Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

August 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting an Inviting, Convivial French Late Romantic Collection by the Neave Trio

The Neave Trio got high marks here last year for their album Her Voice, a collection of rare pieces by women composers (some might cynically say that even now, anything by a woman composer is rare). But the ensemble had done rewarding work before that record, including their 2018 release French Moments – streaming at Spotify – a collection of somewhat less obscure pieces from the Late Romantic period. This music doesn’t dissemble. It’s convivial, translucent and attractive and probably won’t satisfy those who fortify themselves with Bartok or Stravinsky. But the trio rise to this music’s warmly Romantic, finely polished level of craft.

One of these pieces is a nocture, more or less. Another is wine-hour – or babysitting-hour – music for the idle classes of 19th century Europe. Another is a late composition by a favorite of the era who has fallen out of favor – and it’s good to see this group recording his work.

The nocturne, better known on its home turf than it is here, is Albert Roussel’s Trio, Op. 2. They open the first movement with a warmly but suspensefully crepuscular, almost tremoloing pulse. The music rises to an insistent, almost breathless peak that quickly fades away into pianist Eri Nakamura’s starry diminuendo. The strings – violinist Anna Williams and cellist Mikhail Veselov -carry the next upward drive to a lyrical rondo, some agitation and a whip of a coda.

There’s a wistful, vividly cantabilee quality to the second movement, the group really taking their time with it, Williams’ nimble flourishes contrasting with Nakamura’s emphatic underpinning. Veselov gets a welcome opportunity to darken the lustre in the moodily waltzing, dynamically shifting conclusion, ending almost like a palindrome.

The drinking music is Debussy’s Premier Trio, a student work written when he was 18, shlepping from country house to country house with one of Tschaikovsky’s patrons…and babysitting. It sure doesn’t sound anything like the Debussy we know and love. Schubertian counterpoint, anthemic opening credits-style hooks, a little prescient modal vamping and lighthearted phantasmagoria: pretty stuff, nothing too complicated or unsoothing. The trio are obviously having a good time with it.

Gabriel Fauré’s Trio, Op. 120 is a late work, and the three establish a rather saturnine mood in the initial exchanges of sober cello and glistening night-sky piano. A lush, lilting contentment gains momentum with Nakamura’s steady triplets and a real coup de grace at the end of the first movement. The second has more of an insistent unison pulse; everybody gets more of a workout in the third, Nakamura especially. The first and second, especially, have long interludes of sheer gorgeousness. Even though he managed to outlive Debussy, Faure stayed Romantic to the end.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

August 2, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.

July 30, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheeery, Retro New Orleans, Dixieland and Swing Sounds From the Doggy Cats

The Doggy Cats got their start at legendary Red Hook watering hole Sunny’s Bar, and play the kind of music that the regulars who frequented the place during its Prohibition days listened to. Tetsuro Hoshii leads the sextet from behind the piano. His merry bandmates include trumpeter Aaron Bahr, saxophonist Zac Zinger, trombonist Christopher Palmer, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia. Their cheery, catchy debut album Daikon Pizza is streaming at Bandcamp.

Garcia kicks off the album’s opening number, Happy Dog with a nifty New Orleans shuffle, and from there the band build a lively, joyous, dixieland-flavored theme. Bourgeoisie Breakfast With Dogs is a ragtime strut with more of a lowdown feel. Howdy Cats! also has New Orleans flair, fleetingly lustrous horns and wry surf allusions from Garcia.

Fatty Catty is mostly a one-chord jam anchored by Hoshii’s insistent, syncopated lefthand, with droll low-register trombone and a tumbling drum solo. A somewhat more serious trombone solo and bluesy piano brighten up Old Clock, a midtempo swing song without words, The band get a little funkier with Dacadindan and its punchy solos around the horn.

Brass Hymn is just the horns doing what sounds like a paraphrase of Auld Lang Syne. The aptly titled, jubilantly swaying Happiest Cat has a sagacious conversation between sax and trombone. Then it’s time for trumpet and bass to do some playful jousting in Samba – that’s the name of the tune – which actually has a lot more Louisiana then Brazil in it. Hoshii’s emphatic stairstepping and scampering solo afterward take the song into much more modern territory.

Palmer’s wry muted lines rise over Hoshii’s stately gospel piano in the slow, 6/8 Sunset. The album’s most expansive track, Qui Rock is a detour into edgier postbop sounds, Hoshii’s stern, bluesy bassline variations holding it down as Zinger reaches for the sky; the terse interweave between bass and piano is an unexpectedly dynamic touch. The band stroll home to a Bourbon Street of the mind circa 1935 to close the album with Baila Biala Jambalaya. Spin this at your next houseparty if you want to keep everybody there.

July 30, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Auspicious Debut Album and a Brilliant String Quartet From Composer Reinaldo Moya

The sophistication and purposefulness of the compositions on the new album Hearing It Get Dark: Music of Reinaldo Moya – streaming at youtube – – speaks to the composer’s formative years in Venezuela’s El Sistema. His music is remarkably translucent and evocative, with influences from minimalism to the baroque.

Chamber ensemble Latitude 49 play the opening piece, Polythene Sonata Product. It’s meant to evoke a factory milieu; there are disquietly starry, Bernard Herrmann-esque moments with the piano front and center, with a tantalizingly lyrical clarinet solo and insistently rhythmic, circular phrases that bring to mind Louis Andriessen.

Moya’s violinist wife Francesca Anderegg plays Bonsai, a tersely dancing, disarmingly anthemic, dynamically shifting solo theme and variations. She tripletracks herself in Violin 3.0, which began as an etude and then took on a life of its own as a bracing, uneasy study in triangulated counterpoint. Philip Glass’ string quartets occasionally come to mind here.

The Attacca Quartet play Moya’s brilliantly picturesque, understatedly haunting string quartet Hearing It Getting Dark, inspired by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The first movement employs a series of short, jabbing echo phrases, striking staccato/sostenuto contrasts and individual voices shadowing each other, with an undercurrent of violence.

The second depicts the fateful final day of central character Quentin Compson, someone whose existential angst has been ripe material for musical interpretation across the decades. Cellist Andrew Yee’s eerily brisk pulse captures a cruelly fleeting present, the quartet nimbly negotiating Moya’s short, practically cell-like phrases which offer neither hope nor closure for a Romantic who has lost his way for good. The coda comes earlier than you would expect.

The concluding movement is a synopsis of sorts, both thematically and structurally, reflecting the dissociative inner world inhabited by Benjy, a classic Faulknerian wise-fool character mourning the loss of his sister. Again, Moya challenges the quartet and taunts the listener with a fleeting lack of resolve. It’s a powerful novel and a powerful piece of music that deserves to be part of the standard repertoire.

July 29, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Playful, Timely Jazz Reinvention of a Brooding Schubert Suite

One of the most surrealistically enjoyable releases of recent months is a highly improvised instrumental version of Schubert’s Winterreise, an allusively political protest suite disguised as a collection of lovelorn ballads. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Phil Kline have drawn inspiration from the composer’s brooding early Romanticism, but it’s hard to remember if there’s ever been a jazz interpretation of the whole thing. The collective Madre Vaca are responsible for this crazy stunt, streaming at Bandcamp. The group’s drummer, Benjamin Shorstein gets credit for this fearless, inspired, latin-tinged arrangement.

The opening number, Goodnight, is a marching blend of Cab Calloway hi-de-ho, the Beatles’ For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and a little of the original courtesy of Jonah Pierre’s piano.

Likewise, the group play up the phantasmagoria in a strutting, waltzing take of The Weathervane, then they loosen, with the horns – Juan Rollan’s sax, Steve Strawley’s trumpet and Lance Reed’s trombone – getting nebulous until the rest of the band pull them back on track.

Shorstein and bassist Mike Perez rise from a klezmer-tinged shuffle as Frozen grows from an ambered gravitas to a postbop jazz crush with high-voltage solos from sax and piano. They reinvent Loneliness as a moodily energetic bossa, guitarist Jarrett Carter’s sage, spacious solo at the center.

Pierre and Carter converse broodingly in The Grey Head, with a chromatically-charged bristle and a more muted tropical tinge. Percussionist Milan Algood fuels the qawwali-ish groove of The Crow: once again, there are hints of klezmer, hard-charging sax and McCoy Tyner-inspired piano, and bubbly guitar solos.

The group make Monk-ish clave jazz out of Last Hope; even with the new syncopation, the underlying angst cuts through, especially when the carnivalesque atmosphere grows insistent. The version of The Stormy Morning here is a cha-cha, Reed’s chuffing trombone setting up a big coda from Strawley. Pierre’s Schubertian salsa piano is one of the funniest moments on the album.

Pierre and an uncredited vocalist do a serviceable, straight-up classical take of The Sun Dogs and close with a deviously Balkan-inflected take of The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Schubert’s disconsolate portrait of the suite’s protagonist all alone on the ice with only a homeless drunk for company.

The Winterreise has special relevance for our time as well. It wasn’t written under a lockdown, but during a serious crackdown on civil liberties under another repressive regime. Schubert changed the order of the Wilhelm Muller poems he used as text in order to fool the censors.

July 27, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Radical Japanese Firestorm Back in Print After Forty-Five Years

On September 5, 1975 guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit played a marathon concert at Yasuda Seimei Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Any kind of jazz beyond traditional swing was considered radical and frowned on by the authorities at the time – and by pretty much any standard, this is utterly fearless, often completely unhinged  music.  The performance was eventually immortalized on two albums, but never in the exact order of the setlist, such that there was a setlist. Finally, this landmark performance of transgressive improvisation has been reissued just as it was played, titled Axis/Another Revolvable Thing, streaming at Bandcamp and available courtesy of the folks at Blank Forms.

The first album comprises just three tracks: two group improvisations and a drum solo, none of which offer any idea of the carnage to come later. The conversational rapport between the players is obvious as the thicket of staccato in the opening segment coalesces in a flash: Takayanagi joined by Kenji Mori on flutes and bass clarinet, Nobuyoshi Ino alternating between bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on drums. This is a jungle, a brisk worker ants’ round-robin of short exchanges. extended flurries and jaunty echo effects punctuated by Mori’s leaping flute. Takayanagi plays without a hint of effects, mostly cello-like pizzicato. never really approximating any kind of traditional melody. It’s as playful as it is purposeful. Gabor Szabo in especially terse mode comes to mind. No wonder the band saw fit to release it.

Devious poltergeist accents and coy humor pervade the second improvisation amid lots of space. The colorful drum solo is basically a synopsis of what’s happened up to this point, and as quickly becomes clear, Yamazaki has tuned his kit to continue a couple of simple, catchy two-note themes from the previous piece. Drama and suspense prevail, no small achievement.

The second disc is where the inferno starts, both Takayanagi and Nobuyoshi conjuring evil sheets of feedback, often receding back to a Shinto temple of the mind for minutes on end. It’s basically the shadow side of the first record, with toxic white noise from Takayanagi’s wah pedal, Yamazaki walking a tightrope expertly between mystery and mayhem. Ironically, Mori, the adventurous sprite of the first album, holds the center blithely as all hell breaks loose around him. Finally, he breaks free with one shriek after another.The feral 23-minute coda is to die for, if you like this kind of noise.

A sonic portent for this fall’s lockdowner blitzkrieg when it’s clear that COVID-19 is gone and is not coming back, and the lockdowners have to find a new excuse to keep us imprisoned? We have a choice in this, folks: it’s time to take off the mask and take our society back. or else.

July 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rewardingly Dark, Insightful New Interpretations of Beethoven and Ligeti String Quartets

There’s a point toward the end of the Jupiter String Quartet’s new performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14, Op 131 where suddenly a series of echo effects kick in. One is strikingly quieter than the other. What a stunning contrast, and a stunning insight. It’s hard to think of another quartet who have seized on that particular phrase so dynamically – and they reprise that toward the end of the piece.

Obviously, the group went deep under the hood and came away with an interpretation that even in the rarified world of virtuoso classical music is especially meticulous. It’s the first piece on their new album Metamorphosis, streaming at youtube. Even if you’ve heard other quartets do it a million times, this one is worth discovering.

They approach that first movement with wistfulness but restlessness: overall, this recording in general tends to be faster and more vigorous than is commonplace, underscoring the piece’s persistent unease and, in places, unselfconscious angst. The group – violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough – also employ a more old-word, vibrato-laden touch, especially early on.

The subtle differences in the levels of the individual voicings in the second movement are equally revealing; unlike how some other quartets play it, this is more of a sway than a march. The momentary third movement is an emphatic launching pad for the next one’s expressive resilience, particularly in its evocation of Bach, persistently jabbing, insistent pizzicato and staccato, and a whispery setup to the song without words afterward.

Movement five is quite the romp, at least when the composer’s not threatening to send everybody home from the party, a breathtaking contrast with the sudden sorrow of the sixth. Reckless abandon is not what most people would expect, but there’s some of that in the wary, marching phrases of the conclusion.

György Ligeti’s Holocaust-themed String Quartet No. 1 seems like an unlikely companion piece, although it follows a similar trajectory. And this version is equally picturesque, if in a more overtly grim sense,  A violin wanders woundedly through nebulously rising wafts of battlefield smoke. Groupthink seems to plague the menacing authority figures here; aghast chromatic runs give way to muted shock and hope against hope. The demands of the piece on the quartet’s extended technique are daunting, and they negotiate those microtones, and shrieks, and incessant pivots, with the agility of a fugitive from fascists on the prowl. We may have to do the same, if we fail to stop ‘trace and track,” in moments where the only music is sirens or the screams of children torn from their parents.

July 25, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment