Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

November 7, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic Bustle and Thump and Entertainment From the Uncategorizably Fun NYChillharmonic at Joe’s Pub

Was it worth leaving this year’s Charlie Parker Festival early to catch the NYChillharmonic last night at Joe’s Pub? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe someday singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s lavish eighteen-piece big band will play the festival – although the lineup that day will have to be a lot more forward-looking than it was yesterday evening.

McDonald’s music is easy to trace back to the wildly syncopated early 70s art-rock of bands like Genesis, although her compositions also draw on classical music, big band jazz, Radiohead and lately, classic soul music and even disco. Huddled together on the cabaret-sized stage, the mighty group were tight as a drum throughout a pummeling, nonstop performance heavy on the beat.

The staggered, staccato pulse of the opening number set the tone and was the most evocative of 70s psychedelia. Like the rest of the songs on the bill, it was pretty much through-composed, reaching a white-knuckle intensity with a series of rhythmic shrieks toward the end. McDonald typically finds more surprising places to take an audience – and her bandmates – than simply coming back to land on a verse or a chorus. Often but not always, the band would bring starkly moody intros full circle to close a tune, whether voice and keys, voice and guitar, or even voice and tuba.

With a vocal delivery that came across as more chirpy and biting than it’s been in recent months, McDonald sang resonantly while spiraling through tightly wound arpeggios on a mini-synth. Then she’d spin and conduct the ensemble, then return to the mic and keys, and made it look easy.

She explained that she’d written the night’s second number, Living Room, after quitting her shitty dayjob. Maybe some organization like Chamber Music America can step in and help her stay away from shitty dayjobs so she can concentrate on what she does best.

That particular number began as a restlessly propulsive soul anthem bulked up to orchestral proportions, with unexpectedly hushed, halfspeed interludes and a similarly sepulcutral outro, flitting out on the wings of the group’s string section. With the next tune, Ambito, the band mashed up classic 70s disco and 50s Mingus urban noir bustle, punctuated by a series of almost vexing interruptions and a wry, woozy, Bernie Worrell-style bass synth solo.

The night’s darkest and most bracing song, Wicker – which McDonald dedicated to “Ugly patio furniture everywhere” – had looming, ominous chromatics and 21st century Balkan jazz allusions, along with a deliciously jagged guitar solo and more P-Funk keyboard buffoonery. Zephyr has been considerably beefed up since the last time the group played the piece here, its chattering, uneasy intro more of a contrast with its relentlessly syncopated upward drive. It was the closest thing to orchestral Radiohead on the bill.

The Cyclone began with circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold. The group closed the show with another mashup of Radiohead, dancefloor thud and Darcy James Argue-style big band minimalism. Like Missy Mazzoli, McDonald manages to write torrential melodies without cluttering them.

Time was short, so there were no band intros. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for brass quartet the Westerlies with crooner Theo Bleckmann, but sometimes life takes you elsewhere.

August 26, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch Hasn’t Played the Vanguard Since January, So He Must Be Back This Month

The Vanguard is pianist Fred Hersch‘s home base, and it’s been six months since he played there. So he’s due, and he’s back for a stand starting on July 23 through the 28th with his long-running, conversational trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and around 10; cover is the usual $35.

These days Hersch has been releasing almost as many albums as he does weeks at the Vanguard. The latest one, Begin Again – streaming at Spotify – is a real change of pace, a lavishly orchestrated collection of tunes from throughout his career, recorded with German jazz orchestra the WDR Big Band. With his trio, Hersch is all about clever conversations, and playfulness, and singleminded attention to a song’s emotional center. This one, maybe unavoidably due to the sheer size of the project, is more about how much epic grandeur Hersch’s translucent tunes are suited to. Answer: a lot. Vince Mendoza’s arrangements are sharp and often surprisingly restrained. On one hand, given the joie de vivre and humor in Hersch’s writing, it must have been hard to resist the temptation to go completely epic with them. On the other, there’s a lot of gravitas on this record.

The band punches in and out throughout the cleverly dancing, triumphant metric shifts of the opening, title track, with a long, hushed, suspenseful interlude and a coda that’s gone in a flash. Alto saxophonist Johan Horlen rises from a gentle intro to a joyous peak over a lustrously majestic backdrop and Hersch’s steady neoromantic phrasing in Song Without Words #2: Ballad, high reeds and muted brass adding extra lustre.

A lot of Hersch’s vast back catalog doesn’t stay in one place for very long, and the version of Havana here is characteristic, Ernesto Lecuona glimmer followed by a punchy, ebullient jazz waltz with a stormy Paul Heller tenor sax solo. The desolate big-sky intro to Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard) is chilling; the band’s violence afterward is only slightly less so.

Maybe because of the size of the lineup, Hersch amps up his attack on the fugal lines of Pastorale – a standout, classically-inspired track from his brilliant 2011 Alone at the Vanguard album. The oldest number here is the vividly overcast yet kinetic Rain Waltz, brmming with artful orchestral interpolation orchestra amid Hersch’s incisive articulation. Trumpeter Ruud Bruels’ moodiness and alto sax player Karolina Strassmeyer’s more energetic spot foreshadow a titanic, brassy crescendo .

The album’s longest number, The Big Easy begins with a moody On Broadway sway, then slowly edges toward jubilation, punctuated by trombonist Ludwig Nuss and trumpeter Andy Haderer’s easygoing, coyly muted solos. The bustling, tropically-tinged Forward Motion makes quite a contrast. The album’s final cut is The Orb, from Hersch’s Coma Dreams suite, Hersch working his way cautiously from a uneasy, starlit Lynchian tableau to warm lyricism. Deep stuff from a deep guy.

July 13, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Tier Talent Celebrate Women in Jazz Out Back of Lincoln Center

This July 3 at 7:30 PM, for the second year in a row, there’s a celebration of women in jazz at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series in Damrosch Park. The lineup last year was kiler and so is this year’s slightly smaller crew. The Sisterhood of Swing Seven get their name from the pioneering all-female swing group from the 1930s. Singer Catherine Russell fronts this year’s allstar septet, with Camille Thurman on tenor sax; Emily Asher on trombone; Endea Owens on bass; Shirazette Tinnin on drums; Champian Fulton on piano and Molly Ryan on guitar. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor

Last year’s lineup had some association with this era’s foremost all-female big band, the Diva Jazz Orchestra, whose brilliantly melodic 25th Anniversary Project album is streaming at their music page. The orchestrations are as majestic as the bandname: A handful of the tunes are pretty straight-up swing, although most of the record is considerably more ambitious. The lineup includes Erica von Kleist and Janelle Reichman on tenor sax; Mercedes Beckman and Alexa Tarantino on alto; Leigh Pilzer on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Rachel Therrien, Barbara Laronga, Jami Dauber and Liesl Whitaker on trumpets; Leslie Havens on bass trombone; Sara Jacovino and Jennifer Krupa on trombones; Tomoko Ohno on piano; Noriko Ueda on bass and bandleader Sherrie Maricle on drums.

The first track, East Coast Andy is brassy and bluesy, with some coy pairings on the low end and a long solo from Pilzer’s baritone. Middleground follows an upward trajectory from a strikingly brooding, subtly polyrhythmic first section, to a precise but unsettled Ohno piano solo and then Reichman’s clarinet carrying a much brighter theme skyward.

Seesaw, a latin-tinged jazz waltz, has devious ornamentation, built around Tarantino’s crystalline, perfectly modulated soprano sax. Jami’s Tune is a blazing, catchy hot 20s-style theme with a jaunty two-trumpet conversation. Mighty, sustained brass phrases interchange over Maricle’s low-key, syncopated clave in Square One, trumpet and alto sax trading off at midpoint.

Beyond the allusive modal vamp at the center, Darkness of the Matter at first doesn’t hint it’s going in that direction, but after a bubbling trombone feature, Reichman’s tenor sax brings in the clouds with some bracing echo effects. Dancing clarinet and piano introduce the quasi-Brazilian bluster of La Americana, a launching pad for a cheery clarinet solo from Reichman.

A Quarter Past the Last Minute has a hi-de-ho swing flair, with a muted trumpet solo like blues from the hall of the mountain king ,plus some ridiculously funny trombone moments. Forever in My Heart is the album’s lone ballad and most lustrously lingering cut, with lyrical trumpet, whispery bass and glimmering piano solos. The final number is the briskly charging, dixieland-flavored The Rhythm Changes.

This group have come a long way since the evening in the fall of 1999 when a future blog owner saw all eighteen members of the orchestra line up in three tiers, packed in as close as a band can be, on the little stage of a long-gone East Village boite, the C-Note. Space may have been tight that night, but so were the Diva Jazz Orchestra. Plus ça change…

June 27, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Inspired New School Big Band Plays Haunting and Propulsive Darcy James Argue Tunes

What’s the likelihood of being able to see this era’s most fearsomely relevant composer in big band jazz leading a diversely talented ensemble in a comfortable Manhattan auditorium, for free? It happened a couple of weeks ago at the New School, where Darcy James Argue conducted their newly created Studio Orchestra in a program of both well-known and more obscure works. And the great majority of the time, the group were up to the challenge.

It’s always fun to watch a student ensemble and try to figure out who the future stars are. That’s never obvious, since the best musician in the band might be out of the spotlight, working on his or her sight reading while the people getting solos might be the ones who need to step up that part of their game. At this show, one obvious pick was guitarist Theo Braun. Has Argue ever conducted a guitar player with such eclectic chops, who so thoroughly gets his material? Any composer would be lucky to be in that position.

Whether adding plaintive jangle, enigmatically ominous strolls through the unease of a handful of conspiracy theory-themed numbers from Argue’s haunting Real Enemies album, or careening and roaring along with the band in a particularly haphazard take of Transit, a bracing Fung Wah bus ride, Braun connected profoundly with the music. At times, he seamlessly interpolated a loop pedal into the music, no easy task, and he never fell back on too-cool-for-school scales or practice patterns. Obviously, no good musician should be that self-indulgent, but there are guys who’ve had long careers doing exactly that. Braun is a welcome exception.

Likewise, trombonist Isaac Poole is a rare musician with monster chops who doesn’t overplay. Throughout the night, he went deep into the blues and took a detour or two to New Orleans, showing off some blazing speed and command of extended technique not limited to high harmonics and duotones. Where Braun brought the darkness, Poole was the sun busting through it.

The unexpected material was fascinating, The group more or less eased their way into the set with the anthemically circling, Bob Brookmeyer-influenced Drift, then stampeded through the faux pageantry and bluster of The Tallest Tower in the World, the caustic critique of narcissism run amok from Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon album. Another track from that collection, Coney Island, was affectingly plaintive.

With its shift from tense, cell-like Philip Glass-ine phrases to more envelopingly nocturnal ambience, Redeye was a very convincing portrait of sleep deprivation. Argue explained a triptych of slinky, noirish numbers from Real Enemies as exploring the right wing’s vested interest in conspiracy theories as tools for disempowerment: if the Illuminati control the world, for instance, what’s the use in voting? 

The orchestra wound that sequence up with Casus Belli, which Argue said was inspired by Operation Northwoods, an early 60s proposal for the CIA or its proxy to blow up a civilian airliner as a false flag attempt to start a war with the Soviet Union: in that sense, 9/11 has a long backstory. The song’s broodingly kinetic salsa-jazz theme imagines the plotters working out the details as a Catskill mambo band plays in the background at some cheesy upstate resort.

The group also swayed their way through Last Waltz for Levon, a gospel-tinged elegy for Levon Helm which Argue had begun writing as a final salute to Dave Brubeck before pastoral jazz crept into it.

If the exact same crew who played this gig are onstage for their next one, so much the better. They all deserve a shout: Melvin Carter, Sade Whittier, Alain Mitrailler, Bapiste Horcholle and Benjamin Huff on saxes; Michelle Hromin on clarinet and bass clarinet; Louis Arques on bass clarinet; Jose Valle, Joshua Bialkin, Moe Feinberg, Raul Rios and Elijah Michaux on trumpets; Valerio Aleman, Rebecca Patterson and Olivia Gadberry filling out the trombone section; Benjamin Appel on piano and Nord Electro; Jonathan Livnate and Arturo Valdez Aguilar alternating on electric and acoustic bass; and Parker Trent on drums.

March 20, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Broodingly Catchy, Lithely Orchestrated Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Pianist Edward Simon

Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.

The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.

The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.

The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.

With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.

The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?

Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.

Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.

January 4, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy Riffs, Ambitious Stylistic Leaps and Irrepressible Fun from David Dominique

People who play off-the-wall instruments tend to write off-the-wall music. David Dominique’s axe is the flugabone, a higher-pitched valve trombone usually limited to marching-band music. As you might expect from someone from that milieu, his new octet album Mask – streaming at Bandcamp – is irrepressibly fun, and rhythmic, and sounds like absolutely nothing else out there. It seems as if he’s been listening to a lot of Ligeti and other minimalist composers, although imputing influences to musicians is never a safe bet.  Reduced to lowest terms, this album combines the hypnotic, cyclical quality of a lot of indie classical music with the exuberance of a brass band. Other reference points are the snark of Mostly Other People Do the Killing (and possibly some other snarky critters), along with the surreal live techno of German dancefloor nuts the Jazzrausch Bigband.

The bright opening track, The Wee of Us has jaunty New Orleans flavor, chattering dixieland voicings and tricky, staggered syncopation. If the Microscopic Septet were just getting started right now, they might sound like this, Alexander Noice’s flickering guitar mingling with  Brian Walsh’s tenor sax and the altos of Joe Santa Maria and Sam Robles while violist Lauren Baba and bassist Michael Alvidrez hold down an insistent beat in tandem with drummer Andrew Lessman.

Grief at first seems to be a very sardonically titled jazz waltz, Santa Maria’s flute at the center paired against the flugabone and Robles’ baritone, the bandleader overdubbing a da-da chorus of vocals. The music gets serious at the end over Noice’s uneasy jangle.

Beetle, a coyly nocturnal swing number, brings to mind creepy cinephiles Beninghove’s Hangmen in a lighter moment…or Tredici Bacci. To Dave Treut – a shout-out to the ruggedly individualistic Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist – shifts surrealistically from balmy swing to a riffy mashup of Terry Riley and Dopapod, with a tingly viola solo on the way out. Then the band negotiate the odd syncopation of Invisibles, a sliced-and-diced march which is just as much about space as melody.

The band follow Five Locations, a series of brief sketches, with The Yawpee, an exuberantly racewalk through a series of catchy, loopy hooks strung together, with a cynically sinister oldtimey outro. Separation Strategies, with its motorik bassline and tight counterpoint, is the one track that most vividly evokes the Jazzrausch guys. The album ends with Gotta Fumble, tense low-register pedalpoint anchoring a lively flute hook, variations from individual voices spiraling up to puncture the playful, carefree ambience. Throughout the album, the jokes – some completely over the top, some much more subtle – are as entertaining as the band’s tightness and Dominique’s completely unpredictable seismic shifts.

December 14, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Feast of Catchy Tunesmithing, Big Ideas and Picturesque Themes on Annie Chen’s New Album

Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.

Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.

It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.

Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.

Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.

The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.

The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.

Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.

Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.

December 5, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “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.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

October 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment