Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Strange, Imaginative Night of Johnny Cash Covers at Symphony Space

Why – beyond Buttermilk Bar and the Jalopy, maybe – are punk bands the only people who cover Johnny Cash? Probably because it’s impossible to top the Man in Black. Plugging in and blasting Ring of Fire through a Fender Twin at least puts a fresh spin on an old chestnut. So in its own way, Symphony Space’s Saturday night Johnny Cash extravaganza was as challenging as any of their other annual, thematic, Wall to Wall marathons, from Bach, to Miles Davis, to the unforgettable Behind the Wall concert a few years back that spotlighted Jewish music from lands once locked behind the Iron Curtain.

The highlight of the first couple of hours of Wall to Wall Johnny Cash was jazz reinventions of mostly obscure songs. Some would say that making jazz out of Johnny Cash makes about as much sense as jazzing up Pearl Jam. An even more cynical view is that a jazz take of a Cash song gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card if you end up murdering it. As it turned out, not all the early stuff was jazz, and a lot of it wasn’t Johnny Cash either. Left to choose their own material, pretty much everybody gave themselves the additional leeway of picking songs covered rather than written by Cash. Badass resonator guitarist Mamie Minch did that with a Neil Diamond number and wowed the crowd with her ability to hit some serious lows, while blue-eyed soul chanteuse Morley Kamen did much the same with a similar template, several octaves higher. And banjo player/one-man band Jason Walker got all of one tune, at least early on, but made the most of it.

Representing the oldschool downtown Tonic/Stone contingent, guitarist/singer Janine Nichols lent her signature, uneasily airy delivery to There You Go and Long Black Veil, veering toward elegant countrypolitan more on the former than the latter while lead guitarist Brandon Ross matched her with spare, lingering washes of sound. Eric Mingus brought a starkly rustic, electrically bluesy guitar intensity and then a defiant gospel attack after switching to bass while tenor saxophonist Catherine Sikora made the most impactful statements of anyone during the early moments with her stark, deftly placed, eerily keening overtone-laced polytonalities. Extended technique from a jazz sax player, the last thing you’d expect to hear at a Johnny Cash cover night…but she made it work.

Word on the street is that the later part of the evening was much the same as far as talent was concerned, lots of people moving across the stage while the music went in a more bluegrass direction. And there’s a rumor that the venue will have another free night of Cash around this time a year from now.

Advertisements

April 27, 2015 Posted by | concert, country music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Improvising a Film Noir

Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra’s performance Thursday night at El Taller Latinoamericano was a Halloween show of sorts, a feast of lush, slowly crescendoing, apprehensive sonics punctuated by bracing cameos from some of New York’s most engaging improvisers. Since 1972, when Berger fouunded the Creative Music Foundation upstate, pretty much everyone who’s anyone in jazz improvisation has had some assocation with him. This tantalizingly brief performance, by their standards anyway (clocking in at just under an hour) was typical in terms of consistent magic and intuitive interplay. LIke the Sam Rivers Trio reunion album recently reviewed here, it was amazing how cohesive and seemingly through-composed the performance seemed despite the group having only batted around some ideas for maybe an hour beforehand. It was a film noir for the ears.

In their own unselfconscious way, this ensemble is one of the world’s most exciting in any style of music, when they’re on – which they almost invariably are. Lately, the Stone has been their New York home, so it was good to see them in somewhat less confining surroundings (with 20 members, that doesn’t leave much room for a crowd at the Avenue C space). If you’ve ever wondered where improvisational conductors like Greg Tate and Butch Morris got their inspiration, look no further than Berger, who had plenty of fun methodically pulling solos, and motifs, and an endless series of crescendos out of the orchestra. As it peaked, this show could have been the Gil Evans Orchestra jamming out something from the legendary 1962 Individualism album. or a late 50s John Barry score in a particularly harrowing moment.

The theme of this show was tense, close harmonies, deftly balanced between highs and lows, reeds and strings. Berger smartly employed Hollis Headrick’s bongos, echoing ominously throughout the room, to amp up the suspense factor. Intense drummer/percussionist John Pietaro utilized the vibraphone set up at the back of his kick drum for extra melodic bite, while drummer Lou Grassi took command of swing interludes and blustery cymbal ambience. Bassist Lisa Dowling played the entirety of the show with a bow, an apt decision since it kept her minimalist menace audible even as the music rose to epic heights. Tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and vocalist/poet Ingrid Sertso took charge of continuity between segments; strange as it may seem to rely on spontaneous spoken word to maintain a groove, Sertso pulled it off with a surreal nonchalance. “Murder is murder is murder,” she intoned softly at one point.

A flurry of teeth-gnashing, tremolo-picked mandolin, a gracefully sepulchral downward swoop from Sama Nagano’s violin, a richly plaintive soprano sax interlude from Catherine Sikora, frenetically aghast slashes from the baritone saxophone, haunting Ken Ya Kawaguchi shakuhachi and alternately tuneful and droll trumpet from Thomas Heberer all followed in turn over the wary ambience behind them. Berger finally wound up the set by introducing a relatively obscure Ellington theme with his melodica, which the ensemble was quick to pick up, yet held back from completely embracing, lending it the same rich unease that had permeated the first forty-five minutes of the show. As large-scale improvisation goes, it’s hard to think of anything as gripping and altogether fascinating to watch as this was. Berger and the rest of the crew will be at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus sometimes in November; watch this space. And the Creative Music Foundation has an archive of performances dating from the 70s, featuring artists like Rivers and Morris, which they plan to share with the public at some future date.

October 22, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment