Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

High Romantic Angst and Insight From Pianist Zixiang Wang

Pianist Zixiang Wang has a passion for the Romantics. And who brews up more of an emotional storm than the Russians? Interestingly, Wang’s new album First Piano Sonatas: Scriabin and Rachmaninoff – streaming at Spotify – is hardly all fullblown angst, although there is some of that here. Rather, this is a very thoughtfully considered recording, bravely made in Michigan in the fall of 2020 despite grim lockdowner restrictions. This record is not the place to go to gear up for battle with demons, personal or otherwise. But if you want to hear Scriabin riffs that Rachmaninoff would later seemingly appropriate, or watch the stories in this music slowly unfold, Wang offers all that and plenty more in high definition.

He hits the first movement of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1 hard, and then backs away. A heroic, martial quality develops and recedes in waves, but Wang keeps a tight rein on the rubato until the end, where muting those staccato chords and then stretching out the rhythm really drives this troubled theme home.

He gives movement two a slightly hesitant, almost prayerful undercurrent anchored by a steely but supple lefthand. The aggressive, balletesque parts of the third movement are pure proto-Piazzolla; Wang’s choice of subsuming the righthand melody with lefthand murk suddenly makes perfect sense when he reaches the crushing false ending. Likewise, his restraint with the funereal lows in the dirge of a fourth movement – a requiem for the composer’s short-lived career as a virtuoso performer, derailed by a hand injury.Wang’s approach to Rachmaninoff’s first Piano Sonata is similar, opting for clarity and detail rather than the kind of opulence that, say, Karine Poghosyan would give this music. Amid the cascades in both the right and lefthand, those fleeting little Debussyesque curlicues, that aching reach for a tender moment and its subsequent, surprisingly irrepressible variations are strikingly vivid, even if the more animated interludes seem a little on the fast side.

The second movement gets a delightfully calm lilt. genteel glitter and a handful of devious references to Rachmaninoff’s very contemporaneous Symphony No. 2. The sheer liquidity of Wang’s lefthand early on in the third will take your breath away, particularly in contrast with the rather stern quality he follows with. And yet, the moments of black humor that pop up are plenty visible. If this is to be believed, the devil gleefully walks away, needle in hand, at the end.

Wang concludes the album with a rarely performed version of Rachmaninoff’s F Major Prelude, a dreamy student work which the composer turned into his duo for piano and cello, Op. 2 No. 1.

March 17, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Richly Disquieting Music From Nomi Epstein

Pianist Nomi Epstein writes magical, otherworldly, spacious music that sometimes brings to mind Federico Mompou, other times Messiaen. The piano pieces on her new album Sounds – streaming at Bandcamp – linger with an often mournful, sparse belltone ambience. These works are deceptively minimalist: the way Epstein slowly shifts between relentlessly unsettled harmonies is artful to the extreme. She keeps the pedal down for maximum resonance.  If there was any sound tailor-made for the unreality and immersive angst of the lockdown, this is it.

The first composition is Till For Solo Piano, played meticulously by Reinier van Houdt. The obvious antecedent seems to be Satie’s Vexations; the way Epstein subtly shifts harmonies while maintaining a creepy, bell-like ambience is as masterful as it is hypnotic.

Solo for Piano part I: Waves is aptly titled, its graceful series of low lefthand rumbles building a picturesque portrait of water washing a beach at night, and slowly brightening from there. The minute dynamic shifts in the brooding, steady conversation between left and righthand in the uninterrupted, eighteen-minute part two, Dyads are more celestially captivating. Again, Satie’s Vexations comes to mind

Van Houdt returns to the keys for the concluding number, Layers for Piano, with its contrasts between stygian reflecting-pool resonance in the lefthand with slowly shifting, spare, unsettling close-harmonied accents in the right. Occasional flinging gestures in the the upper registers dash any hope of a persistent, meditative state.

There are also two chamber works here. For Collect/Project, a hazy, lighthearted electroacoustic piece featuring vocalist Frauke Aulbert with Shanna Gutierrez on bass flute is ridiculously funny in places. And the composer herself plays the album’s sparest piano on the title track, Eliza Bangert’s flute and Jeff Kimmel‘s bass clarinet providing nebulous wave motion and a mist of overtones behind her. What a stunningly individualistic and often haunting album: let’s hope Epstein can continue build on what promises to be a brilliant body of work.

February 10, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Unspooled

Jazz trio Unspooling‘s debut album Scot Free– streaming at Bandcamp – is ambitious bordering on hyperactive: pianist Julia Chen is tireless to the nth degree. This isn’t your typical trio album, either. There aren’t a lot of big solo moments, and the rhythm section – bassist Matt Adomeit and drummer Nate Friedman – aren’t frequently engaged in a particularly colorful way. Yet this is sophisticated music, the group have a sense of humor and reach for a wide expanse of ideas and moods. Getting there is sometimes a work in progress.

They open it with Shrimpy, a persistent, steady tune, at least in the sense that there are either tightly triangulated polyrhythms or a steady clustering forward drive. It also doesn’t breathe: a musical airshaft or two wouldn’t have hurt.

The album’s title track is a suspiciously blithe stroll, with echoes of Donald Fagen and some wryly cascading flourishes. Chen’s piano manages to escape a pervasive, toxic, heavily processed cloud of bass to give Bad Morning some obviously long-awaited, sober closure. The three go back to tricky, interwoven rhythms in Immaculate Conception, Chen skirting blues and gospel allusions.

The eerie, stairstepping close harmonies as she introduces the somber ballad Big Misunderstanding are a cool touch, as is the bass/piano interweave in the pastorally-tinged Moose Trial (they’re good with song titles). Cultural Appropriation is a slyly catchy salsa-jazz strut, while the group shift up the metrics in the distantly Monk-tinged Barman.

Chen moves to Rhodes over a steady swing shuffle for the blippy Soymilk Savior. The band’s eponymous epic track finally coalesces around a welcome detour down to the catacombs and then an even creepier, music box-like finale: this is where the trio really excel at creating an atmosphere.

Back on Rhodes for Second Chance, Chen builds bright latin soul ambience over Friedman’s steady clave and playful offbeats. The album’s strongest overall number is perhaps ironically its simplest, most lingering one, Just Fine, a syncopated Rhodes soul tune. They close with the hypnotically minimalist New and Old. There’s genuine talent and promise here: giving the music a little space would be a good jump-off point.

July 12, 2020 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding Rainswept Minimalism from Michael Attias

Michael Attias’ new album Echos la Nuit – streaming at Bandcamp -evokes an iconic midnight Manhattan of the mind: rain-soaked streets, sax player on the corner alone, desolate phrases echoing into the darkness.

What’s different about the record – Attias’ first solo release – is that he plays both alto sax and piano, often at the same time. But where so many horn players will tickle the ivories a little while soloing, just to show off, Attias pairs the instruments for misterioso moods. It’s amazing how seamlessly he makes it work. A biting bhangra riff and variations are central to the brooding ambience. He’s playing the album release show on April 6 at 7:30 PM, with a solo set and then with his quartet at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $20/$15 stud.

He opens the album with the title track, that catchy, arresting bhangra horn phrase and variations over still, starry, minimalist piano, followed by a pensive solo sax passage which he ices with cautious piano harmonies. The minute deviations in tone and pitch throughout the somewhat hesitant sax/piano harmonies in Trinite add a deliciously uneasy tinge.

Attias sustains his notes further in Grass, a solo sax piece with some acidic duotones and an unexpected return to that opening bhangra hook. Autumn I, the first piece of a triptych, is a synthesis of the album’s earlier tropes, but without the Indian spice. But Attias brings it back, calmly, in Autumn II, juxtaposing flutters and resonance, then winds it up with Fenix III, Satie-esque piano contrasting with melancholy, circling, enigmatically agitated modal sax.

His solo sax in Circles shifts from echoey minimalism to a long, catchy, cantering crescendo. Attias follows the playful, insistent bhangra variations of Rue Oberkampf with Wrong Notes, a coy miniature.

The album’s most epic number, Song for the Middle Pedal, seems to employ that useless thing in between sustain and damper, although it’s mostly carefully spaced, allusive sax phrases. Attias finally decides to work a grim low/high dynamic between piano and sax in Sea in the Dark, the album’s most dynamic and intricate piece. He closes with Echoes II Night, hinting at a bluesy ballad but never quite going there. Although this record doesn’t remotely offer any hint of Attias’ formidable chops, it may be the most vivid album he’s ever made.

March 24, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Playful, Quirky Indie Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

“We are home to free year-round programming that is as eclectic as you are this evening.” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal grinned as she introduced Sugar Vendil’s Nouveau Classical Project this past evening in the Broadway atrium space. “A project that we’ve been dreaming about having for a long time,” Dugal confided: “One thing that’s very unique about this ensemble is that these pieces were all commissioned by the band.” Co-sponsored by the Asian-American Arts Alliance, this performance was a rare opportunity to hear a first-class group of instrumentalists tackle some quirky, playful material which is pretty much exclusive to the ensemble right now, as Dugal pointed out.

Clarinetist Mara Mayer kicked off Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative against samples of banal crowd conversation, flutist Laura Cocks dancing over the staccato strings of violinist Maya Bennardo and cellist Thea Mesirow. Pianist Vendil joined the dance and then backed away as the music decayed to calm washes, then leapt back in. Onstage, the piece seemed both more dynamic and more hypnotic than the version on their new album Currents – but that’s a vey subjective observation. A flitting riff that the band quickly disassembled seemed lifted from Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, no surprise considering that Bell originally hails from Russia.

The second piece on the bill was Isaac Shankler’s Artifacts, whose maddeningly tricky opening rhythms and expectant upward trajectories also seemed more frenetic and bustling than the bubbly recorded version. Light electronic touches filtered through the mix behind emphatic, catchy, cell-like phrases, which fell away for enigmatically crescendoing ambience punctuated by delicate flickers from the winds. The tongue-in-cheek disco pageantry midway through was mostly confined to the laptop.

David Bird’s Cy Twombly homage, simply titled Cy, had a similarly ambient intro, the ensemble’s momentary microtonal motives creating a pervasive restlessness that eventually verged on terror. Clarinetist Eric Umble led them safely underneath, at least until Mesirow dug in hard on her glissandos and scrapes.The music came across as less horizontal than a brisk limo ride over a series of speed bumps.

They closed with Gabrielle Herbst’s Where Is My Voice – which as it turned out was on the laptop as well, the group’s calm resonance anchoring flitting samples of vocalese and labored breathing. Then they picked up with a hammering, Julia Wolfe-like insistence before Cocks’ agitated spirals and Vendil’s catchy lefthand riffage provided a cloudburst. Moody Satie-esque themes and syncopated circular hooks, led by Mayer’s luscious bass clarinet, punctuated the stillness of the rest of the work. Everybody in the group rocked custom-made stagewear by Jenny Lai: it’s classy, and it’s not all black.

The next concert in the mostly-weekly series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Dec 13 at 7:30 PM with wildly eclectic virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin leading a series of colorful ensembles. Get there early if you want a seat.

December 6, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saluting One of New York’s Great Music Advocacy Organizations at Lincoln Center Last Night

Every generation tends to view successive ones as being more and more effete. That preconception becomes all the harder to argue with in an age where daily life for so much of the population is becoming more and more virtual and less and less real. Why drag yourself to Manhattan at rush hour to immerse yourself in a sublime and intimate performance when you could get a virtual equivalent on Facebook Live? 

So to see a packed house for the annual Young Concert Artists gala at  Alice Tully Hall last night was a shot of serious optimism. Does the continued success of an organization whose raison d’etre is to champion and springboard the careers of young classical musicians portend a sea change, maybe? A slow tidal shift? Or does that simply reaffirm the eternal appeal of great art? All of the above, maybe?

The concert itself was great fun, a display of ferocious chops, and intuition, and joie de vivre, played to an audience reflecting the relative youth of most of the performers. The prospect of being able to see pianists Lise de la Salle amd Anne-Marie McDermott. violinists Ani Kafavian and Juliette Kang, bassist Xavier Foley. harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and the Zora String Quartet alongside veteran flutist Paula Robison and cello icon Fred Sherry – just to name a handful of the 23 former and current YCA roster members – together onstage is less likely than it might seem. Each has a busy solo, orchestral and chamber music career.

If pageantry could be genunely profound, it would be the version of Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings played by YCA’s conductorless fifteen-piece all-star ensemble. With unbridled, fluttery joy balanced by more direct intonation and clear, uncluttered dynamic shifts, the group reveled in its balletesque riffs, drawing a straight line back to Mozart.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, backed by McDermott and the Zora String Quartet, followed a similarly straightforward trajectory from plaintiveness to a blaze of five-alarm drama in Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle. That vigorous sensibility took a turn in a more upbeat, triumphantly lilting direction with Ravel’s Introduction and  Allegro, played by a septet including Sherry, Kang, Robinson and  Ceysson along with violinist Paul Huang, violist Toby Appel and clarinetist Narek Arutyunian.

The program closed with a mashup of Scott Joplin, Liszt and John Philip Sousa arranged for piano eight hands, performed by de la Salle and McDermott with Gleb Ivanov and Yun-Chin Zhou. As completely over-the-top as the concept was, careening from one idiom to another with zero regard for segues, there’s no denying how much fun the four musicians were having while simply trying to maintain a semblance of tightness. Which testifies to the kind of outside-the-box thinking that might or might not be putting more and more young people in the seats. That question continues to bedevil everyone in the concert business these days – and it’s inspiring to see YCA coming up with some answers that are obviously working.

May 2, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Ambitious, Purist Postbop Album and a Smalls Release Show from Alto Saxophonist Carl Bartlett Jr.

Alto saxophonist Carl Bartlett, Jr.’s new album PROMISE! picks up where his 2011 debut album Hopeful left off. Bartlett explores more of his extended technique here, but also his most translucent side. He’s good at finding pianists; Sharp Radway livened that release with every kind of bluesy purism imaginable. Here Yoichi Uzeki handles the 88s with flair and incision. Bartlett and his quartet are playing the album release show this Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Smalls; cover is $20 and includes a drink.

The album opens with the title track: Barlett flickers his valves and then they’re off into a catchy, rather tender theme that he shifts back and forth, sometimes marionettish, sometimes cheerily waltzing, Uzeki bounding and spiraling out of Bartlett’s smoky curlicues over Marcus McLaurine’s terse bass and Sylvia Cuenca’s playfully pouncing drums.

Likewise, her carefree rims and hardware liven the clave groove of High Pizzazz, an epic containing a tongue-in-cheek, tiptoeing McLaurine solo, an enigmatically sailing one from the bandleader and finally more of those subtle metric shifts that Bartlett goes for throughout the album.

Acidic piano/sax harmonies and a deviously funny joke open Dialed In (Like a Laser), a darkly latin-flavored, dizzyingly swinging romp with Bartlett’s tantalizing flash through a trilling peak and then a handoff to Uzeki, who runs through the raindrops.

Uzeki ushers another waltz, As the Gift Unfolds Before My Eyes into a clearing and then brings in the clouds; Bartlett’s misty lyricism moves to the side and then back from McLaurine’s minimalist moodiness, the piano lingering in what seems to be a sobering carpe-diem atmosphere.

A swinging shout-out to Bartlett’s fam features cheery harmonies with his trumpeter uncle Charles Bartlett, a purist somewhat gruffly choosing his spots, the sax responding with some wry chromatics as the song goes on. Pop Rocks from the bass open Ethereal Heartbeats; tasty sax/piano modalities introduce an almost furtive samba drive that backs away for scamper and then suspense, setting the stage for the bandleader’s most vivid, incisive solo here.

With its sabretoothed, oboe-like sax intro and then its drifts in and out of waltz time, Fidgety Season maintains that gritty mood, Uzeki anchoring the song as Cuenca prowls in the underbrush. The album winds up with the toe-tapping jump blues tinged It’s Been So Grand, with more jousting between the Bartletts; the sax playing both sides in a two-way conversation is irresistibly fun.

Some of this reminds of Kenny Garrett’s 90s work with Kenny Kirkland, an auspicious start. It’’s reason to look forward to more where this comes from. The album hasn’t made it to the usual online spots yet, although there are a handful of tracks up at Bartlett’s music page

January 29, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Strange, Imaginative Night of Johnny Cash Covers at Symphony Space

Why – beyond Buttermilk Bar and the Jalopy, maybe – are punk bands the only people who cover Johnny Cash? Probably because it’s impossible to top the Man in Black. Plugging in and blasting Ring of Fire through a Fender Twin at least puts a fresh spin on an old chestnut. So in its own way, Symphony Space’s Saturday night Johnny Cash extravaganza was as challenging as any of their other annual, thematic, Wall to Wall marathons, from Bach, to Miles Davis, to the unforgettable Behind the Wall concert a few years back that spotlighted Jewish music from lands once locked behind the Iron Curtain.

The highlight of the first couple of hours of Wall to Wall Johnny Cash was jazz reinventions of mostly obscure songs. Some would say that making jazz out of Johnny Cash makes about as much sense as jazzing up Pearl Jam. An even more cynical view is that a jazz take of a Cash song gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card if you end up murdering it. As it turned out, not all the early stuff was jazz, and a lot of it wasn’t Johnny Cash either. Left to choose their own material, pretty much everybody gave themselves the additional leeway of picking songs covered rather than written by Cash. Badass resonator guitarist Mamie Minch did that with a Neil Diamond number and wowed the crowd with her ability to hit some serious lows, while blue-eyed soul chanteuse Morley Kamen did much the same with a similar template, several octaves higher. And banjo player/one-man band Jason Walker got all of one tune, at least early on, but made the most of it.

Representing the oldschool downtown Tonic/Stone contingent, guitarist/singer Janine Nichols lent her signature, uneasily airy delivery to There You Go and Long Black Veil, veering toward elegant countrypolitan more on the former than the latter while lead guitarist Brandon Ross matched her with spare, lingering washes of sound. Eric Mingus brought a starkly rustic, electrically bluesy guitar intensity and then a defiant gospel attack after switching to bass while tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora made the most impactful statements of anyone during the early moments with her stark, deftly placed, eerily keening overtone-laced polytonalities. Extended technique from a jazz sax player, the last thing you’d expect to hear at a Johnny Cash cover night…but she made it work.

Word on the street is that the later part of the evening was much the same as far as talent was concerned, lots of people moving across the stage while the music went in a more bluegrass direction. And there’s a rumor that the venue will have another free night of Cash around this time a year from now.

April 27, 2015 Posted by | concert, country music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment