Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Thomas Piercy, Claudine Hickman and Pablo Aslan Play Piazzolla at Caffe Vivaldi, NYC 5/23/09

It didn’t matter that there was no bandoneon in the band: the trio of clarinetist/arranger Thomas Piercy, pianist Claudine Hickman and upright bassist Pablo Aslan managed to silence the sold-out room (no easy task!) with a practically telepathic, emotionally rich program of both familiar and more obscure compositions by the legendary Argentinian composer, along with meticulous yet spirited performances of two pieces by French jazz composer/pianist Claude Bolling. Playing mostly with a strikingly clear tone, Piercy expertly worked the nooks and crannies of the songs’ innumerable permutations, only going full throttle when the piece demanded it (and one did). With a bright yet haunting precision, Hickman was every bit his equal and Aslan, who’s only been taking classic tango to new and exciting places for about two decades with his group Avantango, alternated between stately majesty, dark ambience and fiery verve, frequently using a bow.

The first two numbers, Tango del Diablo and Milonga del Angel were a study in contrast. Piercy’s arrangement of the ominous Tango Seis found him playing the original’s violin line with a jaunty effervescence, pulling back when the piece wound its way into eerie flamencoisms. The long, catchy suite Le Grand Tango could have been made showy or done with a sentimental feel but was neither, the trio content to let its sense of longing speak for itself right up to the end where Piercy finally cut loose with a visceral intensity.

The two Claude Bolling numbers gave the group a chance to relax and play more expansively. The first, Allegre was a showcase both for Hickman’s vivid, Brubeck-esque melodicism, contrasting with Piercy’s Bach-inflected precision. The second, Romantique bookended a brisk excursion pulsing along on Aslan’s jaunty basslines with two segments imbued with plaintive, Romantic beauty. They wrapped up the program with an exquisite take of the classic Soledad, Piercy’s clarinet soaring to the heights with unaffectedly raw anguish right before the end, and closed with the vastly more optimistic, insistent Michelangelo ’70. Piazzolla, ever the innovator, would no doubt have approved. Watch this space for future performances.

Advertisements

May 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Duel Amid the Pews

“Is there anyone else who needs to leave?” grinned classical guitarist Bret Williams, “Like the guy in the back there?” He was referring to the screaming rugrat who’d erupted in rage at the end of the La Vita/Williams Guitar Duo’s first song, an anonymously springtimey piece by Brazilian composer Sergio Assad. As welcome as it is to see classical music on a program outside of the usual midtown concert halls, the infant slowly wheeled outside by a lackadaisical mother never would have made it past security at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, the church fathers at St. Paul’s Chapel today were too nice to turn her away. And this was somebody who obviously wasn’t homeless. Memo to parents: you had a choice, you had the kid, now you pay the price. No concerts for at least four years (for the kid, anyway).

What started inauspiciously got good in a hurry. Duetting with Williams was Italian guitarist Giacomo La Vita, whose fluid, brilliantly precise playing made a perfect match for Williams’ lickety-split yet subtle fingerpicking. The two ran through two pieces by Manuel de Falla, the romantic, flamenco-inflected Serenata Andaluza and the swaying, 6/8 Danza Espanola, then did two Scarlatti pieces that La Vita had arranged himself. In music this old, the emotion is in the melody, not the rhythm, and both of them dug deep into the stateliness of the tunes to find it.

The high point of the show, and probably the drawing card that got the audience in here on a cold, rainy Monday was Astor Piazzolla’s 1984 Tango Suite, another original arrangement for guitar. It’s unclear if the pantheonic Argentinian tango composer actually knew Charles Mingus personally, but the third piece in the suite definitely had the same kind of defiant scurrying around that the great American jazz composer was known for, beginning with a chase scene, running through all kinds of permutations to arrive at a fiery chordal ending. The two parts which preceded it began darkly reserved, then became expansively jazzy.

“We usually have an intermission, but we have to get up to the Upper West Side to teach,” explained Williams. “To a bunch of kids who probably haven’t even practiced. We’ve got to be there at 2:30!” And with that they burned through yet another of their own arrangements, this for De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, an orchestral piece every bit as volcanic as the title would imply. An impressively good crowd, especially for the time of day and the drizzle outside, responded with a standing ovation. Obviously, fans of acoustic guitar music will like these guys best, but they cover vastly more terrain than most of their colleagues, a savvy move because it will earn them more of an audience. One hopes enough to eliminate the need to rush off to a midafternoon private-school teaching gig after they’ve finished playing a great set.

April 28, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best Piazzolla in New York?

Always a hotly debatable question. On Monday afternoon, there couldn’t have been anything better. Should anyone claim that Argentinan bandoneon player and bandleader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) wasn’t one of the greatest composers of alltime, the trio of Thomas Piercy (clarinet), Masataka Odaka (upright bass) and Claudine Hickman (piano) reaffirmed that brilliantly throughout their afternoon performance at St. Paul’s Chapel.

Throughout his career, Piazzolla was torn between two worlds, classical and traditional Argentinian tango. While living in New York as a boy he took piano lessons and discovered the joys and pleasures of Bach; later, in the 1940s, having returned to Argentina and established himself as a player and songwriter, he ventured deeply into jazz, incorporating that as well into his own unique vision. Perhaps because he had one foot in what was then considered pop culture, and the other in the all-so-serious world of classical music, Piazzolla’s music is stormy, often downright anguished. Most of his greatest works are in dark minor keys replete with tense, riveting crescendos and all sorts of drama, the ominous, flamenco-inspired beat always driving it on. The trio of Piercy, Odaka and Hickman brought out all of this but also the sunnier, jazzier side of the great composer in what was essentially an impressively inclusive overview of Piazzolla’s career.

Because Piazzolla was such a genre-bender, his music has been arranged for all different types of configurations, from rock bands (notably Big Lazy) to full orchestra to fusion jazz. Piercy’s often mournful clarinet, flying over Hickman’s tasteful, understated piano and Odaka’s insistent, pulsing bass brought out every bit of melody in the program. Because Piazzolla liked a big, lush sound, playing his bandoneon – a German accordion – with a full orchestra roaring behind him, tunes were occasionally subsumed beneath lavish arrangements. The opposite was the case here. The trio ran through the angst-driven, somewhat death-obsessed Oblivion, the misnamed Tango del Diablo (which begins with a big eerie cadenza before quieting down and building very subtly), Le Grand Tango (a beautiful, overtly classical mini-suite from late in Piazzolla’s career) and one of Piazzolla’s most popular and catchy compositions, Solitude, with confidence and sensitivity to even minute emotional shifts. They closed the almost hourlong program with his 1960s composition, the darkly and somewhat modernistic Tango Six, the somewhat wistful, classically-inflected Angel’s Tango and finally the surprisingly optimistic, jazzy Invierno Porteno (Winter in Buenos Aires). The crowd – a mix of retirees and office workers on their lunch break – were spellbound. If Piercy’s planned upcoming recording of Piazzolla works is anything like this, it’ll be amazing.

April 3, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Big Lazy – Postcards from X

Their most cinematic album, on which the most mesmerizing instrumental band on the planet broaden their sonic palette from the usual charcoal and grey to include, perhaps, burnt ochre and dark olive. The album cover looks like a poster for a 60s spy film, with the shadow of a woman running with a briefcase. The case opens to show the woman’s ankle and the briefcase, but it’s not clear if she’s running alongside a wall covered with dying ivy…or if she’s lying on a path in the woods. The visuals couldn’t be more appropriate.

Big Lazy’s first two releases were all menace and suspense, conjuring up images of black-clad figures slipping in and out of the shadows in a 4 AM industrial wasteland, the pavement cold and luminous with late autumn rain. This one, their fourth, is much more diverse. Big Lazy unsurprisingly get a lot of film soundtrack work, and the songs on this album may well be destined for Sundance or Hollywood. Several of them begin menacingly and end on a sunny note, or vice versa, with innumerable twists and turns in between. The album opens with Thy Name Is Woman, virtuoso guitarist Steve Ulrich playing with distortion instead of his usual oceans of reverb. Essentially, it’s a 6/8 blues, propelled by brilliant bassist Paul Dugan’s staccato arpeggios. The next cut, by Dugan, is Walk It Off, opening with bowed bass playing the ominous melody as Ulrich plays the bassline on guitar. All of a sudden, on the second verse, Ulrich launches into some noir jazz as guest keyboardist Ed Pastorini’s Hammond organ kicks in. It’s very 60s. The following cut Glitter Gulch begins with a sexy bassline, like The Fever, with dark, quietly booming drum flourishes and eerie organ. Then it morphs into a Morricone-esque spaghetti western theme. After that, Ulrich returns with more guitar distortion on the brief, skronky Drug Czar.

The cd’s next track, France, is a very funny song, something akin to how Serge Gainsbourg’s 60s backing band might have covered Big Lazy. It’s an uncharacteristically bouncy number with just enough moments of incisive reverb guitar to give the listener pause. Drummer Tamir Muskat (ex-Gogol Bordello) spices the following cut, His Brother’s Wife, with all kinds of metallic percussive effects, with Ulrich and Dugan reverting to the dark, New York noir sound of their previous work until a country-inflected chorus with soaring lapsteel. After that, on Postcard from X, bowed bass carries the melody over plinky, ragtimish guitar. It’s an unusually wistful, pretty song, evocative of the great Southwestern gothic band Friends of Dean Martinez as the lapsteel flies in at the end of the song.

The best song on the album is the lickety-split, minor-key punkabilly theme To Hell in a Handbasket, another Dugan composition. Los Straitjackets or Rev. Horton Heat only wish they wrote something this adrenalizing. After Dugan and Ulrich play their fingers off for a couple of minutes, there’s a brief bass solo and then a gently happy ending. The lone cover on the album is an Astor Piazzolla classic, Pulsacion #4, which most closely resembles Big Lazy’s early work, all macabre chromatics and scary reverb. The cd’s next tune Naked begins with Dugan pedaling a single note over a suspenseful, steady beat, evoking a movie scene where the hero may be having second thoughts. You want to tell him (or her), don’t go back in the house, don’t get in the car with that guy and whatever you do, stay inside the tent. But they don’t, and all hell breaks loose. The album concludes with The Confidence Man, a total 60s spy movie theme, jazzy with staccato bass and tinny organ, its menace building gently at the end of the verse, then breaking through the door when the chorus kicks in.

If this album can reach the people who blast the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack at parties, that’s where it needs to be. Inevitably, it’ll be a cult classic for decades to come. Be the first person on your block or in your dorm room to turn your friends on to this amazing band. And if you think the occasional lightheartedness of this album might mean that Big Lazy has lost any of the white-knuckle intensity of their live shows, not to worry: check our reviews page for a glimpse of the best show we’ve seen this year, Big Lazy’s cd release at Luna Lounge last month. Classic album, an instant contender (along with Jenifer Jackson’s new one) for best of the year. Five bagels. Pumpernickel (because that’s the darkest kind available).

June 6, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments