Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ran Blake Headlines a Transcendent NEC Jazz Bill at Symphony Space

The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.

Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed.  Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.

Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.

In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.

Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.

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March 25, 2013 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Watch the Walls Instead – Get the Picture Yet?

Ghosts may come and go, but haunting music is the antithesis of evanescent: it lingers. As does bassist Giacomo Merega’s new album Watch the Walls Instead. It’s a suite, an overture and a coda played with a generally quiet but riveting intensity by two generations of improvisers. Merega gets credit as bandleader for the second time on album, alongside his bandmate, saxophonist Noah Kaplan – from equally eerie art-song warpers Dollshot – plus Italian veterans Marco Cappelli on guitar and Mauro Pagani on violin, and the perennially vital, transformative Anthony Coleman on piano. It opens with a five-part piece for quartet, minus the violin, then five shorter pieces for trios, concluding with the full quintet.

The titles of the quartet pieces refer to colors, although aside from the literally ghostly, spacious Absence of Color, they’re shades of grey, dark against light and every other possible permutation. The group’s singlemindness in maintaining that mood is striking to the extreme, to the point of minimalism. Each piece segues into the next, musicians remaining in their assigned roles. Merega plays electric bass, either muted and murky, or supplying low drones that hover below Coleman’s icy atonalities, moodily terse accents and macabre chordlets. Cappelli supplies pensive single-note lines and often handles the forward motion while Merega’s down in an atmospheric swamp; Kaplan, a master of microtonalities, gets the coveted role of raising the ambience from apprehension to fullblown terror. Whispery, abbreviated conversations between voices, a wary tone poem with Cappelli’s eerie guitar pushing Coleman’s waterdrop piano to new levels of menace lead through a practically silent interlude to an elegaic passage where Kaplan finally gets to introduce an element of pure terror, straining microtonally against the center as Coleman provides bell-like tones.

They segue into the trio section seamlessly, Kaplan and Cappelli working toward a deathly, echoing space-rock scene, following with variations on brooding, simple riffs which turn out to be the suite’s most vividly melodic motifs: they’re reaching for clarity amidst the fog and far from optimistic that they’ll achieve it. The suite ends with Things We Used to Know, a coldly noirish conversation – or argument – between Kaplan and Cappelli.

After the trio finally comes to a full stop, Pagani leads the quintet up with an energetic, biting series of eight-note runs, the rest of the ensemble establising a mood of longing and tension, Kaplan and Pagani circling each other and then joining the rest of the group as they pull hard against an invisible but inescapable center that won’t let them escape. That’s the overture: the coda has Kaplan out in the cold mist playing a mournful, allusively bluesy tune against a muffled parade of voices. Ostensibly this has a sci-fi angle (the cd package has a tongue-in-cheek short story, to be continued with some future project), but it just as easily can be interpreted as a reflection on our own difficult and often menacing times. It’s best enjoyed as a whole: you can get absolutely lost in this. While this isn’t catchy music by a long shot, it’s inescapably gripping, simply one of this year’s best jazz albums. It’s a must-own for fans of free jazz, and for anyone who plays improvised music, it’s packed with inspiration.

June 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sanda Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree is Intensely Psychedelic

Sanda Weigl’s new album Gypsy in a Tree puts a dark, dramatically shapeshifting, psychedelic spin on old gypsy songs. The title refers to where gypsies went to hide when racist rednecks rode into town. Weigl’s affinity for these songs draws on her own experiences as a freedom fighter: Romanian-born, driven into exile in East Germany of all places (where her family connected with her aunt, Bertold Brecht’s widow), jailed and then exiled after the Prague Spring in 1968, she landed in West Berlin where was able to pursue a successful theatre career. Later she moved to New York, which proved fortuitous when she met pianist Anthony Coleman, with whom she recorded the 2002 collaboration Gypsy Killer. As befits someone with her theatrical background, Weigl sings in an expressive contralto, in Romanian (with English translations in the cd booklet), impressively nuanced here: in concert she typically doesn’t hold back. Her backing band is sensational. Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano, Stomu Takeishi on fretless five-string bass, Doug Wieselman on clarinet and guitar and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion update these songs with jazz inventiveness and rock energy.

The opening track is a brisk, darkly swinging kiss-off anthem told from a deadpan observer’s perspective – like many of the tracks here, it has an understatedly cruel humor. The second cut, a bizarre tale of an abused wife whose fling with a rich guy restores the balance in her home (!?) is more amorphous, Nagai’s horror-movie piano trading with the swooping chords of the bass. The popular Saraman (frequently spelled “Shalaiman”) gets a stripped-down, staccato arrangement, bass swooping sweetly again here. The most striking song here is an old man’s lament for his lost youth done noir cabaret style with some stunningly precise yet intense piano.

Nagai’s piano cascades also shine on a defiant, metaphorical solidarity anthem. Todorel, another grim tale of old age, contrasts macabre piano and percussion with an oompah bounce. A pair of songs – one a homage to the joys of tobacco, the other a pulsing, galloping exile’s tale, are more hypnotic and atmospheric. The album ends with its catchiest track, Alomalo, a sort of gypsy cumbia pop tune with electric guitar. Fans of dark dramatic chanteuses from Rachelle Garniez to Amanda Palmer will enjoy this album; it’s just out on Barbes Records. Weigl plays the cd release show on 4/22 at the 92YTribeca with two sets: one with the band here, another with a gypsy band including luminary jazz reedman Ned Rothenberg and star violist Ljova Zhurbin.

March 3, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment