Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

Welcome Sonic Improvements For Another Reliably Good Slate of Shows at Prospect Park Bandshell

The best news about this year’s free concert series at the bandshell in Prospect Park is that the sound is vastly improved. Last year’s booking was as good as the sound mix was awful: bass and drums, mostly. An admittedly small sample – two shows last month – revealed that somebody actually seems to care about giving the bands onstage at least baseline-level (pun intended) respect this summer.

The first of those shows opened with Combo Chimbita playing a typically ferocious scamperingly psychedelic set, followed by a lavishly augmented 22-piece version of second-wave Afrobeat pioneers Antibalas. Of all the bands here this year who could have really suffered from a bad mix, Combo Chimbita top the list because of how much of a swirling vortex of sound they can create. This time, when they finally got to that point – more than a half hour into their set – the dubwise effect was obviously intentional.

Otherwise, the clarity of Niño Lento’s vineyard lattice of guitar, Prince of Queens’ hypnotically pulsing bass and Carolina Oliveros’ powerful, emphatic vocals over Dilemastronauta’s flurry of drumbeats was as sparkling as anyone could have wanted. Toward the end of the set, Oliveros finally unleashed her inner metal animal, a truly fearsome moment. Although it wasn’t as feral to witness as the band’s most recent Barbes show, it was pretty close. The bookers here have never hesitated to draw on the vast talent base who make Brooklyn’s best fulltime music venue their home, so it was inspiring to see a whole park full of people beyond the band’s usual Colombian fanbase entranced by the show.

With all the extra firepower, Antibalas hardly limited themselves to two-chord, Fela-inspired minor-key jams. There were a handful of those, perfectly executed, bass and guitars running the same catchy riffs over and over again without a split second’s deviation while the brass punched in and out. Special guests on vocals and horns, plus a trio of women dancers, took turns taking the spotlight with solos that were sometimes resonant and floaty, or ablaze with jazz phrasing. Dynamics rose and fell with lavish abandon, often down from the full orchestra to just the rhythm section and a single soloist, then suddenly up again with a mighty sweep.

A second show last month was just as entertaining and stylistically diverse. The Kronos Quartet opened with a defiantly political set, beginning with a new arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ take of the Star Spangled Banner that had the group keening, and leaping, and shrieking, a remarkable acoustic facsimile of guitar feedback and sonic protest iconography. From a stark, plaintive version of Strange Fruit, through mutedly bluesy takes of Summertime and House of the Rising Sun, to the spare anguish of John Coltrane’s elegaic Alabama, they kept the intensity simmering. The world premiere of Dan Becker’s No More followed an eerily circling path; then children’s artist Dan Zanes brought up his acoustic guitar and led the crew through a singalong of We Shall Overcome.

The second half of the program featured the string quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – joined by Trio Da Kali, playing songs from their new collaboration, Ladilikan. It was fascinating to hear the strings playing loping, sometimes undulating Saharan riffs while Fode Lassan Diabate’s balafon rippled and pinged and Mamadou Kouyate played incisive, tricky syncopation on his bass ngoni, often adding an otherworldly, gnawa-like groove. Meanwhile, singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate delivered insistent, sometimes anguished lyrics addressing struggle against oppression and the omnipresent need for human rights for all people, regardless of gender, in her part of the world. The language, considering the venue, may have seemed exotic to most of the crowd, but the message was as resonant here as it would have been on her home turf in Mali.

The next free show at Prospect Park Bandshell is this Thursday, Aug 9 with noirish blue-eyed soul singer Fiona Silver and popular blues guitarslinger Gary Clark Jr. And Combo Chimbita are playing another free show, in the courtyard at Union Pool on Aug 11 at around 4 PM.

August 7, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, folk music, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

July 9, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Reunion from New York’s Best Underground Swing Jazz Supergroup

The Tickled Pinks almost played Club Cumming. Ostensibly, liquor license issues derailed one of the few events that could have transcended any issue concerning tourist hordes in the East Village on a Saturday night. But the irrepressible underground swing jazz supergroup did get to play two iconic Brooklyn venues, Hank’s and Pete’s last month, in one of the funnest reunions of any New York band in recent years.

Among other harmony vocal acts, only John Zorn’s Mycale chorale have the kind of individualistic power and interplay that the Pinks showed off during what was a pretty good run. They made it as far as Joe’s Pub – and got the key to the city of Olympia, Washington on their most recent tour. Whether the key works or not is unknown.

It would be overly reductionistic to say that with her spectacular range, Karla Rose Moheno handles the highs, the more misty Stephanie Layton handles the mids and Kate Sland handles the lows – all three women can span the octaves enough to take their original inspiration, the Andrews Sisters, to the next level. Although that basic formula seemed to be the strategy for night one of a reunion weekend stand that began with an Elvis cover night at Hank’s.

The idea of three women harmonizing Elvis tunes is a typical Pinks move, although one they never did before. And they weren’t the only ones who sang. Guitarist Dylan Charles took a break in between elegant expanses of jazz chords, snazzy rockabilly and some machete tremolo-picking to narrate a tongue-in-cheek version of Are You Lonesome Tonight. There were also a handful of cameos from friends of the band invited up to do their versions of the hits.

Moheno switched out her trusty Telecaster for an acoustic guitar; Sland played snappy bass and Layton held down the groove behind the drumkit. John Rogers’ ornate electric piano and organ lit up several of the songs; trumpeter Mike Maher gave a mariachi flair to several numbers as well.

The set wasn’t just familiar favorites, either. As much as hearing what this crew could do with Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock and Suspicious Minds, the best song of the night was an obscure, ominous noir number, Black Star. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that Elvis knew what kind of an end he’d come to when he sang this in the mid-60s…but this group’s stalking, low-key version left that question hanging. From this point of view, it would have been even more fun to be able to catch the whole set, but it was impossible to walk out of Moroccan saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ absolutely haunting Lincoln Center set earlier that night.

The Pinks wound up their weekend with a serpentine set of swing at Pete’s. Since they started in the late zeros, they’ve expanded their songbook far beyond 30s girl-group material to jump blues and beyond. Case in point: an absolutely accusatory version of Straighten Out and Fly Right. They went deep inside to find the bittersweetness in the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, then pulled out all the smoke and sultriness in Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby. And the old 20s hot swing standard Why Don’t You Do Right outdid both the Moonlighters and Rasputina’s versions in terms of both energy and righteous rage.

The Pinks are back on hiatus now while everybody in the group is busy with their own projects. Layton and Charles continue with their torch jazz band Eden Lane, with a gig on June 3 at 7 PM at Caffe Vivaldi, one of the Pinks’ old haunts. Sland continues to do unselfconsciously heroic work in hospice medicine in California. And Moheno continues with recording her next noir rock album, under the name Karla Rose – if the track listing remains as originally planned, that record would top the list of best albums of 2018 if she released it now.

May 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finally got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whole group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.

May 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Powerful Singer Kelsey Park’s New Song Cycle Tackles a Heartbreaking, Rarely Discussed Issue

Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.

Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.

Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.

As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.

Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.

Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.

“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling. 

While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.

May 21, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

April 27, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Guitar Mastermind Mary Halvorson Embraces Lush, Uneasily Rapturous Improvisational Art-Rock

Mary Halvorson may be known as one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic jazz guitarists, but some of her work skirts the edges where experimental rock and postrock spill over into jazz. She’s also a rare example of a world-class fret-burner who’s also an excellent singer. And she’s also an intriguing lyricist. For whatever reason, the words to the genre-defying songs on her new album Code Girl – streaming at Bandcamp – aren’t imbued with as much of the sardonic humor and stiletto wit that runs through her instrumental work. Amirtha Kidambi sings them with dynamics, drama and passion. The album title is ironic in the genuine sense of the word: it has absolutely nothing to do with tech worship. March tempos are everywhere here: a political reference, maybe? Halvorson and her quartet are playing the album release show tomorrow night, April 3 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard; cover is $25.

As usual, Halvorson’s compositions here go far beyond stereotypical verse/chorus/bridge architecture. The intro to the opening track, My Mind I Find in Time sounds like Bill Frisell playing calypso; then Halvorson shifts to a steady, pulsing drive with hints of Vegas noir. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals ice the backdrop, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire contributes wary resonance and then grit. Kidambi’s soul-infused mantra, “Reconstruction is required in time” has unexpected drama. Bassist Michael Formanek’s final flourishes close it deviously.

Fluttery arioso vocals contrast with the dark lyrical undercurrent of Possibility of Lightning, which morphs into a growling march capped off by some mean tremolo-picking, spins through a vortex of improvisation with Akinmusire anchoring the bandleader’s savagery, then the two themes merge.

The epic Storm Cloud begins as a spare, ominously tremoloing Lynchian set piece, then the whole band march it into moody pastoral terrain. Halvorson hits her pedal for Dave Fiuczynski microtonal warp and Akinmusire wafts as Fujiwara pushes the anthem’s methodical metric shifts:

The clearing of the storm
Finds extra ordinary lives
Pulsing behind the blood

Halvorson and Akinmusire work coy counterpoint over a steady backbeat in Pretty Mountain. The bandleader’s steady, twisted folk arpeggios hold the center; scatting vocals signal an implosion before this wistful travel reminiscence’s punchline kicks in.

Moving between staggered jangle and another march groove, Off the Record has unexpectedly tropical flavor.Formanek artfully hands off the broodingly terse melody to Halvorson as In the Second Before gets underway,Akinmusire and Fujiwara shifting gears from droll to stern. Halvorson builds a roaring crescendo from there, part doom metal, part frantic squall: it’s the album’s high point.

The bandleader has a lot of fun toying with the Orbison noir ballad melody of Accurate Hit, a twistedly spare nocturne for guitar and vocals. Her tantalizing latin noir allusions fuel The Beast, the album’s most picturesque song: is this a seduction or a murder in progress? That song foreshadows the album’s haunting centerpiece, The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon, shifting between atmospheric dark, bossa-tinged folk and a spare sway. Then the group give it a long, thorough, rather wry wringing-out:

Why
In the water
Does laughing make you sink

Rustling counterpoint over yet another march beat give way to a pensive Akinmusire solo and desolate, reverbtoned tremolo-picking from Halvorson in Thunderhead, the closest thing to Frisell she’s ever written.

Halvorson’s muted pulses and enigmatically lingering lines contrast with Kidambi’s majestic delivery and Akinmusire’s uneasy airiness in the simply titled And; the unexpected turn toward New Orleans and then Indian drollery is irresistibly fun. Unsettled yet steady, Deepest Similar is a bittersweet love song, guardedly weighing hope for the future while letting go of the past: perhaps instructively, Kidambi’s angst-fueled vocals rise to their most tortured point here.

The album winds up with an amusing miniature, Armory Beams and then Drop the Needle, where Halvorson manages to orchestrate a shift from tongue-in-cheek and techy to slowly shuffling, moody resonance punctuated by Akinmusire’s pensively sailing lines and Formanek’s steady, bluesy melismas. Much as Halvorson has always been on the cutting edge, this is her most ambitious album to date –

April 2, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Subtlety and Savagery From the Rhythm Method String Quartet at Roulette

This past evening’s performance by the Rhythm Method String Quartet at Roulette was a stunning display of fearsome extended technique and fearless programming. The American avant garde has a long and sometimes painfully precious tradition of art strictly for art’s sake – and this all-female quartet seem hell-bent on changing that. Beyond the concert’s transgressive themes, from Margaret Atwood dystopia to the struggles of women and immigrants, the segues between the works on the bill followed as well musically as they did thematically.

To what degree was this music successful in translating those ideas? Circling, repetitive phrases stopped and started unexpectedly, with syncopation that defied any attempt to predict it. Slowly and methodically, the group built momentum, a vividly recurrent trope throughout a series of works, mostly by the group themselves. A reflection on, say, how the Metoo movement has reached critical mass, or how gains for human rights won by previous generations built a foundation for today’s movements? Maybe. Whatever the case, there was plenty of suspense punctuated by drama…and a savagely conflagrational payoff at the end.

All of this pushed the limits of how a stringed instrument can be played. If there was a central theme, musically, it was flickery, slithering, whispery, silken textures punctuated by more emphatic gestures. all of them requiring minute inflections within the most delicate high harmonics.

The centerpiece was Lewis Nielson’s Le Journal du Corps, whose sepulchral wisps and poltergeist accents engaged not only the violins of Leah Asher and Marina Kifferstein but also Wendy Richman’s viola and Meaghan Burke’s cello. Subtly but matter-of-factly, the group developed a theme and variations that relied more on attack than melodic shifts, an illustration of an Aime Cesaire poem giving voice to the horrors endured by slaves, and their resilience against those injustices.

Kifferstein’s An Alien with Extraordinary Abilities foreshadowed that piece, notably with its herky-jerky, off-kilter rhythms, although melodically it was closer to horizontal music. Likewise, Asher’s Hollux Rey relied on rhythmic variations for its dynamics, an almost punishing maze of glissandos, plucks, squirrelly shivers and the occasional siren or doppler effect.

Everyone in the group sang, cool and calm, in contrast to the music’s flashes of agitation. Burke spent more time on the mic than anyone else since she’d contributed two pieces to the program, driving the music to a crescendo midway through. Her work as a soloist and bandleader is closer to the subversive cello rock of Rasputina or the stark grooves of the Icebergs, and this pair of alternately atmospheric and incisively propulsive tunes had a similarly sharp sense of melody. The first, Siren Song, referred to The Handmaid’s Tale and was the more serious. The second, Hysterie, was inspired by primitive medical attempts to cure hysteria, once thought to be exclusively a female malady. Burke got the crowd howling by revealing that doctors once employed primitive vibrators as a treatment: “Everybody wins…or maybe doesn’t win,” she mused.

The quartet encored with the incendiary shrieks and jet-engine trajectories of Kristin Bolstad‘s And Nobody Gets Everything Right, screaming their way through the intro – literally – and concluding with a fierce swordfight, Asher and Kifferstein duking it out with their bows. Asher won; the audience basically didn’t know what hit them.

The next concert at Roulette is April 3 at 8 PM with new music chamber group Tak Ensemble – with Kifferstein on violin once again – playing an all-Mario Diaz de Leon program including a New York premiere for bassoon and electronics and his 2016 Sanctuary suite. Advance tix are $20; there may be some sonic extremes but probably no swordfighting. 

March 29, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment