Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lincoln Center’s 2018 Midsummer Night Swing Series Opens With Potent Relevance and Breathtaking Musicianship

At the risk of getting into serious trouble saying this, there hasn’t been such a stunning display of jazz talent on any New York stage this year as there was last night at the kickoff of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival. The inspiration for the mighty big band, the Sisterhood of Swing, was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group, who debuted eighty-one years ago. As bandleader, trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg took care to remind the audience who packed Damrosch Park, those women risked their lives playing music together.

The members of this group weren’t risking their lives, but arguably the majority of them were out of their element. And few among this allstar cast play regularly with large ensembles, fewer still with a group the size of this one. The majority are bandleaders who play their own material rather than bouncy 1930s swing. Yet everybody seemed to be pretty much jumping out of their shoes to be involved in this project.

In two lengthy, hard-swinging sets that spanned from standards to cult favorites and an obscure gem or two, the fourteen-piece ensemble offered tantalizing glimpses of pretty much each member’s personality, yet in a completely different context considering where they’re usually found.

The audience responded most explosively to tenor saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman’s serpentine climb to the vocal stratosphere in one of the night’s few ballads, quite a contrast with her rapidfire scatting in a Benny Goodman diptych during the first set. Another big hit was tapdancer Michela Lerman’s nimble solo over Savannah Harris’ irrepressibly boisterous, tropically-tinged tom-tom syncopation, mirroring the drummer’s rambunctious drive in the second set’s opening number, Lady Be Good.

At the piano, Champian Fulton delivered purist, masterfully spacious, blues-drenched lines that fit the material perfectly, especially when the band threw her what could have been the night’s longest solo. In her first turn on the mic, she projected with a surprisingly steely intensity, then a second time around worked knowingly triumphant, bluesy, Dinah Washington-inspired melismas.

Lead trumpeter Jami Dauber joined with her brassy bandmate Linda Briceño and Skonberg as well in a wildly crescendoing, tightly spinning exchange in the wryly titled Battle of the Bugles, one of a handful of numbers from the catalog of Sweethearts of Swing creators Kat Sherrell and Natalie Wilson. Bassist Endea Owens benefited from excellent amplification, giving her a forceful presence. Chloe Feoranzo stood out most noticeably with her gritty baritone sax work; trombonist and singer Emily Asher also got time in the spotlight to channel some goodnaturedly wry humor. Lead alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin played punchy soul alongside her fellow reedwomen Thurman and Sharel Cassity.

On clarinet, Anat Cohen spun silky arpeggios on the less breathlessly pulsing numbers and delivered joyously dancing dixieland when the pace picked up, notably alongside violinist Regina Carter in A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove, a deliriously frantic obscurity by 1930s vioinist Ginger Smock. The two worked more calmly and majestically in a new instrumental arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me. The group closed with a joyously edgy take of the klezmer-tinged romp Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown, made famous by Mildred Bailey with the Tommy Dorsey band. The crowd didn’t want to let the band go after discovering this new sensation.

This year’s Midsummer Night Swing series continues through July 14 with a more eclectic series of dance bands than ever. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM it’s salsa pioneer and “El Rey de la Pachanga” Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. It’ll cost you $17 to get out on the dance floor, something an awful lot of people last night were doing.

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June 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hot Jazz on a Hot Summer’s Day

The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.

Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.

On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.

Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.

Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.

June 27, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Django Festival Allstars Return to Birdland with a Hot New Album Recorded There

It’s that time of year again when the Django Reinhardt Festival takes over Birdland, starting at 8 PM on June 25 and continuing through June 30. Fortuitously, the Django Festival Allstars have a new album out, Live at Birdland, recorded at last year’s festival. The sound quality is outstanding, as you would expect from this venue, and the playing is sensational, even by the rigorous standards of le jazz manouche. The track selection is eclectic and draws deeply on originals with contributions from several members of the band, rather than simply recycled Django Reinhardt classics. As timelessly enjoyable as the Django catalog is, it’s good to see this group pushing hard on the envelope at the forefront of the tradition.

There are three numbers associated with Django here. The band kicks it off with Swing Gitan, lead guitarist Dorado Schmitt adding a bluesy ominousness over the swirl of Ludovic Beier’s accordion, the two joining forces as the song winds out in flurry of tremolo-picking. Nuages, true to its name, builds a rich, Gil Evans-tinged reflecting-pool backdrop for Schmitt’s spacious hanmer-on work and guest Anat Cohen’s slinky soprano sax. There’s also Manoir de Mes Reves, essentially My Funny Valentine recast as a steady Romany jazz ballad. The other covers here are an accordion-fueled Beier arrangement of Caravan, with a droll new title, Camping Car, a feature for cellist Jisoo Ok, as well as an amped-up take of Out of Nowhere and a rather unexpectedly, hard-rocking, early 70s-tinged version of Them There Eyes.

But it’s the originals here that make this band what they are. Dorado Schmitt’s ballad For Pierre carefully sets up an austere feature for violinist Pierre Blanchard. Blanchard’s Balkanic Dance juxtaposes his biting lines against Beier’s nonchalantly sizzling chromatics. The plaintive Valse en Exil, another Blanchard tune, sets moody violin over elegantly dancing guitars, a lush backdrop rising and falling behind them. Schmitt’s El Dorado is a lively bossa in disguise, a rhythm they revisit as the album closes with Bossa Dorado, building suspense with a relentless intensity as they resist the urge to take it over the top.

The poignant, elegaic spaghetti western bolero Song for Etorre, another Schmitt tune, might be the album’s strongest track. The rest of the cuts include Pat’s Waltz, a bouncy Beier number built around rapidfire, clustering guitars; a hypnotically shuffling, Brazilian-flavored tune by co-lead guitarist Bronson Schmidt; and Dorado Schmitt’s funk-tinged Melissa. To call this one of the best jazz albums of the year seems almost unfair to the rest of this year’s releases, considering the sheer talent that this good-natured family bands bring to the material.

June 23, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fun with Anat Cohen at the Miller Theatre

Jazz reedwoman Anat Cohen’s show Saturday night at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre looked to be sold out, or very close to it. Early on, she explained to the crowd that playing music for her was akin to bantering, and her bandmates no doubt agreed. Pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Omer Avital and drummer Daniel Freedman joined her in a mostly upbeat, often joyously melodic, high-energy set that reflected both her eclecticism and her fondness for Brazilian styles. This show wasn’t about crazed bop assaultiveness or weird tempos: it was all about meaningful contributions, and memorable tunes, and sometimes exuberant, sometimes sly interplay. Cohen’s fearsome technique is matched by her unselfconsciously warm approach to the music: when she wasn’t playing, she swayed, eyes closed, radiating a contented grin. Beginning on clarinet, then switching to soprano sax and then tenor for awhile, she and Lindner alternated between casually incisive swirls and cascades, and more contemplative passages marked by smartly chosen chromatics that made a vividly darker contrast with an otherwise high-spirited vibe.

The opening track, Anat’s Dance, was a Lindner composition, its bright, dramatic hooks giving way to a moody piano solo that finally rose with a rippling triumph against Freedman’s crescendoing cymbal atmospherics. They built an edgy funk tune out of the next number, setting Brazilian tropicalisms to a summery soul-infused groove, a mood they’d revisit in even more casually amped-up mode with their Coasters cover that closed their first set.

Cohen switched to tenor for their take of Frank Foster’s The Wedding, with a tone as smoky and as attuned to the song’s wee-hours congeniality as her crystalline clarity on the higher-register instruments had been earlier in the set. The song is essentially a jazzed-up soul groove, so it only made sense that when it came time for his solo, Avital would go up high on the fingerboard for some bright, bluesy guitar voicings that contrasted with Lindner’s more considered, impressionistic cheeriness.

When Freedman and Lindner left the stage for the next tune, Cohen worked the situation for laughs, then joined Avital for a swirlingly gorgeous clarinet-and-bass duo that blended slinky Bahian ebullience with brazing klezmer tonalities. The samba-jazz ballad they followed with was a rousingly successful journey through dynamics that began pensively, took an upward trajectory with Cohen’s most biting solo of the night and ended on an unexpectedly brooding note as the clarinet it down elegantly. They closed with a hypnotically rhythmic Freedman composition that the drummer cleverly morphed from an Ethiopian-flavored triplet rhythm to a practically disco shuffle – it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Either/Orchestra catalog. The crowd wanted an encore, but the house lights came up immediately.

Beyond Cohen’s popularity, maybe another reason the hall was so well-populated is that these Miller Theatre jazz shows are a real bargain: tickets were $25, with none of the drink minimums, or mandatory coat check, or the other nickel-and-dime concessions that some of the big-ticket jazz clubs get you for. The next one of these is on the 25th of this month with Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet.

February 15, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Observations on Winter Jazzfest 2011

As Search and Restore’s emcee explained Friday night at Kenny’s Castaways, the concept of Winter Jazzfest is to introduce new players, or older players tackling newer ideas. What he didn’t mention is that Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of APAP, a.k.a. the annual booking agents’ convention, which until the past year didn’t even schedule jazz among its CMJ-style array of relatively brief sets showcasing an extraordinary amount of talent across the city. In a good year, APAP might draw 1500 people, most of them from larger community arts venues across the country. The Census Bureau has made a big deal about how their 2010 data shows an increase in attendance at jazz shows. Friday night’s crowd – young, scruffy, hungry, and overwhelmingly local – offered potent validation of that claim. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: great art has tremendous commercial appeal.

Drummer Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys, whose run at Coco 66 in Greenpoint is one of New York’s more memorable residencies of recent years, explored how much fun there is in playing around the outer edges of funk. Artfully blending color and drive, Pride led his group – Darius Jones on alto, Peter Bitenc on bass and Alexis Marcelo on Rhodes – through a captivating, witty and too-brief set. All but one of their numbers (their catchy opening track, Surcharge, by a Berlin friend of the band named Uli) were originals. Themes were alluded to more than stated outright, Jones having a great time skirting the melody and then going way out into the boposphere on his own while Bitenc ran terse, hypnotic figures and Marcelo sent rippling washes out against the current.

“We’re professional travelers. In between we play music,” laughed pianist Amina Figarova, who delivered a thoughtfully expansive set at Zinc Bar with most of her longtime sextet: Bart Platteau on flutes; Marc Mommaas on tenor; Ernie Hammes on trumpet; Jay Anderson subbing on bass and Chris “Buckshot” Strik incisive and playful behind the drums. To paraphrase Mae West, Figarova is a woman what takes her time. Deliberately and matter-of-factly, she developed her solos with a slow and inexorably crescendoing approach which still left considerable room for surprise. And yet, a sudden solar flare or martial roll from her left hand didn’t catch her band unawares: they have a supple, intuitive chemistry that comes with rigorous touring. The most captivating songs in the set were the most bustling: the vivid airport scramble Flight No., and a cleverly shapeshifting version of the deceptively simple, unselfconsciously assertive Look at That!

As the evening wore on, it became clearer and clearer that the clubs were on a tight schedule: concertgoers accustomed to small clubs going over time as the night wears on were surprised to see acts actually take the stage before their scheduled time. Anat Cohen regaled a rapt, absolutely wall-to-wall crowd at le Poisson Rouge with a program that mixed crescendoing, ecstatic gypsy/klezmer clarinet, Jason Lindner’s lean latin piano lines and balmy sax ballads. And later, 90-year-old drummer Chico Hamilton and his band reaffirmed that if you have swing and use it, you never lose it.

Back at Kenny’s Castaways, it was nice to be able to simply see Jen Shyu as she swayed and held the room with her understated intensity: the last time she played Lincoln Center, she sold out the hall. She’s one of the few newer artists who actually lives up to all the hype that surrounds her: she can belt and wail to the rafters if she feels like it, but this was a clinic in subtlety and purposefulness. The high point of the entire evening, at least from this limited perspective, was a slowly unwinding, hypnotic arrangement of a Taiwanese slave song. Shifting from English, to French, to Spanish and then to Chinese vernacular, Shyu underscored the universality of humankind’s struggle against brutality, against overwhelming odds. Bassist John Hebert ran mesmerizingly noirish circles lit up in places by David Binney’s alto sax or Dan Weiss’  effectively understated drumming, Shyu contributing wary, starkly pensive Rhodes piano from time to time. Their last piece bounced along on a catchy tritone bass groove, Shyu’s vocalese sometimes dwindling to a whisper, bringing the band down under the radar to the point where the suspense was visceral. It would have been great fun to stick around the Village for more, but there was another mission to accomplish: like CMJ, APAP requires a lot of running around. Which was too bad. The ease of access to such a transcendent quantity of music is addictive: if you do this next year, make a two-night commitment out of it and experience it to the fullest.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment