Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Champian Fulton Fuels the Fun with an All-Star Cast This July 3 at Lincoln Center

Beyond sheer entertainment, the point of the Sisterhood of Swing Seven show at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series this July 3 is to create a septet supergroup of some of the foremost women instrumentalists in jazz. That they chose Champian Fulton as the pianist is hardly a surprise. But they could just as easily have chosen her to be the singer. The rest of the group also has fearsome chops: Catherine Russell on vocals; Camille Thurman (another rarity, a first-rate singer and instrumentalist) on tenor sax; Emily Asher on trombone; Endea Owens on bass; Shirazette Tinnin on drums, and Molly Ryan on guitar. Showtime is 7:30 PM (you can show up for a dance lesson earlier if you want), it’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

Fulton considers her latest album, the lavish two-disc set The Stylings of Champian Fulton (streaming at Spotify) to be the high point of her recording career so far. With her longtime rhythm section, Hide Tanaka on bass and Fukushi Tainaka  (no relation) on drums, she brings her signature, subtle, stinging wit and sense of surprise to enliven a collection of familiar standards. Vocally, Dinah Washington (an artist she paid tribute to with her After Dark album) is the obvious influence), but Fulton’s range reaches both the calmer and sharper edges of where Washington would typically go.

There’s mist in Fulton’s voice on the opening track, Day by Day – but it’s the mist off a kettle on the stove. As with many of the songs, Fulton’s dad Stephen Fulton adds an amiable flugelhorn solo; his daughter’s rugged chordal intensity afterward is a typically counterintuitive move for her.

She takes the first verse of Lollipops and Roses solo, dead-serious, then the bass and drums kick in and the trio romp through to the end. The full quartet reinvent I Only Have Eyes For You as a deviously chuffing march and then swing it hard. The instrumental Blues Etude has an even more careening intensity; after that, they rein it in just a bit with I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, lit up by Fulton’s bluesy charm on the keys and contrastingly incisive vocals.

The elder Fulton’s ebullientce filters through the album’s second instrumental, Rodeo; the younger one plays with as much devious bluesiness as anywhere else on the record. She takes a similar purist approach to Darn that Dream, but at half the speed, with a more coyly exploratory touch.

Borrowing a more upbeat love song from the past, Too Marvelous For Words perfectly crystallizes what she’s all about: matter-of-fact, unselfconsciously adrenalizing crescendos matched to vocal nuance. The first cd winds up with a brief, balmy bass-and-vocal take of Body and Soul, .

The second record kicks off with a Isn’t It a Lovely Day, the bandleader catching the subtle irony in the lyrics but then contrasting with a cheerily crescendoing piano solo. The band scrambles frantically behind her casually brassy vocal in a lickety-split version You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – it’s doubtful if anybody’s ever done it so fast, or with a Chopin riff tossed into the piano solo. In context, the feral, jungly drum solo is the icing on the cake.

The instrumental Martha’s Prize has a brisk, incisive, latin-tinged swing. She does the country-flavored Lonesome and Sorry as a jazz waltz, while All the Things You Are swings through a leapfrogging drum break to a fiery latin vamp out. On one hand, all this is as retro as it gets. On the other, Fulton’s knowing vocals and improvisational flair are as cutting-edge as anything happening in the avant garde. To paraphrase JD Allen,, sometimes the most radical thing you can do these days is swing.

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June 29, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Something Old, Something New, a Lot That’s Borrowed and Plenty of Blues

A couple of noteworthy recent releases under the big broad banner of Ellingtonia: a welcome digital reissue of the 1963 Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins album (distributed by Harmonia Mundi) as well as Dan Block’s new From His World to Mine: Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. The first isn’t the summit meeting between legends that the title implies. A more apt description would be Hawk Plays Ellington: the Duke is strictly a member of the supporting cast here, generously giving the tenor player – whose style he clearly dug – a lot of space, and Hawkins seizes the moment. 47 years later, the album retains the wee-hours vibe of the original because that’s what it was, a couple of busy guys squeezing in a one-off session which ultimately would be the only one they would do together. Although by this point Ellington had become a bluesy classical composer and Hawkins still had bop tendencies, they found common ground with a bunch of jump blues tunes, many of them in the Black and Tan Fantasy mold: eerie minor themes that eventually smooth out into genial swing. It’s nicely remastered – drummer Sam Woodyard’s deft rimshots and cymbal hits enjoy improved clarity compared to the original, as does Aaron Bell’s bass. The most offhanded moments here are the best. Limbo Jazz, clearly not meant as a take, has Woodyard audibly singing along, but Hawk’s casual tradeoffs with baritone man Harry Carney perfectly complete the picture. Likewise, Mood Indigo makes a long launching pad for a single Hawkins solo that just keeps going, and going, and going, Ellington waving him to take another verse, and then a chorus, knowing that the guy was on his game. And Ellington’s song specifically for Hawkins, Self-Portrait of Bean, leans in stately and serious, verging on noir. What’s stunning after all these years is that everything here is basically a pop song, albeit a very sophisticated, often dark-tinged one.

Reedman Dan Block realizes that covering the classics requires some reinvention: otherwise, why bother? With painstaking purism but also considerable joy, he alternates between radical reinterpretation and a bluesy geniality very similar to the Hawkins album, in a set of mostly brilliant obscurities. It’s just as much a triumph of smart archivism as it is of inventive playing and arranging. The late 30s showstopper Are You Stickin’? becomes a latin number, Block’s sailing clarinet interspersed with Mark Sherman’s marvelously terse vibraphone lines, while a late 40s vocal tune, The Beautiful Indians grows from atmospherics to a pulsing tango. Playing tenor sax, Block brings out every bit of subtle, wide-eyed satire in Suburbanites, a 1947 Al Sears showcase, then switches to bass clarinet for a gypsy-tinged, bluesy take of an early one of Ellington’s “portraits,” Portrait of Bert Williams (a popular black vaudevillian of the era). Mt. Harrissa, which is the slightly altered version of Take the A Train from the vastly underrated Far East Suite, is done as a noir bossa with vibes – harrissa may be the hot sauce of choice at falafel stands around the world, but this one’s minty, with balmy Block tenor and guitar from James Chirillo. Block’s love for all things Ellingtonian is contagious, bringing out an inspired performance from the entire cast, the rest of whom include Catherine Russell’s rhythm section of Lee Hudson on bass and Brian Grice on drums plus Mike Kanan on piano and Pat O’Leary on cello. It’s out now on Miles High Records.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Catherine Russell’s Latest Album Does the Time Warp Her Way

Catherine Russell’s latest cd Inside This Heart of Mine is the great album the Moonlighters didn’t release this year. A purist, inspired mix of swing blues and shuffles from the 1920s to the present day, it cements Russell’s reputation as a connoisseur of brilliant obscurities, and a reinventer of some which aren’t so obscure. Her band is phenomenal: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian Grice on drums, with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor sax and clarinet and John Allred on trombone, among others. The oldtime sound here reminds just how edgy, and fun, and actually ahead of its time much of the material here was: the band play it with joyous intensity and bite. This isn’t exactly safe, easy listening.

The title track, a Fats Waller tune, is recast as a slow, darkly torchy swing blues, trumpet and trombone consoling each other. All the Cats Join In transforms Peggy Lee’s seemingly innocuous 1946 jaunt to the ice cream parlor to something far more adventurous, taking it back in time another twenty years to when the place was probably a speakeasy. Block’s sax is so psyched to be there that he misses his exit and stays all the way through the the turnaround. Another Waller tune, We the People, gets a celebratory dixieland-inflected treatment.

The ruefully swinging Troubled Waters, based on the 1934 Ellington recording with Ivie Anderson in front of the band, is a suicide song, but Russell only alludes to it: she doesn’t go over the top, leaving the real mournfulness to Kellso’s muted trumpet. By contrast, Maxine Sullivan’s As Long As I Live is jaunty and understatedly sultry, with genial piano from Shane. The apprehensive ballad November, by producer Paul Kahn, is characteristically dark and understated, pacing along slowly on the beat of Munisteri’s guitar, with lowlit ambience from Rachelle Garniez’ accordion and Sara Caswell’s violin.

Just Because You Can, written by Garniez – one of this era’s most individual songwriters- is a pacifist anthem. Russell gives it surprising snarl and bite, if not the kind of disquieting ambiguity that Garniez would undoubtedly bring to it, Caswell’s violin handing off to Munisteri’s devilish banjo. The rest of the album includes a lazy, innuendo-laden Long, Strong and Consecutive (another Ellington band number); a vividly wary version of Arthur Prysock’s Close Your Eyes; a hilarious take of Wynonie Harris’ 1954 drinking song Quiet Whiskey; a strikingly rustical, even bitter banjo-and-tuba cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful; and a couple of upbeat, 1920s style numbers to close it. The fun the band has playing all of this stuff translates viscerally to the listener. Simply one of the best albums of 2010. It’s out now on World Village Music.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival 2010: Day Two

When this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival was first announced, the JD Allen Trio was listed for day two. The game plan here was to get back from vacation in time to catch Sunday’s concert at Tompkins Square Park: however, by the time the lineup was finalized, Allen had been moved to Saturday, with Little Jimmy Scott taking his place (more about him later: from the NY Times’ account, Allen turned in a characteristically gripping set).

Torchy singer (and NPR fave) Catherine Russell opened. Her band is capable of transcendence in pretty much any situation. In a set of familiar standards, this time out they didn’t, but considering the crushing heat and humidity, not to mention the early hour, that was almost to be expected. That they played as well as they did was an achievement. Maybe the festival’s producers should take that into account and schedule performers from Mali or Jamaica, or from anywhere this kind of climactic torture is an everyday thing, for the first part of the show.

The Cookers have a new album, Warriors, just out. Billy Harper and Craig Handy on tenor, Eddie Henderson and David Weiss on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart on drums have about a millennium of jazz experience among them and turned in a joyously expansive, mid 60s-flavored set that gave each performer a chance to pitch a tent front and center and pull the crew in his own preferred direction. It wasn’t just solos around the horn: there was push and pull, and conversations, roles and personalities all exerting themselves vividly. Handy answered Harper’s exuberance sauvely, even pensively, while Henderson pushed Weiss to fan the blaze even higher. They opened with a gorgeously murky, modal excursion with rich melodic overlays. Cables led the band through a beautifully lyrical, Brubeck-tinged jazz waltz featuring his own methodically crescendoing, eventually cloudbursting solo. They wound up their set with a number based on an emphatic, bouncy chromatic riff featuring a terse Hart drum solo contrasting with some meandering horn work.

What else could be said about Vijay Iyer that hasn’t been said already? That his originals are better than his covers, maybe. The pianist has gotten accolades here before and is as good as you would expect, live. But the heat was unrelenting, and comfortable, cool Lakeside Lounge around the corner was beckoning. See you somewhere down the line, Vijay.

By the time Little Jimmy Scott rode his little electric scooter onto the stage, it had cooled down a bit. He’s every bit as vital as he was fifty years ago, in fact, probably more so: it’s as if he was born to be 84 years old. He’s always had an otherworldly voice, years older than he was, so it only makes sense that his career would peak so late in life. Word on the street is that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, and the crowd adored him. Like Siouxsie Sioux, someone he’s probably never heard of, he works his own scale when he’s off in the blue notes, which is a lot, and which is so successful because he’s perfectly in tune with himself. He didn’t exhibit his wide-open, Leslie speaker-style vibrato until the middle of his set but when he did, it was every bit as jaw-dropping as it’s ever been. David Lynch knew what he was doing when he put Scott on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Scott opened with a Summertime-inspired version of Nothing But Blue Skies, saxophonist TK Blue and pianist Alex Minasian shadowing him with finely attuned phrasing; on Your Turn to Cry, sirens from around the corner joined in with the music almost on cue during the first few bars of the intro, and Scott seized the moment with characteristic, gentle intensity: nobody gets so much out of so little as this guy. The showstopper was an absolutely devastating version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Blue’s anguished soprano sax interlude on the way out a perfectly appropriate touch, but as good as it was it was no match for what Scott had just done, silky but raw, nuanced but with a sledgehammer effect. He’s at the Blue Note tomorrow night and worth pretty much whatever they’re charging at the door.

And two big, fat, upraised middle fingers to the NYPD brass who embarrassed the beat cops at the local precinct by instructing them to kick out anyone who dared sit down at the tables with the chessboard markings at the park’s southwest corner if they then didn’t immediately break out a chess or checkers set. This has all the markings of a concession to the neighborhood’s yuppie newcomers who don’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where homeless people actually exist. The rookie cop assigned to do the honors couldn’t hide his boredom or embarrassment, mumbling to tired concertgoers to get up and leave after they’d found what looked like lucky seats in the midst of a sea of people. Police work is hard enough without subjecting members of the force to humiliation like this.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment