Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Smart Balkan-Tinged Tunesmithing and Improvisation from the Ben Holmes Quartet

Trumpeter Ben Holmes’ Quartet is one of those great bands that defies categorization. Rhythmically, they are most defnitely a jazz group; melodically, they encompass everything from Balkan music, to klezmer, to a cinematic sensibility, with plenty of improvisation and elements of both the high Romantic and the avant garde. Over the past couple of years, what began as a trio has expanded to a a quartet with trombonist Curtis Hasselbring (who’s got a typically wry, witty album of his own due out momentarily from Cuneiform), Matt Pavolka on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.The group’s album Anvil of the Lord – Holmes’ second as a leader, just out from Skirl – doesn’t hammer anywhere near as hard as the the title suggests, but it is a mighty intriguing listen. Holmes has a fondness for shuffle beats along with impeccable tonal control, from an ambered gleam to rustic and gravelly, depending on context, adding tantalizing Eastern European spice to his warmly expansive melodies. Throughout the album, improvisation is drivem by a commitment to judicious exploration rather than anything remotely approaching a squawking free-for-all.

A Doodle For Rhapsody, a pensively altered klezmer shuffle anchored by Pavolka’s insistently suspenseful pedalpoint and tense, terse rising lines opens the album. Hasselbring brings a characteristic wryly bubbling touch to his firsr solo, shadowing Holmes on the way out. Magic Mondays waltzes along casually, Sperazza taking charge as the horn harmonies fall away for a similarly matter-of-fact, lyrical Holmes solo. The deceptively catchy Moving Like A Ghost shuffles and slips between minors and majors, with a transluscent, crystalline solo  from Holmes, Pavolka’s restless bounce underpinning the horns’ moodily rising lines and Sperrazza’s misterioso cymbals.

Kingston isn’t a reggae song but a rather wistful waltz, Holmes using just the faintest touch of a mute as he shifts from pensive to assertive, the band swirling up a stew as Hasselbring brings in southern-tinged heat. It’s one of many instances where holding the center is left to the bass while Sperrazza supplies color, in this case a nebulous cymbal ambience.

Otessianek hints at bossa nova as Pavolka and Hasselbring come together and then methodically take it into livelier klezmer territory over a hypnotic bass vamp. The title track opens with a tongue-in-cheek, effervescent bass solo and then an animated duel from the horns as Sperrazza kicks the smoke machine into high gear.

The moody, atmospheric ballad Malach Hamovi has Pavolka channeling Chopineque morosity with his stately, tiptoeing lines, Sperrazza bringing the shuffle back via a sardonic march. Song For Creel Thompson is a rather austere midtempo swing number; the album ends with Nada Vs Armitage,  the rhythm section walking the line between suspense and swing: and then the band goes for it wholehog with the nonchalant determination that permeates this expertly crafted collection. Holmes’ next gig with this unit is on March 12 at 7 PM at Barbes, setting the stage for Slavic Soul Party’s mighty brass assault.

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March 4, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Ansambl Mastika at Shrine, NYC 11/21/09

Ansambl Mastika call themselves the “new Balkan uproar.” What they do is definitely new and different, they are indelibly Balkan (although they range a lot further, usually toward the east) and what they play could understatedly be called an uproar. They’re one of New York’s best bands in any style of music, and they reaffirmed that uptown on Saturday night.

Since the Europeans didn’t invent jazz, they took to fusion a lot more readily than Americans did, and unfortunately some of fusion’s most annoying attributes – cheesy settings, garish solos and a complete lack of communication between musicians – still haunt a lot of music coming out of the former Eastern Bloc. Ansambl Mastika are an antidote to that. While they use electric guitar and bass along with rhythms that veer from gypsy to jazz to rock, the chemistry between the band members was characteristically playful and gripping. Nobody stepped on anybody, there was all kinds of interplay and it was obvious that this crew has a blast playing together. Which they should. Bandleader/reedman Greg Squared (who also plays in seemingly half the good Balkan-inflected bands in town, notably Raya Brass Band) was in his usual high-intensity mode, firing off blistering clusters of chromatics on both clarinet and sax. Bassist Ruben Radding (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar and several jazz projects) felt the room, holding down a fat groove with an understatement that made his infrequent chords and slides all the more intense. This time out the group were in a particularly Greek/Macedonian mood, their leader taking a vocal on a handful of numbers.

They opened as a lot of gypsy bands do with what was basically a one-chord jam that gave their trumpeter a chance to cut loose with an ominous, chromatically-charged abandon. Accordion took centerstage on the next number as its introductory Greek waltz took a bitter, Middle Eastern-infused riff down to the lower registers, clarinet fueling the fire. The next looked like it was going to go totally fusion a la what the NY Gypsy All-Stars fall prey to sometimes, but it didn’t when the guitar and accordion turned it over to the horns, and then the guitar kicked in using almost a Fender Rhodes tone. After flailing around with some tricky time changes the band brought it back with a snarling, 4/4 stomp. The other tunes included a stripped-down, rustic, Macedonian-flavored number with the drummer on a standup bass drum and a wildly slinky, chromatic ride to the depths of the Adriatic on the wings of a long, triumphant trumpet solo where the guitar took over and then proceeded to make dark, unexpected janglerock out of it. They wrapped up the set with another Greek tune with a Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood feel on the chorus, incisively bluesy guitar teleporting to the Sahara in a split second. And then it was over. If you wish you’d been at  this one, Ansambl Mastika play Drom at 9 on Dec 11 on an excellent doublebill with Ethiopian jazz group the Debo Band.

November 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 6/15/09

We do this every Tuesday. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our Best 100 songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Just about every link here will take you to each individual song.

 

1. Steve Kilbey – Forever Last for Nothing

Gorgeously terse call to arms and cautionary tale from the Church’s frontman’s excellent latest album. They’re at Irving Plaza on 7/8.

 

2. The  French Exit – To Term

New song, characteristically intense. “Will I be ok…I just want to be left alone,” snarls frontwoman Mia Wilson in this fiery noir dirge. They’re at Local 269 at 269 E Houston on 6/17 at 9.

 

3. Silver Dollar – Showdown

Killer, bouncy, hypnotic oldschool ska.

 

4. Kerry Kennedy – As You Are

Big soul ballad in 6/8 with David Lynch unease by the up-and-coming New York noir chanteuse. Unreleased – see her now before she’s famous.

 

5. Ninth House – Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate

Characteristically furious lament about the death of New York by gentrification by the long-running Nashville gothic rockers. Frontman Mark Sinnis is at Sidewalk at 9 on 7/12.

 

6. La Res – Masters of War

Ominous cover of the Dylan classic by this fiery, artsy soul/metal trio with a powerful frontman.

 

7. Num & Nu Afrika – New Orleans

Resonant, politically conscious roots reggae. They’re playing Make Music NY on 6/21 at 3 at DRastadub Studio, 58 West 127th St., Harlem.

 

8. Bato the Yugo – My Mountainous Mind

Pensive Balkan jazz for solo piano. Usually a guitarist, he’s at Nublu on 6/21 at 11.

 

9. Cumbiagra – Dejame en Paz

They’ve taken over Monday nights at Barbes, replacing Chicha Libre, but the danceable vibe is undiminished.

 

10. Rock Plaza Central – Panama

Van Halen cover. Jack Grace (of our own sick/funny VH cover band Van Hayride) would approve.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments