Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Blazing Big Band Album and a Low-Key Trio Show From Pianist Steven Feifke

If you’re interested in checking out a musician in an intimate setting, why would you want to listen to his big band album? Because it shows how far he can take an idea and keep it interesting. Steven Feifke’s first big band album, Kinetic – streaming at Spotify – was one of those thousands of releases which were on track to come out in 2020 but didn’t hit the web until a year later…and still pretty much went down the memory hole. And that’s too bad, because Feifke’s compositions are ambitiously tuneful, colorful and have a sly sense of humor. For now, you can catch the pianist leading a trio on August 10 at Mezzrow, where he’s doing two sets at 7:30 and a little after 9; cover is $25 cash at the door.

The band – a revolving cast of characters – open the album with the title track, the bandleader spiraling and stabbing right off the bat with a chromatic snarl echoed by blasts from the brass. Leading a frenetically bluesy drive, he sets up a hard-hitting solo from trumpeter Gabriel King Medd followed by a vaudevillian couple of breaks from drummer Ulysses Owens.

Trumpeter Benny Benack III’s smoky muted lines kick off the cinematic, noir-tinged Unveiling of a Mirror, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas handing off briefly to Alexa Tarantino’s flute. After Benack takes his plunger out, the group hit a brassy swing, dip into some gorgeously gusty Ellingtonian harmonies, then tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon picks it up again. The intro is 180 degrees from what you might think.

Misterioso rising energy also pervades The Sphinx, although there is a good, long joke early on. Alto saxophonist Lucas Pino chooses his spots, sometimes coyly during a lull; the tensely pulsing, Mingus-esque drive toward to another counterintuitive coda is one of the album’s high points. Veronica Swift sings the first of the standards, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, anchored by ambered shades of low brass, more black-and-tan reed harmonies and a sotto-voce swing from bassist Dan Chmielinski. Alto saxophonist Andrew Gould’s flurries against shifting banks of brass and reeds brings the tune to cruising altitude.

Feifke takes a tantalizingly brief, McCoy Tyner-esque opening solo in Word Travels Fast, a playful latin-tinged shuffle, spiced with devious quotes and animated solos from Medd, Pino and drummer Jimmy Macbride through to the album’s most anthemic coda.

Bright brass, shifting meters, a soaring Gould solo and a fiery flurry of individual voices over Feifke’s stern forward drive threaten to go off the rails but never quite do in the next track, Woolongong, It also has the album’s best joke.

Feifke’s big band version of Nica’s Dream is brisk and latinized; Benack goes from goofy to gruff as Tarantino shadows him. Swift returns to the mic over a hypnotic pedalpoint as a gorgeously dynamic stride through On the Street Where You Live gets underway. Trombonist Robert Edwards’ good cheer sets up Gutauskas’ ruminative solo as the blaze flares and flickers behind him.

The goofiest number here is Midnight Beat, which seems to be a satirically beefed-up take on cheesy 80s funk-fusion. Dillon takes centerstage in the warmly benedictory finale, Closure. It’s a memorable project from a cast that also includes trumpeters Max Darché and John Lake, trombonists Jeffery Miller, Armando Vergara and Jennifer Wharton, guitarist Alex Wintz, drummers Joe Peri and Bryan Carter.

August 6, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Inspired, Dynamic Live Debut Album by the Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band

Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s debut album with his big band, Soul Conversations – streaming at Spotify – sounds like one of those exuberant field recordings that jazz clubs love to play before shows. They get everybody drinking and they’re full of juicy solos. And it’s all but impossible to hear them ever again. This one you can.

Recorded at Lincoln Center before that venue was weaponized for totalitarian divide-and-conquer and lethal injection schemes, it’s on the trebly, boomy side: it sounds like a monitor mix. The group, comprised largely of up-and-coming New York players, open with a brassy. hard-swinging take of Dizzy Gillespie’s Two Bass Hit. Trumpeter Wyatt Forhan’s wildly spinning solo and baritone saxophonist Andy Gatauskas’s droll break before a similarly devious false ending are the highlights.

The tropically lustrous London Town, by trumpeter Benny Benack III features balmy work from the composer and guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Beardom X, a terse Owens swing tune, has a punchy bass solo from Yasushi Nakamura, pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi piercing the lustre before tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera adds bluesy gravitas and shivery intensity.

Red Chair is a wickedly catchy jazz waltz, trombonist Eric Miller choosing his spots up to a fleetingly bright crescendo, Ohbayashi’s bright chords and judicious glimmer fueling the next one. It’s the high point of the album.

Owens propels the group through a briskly shuffling take of Giant Steps, Rivera and fellow tenorist Daniel Dickinson conversing energetically. On alto sax, Alexa Tarantino dances sagely in an immersive, lushly lyrical Language of Flowers.

Human Nature, the cheesy Michael Jackson ballad, is a less than ideal vehicle for this group, even with Harris’ vividly twinkly vibes. But Owens’ decision to make a deadpan 12/8 ballad out of Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is irresistibly funny and validates anyone who ever suffered through another band’s florid take.

Charles Turner III sings his swing blues Harlem Harlem Harlem, through a long series of intros to a spine-tingling, cascading Erena Terakubo alto solo, soulfully energy from trombonist Michael Dease and a ridiculously comedic cameo from trumpeter Summer Camargo. They close the record with the title track, Tarantino spiraling amid the contentedly New Orleans-flavored nocturnal ambience.

And what about the leader? He often plays with a very oldschool 50s flair here: lots of offbeat shuffles and vaudevillian cymbal flourishes. Close your eyes and this could be Max Roach with a careeningly energetic crew in front of him. It’s become a familiar refrain here, but more artists and particularly large ensembles like this should make live albums. Owens’ gig page doesn’t have any shows listed; among the band members here in New York, Tarantino is playing Ellington and Nat Cole tunes tonight and tomorrow night, May 23 and 24 at Bryant Park at 5:30 PM with members of the American Symphony Orchestra.

May 23, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Look Back at a Catchy, Acerbically Swinging Album by Baritone Sax Star Lauren Sevian

As one of the world’s major baritone saxophonists, Lauren Sevian needs no introduction to jazz fans. What’s less known about her is that she’s also a composer and bandleader. Her most recent album under her own name, Bliss, came out in 2018 and is streaming at Spotify. Her instantly recognizable sound stems from her fondness for the instrument’s high midrange: she can get as lowdown and smoky as any other bari player, but she excels at melodies a little higher up like nobody else.

The opening track, Triple Water – a reference to Sevian’s emotionarlly fraught astrology chart – is a tightly wound, lickety-split swing tune, pianist Robert Rodriguez scrambling down to a fleeingly moody interlude that the bandleader pulls back in a flash, relying mostly on her midrange as bassist Christian McBride and drummer E.J. Strickland scurry along.

Sevian and her pal Alexa Tarantino used to have a band coyly named LSAT, and the tenor saxophonist contributes one of her own tunes, Square One, joining Sevian out front of the warmly lilting, expressive tune. McBride clusters around, The album’s title track slowly coalesces into a slow, syncopated sway, Sevian employing her marvelously brassy midrange tone for maximum impact over Rodriguez’s steady, spare backdrop.

The briskly strolling Bluesishness is a launching pad for Sevian’s souflul, “twisty” blues variations, as she calls them, McBride tossing off a deviously horn-voiced solo of his own. Goldie’s Chance is Sevian’s Lucille, a dynamically shifting, unexpectedly moody ballad dedicated to her Buffet 400 series baritone model: it’s a love song rather than a demo for everything her axe can do.

Sevian wrote the jaunty, matter-of-fact stroll Miss Lady for her cat, Astoria – even a spare, rather mysterious Strickland solo can’t get this furry friend to get uncentered. Lamb and Bunny, dating from Sevian’s LSAT days, is a lickety-split burner, the two women having a spiraling, conspiratorial good time as the rhythm section walks it frantically. The album’s most expansive track, In the Loop has a low-key, funky groove, Sevian’s gravelly solo followed by a mutedly jubilant one from McBride.

In Evergreen, Rodriguez’s gorgeously chiming lines, the bandleader’s thoughtful, resonant melody and McBride’s unabashedly romantic solo build inviting early summer ambience. Sevian winds up the album with Minimal Moves, using the changes from Coltrane’s Giant Steps for a racewalking swing. In a world where live music exists everywhere – and hopefully such a world will exist again – Sevian plays with everybody: this album is one of the reasons why she always has a gig.

July 29, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Eclectically Swinging Album From Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino

“As memorable as all these tunes are, it’s a good bet Tarantino has even more up her sleeve,” this blog enthused about saxophonist Alexa Tarantino‘s debut album as a bandleader, Winds of Change, just over a year ago. It’s always validating to see that kind of prediction come true. Tarantino’s follow-up, Clarity, is just out and streaming at Spotify. The lineup is a little different this time, pianist Christian Sands switched out for Steven Feifke, with Joe Martin and Rudy Royston returning on bass and drums respectively.

Interestingly, Tarantino plays alto flute on the brooding opening number, Through, working variations on a morosely memorable three-chord riff. Feifke signals a break in the clouds, the loose-limbed rhythm section pushing them pretty much out of the picture. What an anthem for our time – let’s hope Tarantino’s ending is an omen.

A Race Against Yourself comes across as something of an even brisker variation – a long, triumphant coda, essentially, Tarantino on alto sax. She gets balmy on the summery clave ballad, Luis Demetrio ‘s La Puerta, followed by A Unified Front, which has a similarly cheery drive, but at a faster pace. Royston getsthe chance to be his usual extrovert self, Feifke indulging in some blues.

The pianist plays spare, echoey upper-register Rhodes on a funky take of Horace Silver’s Gregory Is Here, Tarantino working her way up to some breathtaking, rapidfire volleys. Karma, a Feifke composition, has bright, incisive hooks, bits and pieces of funk and a smoldering Royston rumble at the end.

The lingering Rhodes returns in Who Saelua’s Breaking Cycles, the band edging their way into moody bossa territory: a real piano playing those same spare lines would enhance the song’s underlying disquiet. Thank You For Your Silence is a briskly swinging golden age-style postbop song without words. Like a lot of Tarantino’s work, this tune has an edge: a revenge number, maybe?

She closes the album, returning to alto flute for a slowly swaying, low-key reinvention of Kurt Weill’s My Ship. Martin’s piano voicings on the intro are a cool touch, as is his judiciously dancing solo midway through.

August 22, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Focus and Tunefulness From All-Female Jazz Supergroup Lioness

Lioness are the perpetually swinging Posi-Tone Records‘ all-female supergroup. It’s unusual for any of the few remaining record labels, such as they exist at all in 2019, to be championing women, let alone women in jazz. But Posi-Tone has an enviable track record of doing just that, including a bunch of recordings by Alexa Tarantino, Amanda Monaco, Lauren Sevian – all three of them members of Lioness – and several others. The sextet got their start during a Flushing Town Hall residency by Monaco; their debut album Pride and Joy is streaming at their music page. The rest of the group includes tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, organist Akiko Tsuruga and the increasingly ubiquitous Allison Miller on drums.

Sevian, Tarantino and Jenny Hill team up for some jaunty go-go blues in the album’s catchy opening number, Mad Time, by Miller. Hill’s composition Sunny Day Pal is a balmy cha-cha, its summery sonics enhanced by the organ in tandem with Monaco’s lingering, purposeful guitar. Jelly, written by Monaco and her sister, has Miller swinging leisurely behind its tight stroll and warmly bluesy horns, a neat trick.

Down For the Count. a Sevian tune, is full of surprise tempo and thematic shifts, the composer’s baritone sax bobbing and weaving and then handing off to Tarantino’s blithe alto. The covers here are all written by women as well. Melba Liston’s punchy You Don’t Say, from 1958 is reharmonized for three saxes instead of the original trombones, a carefree shuffle with solos all around. The group’s take of Aretha’s Think is even shorter than the original and makes you think about what it actually is before the group hit the chorus head-on. Ida Lupino, by Carla Bley, has a delectably allusive, sparse interweave of voices over Miller’s steady beat.

The simmering take of Meilana Gillard’s Ethiopian-tinged Identity is the strongest of the covers, a long launching pad for Sevian to take flight. Monaco clusters and spirals around the wistful Mocha Spice, by one of the alltime great postbop guitarists, the late Emily Remler. Tarantino’s briskly shuffling Hurry Up and Wait is the album’s high point, Sevian grittily unveiling the song’s bluesy architecture.

Hill glistens and flutters as Sweety, a syncopated soul number by Monaco, gets underway. Tsuruga is represented here by the album’s final and most epic cut, Funky Girl, a sly Jimmy Smith-style swing tune with more blustery horns than he typically worked with on an album date, along with a gritty Monaco solo. It’s a clinic in tight, thoughtful playing; no wasted notes, something as rare in jazz as all-female supergroups.

Lioness are at 55 Bar tomorrow night, July 27 starting at 6 PM.

July 26, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lyrical Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino Releases Her Debut Album at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino is highly sought after in the New York jazz scene for her high-voltage, expressive sound. But she’s also found the time to do some writing over the last few years, which is where her debut album Winds Of Change – streaming at Posi-Tone Records– comes in. The lineup on the record is killer: Christian Sands on piano, Nick Finzer on trombone, Joe Martin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. She’s playing the album release show on May 28 at 7:30 PM at Dizzy’s Club,; cover is steep, $35, but if you can afford it, you’re in for a treat.

Sands’ Debussy-esque poitillisms and a graceful whoosh or three from Royston’s cymbals open the album’s concise first track, Wisp After Wisp. Tarantino play airily and spaciously as she builds to a catchy, allusively bluesy crescendo. Face Value is a briskly shuffling romp, Royston’s firing off his signature, counterintuitive accents, the bandleader jousting playfully with Sands, Finzer adding a coyly jovial solo.

She plays bright, alternately soaring and gritty soprano on Noriko Ueda’s catchy jazz waltz Seesaw, a feature for Tarantino in the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra. Breeze follows an easygoing, vintage 40s sentimental swing tangent up to a hard-charging, blues-infused Sands solo.

Switching to alto flute, Tarantino’s take of Jobim’s Zingaro begins even breezier before Sands brings in the gravitas, Martin pulsing tersely over Royston’s quasi-bolero groove which they slowly edge into amiably dancing territory. Square One, her first-ever composition, is the album’s most epic track, built around a serisio, latin-tinged riff. Royston’s cleverly flickering shuffle underpins Sands’ steadily rising explorations, Tarantino alternating between serenity and shivery flash

The album’s catchiest track among many, Calm is a wistful song without words, Finzer parsing the melody gingerly, Tarantino taking flight as the group shift toward funk behind her. Undercurrent, centered around a bassline that’s more of a horn line, could be an Eric Dolphy jukebox jazz hit, Sands’ jaunty, New Orleans-tinged solo over Royston’s endless series of unexpected jabs.

The group burn through Ready or Not, Finzer ripsnorting and Tarantino spiraling over a tight but subtly shapeshifting, rapidfire shuffle. Tarantino and Sands open the closing ballad, Without as a duo, tenderly, her spacious, hopeful resonance over wary piano and an expansive groove. As memorable as all these tunes are, it’s a good bet Tarantino has even more up her sleeve.

May 20, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment