Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

Advertisements

September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Majestic Abbey Lincoln Tribute from Marc Cary

Marc Cary is probably the most Ellingtonian pianist out there right now. That may be the highest praise anyone can confer on a pianist, but Cary reaffims that trait over and over on his new album For the Love of Abbey, a collection of highly improvised solo versions of Abbey Lincoln songs. It’s stormy and ferociously articulate, like Lincoln – Cary should know, considering that he was her music director through the end of her career. It’s intense, hard-hitting but elegant to a fault. Without the constraints of having a band behind him, Cary seizes the opporutunity to play the changes rubato, taking his time over low, lingering, frequently explosive lefthand pedal notes. That this simple game plan would work as impactfully as it does throughout most of the songs here testifies to his power as an improviser: there’s not a single cliche on this album. Cary’s fluency in so many different vernaculars never ceases to amaze: irony-infused blues, menacing modalities, third-stream glimmer and gleam.

Cary opens by taking Music Is the Magic to a towering intensity  a bluesy scramble and then back. Down Here below begins with a low-register rumble and rises to an epic majesty, from blues to hard-hitting block chords and a chillingly modal ending. One of only three tracks here not written by Lincoln, Ellington’s Melancholia is less melancholy than a rich exploration of Debussyesque colors and nebulously Asian tinges. Cary’s own For Moseka works cleverly out of a circular lefthand riff to a pensive jazz waltz that he sends spiraling.

Who Used to Dance gets a bitterly reflective poignancy; it’s over too soon. Should’ve Been is spaciously moody, but with bite, ending on an elegantly bitter downward run. My Love Is You is a study in suspense: Cary introduces what seem for a second to be familiar phrases, but then takes everything on unexected but purposeful tangents, a litle Asian, a little vaudevillian. Love Evolves makes a good segue from there, hypnotic and brooding, finally livened with a couple of rapidfire righthand flourishes before its final descent into Chopinesque, haunting austerity.

Throw It Away potently pairs chromatically crushing, eerie lefthand against a gospel-tinged, dynamically shifting melody. Another World provides a sense of relief from the severity yet doesn’t leave it completely behind; Cary throws a clock-chime motif into the works, a neat touch. A rapt, saturnine When I’m Called Home brings back hints of Asian melody and an unexpected ragtime-flavored jauntiness, seemingly a segue with Conversations with a Baby, which grows from tender to emphatic: it’s time to talk sense to that kid! Cary closes the album with a brief modal introduction of his own into Down Here Below the Horizon, a summation of sorts with its glittering, anguished waves, from Romantic rigor to a familiar blues trope that he turns utterly chilling. If you love Abbey Lincoln, as Cary very obviously still does, you will find the way he ends this absolutely shattering. It’ll bring tears to your eyes. As solo piano albums go, the only one from this year that remotely compares to this is Bobby Avey‘s murky Be Not So Long to Speak. Look for this high on the best albums of 2013 page here in December if we make it that far.

August 27, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

This Album Kills Fascists

These guys just plain get it. The Curtis Brothers barrel into their new album Completion of Proof with both eyes open, fearless and unintimidated. In the spirit of Mingus, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln during the Civil Rights era, and more recent jazz artists like Howard Wiley and Tain Watts, they take a skeptical and often savage look at the structure of society in the post-9/11 age. Forget that the tunes here have a blazing power: pianist/composer Zaccai Curtis’ liner notes are worth the price of the album all by themselves. Most of these songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – take their inspiration from the ongoing struggle against encroaching fascism, one way or another. But the Curtis Brothers aren’t simply critiquing – they’re offering solutions. As melodic jazz goes, this might be the best album of the year: it’s as important as it is catchy. While there’s a crowd who might pigeonhole this as latin jazz, and there’s definitely a delicious tropical slink to a lot of this, it defies such an easy categorization. It’s just good.

The opening track, Protestor, is dedicated to the guy who won the staredown with the army tank at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres. It’s got hard-hitting, insistent piano, imperturbable Brian Lynch trumpet and sailing Donald Harrison alto sax with the powerhouse Ralph Peterson a spot-on choice of drummer for this song, and for that matter, this project. Bright hooks fade out over his tanklike rumble. The edgy, vivid, modally tinged second track is a dedication to Curtis’ niece, Madison, scrambling nimbly with an especially optimistic solo spot for bassist Luques Curtis. Named for the Bay of Bengal islanders whose centuries-old attentiveness to the world around them saved them from the 2008 tsunami, The Onge is a potently cinematic piece, kicking off with pulsing bass and a bustling two-horn attack – and eventually a triumphant if completely hectic run to the hills led by Zaccai Curtis.

The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, the Manifest Destiny Suite. It’s meant to illustrate the psychological and sociological mechanics of fascism: an awfully tall order for an instrumental work, but Zaccai Curtis succeeds with it, brilliantly. Part one, aptly titled The Wrath, underscores how kissing up to tyrants never works: this one’s dedicated to the school hall monitor, but it would work just as well for the Judenrat, or a contestant on the Donald Trump Show. Luques Curtis’ booming bass chords anchor this angry, chromatically-fueled depiction of a bully, Jimmy Greene’s tenor prowling suspiciously, drums and Pedrito Martinez’ percussion pummeling and rattling uneasily as the bandleaders hammer the point home sarcastically, over and over. Part two, Mass Manipulation examines how the corporate media distracts, Balkanizes and disempowers us. Zaccai Curtis works a wickedly sneaky variation on the tyrant theme over a noirish, rolling Afro-Cuban groove, all the way down to a depressing little waltz of sorts and then an absolutely gorgeously interwoven arrangement as the horns carry the tune, the piano ripples and the bass and piano work in tandem, bobbing to the surface. The concluding section is a reminder of the high price of the failure to follow Jefferson’s advice about eternal vigilance, richly illustrated with big, syncopated charts and more intricate but hard-hitting interplay.

The rest of the album balances the upbeat, optimistic son montuno anthem Sol Within against the explosively towering cautionary tale Jazz Conspiracy, a nightmarish portrayal of what happens when the corporations completely take over replete with creepy dissonances, sarcastic faux-martial cadenzas and bleating brass. As a whole, it leaps to the front of the pack of contenders for best jazz album of 2011.

And while it’s nice to see something this edgy and worthwhile getting coverage in a place like the NY Times, it would be an understatement to say that their reviewer didn’t get it. Did he even listen to the album? That seems doubtful.

November 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/20/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1 (even when we miss a day, we always catch up). Friday’s album was #620:

Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach – We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

In 1960, folksingers weren’t the only ones doing socially conscious music: plenty of jazz people were doing it too. This fiery civil rights-era suite is as inspiring and relevant today as it was when it came out that year. The chanteuse and her brilliant, innovative drummer husband are joined by an inspired, eclectic band including Coleman Hawkins on sax and African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. They open with the insistent minor gospel-flavored Driva’man, follow with the irrepressible indomitable Freedom Day and then the album’s epic centerpiece, Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace. It’s possible they inspired a young Gil Scott-Heron with the early anti-apartheid broadside Tears for Johannesburg. There’s also the hypnotic, percussion-driven All Africa. Here’s a random torrent.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Glimmering Majestic Intensity: the Marc Cary Focus Trio Live 2009

Often the greatest albums take the longest to truly appreciate: this is one of them. Majestic, intense and powerful, the Marc Cary Focus Trio’s latest brilliant album, Live 2009 came out a few months ago. More than anything the jazz pianist has done yet, this one solidifies an already well-deserved reputation as a rugged individualist and synthesizer of global sounds. His relentless lefthand attack evokes McCoy Tyner in places, but Cary’s sound is unique, and it’s deep. He’ll hammer out a low-register groove until the piano is literally reverberating and then let it ring out as he judiciously builds a melody over it. Cary’s style is as rooted in classical music – both western and eastern – as it is in jazz, with a strong sense of history, both musically and in the broader sense of the word. Cary created the Focus Trio for the purpose of cross-pollination: this album continues on that path. To call it revolutionary would not be an overstatement.

They begin with a magisterial, saturnine version of Round Midnight, David Ewell’s hypnotic bass pulse hinting at bossa nova, Cary working an octave for the better part of three minutes against the melody. When he switches to echoey Rhodes electric piano for a second as Sameer Gupta’s drums begin to rumble, the effect is stunning. Cary’s glimmering, Middle Eastern-infused solo builds to a characteristically towering intensity…and then segues into what’s essentially another one-chord jam. Attachment, which also appears in a radically rearranged version on Sameer Gupta’s new Namaskar album, was inspired by a rainy season raga from the classical Indian repertoire. Here, Gupta leads the band in a spot-on, cinematic evocation of a summer storm that grows from a drizzle with lights-along-the-pavement piano and cloudbursting drums. Their version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie #1, aptly titled Twilight, is as rubato as Satie would have wanted, working up to hypnotic insistence out of a long, majestically rumbling crescendo to a dark shuffle groove.

Complete with a sample of Malcolm X discussing revolution, Runnin’ Out of Time vividly and ominously alludes to the price of not revolting via a catchy four-chord hook over a triplet bass pulse. Slow Blues for MLK reveals how amazing Dr. King’s rhythm was: the band play along to a sample of him working a crowd (reminding how revolution isn’t just local, it’s global) literally without missing a beat. A co-write with Bismillah Khan hitches a dark soul melody to Indian ambience; Jackie McLean’s Minor March is reinvented as a bitter, bone-crushing anthem, followed on a more plaintive note by a jagged, wounded version of Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You, Cary setting the tone early on by going inside the piano, brushing the strings for an eerie autoharp effect. The rest of the album includes a brisk, scurrying swing cover of the Broadway standard Just in Time, a playful exercise in contrasts between woozy portamento synthesizer and low lefthand piano percussion, and CD Changer, an Abbey Road-style suite featuring an intense, percussive latin vamp, a wary bass solo lowlit by Cary’s glimmering, crushed-glass intensity and finally the playful nudge of an unexpectedly silly synthesizer solo, as if to say, ok, it’s my turn now. Cary’s doing a one-off gig at the Blue Note on 11/22; if jazz is your thing and you’re in New York, you’d be crazy to miss it.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment