Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Daniel Bennett and Mark Cocheo Play the Funniest Weekly Jazz Residency in Town

The wryly entertaining, irrepressibly catchy new album We Are the Orchestra, credited to the Daniel Bennett Group and streaming at Bandcamp, is actually the work of just two guys in the studio. Bandleader Bennett, who plays a small orchestra’s worth of reeds along with piano and percussion, admits that the idea was pretty crazy. But he and guitarist/banjo player Mark Cocheo pulled this eclectic, pastoral theme and variations together with boundless energy and an unstoppable sense of humor.

Bennett came up with the idea after arranging several Verdi opera themes for small ensemble for a Whitney Museum exhibition. The record is a mix of some of those numbers mingled with Bennett’s witty originalsf you have to pin a label on it, you might call it it film music: it’s rooted in jazz, but bustles with catchy rock hooks and is more than a little cartoonish in places. He and Cocheo have an ongoing weekly Tuesday night 7:30 PM residency at an unexpected and easy-to-get-to spot, the hideaway third-floor Residence Inn bar at 1033 6th Ave., a block south of Bryant Park on the west side of the street. Until word gets out about how much fun Bennett and Cocheo are having with it, you may have the place to yourself.

The new album’s first track is Loose Fitting Spare Tire, a briskly strolling highway theme assembled from crisp Cocheo guitar multitracks and some breezy alto sax from Bennett. It comes across as a more tightly wound take on Bill Frisell. Cocheo breaks out his banjo for a long, spiky solo over the changes in I’m Not Nancy, Bennett switching to flute.

Gold Star Mufflers is a twistedly surreal, uneasily psychedelic detour, banjo mingling with the piano. The first of the Verdi variations, Theme From Ernani is recast as a bittersweet, bossa-tinged tune with a warm, Memphis-flavored soul solo from Cocheo. Refinancing for Elephants – which wasn’t written by Verdi – brings in unexpected Irish flavor via Bennett’s tricky flute work.

Inside Our Pizza Oven, a real showstopper live, presumably could have been written by Verdi but also wasn’t. It’s got some absolutely gorgeous, Balkan-flavored microtonal, melismatic work from Bennett over a hypnotically strummy backdrop. Theme from Il Trovatore – which wasn’t written by Bennett – works much better as waltzing spaghetti western jazz than you might imagine. Carl Finds His Way – which was – brings the album full circle, Cocheo hitting his distortion pedal for extra edge and bite as Bennett swirls overhead.

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August 30, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic Bustle and Thump and Entertainment From the Uncategorizably Fun NYChillharmonic at Joe’s Pub

Was it worth leaving this year’s Charlie Parker Festival early to catch the NYChillharmonic last night at Joe’s Pub? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe someday singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s lavish eighteen-piece big band will play the festival – although the lineup that day will have to be a lot more forward-looking than it was yesterday evening.

McDonald’s music is easy to trace back to the wildly syncopated early 70s art-rock of bands like Genesis, although her compositions also draw on classical music, big band jazz, Radiohead and lately, classic soul music and even disco. Huddled together on the cabaret-sized stage, the mighty group were tight as a drum throughout a pummeling, nonstop performance heavy on the beat.

The staggered, staccato pulse of the opening number set the tone and was the most evocative of 70s psychedelia. Like the rest of the songs on the bill, it was pretty much through-composed, reaching a white-knuckle intensity with a series of rhythmic shrieks toward the end. McDonald typically finds more surprising places to take an audience – and her bandmates – than simply coming back to land on a verse or a chorus. Often but not always, the band would bring starkly moody intros full circle to close a tune, whether voice and keys, voice and guitar, or even voice and tuba.

With a vocal delivery that came across as more chirpy and biting than it’s been in recent months, McDonald sang resonantly while spiraling through tightly wound arpeggios on a mini-synth. Then she’d spin and conduct the ensemble, then return to the mic and keys, and made it look easy.

She explained that she’d written the night’s second number, Living Room, after quitting her shitty dayjob. Maybe some organization like Chamber Music America can step in and help her stay away from shitty dayjobs so she can concentrate on what she does best.

That particular number began as a restlessly propulsive soul anthem bulked up to orchestral proportions, with unexpectedly hushed, halfspeed interludes and a similarly sepulcutral outro, flitting out on the wings of the group’s string section. With the next tune, Ambito, the band mashed up classic 70s disco and 50s Mingus urban noir bustle, punctuated by a series of almost vexing interruptions and a wry, woozy, Bernie Worrell-style bass synth solo.

The night’s darkest and most bracing song, Wicker – which McDonald dedicated to “Ugly patio furniture everywhere” – had looming, ominous chromatics and 21st century Balkan jazz allusions, along with a deliciously jagged guitar solo and more P-Funk keyboard buffoonery. Zephyr has been considerably beefed up since the last time the group played the piece here, its chattering, uneasy intro more of a contrast with its relentlessly syncopated upward drive. It was the closest thing to orchestral Radiohead on the bill.

The Cyclone began with circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold. The group closed the show with another mashup of Radiohead, dancefloor thud and Darcy James Argue-style big band minimalism. Like Missy Mazzoli, McDonald manages to write torrential melodies without cluttering them.

Time was short, so there were no band intros. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for brass quartet the Westerlies with crooner Theo Bleckmann, but sometimes life takes you elsewhere.

August 26, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy, Catchy, Individualistic Guitar/Cello Sounds and a Barbes Gig From Sean Moran’s Sun Tiger

Guitarist Sean Moran inhabits an uneasy netherworld between jazz, abstract rock and metal. He’s the rare six-string player in any of those idioms who doesn’t waste notes. His album with his excellent, similarly multistylistic trio, Sun Tiger with cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re opening a great twinbill at Barbes on May 21 at 7 PM; Balkan brass monsters Slavic Soul Party, who lately have been going to some even stranger mprovisational places than usual, play at 9 for a $10 cover. You may want to stay for the whole night.

The first track on the Sun Tiger album is Suns, catchy cello and then guitar riffs over a circular groove, offering absolutely no hint that the band will plunge into squalling doom metal. Finally, Roberts gets to run with the the carchy opening theme again.

One for Lacy is a twisted semi-strut with what seem to be good cop/bad cop roles (cello and guitar, respectively), some simmering slide work from Moran, a bit of a dancing bassline from Roberts, and many allusions to Monk. A Steve Lacy homage, maybe?

Without a pause, the band go straight into the album’s most epic track, Arc, skronk and sunbaked psychedelic guitar resonance contrasting with a little tongue-in-cheek metal frenzy. Sperrazza’s anvil snare – talk about a distinctive sound! – keeps the monster on the rails until everybody calmly and gently diverges, up to a hazy slight return.

Roberts’ droll Indian campfire licks over Sperrazza’s cymbal pointillisms open the slowly loping pastoral jazz theme Cheyenne, the album’s most sparse and arguably catchiest number. Roberts takes a turn at a little squealing metal over a quasi-qawwali beat as Big Shoes gets underway; then Moran puts the hammer down with a series of crunchy, syncopated riffs and all hell eventually breaks loose. A sailing Roberts pulls it together as Moran snipes and squiggles a little, then gets dirty again.

The surreal, rather morose ballad Eye Eye sounds like deconstructed Big Lazy, veering between purist postbop and more than a hint of noir: it’s the album’s most memorable track. Likewise, the final number, Percival, crawls like a scorpion and then hits a resolute stomp, Moran and Roberts both shifting in a split second between relative calm and distorted grit. Yet another example of the kind of casual magic that happens when translucent tunesmithing ends up in the hands of great improvisers.

May 18, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

May 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignancy and Exhilaration with Claudia Acuña at Birdland

There was a point last night during her first set of a four-night stand at Birdland where singer Claudia Acuña started pogoing across the stage. She got as far as guitarist Juancho Herrera’s pedalboard before she ran out of room and had to chill out a little. If you’d been on that stage with that band and that setlist, you would have been just as ecstatic – but you wouldn’t have sung as rivetingly as she did.

Because the majority of this particular setlist was hers. She opened with a punchy take of Hey, a no-nonsense empowerment anthem for women everywhere and closed with a shamanic, enveloping take of her mentor Abbey Lincoln’s Holy Earth. In between, she mixed a couple of acerbic Lincoln tunes and a knowingly angst-fueled take of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful in with a gorgeously lyrical mix of songs from her new album Turning Pages.

Acuña gets all sorts of props for her often shatteringly direct alto voice, but here the crowd was just as blown away by her songwriting and the quality of the band. Pianist Pablo Vergara spun intricate, plaintive neoromantic filigrees, with a couple of starry solos as openers. Behind the kit, Yayo Serka played what seemed to be both sides of a conspiratorial talking drum interlude to start one number, underscored much of the material with a subtle clave and went way back to the banks of the Nile to foreshadow the end of the set.

Starting on Fender and finishing on upright, bassist Carlos Henderson’s minutely nuanced touch matched the bandleader’s subtlety, notably with his allusions to the steady propulsion of Bob Marley’s Exodus throughout an understatedly dancing take of Futuro, one of the new record’s standout tracks. Acuña explained that she’d written it to her yet-unborn son and then sang with hushed joy about how much she was looking forward to seeing him “Dancing through the constellations, and through the onion and garlic patch. That translation from the Spanish is less poetic  than the actual lyric.

The high point of the new album, and arguably the show as well, was the poignant, brooding anthem Aguita de Corazon. Lowlit by Herrera’s spare accents and Vergara’s rippling angst, the wounded payoff packed a wallop whenever the chorus came around. “I’m from Chile,” Acuña explained. “We have a tea for everything. You have a broken heart? We have a tea for that too.” It was strong and potent medicine in this group’s hands, guest Gregoire Maret’s harmonica reaching an unexpectedly wrenching coda after he’d taken his time, going deeper into the blues as the narrative unfolded.

His animated exchanges with Acuña’s scatting on the next number were more lighthearted, and a lot of fun. But ultimately, depth and emotional impact is what she’s all about, and she delivered all of that, whether the wistful hope of Tres Deseos – a wish song times three, basically – and Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down, which she and the group built matter-of-factly and aptly, with a bittersweet knowingness that was closer to Rachelle Garniez than the woman who wrote it, a deeply personal political artifact from the Civil Rights era whose relevance hasn’t dimmed.

The album release stand continues tonight, Feb 7 through 9 with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

February 7, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Claudia Acuña’s Rich, Lyrical New Album Turns Out to be Worth a Decade-Long Wait

Claudia Acuña is revered in the New York jazz scene as one of the most unselfconsciously soulful and mutable singers around. She bridges the gap between North American jazz and South American balladry better than just about anyone, equally skilled in both English and Spanish. But she’s also a hell of a songwriter. Her new album Turning Pages – which hasn’t hit her music page yet – features seven originals along with a standard and another by her mentor, Abbey Lincoln. It’s Acuña’s first album as a bandleader in ten years, and it was worth the wait. She’s playing a four-night stand at Birdland to celebrate this Feb 6-9, with sets at 7 and 10; you can get in for as little as $20.

Lowlit by Pablo Vergara’s broodingly gleaming piano, Yayo Serka’s elegant drumming and Carlos Henderson’s terse bass, the album’s opening track, Aguita de Corazon is a masterpiece. Acuña’s voice is cool and nuanced yet plaintive, working the increasingly haunting twists of the lyrics with a subtle wallop. On harmonica, guest Gregoire Maret plays the solo of his life, a comet trail of angst to mirror the vocals.

Then Acuña flips the script with Hey, an insistent empowerment ballad that mashes up 70s clave soul with trippy, stainless-countertopped 90s acid jazz, guitarist Juancho Herrera adding an incisive, funky edge. Her luxuriantly bittersweet remake of Jimmy Van Heusen’s But Beautiful is spacious yet propulsive, driven by Serka’s syncopated, clickety-clack snare work. Henderson’s sinuous soloing and Herrera’s resonant jangle.

Acuña brings back the darkly pensive atmosphere in Tres Deseos (Three Wishes), awash in Serka’s waves of cymbals and malletwork and Vergara’s translucent, neoromantic phrasing. The moon imagery – a persistent trope here – in the next track, Futuro is more carefree, lit up by Herrera’s incisive flares over a pulsing quasi-reggae groove. His Arabic-tinged solo is just short of savage, and the album’s instrumental high point.

Lincoln’s Bird Alone has all kinds of neat, unexpected touches: Vergara’s coy chirps, Herrera’s spare, plaintive but powerfully present chords and a world-weary vocal that echoes both the writer and Sarah Vaughan. Silencio is anything but quiet, Herrera’s gritty flamenco-inflected lines driving the song to a harrowing peak with Acuña’s vocalese paired against Vergara’s ominously glittering rivulets.

Home, a duet with Herrera, is a gospel tune with some unexpected, sunny slide guitar. Those gospel echoes remain in thee album’s closing cut, Tu Sonrisa (Your Smile), its Mexican ranchera-inflected sway the closest thing to carefree here. It’s early in the year, but this is the best album of 2019 so far. 

January 30, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tantalizingly Enigmatic Trio Album From Ambitious Keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch

Multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch is the not-so-secret weapon in psychedelic noir surf band Hearing Things, who are playing a welcome return gig at Barbes on March 1 at 10 PM. Previously, he distinguished himself as the only pianist to record an album of solo transcriptions of Bill Frisell works. His latest release, Visitors – streaming at Bandcamp – is an intriguingly uncategorizable trio record with guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and drummer Jim Black. The three don’t have any gigs coming up together, but Schlegelmilch is playing with psychedelic lapsteel monster Myk Freedman‘s band at Barbes on Jan 30 at 8. Goldberger will be leading one of his groups at Pete’s on Feb 2 at 5 PM followed by drummer Tim Kuhl, whose pointillistic soundscapes shift from Claudia Quintet tableaux to trippier, more hypnotic vistas.

The not-so-secret weapon in Schlegelmilch’s trio is a vintage Yamaha organ, popular with 70s bands and a favorite of Sun Ra. Here, it’s used more for atmosphere and as an anchor rather than as a lead instrument. Schlegelmilch’s eerily keening, Morricone-esque textures don’t come to the forefront of the first song, the title track, until Goldberger has done some enigmatic scenery-chewing over Black’s cascading waltz beat.

Goldberger introduces the second track, Chiseler with a gritty, syncopated pedalpoint as Schlegelmilch and Black build rhythmically shifting variations, part Sonic Youth, part Raybeats, part downtown 80s guitar skronk, up to a neat squirrelly/atmospheric contrast. The album’s most transparent track, Ether Sun has a slow, anthemic Frisellian bittersweetness, with lingering spacerock ambience. Corvus hints at mathrock and then Big Lazy noir cinematics, Goldberger finally cutting loose with some jagged tremolo-picking over the organ’s waves as Schlegelmilch builds increasingly icy textures.

Lake Oblivion is a diptych. Imagine a more rhythmically challenging, Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth with an organ: that’s the first part, decaying to a grim drone and then back. The second has an altered motorik drive, Goldberger’s lingering phrases and dying stompbox flares and flickers beneath the organ’s steady, blippy riffs until it coalesces as a postrock anthem.

The album’s most epic track, Terminal Waves has a vast windsweptness punctuated by a bell-like dirge melody, Goldberger’s resonant lines building to a frenetic, metallic scream. The closing miniature shows how versatile the Yamaha can be, in this case both a mellotron and a vibraphone. Whether you consider this jazz, postrock, psychedelia or film music, it’s all good.

January 27, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

January 13, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

January 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment