Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

October 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noah Preminger: Sweet Science at the Jazz Standard

Isn’t it funny how some of the subtlest jazz musicians – Noah Preminger, Monty Alexander and Erica Smith among them – are also boxing fans? For those who misssed Preminger’s album release show for his new one, Haymaker, last night at the Jazz Standard, he’s playing two sets there tonight, May 22 at 7:30 and 9:30, a chance to hear one of the fastest-rising stars in melodic jazz at the top of his nuanced game.

Preminger was in an unexpectedly talkative mood, the house manager needling him to “play some jazz” as the possibly former pugilist explained why his ring career was at a standstill. “She hit me, so I hit her back, hard,” he deadpanned: the punch that landed on his female boxing coach was unintentional. Much as has been made about Preminger being a hard-hitting force on the tenor sax, what’s most remarkable about his playing is how effectively he uses space. Onstage with the crew from his album – Ben Monder on guitar, Matt Pavolka on bass and Colin Stranahan on drums – Preminger was more Ali than Foreman, taking his time, landing everything he threw, casually and expertly. There was one brief free-for-all during a roaring Dave Matthews cover, of all things: otherwise, tunes took front and center for the duration of the evening’s first set.

They opened with the album’s title track, Stranahan’s elegantly ornamented shuffle setting the tone for much of what would come later, rhythmically speaking, Monder’s chords cool and resonant until one of his signature shredding solos, Pavolka maintaining a terse modal pulse as Preminger chose his spots. They followed with another track from the new album, the balmy, gentle 6/8 ballad My Blues for You, Preminger’s marvelously misty, low-register outro more than hinting that the individual who inspired the song is no longer in his life (or maybe he’s not in hers).

The high point of the set (no pun intended) was 15,000 Feet, inspired, Preminger said, by his first skydive, from almost three miles up, over New Zealand (ostensibly the only place on the globe where it’s legal to leap out of a plane from such an altitude). Monder and Pavolka built a Hendrix-like propellerplane roar over Stranahan’s clenched-teeth insistence, Preminger leading the procession (metaphorically speaking) out into airier and ultimately more confident terrain: in Preminger’s hands, the view from three miles high is rather relaxing. Alison Wedding came up to sing harmonies on a gorgeously bittersweet take of Dave Douglas’ Blues for Steve Lacy, then led Preminger and Monder through a plaintive, elegaic original dedicated to an Australian pianist collaborator of hers who died young. After the digression into a different Dave (which could have cleared the room if they hadn’t done it so straightforwardly and confidently), Preminger chose the closing spot to send  a brief, characteristically lyrical ballad out to his parents, who were in the house celebrating their anniversary.

May 22, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell Resurrects a Gil Evans Classic Mothballed for Half a Century

Friday night the Jazz Standard looked to be sold out and for good reason. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Impulse Records, the club has been playing host to a series of concerts commemorating artists or albums associated with the influential 1960s jazz label. This was the pick of the bunch, an allstar sixteen-piece cast assembled by composer Ryan Truesdell, a leading Gil Evans advocate and scholar, playing Evans’ 1961 big band cult classic Out of the Cool. Truesdell was quick to acknowledge the support of Evans’ widow Anita, who was in the audience. He also reminded that this may have been the first time the music on the album has been played live, as a whole, in fifty years. Which on one hand is mind-boggling – in the intervening five decades, couldn’t someone have pulled a band together just like Truesdell did? On the other hand, leaving it alone makes a lot of sense: it’s hard to improve on perfection.

In their opening set, they didn’t do the whole thing, substituting a vivid, animated version of Nothing Like You (a song long associated with Miles Davis, recorded on another cult classic, 1964’s The Individualism of Gil Evans) for the brooding atmospherics of Sunken Treasure. That choice kept the energy level up via a nonchalantly bristling solo from pianist Frank Kimbrough (spot-on in the Evans role with his judicious, incisive chordal attack) and a long, smokily bluesy one from tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland. As the album’s and the night’s opening track – George Russell’s Stratusphunk – unwound with a jaunty martial pulse, it was clear that this would be an attempt to reach for the brilliance of the original ensemble’s collective improvisation rather than to replicate it. A tall order, needless to say. But having eclectic, virtuoso tuba player Howard Johnson – whose association with Evans lasted more than two decades – helped. As did the presence of George Flynn on bass trombone and Michael Rabinowitz on bassoon, rounding out the low end along with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, who got a real workout doing an energetic impression of Ron Carter’s marathon walks.

Kurt Weill’s Bilbao Song got a deliciously pillowy performance, including nimble, incisive work from Kitagawa and guitarist Ben Monder along with ensemble work that dramatically brought out the contrasts between rhythm and the lush horizontality of the melody. Horace Silver’s Sister Sadie, which didn’t make it onto the album until the reissue, also paired off contrasts between the tune’s jaunty swing and some typical blazing, all-stops-out Evans crescendos, and a neat false ending. As expected, the high point of the set, in fact one of the high points of this year’s concerts so far, was an absolutely devastating version of Where Flamingos Fly. The most obviously Sketches of Spain-influenced number on the album, its tense noir atmospherics gave trombonist John Allred a long launching pad for a plaintive, wounded, chillingly beautiful solo spot. They closed with La Nevada, a noir epic on album, here more of a jam on its stunningly simple, memorable hook, Rabonowitz going with slow, gripping blues, trumpeter Greg Gisbert going at it fast, flutist Charles Pillow playfully elbowing Johnson off the page when the tuba started making some unexpected runs way up into flute territory. Drummer Clarence Penn, who’d been grinning almost nonstop at the prospect of getting to emulate Elvin Jones for a whole night, pounced on turnarounds and the end of phrases like a fighter who’s been waiting his whole life for the occasion.

Truesdell didn’t conduct so much as he signaled transitions – and did so with great intuition – although he made a great emcee. His passion for Evans’ music was contagious. Among other projects, he’s spearheading a celebration of the centenary of Evans’ birth this year, with concerts and a recording of some of the fifty-odd unpublished Evans compositions he’s unearthed.

April 25, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jacam Manricks – Labyrinth

As has been observed here before, the newly renascent trend of augmenting a jazz group with a string section is a particularly welcome development – let’s hope more artists discover what Miles and Gil Evans knew decades ago. On this new album, saxophonist/composer/educator Jacam Manricks is the latest to utilize the approach, very innovatively and successfully. His inspirations come from all over – it’s obvious that he’s listened widely. With a forty-piece chamber orchestra featured on several of the tracks along with an inspired quintet including Manricks on saxes and flute, Jacob Sacks (of the excellent White Rocket) on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Thomas Morgan on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the melodies here are strong, taking on an even greater intensity with the lushness of the arrangements.

On the cd’s opening cut, Portal, Sacks improvises upper-register rivulets as Manricks’ sax builds to a buoyant crescendo, the melody a variation on a Debussy theme. Microgravity begins gently, then the strings build over a martial beat evocative of Sketches of Spain (a motif that will recur even more evocatively later on). The orchestra swirls around behind a brightly reverberating Monder solo…and then a four-note pizzicato string motif echoes an earlier Manricks riff. Eerily ambient strings and sax end it on a suspenseful note. The title track builds on stately, sparse low-register piano intervals (fourths and seconds), much in the style of what Herbie Hancock and his contemporaries were doing in the late 60s, drums following and playing off the piano beat as Manricks adds balmy color.

The fourth track, Move has a pensive, tropical feel with acoustic guitar and soprano sax, down to an expressive, somewhat tense piano solo, Manricks maintaining the downcast intensity as the rhythm grows more complex.  Cloisters, a somewhat epic number inspired by the popular uptown New York pre-Renaissance art museum/date spot and its lush, green surroundings, works around a bright, joyful theme – the bus has finally reached the end of the line, yay! With Aeronautics, the piano feels around as Manricks establishes the mood, glimmering quietly, through a Monder solo and then some of Manricks’ most poignant work here. March and Combat begins as an overt Sketches of Spain homage, its second half a pulsing Ravel Bolero-inspired chart. Aptly titled, the album’s concluding cut, Rothko is a hypnotic, static tone poem. This album is both cutting-edge and memorably tuneful – these are songs that will run through your head as you walk down the street. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

July 14, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Jacam Manricks Quintet at Smalls Jazz Club, NYC 5/22/09

Jacam Manricks has a fluid, fluent approach to the alto sax, but it’s his compositions which are his drawing card – and which may absolutely blow you away. Playing a mix of material mostly from his new cd Labyrinth – recorded with a 40-piece orchestra – the Australian-American composer and his quintet locked in on the songs’ intricate, often epic permutations with intensity and nuance. The bass and drums maintained a sinuous, practically minimalist pulse throughout some awfully tricky changes while pianist Gary Versace colored them with characteristic vividness and frequently outright menace. Perhaps because this was a five-piece playing big band music, the integral nature of the arrangements was especially striking, guitarist Ben Monder completing unfinished piano chords, or Versace doing the same in tandem with the guitar. Sometimes Manricks would do the same in tandem with the bass. Intelligence and imagination lept from the charts with agility and sometimes a wary apprehension.

Aeronautics, a bit of a latin shuffle with sustained, understated, reflective guitar saw Manricks taking a series of fluttery runs through shifting sections of the scale, Versace feeling around for his footing and eventually finding it, rich and ominous.  The modal suite Microgravity was a full-scale masterpiece (one can only imagine how lush it sounds with the orchestra on the cd). Manricks opened it brightly, then bass and piano teaming up against guitar and sax, Monder hypnotic and eerie throughout a long series of quavery, reverberating chordal passages that recurred at the end, Versace practically microtonal with his starry, glimmering upper-register work. The cd’s title track, built on a richly melodic, interlocking architecture featured a playful conversation between Versace and the drums. They closed their second set with a new composition, simply titled 2-3-2 with a bouncy, staggered vintage Cuban beat, Manricks warily expansive over some Balkan-inflected changes to an insistent, intensely pulsing crescendo. One can only wonder where someone like Ivo Papasov could take that song. A jazz educator, Manricks doesn’t get the chance to play out as much as he no doubt would like to: if cutting-edge, out-of-the-box stuff is your thing, don’t miss the chance to see him.

May 24, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment