Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Version of Terry Riley’s In C: The Most Psychedelic Album of 2017

Considering how much Indian music has influenced Terry Riley’s work, It makes sense that the iconic composer and pioneer of what’s come to be known as indie classical would give the thumbs-up to Brooklyn Raga Massive’s recording of his famous suite. The irrepressible New York collective can’t resist mashing up just about anything with classical Indian sounds: their previous album tackled a bunch of famous John Coltrane tunes. They’re playing the album release show for the new one – streaming at Bandcamp – on Oct 6 at 8 PM at the Poisson Rouge; $20 adv tix are recommended.  

They open the album with an alap (improvisation) on Raga Bihag, strings fluttering and slowly massing behind a rather jubilant bansuri flute line (that’s either Eric Fraser or Josh Geisler), handing off to bandleader Neel Murgai’s sitar, then Arun Ramamurthy’s spiraling violin before the sitar takes the band into the first variation on Riley’s 48 cells. A cynic might say that this is the best part of the album – either way, the band could have gone on four times as long and nobody would be complaining. 

Riley wrote In C on the piano in 1964, but just about every kind of ensemble imaginable – from flashmobs with flash cards, to Serena Jost’s army of fifty cellists – have played it. Any way it’s performed, it’s very hypnotic, this version especially. The whole group is in on it from the first insistent rhythmic measure, vocally and instrumentally, with the occasional minutely polyrhythmic variation. This is a mighty, full-force version of the massive, blending Trina Basu and Ken Shoji’s violins, Aaron Shragge’s dragon mouth trumpet, Michael Gam’s bass, Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer,Adam Malouf’s cello, David Ellenbogen’s guitar, with Timothy Hill and Andrew Shantz on vocals, Lauren Crump on cajon, Vin Scialla on riq and frame drum, Roshni Samlal and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

As the piece goes on, dancing flute and sitar accents answer each other with a gleeful abandon. Echo effects pulse like a stoned quasar, then about halfway in a triplet groove emerges and then straightens out. Kanes Mathis’ oud scampers like a street urchin running from the cops, then provides a low-register anchor for the fluttering strings. Which shift to the foreground, then recede as individual voices throughout the group signal the next change.

There are places where it brings to mind Brian Jones’ trippy loop collages on Their Satanic Majesties Request; elsewhere, the White Album’s most surreal experimental segments. Bottom line is that there hasn’t been an album nearly as psychedelically enveloping as this one released this year.

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October 4, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | Leave a comment

A History of Bollywood Music and Dance In Colorful 3-D Gets an Epic World Premiere at Lincoln Center

If you think it might be daunting to pull together a band who can competently reinvent seventy years worth of film themes by dozens of different composers, try choreographing every one of those songs for an ensemble comprising eighteen dancers. Heena Patel and Rushi Vakil pulled off that epic feat last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors with the world premiere of their multimedia extravaganza Bollywood Boulevard. A lively and insightful capsule history of Indian cinema as well as a revealing immersion in cinematic cross-pollination and playful mass movement, the performance drew a similarly vast audience of New Yorkers, many of whom knew the songs and sang along lustily.

For those who didn’t know the words, or the source material, or the vernacular, it was still a lot of fun. The band was fantastic, bringing a dynamically shifting rock edge to a wildly eclectic mix of themes, from a couple of baroque-tinged songs from the 1940s, to the mighty, angst-fueled ballads of the golden age of Bollywood in the 50s and 60s, to the funk and disco of the 70s and 80s and finally the surreal mashups of the last three decades.

Raj Kapoor’s 1950s epics and adventure star Amitabh Bachchan’s 70s vehicles featured heavily in the mix as the band kept a steady beat, from ancient carnatic themes interspersed within Gabriel Faure-esque Romanticism, to even more towering Romantic heights, gritty funk, irresistibly cantering bhangra and finally hints of the Middle East, sung with raw gusto by one the guys. The crowd was also finally treated to a couple of verses of Dum Maro Dum, the iconic pot-smoking anthem: remember, marijuana is an Indian herb.

It was particularly fascinating to see singer Rini Raghavan – whose own music with her band Rini is as picturesque as anything on this bill, and rocks a lot harder – bring a gentle melismatic nuance and a striking upper register to much of the quieter material. Playing violin with similar subtlety and plaintiveness, she was as much of a lead soloist as anyone in the group.

It was just as much fun to watch Harshitha Krishnan tackle many of the more kinetic numbers in her majestic, wounded wail. Keyboardist Rohan Prebhudesai spun volleys of microtones, stately orchestral washes and spare piano lines with equal aplomb over the nimble acoustic and electric fretwork of guitarist Niranjan Nayar and bassist Achal Murthy, backed by drummer Varun Das and percussionist Sanjoy Karmakar. Baritone singers Krishna Sridharan and Neel Nadkarni took alternately droll and intense turns in the spotlight as well.

All the while, a pantheon of South Asian deities or facsimiles thereof twirled and pranced and lept and glided across the stage. It wa a nonstop procession of fire maidens, and archers, and warriors…and starcrossed lovers, as the narrative continued into the 90s and beyond. Historical sagas, mythological epics, crime dramas, buddy movies and an endless succession of chick flicks were represented among dozens of Bollywood historical landmarks flashing on the screen above the stage. Personalities and characters from over the decades were gamely represented in a constantly changing series of costumes, with goodnaturedly split-seoond timing, by a cast including but not limited to Aaliya Islam, Aria Dandawate, Avinaash Gabbeta, Geatali Tampy, Manav Gulati, Minal Mehta, Panav Kadakia, Poonam Desai, Proma Khosla, Rhea Gosh, Rohit Gajare, Rohit Thakre, Sean Kulsum, Barkha, Bhumit, Bindi and Pranav Patel.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors ocntinues tonight, August 4 at 7:30 PM with violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson leading a chamber orchestra through lavish new arrangements of J Dilla hip-hop tunes out back in Damrosch Park.

August 4, 2017 Posted by | concert, dance, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fourth of July Show Worth Celebrating at Barbes

This was not a year to celebrate the Fourth of July with any kind of American pageantry. There were a few people in the crowd at Barbes who’d deliberately decided to opt out of visual fireworks for musical ones, but otherwise there was no political subtext to a wildly energetic triplebill of New Orleans swing and Balkan brass sounds that ran the gamut from the most trad to the craziest avant garde.

Saxophonist Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses had played Central Park over the weekend with a couple of popular New York acts: from this performance, putting them first on that bill must have raised the bar impossibly high. Much as the hurricane and the forced exodus  out afterward did a number on the Crescent City’s indigenous jazz population – developers have been scheming to depopulate New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods for years – it’s still a hotbed for jazz, if a lot less creole than it used to be. The Royal Roses represented that tradition and schooled us all, through two deliriously swinging sets.

Barbes tends to draw a lot of bands who are used to much bigger venues, and this group was no exception: it was impossible to get into the music room until very late in the second set. A lot of what they played could be called dixieland noir. There was volley after volley of soprano sax/trombone interplay and counterpoint, but it was dark and edgy, and tight beyond belief. Piano and guitar made spiky appearances out in front on a handful of numbers, and it wasn’t all just lickety-split dance music, either. As the band built steam in the second set, there were also a handful of clenched-teeth massed climbs up the scale, part Anthony Braxton largescale improvisation and part horror film soundtrack. This contrasted with Nealand’s close-to-the-vest charm on the mic: as much as she’s a pyrotechnic reed player, she sings with a lot of nuance.

Slavic Soul Party, who’ve mashed up Balkan brass music with everything from hip-hop to Ellington jazz suites over the years, weren’t available for their usual Tuesday night 9 PM residency, but there were members in the house. And it was awfully cool to be able to catch a rare appearance by Veveritse Brass Band. “I saw them on some random night at the Jalopy, years ago, and they blew me away,” enthused a brunette beauty at the bar.

She wasn’t kidding. An eight-piece version of the band shook off the rust and a rocky start to bring back fond memories of a Serbia of the mind circa 2009 or thereabouts, when the band was a regular draw on the Barbes/Jalopy circuit. Tricky tempos? Minor keys? Chromatics and microtones to rival seasoned Serbian or Egyptian brass players? Check, check, check. Alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie whirled in, unpacked her horn and fired off the most deliciously slithery solo of the night, not missing a beat. Finally, de facto bandleader and baritone horn player Quince Marcum took a similarly valve-twisting microtonal solo of his own.

The night came full circle with an enveloping, otherworldly and eventually feral set by the Mountain Lions, billed originally as the duo of baritone saxophonist Peter Hess and standup drummer Matt Moran. Maybe this was planned, maybe not, but it ended up with Hess playing achingly intense, minutely fluctuating melody over a slow, funereal beat, several horns massed behind him and playing a drone. The result was as psychedelic as anything played on any stage in New York this year – and a pretty spectacular display of circular breathing and extended technique. Then the group loosened up, Raya Brass Band’s Greg Squared lit into one of his supersonically precise, pyrotechnic solos and the band got their feet planted back in Sarajevo or Guca or somewhere like that, in the here and now.

Word on the street is that Slavic Soul Party will have everybody back in town by August for their Tuesday night Barbes residency. In the meantime, this month, their absence opens up the late slot for a lot of great music- check the Barbes calendar or just stop by the bar if you’re in the hood. This coming Tuesday, July 11 at 7 PM lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club open the night at 7, playing songs inspired by Steve Martin.

July 7, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, gypsy music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephane Wrembel Releases a Lavish, Charecteristically Edgy New Romany Jazz Album at Drom Tonight

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel made a name for himself as a stormy, erudite interpreter of Django Reinhardt, but his own body of work encompasses far more than that, using Romany jazz as a stepping-off point for his own distinctive ventures into Middle Eastern sounds and psychedelic rock. His lavish, dynamically rich, often poignant new double cd The Django Experiment is streaming at youtube. Disc one is mostly an imaginative mix of Django classics; disc two is mostly originals, in more of a jazz vein than what audiences get at his ongoing, legendary most-every-Sunday night 9 PM-ish residency at Barbes. He’s playing the album release show tonight, June 10 at 8 PM at Drom; hopefully by now you have your $15 advance tickets because it’s an extra five at the door.

The first disc opens with Nuages, Wrembel’s elegantly spare, resonant lines over Thor Jensen’s spring-loaded rhythm guitar, Ari Folman-Cohen’s bass and Nick Anderson’s drums. Wrembel takes somewhat the opposite approach with his tremolo-picking on the waltz Gin-Gin, then he and Folman-Cohen have fun working the chromatic edges of Bouncin’ Around, a close cousin to Brother Can You Spare a Dime.

Nick Driscoll’s clarinet spirals around and intertwines artfully with Wrembel on the jaunty Dinette. By contrast, Wrembel and Jensen max out the modal melancholy in a majestically spacious take of Troublant Bolero, up to a characteristically careening crescendo. It makes a good segue with the first of Wrembel’s originals, Windmills, a brisk, deliciously broodng waltz.

The band goes back to the Django catalog for a bubbly, lickety-split take of Place de Broukere, followed by the bucolic desolation of Carnets de Route,Wrembel’s moodily magical mashup of Django and Pink Floyd. The up-down dynamics continue with the coyly strutting Djangology and then Wrembel’s plaintively mined take of Sasha Distel’s Ma Premiere Guitare. Disc one winds up with Wrembel’s wistful waltz Jacques Prevert followed by a roller-coaster ride through Django’s Minor Swing. the bandleader channeling Wes Montgomery up to a mightily plucked bass solo and finally a stampede out.

The second disc begins with the epically vamping Douce Ambience. It perfectly capsulizes the confluence of Middle Eastern modalities and Romany swing that Wrembel first began mining around ten years ago, the guitarist’s understated unease in contrast with Driscoll’s relentless centrifugal force on soprano sax, Anderson taking it out with a long hailstorm of a solo. Viper’s Dream is pretty close to the Django version, with a little wryly bouncing Tal Farlow thrown in.

A waltz by Bamboula Ferrret benefits from Wrembel’s judicious, occasionally tremolo-picked phrases mixed into an attack that’s equally precise and resonant: all those notes don’t just vanish into thin air. Boston, another waltz, begins wistfully, grows more elegaic and then Wrembel builds a long, growling upward drive. Then the band flips the script with the toe-tapping shuffle Double Scotch, Driscoll adding dixieland effervescence.

Reinhardt’s midtempo stroll Tears reveals itself here as the source of a Beatles hit that Big Lazy likes to take even deeper into the shadows. Nanoc, which is Wrembel’s Caravan, opens with a levantine slink and slithers further off the rails from there. Then he makes a surreal juxtaposition with Django’s Louis Jordan-influenced Heavy Artillery, which is anything but. After that, Minor Blues is middle ground, more or less, Wrembel adding an understated intensity, part Wes Montgomery, part psychedelic rock, with a long, practically frantic sprint out.

Interestingly, the album’s best track isn’t one of the barn-burners but Wrembel’s slow, hushed, allusively flamenco-ish Film Noir. Raising the ante again, Driscoll’s clarinet infuses Songe d’Automne with an indian summer breeze. The final cut is the enigmatically balmy ballad Anouman, ironically the closest thing to straight-up postbop here. Over and over, Wrembel reaffirms his status as paradigm-shifter and one of the world’s most engaging, original innovators in Romany guitar jazz.

June 10, 2017 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapt Atmospherics from Arooj Aftab and a Tantalizing Vijay Iyer Cameo at Merkin Hall

What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.

Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.

Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.

Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.

After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.

March 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Irresistible, Globally Eclectic Show by Elektra Kurtis and the PubliQuartet

Violinist Elektra Kurtis’ latest album  is a fiery, often explosive electric jazz record. But she has many different sides. Last night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, she showed off as much elegance as kinetic energy in a completely acoustic set featuring irrepressibly adventurous indie classical ensemble the PubliQuartet.

She opened solo with a bravura Mozart interlude and closed the night with a full quintet arrangement of one of her signature originals, blending elements of flamenco, Romany dances and tarantella into a lithely stormy, polyrhythmic exchange of voices. An earlier piece, also featuring the quintet, resembled the work of Per Norgard with its enigmatically eerie, steady microtonal motion.

After a couple of flamenco-flavored solo original miniatures, Kurtis brought up Publiquartet violinist Curtis Stewart, who played a raptly hazy solo pastorale: the video for the song made it into the Inwood Film Festival, which makes sense since that’s where he’s from. Then the two violinists exchanged voices deftly throughout a neo-baroque Kurtis piece.

She then left the stage to the quartet. Valencia, a North Atlantic seaside tableau by Caroline Shaw juxtaposed ethereal, saline astringencies with churning, subtly polyrhythmic riffage circulating throughout the ensemble – violinist Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and cellist Amanda Gookin – who then tackled the evening’s most surreal number, David Biedenbender‘s Surface Tension. It was inspired by a weird dream where a simple glass of water took on the texture of putty and other unexpected substances. Norpoth took care in explaining its strange elasticity, then the ensemble brought its slithery, uneasy shapeshifting trajectory to life, a showcase for pouncing, emphatic voices throughout the group.

Matthew Browne’s Great Danger, Keep Out illustrated what kind of havoc can result when a Tesla coil explodes: Norpoth called it “fiery” and she wasn’t kidding. The Publiquartet’s next gig is with wild, ambitiously carnivalesque large jazz ensemble the Cyborg Orchestra, led by Josh Green at National Sawdust at 7 PM on March 2; $30 advance tix are available. Kurtis plays frequently at the Cornelia; watch this space for upcoming dates. 

February 27, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, gypsy music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | Leave a comment

Thrills and Dynamism from the Transatlantic Ensemble at Steinway Hall

From this perspective, crowds at concerts have been even more sparse than usual since the election. Monday night at the new Steinway Hall just around the corner from the Town Hall, a surprisingly robust turnout for an early weeknight got to witness a thrilling, dynamic performance by the Transatlantic Ensemble: clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Evelyn Ulex, joined by a couple of similarly electrifying special guests, Lara St. John on violin and JP Jofre on bandoneon.

The group’s raison d’etre is to expand the range of serious concert music beyond the usual parade of dead white guys. Lots of ensembles are doing this, but few more excitingly than this semi-rotating cast. Adam got to treat the crowd with her joyous, technically challenging leaps and bounds as the group bookended the program with a couple of Paquito D’Rivera pieces, Benny@100 – a tribute to famed jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman – and a pulsing Venezuelan-flavored waltz.

In between, Ulex explored a similar dynamism and nuance. She’s one of the pianists Steinway selected to record for their digital player piano, the Spirio, which not only plays the notes but with a very close approximation of an individual player’s touch and phrasing. With the Spirio, you have your choice of your favorite music along with a variety of interpretations. If there’s no room in your apartment or your budget for such a big piece of equipment, the Steinway label has just put out the Transatlantic Ensemble’s new album Havana Moon – streaming at Spotify – whose release the group was celebrating.

The premise of the album, Adam revealed, was to celebrate the work of some of the group’s favorite composers from their global circle. The night’s biggest thrill ride was a tango by Miguel del Aguila, whom Adam described as “impetuous,” and she wasn’t kidding. Ulex attacked the tune with both graceful precision and unleashed passion as Adam provided cleverly dancing counterpoint, and St. John added her own high-voltage flurries and spirals. The group hit a similar peak later on when joined by Jofre for a rousing performance of his composition Primavera, which came across as more of a wild midsummer festival on the Argentinian pampa.

Del Aguila’s Silence, as Adam averred, was hardly silent: a requiem, it gave her the evening’s lone opportunity to cut loose in an anguished torrent of notes, and she made the most of it. The duo also elegantly parsed the subtleties of D’Rivera’s neoromantically-tinged Habanera, a wistful Roaring 20s Parisian waltz by Villa-Lobos and a surprisingly astringent, modernist lullaby by Jofre.

November 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Otherworldly, Mesmerizing Performance by Georgian Choir Ensemble Basiani

Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.

Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.

There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!

Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.

October 28, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, gypsy music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Surreal, Paradigm-Shifting Night of Music and Film at the Asia Society

On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities

The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.

The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.

The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.

January 14, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Film, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic, Majestic, Transcendent Carnegie Hall Concert by the China National Traditional Orchestra

Prosaically speaking, the China National Traditional Orchestra play both old folk themes and new works on traditional instruments, using western-style symphonic arrangements. Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, the mighty, majestic group performed a riveting, dynamically rich program of both ancient and contemporary music that was as vast and historically rich as China itself, a paradigm-shifting and potentially life-changing experience. This was not safe, self-congratulatory, doctrinaire state-sponsored music. It was as avant garde as anything staged in this city this year…yet pretty much everybody in the house knew the source material, and by the final sprint through a blustery coda, the majority of the crowd was clapping or singing along.

While this group’s setup is modeled on the typical European symphony orchestra, the timbres are uniquely Chinese, subtly spiced with overtones and microtones that don’t typically exist in the western classical canon. The choice of instrumentation alone creates a brand-new genre, considering that traditional Chinese ensembles tend to be smaller and more focused on either strings or winds. In place of oboes and clarinets, this group substitutes the high midrange suona, along with bamboo alto flutes and a series of shengs, giant counterparts to the harmonica. In place of cellos, the magical, overtone-generationg low-midrange erhu, but also a section of Chinese zhongruan guitars. Other plucked textures, from harp, pipa lute and yangqin zither added alternately delicate and spikily sizzling sounds that grounded the music in centuries of tradition. In the back, in place of timpani, an entire row of big bass drums and gongs which on occasion were employed to deliver torrentially roaring washes unheard of in the most explosive western symphonic music.

Several works by the ensemble’s visionary composer-in-residence, Jiang Ying, took centerstage. The most stunning, slinky, suspenseful one was the opening mini-suite, Silk Road, which set the stage for much of the rest of the concert as it built suspense from a hushed conversation between Wu Yuxia’s pipa and Wang Ciheng’s xiao flute. With titanic swells and dips, a graceful pipa solo and constantly shapeshifting variations on a swaying caravan pace awash in edgy Middle Eastern-tinged tonalities, it was the most cinematic of all the material on the bill.

Ying’s Impressions Suite was hilarious. From one of the second-tier boxes close to the stage, a lively birdcall began to warble, answered from the center section, and then the whole venue came alive with the chattering of flutes. We had been infiltrated by flutists! Suddenly the forest was flickering with what seemed to be hundreds of species, in a constantly mutating stereo swirl! Conductor Liu Sha spun and beamed and tackled the daunting task of keeping the flock together with seamless aplomb.

The second half of the program began with a bellicose, wildly atonal, chord-chopping pipa duel between Zhao Cong and Yu Yuanchun, augmented by similarly kinetic percussion: it was the most improvisational and challenging piece of the night. An ancient fishing boat song brought to mind a blustery if successful days’ worth of hauling in a catch, fueled by Wu Lin’s graceful, balletesque harp. Hua Yanjun’s The Moon Reflected on the Spring for erhu and orchestra, as its title would imply, contrasted stark, stately strings against a balmy, plushly nocturnal backdrop.

Zhongruan player Feng Mantian seized the role of frontman and lead guitarist on Ying’s arrangement of the traditional Rhapsody of Xintianyou, sort of a Chinese counterpart to a Richard Thompson Britfolk anthem. The program closed with a soaring, ecstatically galloping take of the 1939 Xian Xinghai suite Yellow River, a defiant narrative of Chinese resistance and triumph over the brutal Japanese invasion. For the encores, the orchestra went into similarly rousing, stampeding Mongolian folk territory, leaving the audience breathles and on their feet. It’s too bad that there weren’t more non-Chinese speakers in the crowd: this music embraces tonalities far beyond traditional Asian scales and would resonate with just about any global audience, if only they could hear it.

December 24, 2015 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment