Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lilian Caruana’s Fascinating, Bittersweet New Photo Book Offers a Rare Glimpse of the Mid-80s New York Punk Rock Scene

In one of the initial CBGB crowd shots in photographer Lilian Caruana’s new book, Rebels: Punks and Skinheads of New York’s East Village 1984-1987, an audience member appears to be wearing a swastika patch. A closer look reveals a famous Dead Kennedys quote: “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF.” In many ways, that capsulizes the unexpected complexities of Caruana’s collection of black-and-white photos and brief interview quotes. It’s more bittersweet, strikingly insightful historical document than it is nostalgia.

In her introduction, Caruana puts the era in perspective. By the 1990s, punk fashion had been completely co-opted by corporate interests. Violent evictions by the police put an end to the Lower East Side squatter movement, paving the way for the destruction and suburbanization of a long-thriving artistic neighborhood. With a finely honed sense of irony – in the true sense of the word – and a wry sense of humor, Caruana portrays a long-lost subculture in their irrepressible DIY milieu.

In what might be the most surreal shot of all, a blonde girl who looks all of about fourteen sits on a mattress, her legs wrapped in a repurposed American flag. Her blank stare fixes on a black-and-white tv propped up on a milk crate. A Ronald Reagan movie plays on the screen. The pillow to her left is from the Bellevue mental ward. Decorations on the wall are sparse: a grimy handprint and a label peeled off a torpedo of Budweiser. The year is 1986.

As Caruana explains, the individuals in her portraits come from a wide swath of social strata. Collectively, they feel disenfranchised. Bobby sees himself as exploited at his minimum-wage job and isn’t beyond taking a little extra from the till to make ends meet. Dave, an Army deserter, longs for the American dream but not the mortgage and suburban drudgery. Matt comes from a more affluent background but is similarly alienated by outer-borough conformity.

As grim as their worldview may be, these people seem anything but unhappy. They lounge with their pets – a colorful menagerie including rats, kittens and an iguana – practice their instruments and strike sardonically defiant poses. Recycling may be all the rage in yuppie circles now, but punks were doing it forty years ago, if only because it was a practical survival strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the Cro-Mags, the Exploited, Agnostic Front and Battalion of Saints are the bands most often visually referenced here. But what these photos remind over and over is the vast difference between the Lower East Side hardcore contingent and their bridge-and-tunnel counterparts. Hardcore may have been more relentlessly aggressive, monotonous, and implicitly violent, compared to punk. But the LES crowd was far more likely to be politically aware, multi-racial, tolerant and open to women. In other words, they remained closer to punk’s populist roots than the high school boys whose moms would drop them at CB’s for the Sunday afternoon hardcore matinee and then drive them home to Long Island in the family Chevy Suburban. Other photographers have made big bucks shooting the famous and the semi-famous in that same part of town at the height of the CB’s scene a few years previously; Caruana’s work both dignifies and illuminates a time and place too infrequently chronicled.

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January 10, 2018 Posted by | Art, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

January 8, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brilliant, Surreal Roots of Jazz and Third-Stream Sounds Rescued From Obscurity on the Latest Black Manhattan Collection

Since the 1980s, pianist Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have built a vast living archive of rare ragtime and theatre music from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. Possibly hundreds of these pieces might have been lost forever if not for Benjamin’s tireless sleuthing. He and the orchestra have a new album, Black Manhattan, Volume 3, streaming at Spotify, continuing an amazing tradition that’s just as fun to hear as it is to read about  – his exhaustive liner notes are essential for anyone seriously interested in New York music history.

Benjamin named the series after James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 history of New York black artistic life. This latest volume – the first and second are both streaming at Spotify – follows the pattern of previous editions, a dynamic mix of dance numbers, colorful theatrical themes and ballads, many of them marking the magic moments where ragtime and blues began to morph into jazz.

The composers run the gamut from the legendary to the most obscure. It may come as a shock to discover that the world premiere recording of the original 1900 score of Lift Every Voice and Sing is on this album. Incredibly, it’s been over a century since J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson wrote the iconic secular hymn. It reveals itself as peppier than you might think, sung with operatic passion by the album’s four vocalists: sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant. For anyone wondering how far afield from the blues the quartet are, the answer is that by 1900, the western bel canto style had become so pervasive in urban areas in this country that most professional singers were trying to emulate it.

The rest of this lavish archive includes a grand total of 22 tracks, from cakewalks to struts to foxtrots. The oldest song is James Bland’s Oh Dem Golden Slippers, published in 1879, its puckish signification matched by the band’s slyly jaunty interpretation. The most recent is a bubbly, violin-driven version of famed pianist Eubie Blake’s I’m Just Wild About Harry, proof that Presidential candidates long before Bill Clinton were mining the pop hits of a previous generation for their campaign songs.

Many of the composers immortalized here were members of the Clef Club, a black counterpart to the fledgling New York music unions of the era. Black musicians here could be in charge of the music at the Ziegfield Follies, and stage Carnegie Hall concerts, but weren’t allowed to join the white-controlled unions. Luckey Roberts, a major Clef Club figure, is represented by a handful of tracks, among them the Tremolo Trot, which is actually more staccato – and Italian. By contrast, his 1919 song Jewel fo the Big Blue Nile, sung by Brugger, is a lavish, orchestrated take on stark 19th century spiritual sounds.

Packer matches the careful, mutedly plaintive cadences of Benjamin’s piano in Gussie L. Davis’ 1896 waltz In the Baggage Coach Ahead, inspired by a morbid poem of the time. A brisk, blustery take of J. Turner Layton’s 1918 hit After You’ve Gone – popularized by Bessie Smith and thousands after her – sits side by side with Will H. Dixon’s  lushly enigmatic Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico, from four years previously. Likewise, the themes run the gamut from Scott Joplin’s perhaps intentionally balmy Wall Street Rag to the boisterously lavish Overture to My Friend from Kentucky, a 1913 musical.

Plenty of marquee names have passed through this band over the years. Vince Giordano is an alum; the great clarinetist Vasko Dukovski gets to flex his blues chops here. The rest of the cast seems to be having a great time, including Keiko Tokunaga and Melissa Tong on violin; Colin Brookes on viola; Lisa Caravan on cello; Max Jacob on bass; Leslie Cullen on flute and piccolo; Paul Murphy and Michael Blutman on cornets; Michael Boschen on trombone; Mike Dobson on drums and Diane Scott on piano. Fans of the surreal third-stream mashups that are being mined by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – featured on this page yesterday – will find an amazing precedent to all that here.

January 8, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

January 7, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy London Shares an Archive Full of Stars

“You know, i played on that record.”

Sit around for any length of time with a bunch of sidemen, or bandleaders who sometimes lend their talents to others, and the conversation inevitably drifts to the obscure. Sometimes the thread ends on a down note. Eventually, “I wonder when she’s gonna put out that album,” turns into “That album never came out.”

Until this month, that’s what both Fred Hersch and Dr. Lonnie Smith would have said about Amy London’s wryly titled new retrospective, Bridges, streaming at Spotify. The singer and member of bebop quartet the Royal Bopsters recorded her first three sessions as a bandleader in 1984, 1987 and 1990,. None of them have seen the light of day until now.

An ambitious effervescence pervades this retrospective. To paraphrase London, it’s someone who cut her teeth on blue-eyed soul doing her damnedest to make a mark singing both bop and ballads. In the years since she recorded this material, she’s done both. It doesn’t look like she’s touring the record, but the Royal Bopsters are at Minton’s on Jan 13 at 7:30 PM for $15.

There are three ensembles on the three sessions represented here. Fred Hersch leads the 1987 recordings from the piano (and contributes vocals!), joined by drummer Victor Lewis, Harvie S on bass, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax and Cyro Baptista on percussion. The 1990 recordings – tracks eight through twelve – feature pianist Peter Madsen, bassist Dean Johnson, drummer Eliot Zigmund, trumpeter Byron Stripling and New York Voices leader Darmon Meader.

The final two cuts include Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond organ, Bobby Franceschini on tenor sax, guitarist Jack Wilkins, bassist Harvie S and drummer Akira Tana.

London’s clear, uncluttered delivery, sometimes with a tinge of mist, makes an apt vehicle for a singer whose ideas typically echo horn phrasing. London isn’t just the bandleader – she’s an integral part of these ensembles, and there  are innumerable, vivid illustrations of that here. The slinky intertwine between vocals and bass in A Sleepin’ Bee, just for starters. Likewise, the imaginative vocal-and-sax duet to kick off I’m in the Mood For Love. The torrents of vocals-as-trumpet-solo in Bohemia After Dark are irrepressibly fun and as craftily thought-out as any instrumental contribution to the sessions.

London shifts from brooding storytelling mode to an Afro-Latin stomp in Love For Sale, The rest of the album includes a full-throttle take of Devil May Care, a expansively pensive wee-hours interpretation of Dream, a hazily shimmery, organ-fueled version of You’ve Changed and a really nifty tropical reinvention of the 60s klezmer-pop hit Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

January 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding, Cinematic Piano Minimalism From Elias Haddad

Pianist Elias Haddad writes dark, pensive, frequently poignant songs without words that draw equally on minimalism and film music, with flickers of the Middle East. You could call him the Lebanese Ludovico Einaudi. Philip Glass is also a major influence. For fun, check out Haddad’s performance in the Jeida Grotto at Mount Lebanon – much as the humidity is doing a number on the piano’s tuning, you can tell how magical the sonics must have been in there that night. His new album Visions is streaming at Spotify. Lucky concertgoers in Ghazir, Lebanon can see him there with Noemi Boroka on cello at the town church on Jan 20 at 7:30 PM; the show is free.

The new album is mostly solo piano, Jana Semaan adding moody, lingering cello to several cuts. The opening track, Falling Leaves blends bell-like, calmly insitent phrases over stygian cello washes: it’s akin to Yann Tiersen playing Federico Mompou.

Alone, a rather menacing solo piano anthem, reminds vividly of Glass’ film work, notably the Dracula soundtrack. It makes a diptych with the similar but more emphatic Chasing Dreams. In Deep Blue, Haddad builds hypnotically circling variations over the cello wafting in from below.

Dream 6676 would make a great new wave pop song – or the title theme for a dark arthouse film. Eternal Tranquility juxtaposes spacious, distantly elegaic piano against distantly fluttering cello that sounds like it’s being run through a sustain pedal. Haddad makes a return to Glassine territory with Free, a somber waltz, and then Illusions and its tricky, Indian-inflected syncopation.

The cello lines over Haddad’s slowly expanding, twinkling broken chords in Last Heartbeats aren’t quite imploring, but they’re pretty close. The wryly titled Teenagers in Love comes straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti school of 50s kitsch recast as noir – it sounds suspiciously satirical. The album’s title track blends Satie angst and Ray Manzarek flourishes. Haddad closes with the sweeping, Lynchian theme Welcome Home.

A casual listener might catch a bar or two of this and confuse it with new age music, or the innumerable gothboy synthesizer dudes who are all over youtube, but it’s infinitely catchier and darker. Somewhere there’s a suspense film or a refugee documentary waiting for this guy to score.

January 6, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No Wasted Notes From Guitarist Amanda Monaco and Her Killer Organ Jazz Quartet

Beyond the obvious Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations, there haven’t been a lot of jazz guitarists leading organ bands. Guitarist Amanda Monaco is a welcome exception – it’s a role she excels at, although hers is hardly your typical B3 group. She’s leading a trio with Justin Carrol on organ and Jeff Davis on drums on Dec 20 at 8 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 plus the usual $10 minimum. As a bonus, edgy, lyrical tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss leads her quintet afterward at 9:30.

Monaco pulled together a killer, refreshingly unorthodox lineup for her latest album, Glitter, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. Gary Versace plays organ, joined by Matt Wilson on drums and Lauren Sevian on baritone sax. Diehard organ types might feel that Versace is underutilized here, but ultimately this is all about the frontline: the way Monaco fills the role of a horn in tandem with the baritone is as interesting as it is innovative.

Monaco’s effervescent wit is in full effect right from the first droll around-the-horn echo effects of the album’s opening track, Dry Clean Only. Nicking the changes of Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, the group motors along throught tight, purposeful growl from Sevian, similarly spaced clusters from Versace and some delicious off-beat cymbal work from Wilson.

Monaco learned Tommy Flanagan’s jaunty “let’s go” theme Freight Trane from the Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane album; the way the group hangs back, refusing to hit a straight-up shuffle in the beginning is tantalizingly fun. Gremlin From the Kremlin – a shout-out to Monaco’s husband written before the disastrous events of November 8, 2016 – comes across as a gruffly edgy, bitingly chromatic strut, part klezmer and part noir bolero: Versace manages to find his creepiest tremolo setting before Monaco sets a vector for an uneasy stroll.

Monaco and Sevian go way back together, so Girly Day takes its inspiration from their years of brunching and comparing notes on the trials of being female musicians in a male-dominated genre. It’s catchy but unsettled, with some neatly diverging harmonies and a priceless what-now solo from Wilson.

Inspired by Holly Golightly’s method for pulling herself out of the doldrums in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Mean Reds is a gutbucket strut, part Chuck Berry, part Jimmy McGriff go-go and part T-Bone Walker. Step Counter has a slightly staggered clave beat, low-key Giant Steps changes and similarly amiable guitar-sax conversations. Fred Lacey’s Theme For Ernie, popularized by Trane, serves as a moody launching pad for poignant solos by Sevian and Monaco.

Meant to evoke what must have been a hell of a hangover, Mimosa Blues is the album’s darkest number, Versace climbing around tirelessly through his most menacing, Messianic voicings, Monaco echoing that surrealism. The album winds up with the title track, a catchy, anthemic look back at Monaco and Sevian’s days in the early zeros getting ready for big-band gigs  If Dave Brubeck had been an organist, he might have written something like it. Throughout these tracks, it’s refreshing to the extreme to hear a guitarist so purposeful and individualistic, who never feels the need to fall back on tired postbop comping mechanisms.

December 18, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

December 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughns White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

December 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment