Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism of a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

July 18, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aruan Ortiz Brings His Lavish, Ambitious, Relevant New Material to the West Village

Pianist Aruan Ortiz gets plenty of props for his chops, but he deserves more appreciation for how eclectic he is. Like Vijay Iyer, he’s ambitious enough to play an entire set on microtonal piano (in Ortiz’s case, with Amir ElSaffar’s eerily majestic large ensemble). Like most of the current crop of expat Cuban pianists, the depth of his classical training informs his knack for a catchy tune, as well as his orchestral ambitions.

There will be a lot of those at his show Dec 6 at 7:30 PM at Greenwich House Music School. The first set features a duet with a unnamed special guest (wild guess: Paquito D’Rivera). The second features two new chamber-jazz pieces: Living in the Midst of a Twisted Globe, performed by violinist Mary Rowell, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and pianist Geoffrey Burleson; and Ogguere (When the Soul of the Earth Dances Around Spectral Motions), played by a brass quintet including Daniel Blankinship and Nate Wooley (trumpets), Ryan Keberle (trombone), Vince Chancey (French horn) and José Dávil (tuba). Cover is $25/$20 stud., which hints that the special guest might be really famous.

Ortiz’ album Orbiting, streaming at his music page, offers a good look at his diverse approach to composition as well as his formidable technique. The performances are expansive; everybody in the band gets plenty of opportunity to contribute, and the material doesn’t often fit any kind of easy A-B-C pattern or facsimile thereof.

The first number, Ginga Carioca begins with a brain-warping duel between Ortiz’s left and right hand, in completely different time signatures, finally coalescing as Rashaan Carter and Eric McPherson’s elegant bass and drums come in, guitarist David Gilmore taking centerstage with a low-key but punchy, tropically-inflected solo. Lingering piano belltones anchor a bubbly, bustling bass solo and then recede; finally a steady clave kicks in amid the rhythmic jousting.

The title track opens with a trickily syncopated, aptly circling theme, then edges toward a gritty waltz on the jagged wings of the guitar. From there, a brief Afro-Cuban interlude and then a darkly insistent coda complete the picture. From a catchy, rubato build through the opening riff and dancing solo bass, The Heir follows a long build to a wary, syncopated, distorted Gilmore solo, enigmatically spiraling chromatic piano and finally a towering McCoy Tyner-esque coda

Koko morphs from a squirrelly intro to a brisk swing shuffle with wry, jaunty conversation between Ortiz and Gilmore. Numbers, a tone poem of sorts, alternates between majesty and murky menace: it wouldn’t be out of place in the early Herbie Hancock catalog.

Held together with spacious, lingering block chords from Ortiz over a scrambling backdrop, Wru is a launching pad for a long Gilmore solo that finally cedes to the bandleader’s dark resonance and hypnotically clustering attack. After a long, majestic solo Ortiz intro, Green City shifts between clave gravitas, hard-hitting urban bustle and more darkly subdued territory,

The album concludes with the most funereal take of Alone Together you could imagine: flickering brushwork, mournful chords and surreal volume-knob guitar move slowly outward to bolero hints, a judicious, spare bass solo and takes your breath away when the band come full circle. This is very serious, tuneful stuff: give it a spin before the Greenwich House show if you’re going.

December 4, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment