Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epically Tuneful, Colorfully Cinematic Jazz from Linda May Han Oh and Her Killer Band at the Vanguard This Week

There was a point about midway through the first song of of bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first set last night at the Vanguard where tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel broke into a wide-mouthed grin, staring to his left. At that moment, guitarist Matt Stevens was perusing a gritty, spacious solo punctuated by several judicious pauses. What was he doing between phrases that had goosed Wendel so hard?

As it turned out, it was drummer Obed Calvaire’s long, leapfrogging, crescendoing polyrhythms that had grabbed him – and soon, pretty much everybody else within earshot. There were innumerable other “this is why we love jazz” moments throughout the night. She’s back there tonight, July 3 through 7, with sets at 8:30 and a little after 10; cover is $35 and worth it.

Oh has made waves in the past couple of years as sidewoman to the stars, but her own work is often her best, and this show was characteristic. When a band is having fun, that translates to the audience. Oh gives her crew – which also included her significant other, pianist Fabian Almazan, the not-so-secret weapon in this quintet – plenty to sink their teeth into. Like the best film and classical composers, she starts with the simplest materials – sometimes just a single-note rhythm – and subtly introduces variations that often go in completely unanticipated directions.

The most vivid showstopper of the night was a piece from a forthcoming film, portraying the moment when a young Brazilian woman is kidnapped into the sex trade. Oh’s wistful, insistent opening solo became considerably more plaintive the second time around, Almazan’s glittering chords elevated the constantly shifting ground to majestic heights, and the tropical milieu quickly took a backseat to a fond goodbye to happiness. As Oh saw it, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

The group opened with Blue Over Gold, a Rothko shout-out that built from a warily insistent, percussive bass phrase to a recurrent four-chord cluster punctuated by Wendel’s hardbop and finally Calvaire’s rumbling attack. Yoda, which Oh dedicated to her mentor of a sister (“She’s a lot prettier,” the composer grinned) began with even more tightly wound, syncopated, minimalist bass and rose to punchy heights on the waves of Almazan’s piano.

While she played most of the set on her usual upright model, Oh also pulled a beautiful, full tone from her Fender on a couple of numbers, especially when playing chords. It was a welcome change from the legions of slap-happy funkpapa cliche-heads playing Weather Report covers and such a few blocks south on Bleecker. It was also rewarding to see how much more she’s singing: her soaring vocalese compares with another rising star string player, guitarist Camila Meza.

The night’s funniest tune was Speech Impediment, a winsomely persistent portrait of a stuttering dude who nonetheless finds a way to get the girl. Wendel got the funniest arrythmic bits, but both the bandleader and Calvaire were close behind, with a deadpan wit that brought to mind the Dutch clown prince of jazz, Misha Mengelberg. They returned to close the set on a more acerbically kinetic note. Oh has grown significantly as a writer over the past few years, to become one of the most consistently interesting bassist-composers around; you should see her.

July 3, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mighty, Epic Individualist Fabian Almazan Plays the Jazz Gallery This Friday Night

As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.

Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.

The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.

Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.

Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.

Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms. 

Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.

Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.

February 25, 2019 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camila Meza Brings Her Disarmingly Direct Voice, Guitar and Unflinching Political Sensibility to the West Village

Camila Meza’s lustrous, wondrous, disarmingly clear vocals mirror the way she plays guitar. For that reason, she’s highly sought after. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in trombonist Ryan Keberle’s group, and also plays a central role in Fabian Almazan’s large ensemble. She’s as vivid a lyricist in English as in her native Spanish; when she sings vocalese, she’s more likely to harmonize with a guitar line than to imitate a postbop horn solo.

That often shatteirngly direct sensibility serves her songwriting well. Her work has a fearless political relevance, inspired by decades of populist songwrirting from throughout Latin America. Her most recent album Traces is streaming at Sunnyside Records. She’s playing a characteristically politically-fueled show with pianist Aaron Goldberg on May 10 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15/$10 stud.

The album opens with Para Volar, a bright, gently churning melody underneath her Spanish-language lyrics, an allusively triumphant shout-out to freedom and escape, a common theme in the Chilean-born Meza’s music. Her guitar bubbles and leaps over the lithe rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Shai Maestro kicking into his driving low register as Meza’s solo peaks out. She revisits that optimism a little later in the album’s kinetic title track, where she turns up her guitar and cuts loose, more gritty and lowdown.

Jody Redhage’s spare cello and Maestro’s sparkly Rhodes mingle with Meza’s gentle fingerpicking in Away, a wistful, hypnotic duet with Sachal Vasandani. Meza’s precise, clipped vocals leave no doubt as to the deadly consequences in Djavan’s bitter eco-disaster narrative Amazon Farewell, Maestro adding a richly incisive, darkly rippling solo.

Mar Elastico is an enigmatically hazy, summery reminiscence of Meza’s childhood adventures with her sisters, Maestro’s Rhodes front and center; Scott’s distant-tornado cymbals behind Meza’s delicate jangle is one of the album’s high points. She switches to acoustic for a spare solo take of the Victor Jara classic Luchin. an allusively harrowing tale of resilience amidst crushing childhood poverty. 

The uneasy piano-guitar harmonies in Steven Sondheim’s Greenfinch and Linnet Bird give the selfconsciously fussy ballad a welcome gravitas. Meza returns to the expectantly circling, distant yet optimistic intensity of the early part of the album in Emerald: the mantra is “There’s no need to hide now.”

The album’s most elusive yet arguably strongest track is the lush, sweeping Mangata, a metaphorically-charged refugee’s escape anthem, Meza’s stark, emphatic chords against Maestro’s neoromantic glimmer. The album ends with the self-effacingly modest Little Person – the spare, rather trad closing theme from the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Synecdoche New York-  projecting the hope of “finding another little person,” as Meza puts it. What Meza has found here in the US is a fertile crucible for her many talents, all of which are still in their formative stages. Catch her on the way up.

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

Ryan Keberle Releases His Potent, Relevant New Protest Jazz Album at the Jazz Standard

A moody Fender Rhodes melody echoes as the title track to trombonist/keyboardist Ryan Keberle’s new protest jazz album, Find the Common Shine a Light – streaming at Bandcamp – begins. Guitarist Camila Meza sings poet Mantsa Miro’s lyrics.with an understated, insistent clarity:

Our weakest link is fear of losing races
Get home before the curtain falls…
We are here to elevate the greater
Find the common, shine a light
Become the water
Put up a fight

Trumpet and trombone spar as Meza’s one-woman choir soars in the background, all the way down to a stadium-worthy singalong at the end. In times like these we need more music like this. Keberle and his band are playing the album release show on July 5 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $20.

As one of the world’s electrifying jazz trombonists (longstanding member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Mingus bands, yadda yadda yadda), Keberle has few peers. This album is his quantum leap, a fearless, eclectic, politically charged collection that ought to go a long way in reaffirming his status as an elite bandleader as well. The theme connecting this mix of vocal and instrumental numbers is that struggle has been a constant through American history, and throughout the world: the Trump era may have its own unique and twisted challenges, but ultimately, we’ve triumphed over worse.

The album’s second track is Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler’s Al Otro Lado del Rio (On the Other Side of the River), Meza’s voice and spare, lingering guitar channeling a poignant unease, a bittersweet and troubled immigrant’s narrative set to similarly moody trumpet/trombone harmonies over drummer Eric Doob’s elegant, low-key pulse. A trick ending drives the point home, hard.

That same distant angst echoes through the pensive trumpet-trombone conversation that opens Empathy, a tone poem of sorts, Meza’s gentle vocalese adding lustre; its steady, tectonic sheets slowly winding out. The rhythmic riffage and matter-of-fact stairstepping of Ancient Theory draws a straight line back to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time period, all the way through the bass solo, Keberle’s melodica airy overhead. Michael Rodriguez’s judicious trumpet sets up Keberle’s towering crescendo.

Their cover of Fool on the Hill outdoes the Beatles: credit to Meza for getting McCartney’s cynicism, and props to the bandleader for grounding the song in enigmatic trumpet/trombone exchanges instead of taking it off into flurries of bop like so many others would do. The group follows a triumphant trajectory as Mindfulness rises from hopeful trumpet over a murky backdrop, segueing into a portentously atmospheric cover of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, Meza playing funereal guitar belltones behind her vocals. The Nobel laureate’s lyrics have aged well:

Senators, Congressmen, please head the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he that gets stalled
There’s a battle outside raging
Who’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls…

The way Keberle triangulates trumpet, trombone and Meza’s voice, a common trope throughout the record, is especially impactful here.

The miniature Strength is the album’s scruffiest interlude, trombone and trumpet brothers in arms over the bass/drums rumble. Bassist Jorge Roeder’s stark bowing opens the concluding cut, I Am a Stranger, Meza’s wary vocals set to similarly, tensely energized exchanges between Keberle and Rodriguez. “What I desire I can’t obtain from what I hate,” Meza laments. More artists across all genres, not just jazz, should be making music this relevant.

July 2, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.

April 18, 2017 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis Play Elegantly Defiant Protest Jazz

Last night Ryan Keberle & Catharsis returned from their latest US tour to play a sold-out show at Cornelia Street Cafe. The trombonist/multi-instrumentalist/composer has made a name for himself as an electrifying, intensely thoughtful soloist and has played with every major New York big band, most notably the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s one of the few musicians to write articulately about reaching the elusive “zone” that most players find themselves searching for words to explain. But his best work may be his own compositions.

Drummer Henry Cole subtly shifted the opening number, Quintessence, from an airconditioned swing toward sweaty New Orleans territory as the bandleader hit a Rubik’s Cube of syncopation, tenor saxophonist Scott Robinson bringing back the breeze as Keberle switched to melodica and played high, airy chords. Then he went back to trombone to duel it out with Robinson.

Guitarist Camila Meza’a disarmingly direct, pensively poignant vocalese mingled within and then quickly rose out of a lulling haze of trombone and sax as the next number, Uruguayan composer Jorge Drexler’s El Otro Lado Del Rio slowly coalesced into warmly intimate tropicalia lit up with a psychedelically pulsing lattice of counterrhythms. Its uneasy border-crossing metaphors foreshadowed much of what was to come.

Cole took what might be this year’s funniest drum solo to open Ellington’s Big Kick Blues – from Keberle’s 2013 album Music Is Emotion – moving the “up” beat around like a three-card monte dealer. The band’s slice-and-dice syncopation kept a wry suspense going, Meza doubling her guitar and vocal lines, Cole finally straightening out the groove as Robinson supplied a terse trumpet solo before returning to sax. Who knew that the irrepressibly versatile multi-multi-reedman was also an adept brass player, Keberle enthused.

He explained that his next album as a leader would be an album of protest music, and gave a shout-out to Ornette Coleman for his role as a revolutionary. Then the band followed with an Ornette-inspired original built on propulsive, insistent, stairstepping phrases, Meza’s carefree vocalese in stark contrast, Keberle’s steady, emphatically bluesy solo building to a biting crescendo.

Meza sang the night’s most compelling and relevant number, Become the Water, the “magnum opus from the new record,” as Keberle put it. “Enough is enough!” he mused exasperatedly. “We want to use our music to bring change, hopefully in some small way.” In this rousing challenge to find compassion and defy the forces of evil, Meza stood her ground as the soaring, chromatic choruses kicked in, Keberle’s expansively moody piano chords serving as anchor as Robinson’s soaring sax spoke truth to power. More musicians should be doing this.

The Cornelia is Keberle’s Manhattan home base with this crew; watch this space for upcoming dates there or at his frequent Brooklyn haunt, Barbes.

March 22, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment