natural History on the 22nd of this month might well turn out to have been this year’s most epic, intense, mightily enveloping concert. It’s hard to think of a program more toweringly and often fearsomely majestic – and relevant – than the world premiere of Michael Boyman’s The Howling Wilderness, Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales and John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean. To witness all that under deep-sea light beneath the museum’s famous fullsize facsimile of a blue whale really drove the show’s theme home. Much as the world’s oceans can take our breath away – literally and figuratively – they’re imperiled like never before in history.

Conductor Matthew Aubin didn’t bother trying to conceal how much fun he was having – or how closely he related to the music – during the program’s first half. The Chelsea Symphony are New York’s orchestral home to rising star composer-performers, and typically introduce at least one premiere at every concert. Boyman’s composition turned out to be a masterwork, Rimsky-Korsakovian in its use of every inch of the sonic register, from stygian lows to cirrus-cloud highs, something akin to a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock film score underwater. Boyman is a violist, so the menacing, rustling strings and macabre tritone cadenzas from the high strings came as no surprise. Mighty deep brass, basses and cellos, and harrowing hailstorms from the timpani anchored this dynamically rich depiction of a world in peril, an apt choice for Earth Day 2018.

The ensemble followed with an impressively seamless performance of Hovhaness’ electroacoustic work, featuring samples of actual whale song timed to the split-second to coincide with the music. From its brassy depiction of undersea mountain ranges to its mighty swoops and dives, It’s hardly an easy piece to play. But the orchestra had really pulled out all the stops, with a grand total of four rehearsals. The whole crew seemed to relish its proportions, yet with close attention to the elegance of the Asian-tinged, pentatonic melodies that Hovhaness became so obsessed with during his later years.

Led by conductor Mark Seto, the orchestra’s take of Adams’ gargantuan work – which the composer introduced with a brooding, ecologically-themed poem – was a revelation. Given the size of the space and its rich natural reverb, were the orchestra going to take it into Titanic territory? Hardly. It’s impossible to imagine a group interpreting the most epic tone poem ever written with more clarity and vividness. Every clever echo effect, subtle metric shift and handoff of one looping phrase from one section of the orchestra to another – spread out in three separate configurations – had a focus so striking that that the overall lush, enveloping ambience seemed almost an afterthought: it just lingered while the soloists dug in and concentrated. Which they had to. Imagine playing the same pedal note or riff over and over again, with the exact same timbre and volume, for minutes on end – your fingers cramp, your carpal tunnel sounds the alarm! Yet there was no flinching.

Beyond mere attention to detail, Seto’s choice to begin the work at barely more than a whisper paid magnificent dividends when the percussion finally rose from the depths to launch a tsunami of a wave about four-fifths of the way through. Likewise, the long descent from shoreline-crushing turbulence to panoramic calm was just as spellbinding.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next concerts are on June 1 and 2 at 8:30 and then 7:30 PM, respectively, featuring works by Samuel Beebe, Jonathan Bruce Brown, and Respighi’s Pines of Rome, at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The Friday concert features soloist Susanne Chen on the Victor Bruns Contrabassoon Concerto. the Saturday bill switches that out for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto featuring soloist Emanouil Manolov.

April 26, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Mesmerizingly Provocative New Suite From Matana Roberts at the Park Avenue Armory

“Barcoding existence,” spoken word artist Geng pronounced, calmly and stoically, standing motionless in a monklike outfit on a balcony inside the Park Avenue Armory last night. Below him, bandleader and alto saxophonist Matana Roberts was flanked by a sextet of drummers, three on each side. She was fixated on her laptop. Several times throughout her sold-out show in the opulently renovated Officers Room here, she’d record the ensemble and then play it back, or loop a segment, as if strategizing her next move.

“Watch them triangulate on your tv dinner,” Geng intoned. He could have been referring to a microwave…or something more sinister. That was the least opaque moment in a night of music that was as provocative as it was allusive. Roberts’ catalog is fearlessly political, and richly lyrical, spanning from lushly enveloping AACM jazz, to poignant small-group and solo compositions, to heavy rock and multimedia. You can check out her similarly thought-inducing collages at the closing reception tonight at 6 at the Fridman Gallery, 287 Spring St. west of Varick in SoHo.

She opened this new suite, Blood.Blues (A Remembrance) with a couple of deliciously microtonal sax swoops and ended with a long “ommmmmm” mantra, encouraging the audience to join her. In between, she led the group – which also comprised drummers Kate Gentile, Tomas Fujiwara, Qasim Ali Naqvi, Mike Pride, Ryan Sawyer and Justin Veloso – through a series of highly improvised variations on two main themes. One of them employed a series of gongs to create waves of ringing, pointillistic, gamelanesque melody. The other was a series of sardonic, martially-inflected snare drum rhythms. There are always innumerable levels of meaning in Roberts’ work, so to reduce it to the dilemma of how to keep the struggle going while Big Brother tries to lull you into complacency wouldn’t do justice to it. That seemed to be the main theme.

Roberts held the center calmly, both with airy, warmly resonant sax phrases and with a looming string synth riff emanating at odd intervals from the laptop. Meanwhile, Geng spoke obliquely of resistance against repression and the daily struggle to keep it together during historically dark times. Much as the roughly hourlong suite had plenty of crushing sarcasm and defiance, Roberts chose to wrap it up on a prayerful note, a guarded voice of hope.

Roberts is off on UK tour next month with sound artist Kelly Jayne Jones; dates are here.

April 25, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trio Vitruvi Make a Rapturously Vivid North American Debut at Carnegie Hall

It’s hardly realistic to expect a Carnegie Hall concert, let alone one that’s sold out, to be intimate. Yet the Trio Vitruvi’s American debut there this past week was exactly that. It was also intuitive and full of vivid narratives, tracing a rewarding historical path. And the virtuosic aspects of the performance were often downright breathtaking.

Was pianist Alexander McKenzie going to be able to maintain the blend of almost superhuman clarify and vigor that he brought to the opening movement of Schubert’s Trio in E Flat, D.929? When push came to shove, yes. And he seemed completely at home with setting the bar that impossibly high, right from the beginning. The first part is basically a little piano concerto, so he took centerstage, often with an insistent pedalpoint that would become a recurrent motif throughout the rest of the concert. The ensemble programmed it as well as they played it.

That particular trope ironically, came into clearer focus with the second movement, a cello concerto of sorts, Jacob la Cour’s alternately stark and soaring phrases complemented by Niklas Walentin’s gossamer violin textures.

As the piece went on and the interplay grew more lively, it was like being telepoted back to a particularly animated moment among the cognoscenti at a post-Napoleonic Viennese salon. Ostensibly, the central theme that recurs at sobering moments throughtout the rest of the work is an old Norwegian folk melody, but its brooding changes could just as easily have klezmer origins. It’s not out of the question that Schubert encountered it somewhere in Vienna and couldn’t resist appropriating it..

Following that with Shostakovich’s Trio No. 1 in  Minor, Op. 8 might seem like an odd pairing, but it worked seamlessly. Was this going to turn into a similarly vampy, subtly expanding exchange of personalities, or, as it seemed in the early going, rehashed Ravel? Hardly. McKenzie seemed to relish staking out the occasional, jarring dissonance that the composer sprinkles so artfully throughout the second half of the piece; Walentin’s calm shift away from silk toward sandpaper was every bit as deliciously uneasy.

The contrast between ebullient nocturnal cheer and poignancy rose to epic levels throughout the panoramic rises and lulls of an especially picturesque version of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90. A storyline quickly and forcefully materialized: the protagonist of the heroic opening movement suddenly grew wistful for his missing love. But then she came back, and all was bliss again! From there the dichotomies grew even clearer, particularly in the insistent/resonant tradeoffs among the instruments in the third movement as well as the sweetly nocturnal path that emerged in the fourth. As with the Schubert, the group seized every opportunity to tickle the audience with the occasional tongue-in-cheek flourish or vaudevillian cadenza. It’s the centerpiece of the group’s new album, just out from Bridge Records.

Trio Vitruvi reprise much of this bill and play additional works by Beethoven and Mozart this April 26 at 7:30 PM at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave. north of 37th St; cover is $20.

April 22, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Poignant Suite of North African Jazz Nocturnes at Lincoln Center

With the New York premiere of their new Abu Sadiya suite last night at Lincoln Center,the trio of multi-reedman Yacine Boulares, cellist Vincent Segal and drummer Nasheet Waits played what might have been the best single concert of 2018. Methodically and poignantly tracing most of its breathtaking peaks and haunted valleys, the three held the crowd rapt through a constantly shifting series of variations on ancient Tunisian stambeli themes.

Like gnawa, stambeli has origins in ancient sub-Saharan animist music brought north by slaves. Until the Tunisian revolution just a few years ago, it had been suppressed and become largely forgotten. It is stark, hypnotic and has an often otherworldly beauty. And since it relies so heavily on improvisation, it’s fertile source material for jazz.

In the course of working out logistics, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal – one of New York’s few genuinely visionary impresarios, who programmed the night – had sent Boulares the Rumi poem Where Everything Is Music. Boulares told the crowd how moved he had been, particularly by the conclusion, Rumi’s ultimate view of music as divine:

Open the window in the centre of your chest
And let the spirits fly in and out

It was clear from the first few somber, mystical washes of sound from Segal, Boulares’ plaintive, spacious soprano sax lines and Waits’ whispery cymbals that everyone was on that same page.

The Abu Sadiya myth may be a prototype for Persephone. As Boulares explained, the moon kidnaps Sadiya; her dad journeys through the desert, then tries to capture the moon by holding a barrel of water under his arm to catch the reflection and then bargain for Sadiya’s return. Beyond resuscitating the spirit of stambeli, Boulares’ intention is to redeem Sadiya herself. “It’s a very masculine story,” he told the crowd – Sadiya is more of a pretext for male heroism than full-fledged character.

As the suite took shape, Segal alternated between spare, trancey arpeggios, sepulchral bowing, ominous modal vamps and frequent detours into propulsive low-register gnawa riffage. Often if was as if he was playing a sintir – no other cellist has such an intense and intuitive grasp of North African music as he does

Throughout the night, Boulares ranged from forlorn, airily resonant phrases to judicious crescendos up to Coltrane-like flurries capped off by the occasional triumphant cadenza. He and Segal often switched roles, from carrying the melody line to running low, hypnotically looping riffs. This was most striking when Boulares switched to bass clarinet, taking over the low end in one of the gnawa-influenced interludes. Behind them, Waits muted his snare and toms, rattled the traps a little, took a couple of misterioso prowls along the perimeter and finally hit the launching pad with a methodically climbing solo where it sounded as if he was playing a couple of congas. It’s rare that a drummer tunes his kit with such attention to the material, particularly as troubled and angst-fueled as this is.

The three, particularly Boulares, used lots of space – and also the reverberating sonics of the Lincoln Center atrium space – mysteriously well  They gave each other just as much breathing room. Contrasting with the distantly phantasmagorical quality of the music – the moon in this myth is a real pierrot lunaire – was how incredibly catchy so many of the central riffs turned out to be. The suite’s second part opened with a very close approximation of the Rick Wright organ motif that opens Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. A bit later, Segal’s concentrically arpeggiated circles brought to mind Serena Jost’s melancholy art-rock. And Waits’ subtle shifts in, out of, and around waltz time were delectably fun for listeners as well as his bandmates.

The final segment was a portrait of Sadiya, revisiting the vast sense of abandonment that opened the night but rising with flickers and flares to cast the missing heroine as indomitable, just like her dad. They wound it down to a Saharan expanse of dusky dune ambience at the end.

The trio’s next stop on their current tour is tonight, April 20 at 7:30 PM at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. in Philadelphia; cover is $20. The next free concert at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is also tonight, at 7:30 PM with salsa dura band Eddie Montalvo y Su Orquesta, featuring alums from some of the Fania era’s greatest 1970s Nuyorican bands. The earlier you get there, the better.

April 20, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anne Carrere Reinvents Edith Piaf Classics and Rarities with Flair and Imagination in Midtown This Week

In her lavish, colorful, poignant tribute Piaf: The Show – currently running through April 21 at 7:30 PM at the French Institute/Alliance Française at 55 E 59th St. – French singer Anne Carrere absolutely gets what the iconic little sparrow was all about. On one hand, Carrere has assimilated an astonishing amount of Piaf’s performance style, extending well beyond vocals to costumes, stage patter and even her hand gestures.

There’s a moment during the angst-ridden ballad La Foule where the narrator is dancing. Last night, while Carrere sang the final verse, a vintage 1950s video of Piaf singing it played over the back of the stage. Synched to a split-second, the song’s originator and re-interpreter each swayed without a partner in their arms, sixty years apart, absolutely alone in the crowd. The effect packed a wallop.

Yet for all the verisimilitude, this isn’t mimicry. Carrere can hold those low notes with any other Piaf interpreter, but her voice is a little higher. Serendipitously, for those who didn’t grow up speaking French, her diction is much clearer than Piaf’s rapidfire 1930s Parisian slang. That helps enormously during the early part of the show, which follows Piaf’s early years singing the torrential lyrics of her hardscrabble street urchin tales in the streets of Montmartre and in sleazy Pigalle boîtes.

The imaginative, playful new arrangements of the songs hold true to lyrical content. Carrere doesn’t try to make garage rock out of Jezebel, like the Lyres did – instead, she reinvents it as third-generation, klezmer-inflected Vegas noir. She singe Autumn Leaves in competent English. And the sad tale of Mon Legionnaire, infused with Philippe Villa’s bittersweetly glittering, neoromantic piano, left no doubt as to the fateful consequences of one country stirring up trouble in another’s desert.

The choice of songs will satisfy longtime Piaf fans, and also serves as a solid introduction to the legendary chanteuse’s career. Obviously, the program includes  La Vie en Rose, and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and Milord: each of them are more stark and spare than you would expect, which enhances the lyrical effect, whether resolute and indomitable, hazy and lovestruck or bittersweet.

The early material is choice: hardcore Piaf fans will not be disappointed. Not to spoil anything, but you get the expected – an absolutely defiant take of the workingwoman’s anthem Je M’en Fous Pas Mal and  a wistful C’est un Gars – along with less frequently performed numbers, from a Waitsian interpretation of La Java de Cézigue to a deliciously phantasmagorical version of Bravo Pour le Clown.

Carrere’s four-piece backing band are fantastic, creating a backdrop that is by turns lush or intimate, depending on context – there’s never a moment where the lavish orchestration of so many of the originals is missed. Drummer Laurent Sarrien colors several of the songs with pointillistic vibraphone. Bassist and musical director Daniel Fabricant stays lowdown and in the pocket, with a deadpan camaraderie that sets up a couple of Carrere punchlines. And accordionist Guy Guiliano’s vast, plaintive washes and occasional stormy cascades are as breathtaking as Carrere’s presence.

Gil Marsalla’s direction is inventive and full of surprises. He keeps Carrere on the move nonstop throughout the first half of the program, leaving no doubt as to how hard Piaf had to work in her early days. Band members play along with the vaudevillian moments goodnaturedly; there are costume changes and several droll instances where the fourth wall comes down. The video montages are insightful, packed with rare footage of Piaf offstage with the many, many members of her circle. You will eventually be asked to sing along: there will be supertitles to guide you.

April 19, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Shattering Performance of Iconic Classical and Film Music Uptown

In terms of pure thrills and chills, there hasn’t been a concert in New York this year more exhilarating than string ensemble Shattered Glass’ performance last night at the popular Washington Heights classical spot Our Savior’s Atonement. And that includes all of Golden Fest, trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s oceanically intense Middle Eastern mass improvisation in February at NYU, and cinematic noir trio Big Lazy’s shattering performance of mostly new material at Barbes later that month. This crew are like another popular conductorless string orchestra, ECCO…on steroids.

Just back from midwest tour, the fourteen-piece ensemble were clearly psyched to be back on their home turf. They played in the round, gathered in a circle under the church’s low lights. Between works on the bill, the group shifted positions so that everyone could get to see who was playing what. It was a transcendent program, kicking off with a relentlessly angst-ridden, percussive take of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet. The sonics in the church enhanced the resonance of the pizzicato phrases to the point where they lingered almost like guitar chords. That effect would also help the delicately overtone-spiced, challenging extended technique required in Caroline Shaw’s concentrically circling Entr’acte to resound. It’s on Shattered Glass’ debut album; they’re the first group to record it.

Philip Glass’ diptych Company, its signature cell-like melody expanding deliciously outward, had distantly ominous chromatics that reminded of his Dracula soundtrack. It set the stage for what under ordinary circumstances would have been the night’s piece resistance, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings. The whole group got into the act on that lusciously chilling arrangement of the iconic horror film soundtrack. The sinuous menace of the central up-and-down staircase riff at its center, the machete attack of the shower scene, cumulo-nimbus buildups to icepick attacks and a final somber conclusion left the crowd breathless.

The group ended the night with a harrowing, dynamically epic arrangement of second Shostakovich piece, the String Quartet No. 3. The quartet of violinists Christina Bouey and Ravenna Lipchik, violist Michael Davis and cellist Max Jacob played the work as written, augmented with sinister force by the rest of the circle around them. Davis spoke passionately about how much the work means to them, and how wrenching it is to play, emotionally speaking. He didn’t say outright that there’s a psycho in the White House, or that wartime horror is that situation’s logical conclusion, but the piece spoke for itself.

And the group really nailed the narrative: the cynically lilting faux country dance that tries to come back valiantly but never does; the franticness, furtiveness but also the resilience and heroism of the second movement, Russians fending off the Nazi attackers; and the exhausted, mournful sweep of the concluding movements. It was as searing and relevant as any piece of music could have been in this country on this date.

Watch this space for Shattered Glass’ next performance. The next concert at Our Savior’s Atonement is on April 29 at 8 PM with the Jack Quartet playing a free program of “maverick American composers” TBA.

April 14, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment