Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cordis’ Edgy NYC Debut Goes Over As Expected

It’s hard to believe it wasn’t until this past Thursday that pioneering cimbalom-led new music ensemble Cordis would finally make their New York City debut. Unsurprisingly, the crowd at le Poisson Rouge – young, edgy, and distinctly downtown – loved them. For those unfamiliar with the cimbalom, it’s sort of a larger santoor or qanun, i.e. a zither played with mallets. Frontman Richard Grimes took care to explain that it’s the national instrument of Hungary; he took considerably more relish in explaining that his is customized, with two humbucking guitar pickups that he runs through a vintage 1960s Vox tube amp. Sonically, sometimes it sounds like a piano, especially when he uses a sustain pedal; otherwise, it has the quick “ping” of a tack piano or qanun but with more resonance. It’s a subtle, rustically austere tone that mingled within keyboardist Brian O’Neill’s elegant piano arpeggios and organ swells alongside the plaintive tones of Jeremy Harman’s cello and a million percussion textures, from marimba to woodblocks to a full rock drumkit played with meticulous precision but also plenty of fire by Andrew Beall.

Much as their methodical, slow-to-midtempo material tends to embrace a warmly engaging minimalism, it can also be surprisingly anthemic, especially when the percussion is going full swing, perfectly exemplified by the suite Fifteen Minutes in Four Parts. They built the nonchalantly shapeshifting, intricately arranged piece from what was essentially a four-chord rock anthem anchored by a creepy Wurlitzer organ patch, through numerous dynamic and tempo shifts, to end on a wintry, nocturnal note: by then O’Neill had switched back to piano. They opened with a piece for cello, piano and drums that worked a dreamy/intense dichotomy before Grimes joined them for a rippling, dramatically rising and falling number lit up by some high-voltage, viola-like sustained lines from the cellist, who’d switched to a five-string model with a high “A” and an electric guitar headstock. This, along with a couple of other originals, brought to mind the Wharton Tiers Ensemble in particularly dreamy yet rumbling mode. Another subtly crescendoing original blended angst-fueled anthemicism in the same vein as the Jayhawks with an insistence much like a New York-based, minimalistic avant supergroup, Build.

Since there’s essentially no repertoire for this particular lineup other than the group’s own original material, they sometimes come up with new arrangements of works from an eclectic range of composers. They reinvented sections of Philip Glass’ Metamorphosis Suite, contrasting rippling piano arpeggios with stately sheets of sustain and a little later gave it a hypnotic, gamelanesque quality fueled by waves echoing from Beall’s marimba. Then they gave Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms – originally written for brass and voice – a Mingus-like bustle. At the end of the set, O’Neill picked up a bright red Gibson SG guitar and capped off the final piece with a vibrato-laden majesty: a snazzy stadium rock touch to send everybody home on a literally high note.

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April 9, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boston Band Unearths Long-Lost Esquivel Big Band Charts: Why?

Now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back in Mexico in the 1950s, Juan Garcia Esquivel must have been smoking some seriously generalissimo-grade pot. Like him or not, there’s no denying the psychedelic aspect of his music. The question is, was it any good? Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – an Either/Orchestra spinoff – offers one possible answer. On their new, period-perfect The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, a collection of newly rediscovered big-band arrangements by the crazed, vaudevillian Mad Men era bandleader, they’re obviously having a great time. Which on one level is understandable: from a musician’s point of view, any time you get to use a bass marimba, or punctuate a big band chart with a pedal steel cadenza, it’s nothing if not a jolt to the senses. But some of this is so cheesy that it calls into question whether or not Esquivel actually liked these songs – or if he even liked jazz, or music, at all.

It’s important not to confuse an artist or their work with their fan base. It makes no more sense to associate Esquivel with the first-wave trendoids who fueled his blip of a resurgence in the early 90s than it does to blame Radiohead for the pitchfork/stereogum contingent who worship them. Yet it makes sense that trendoids would fall in love with Esquivel’s “bachelor pad” stylings. Much as Esquivel’s production was cutting-edge, with all those crazy sound effects, all too often it’s style over substance, something that dovetails perfectly with a trendoid esthetic (if you buy the argument that the words “trendoid” and “esthetic” belong in the same sentence). There are moments here that are painfully kitschy – again, the hallmark of a trendoid being an embrace of all things shallow and stupid. But lurking beneath these songs’ whizbang, Keystone Kops vibe is a snotty cynicism that borders on punk. Esquivel’s arrangements are such complete bastardizations that they’re practically hostile. Would Esquivel have preferred ranchera ballads, or norteno accordion music? Or anything other than popular 50s jazz themes? At times, it would seem so. Taken as satire, much of this is irresistibly funny.

Andalucia barrels along at a breakneck pace with snarky little piano glissandos and a kettledrum roll out. Night and Day features a brief fugue between blazing brass and the steel guitar of Tim Obetz, with random bits of lyrics that predate Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub by twenty years. The barely two-minute version of Take the A Train, like much else here, owes a debt to Spike Jones with its tribal percussion and barking horns that winds down into jungly ambience fueled by Rusty Scott’s organ. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is reinvented as a cartoonish cha-cha, slinking along with the scrape of a guacharaca, doot-doot-doot vocals and finally an exuberant Yaure Muniz trumpet solo followed by a surprisingly subdued one on piano by Mr. Ho himself. With its absurdly garish horn chart, Music Makers has gruff baritone sax trading riffs impishly with the steel. And the girlie chorus on Frenesi are clearly unable to keep a straight face as they doot-doot-doot amidst the crazed doublestops of the high brass.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Sentimental Journey is simply unlistenable, and Mini Skirt, a familiar theme for surf music fans, hasn’t aged well – in the Cee-Lo Green era, those wolf-whistles are annoyingly cutesy. The three remaining tracks, Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Dark and the surprisingly straight-up, genially bluesy Street Scene are more good-naturedly amusing: lose the steel guitar, the funeral parlor organ and those ridiculous, blaring brass crescendos and what you’d be left with is just plain good big band jazz. Whether the rest of this is jazz, or what it is, is up to you to figure out. Maybe it’s best not to: like Sartre said, once you name something, you kill it.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment