Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rippling Jazz Rarity From Chris Dingman

Chris Dingman gets a lot of work, some of it in places where jazz vibraphonists aren’t usually found. If you listen to New York public radio, you may have heard several of his themes on WNYC. His latest album, Embrace – streaming at his music page – is a rarity in the jazz world: a vibraphone trio record. It has the catchiness of his radio work; the lingering lushness of Milt Jackson also comes to mind. Here Dingman’s joined by Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tim Keiper on drums. One of the album’s coolest touches is how Dingman’s right and left hand are panned in the stereo mix; it often seems like there’s a second set of vibes here.

He opens the album’s starry opening track, Inner Child with a lullaby theme, the rhythm shifting between waltz time and a more straightforward, syncopated pulse. Baby steps from the bass introduce a vamping, soul-tinged tune which finally gains critical mass with a big tumble from the vibes.

Dingman works a similarly rippling vamp up to a catchy, anthemic chorus in Find a Way: see, they got there pretty quick! The lithe bass/drums interlude is something you might expect from a vibraphonist; the stairstepping waves afterward, maybe not. He shifts to a gentle, resonantly summery, West African-tinged 6/8 sway with Ali, set to a mutedly circling groove.

Dingman builds The Opening-Mudita around a series of insistentlly hypnotic echo phrases, then expands them. Oh’s catchy, dancing bass riff is a stepping-off point for more of the same in Goddess, building a gentle rainstorm in the second half. Forgive/Embrace opens on a similarly lush note, then grows more kinetic as Dingman advances into and then backs away from a series of circular phrases.

A carefree pop anthem provides a lilting foundation for Hijinks and Wizardry. The steady processional, Steps on the Path is just as catchy if more sober. Dingman closes the album with Folly of Progress, a funky study in loopy phrasing. If twinkling, glimmering, trance-inducing music is your thing, you can get lost in this.

June 27, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor

Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:

“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.

Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”

Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.

Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.

Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.

A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.

June 22, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Timely Musical Celebration of One of the Great Poets of the Holocaust

There’s an especially intriguing webcast coming up on Friday, June 26 at 9 PM when new music chamber group Ensemble for These Times are livestreaming the release show for their new album Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan at YouTube.

“Why Paul Celan and why now?” the group ask. “The year 2020 is the centennial of the birth of the seminal poet, whose influential works speak to his experiences of loss, disempowerment, imprisonment and survival under a brutal regime; the themes in his work—the rise of fascism, “strong men” leaders, and nations marching to the drumbeat of nationalism—deeply resonate today with the global right-wing resurgence and rampant injustice.” Download the program notes here.

The webcast will include live chat with composers including Juliana Hall, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Kareem Roustom, interviews with Vivian Fung, Aleksandra Vrebalov, David Garner, and soprano Chelsea Hollow, music from the album, and videos of performances by the ensemble (Dale Tsang, piano, Anne Lerner, cello, soprano Nanette McGuinness, guests Laura Reynolds, English horn, Ilana Blumberg, violin, Xin Zhao, piano).

The group are officially releasing the record on June 30, a mix of new music premiered in 2018 by the ensemble’s co-founder David Garner and Jared Redmond to poetry by Celan; by Stephen Eddins to poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, including a reading of the poem by the translator and poet’s son Anthony Milosz, plus a relevant piece by Libby Larsen.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert | Leave a comment

A Deliciously Fun Live Duo Album From Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch

Musicians have had it worse than just about anybody during the lockdown, but listeners have been on the other side of that equation, at least as far as albums are concerned. Since studio space hasn’t been legally available because of the ongoing paranoia, many artists have been raiding their archives for their juiciest live recordings. One of the juiciest of all of them so far is the duo album by Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch, Live at the Village Vanguard, streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s a rare opportunity to hear Spalding on vocals alone. Hersch – who’s put out more great live albums in the past couple of years than pretty much any other artist – loves playing with singers. Bottom line: lyrical jazz heaven. You have to grab this album now – it’s going offline for good at the end of this month.

These are long songs, some of them more than ten minutes. Hersch’s puckish teasing contrasts with Spalding’s wistful but streetwise gravitas in the Gershwin standard But Not For Me: it’s like what Rachelle Garniez might do with it. Hersch’s jaunty, erudite tempo shifts perfectly capture the ambience of the original while competely flipping the script with it. That last slash: wow!

It’s hard to think of a more intuitive interpreter of Monk than Hersch, and he is completely in his element in the album’s second track, his homage Dream of Monk. “We never really knew where his mind was,” Spalding muses about Thelonious Sphere. It’s a coy piano-and-vocalese duel, a challenge to figure out who knows more weird accidentals, and yet, more purist blues.

They have ridiculous fun with a blippy, bluesy jam based on the 50s Neal Hefti hit Girl Talk. Spalding finds double meanings inspired by Mission Impossible and….hmmm….masculine imbalances. “Don’t get it twisted,” she warns. “What’s mundane on the surface is not.”

The two work the standard Some Other Time from skeletal to brassy and close with a lighthearted, comedic take of Egberto Gismonti’s Loro, with some coy inside jokes from the frontwoman (does a duo have a frontwoman?) For experienced listeners who like the most playful side of these two artists, this is nirvana.

June 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Most Shattering Piece of Music Released This Year

The most riveting and relevant piece of music released so far this year is basically a single note.

Scott Robinson plays 8 min. 46 sec. solo on bass saxophone, sustaining that note for the almost nine minutes that George Floyd managed to survive until Derek Chauvin finally succeeded in asphyxiating him. It will rip your face off. Robinson uses circular breathing to maintain the pitch, and as the piece goes on, even a veteran multi-reed player has to hold on for dear life.

That’s the point here: as quietly tortuous as Robinson’s own performance becomes, imagine what Floyd went through. As Robinson reminds in his notes on the youtube clip, he was shaking by the time he’d finished: Floyd didn’t get to make it that far.

June 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maverick, Poignant Cross-Generational Reinventions of Swing Jazz Classics

What a refreshing change to hear an album of Billie Holiday classics sung by a frontwoman with her own distinctive style, who isn’t trying to rip off Lady Day! Samoa Wilson was a pioneer of the New York oldtime Americana scene back in the zeros, but she also has a thing for jazz. Jim Kweskin is the best-known of the 60s jugband blues revivalists, but he’s just as much of a jazz guy. The two have a long history of collaborations and a new album, I Just Want To Be Horizontal streaming at Spotify. It’s a joyously dynamic mix of both well-known and obscure swing tunes reinvented from a string band perspective, more or less.

The lineup Kweskin pulled together is fearsome. After all these years, his guitar fingerpicking is still nimble, and Wilson, with a larger voice and wider-angle vibrato than Holiday, varies her delivery stunningly from song to song. Western swing maven Dennis Lichtman plays clarinet, violin and mandolin, alongside pianist/accordionist Sonny Barbato, lead guitarist Titus Vollmer, alto sax player Paloma Ohm and trumpeter Mike Davis, with Matthew Berlin on bass and Jeff Brown on drums.

The group take the majority of the tunes on this lavish seventeen-track record from Holiday’s early days with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra – in many cases, Wilson has restored the complete original lyrics. They open with the very familiar: in After You’ve Gone, Kweskin signals the point where he takes over the mic and they take it doublespeed, Lichtman puts down his clarinet for his violin and Barbato throws in a tantalizingly brief accordion solo. That sets the stage for the rest of the record: short solos, emphasis on going to the source of what these songs are all about

The album’s title track is a slow, hazy take of an obscure Bunty Pendleton tune with an aptly pillowy vocal from Wilson, downplaying hokum blues connotations for dreamy ambience. She pulls out the big vibrato for an achingly hopeful take of the midtempo number Trust In Me, then sticks with the gravitas while the band pick up the pace for the western swing-tinged  I Cried For You.

Rosetta Howard’s druggy anthem The Candy Man has a luscious interweave of strings and reeds, with a balmy sax solo at the center. The group remake Inch Worm, a children’s song from the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen, as trippy, velvety, vamping pastoral swing.

Wilson’s cynical delivery contrasts with the jaunty shuffle of That’s Life I Guess. The album’s most epic number is Until the Real Thing Comes Along, with expressive, wee-hours solos from sax, piano and Lichtman’s clarinet.

The bluegrass-flavored take of Me, Myself & I is less schizophrenic than just plain fun, echoed by the group’s update on Bessie Smith’s innuendo-fueled hokum blues classic Kitchen Man and At Ebb Tide, an old Hawaiian swing tune.

A low-key, pretty straight-up swing version of Our Love Is Here to Stay is a showcase for Wilson’s low register. She gets a little brittle and misty in Lover Come Back to Me, then lends her sultriest delivery on the record to a ahuffle version of Easy to Love.

Kweskin turns an Irving Berlin chestnut inside out with He Ain’t Got Rhythm. The last of the Lady Day numbers, I Wished on the Moon gets simmering intensity from Wilson and shimmery dixieland flavor from the band. They close the record with a plaintive interpretation of a rare Tony Bennett b-side, Someone Turned the Moon Upside Down.

June 14, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Bristling, Inspired Masterpiece From Gordon Grdina and His Quartet

Gordon Grdina‘s guitar work can be as thorny and dense as his playing on the oud is poignant and haunting. His latest album Coopers Park – streaming at Bandcamp – is as darkly complex and compelling as anything else he’s ever released. This is not an album for those with short attention spans: it’s music to get lost in and return to for new discoveries every time.

Brisk, knottily clustering, close-knit riffage from the bandleader, alto saxophonist Oscar Noriega and pianist Russ Lossing punch in alongside Satoshi Takeishi’s drums as the album’s epic title cut gets underway. An allusive march ensues with echo phrases and divergences, down to whispery deep-space exchanges which grow more chromatically menacing as Grdina pushes further toward the perimeter. Just like Matt Mitchell on Grdina’s Nomad album, Lossing is often in the bad-cop role here. Noriega’s searching, muezzin-like lines over Grdina’s grimly congealing guitar multitracks are spine-tingling. After a long, sad decline, they bring it full circle.

The version of the album’s second track, Benbow, previously released on Nomad, was “Inspired by a California hotel which reminded Grdina of the one in The Shining and gets a spacious but gritty solo guitar intro, a long, tightly clustering crescendo and an evilly glittering Mitchell solo,” as this blog put it back in January. With Noriega’s ghostly bass clarinet over Lossing’s surreal glimmer, this particular take is a completely different animal, much more spare and haunting.

Noriega’s brooding Balkan-tinged flutters open Seeds II over Takeishi’s boomy beat, developing a slow, qawwali-ish groove, guitar and sax an uneasy pair, Lossing’s wry wah-wah Rhodes off to the side. A moody, squirrelly improvised midsection grows more sepulchrally lingering as Lossing switches back to piano. The monster walk out is a tasty payoff: after seventeen minutes, these guys have earned it.

Grdina really takes his time with a sparse, enigmatic solo introduction to Wayward, an improvisation. Lossing joins in with a decisive calm, Noriega and Takeishi quietly phantasmic. Menacing ripples rise from under the lid until everyone takes a turn in jauntier directions. Noriega’s bass clarinet work over a paraphrase of the Seeds II outro, rising from full-toned Middle Eastern ominousness to an explosive coda, could be the high point of the album.

The group wrap it up with Night Sweats, building from funky, circling Balkan-tinged syncopation to an outro that brings the whole album full circle. Grdina works fast; he has yet another album, with his chamber jazz septet, out hot on the heels of this one.

June 13, 2020 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Rewarding, Diverse Collection of New Classical Works

Today’s album is Dreamfall, released by distinctive indie classical group Now Ensemble in 2015 as a follow-up to their harrowing 2012 recording of Missy Mazzoli‘s Songs From the Uproar. It’s more stylistically diverse and somewhat more upbeat but just as adventurous for this wind ensemble enhanced by guitar and piano. The album is still streaming at Bandcamp.

A low, looming metallic fog rises, keening with overtones as Scott Smallwood‘s Still in Here gets underway, flickering bits appearing from time to time. As the drone becomes more of a rumble, tectonic sheets of sound color the upper part of the picture, oscillating at a glacial pace. Although there are discernibly piano and reed textures, the rest of the murk is deliciously mysterious.

The album’s title track, by Mark Dancigers, is a triptych. The first part begins with a playfully dripping piano phrase over orchestration that grows more stark, then the casual, intricately synocopated mood returns. Big neoromantic cadenzas alternate with more carefree interludes: the appearance of the composer’s ringing, ever-so-slightly distorted electric guitar is something of a shock, all the more so because it anchors the music in an attractively wistful folk rock-tinged theme.

Part two follows a dancing, sparkling staccato tangent that grows more kaleidoscopic and then coalesces back toward the neoromantic. Clarinet floats over a gritty, insistent piano-driven glitter in the first half of the conclusion, then the group use a momentary solemn Michael Mizrahi solo piano interlude as a springboard for a lively upward drive over insistent, loopy staccato strings. It’s a fun ride.

Divine the Rest, by John Supko is still and echoey, awash in reverb, with a whispery spoken-word component and gently fluttery phrases that rise toward the end. An enigmatic calm and hammering bustle alternate in Nathan Williamson‘s Trans-Atlantic Flight of Fancy; bristling suspense-movie accents from throughout the ensemble grow more warmly agitated

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Pale As Centuries is the album’s most striking piece. Its wary guitar theme recedes for Terry Riley-ish upper-register circles, clarinet floating amid piano turbulence and eerie concentric circles just below: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Darcy James Argue catalog.

Andrea Mazzariello‘s Trust Fall makes a great segue, from its similarly uneasy slow guitar/bass/clarinet interweave, rising to exchanges between triumphant peaks, a twinkling calm and river of a coda from the piano. The album concludes with Judd Greenstein’s City Boy, sparkling with spiky, circular motives, a bit of a jig, and hints of Carole King woven together up to an unexpectedly sober ending.

June 12, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Oldtime Sound to Look Forward to From the Swingaroos

Once again, it’s worth raising the question of how an album of toe-tapping, old-fashioned swing dance music could possibly be subversive. Well, if you were in the Soviet Union under Stalin, you could have been killed for listening to it. And in June of 2020 in New York, it’s against the law to play it for an audience. Think about that.

If you miss the fun of, say, Midsummer Night Swing, you can still get down on your home turf with the Swingaroos‘ irrepressibly entertaining latest album Music of the Night, streaming at Bandcamp. What distinguishes them from the legions of other goodtimey swing jazz combos out there is their sense of humor. On one hand, you may well ask yourself if we really need another album of standards that everybody else has done to death. On the other, this band do them a lot differently.

Pianist Assaf Gleizner romps his way into a bit of gospel with his solo intro to the opening instrumental version of Tea For Two, bassist Philip Ambuel joining drummer Uri Zelig’s tiptoeing strut. Frontwoman Kimberly Hawkey makes her jaunty entrance in Manhattan, clarinetist Dan Glaude and trumpeter Stephen Morley joining the festivities. It’s not as raucously funny as the version recently released by Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna, but it’s still amusing: pushcarts gliding by on Mott Street?

Hawkey gets brassier with Ain’t Misbehavin, Morley soloing over Zelig’s wry vaudevillian accents. Guest Matt Giroveanutakes over the mic for a balmy, Sinatra-inspired take of Without a Song, the Song Is You; then Hawkey takes it doublespeed. By contrast, their uke-swing version of Rodgers and Hart’s I Could Write a Book has a joke that’s too good to give away.

Ambuel frantically walks the changes to You’re the Top, Glaude adding an acerbic alto sax solo alongside Hawkey’s stagy delivery. They take Blue Skies further back in time toward the dixieland era, then swing their way into a logical segue, On a Clear Day. Then the group make a sassy, lightfooted bounce out of I Got Rhythm, Zelig contrasting with his jungly rumbles.

You probably wouldn’t expect this band to do the title theme to the musical Cabaret as a New Orleans shuffle. Or to play My Man as a hi-de-ho tune, but that’s what you get – that’s arguably the album’s best song. Likewise, Guys and Dolls might seem like a cheesy choice, but they swing it hard with a handful of funny quotes. After that, the seriousness of the mostly piano-and-vocal take of If I Loved You is bit of a shock.

The album’s title track is an epic balance of dixieland and lushness. The funniest song here is The 11 O’Clock Number, which is basically the medley from hell – no spoilers! They close with a benedictory, crescendoing take of Give My Regards to Broadway.

June 11, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment