Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic, Stormy Grandeur From Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra

Pianist Mike Holober has been busy as an arranger lately – his charts for the NDR Bigband are out-of-the-box exquisite – but has made a welcome return to his role as leader of the Gotham Jazz Orchestra. Their epic new double album Hiding Out – streaming at Spotify – is the Grand Canyon Suite of jazz. Its initial inspirations are the grandeur of the American West, and a long-abused tributary that flows into Manhattan Harbor. Its boundless energy and intensity are pure New York. If you need music that makes your pulse race, this is your fix.

Built around a suspenseful “over here!” riff, the practically fourteen-minute opening diptych, Jumble, takes on a catchy, cantering maracatu pulse, with gusts from around the orchestra bursting in and out of the sonic picture: if Carl Nielsen had been a jazz guy, he might have sounded like this. Holober’s low-key Rhodes solo offers barely a hint of how far alto saxophonist Jon Gordon’s crescendo is going to go; likewise, guitarist Jesse Lewis’ waves upward into the combustible stratosphere.

Most of the rest of the album is two suites. Flow, a Hudson River epic, begins with lushly acidic, shifting tectonic sheets over a suspenseful tiptoe beat: the effect when the low brass and bass enter is nothing short of magnificent but just as ominous (look what the industrial revolution did to New York waterways). A subtle shift to a quasi-samba groove with towering horns recedes for a poignant Jason Rigby tenor solo against Holober’s glittering piano, part Messiaen, part Fats Waller in calm mode. Somberly blustery variations on a minor blues bassline anchor devious horn exchanges: is that competing ferries honking at each other?

That’s just the first part! This monstrosity tops the forty minute mark. Part two, Opalescence is slightly less expansive (eleven-minute), darker and more resonantly concise variation on the opening theme – Chuck Owen’s similarly titanic River Runs suite comes to mind. Marvin Stamm’s trumpet weaves slowly in and out, Holober slowly developing an achingly lyrical interlude. This may be a lazy river sometimes, but it’s deep. The concluding chapter, Harlem is introduced via a brooding interlude featuring piano and flute, seemingly a shout-out to the Lenapes who tended this land before the murderous Europeans arrived. Billy Drewes’ carefree solo alto sax kicks off Holober’s hard-swinging salute to New York’s original incubator for jazz, Scott Wendholdt’s trumpet flurrying away as the music shifts toward a more 21st century milieu and an ineluctable return to the turbulence of the river itself. The band take a jubilant dixieland-flavored romp out,

The title suite – a Wyoming big-sky tableau – opens with austere woodwinds, building to a enigmatically charged atmosphere that grows more broodingly Darcy James Argue-tinged as the cleverly implied melody of the second movement, Compelled, looms into focus. Holober works the low/high and jaunty/sinister contrasts for all they’re worth, Steve Cardenas’ guitar leaping through the raindrops. John Hebert’s spring-loaded bass pulse mingled within the bandleader’s fanged neoromantic solo.

A pair of miniatures – a bright, enveloping interlude and a moody piano theme – lead into the symphonic conclusion, It Was Just the Wind. Holober picks up the pace with a syncopated, somewhat icy solo intro, then the orchestra rise to a qawwali-ish triplet groove with lush horn exchanges, a leaping Gordon alto solo and a more enigmatic one from tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker against sparely wary piano and guitar. Although Holober eventually interpolates a warmly pastoral theme amid the swells and slashes, whatever was out there was closer to Blair Witch territory than the Lone Ranger out on the range.

The ensemble wind up the album with an expansively orchestrated take of Jobim’s Carminhos Cruzados, a wide palette built around Stamm’s tenderly resonant phrasing and pinwheeling clarity. There hasn’t been such an electrifying big band record released in many months, an early contender for best jazz album of the year from an inspired cast that also includes Dave Pietro, Ben Kono and Charles Pillow on reeds; Steve Kenyon and Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Tony Kadleck, Liesl Whitaker and James de LaGarza on trumpets; Tim Albright, Mark Patterson, Alan Ferber, Bruce Eidem and Pete McGuinness on trombones; Nathan Durham on bass trombone; Jay Azzolina on guitar; Mark Ferber and Jared Schonig sharing the drum chair and Rogerio Boccato on percussion.

February 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

January 7, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment