Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Three of the World’s Great Jazz Voices Sing the Blues

One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.

Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.

The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.

The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.

Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!

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September 26, 2016 Posted by | blues music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smart, Sassy, Soulful Retro Sounds from Roberta Donnay

Chanteuse Roberta Donnay’s album A Little Sugar Music, a salute to some of her favorite Prohibition-era singers, is just out from Motema. Donnay is one of Dan Hicks’ Lickettes, and it shows on this album – her affinity and aptitude for oldtime blues and swing matches the verve and sassiness of the originals, while she puts her own stamp on them. Behind her, the Prohibition Mob Band – pianist John R. Burr, bassist Sam Bevan, trumpeter Rich Armstrong, multi-reedman Sheldon Brown, drummer Michael Barsimanto and tuba player Ed Ivey – rise to the occasion.

Donnay is a sophisticated singer. Her nuanced, uncluttered vocals remind a lot of Chris Connor or Bliss Blood. Unlike much of the current crop of moldy fig swing sisters, Donnay gets inside the lyrics and draws them out: she’s interpreting rather than just trying to be brassy. Every song is different; every line resonates. To kick off the album, Oh Papa reaches all the way back to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Donnay really digging in when she hits the line “you’ll regret the day you ever quit me” as Burr goes for terse James P. Johnson inflections. A late 30s Ida Cox jump blues, Swing and Sway, provides a blithe contrast.

Fats Waller’s I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling benefits from understatement everywhere: Burr’s moody piano, Wayne Wallace’s trombone and some wry vaudevillian flourishes from the drums. You Go to My Head is even more intense and pensive, from Burr’s brooding introduction through Donnay’s resigned, practically clenched-teeth interpretation. And Donnay outdoes Sippie Wallace at coyly nuanced signification with Mama’s Gone Goodbye, making it equal parts escape anthem and kiss-off ballad.

While the slyly theatrical One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show has the feel of a Mae West tune, it’s actually from the 50s; Donnay channels her inner flapper up to a nimble handoff from Armstrong’s trumpet to Brown’s tenor sax. The most sophisticated yet most terse number here is Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So, Donnay’s low-key melismatics over allusive piano and a similarly minimalist but impactful bass solo.

Donnay’s jaunty, horn-fueled cover of Sugar Blues draws on Ella Fitzgerald, while the take of Tropical Heatwave here owes more to Ethel Waters than the infamous Marilyn Monroe version. Rocking Chair, which Donnay picked up from Hicks, gets an unexpectedly whispery, absolutely chilling arrangement, a vivid portrait of dissolution and despair. Her take on Sugar in My Bowl is more sultry come-on than risque party anthem, the balminess of Brown’s tenor matching the vocals. Of all the songs, the most interesting one here is You’ve Been a Gold Ol’ Wagon, an innunedo-packed, proto hokum blues song from the 1890s that brings to mind the Moonlighters. Donnay covers a lot of ground here and never once lapses into cliche, a feat more impressive than it sounds considering how many people have sung these songs over the decades. Fans of jazz, blues and steampunk sounds have a lot to enjoy here.

December 10, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 7/31/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #548:

Bessie Smith – Complete Recorded Works 1922-23

The real primo Bessie Smith albums are not available digitally: they’re double-vinyl reissues from the 60s and 70s, a series with faux-antique trellis edging the album covers in various colors, still frequently found in used record stores. If you see one, pick it up, because pretty much everything the Queen of the Blues ever did is worth owning. We suggest this double-cd reissue because it has a mix of her most iconic songs, i.e. Down Hearted Blues, Bleeding Hearted Blues and ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do, some of her famously suggestive stuff like Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine and also a whole bunch of her creepiest sides. It doesn’t have Sing Sing Blues, but it does have Sam Jones’ Blues,  the chillingly surreal Graveyard Dream BluesCemetery BluesFrosty Morning Blues, Haunted House Blues and the absolutely awesome Hateful Blues. There’s cleverly funny stuff like Eavesdropper’s Blues and topical songs like the escaped-slave allegory Ticket Agent, Ease Your Window Down and for the country crowd, Boweavil Blues. Most of the songs are just piano and vocals, some with the guy who was arguably the greatest blues pianist ever, James P. Johnson. No Louis Armstrong duets here – while it’s quaint to imagine him smoking her up, her strongest songs were always her darkest ones. If you don’t already know her, this will hook you for life. Here’s a random torrent via Dirty Music.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Flower Brings Her Fast Fingers to Town

On April 1 at 7:30 (no joke), Portland, Oregon acoustic guitar goddess Mary Flower plays the Good Coffeehouse series at the Ethical Culture Society at 53 Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. If guitar is your thing, she’s inspiring. Her latest album Bridges is a mix of characteristically fluid yet precise Piedmont style blues playing as well as some delicious ragtime and lap slide work. First and foremost, this is a guitar album – Flower keeps her vocals unaffected and nonchalant and lets her fingers do most of the talking. They’ve got a lot to say and say it memorably.

The best songs here are her original instrumentals – while everything here draws on different Americana roots styles, Flower isn’t afraid to add her own more complex, modern melody lines. Temptation Rag is absolutely gorgeous, Flower’s twin ascending lines against Robin Kessinger’s flatpicking and Spud Siegel’s mandolin shifting to a gypsy jazz vibe. Slow Lane to Glory imaginatively takes a gospel tune and makes midtempo swing blues out of it, played richly and tunefully on lap slide guitar. The bittersweet Piedmont blues number Daughter of Contortion eventually works in a playful circus motif, and the concluding track Blue Waltz artfully intertwines her guitar lines with Tim O’Brien’s mandolin and accordion from Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso.

A couple of the vocal numbers have a jaunty Roulette Sisters feel, most memorably the darkly simmering Big Bill Blues, lit up by some edgy, incisive piano from Janice Scroggins (whose contributions throughout this album are consistently excellent). The opening track, featuring Tony Furtado’s bottleneck in tandem with Flower’s densely intricate fingerpicking, evokes Jorma Kaukonen’s early 70s work. There’s also a version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that builds from hypnotic to steady and swinging; another first-rate ragtime song, Columbia River Rag, and explorations of country gospel, New Orleans blues and a cover of There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears with more biting blues piano from Scroggins. In addition to her April 1 gig, Flower is teaching a workshop on Piedmont style guitar at noon at the Jalopy on April 2.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Kelli Rae Powell – New Words for Old Lullabies

This is an album of nocturnes, and it’s one of the year’s best. Haunting, often hilarious, wickedly lyrical and soaked in alcohol – Kelli Rae Powell is credited with inventing the drinkaby, a combination drinking song and lullaby – it’s only fitting that the only cover song on her new album would have originally been written for Mae West. On that lusciously innuendo-laden number, A Man What Takes His Time, Powell does her best Bessie Smith imitation, although she has many other voices up her sleeve, not all of them here. Powell sings in character: while her style evokes Smith as well as Blossom Dearie, she sounds like she could do pretty much any belter or chanteuse from across the decades – or be just herself. With Powell’s voice and her ukelele over a slinky acoustic groove colored with electric guitar in places, this isn’t your typical uke record: the production puts the instrument front and center with a full, round sound instead of the usual plink-plink.

“Some bridges are just better burning,” emphasizes the caption on the inside of the cd cover, Powell shooting a smoldering look from the corner of her raccoon eye. That’s the crux of one of the album’s best songs, a slow waltz that leaves no doubt that the wounds are still fresh:

Some lessons can’t hurt you

If you leave them unlearned…

Maybe in the end

We’ll grow to be friends

Maybe at my death

I won’t be holding my breath

That intensity comes up even further on Don’t Slow Down, Zachary. Even here, Powell’s characteristic understatement and irrepressible humor are overshadowed by the subtle, diabolical details of a road trip that quickly went straight to hell:

Remember how she touched your hand

Remember solemn passing bands

Of old men smoking Parliaments

Chicago was a challenge

Louisville nearly kills them – but she’s hell-bent on not going home because what’s waiting for her there is even worse.

The rest of the album is a lot funnier, and steamier. Lullaby for Bad Girls goes the anthemic route; The Cowboy Song susses out hot-to-trot guys for the clueless creatures they are. There’s a warm, hypnotic lullaby that segues into the devious barroom seduction scene Old Tom, and then the paradigmatic Drinkaby which is even funnier. Powell is joined by a whistle-stop choir of the Ukuladies and Jo Williamson on the swing-flavored Midnight Sleeper Train, maintaining the woozy after-hours ambience while taking it up a notch, then bringing it back down with the understatedly cynical, Amy Rigby-esque Even Trade. Powell’s an amazing lyricist: like LJ Murphy and Bliss Blood, she’s as adept at the vernacular of earlier eras as she is in her own. A fearless and charismatic performer, her ceiling is awfully high: if she could find some way to take her act on the road, find a Zachary who really won’t slow down to take her gig to gig while she slumbers in the back seat, she could connect with a nationwide audience who recognize her for the star she probably knows  she is. Kelli Rae Powell plays the cd release show for this one on October 30 at the Jalopy.

September 17, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marni Rice, Bliss Blood and Dreamboat Live at Laila Lounge, Brooklyn NY 2/20/08

This is the kind of place where music is only an occasional thing, as evidenced by the chalkboard outside on the sidewalk which simply said “open mic.” As at innumerable other bars, the musicians who play here apparently also do all the promotion. Either the night was running ahead of schedule, or there had been a switchup after the email announcing the event was sent out, because by quarter after ten, accordionist Marni Rice was wrapping up her solo set. She’s excellent, a player who’s equally influenced by French chanson and American garage rock. Singing in a smooth, confident alto, her last two songs were both excellent originals, the last a new one perhaps titled Red Light, a scuffling, klezmer-inflected broadside about the New York subway system’s inability to treat their customers with even a minimum of respect. She’s playing another solo set at Hank’s this Saturday at about 9:30, opening for some garage-rock friends. Musically, it might not be the smoothest segue, but energy-wise it ought to be perfect: Rice has considerably more edge and originality than your typical accordion-playing chanteuse.

Bliss Blood is a one-woman time machine, a brilliant songwriter with breathtaking command of pretty much every oldtime blues, ragtime and swing style ever found on shellac or celluloid. Unsurprisingly, she’s a major force in the New York music scene, as leader of the wildly popular, lushly romantic Moonlighters, the sizzling barrelhouse blues act Delta Dreambox, macabre “crime jazz” trio Nightcall and swing dance band Cantonement (that seems to be all for the moment). A Bliss Blood solo show is so rare that it’s a can’t-miss event: even thought she got her start here in town playing solo, she virtually never gets a chance to do that anymore. In the Moonlighters, she favors lush, complicated, harmony-laden arrangements, so hearing her songs pared down to just vocals and chordal rhythm was a treat worth braving the cold and this somewhat suspect, frequently trendoid-infested venue. Accompanying herself tonight with just her trusty ukulele, Blood reaffirmed her status as one of the smartest, most captivating performers around. As a singer, she alternates between seduction and indictment. Her serenades were sweet and clear, but she put her fangs in for the sad, rueful ballads and politically-charged anthems. In the bar’s intimate confines, she transcended the dodgy sound and put on a riveting show, opening with a brief cover of the Goldfinger theme, then the explosively powerful Nightcall song Blackwater, a corrosive, spot-on critique of the mercenary company killing innocent civilians in Iraq.

Introducing the breezy, seemingly carefree hobo tune Ballad of a Gink, she explained that “gink” is Depression-era slang for someone who’s lost or homeless. Broken Doll, a stark narrative about a battered woman, was just as evocative as the version on the Moonlighters’ latest album Surrender. Blood also did a handful of covers of songs by her idol, Bessie Smith, and also debuted a touching new one entited Winter in My Heart (“and snow in my eyes,” she sang wistfully). It was hard to remain dry-eyed after that one.

Before launching into a tersely intense version of the Moonlighters classic Blue and Black-Eyed, she told the audience it evoked a different New York, one a little more dangerous, in this case the Bowery at the turn of the 20th century when prostitutes would drink carbolic acid and throw themselves off the fire escape of the recently demolished tenement that once housed the notorious bar McGuirk’s Suicide Hall. She wrapped up the set with a request, the charming Hello Heartstring and then her fiery, minor-key, tango-inflected maquiladora ballad Dirt Road Life, told through the eyes of a Mexican sweatshop slave.

Dreamboat, the headliners (no relation to Bliss Blood’s similarly-titled band) were terrific, the best new act we’ve encountered since unexpectedly discovering James Apollo back in December. This new trio features excellent acoustic guitarist/singer Craig Chesler, upright bassist Tony Masselli and a frontwoman who jokingly told the audience that she was Kelly Ripa. Iowa expat Kelli Rae Powell, alternating between a wink, a smirk and an occasional shit-eating grin, showed off a spectacular, vastly entertaining and delightfully witty ability to absolutely nail a range of styles from Bessie Smith subtle, to Shirley Bassey over-the-top, and seemingly everywhere in between. If this band stays together, they’ll be huge. Like the Moonlighters, there’s a fondness for harmonies and an unabashed romanticism in most of what they do, but playing for laughs is also part of it. Powell’s onstage persona is as devious as it is virtuosic. Their best song, appropriate for tonight’s chill, was a very pretty, soaringly optimistic ballad called When My Winter Turns to Spring. They’re playing the Jalopy Café on March 8 with the Moonlighters, well worth the B61 bus ride to Red Hook and back home again.

February 21, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments