Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brian Landrus’ Traverse Album Takes a Quantum Leap

The Brian Landrus Quartet’s new album Traverse is fun even before it starts spinning, or whatever it does on your ipod besides run down the battery. The big-sky surrealism of the cover art, and the photo collage inside the cd cover are priceless – imagine Horizon’s 1975 album Breathless Sigh and you’d be on the right track. But the music here sounds nothing like that. A terrifically tuneful, entertaining collection which could well be the baritone saxophonist’s breakout album, he’s got an especially inspired band here: Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Michael Cain on piano and Billy Hart on drums. Landrus uses every bit of his range, far more than most baritone players – he’s sort of an update on Gerry Mulligan – with upper-register melodies outnumbering the lows many times over. That’s also how he writes. His background also extends beyond jazz to reggae (he’s played with current-day roots stars Groundation) and even doo-wop, so there are simple, catchy hooks all over the place. Consider this a creeper contender for the year’s best jazz album.

It opens counterintuitively with a jazz waltz. Hart is at the peak of his game from the first of innumerable, devious cymbal fills – in a lot of ways, he owns this album. As he swipes around, feeling for a comfortable place to hang, Landrus goes off exploring from the highs to the lows and back and forth, followed by Cain who does the same. The second track, Gnosis, is basically a two-chord jam over a suspenseful latin groove, Plaxico holding it together as Landrus’ bass clarinet paints moody ambience, Cain following a trajectory from loungey to minimalist to incisively jabbing with rewarding results. He goes deep into lyrical territory with a long, solo first verse on the beautiful piano-and-sax ballad Lone, basically a setup for the album’s high point, Lydian #4. Its modalities driven by Plaxico’s funky bass – and an all-too-brief, majestic solo toward the end – Landrus’ bright explorations soar over terse, rhythmic piano and yet more sly cymbal splashing by Hart.

If you think you’ve heard enough versions of Body and Soul for one lifetime or maybe more, Landrus’ will change your mind. He sets it up with a long, expansive solo passage, then he and the band turn it into a slowly unfolding contest for who can come the closest without actually touching it. The fun continues on the swinging Creeper, with its irresistible faux-noirisms, Cain’s vaudevillian piano rhythms and finally a chance for Hart to cut loose – and yet when he gets the chance, he doesn’t take it over the top, instead turning it something approximating the tunnel in the Halloween House. The album ends with Soundwave (titles are not Landrus’ forte), a gentle, attractive solo sax sketch. Watch for this on our best albums of 2011 list at the end of the year if we’re all still here to see it.

In case you were wondering, the 1975 album Breathless Sigh by Horizon doesn’t really exist – at least we hope not.

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March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Adam Schroeder’s Baritone Sax Blows a Cool Breeze

The most recent jazz album we reviewed was aggressive, urban jazz. This one is mellow and breezy – but it’s hardly elevator jazz. Adam Schroeder is the baritone saxophone player in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. So it’s no surprise to see that he’s got his bandmates, one of the current era’s great jazz rhythm sections, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums along with the group’s superb guitarist, Graham Dechter, on this session. It’s Schroeder’s first as a bandleader. Clint Eastwood is a fan, which means something because Eastwood is a connoisseur. Schroeder combines a Gerry Mulligan geniality with bluesy Harry Carney purism as well as a remarkable ear for space, something you have to learn in a big band – or else.

The album, titled A Handful of Stars, begins anticlimactically: you won’t miss much by fast-forwarding past their version of I Don’t Want to Be Kissed. But the first of sadly only two originals, Midwest Mash is great fun, a casual blues/funk bounce hitched to Hamilton’s clave beat, good cheer all around, particularly when it comes time for a subtly amusing Clayton solo. Neal Hefti’s Pensive Miss is a clinic in terse, mimimal playing, done as a wee-hours ballad, Dechter adding a slowly bright Barney Kessel-ish solo followed by a quietly pointillistic one from Clayton. A matter-of-factly swinging version of Jessica’s Birthday, by Quincy Jones has Hamilton stepping out playfully this time. The Cole Porter standard I Happen to Be in Love gives Schroeder a rare opportunity to build some actual tension here, then it’s back to Dechter taking one of his characteristically richly chordal excursions.

The other original here, Hidden Within begins with a vividly whispery I-told-you-so conversation between Schroeder and Clayton and grows more expansive yet more spacious: the silences are as meaningful as the notes themselves. Understatedly jovial, the Barry Harris bossa tune Nascimento has Dechter moving from blues to sheer joy, Schroeder moving back toward more pensive terrain followed by a tricky polyrhymic solo from Hamilton. They do the title track, a Glenn Miller hit, as a brisk, snappy pop song, much as Paula Henderson might have arranged it. They end with a purist take of Ellington’s Just a Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ and a bustling version of Cole Porter’s It’s All Right with Me, Hamilton taking it up all the way with a Gene Krupa gallop. It’s out now on Capri Records.

August 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brian Landrus – Forward

A promising, enjoyably listenable debut just out on Cadence from multistylistic baritone saxist/bass clarinetist Brian Landrus. Despite the presence of a full octet here, the compositions are more scaled-down with breaks for consistently gripping solos from a terrific cast of characters: George Garzone on tenor, Allan Chase on alto, Jason Palmer on trumpet, Michael Cain on piano, John Lockwood on bass and a rattling two-percussionist section of Bob Moses and Tupac Mantilla. Landrus likes a modified latin beat, which the percussion is particularly suited for, has a way with a catchy hook and uses the totality of his range, prowling up to the higher registers a lot more than he growls down low.

They open it up with their only cover, an affably bluesy version of Monk’s Ask Me Now, Landrus in casually Harry Carneyesque mode. Most of the originals here follow a time-honored pattern: the ensemble runs a catchy hook for a verse with individual solos following. The full-group passage is the longest and most powerful on the first Landrus composition here, The Stream, Garzone going four over a neat triplet latin groove when it’s time to step out. The aptly titled Shadows is a rubato number with Landrus all over the place while the percussion clatters underneath; Cain comes out of it with remarkable and pleasantly startling bluesy focus. Landrus switches to hushed alto flute for a gentle, somewhat Hubert Laws-inflected nocturne titled To Love and Grow (don’t let the title scare you off), a brisk New Orleans/latin hybrid called Classification, next the hypnotically circling title track and then the album’s strongest song, the matter-of-factly terse vintage 50s swing number Beauty of Change (titles are obviously not this guy’s strong suit). They close with a brief, pensive baritone sax solo and then the equatorially atmospheric tone poem Destination, Landrus featured again on alto flute, distant through a thicket alive with god only knows what. Strong writer, good performances, good choice of supporting cast, let’s see what he brings next time. What we have in the meantime grows on you the more you hear it.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Charles Evans/Neil Shah – Live at Saint Stephens

This absolutely gorgeous album – just out on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Hot Cup label – is a lock for one of the best of 2009 in any style of music. It’s marketed as jazz, although it could just as easily be called minimalism or classical. It would make an amazing soundtrack if the label could find a film that deserved it. Baritone sax player Charles Evans uses the entirety of his instrument, not just the low registers. He can make it sing, like Gerry Mulligan, but with more imagination, adding overtones and harmonics and a vibrato that he can slow waaaaaay down to Little Jimmy Scott speed. The most obvious comparison, imaginatively if not exactly stylistically, is genre-defying funkstress and ambient baritone sax composer Paula Henderson. Pianist Neil Shah is a first-rate rock songwriter and barrelhouse player, but what he does here is 180 degrees from that – to say that his playing here is haunting is a considerable understatement. Jazz fans will hear echoes of Keith Jarrett, but his real antecedent is Erik Satie. This album, a suite of six pieces, has Shah laying down a frequently macabre, terse mode that Evans colors with deliberateness and precision; other times it’s Evans who introduces the mood and has Shah embellish it ever so slightly. It’s as poignant as it is hypnotic.

The first two pieces are trio suites of their own,  the intial track, Junie, quickly establishing the otherworldly glimmer that will dominate from here on in. Shah expertly works two different palettes, ominous in the left hand, colorful and Romantic in the right, when it comes time for his solo. They take it out with a Messiaenesque warped boogie of sorts, Evans supplying rhythmic accents loaded with implication. The second mini-suite, On Tone Yet, demonstrates the uncanny chemistry between the two musicians: the two play these songs as a truly integral unit, as if a single mind was bringing them to life (or exhuming them – this is dark stuff). Shah’s insistent series of simple chords, switching a single voice among the keys for an effect that goes from subtle to sinister in a split second, veers off into a strikingly cantabile passage and then menacingly back again, is a high point. They float it out with Indian-inflected ambience, sax holding the piano up to keep it from disappearing into the murk.

Mono Monk is the most minimalist song on the album, Evans and Shah emphasizing the space between the notes with as much stern judiciousness as what they play. The lone cover here, Jan Roth’s sarcastically titled An Die Fliegenden Fische (The Flying Fish) is more of a jellyfish, albeit a playful, bluesy one, Evans contributing a pretty, lyrical solo matched by Shah’s Bill Evans-style cascades. The cd wraps up with a nine-minute number with a title that goes on almost as long and fairly neatly sums up the whole set: mournful Satie-esque piano followed by Evans’ most expansive, bluesiest solo of the night; some call-and-response; a pregnant pause, and then sax and piano switch roles.

There are only two drawbacks here. The first is an overabundance of crowd applause after the songs – we’re talking thirty seconds at the end of the cd. That’s Guns & Roses stuff, and while it’s hardly a disaster, it is annoying. It sounds like there were three people in the audience and they’re trying to compensate for it, and they can’t (but what a treat to have been one of those three, in what is obviously a sonically exquisite space!). The other quibble is that, hey, they’re at Saint Stephens: da-da, da da-da-da-da, da-da-DA, da-da-DA, da-DA-da-da-da! Dude, why not do that one? Dollars to donuts these two would do something with it that would make Jerry Garcia proud.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Raining Moisturizer: Moisturizer Live at Black Betty, Brooklyn NY 10/10/07

Three reviews of Moisturizer and a side project in two weeks here: isn’t that sort of overkill? Consider this: critics said a lot about Miles Davis at Birdland in 1957. The media went ga-ga over the Ramones at CBGB twenty years later. Ten years after that, it was Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s that everybody was talking about. Similarly, this is a band at the absolute peak of their career so far. Moisturizer has come to the point where they’ve become a band you absolutely have to see. And it’s not because of their anger or earsplitting volume, nor does Moisturizer have anything to do with a trend, a fashion or a fad. Moisturizer is pure, unadulterated fun.

 

Tonight they played two delirious, sweaty sets, all original instrumentals except for a very cleverly rearranged cover of the Burt Bacharach latin-pop classic The Look of Love. Special guest David Smith joined with the band to play ebullient, ecstatic trombone on the sultry, swinging, newly rearranged Unhaveable Blues, and joined with baritone saxist/frontwoman Moist Paula to bring the house down with a wild, clattering, practically heavy metal outro on one of the last songs of the night. Otherwise, the night belonged to Moist Paula, bassist Moist Gina and drummer Moist Yoshio. The latter is the most compelling evidence for Moisturizer’s ascendancy from merely good to absolutely transcendent: he swings, has command of what seems to be any time signature and can play anything from punk to funk to swing with an effortless, uncluttered grace. He’s given the rest of the trio the groove they always were going for but never had the drummer behind them to hit until now.

 

Moist Gina’s basslines are potently percussive, richly melodic and very hard to play. She makes it seem effortless even though she probably lost five percent of the weight on her strong, slender frame by the time the show was over. Her voicings are often completely unorthodox: watching her fingers swoop and slide up and down the fretboard was a clinic in how to play bass with an idiosyncratic, uniquely personal yet musically brilliant approach. To drive a point home, she’d slam on the occasional chord, slide with split-second timing up to a high note and punctuated a charming, catchy new one with gentle octaves and arpeggios. If there were Moisturizer action figures – in a more perfect world, every little kid would have their little plastic Moist people – Gina would be the one who packs the heat.

 

Moist Paula would be the one with the magic sax, whose keys she presses in order to create a secret Moist universe where the party is everywhere and everyone is invited. It’s her crafty sense of humor and surreal wit that makes Moisturizer’s songs as fun as they are, from the tricky time stop-and-start time changes of Actually I’m So Busy to the triumphantly buoyant Moisturizer Takes Mars. Yet it was their more serious songs that impressed most tonight. Their second set was the best series of segues I’ve seen this year: the sad tango Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, then a haunting, swinging, relatively new number about a baby lost in the Indonesian tsunami, and an irresistibly propulsive song called I Will Unmagic Your [something – the title is a long, complicated Salman Rushdie quote] with a crescendo capped by a wild, flying Moist Gina solo. It was after one in the morning when they finally closed the show with a boisterous take on their big audience hit Mission: Moisturizer.

 

The crowd wasn’t dancing this time, probably because of the nature of the crowd itself (the venue itself is charmingly laid-back and unpretentious, in stark contrast to trendoids who hang out here), and because a breakdancer had taken over the small space in front of the stage, frenetically flipping and twirling, effectively creating a barrier between band and audience. Yet there was a lot of chair-dancing: as hard as some of the crowd may have been trying to sit still, they didn’t exactly pull it off. How the audience reacts with their bodies is a reliably indicator of a band’s performance: the more people move, generally speaking, the better the music is and tonight’s show validated that theory. Miss seeing this band live and risk your health. 95% of all doctors recommend Moisturizer to cure any uptightness you may have. The other 5% are uptight themselves.

October 14, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Secretary Feat. Big Boss/Nina Nastasia & Jim White at Mercury Lounge, NYC 10/3/07

Secretary is Moisturizer frontwoman and baritone sax player Paula Henderson’s Hollywood soundtrack side project. Or at least that’s what it sounded like tonight, like Angelo Badalamenti covering Moisturizer. Hollywood would do well to seek her out. As she made a point of reminding the audience, everything she writes is a true story. The resulting compositions, whether the utterly unique dance-rock that she plays with Moisturizer or the quieter, more atmospheric works she played tonight, all have a narrative feel, and it’s often very compelling. Or very funny. Or both simultaneously.

 

Although for Secretary gigs she hides behind a pair of spectacles and a vintage secretary suit, Henderson didn’t bother trying to shed the slightly coy, deviously witty Moist Paula persona that she assumes at Moisturizer shows. Maybe that’s just who she really is. Big Boss is a new addition, a sharp-dressed man busily multitasking on a laptop and mixer, occasionally contributing trombone, keyboards and even turntable scratching on one song. Although Moisturizer is defined by playfulness and fun, and that sensibility isn’t lost here, the quieter, more downtempo tunes Henderson does in this project afford her a chance to explore more thoughtful, pensive terrain. Tonight she played lead lines on her bari sax as Big Boss ran the tracks, most of which are on the excellent debut Secretary album. They opened with a sultry, jazzy, unreleased number perhaps titled 37 Again, Henderson’s achingly torchy, jazzy melody playing against a dense mix of textures created by playing sax through a bunch of garageband patches and then mixing everything. Later she did the balmy, ambient South Carolina Holiday, the long, playful Mouse (which is actually about chasing a mouse around the apartment), the catchy Latin dance tune Mofongo Raincheck and a somewhat classically-inflected fanfare, live sax playing call-and-response with harmonies using several different textures. Toward the end of the set, she did a lively new number called Mushrooms with Strangers that wouldn’t be out of place at a Moisturizer show. The evening’s most amusing moment was another new one called The Perfect Boss. Henderson played repetitive, staccato riffs while the computer run a shrieking, metallic wash of noise that sounded like Suicide or something from Metal Machine Music. If that’s the perfect boss, one can only wonder what the boss from hell sounds like.

 

Nina Nastasia sold out the room. It had been ten years since she’d played here, she said, “When I was…18.”

 

“Not,” she said under her breath, barely audible. She may wield an acoustic guitar but she hardly fits the singer-songwriter mold. You’ll never hear a Nina Nastasia song in a credit card commercial. Tonight she played mostly new material from her album with Dirty Three bandleader/drummer Jim White, her only backing musician. He was amazing: no wonder everyone wants to work with him. Using a flurry of rimshots, cymbal splashes and boomy tom-tom cascades, he orchestrated her often grimly minimalistic songs with both precision and abandon. Often he’d leave Nastasia to hold the rhythm as he’d accelerate or slow down, or play deftly off the beat. There are only a few drummers in rock who are in his league, perhaps Dave Campbell of Love Camp 7/Erica Smith renown or Linda Pitmon from Smack Dab and Steve Wynn’s band.

 

In the years since she first played here, Nastasia has developed a seemingly effortless fingerpicking style on the guitar. Hearing the new songs stripped down to just the guitar and drums was a revelation: it was instantly clear where the melodies for all the layers of strings and keyboards on her albums come from. I found myself playing orchestrator, imagining violin, viola and cello parts. One of the great keyboardists of our time was in the audience and was overheard raving about how good the piano on the new album is.

 

Nastasia has also become an excellent singer. That creepy little voice she had when she put out her landmark 1999 debut, Dogs (whose title track she played tonight, to much applause) is still there when it needs to be, but in the intervening years she’s learned how to belt. And project, with an anguished wail that serves her songs, particularly the new ones, spectacularly well. Her earlier material was typically noir urban tableaux; now, she’s taking on more abstract, universal emotional territory, though her vision remains the same, as bleak, angst-driven, desperate and sometimes exasperated as it’s always been. The dark glimmer has become a gleam. If this show is any indication, the new album is a must-own.

 

The only problem tonight (one hopes uncharacteristically) was the sound. The sound guy was playing annoying, effeminate computer-disco over the PA before Secretary went on, and predictably mixed the backing tracks from the laptop louder than Henderson’s sax. Bad mistake. Then Nastasia’s guitar started to generate a lot of low feedback, perhaps because it needed to be amped high in the mix and she didn’t have one of those little rubber thingys that fits into the sound hole. Where was Freddie Katz when we needed him.

October 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Moisturizer at BAM Cafe, Brooklyn NY 9/28/07

A deliriously good show. The all-instrumental trio – baritone sax, bass and drums – swung like crazy. This band doesn’t just “bang out a good time,” as one New York periodical sarcastically put it a couple of years ago: they flat-out groove. Tonight virtuoso baritone sax player Moist Paula, inimitably imaginative bassist Moist Gina and the newest addition to the band, drummer Moist Yoshio laid down the sexiest groove heard anywhere in New York. It was clear that everybody in the band was especially amped for this show.

Moisturizer proved without a doubt that they are the funnest and maybe even – gasp – the best live band in New York. Moist Paula jokingly told the crowd before launching into the catchy, bouncy Cash Incentive that “that’s why we’re here tonight.” But afterward she admitted that she was just kidding. Cash is great, but these two girls and a guy are clearly in it for the love of it just as much as for the moola. The songs that Moist Paula and Moist Gina write are meticulously composed, effortlessly memorable and danceable as hell; it was incongruous to see the tables here full of people just sitting there. People usually get up and move around at Moisturizer shows. If there’s one criticism of this band, it’s that Moist Paula doesn’t always announce the songs’ sly, Satie-esque titles, and tonight she remedied that, making sure to let the crowd know whether they were about to play the gleefully busy Dimestore Aphrodisiac, the big audience hit Actually I’m So Busy, the haunting tango Girl in the Goldfish Bowl and a dynamite new funk number – perhaps titled Restaurant Delivery? – pulsing along on an absolutely luscious, Larry Graham-inflected Moist Gina bassline. They closed the set with guest trombonist David Smith invited up to join the band on a sexy, bluesy reworking of one of their usually more percussive numbers.

Moist Paula has jazz chops, but tonight was a reminder that she’s all about the melody, first and foremost. Moist Gina is a hard hitter, a melodic powerhouse herself, but she’s also become a master of textures, adjusting her effects pedals between every song to change her tone from boomy to watery to springy and back again. For some reason, her amp was producing a ton of interesting overtones in the big, cavernous space, resulting in some high octaves bouncing around the room, almost as if there was a vibraphone in the band. Moist Yoshio has impeccable timing and swings with the best of them, one of the reasons why this band has been able to take it to the next level in recent months.

Moisturizer’s songs are catchy, but they’re deceptively complex. Verses and choruses don’t repeat often: the melodies often seem to have a narrative, and as Moist Paula was quick to let everyone know, all their songs are true stories. Frequently the melody would switch between the sax and the bass, back and forth; other times the two instruments played off each other. The effect of all those low frequencies was as hypnotic and soothing as it should have been dance-inducing (although this venue doesn’t exactly seem like the place for that). The songs embody elements of jazz, funk, surf music, 60s go-go instrumentals, punk rock and even hip-hop. But ultimately Moisturizer plays something completely unique. Call it moist music.

Moisturizer also happens to have perhaps the most diverse fan base of any New York band, bringing an impressively polyglot following out tonight that seemed to embrace just about every ethnicity and age group in town. They were scheduled to do another set accompanied by a heavy metal guitarist from the 80s – this band seems like they’ll try anything once – but we had places to go and things to do.

September 29, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments