Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

May 8, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wadada Leo Smith Does It Again

Forget for a minute that Wadada Leo Smith’s new album Dark Lady of the Sonnets, with his trio Mbira, is a summit meeting of three of the most compelling voices in jazz improvisation. More than anything, it’s a celebration of being alive. An intimately majestic, sometimes exuberant, warmly conversational album, it’s a must-own for fans of free jazz. Then again, that could be said about a lot of the Wadada Leo Smith, Min Xiao-Fen and Pheeroan akLaff catalogs. This particular session, recorded in 2007 in Finland and released worldwide just now on the reliably adventurous Tum Records label, captures the trio exploring Smith’s permutations on ancient Shona melodies from west Africa.

In the liner notes (which include comprehensive bios for each artist), Smith traces a line back from himself to Louis Armstrong, a connection that might not seem evident at first listen, but up close becomes very clear. Steeped in the blues as a child, Smith never lost that idiom’s terse soulfulness. What’s more, this album is remarkably rhythmic for a free jazz session, something that Smith’s cohorts here deserve credit for as well.

But first Smith goes back to a bell-like Miles Davis tone on the first track, Sarah Bell Wallace, a dedication to his mother, trumpet austerely calling for a dutiful response from spiky thickets of pipa plucking and rolling, suspenseful drums in turn. AkLaff’s signature drum sound, playing actual melody rather than simply rhythm, is in vivid effect here. It’s a warily soulful portrait of an indomitable woman who obviously knew suffering but rose above it and brought her family along.

Min Xiao-Fen, who is afraid of nothing and will play anything, is often the wild card here, bringing her signature sense of humor to Blues: Cosmic Beauty, a story of renewal. Peering up through Smith’s alternately flurrying and richly sustained, restrained lines, she swoops, dives and vocalizes a little, finally ceding to the trumpet on the chorus (much as there’s a great deal of improvisation going on, there’s a clearly defined architecture to all these works).

Zulu Water Festival, meant to evoke South Africans dancing on surface of a lake, juxtaposes a festive melody to a stately allusive groove and a strikingly spacious interlude held down by akLaff’s apprehensively nuanced, drony rumble. The title track, a Billie Holiday homage, puts the pipa player to work as a singer again, low and intimate as the conversation between instruments slowly rises, finally reaching bop fervor as Smith takes the trio out rattling and flurrying. The final track is a suite simply titled Mbira, a spiritually-inspired ballet based on Shona thumb piano music, with variations on a hypnotic circular theme. An animated dialogue between the three instruments swells and ebbs, with akLaff almost imperceptibly building to what seems like an inevitable crescendo with gorgeously nebulous washes of cymbals. Pipa, vocals and trumpet move from calm and sustained to agitated, Min finally swooping down coyly to meet Smith’s summoning call and then setting the whole thing ablaze with a forest of tremolo-picking as akLaff rumbles and leapfrogs his way out of it. It ends on an ambiguous note – maybe there’s a sequel lying in wait.

Also recently out on the Cuneiform label is Smith’s considerably more electric, aggressive and compositionally-oriented Heart’s Reflections double cd with his Organic band, featuring akLaff along with guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross along with a wide assortment of downtown New York types. Smith will be giving both of these bands a workout along with his Golden Quartet, Golden Quintet and Silver Orchestra as he celebrates his 70th birthday at the new Roulette space in Brooklyn on Dec 15 and 16 at 8 PM.

December 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Christabel and the Jons Heat Up The Night

Knoxville, Tennessee’s Christabel and the Jons ran through one slinky, swaying swing shuffle at Banjo Jim’s last night. “I can feel the electricity in the air,” frontwoman/guitarist Christa DeCicco observed. She didn’t mean the dancers twirling  on what passes for a dance floor in front of the stage – she meant the cool autumn night. “I can tell some broken hearts are about to be mending.” Potent observations from someone whose songs celebrate romance in all its difficult, exasperating forms. Consider: in the summer, your brain is so fried it’s impossible to make the right choices. Fall, on the other hand, is snuggle weather: that, and a whole lot more. Not that there’s anything wrong with a fling: “Give me a room full of men like you, and I’ll get closer to you,” she sang on one particularly seductive track from the band’s most recent studio album Custom Made for You. But there’s a depth, and a bittersweetness to her songs that resonates just much as her sultry vocals.

The band was tight beyond belief, drummer Jon Whitlock switching between brushes and sticks when the pace picked up, locked in with the swinging rhythm of the upright bass and DeCicco’s acoustic guitar, multi-instrumentalist Seth Hopper moving expertly from violin, to trumpet, to mandolin and back again, sometimes in the same song. DeCicco announced that for the first time in her life, she’d successfully haggled with a street vendor. “It was a crack pipe,” cracked Whitlock. The audience riffed back and forth with the band: whatever she’d scored (probably something to wear) had cost her ten bucks.

A couple of songs pulsed along on a bossa beat, including a vivid bon vivant’s lament punctuated by a soaring trumpet solo. Back to Tennesee featured the band on deadpan, jump blues-style call-and-response vocals – what were they looking forward to when they get back from their 12-hour drive? “Black cherry ice cream.” DeCicco told the crowd that their forthcoming album was going to be all brooding ballads, resulting from a “dark night of the soul.” But a couple of cuts, one of them titled You’re Gonna Miss Me, Baby were as jaunty and irrepressible as the rest of the set. Even the somewhat sarcastic Boy Crazy, with its minor-key gypsy-jazz vibe, wouldn’t concede an inch. DeCicco’s voice has a tinge of smoke and a casual allure that goes straight back to Billie Holiday, but she’s got a somewhat defiant optimism that’s uniquely her own: this band isn’t one of those Snorah Jones wannabe projects. For those who can’t wait for the new studio cd, the band has an online-only live album available at their site.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MotherMoon Turns Down the Lights

Don’t let MotherMoon frontwoman Ashley Selett’s vocal resemblance to Norah Jones scare you off – their new album Writing in the Sky is hardly elevator music. Selett’s torchy yet nuanced, soul-infused delivery understates the dark intensity of her songwriting. The songs here are remarkably intelligently and counterintuitively assembled: dynamics rise and fall, tempos shift in a split second, go doublespeed and then back again. Selett’s a terrific wordsmith as well. Pensive, brooding and metaphorically charged, her lyrics don’t shy away from the dark side.

The album opens with a pleasant, accessible, guitar-and-organ rock tune with clever psychedelic touches that contrast with the beaten-down anguish of the lyrics:

Although we fall down to the ground
Maybe it’s not what we wanted
Maybe the sun maybe the time
Was too unwarranted
…I guess just bring the hearse
In the heat of the night

The album’s second cut (essentially its title track) is a fragmentary, brooding Cat Power-ish minimalist number with a catchy chorus: “Why’s everybody looking at me like sadness is faux pas?” Selett wants to know. A simple soul guitar riff carries the captivating Quicker Quitter – it’s hard to tell if Selett is being cynical, or offering a warning to get out before everything falls apart.

Spilt Blood couples a 1920s-style hot swing tune to a fast swaying rock arrangement – here Selett reaches back for a post-Billie Holiday delivery more than she does anywhere else, delivering her vivid, imagistic, wounded lyric with a depleted, affectless weariness. The album winds up with a new wave rock tune with woozy, oscillating Dr. Dre synth. It’s an auspicious debut that leaves you wanting more. Selett’s current band includes brilliant Americana guitarist Myles Turney along with Joseph Colmenero on bass and Joel Arnow on percussion. MotherMoon play the cd release show for this one at Spike Hill on August 6 at 11 PM.

July 31, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Christine Correa Create New Elements

Here’s one for the nonconformists’ club. As has been the case in recent years, the perennially individualistic Ran Blake doesn’t go so much for the noir sound for which he’s best known: instead, the pianist mines a terse, often minimalist third-stream sensibility – Toru Takamitsu’s more recent work comes to mind. Christine Correa works a constant series of unexpected shifts with her low soprano/alto. It’s an interesting voice with an original delivery. She dips down to the bottom of her range where the real soul is, a la Nina Simone, unafraid to let a blue note slide a little further than most jazz stylists; seconds later, she might surprise you with a chirpy swoop like Anita O’Day in her prime. Although these two have done it before, Blake isn’t the first pianist you might think would collaborate with a singer (although his work with Jeanne Lee is pretty extraordinary). In fact, Blake and Correa’s new album Out of the Shadows isn’t so much a matter of chemistry as it is that each complements the other in welcome and unexpected ways. Although she’ll bend a melody to suit her needs, Correa is often the anchor here, Blake the colorist and essentially the lead on a lot of the songs. And the cd is aptly titled: menace often takes a back seat and even disappears.

The title track is a rarity, originally recorded in an orchestral version by June Christy, done here with masterfully terse suspense (and inspired, Blake takes care to mention, by the Richard Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase). Their version of The Thrill Is Gone isn’t the B.B. King classic but a song from an early talkie circa 1931, redone with icy sostenuto chords that only hint at ragtime. Deep Song – a Billie Holiday tune dating from one of her early troubled periods has voice and piano holding a rubato conversation, vividly and poignantly, a device they use to equally potent effect on the segue between The Band Played On and Goodbye Yellow Bird. Fine and Dandy and When Malindy Says are swing number deconstructed and playfully reassembled as Dave Brubeck might do. And Goodbye (which Blake learned from Jimmy Guiffre, and plays solo here) is a brightly terse reminiscence that, as is the case so much on this album, only alludes to being a requiem.

Correa uses Una Matica de Ruda as a showcase for unbridled, imploring, Middle Eastern-tinged a-cappella intensity. By contrast, she delivers Max Roach’s Mendacity – a favorite of Blake’s – with a bitter cynicism rather than trying to match the abrasiveness of the original political broadside. And she does Jon Hendricks’ Social Call with an off-guard woundedness that does justice to the version popularized by Betty Carter. Intense and cerebral yet unselfconsciously raw and soulful, this album – and this collaboration – will resonate with anyone who appreciates those qualities, beyond the jazz idiom where these two artists are typically pigeonholed, for better or worse.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment