Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bobby Sanabria Brings His Brilliant, Electrifying Reinvention of the West Side Story Score to Harlem This Weekend

Latin jazz drum sage Bobby Sanabria’s mission to tackle Leonard Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story score is ambitious, and a little hubristic. And it’s been done before: The Oscar Peterson Trio, the Stan Kenton Big Band, Dave Brubeck (obviously), Dave Liebman and Dave Grusin have all recorded various sections of the most radical Broadway score prior to Fela, with results from the sublime to….you get the picture. Sanabria and his Multiverse Big Band debuted their West Side Story Reimagined at Lincoln Center last month (sadly, this blog was in Brooklyn that night). Good news for anyone who missed that show: the band are reprising it at the amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey Park this Friday, Sept 14 at 7 PM. If you want a seat, you need to get there early.

As you would expect, the new double album – streaming at Spotify – adds plenty of welcome texture, sonic color and emphatic groove to Bernstein’s orchestration. Compared to previous jazz interpretations, what’s new about it is how heavy it is. The original is a lithe ballet score livened even further by Bernstein’s puckish wit. This version is gritty and in your face.

Sanabria is a connoisseur of just about every rhythm from throughout the Afro-Latin diaspora and beyond, and locks in on how eclectically inspired Bernstein was by all sorts of different rhythms from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and beyond. Yet Sanabria is also very highly attuned to the Stravinskian severity that makes such a stark contrast with the score’s lyricism, particularly as far as the ballads are concerned. Maybe it’s the focus on how much of a clave underscores so much of the music here, with charts by a grand total of nine separate arrangers, Sanabria included. Or maybe it’s just as much of a focus on the storyline’s stark relevance to current-day anti-immigrant paranoia.

This is not a solo-centric album: brief, punchy features for members of the ensemble go on for maybe eight bars at the most, with as many deft handoffs as momentary peaks amidst what Sanabria has very aptly described as a pervasive unease. Since the days of Tammany Hall, the ruling classes have pursued a relentless divide-and-conquer policy among New York’s innumerable ethnic groups, and the 1950s were no exception. In this hands of this mighty band, Bernstein’s keen perceptions are amplified even further.

Much as the new charts put the spotlight on the group’s amazingly versatile percussion section – alongside Sanabria, there’s Takao Heisho, Oreste Abrantes on congas and Matthew Gonzalez on bongós and cencerro – they hew closely to the original score. The deviations can be funny, but they have an edge. A Yoruba chant and a sardonically blithe dixieland interlude appear amid noir urban bustle, toweringly uneasy flares and noir urban bustle. Even the ballads – not all of which are included here – are especially electric. The band that rises to the challenge and succeeds epically here also includes Darwin Noguera on piano; Leo Traversa on bass; trumpeters Kevin Bryan, Shareef Clayton, Max Darché and Andrew Neesley; saxophonists David Dejesus, Andrew Gould, Peter Brainin, Jeff Lederer and Danny Rivera; trombonists Dave Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara and Chris Washburne; flutist Gabrielle Garo and violnist Ben Sutin.

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September 11, 2018 Posted by | classical music, jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Grace McLean and Sarah Mucho and Kurt Leege at the Delancey, NYC 8/18/09

Grace McLean really opened some eyes: as a keyboardist and bassist, she’s still taking baby steps, in stark contrast to the richness of her songwriting and her sophistication as a jazzy song stylist. From the sultry soul number that she opened with, a-capella, it seemed obvious that she’s spent some time out in front of a jazz band – the nuances, the effortless leaps and the out-of-the-box playfulness of her vocals are dead giveaways. Likewise, her songwriting is packed with devious tempo shifts, rhythmic devices, wickedly clever wordplay and a laugh-out-loud sense of humor, sort of a Rachelle Garniez Junior. Her number about being in love with her friend’s roommate had the room in hysterics and was something of an indelible New York moment. Likewise, a smartly swaying breakup number worked both as triumph over heartbreak and savage dis. The funniest song of the set was a breathless, rapidfire cabaret number about being jerked around by a clueless guy, done like Streisand with a graduate degree. Give this woman a piano player or a band behind her and there won’t be a cabaret room in town that she can’t rock.

The brain trust of ferocious, artsy rockers System Noise wound up the evening with a fascinating, virtuosic, low-key acoustic show, the kind that VH1 tries to get to work and inevitably fails with. This was a triumph. With guitarist Kurt Leege on acoustic and frontwoman/all-purpose siren Sarah Mucho alternating between percussion, harmonica and guitar and backed by excellent upright bassist, they revisited a trio of slinky, acerbic numbers from their early zeros band Noxes Pond. One of them was reinvented as a something of a dirge with stark bowed bass taking the lead part. They found the inner pop gem in Jimi Hendrix’ Angel, added a sly Talking Heads-style funkiness to Aimee Mann’s Wise Up and recast the Kinks’ Death of a Clown as a raucous barroom singalong. But their best song of the night was a brand new one,  a original fingerstyle Piedmont blues with a particularly chilling, anthemic lyric by Mucho, a reluctant embrace of angst and solitude to rival anything Ian Curtis ever wrote. It sounded nothing like anything System Noise ever did, and it’s a particularly promising new direction for them.

Opening act Kathleen Mock sang affectingly and often hauntingly in an Americana vein; Vanessa Boyd, who played after McLean also showed off some soaring vocal chops.

August 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment