Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Flower Brings Her Fast Fingers to Town

On April 1 at 7:30 (no joke), Portland, Oregon acoustic guitar goddess Mary Flower plays the Good Coffeehouse series at the Ethical Culture Society at 53 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. If guitar is your thing, she’s inspiring. Her latest album Bridges is a mix of characteristically fluid yet precise Piedmont style blues playing as well as some delicious ragtime and lap slide work. First and foremost, this is a guitar album – Flower keeps her vocals unaffected and nonchalant and lets her fingers do most of the talking. They’ve got a lot to say and say it memorably.

The best songs here are her original instrumentals – while everything here draws on different Americana roots styles, Flower isn’t afraid to add her own more complex, modern melody lines. Temptation Rag is absolutely gorgeous, Flower’s twin ascending lines against Robin Kessinger’s flatpicking and Spud Siegel’s mandolin shifting to a gypsy jazz vibe. Slow Lane to Glory imaginatively takes a gospel tune and makes midtempo swing blues out of it, played richly and tunefully on lap slide guitar. The bittersweet Piedmont blues number Daughter of Contortion eventually works in a playful circus motif, and the concluding track Blue Waltz artfully intertwines her guitar lines with Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and accordion from Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso.

A couple of the vocal numbers have a jaunty Roulette Sisters feel, most memorably the darkly simmering Big Bill Blues, lit up by some edgy, incisive piano from Janice Scroggins (whose contributions throughout this album are consistently excellent). The opening track, featuring Tony Furtado’s bottleneck in tandem with Flower’s densely intricate fingerpicking, evokes Jorma Kaukonen’s early 70s work. There’s also a version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that builds from hypnotic to steady and swinging; another first-rate ragtime song, Columbia River Rag, and explorations of country gospel, New Orleans blues and a cover of There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears with more biting blues piano from Scroggins. In addition to her April 1 gig, Flower is teaching a workshop on Piedmont style guitar at noon at the Jalopy on April 2.

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March 25, 2011 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Genre-Smashing New Guitar Albums from Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins

Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.

Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.

Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.

Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Duel Amid the Pews

“Is there anyone else who needs to leave?” grinned classical guitarist Bret Williams, “Like the guy in the back there?” He was referring to the screaming rugrat who’d erupted in rage at the end of the La Vita/Williams Guitar Duo’s first song, an anonymously springtimey piece by Brazilian composer Sergio Assad. As welcome as it is to see classical music on a program outside of the usual midtown concert halls, the infant slowly wheeled outside by a lackadaisical mother never would have made it past security at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, the church fathers at St. Paul’s Chapel today were too nice to turn her away. And this was somebody who obviously wasn’t homeless. Memo to parents: you had a choice, you had the kid, now you pay the price. No concerts for at least four years (for the kid, anyway).

What started inauspiciously got good in a hurry. Duetting with Williams was Italian guitarist Giacomo La Vita, whose fluid, brilliantly precise playing made a perfect match for Williams’ lickety-split yet subtle fingerpicking. The two ran through two pieces by Manuel de Falla, the romantic, flamenco-inflected Serenata Andaluza and the swaying, 6/8 Danza Espanola, then did two Scarlatti pieces that La Vita had arranged himself. In music this old, the emotion is in the melody, not the rhythm, and both of them dug deep into the stateliness of the tunes to find it.

The high point of the show, and probably the drawing card that got the audience in here on a cold, rainy Monday was Astor Piazzolla’s 1984 Tango Suite, another original arrangement for guitar. It’s unclear if the pantheonic Argentinian tango composer actually knew Charles Mingus personally, but the third piece in the suite definitely had the same kind of defiant scurrying around that the great American jazz composer was known for, beginning with a chase scene, running through all kinds of permutations to arrive at a fiery chordal ending. The two parts which preceded it began darkly reserved, then became expansively jazzy.

“We usually have an intermission, but we have to get up to the Upper West Side to teach,” explained Williams. “To a bunch of kids who probably haven’t even practiced. We’ve got to be there at 2:30!” And with that they burned through yet another of their own arrangements, this for De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, an orchestral piece every bit as volcanic as the title would imply. An impressively good crowd, especially for the time of day and the drizzle outside, responded with a standing ovation. Obviously, fans of acoustic guitar music will like these guys best, but they cover vastly more terrain than most of their colleagues, a savvy move because it will earn them more of an audience. One hopes enough to eliminate the need to rush off to a midafternoon private-school teaching gig after they’ve finished playing a great set.

April 28, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matty Charles Live at Pete’s Candy Store, Brooklyn NY 3/23/08

“Are you following the presidential race?” Matty Charles asked the crowd who’d filled the tables in the little back room at Pete’s.

Silence.

“I kind of like this Obama guy,” he admitted. More silence. This was white Williamsburg, 2008, after all, strictly Republican territory, if these people vote at all.

“The thing that impresses me is that he can actually speak…that’s something we should require of all our politicians,” deadpanned Charles. He went on to give Obama credit for not reducing his response to the tempest-in-a-teapot over Rev. Jeremiah Wright to a soundbite. “Even if it ends up derailing him,” he added somberly. Then Charles played a catchy, oldtimey new song that sounded straight out of the Woody Guthrie catalog, a familiar-sounding, upbeat broadside about the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and still paying all the taxes. But it ended as a resounding call for the people who “pick the apples that make this apple pie” to get up and do something about it. A song like this coul have come across as strident, but delivered in Charles’ warm, laid-back baritone, effortlessly fingerpicked on his acoustic guitar, it had a ring of authenticity.

If memory serves right, Charles and his band the Valentines took over the weekly Sunday residency that Rev. Vince Anderson had held for what seems like ages back in the late 90s and early zeros. Since then he’s been all over the place and back again and tonight he was back, for sure. A weekly residency can be a blessing – regular gigs keep your chops fresh and give you a chance to work up a lot of material over a relatively short period of time, but they can also be a curse because they drag on your fan base. Conventional wisdom to the contrary, New Yorkers, especially the newer arrivals, tend not to be the most adventurous types. Most of us will go out to see a friend’s band, others go because a band reputedly draws cute girls (or boys), but counting on a fan base to populate a club week after week is tough. But Charles has that fan base, and he’s earned it. Americana is his thing, veering to the oldtimey, folk side of country: he’s been compared to Guy Clark, but he’s a better singer and a considerably better songwriter, somebody who would rhyme “screw ya” with “hallelujah” as he did tonight. Jack Grace is probably a better comparison, although whiskey doesn’t figure as prominently in Charles’ songwriting, and he doesn’t milk the crowd for laughs. As with his vocals, the humor in his songs is completely casual, like the story he told tonight about going into what turned out to be a drug deli on Williamsburg’s south side back in the day when such places were everywhere, looking for a beer, but finding only milk in the store’s cooler.

That this site has been up now for almost a year and Charles hasn’t been reviewed here until now is, to be blunt, kind of stupid. There. It’s been done. You should go see him sometime: lately he’s been at Pete’s every Sunday at 8:30 and has a new album coming out next month. If the songs he played tonight are any indication, it’ll be as good as his last one.

March 23, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Breadfoot Featuring Anna Phoebe – Tea with Leo

The heir apparent to the legacy of John Fahey teams up with an inspired violinist on this gorgeously rustic, fluid album of pastoral acoustic instrumentals. Like Fahey, Breadfoot blends 19th century folk, old-time country and delta blues influences but resists any impulse to be bound by the traditional constraints of any of those idioms. What results is equal parts great Sunday afternoon album and passout record: it’ll get you going as well as it gets you down for the night.

The opening track, A Hard Day in Manhattan wanders along with an understatement that would do Fahey proud, an exercise in subtlety and dynamics. It’s all melody, no garish flourishes or ostentation. The album’s second track, the wistful, 6/8 lament Hilary Rose is over too soon, barely into its sad, thoughtful testimonial. By contrast, the following cut, Polly Loved Me (I Know) is a rousing Appalachian dance, sparks flying from the frets of Breadfoot’s six-string banjo (!!) and the strings of the fiddle.

Of the other tracks on the album, the next one, International Esther is probably the most overtly Fahey-esque number and wouldn’t be out of place on Blind Joe Death. That’s high praise. Very nice hesitation time at the end of the tune. Kecha is guitar only, a brightly bouncing open-tuned Piedmont blues melody a la Pink Anderson. The album’s best single cut may be the thoughtful, gently pensive Smoking on the Stoop. The cd concludes with the 6/8 ballad On the Day that I Go, which would make a great soundtrack to that Twilight Zone episode – I think it was called Willoughby. You know the one, the guy takes Metro North from Manhattan, think’s he’s on the way home but he winds up back in the 1800s, watching thekids take hayrides through the dusty, unpaved streets of his town. There’s also a rousing bonus track that kicks in after what seems eternity.

Clocking in at under half an hour, this cd’s greatest flaw is its brevity: it leaves you wanting twice as much. And not that the violin isn’t a welcome accompaniment here, but for anyone who’s heard him live, Breadfoot’s idiosyncratic vision and brilliant melodicism come through clearest when he plays solo. See him when you can. When’s the last time you danced to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental, anyway? Cd’s are available online, at shows and better record stores nationwide.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment