Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Svetlana & the Delancey Five: New York’s Most Unpredictably Fun Swing Band

Since swing jazz is dance music, most swing bands have limitations on how far out on limb they can go. After all, you’ve got to keep everybody on their feet, right? Svetlana & the Delancey Five are the rare swing band who don’t recognize any limits: they’re just as fun to siit and listen to as they are for the dancers.

There weren’t a lot of people on their feet at the band’s sold-out show earlier this month at the Blue Note, but the band charmed the crowd for the duration of the set…with new arrangements of material that’s been done to death by a whole lot of other folks. The premise of this gig was to revisit and reinvent the great Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald collaborations, a favorite Svetlana theme.

Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian and guest Charles Turner took those roles to plenty of new places, neither singer trying to ape any of the original Ella/Satchmo takes. A lot of singers try to replicate horn lines; Shmulyian doesn’t do that, nor does she scat a lot, but she never sings anything remotely the same way twice and this show was no exception. She’s protean to the point that it takes awhile to get to figure her out, to the extent that she can be figured out. That’s part of the fun. There was a show last year where she didn’t break out the vibrato until the last song of the night; this time, she was using every device in her arsenal from the first few notes of Just A-Sitting and A-Rocking.Then later she bubbled and chirped her way through the rapidfire travelogue of her own bittersweetly charming romp, Baby I’m Back.

Turner has a wide-angle vibrato, like a classic old Packard or Mercedes with a loose clutch. How he modulates it sounds easy but is actually the opposite: it takes masterful control and nuance to stay in the game. He played it on the sly side against the bandleaders’ coy ingenue in Cheek to Cheek, then the two playfully flipped the script for a cheerily sardonic take of I Won’t Dance.

The freshness of drummer Rob Garcia’s charts is another drawing card. Much of the time, it seems like the band is jamming away, but they’re actually not: That high-voltage interplay makes even more sense in the context that this is the rare band that’s stayed together more or less for the better part of five years: Garcia knows everybody’s steez and vice versa. Case in point: the band’s take of A Tisket, a Tasket, Ella’s version of a jump-rope rhyme that’s pretty much a throwaway. But this band’s version started out as a cha-cha and took a sudden departure toward a shadowy, almost klezmer groove midway through. His Afrobeat allusions in What a Little Moonlight Can Do were just as unexpectedly kinetic and spot-on.

The high point of the set, at least in terms of getting a roar out of the crowd, was a long duel between Garcia and tap dancer Dewitt Fleming Jr.  Rather than taking the easy road, going all cheesy and cliched, Garcia engaged Fleming as a musician…and Fleming pushed back, hard! Was Garcia going to keep up with Fleming’s relentless hailstorm of beats? As it turned out, yes, with every texture and flourish and part of his hardware, but it wasn’t easy. Bassist Endea Owens jumpstarted a more low-key, elegant duel earlier on, which was just about as fun if a lot quieter and slinkier.

Multi-reedman Michael Hashin (also a member of the Microscopic Septet, whose latest blues album is a purist treat) opened jauntily on soprano in an instrumental take of Cottontail (in keeping with the theme of the show) and then switched to tenor for more smoke and congeniality for most of the rest of the set. Trumpeter Charles Caranicas also switched back and forth with his flugelhorn in the set’s more pensive, resonant numbers, while pianist John Chin drove the more upbeat material with an erudite yet almost feral, purist, blue-infused attack.

If your taste in swing runs toward good listening as well as cutting a rug, Svetlana & the Delancey Five are playing a special Make Music NY set outside Joe’s Pub on June 21 at 3 (three) PM. And unlike most Make Music NY slots, where bands snag permits for outdoor performances and then don’t show up til the eleventh hour, if at all, this show is definitely happening as scheduled. Then they’re at the carousel at the south end of Battery Park on June 23 at 7.

June 19, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Chance to Discover Some Rare Jazz Seldom Heard on This Continent

Even in this youtube-enabled era where a kid from Reykjavik or Rhode Island can develop jazz chops to rival anyone from Harlem, it takes a special kind of passion to play music that’s not native to your home turf. That’s why so many of the European jazz acts with the ambition to cross the pond can be fantastically good. And while most American fans probably don’t think of Poland as a jazz hotspot, this upcoming week’s annual Jazztopad Festival has a lineup that could open a lot of eyes and ears.

The good news is that the dreaded f-word (fusion, for folks who might have forgotten) isn’t part of the deal. There are lots of flavors. Some of the bands on the five-night bill draw on ancient, rustic Polish folk themes, others move in more of a improvisational direction. The first two nights, June 21 and 22 are at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where darkly enigmatic improvisers Stryjo and the similar Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet play at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. The Wójciński/Szmańda Quartet make another appearance on June 24 at 8 PM with eclectically brilliant cellist Erik Friedlander at the Jazz Gallery. Strings work especially well with this kind of music.

The June 23 show is at Joe’s Pub at 7:30 PM, featuring pianist Marcin Masecki and rummer Jerzy Rogiewicz playing stride and ragtime classics. Then the festival winds up at National Sawdust on June 25 at 4 PM featuring mesmerizingly improvisational string ensemble the Lutosławski Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. This blog was in the house for the quartet’s playfully fun show there last year with pianist Uri Caine, details here.

Another uncategorizably brilliant Polish band, the trio Lautari – who are not on this bill – wound up their US tour with an often riveting set last fall at Subrosa. While their current raison d’etre is to jam out rare, obscure and often otherworldly Polish folk themes, some of their their tropes are common in Polish jazz.

The big takeaway was how diverse Polish music has always been, and still remains. Several strikingly catchy, whirling dance numbers began with biting harmonies between Maciej Filipczuk’s violin and Michał Żak’s clarinet. Then Jacek Hałas’ piano would icepick and ripple, and sometimes he’d slow the tunes down and take them in a considerably more shadowy, Lynchian direction. Or they’d make a crazy quilt of counterpoint and then reconverge. Throughout their roughly ninety minutes onstage, there were recurrent echoes of Balkan music, including one particularly incisive dance number that drew a line south, straight to Macedonia.

The night’s most poignantly surreal moment was when they played a plaintive dirge to a backing track (on Filipczuk’s phone, actually) of an aging Holocaust survivor quaveringly humming an old folk tune. It was disquieting on more than one level to see the band playing along with that long-dead voice, but also redemptive to know that they’d literally resurrected the song.

As the show went on, phantasmagorical interludes reminiscent of Frank Carlberg’s Tivoli Trio were juxtaposed with bustling, Mingus-like passages and a slow, lingering piece midway through where a guest guitarist added brooding, Satie-esque accents. Halas opened the night’s most starkly riveting number solo on accordion, with a frantically trilling, Middle Eastern edge, then the band took it in a slinky direction that sounded like Dolunay on acid. There’s no guarantee that any of this will happen at this year’s festival, but you never know.

 

June 17, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

International Contemporary Ensemble Unveil a Rapturously Low-Key Program at the Miller Theatre

International Contemporary Ensemble probably cover more ground than any other indie classical group, in terms of territory,  personnel and repertoire. These days they’re more or less a bicoastal unit, with a revolving door of first-class players. Last week at the Miller Theatre, a characteristically eclectic New York subset of the organization rewarded the big crowd who’d come up to 116th and Broadway with a texturally delicious program of duo and trio works spiced with shimmering microtones, overtones and strange tunings. The ostensible theme was animal behavior; if that was meant to acknowledge how much more animals hear than we do, that made more sense.

The first really interesting piece on the bill was the world premiere of Dai Fujikura’s White Rainbow, which Jacob Greenberg played with a graceful spaciousness on harmonium. Despite the choice of instrument, there wasn’t any distinctive Indian flavor to the composer’s methodically spaced, minimalistic waves, sometimes employing a drone effect from phrase to phrase. This gave a lulling, comforting sense to what otherwise could have been construed as a wry series of trick endings.

Technically speaking, the piece de resistance was Ann Cleare’s Luna (The Eye That Opens the Other Eye), played solo on alto sax by Ryan Muncy. Employing every fragment of bandwidth in his daunting extended technique, Muncy built sepulchral overtones that pulled gently and wafted around a center, a study in mist, stillness and unselfconscious virtuosity.

Suzanne Farrin’s Polvere et Ombra was a playground for lush, lively glissandos by harpist Nuiko Wadden. Joined by acoustic guitarist Dan Lippel, the duo made their way cautiously through the allusively sinister microtones of Drew Baker’s Skulls. Muncy and Greenberg joined forces for the concluding piece, Alex Mincek’s Pendulum III, which when it built enough steam was a striking reminder of how subtle changes in a particular scale can create radical changes in the music’s colors.

These early evening, free “pop-up” concerts at the Miller Theatre can be hit-and-miss, but more often than not they’re a real treat. Originally conceived as an intimate series with free beer and the audience seated onstage, they’ve outgrown the stage (and sometimes the beer too). But this isn’t really a drinking event, it’s about the music. Since their inception in 2012, a steadily growing number of crowds have had the opportunity to hear John Zorn world premieres, Berio Sequenzas, a deliciously creepy performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and even a rare all-Michael Gordon bill of electroacoustic works in addition to scores of pieces by lesser-known but no less intriguing composers. The final one this season is tonight, June 13; doors are at 5:30, music at 6, played by Miller favorites the Mivos Quartet.

And International Contemporary Ensemble perform Pauline Oliveros’ Heart of Tones on the plaza at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival on July 28 at 7:30 PM.

June 13, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

May 31, 2017 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tamar Korn Thinks on Her Feet and Enchants the Crowd at Barbes

Memorial Day at Barbes, singer Tamar Korn addressed the audience cautiously. “Brain Cloud’s not here,” she explained. “This is my situation.” The well-loved western swing band the petite, irrepressible singer fronts will be back at their usual Monday night residency on June 5 at 7 PM for those lucky enough to be able to get out of work in time to get to Park Slope. Lots do – the back room always fills up.

Despite the holiday, there was a good crowd for this one, and everybody stayed. “I call this project Kornucopia,” Korn grinned, and it’s an apt band name. Korn is both someone who everyone wants to play with, and who basically ends up doing that anyway – that’s the state of swing jazz in New York in 2017. This was a special treat, a chance to watch her think on her feet and run through a lot of material that she rarely gets the chance to, backed by an excellent pickup band including Rob Hecht on violin, Mark Lopeman on tenor sax and clarinet, Rob Adkins on bass and a California pal, in town for the weekend, on piano.

The set was more obscurities than standards. The high point might have been an early Billie Holiday  number, One Never Knows, Does One. Korn delivered it eyes closed, wistful and pensive, opening a door into another world, letting that world slip in, and the audience slip out into it. Korn’s high soprano is instantly recognizable, with a little mist and a little smoke – jaunty wit notwithstanding, her not-so-secret weapon is nuance.

Another memorable moment, among many, was when Korn sang Abi Gezunt, the famous Yiddish swing anthem. It’s hard to translate – the implication is “at least we’re not dead.” Songs by embattled minorities – whether Mexicans under the conquistadors or now Trump, American blacks, or European Jews – tend to be ripe with irony and signification, and this was a prime example. Metropolitan Klezmer rips the hell out of it – Korn’s version gave voice to its ironies and bittersweetness. She sang the last verse in English to drive those emotions home.

The group ran through a couple of standards as well – was Old Devil Moon one of them? Maybe. Korn is unsurpassed at vocalizing the sound of various instruments. Trombone is a specialty, but this particular evening she was in a low-key trumpet mood (forget about that rrt-rrt-rrt kazoo sound – anybody can do that!). Lopeman spun wafting lyrical sax figures and jaunty, sometimes dixieland-flavored clarinet lines, Hecht adding stark blues and atmospherics, Adkins thinking on his feet as much as Korn with his purposeful, horn-like solos. Elegant, low-key rolls and tumbles and occasional departures toward barrelhouse or ragtime from the piano completed the picture. This is the kind of magic that you might accidentally stumble into over a holiday weekend at Barbes – whose Indiegogo campaign isn’t over yet, and is only about 70% funded at this point. You can help ensure that this Brooklyn treasure sticks around long enough to outlast both the Trump and Pence administrations.

May 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Manhattan Show by the Fiery Cecilia Coleman Big Band

Here are some highlights from the Cecilia Coleman Big Band’s show last year at St. Peter’s Church in midtown. If they played another after that, the monthly concert calendar (just completed – whew) didn’t catch it. They’re back this Wednesday, May 31 at 1 PM for one of the lunchtime concerts there.

Coleman didn’t come up in a big band milieu, but she’s a natural. Her charts manage to be both trad and cutting-edge. Big punchy crescendos and a brassy, energic drive are persistent tropes in her book. She likes to throw caution to the wind and let the band rip, and she’s not averse to ripping either.

They kicked off that show with a brisk three-alarm if not five-alarm shuffle fueled by the bandleader’s enigmatically cascading, neoromantic-tinged piano, punctuated by big brassy accents. A tumbling drum solo kept the beat going steadily, the brass punching in again, then the group lept back into the bustling picture, just thisclose to frantic.

Lustrous Debussyesque high brass quasi-fanfare riffage contrasted with brooding lows as the next number got underway, a moody alto sax solo as the brass hammered the offbeat and the drums moved further toward the center. Then a trombone huffed and puffed, uneasily modal over an elusive, syncopated sway. They took it out with terse trumpet riffage that gave way to a big drum crescendo, the brass kicking in the door for good measure.

From there they flipped the script with an uneasy, richly lustrous, wistful theme, anchored by Coleman’s spare but resonant chords, a baritone sax solo soaring over the vamp as colors shifted through the orchestra, a prism spinning on a turntable, if you buy that analogy.

Rapidfire yet melancholy tenor sax opened the tune after that – i’ve Got You Under My Skin, maybe? – over just the rhythm section and dominated from there: memory and distance from the stage blur who it might have been, but those two solos were exquisite. Stairstepping chromatic foreshadowing and hard swing fueled the two songs that followed.

The set’s most epic number opened with a big ominous chromatic riff spiced with Coleman’s sparkly piano, then grew louder and more ominous, only to shift toward warmer balladry. then with a more tightly wound, angst-fueled edge. Spaciously energetic trumpet, trombone and then moodily modal alto sax took their turns over a syncopated sway

Coleman’s mighty, insistent brass arrangement of a stern minor-key gospel theme was breathtaking, a tensely incisive alto sax solo leading to an explosively joyous upward drive. There was other stuff in the set, but by now, you know the deal. Either you like this kind of exhilaration or you can’t handle it.

May 29, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hot Swing Jazz on a Cool Spring Night at Drom

A big ‘ooooh” went through the crowd when arranger/conductor David Berger announced Juan Tizol’s Casablanca, the noir cha-cha classic that turned out to be the high point of a dynamic opening set by his blazing Sultans of Swing Big Band at Drom last night. Berger is a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: this gig, staged by the New York Hot Jazz Festival folks, gave him a chance to air out this stormy, allusively chromatic showstopper along with his other purist but inventive arrangements of swing tunes both popular and obscure.

Emcee Will Friedwald explained that everybody was there to celebrate the birthday of the “godfather of lindy hop,” Frankie Manning, the dance leader widely credited with springboarding the 90s swing revival here in Manhattan and around the world as well. Swing jazz was and will always be for dancers, but this was a concert for the listener too. There were at least as many people chlilling on the sidelines as there were on the floor, maybe more.

All evening, solos percolated throughout the band, individual members pairing off song by song until pretty much everybody got a few bars apiece. They kicked things off with a Mack the Knife-ish original that started out balmy, got brassy and then featured some neat syncopation between brass and reeds. A midtempo swing version of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theme song, was next. “Maybe not,” Berger admitted. “Maybe later,” one of the sax section clarified.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Someday, Sweetheart had a jaunty Dan Block clarinet solo that gave way to suave trombone, and then Mark Hynes’ bubbling tenor sax. One of the clarinetists sang an opiated take of  Louis Jordan’s Knock Me a Kiss, lit up with another bustling Hynes tenor solo.

Berger explained away his stab at making swing jazz out the old early 1900s standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon as sarcastic: if a little tongue-in-cheek, it turned out to be fetching despite itself, with some pretty hip harmonies in the high reeds and brass, exchanges of bars throughout the band and a genial trombone solo. A little later they made a gorgeously lowlit, lush wee-hours swing ballad out of the old Scottish folk song Mighty Like a Rose, with a deliciously moody low brass arrangement: it turned into a dynamic feature for baritone sax.

Zoot Sims’ The Red Door got a lush snowstorm of drums, a brightly purposeful tenor sax solo and a bit of a bubbly one from bassist Jennifer Vincent – it was good to hear her amply amped in the mix, something that you can’t necessarily expect from the four string at a big band gig.

A breathtaking, uneasily carnivalesque take of Al Cohn’s Take Four was packed with brief, out-of-breath conversational phrases. A Neal Hefti number – “the swinginest chart ever,” Berger enthused – turned into a hopped-up vehicle for more baritone sax as well as the drums’ rolling, tumbling attack.

Then guest singer Hetty Kate, fresh off the plane from Australia, joined the band and launched into a coy, slinky take of Them There Eyes. She’s the real deal: she sings in character, every number different from the last one (you’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that), can bend a blue note any which way and make you smile or smirk or furrow your brow along with her.

You’re Too Marvelous for Words, with its simmering sophistication and surprisingly stark, bluesy trombone solo, contrasted with the bitingly brassy, sarcastic kissoff anthem A Fine Romance. And then channeled brittle hope and expectation in Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss to Build a Dream On. The band closed with an irrepressible dixieland flair.

The New York Hot Jazz Festival’s next big production is at Central Park Summerstage on July 1 starting at 5 PM with chanteuse Aurora Nealand, charming, female-fronted cosmopolitan swing crew Avalon Jazz Band and NYC’s arguably finest oldtime swing band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks,

May 27, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miklos Lukacs’ Bewitching Cimbalom Unlimited Play an Epic Album Release Show at Drom

The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night. 

Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.

A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo. 

From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way. 

Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.

May 24, 2017 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Vast, Intricate, Awe-Inspiring Oceans of Sound Downtown

What’s the likelihood that the two opening works on a program featuring John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean would hold their own alongside that epically enveloping, meticulously churning, playfully palindromic masterpiece? It happened yesterday at St. Paul’s Chapel downtown, where Novus NY delivered a mighty coda to this season’s program of music on themes of water justice, staged by Trinity Church.

The pervasive cynicism that still exists at corporate rock concerts has roots in the classical world: “Let’s warm up the crowd with something short and random and then get down to business.” From the first few stark, distantly enigmatic notes of Luna Pearl Woolf’s After the Wave, a portrait of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and its aftermath, it was clear that Julian Wachner’s fearlessly eclectic ensemble had come to deliver a message. With just the hint of foreshadowing, the methodical pulse of daily routine gave way to a flood of low tonalities and bracing close harmonies as haunting as anything in Adams’ work. From there the orchestra made their way through an unexpectedly triumphant latin-tinged fanfare of sorts, up to a conclusion that signaled triumph and recovery over an ocean of devastation.

The world premiere of violist/composer Jessica Meyer’s string orchestra piece Through Which We Flow was  even more consistently riveting. Introducing the work, Meyer explained how she’d been inspired by Masuru Emoto’s book The Hidden Messages in Water, which claims that human thought directed at water can affect the shape of its ice crystals. Considering that we’re 85% water, if science can validate Emoto’s thesis, this would be paradigm-shifting to the extreme.

Meyer has made a name for herself with her intricate, solo loopmusic, its intertwining themes and atmospheric electronic effects. That influence was apparent in the work’s subtle thematic shifts, intricately circular motives and rhythmic persistence, not unlike Julia Wolfe. But freed from the confines of the loop pedal, Meyer’s mini-suite flowed carefully and methodically from rapt, mantra-like permutations, through grim insistence to a peacefully hypnotic ending. All this demanded plenty of extended plucking and percussive technique, and the ensemble rose to the challenge. It’s the best thing Meyer’s ever written: there isn’t a string orchestra on the planet that wouldn’t have a field day playing this.

So it’s fair to say that Become Ocean wasn’t just the piece de resistance, but a fitting coda.  Performed by three separate segments of the orchestra – strings and percussion facing the church’s south wall, brass on the back balcony, with winds, harp and vibraphone under the nave of the church, Wachner (wearing headphones) led the groups through a seamless morass of tidal shifts, endlessly bubbly chains of rivulets and a titanic wall of sound that evoked dread and deadly power as much as awestruck wonder.

It’s easy to describe the early part of the work as orchestral Eno (and just as difficult to play: try pedaling the same note for ten minutes, nonstop, maintaining perfectly unwavering tone and timbre!). But that womb-like reverie gave way to a wall as menacing as anything depicted in Woolf’s piece – at five times the volume. As themes made their way slowly back and forth between the three groups of musicians, it was as if the audience had become part of the orchestra, literally immersed in the music. In an era where the Seventh Continent continues to expand – plastic springwater bottles no doubt being part of it – and the Fukushima reactors continue to leak their lethal toxins into the Pacific, it’s hard to think of a more relevant concert being staged in New  York this year.

Trinity Wall Street’s orchestra conclude this spring’s season with a performance of Philip Glass’ similarly rapturous if not necessarily water-themed Symphony No. 5 there tonight, May 19 and tomorrow, May 20 at 8 PM. Admission is free; early arrival is advised.

May 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Explore Harrowingly Diverse Reactions to War at the French Institute

Last night at the French Institute, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble sang a sometimes understatedly somber, often outright harrowing program that was as hubristic as it was relevant. Interspersing imaginatively arranged Civil War folk songs and hymns in between movements of Poulenc’s dynamic and rarely performed World War II-era Figure Humaine, the fifteen-piece choir voiced affectingly disparate reactions to wartime terror and the stress of living under siege.

Other choirs have mashed up iconic works from the classical repertoire with other styles, or with lesser-known pieces, with mixed results. Seraphic Fire‘s iconoclastic performance of the Mozart Requiem last year at Trinity Church, incorporating new compositions, worked swimmingly well. An attempt by another group to interpolate rather unrelated material into a dark and troubling Frank Ferko chorale, later in the year further uptown, was jarring and problematic.

In this case, the segues between calm, stoic American hymns or strikingly ornate arrangements of 19th century folk songs with Poulenc’s alternately starkly kinetic and acidically lustrous, Stravinskian themes didn’t make for easy transitions. But Poulenc probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this go to over smoothly: as a survey of human reactions to suffering, it packed a wallop, segues be damned.

Poulenc wrote his suite clandestinely with the hopes that it could be performed after an Allied victory. Turbulent, defiant cadenzas alternated with uneasy close harmonies and brooding atmospherics, all the way through to a triumphant coda fueled by soprano Sarah Moyer’s resolute intensity, just thisclose to a scream. She’d been tipping that pitch all evening long, the flicker of a smile often breaking into almost a smirk as she stood centerstage: she knew what was coming and reveled in it.

The rest of the group shone brightly in the Civil War material, as strikingly reflective of its time and place as Poulenc’s. In attempting to establish a distinctly American repertoire, choirs of that period often souped up folk tunes with elaborate and challenging arrangements. Some of these, like the stark rendition of Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye – the original Scottish version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home – date from then. Conductor Matthew Guard’s own arrangements –  a stately, hazily optimistic version of When This Cruel War Is Over, a plaintive take of Soldier’s Memorial Day and finally a Battle Hymn of the Republic that transcended schoolyard mockery – were true to the spirit of the times.

Likewise, the choir brought emotion, whether the savage cynicism – “Ridicule! Ridicule!” – in the Poulenc, or the funereal nebulosity of the hymn Abide with Me, into sharp focus. Crescendos were vivid and affecting: tenor George Case got plenty of time in the spotlight and rose to the occasion. Likewise, baritone Glenn Billingsley and the rest of the low voices offered endless, steady washes of circular breathing, lowlighting a couple of the folk tunes. Ultimately, the group delivered a message of hope: as much as we have suffered, even World War II didn’t last forever. In times like these, that message resonates just as powerfully.

This was it for this season’s characteristically eclectic series of concerts at the French Institute, but their similarly eclectic film series continues through May; there are also wine events, and a big Bastille Day bash this summer.

April 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | Leave a comment