Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.

May 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.

April 18, 2017 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eight-String Guitarist Charlie Hunter Brings His Irrepressibly Fun Band to the Rockwood

Guitarists who don’t waste notes are a rare breed. They’re even rarer in the world of jambands and summer tours, which is where Charlie Hunter made his mark. As you would expect from a guy who tacked on a couple of extra strings to bolster the low end of his six-string model, groove is his thing. In doing so, he invented his own style of music, equal parts jazz, reggae, funk and vintage soul. And he can be hilarious. His latest excellent, characteristically eclectic album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched is streaming at Spotify. Hunter and his fantastic quartet have a two-night stand coming up on March 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $15. The last time this blog was in the house there, they weren’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum, a good thing since Hunter’s crowd is more likely to smoke than get wasted on the Rockwood’s expensive drinks.

The album opens with the title track, a slow, comfortable swing blues with a characteristically wry, bubbling Curtis Fowlkes trombone solo; then cornetist Kirk Knuffke signals that all may not be so cool after all. Drummer Bobby Previte’s emphatic, tersely swinging slow triplet groove anchors the second track, Looks Like Someone Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication, which opens with an amusingly woozy voicings from Fowlkes and Knuffke, then takes a detour to New Orleans before the meds kick in again.

Staccato horns add spice to Leave Him Lay, a mid-80s Grateful Dead style blues fueled by Previte’s swinging, almost disco drive and Hunter’s spiky, Bob Weir-ish chords. We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent is an uneasily swaying midtempo noir theme, like Big Lazy with horns and  a long, purposefully crescendoing blues solo from the bandleader. Then Hunter gets even more retro with Big Bill’s Blues, ostensibly a Big Bill Broonzy homage. beginning starkly and then shifting into jubilant Crescent City territory with some artful counterpoint from the horns.

The darkly simmering soul theme Latin for Travelers is a vehicle for a contrastingly bright solo from Knuffke and then Fowlkes, dipping down to just the horns and then back for extra dynamic punch. No Money No Honey is as hard as the funk gets here, although it’s more of a swing tune: everybody in the band, especially Previte, is having a ball with this one.

Who Put You Behind the Wheel opens as a spaciously tiptoeing, Asian-tinged excursion, then morphs into reggae, with a trick ending. The looseness and freeness of Wish I Was Already Paid and On My Way Home mask its relentlessly dark, distantly klezmer-tinged undercurrent . The album winds up with the jaunty, dixieland-ish second-line march The Guys Get Shirts. This works on every level, as first-rate jazz, blues and psychedelia.

March 5, 2017 Posted by | blues music, funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

First-Class Tunesmithing from Pastoral Jazz Guitar Great Cameron Mizell

Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.

The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.

Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot  noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.

Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.

Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.

March 4, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare New York Show and a Killer Album from Paris Combo

Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $22 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.

Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.

Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.

Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.

Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,

Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.

February 18, 2017 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Twisted Valentine Fun with Genghis Barbie

Is there any logic at all to be willing to take a bullet for Dolly Parton, or to at least give Madonna a push out of harm’s way…or to offer that level of allegiance to Lady Gag, or Mariah Carey instead?  Is that just a matter of personal taste? Or a matter of growing up while Ed Meese was assembling the world’s largest porn collection at taxpayer expense…or in an era remembered best for the radiation poisoning known as Gulf War Syndrome …or during the Obama years, when drones were blowing up Islamic wedding parties in the desert?

Or is this just scraping the bottom of the barrel, any way you look at it?

Obviously, you can tell whose side this blog is on. Early Tuesday evening, before any of us were called home for Valentine duty, all-female french horn quartet Genghis Barbie packed the Miller Theatre uptown for a goodnaturedly amusing display of fierce chops and wicked new reinventions of otherwise pretty cheesy material.

Back when your parents or grandparents were kids, they used to call shows like this “pops concerts.” Orchestral musicians would catch a break playing easy charts for instrumental versions of the radio hits of the day. This usually happened at places like the Brooklyn Prom or Coney Island. What differentiated this concert from that kind of schlock wasn’t so much the material as the arrangements and the musicianship.

Genghis Barbie played with an intuitive chemistry and a boisterously contagious camaraderie. Somebody to Love, by Queen – Freddie Mercury’s mashup of doo-wop and opera buffo – got a neat baroque arrangement and an even funnier singalong round at the end led by Leelanee Sterrett, a.k.a. Cosmic Barbie, and then Rachel Drehmann, a.k.a. Attila the Horn. Likewise, the deadpan, steady exchange of voices in Without You – written by Badfinger’s Peter Ham, turned into a hit by another doomed Brit, Harry Nilsson and then tepidly reprised by Carey about a quarter century ago. The quartet – who also include the similarly sardonic, talented Danielle Kuhlmann, a.k.a. Velvet Barbie, and Alana Vegter, a.k.a. Freedom Barbie, went deep into Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach to reveal its inner oldschool disco goddess. A little later, the group took a Lady Gag number to the Balkans and made a quasi-cocek out of it. They took a detour into the opera world, then jumped forward a century and a half to the Disney autotune era once again. Colorfully yet effortlessly, they switched between bubbly Balkan phrasing and orchestral lustre.

The highlight of the show, at least from this perspective, was a vivid Spanish-tinged instrumental take of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene. The low point was a cover from the catalog of a saccharine California pop group from the 60s who got their start ripping off Chuck Berry and then did the same to the Beatles. For much of that time, one of that extended family band was hanging out with another family – the Mansons. You can read about it in the Vince Bugliosi classic Helter Skelter.

The next concert at the Miller Theatre features the work of hauntingly atmospheric, sometimes shamanic Japanese composer Misato Mochizuki played by amazingly eclectic indie classical ensemble Yarn/Wire on March 2 at 8 PM; $25 tix are available.

February 16, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Wild and Rapturous Improvisational Magic in Ridgewood on Super Bowl Sunday

As yesterday’s wryly named Super Bolus at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood got underway, it felt strange just to sit and watch  Typically, improvising musicians all end up playing with each other. Fifteen minutes into the show, that moment appeared. The long trip to the Cloisters a couple of weeks ago to jam a Pauline Oliveros chorale turned out to be useful practice!

After a duo set with trumpeter Daniel Levine, where Rallidae tenor saxophonist Angela Morris had introduced a jaunty Mardi Gras theme of sorts and the two had gracefully  intertwined with it, eventually taking it down to misty ambience and then back, she left the stage and went into the crowd.

Drawing us closer to her, she led what seemed for a minute to be a ditzy yoga mantra – “Beauty is above me, below me, around me,” that sort of thing. Instead, it turned out to be a round where she encouraged everyone to sing either a specific part or a sustained note. The resulting web of voices and close harmonies that converged on a warm center was as otherworldly as it was fun to be part of. In moments like this, there’s no thinking involved. Anyone can do it: the music tells you what it needs, all you have to do is pay attention. That’s pretty much what everybody on this often rapturously fun bill did in over three hours of music. 

As organizer Dave Ruder put it, the premise of the show was either improvisation, new material or reinventions of previously released compositions from other members of the Gold Bolus circle.

Anne Rhodes of Broadcloth joined voices with Anais Maviel, who anchored Sam Sowyrda’s virtuosic vibraphone work on the evening’s next improvisation with her minimalist pulse on a small-scale kora lute. Rhodes’ full, emotive soprano contrasted with Maviel’s more low-key nuance and extended technique, trombone and trumpet-like sputters included, while Sowyrda rippled and pinged and bowed his bells for sepulchral textures, at one point taking the music so far down that it was almost imperceptible. That, or he was just messing with the audience.

Kills to Kisses leader and bassist Lisa Dowling blended haunting Middle Eastern allusions and fiery but terse flamenco riffs into a dynamic set of Kate Bush-inflected art-rock loopmusic. Arguably the high point of the show was when oboeist Dave Kadden, of Invisible Circle, played volleys of microtonal tension against a central tone, his diabolical. virtuosically jajouka-esque phrasing manipulated by a guy with a laptop, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. By itself, the echo effect wasn’t ultimately even necessary, although admittedly it did add a deliciously dark resonance. This was a relentlessly searching, imploring call to arms. Amir ElSaffar played a very similar one of these solo on trumpet at a gig earlier in the year and this was every bit as inspiring. Clearly, it’s a meme among players of wind instruments.

Singing and playing guitar, Ruder – joined by Dowling and saxophonist Erin Rogers, on soprano – had fun with a number about being unable to move in a straight line, literally and metaphorically. Solo on accordion, Brian McCorkle sang a dadaesque, viciously sarcastic Rogers suite on a love-versus-money theme, and had a great time chewing the scenery: the audience loved it. In contrast, the trio of Morris, Sowyrda and keyboardist Ellen O ended the show with a raptly Eno-like ambient soundscape.

This show was typical of the Gold Bolus stable. Many of the artists lean toward the theatrical or performance art; their home base is the Panoply Performance Lab space in Bushwick. And Dowling is at the Gateway, 1272 Broadway in Bushwick on Feb 23, time TBA. Take the J to Gates Ave.

February 6, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | Leave a comment

Dave Fiuczynski Lifts Off to a Better Planet Than This

Last night at Drom Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif played one of the most exhilarating and sophisticated shows of the past several months in this city. Fiuczynski might be the best guitarist in the world: he is without the doubt the most individualistic. His musical language is completely his own. If it had words instead of notes, it would be part Hindi, part French, part Arabic and part Korean, with some Chinese and plenty of English too. His double-necked, microtonally fretted guitar enables him to play in microtonal scales without bending notes, as well as in the standard western scale. His 2012 album Planet Microjam is one of this century’s half-dozen most innovative and arguably best releases. His latest microtonal project, Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam may not have the subtlest title, but the music continues Fiuczynski’s epic quest to find the most magical places in between the notes, drawing from just about every musical tradition around the globe.

This was a trio show. Fiuczynski opened with the Simpson’s Theme, which he proceeded to spin through a trippy prism of scales that exist only on Planet Microjam, along the way firing off energetic Indian sitar riffage, some wildly bent phrases typical of Korean gaegeum music,  and even a flurry or two of rapidfire postbop American jazz. Fiuczynski’s songs are slinkier than they are funky, and his low-key rhythm section kept a serpentine groove going throughout the set with the occasional rise to a four-on-the-floor pulse when the bandleader would hit a peak with a burning series of distorted rock chords. Throughout the set, the drummer stayed pretty chill while the bass player occasionally flavored a song with woozy textures via a wah and an octave pedal, in a subdued P-Funk vein. He also contributed one of the night’s most straight-up numbers, which the bandleader took further out toward Indian raga territory and then spiced with Asian phrasing, into territory that only Fiuczynski knows well.

After opening with the twisted tv theme, they sliced and diced a Russian klezmer melody into offcenter tonalities, with the occasional unexpected leap back toward the original minor key. Opening act Jonathan Scales joined the band during one of the later numbers and played vividly ringing Asian licks against Fiuczynski’s austere, uneasy microtonal chords and otherworldly, Messiaenic ambience. Throughout these epic themes, with their innumerable dynamic shifts, the atmosphere shifted artfully from austere and starlit to raw, stomping triumph. The best song of the night might have been Mood Ring Bacchanal, with its leap from resonant, allusively bent Asian phrasing to a tongue-in-cheek, emphatic oldschool disco interlude. The night’s last song blended wah-wah sitar licks, Orientalisms and slow spacerock with echoes of roots reggae.

Fiuczynski is a legend on the jamband circuit and will no doubt be making the rounds of summer festivals this year. Watch this space for future NYC dates. 

February 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, funk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music | Leave a comment

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

January 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, drama, experimental music, gypsy music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Intense, Riveting Album and a Midtown Show by the Sirius Quartet

The Sirius Quartet  – violinists Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman – play seriously exciting, tuneful, sophisticated music. They’re the rare chamber ensemble who can strike a chord with fans of heavy rock, psychedelia and jazz in addition to the indie classical crowd. They’re playing on an intriguing twinbill, with special guest violinist Tracy Silverman, tonight, Jan 5 at around 9:30 PM at Club Bonafide that makes more sense thematically than you might think. Longtime Astor Piazzolla collaborator and nuevo tango pianist Pablo Ziegler and his ensemble open the night at 7:30, cover is $15 and the club’s webpage notes with some relish that you’re welcome to stay for both acts at no extra charge.

The Sirius Quartet’s latest album Paths Become Lines is streaming at Spotify,  opening with its title number, a pedal note shifting suspensefully between individual voices, pulsing with a steely precision as the melody develops elegantly and tensely around them. The darkly bluesy, chromatically-charged exchanges that follow are no less elegant but absolutely ferocious.

The second number, Ceili, is a sharp, insistent, staccato piece, in a Julia Wolfe vein. Plaintive cello interchanges with aching midrange washes; it grows more anthemic as it goes on. Jeff Lynne only wishes he’d put something this stark and downright electric on ELO’s third album.

Racing Mind builds to a swinging jazz-infused waltz out of a circular tension anchored by a bubbly cello bassline that gets subsumed almost triumphantly by tersely shifting and then spiraling riffage. Spidey Falls! is a cinematic showstopper, a frenetic crescendo right off the bat giving way to a harrowingly brisk stroll that’s part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann and part Piazzolla, then an acerbically circling theme in a 90s Turtle Island vein before the cell digs in and a violin solo signals a return to the turbocharged tarantella. String metal in 2017 doesn’t get any more entertaining than this.

The next piece is a fullscale string quartet. Slow, austere, staggered counterpoint gives way to an insistent chase theme that calms slightly and goes marching, with a hint of tango. The second movement, Shir La Shalom is slow and atmospheric, a canon at halfspeed that builds to a wounded anthem. The third opens with stern, stark cello but quickly morphs into a syncopated folk dance and increasingly rhythmic variations. The breathless, rather breathtaking conclusion mashes up Piazzolla at his most avant garde, early Bartok, swing jazz and furtive cinematics.

Get In Line, a staggered, chromatic dance, veers toward the blues as well as bluesmetal, spiced with an evil, shivery glissandos and tritones, suspenseful pauses and an allusively marionettish cello solo. The album winds up with its most expansive number, Heal and its series of variations on a hypnotic, pizzicato dance theme that finally rises, again in a tango direction, to fearsome heights. Other than the Chiara String Quartet‘s relevatory Bartok By Heart double-cd set, and the Kepler Quartet‘s concluding chapter in their wild Ben Johnston microtonal quartet series, there hasn’t been a string quartet album this exciting released in many months.

January 5, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment