Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mercury Falls Looms Ominously in the Distance

The cover image of Mercury Falls’ new album Quadrangle is apt, a collage of ominous stormclouds. The album itself is sort of the calm before the storm: it’s beautifully moody, pensive rainy-day music, a suite of atmospheric soundscapes blending elements of jazz and minimalism with occasional light electronic touches and a tinge of dub. The band – saxophonist Patrick Cress (also of Telepathy), Ryan Francesconi on guitar, Eric Perney on bass and Tim Bulkley on drums – share a remarkable chemistry and intuition. As a whole, they allude to themes more than than stating them outright, skirting both the melody and the rhythm, an effective strategy for building considerable suspense. It’s basically a suite, variations on a series of motifs interspersed with minimalist, sometimes jagged, sometimes ghostly fragments that appear in the mist only to fade from view seconds later.

The opening track Spring Pools begins with a foghorn in the distance and builds around a noirish sax motif, somewhat evocative of Jimmy Scott’s Sycamore Trees. Speak Without Ears has the sax entering over a vaguely Kurt Cobain-ish acoustic guitar figure, methodically crescendoing to a funky baritone sax hook, down and then back again in a vein that reminds of New York noir instrumentalists Mojo Mancini. Eventually, it segues all the way into the fourth track, guitar emerging astringently from nebulous ambience.

The most striking composition here is the understatedly modal, ominously cinematic, sardonically titled Insurance Rep, contrasting a warmly anthemic 6/8 melody with eerily tense atmospherics, Bulkley raising the ante as he will even further on the following track, Solar Plexus. On that one, he prowls around as Francesconi and Cress finally take it all the way up to a blazing yet understated, terse crescendo, washes of distorted electric guitar beneath upper-register sax incisions. They segue out on an unexpectedly optimistic note, a pretty lullaby melody coming together slowly out of the clouds. It’s a great wind-down album, a great headphone album and a clinic in smart, decisive interplay. Bay area fans can catch Mercury Falls on September 16 at 10 PM at the Makeout Room, 3225 22nd St. in San Francisco.

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September 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Charles Evans/Neil Shah – Live at Saint Stephens

This absolutely gorgeous album – just out on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Hot Cup label – is a lock for one of the best of 2009 in any style of music. It’s marketed as jazz, although it could just as easily be called minimalism or classical. It would make an amazing soundtrack if the label could find a film that deserved it. Baritone sax player Charles Evans uses the entirety of his instrument, not just the low registers. He can make it sing, like Gerry Mulligan, but with more imagination, adding overtones and harmonics and a vibrato that he can slow waaaaaay down to Little Jimmy Scott speed. The most obvious comparison, imaginatively if not exactly stylistically, is genre-defying funkstress and ambient baritone sax composer Paula Henderson. Pianist Neil Shah is a first-rate rock songwriter and barrelhouse player, but what he does here is 180 degrees from that – to say that his playing here is haunting is a considerable understatement. Jazz fans will hear echoes of Keith Jarrett, but his real antecedent is Erik Satie. This album, a suite of six pieces, has Shah laying down a frequently macabre, terse mode that Evans colors with deliberateness and precision; other times it’s Evans who introduces the mood and has Shah embellish it ever so slightly. It’s as poignant as it is hypnotic.

The first two pieces are trio suites of their own,  the intial track, Junie, quickly establishing the otherworldly glimmer that will dominate from here on in. Shah expertly works two different palettes, ominous in the left hand, colorful and Romantic in the right, when it comes time for his solo. They take it out with a Messiaenesque warped boogie of sorts, Evans supplying rhythmic accents loaded with implication. The second mini-suite, On Tone Yet, demonstrates the uncanny chemistry between the two musicians: the two play these songs as a truly integral unit, as if a single mind was bringing them to life (or exhuming them – this is dark stuff). Shah’s insistent series of simple chords, switching a single voice among the keys for an effect that goes from subtle to sinister in a split second, veers off into a strikingly cantabile passage and then menacingly back again, is a high point. They float it out with Indian-inflected ambience, sax holding the piano up to keep it from disappearing into the murk.

Mono Monk is the most minimalist song on the album, Evans and Shah emphasizing the space between the notes with as much stern judiciousness as what they play. The lone cover here, Jan Roth’s sarcastically titled An Die Fliegenden Fische (The Flying Fish) is more of a jellyfish, albeit a playful, bluesy one, Evans contributing a pretty, lyrical solo matched by Shah’s Bill Evans-style cascades. The cd wraps up with a nine-minute number with a title that goes on almost as long and fairly neatly sums up the whole set: mournful Satie-esque piano followed by Evans’ most expansive, bluesiest solo of the night; some call-and-response; a pregnant pause, and then sax and piano switch roles.

There are only two drawbacks here. The first is an overabundance of crowd applause after the songs – we’re talking thirty seconds at the end of the cd. That’s Guns & Roses stuff, and while it’s hardly a disaster, it is annoying. It sounds like there were three people in the audience and they’re trying to compensate for it, and they can’t (but what a treat to have been one of those three, in what is obviously a sonically exquisite space!). The other quibble is that, hey, they’re at Saint Stephens: da-da, da da-da-da-da, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-DA-da-da-da! Dude, why not do that one? Dollars to donuts these two would do something with it that would make Jerry Garcia proud.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Secretary – Secret Life of Secretary

This is the solo project by Moist Paula Henderson, frontwoman and baritone sax player from New York’s terrific all-instrumental trio Moisturizer (Moist Paula from Moisturizer: get it?). On the album, she plays all the instruments, meaning lots of bari sax, sometimes played through Garageband patches so they sound like other instruments. This could be the soundtrack to a really cool indie film. Let’s make some pizza bagels and watch the movie. Are you down?

The movie’s first scene is South Carolina Holiday. It’s a balmy, beachy day, not a cloud in the sky and not even hungover, listening to some dreamy, ambient sax lines. Suddenly it’s almost 5 in the morning and the scene shifts to a Dominican restaurant: you can almost smell the spices rising in the steam from the rice and beans and fresh chuletas. Mofongo Raincheck, which sounds like a song from Paula’s band, is playing: a catchy, sexy vamp set to a Latin beat with bongos and surprisingly authentic-sounding upright bass patches. It builds to a wild little interlude as a couple of scary-looking, drunk dudes enter the joint but ultimately nothing bad happens.

After the restaurant, suddenly it’s a crowded mini-mall somewhere in the Midwest except that it’s way after it should be closed and the sketchy dudes from the Dominican place are back and suddenly they’re running after somebody. It’s Instant Messenger Dream, bari sax grating through a distortion pedal, disquieting and weird, pairing what’s essentially a classical melody with a heavy metal feel against layers of ambient sax washes.

Just outside the mall at the edge of the parking lot, a girl is looking at her reflection under the lights in a shop window and rehearsing what she’s going to have to say to get Daddy’s Approval. Tastily doubletracked saxes play over weird, out-of-time electronic blips and bleeps.

Suddenly a Mouse appears and moves its mouth. It sounds like low bass synth with someone having fun with the portamento lever, holding down the low notes as attractively thoughtful, upbeat sax flies overhead. It’s Moist Paula the jazzcat. This a long scene, it gives the mouse a chance to go for an Oscar and the sax player to show off her great chops and sense of melody.

Then the New Age Ladies enter. This part of the soundtrack could also be a Moisturizer song if it had a real rhythm section behind it, layers of ambience over a percussion loop, what sounds like string synth and then a cimbalom. Where did that come from. And why are those women on the yoga mats wearing Hungarian capes and have all those rings on their fingers?

Jump cut to the inside of some tourist trap in Chelsea, a mob scene packed with fat old Wall Street guys in fancy suits smoking cigars and hitting on high school girls from central Jersey with big hair and way too much foundation. I guess they call this 10 Sex. One of those obnoxious drum machines is going whoomp whoomp whoomp whoomp. Ugh. Time for a bathroom break. Fast forward to the next scene, would you please?

OK, we’re back. This is where Moisturizer can be seen in the background if you look closely: I’ll bet the girls would love to play this one live. This must be Risk Failure, which starts with a snapping funk bass line, then a super catchy sax melody. When the camera pans to the Vietnamese Restaurant at the corner, the waitresses have all gathered around an older Arab gentleman who’s playing backgammon by himself while the waitresses sway in time and yet more sax hooks kick in over what sounds like gamelan percussion. Then an oud begins to play, the Arab gent gets up and opens his suit coat. Inside there is a leather holster with a spatula inside.

All this is Not It Vain (as opposed to Not In Vain). Right about here the movie gets very 80s. Is that Scott Bakula? He looks exactly like he’s always looked (just like every annoying boss I ever had). Didn’t know he was still acting. There’s a synthesizer, the images speed up early MTV-style, then suddenly slow down. There’s a gorgeously melodic bluesy sax way in the background. Something is going on here, you have to look very closely and suddenly it’s very different, very bleak. Someone has a Decrepit Heart. A dancer enters the frame, swaying sadly to a trip-hop beat, layers of synth chorus singing a sad refrain as she moves all by herself to an imaginary band.

And then the movie is over. The credits roll against a montage of of mountain and riverbank images. A tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman is messing with her cellphone and not hearing anything. Must be No Service in the Poconos. Layers of saxes play against each other, rubato. It’s completely random yet melodic at the same time.

So there you have it, a delightful, utterly surreal sound movie. Sundance, are you listening? This further solidifies Paula Henderson’s reputation not only as a rocker and a frontwoman but also as a bonafide, serious composer with jazz chops and a completely unique sense of humor. It will lift your mood and make you see a lot of things you probably never imagined before. Great album.

May 17, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments