Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

November 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitarist Joel Harrison Takes a Plunge into Gorgeous Indian Sounds

Guitarist Joel Harrison’s innovative, frequently vast compositions span many different styles of jazz and new classical music. He gravitates toward slower tempos and epic grandeur, both of which are in full effect on his latest album, Still Point: Turning World, featuring the Talujon Percussion Quartet. What’s most exciting about this colorful, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes exhilarating record – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it’s Indian music played with jazz instrumentation. It’s in the same vein as the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s reinventions of centuries-old Indian raga themes. Harrison and Talujon are at Roulette on Nov 6 at 8 PM; advance tix, available at the venue, are $18/

Harrison takes the title from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a reference to a mystical place of transcendence – or simply life. On the first number, Raindrops in Uncommon Time, the Indian sounds don’t kick in until about a third of the way through. The first part is a circling blend of acoustic guitar and vibraphone akin to a Malian kora melody. Then sarod player Anupam Shobhakar takes centerstage over the loopy vibes, tabla, and Harrison’s alternately resonant and jagged electric guitar. Ben Wendel’s sax joins the party: everybody plays the melody, and after a wry bit of rhythmic takadimi vocalizing, the group dance through a cheery crescendo that finally comes full circle. All this in about nine minutes.

One Is Really Many has Shobhakar running variations on what sounds like a classic Paul McCartney riff, then after a crescendo with the whole group going full steam, the song’s inner raga comes front and center, sarod scampering over spare, resonant accents from the rest of the crew. Wendel takes it out with a determined coda.

Harrison’s terse, distorted leads come to the forefront in Permanent Impermanence, which drummer Dan Weiss takes doublespeed out of a subtly syncopated stroll: once again, the raga comes into clear focus at that point, sax and eventually the vibes soloing over Harrison’s skronky chords. The considerably calmer Wind Over Eagle Lake 1 has playful ripples against stately gongs and bells

Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone riffs introduce Ballad of Blue Mountain, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, the sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.

Time Present Time Past has catchy hints of mid-70s Stevie Wonder within a catchy raga theme, the band slowing to halfspeed and then joyously back, ending on unexpectedly hazy note. The album’s centerpiece, Creator Destroyer has Shobhakar’s most adrenalizing volleys of notes within its  crescendoing intensity: it’s the most percussion-centric number here. The final cut is Blue Mountain (A Slight Return), a fond pastoral ballad and variations over a bustling, tabla-driven clave groove, the sarod fueling a series of rapidfire crescendos. The band trade animated riffs on the way out, as firmly in the jazz tradition as the raga pantheon.

November 3, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Misty, Meditative Clarity with Saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan at the Drive East Festival

The early show this past evening at the ongoing Drive East Festival of Indian music was both lively and serene. In that sense, alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan‘s duo set with Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam represented a considerable shift from the harrowing poignancy of sitarist Hidayat Khan’s opening night raga, not to mention the ferocity and relevance of the following night’s Metoo-themed dance performance.

Early on, Radhakrishnan mused about how sound enables enlightenment: if only it was that easy to filter out the rest of the world and focus on it! Calmly and thoughtfully, the two musicians held up their end, establishing a peaceful and purposeful dialogue with a long mridangam solo midway through, punctuated by a ridiculously funny countdown sequence.

Radhakrishnan’s approach is more Coltrane (someone he quoted from, lyrically, in a brief interlude about three-quarters of the way through) than, say, Hafez Modirzadeh. Throughout the night, the tone of the sax was misty and enveloping, a warmly bounding presence anchored by a steady pulse and steely command of minute inflections, eschewing microtones for an often hypnotic fluidity. Optimism and a calm sense of triumph prevailed, beginning with a bubbly carnatic theme that Radhakrishnan finally brought full circle. In between, the duo shifted from a fleeting atmospheric passage or two to subtly morphing, deftly syncopated variations on classic raga riffs.

The effect on the audience – which kept growing after the show began and almost completely filled the auditorium – was womblike. Walking out to to the street afterward, still wrapped in a calm, meditative state, how pleasant it was to see that there’d been a storm and that the temperature had plummeted at least twenty degrees. Lord Indra was definitely smiling on the festival tonight!

The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 9, beginning at 6 PM with two of the most compelling violinists in Indian music, Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy and their carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet. Cover is $25.

August 8, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Harrowing, Mesmerizing Multimedia Meetoo Parable at the Drive East Festival

Sitarist Hidayat Khan‘s haunting raga last night at this year’s New York edition of the annual Drive East Festival could easily have upstaged the rest of the week’s performances. But it didn’t. This past evening, bharatanatyam dancers Rasika Kumar, Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek performed their seethingly relevant yet often sardonically hilarious Metoo parable, Unfiltered, to a series of standing ovations from a sold-out crowd. If this is typical, the rest of the week is going to be pretty amazing – and this blog is giving away tickets.

Singer Roopa Mahadevan‘s live score was every bit as compelling, to the point where it could easily be adapted as a stand-alone concert suite. And the three dancers’ forceful, stunningly imagistic performance works as well as theatre and mime as it does as a choreographed work. Each of the trio has a very distinct character and role. Perhaps ironically, Thekkek portrays the quietest of the three as she encounters a sexual predator. Kumar has to fend off a boss without boundaries; Sambamoorthi battles trouble on the home front.

We never get to see these womens’ male adversaries. There’s very little dialogue, and until the coda, everything spoken is in the form of a question. All the interaction is portrayed by facial expressions and gestures. Kumar’s many faces are absolutely priceless as she tries to maintain a sense of humor and inner calm while her situation deteriorates. Sambamoorthi imbues every aspect of her role – her arm movements, her determined attempts to get her point across, and her thousand-yard stare – with a simmering intensity. Thekkek endows her character with unexpected poise throughout an understatedly harrowing solo.

The narrative is hardly predictable. The grisliest details are only alluded to, and the constant cat-and-mouse game between the three women and their respective predators leaves much to the audience to figure out. Yet there’s also great humor – sometimes vaudevillian, sometimes grim – throughout the piece. The visual jokes, especially early on, are too good to give away – phones and social media are part the picture, at least to the extent that we can imagine it.

And the score is as dynamically rich, and haunting, as the dancing. Mahadevan’s famously powerful mezzo-soprano vocals remained mostly in a moody low register throughout the suite, backed by Arun Ramamurthy on violin – who supplied the biggest crescendos of the night – along with Rohan Prabhudesai on piano, Kavi Srinirasavagavan on mridangam and Malavika Walia on vocals and nattuvangam castanets. They opened with hypnotic, calm variations on a carnatic theme and then drifted toward slowy swaying horror-film tonalities. Constant rhythmic and stylistic shifts matched the dancers’ intricate footwork, whether lithe and slithery or stomping and emphatic. As the drama reached critical mass, Mahadevan and Walia countered the dancers’ defiance and reslience with an all-too familiar spoken-word refrain: “Get over it. This happens to everyone. What will people say? Do you really want the atttention?” Ad nauseum.Without giving away the ending, it’s fair to call this a capsule history of Metoo.

It’s also a good bet that the dancers may reference iconic bharatanatyam dance pieces from over the centuries: those more knowledgeable about classical Indian dance than anyone at this blog may get them. The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 7 at 6 PM with tabla players Rohan Krishnamurthy and Nitin Mitta’s North and South Indian Percussion Duo with the versatile Prabhudesai on harmonium at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St; cover is $20.

August 6, 2019 Posted by | concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Inner Torment in Lesley Karsten’s Astor Piazzolla Biodrama That’s Not Tango

Over the past couple of years, Lesley Karsten has staged her mesmerizing Astor Piazzolla biodrama That’s Not Tango in larger and larger halls around New York. The project’s sold-out Jazz at Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night came across as a big victory, no matter how turbulently or quixotically she portrayed the life of the godfather of nuevo tango.

Early on we learn how his manager felt about him: “Onstage, he was a god. Offstage, he was a sonofabitch.” That quote is emblematic. Karsten sees the iconic composer and bandoneonist as a guy with a chip on his shoulder that he can’t – or won’t – get rid of, a defiant paradigm-shifter utterly consumed by dedication to his art at the expense of pretty much everything else.

She’s gone on record as surmising that he would have appproved of his role being played by a woman, and while we’ll never know the answer, it’s plausible, especially considering the quality of the musicianship behind her.

Karsten introduces him speaking posthumously – and in what could be a considerable stroke of irony, rather reflectively – from some sort of limbo. What’s he doing there? Setting the record straight, he wants us to know. The extraordinary group Karsten has assembled for this project – Brandt Fredriksen on piano, Nick Danielson on violin, Pablo Aslan on bass and the guy who may be this era’s greatest bandoneon player, JP Jofre – leap and swing and bluster through a mix of Piazzolla hits and a handful of more obscure numbers in between Karsten’s narration.

What might be most impressive about Karsten’s depiction of Piazzolla is how closely she focuses on the music. Piazzolla the character offers no shortage of drama as he rises from crippled toddler to smalltime thug, reluctantly taking up the bandoneon just to please his dad, then having a eureka moment when he hears his Hungarian neighbor playing Bach on the piano. The young Piazzolla’s dad – a hard man, and apparently a harder man to please – nonetheless was quick to act on his son’s passion. Karsten – whose background is documentary filmmaking – does not affect an accent, or a man’s voice. This tough-talking, foul-mouthed, often caustically cynical protagonist comes across as plenty macho regardless.

The band burn through the music with reckless abandon matched by expertise, no doubt due to the fact that both Jofre and Aslan are first-rate nuevo tango composers themselves. Fredriksen’s dynamism, from muted snippets of Bach, to an absolutely chilling, emotionally depleted, mostly-solo take of Soledad, to the leaps and bounds of Michaelangelo 70, ranges from flash to poignancy. Danielson, whose spare, suspenseful solo kicks off the night’s opening number, Lo Que Vendra, also gets plenty of time in the spotlight. At the end of the show, Karsten introduced Jofre as “Astor Piazzolla,” his whirlwind cadenzas and rich color palette giving voice to every shade the little bandoneon can conjure.

The noirish pulse and chromatics Piazzolla loved so much underscore just how deeply the klezmer music he heard as a kid, growing up next to a synagogue on the Lower East Side, affected him. Karsten also takes care to quote him on Bach, Cab Calloway, Ellington and especially Bartok. At the other end of the telescope, he’s even more quotable when it comes to much of tango – including a cruelly spot-on account of the kind of dancers who can be found at a milonga. There are also personal vignettes, ranging from Piazzolla’s estrangement from his children to his regrettable if tense relationship with the Videla dictatorship during the Dirty War of the 1970s.

One of the most telling moments in the show is an absolutely heartwrenching, revelatory tour through the backstory of Adios Nonino, Piazzolla’s requiem for his father and ironically one of the most traditional pieces in the Piazzolla repertoire. He’d been between sets at a gig in the Caribbean when he got the news; afterward, he went back on and played the second show of the night. Unable to communicate his grief with his family, he locked himself in his room with his bandoneon and wrote what he considered to be his greatest piece. The rest of the material on the bill focuses on Piazzolla’s most lavish ambitions, from the coy baroque allusions of Fuga y Misterio to the gritty intricacies of Tres Minutos Con la Realidad. What Ellington did with the blues, Piazzolla did with tango: this show will inspire anyone who loves his music as well as the many, many influences that went into it.

August 2, 2019 Posted by | concert, drama, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof: More Relevant Than Ever

Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.

While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.

This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.

As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.

The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.

At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.

Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic, Spine-Tingling Spanish Dances and a Queens Show by Fiery Violinist Maureen Choi

Violinst Maureen Choi found her muse when she immersed herself in Spanish music. She likes epics and big, explosive crescendos: her music is not for the timid or people with ADD. Her new kick-ass album Theia is streaming at her music page – and it’s one of the most unselfconsciously adrenalizing records of the year. Her slashing, often Romany and Arabic-tinged compositions rise and fall and leap all over the place, and the fun her band has with them is contagious. She’s playing Terraza 7 on June 29 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

Choi flurries and flares over drummer Michael Olivera’s suspenseful flickers throughout the dramatic intro to the album’s first cut, Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza); then bassist Mario Carrillo joins the party, pianist Daniel Garcia Diego firing off fiery, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics.

Phoenix Borealis is a diptych of sorts, hushed luminosity bookending a ferocious flamenco dance with a big explosion of drums and some of the most savagely bowed bass in recent memory. Choi follows the same trajectory in Dance of the Fallen, painting plaintively resonatn lines over Garcia Diego’s elegant chromatic ripples and graceful chordal work.

Canto Salamanchino is a cheery number that shifts in and out of waltz time, between major and minor, with a deliciously pointillistic, chromatic piano solo midway through and an unexpected detour into Chinese pastoralia afterward. Silverio O. Garcia has a hushed, elegaic quality, violin and piano echoing each other’s plaintive riffs. Steady pitchblende menace gives way to acerbic Andalucian flair and a series of crashing crescendos in Sinner’s Prayer

Love Is the Answer is a somewhat muted, almost wrenchingly bittersweet ballad: imagine Chano Dominguez taking a crack at Schubert. Choi kicks off Bok Choi Pajarillo with a big solo that shifts cleverly between Romany intensity and the baroque; from there, it’s a flamenco rollercoaster.

The album closes with its two most towering epics. Septenber the First, the album’s most haunting number, has a persistently uneasy late-summer haziness, part Palestinian-flavored dirge and anguished string-jazz lament. Choi closes the record with Danza Ritual Del Fuego: from an allusive intro that could be Dave Brubeck, through a long Afro-Cuban-inflected interlude, it’s more simmer than fullscale inferno, with a coy false ending. Count this as one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

June 21, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

June 12, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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