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!

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

Rising Star Singer Brianna Thomas Brings Her Purist, Soulful Jazz Approach Back to Harlem

For the past couple of months, jazz singer Brianna Thomas has had a series of engagements at Ginny’s Supper Club uptown. Her next gig there is this Saturday night, June 18 with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM; cover is $20. The secret to this place is to grab a space at the bar; otherwise, there’s a minimum if you want to sit, and it’s not cheap. During the week, the place draws a loud afterwork crowd: if it’s the same here on the weekend, Thomas is one of the few acts who could actually work an audience to the point where they’d listen, or at least holler back at her.

None other than Will Friedwald – the guy who wrote the book on jazz singing – anointed her as the best of the current crop of up-and-coming voices in jazz. Her formidable arsenal – a strong, expressive delivery, expert command of phrasing and a love for swing and the classics – is unquestionable. This blog caught her onstage most recently a couple years back at Tompkins Square Park, where she opened the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, leading a quintet featuring similarly soulful guitarist Russell Malone.

Thomas and the rhythm section gave a joyous, cha-cha-influenced groove to All of Me to open the concert, wasting no time to launch into a jaunty stairstepping scat solo, the piano following her leaps and bounds, sax rising from low-key contrast to a bustling exuberance. That set a tone for the rest of the show, purist and packed with gospel fervor and blues grit, as in the swinging next number’s sax/bass/vocal intro, foreshadowing a coolly slipsliding bass solo midway through. “Say ‘Joy!’ Thomas entreated the crowd, and got the response she wanted. It capsulizes her appeal.

The band hit an Afro-Cuban shuffle from there, bringing a nocturne out into the daylight, Thomas leaping in on the offbeat and leaping even further from soulful melismatics to towering heights through an all-too-brief vocal solo. From there she explored airy, vampy balladry, to a hard-hitting detour into the blues, then funky soul and finally back to classic swing as the band rose and fell behind her, with alternately ebullient and pensive solos all around. The highlight of the set – and the afternoon, as it turned out – was a haunted, dynamically charged minor-key duet with Malone, an original song akin to a 21st century update on Nature Boy.

Despite her gifts as a singer, Thomas is hardly a diva, just a down-to-earth midwestern musician establishing an individual voice, finding new places to go where so many icons have gone before. From a concertgoer’s perspective, this show didn’t involve daydrinking – a hallowed Charlie Parker Festival tradition – but it did involve an awful lot of moving around, partly to stay out of the blistering sun, partly to dodge gaggles of chatty people in order to get something approximating a decent field recording. Exercise in futility: you’d do better to catch Thomas Saturday night or at a similar venue with a good sound system to fully appreciate everything she brings to the table.

June 15, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Wild Celebration of 25 Years of Jazz at the New School

The New School’s jazz program turned 25 this year: to celebrate, they threw an eclectic, often transcendent bash last night featuring a mix of jazz legends, alumni, faculty and students, a younger generation practically jumping out of their socks to be playing with icons, the veterans just as psyched to be up there with what could be the next generation of jazz greats. The premise of the night – other than to get more than three hours’ worth of enticing video for students who might be vaccillating between jazz programs – was a tribute to former faculty members Frank Foster and Benny Powell. For whatever reason, the program ended up having more to do with Dizzy Gillespie than the Basie connection those two shared for decades. But what’s unplanned is almost always why jazz is so much fun.

The Foster/Powell tribute kicked off with a blistering version of Foster’s Manhattan Madness. Reggie Workman, as shrewd an observer of talent as there is, introduced the band and told everyone to keep an eye out for pianist Martha Kato, a student. He was right on the money about her: fearless when it came to mining the lowest registers for magisterial power, she showed off a crystalline, bluesy purism that made a perfect match alongside a mix of alums and faculty: Kenyatta Beasley (who conducted the ensemble) ; Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet; Arun Luthra,  Keith Loftis and the Cookers’ Billy Harper on saxes; Christopher Stover on trombone; Rory Stuart and Mike Moreno on guitars; Josh Ginsburg on bass; and the Yellowjackets’ Marcus Baylor clattering up a storm on drums. Their take on a series of swing, Afro-Cuban and bossa nova themes reveled in the tunefulness that defined Foster’s repertoire.

The night’s single most transcendent moment was a rich, gospel-infused blues duet between pianist Junior Mance and violinist Michi Fuji. The two play together in Mance’s trio and share a finely attuned chemistry, Fuji adding an element of mystery with judiciously placed glissandos, Mance mimicking Fuji’s attack with some unexpected flutters of his own before returning to an otherworldly glimmer. The two were done all too soon. Mance plays with his trio most Sundays at Cafe Loup on 13th just west of 6th Ave. in case you might need more of him.

Close behind was an expansive, high-energy yet richly dynamic “trumpet battle” led by the great Jimmy Owens in tandem with Bridgewater, a tribute to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Thad Jones and also Thelonious Monk. Owens’ straight-ahead, often slyly witty style paired off with Bridgewater’s artfully ornamented attack; Bridgewater’s decision to do Clifford Brown’s Dahoud as a subdued, plaintive ballad was shatteringly successful. Again, it was a student, bassist Tony Lannen, who held the crowd rapt with both his wit – it takes nerve to punctuate your first solo of the night with a joke and make it resound like he did – and then a bristlingly precise, rapidfire spot later on which he played entirely with his bow. Meanwhile, Winard Harper put on a clinic in joyous, counterintuitive, latin-tinged beats: when he finally got a solo, it was all avant garde sticks and hardware and rims, and yet purist in a way that drew a straight line back to Elvin Jones. At one point, Owens wanted to take it all the way down to just his horn, but pianist JoAnne Brackeen wasn’t looking up: she’d become one with the resonant sheets of Monk she was playing at that point. Another up-and-coming talent, Alejandro Berti, joined in a genially crescendoing round-robin of trumpets to wind up the set on a literally high note.

For the night’s second duet, faculty pianist Andy Milne joined forces with Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a radical, slowly unwinding, atonalist reinterpretation of Body and Soul. The night ended on with the more traditionally ecstatic sounds of the Eyal Vilner Big Band, first backing nonagenarian tenor player Frank Wess and then fellow tenor legend Jimmy Heath, who’s five years his junior. Wess embodied pure soul, matched nuance to energy and got two standing ovations out of it; Heath, eternally youthful, refused to take a seat, cheered on his new bandmates – Mike McGarill, Tom Abbott, Lucas Pino, Asaf Yuria and big baritone guy Jason Marshall on saxes; the explosive Cameron Johnson and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet; Ivan Malespin and John Mosca on trombones; Yonatan Riklis on piano and Mike Karn on bass, with drummer Joe Strasser showing off a nimble originality matched to a power that never quite exploded – clearly, he was feeling the room and played to it perfectly. Chanteuse Brianna Thomas – whom none other than Will Friedwald has anointed as arguably the new generation’s finest straight-ahead jazz singer – joined them and battled a nonresponsive PA to put her message of sass and style across vividly in a rousing take of Lover, Come Back to Me. Otherwise, Vilner’s arrangements of Bud Powell (a potently percussive Un Poco Loco) and Diz nimbly articulated voices throughout the ensemble, Vilner himself taking the occasionally understated bluesy solo spots on alto sax. When they closed with what sounded like a Gillespie reworking of a Louis Jordan jump blues, Heath grinned and looked on deviously before choosing his spot to join in the raucous riffage as it wound out. It was something of a shock to see a handful of empty seats: concerts with the sheer magnitude of this one don’t come along every day.

The New School may not have weekly concerts like they had back in the early days, but those they do have tend to be extraordinary: both Marc Ribot (with his noir soundtrack project) and Ethiopian jazz masters Either/Orchestra have delivered equally sensational concerts here in recent months, something to keep in mind if you’re looking for major live jazz events percolating just under the radar.

April 26, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment