Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lisa Bielawa’s In Medias Res Stuns and Lingers

Composers have been writing for their favorite performers and ensembles for centuries. Lisa Bielawa wrote much of the music on her lavish new double cd In Medias Res specifically for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Directed by Gil Rose, they return the gesture with a sweeping, potently attuned performance that does justice to the poignancy, and intensity, and playfulness of the four integral works and suite here. For lack of a better word, this is a deep album, a milestone in the career of a composer who deserves to be ranked as one of this era’s most powerful and compelling. It couldn’t have come at a better moment. It’s a lot more than Bielawa arriving in a cloud of dust to rescue the world of “indie classical” from the simpering, infantile whimsy that’s seeped in from the indie rock demimonde, but that’s part of the deal. Or at least we can hope so.

The first piece here is Roam, dating from 2001, on a theme of exile inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. It’s a marvelously suspenseful, ambient piece worthy of Tschaikovsky or Bernard Herrmann. A tone poem with unexpected and extremely effective digressions, it works the subtlest dynamics and a chromatic tug-of-war in lieu of any kind of overt consonance, crescendos rising slowly out of slow, plaintive tectonic shifts, wary and absolutely desolate in places. Bielawa wrote her Double Violin Concerto specifically for the solists here: Carla Kihlstedt, who sings an English translation from Faust (along the lines of “let’s get the hell out of here and find some peace”) while playing, and Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen. It’s another quiet stunner, plaintive with a vivid sense of longing, shades of Henryk Gorecki. Rapt, quiet, simple motifs diverge and converge austerely in the first movement. The second literally revolves around creepily circling violins as Kihlstedt channels Goethe in a soaring, unadorned high soprano; the third, inspired by the Lamentations of Jeremiah mixes suspenseful horizontality with a distantly Indian melody, which Jacobsen makes the most of, in the same vein of his work on Brooklyn Rider’s delicious new double cd of Philip Glass string quartets. The dance at the end becomes a danse macabre as the two violins close in on each other.

A cantata of sorts, Unfinish’d, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard II and his winter of discontent made summer. It packs a wallop in just short of nine minutes, austere and then blustery, and then suddenly down to a chilly expanse, Bielawa’s crystal-cutter soprano leading the way back to a breathless coda. In Medias Res, her concerto for orchestra, is a cinematic tour de force, swooping out of tune, building suspense with locomotive force, a creepily recurring waltz, starlit ambience straight out of the Gustav Holst playbook and a long, apprehensive, deeply satisfying crescendo out.

The second cd , titled Synopses, is a a series of miniatures and extended solo pieces for individual orchestra members. Some of these are actual motifs from In Medias Res; others foreshadow it, others seemingly allow for improvisation (particularly from trumpeter Terry Everson, who tackles it joyously). The most amusing piece is for drums and spoken word, done by Robert Schultz, whose accents are spot-on, but who could have used a voice like Kihlstedt’s or Bielawa’s to deliver a series of disturbingly or entertainingly allusive comments overheard on the street. All together, these pieces demand repeated listening. It was tempting to add this to our ongoing countdown of the thousand best albums of all time. We resisted. That might have been a mistake. Bielawa and an ensemble are playing several of the Synopses with choreography at New York City Center on 56th St. tomorrow, April 16th at 7:30 PM.

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April 16, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cuong Vu’s New Agogic Album Mixes the Catchy and the Challenging

It would be an overstatement to say that trumpeter Cuong Vu’s new Agogic album, just out on upstart Seattle label Table and Chairs Music, is New York sound from Seattle – after all, there are scenes just as vital and cutting-edge as New York’s in plenty of major cities. Yet that’s the trajectory that Vu has followed, having returned recently to his hometown where he put together this excellent group with Andrew D’Angelo on alto sax and bass clarinet, Luke Bergman on electric bass and Evan Woodle on drums. It’s “postmillenial jazz,” as Vu calls it, a mix of the accessible and the avant. Blending elements of funk, minimalism, warmly consonant melodicism and assaultive noise, it’s an individual sound and a very enjoyable album.

They start on the accessible tip, a funky bass clarinet hook (when’s the last time you heard one of those?!?) over a slow, thumping, trip-hop-ish beat. Clarinet and then trumpet switch off hitting on the beat, Vu adding shivery accents, mimicking a backward masked melody, then finally the rhythm falls apart as the cymbals take over. The second track begins blustery, goes funky with a circular hook, D’Angelo joining Vu in a boisterous, rhythmic double solo as the drums gallop and Vu signals an insistent crescendo. The next cut is a real gem, pensive sostenuto trumpet over a memorably wary, minimalist chromatic bass hook and gingerly leapfrogging tom-toms. The choruses pick up, first sax and then trumpet calm against the storm rumbling underneath. When they hit the second chorus, bass pounding out chords like Peter Hook on steroids as the band wails behind him, it’s pure bliss.

Track 4, Old Heap, by Woodle, is a tremendously successful example of suspenseful minimalism, anchored by an almost imperceptibly expanding, catchy chromatic bass hook with trumpet floating overhead. A still, spacious interlude with the occasional judicious drum accent kicks off a slow crescendo upward with screeching sax far in the distance against Vu’s warm sustained lines which pull it out of the mist. The fifth cut is the most accessible, prettiest one here, a ballad that works its way down into some neat bass chords and then slowly up from there, trumpet tune embellished gently by the sax as it morphs into a gentle march. The next track dances joyously on a tricky funk beat, like early Spyro Gyra (before they went all synthy) updated for the teens, featuring blazing and blustery alto and trumpet solos. They close on a powerful note that kicks off with distorted bass ambience, trumpet holding up the sky as a reverberating, ominous drone rumbles and crackles underneath. And when Vu pulls the volume up, it brings up the temperature on the swirling cauldron underneath as well, a refreshingly noisy, bracing way to close this lively and diverse album.

April 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Unexpected Treat from Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela

Spring cleaning has its rewards. Pretty much every attempt to clean up the server at Lucid Culture HQ causes strange and sometimes beautiful things to float to the surface. Case in point: this album. The media kit file wouldn’t open and went into the trash, but the tracks remained. A listen to the first song was addictive – it was impossible to stop with the next track, and the one after that. The first begins with a long, flamenco-tinged bass solo, of all things. Flamenco guitar follows it, solo, darkly atmospheric rather than all melodramatic like the Gipsy Kings, with the thump of a cajon in the background. It’s basically a modal vamp on a couple of chords, the guitar with a harplike clarity and articulation. What was this magical music and who was playing it?

A little googling revealed the answer: back in October, legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland joined forces with Spanish gypsy flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela and his son Joseli (of crossover flamenco group Ketama) along with a percussionist, and put out this tremendously cool album, simply titled Hands. As it turns out, this is the result of a rather long process, Holland seeking to immerse himself in flamenco and become a good flamenco bassist rather than trying to jazz up the music, sometimes playing vocal lines on his bass. To his credit, not only did he become a good flamenco bassist, he keeps very good company. Although this is a pretty straight-up flamenco album, there are other influences here, especially Brazilian. What’s most striking is how judicious and thoughtful the guitar is, and how unpredictable the compositions are. There are crescendos to big choruses, but no cliches, and also no grand guignol, and a lot of counterintuitive touches. For example, on Camaron (“Shrimp”), Habichuela essentially plays an indie rock melody, Holland responding with a long, aptly cantabile solo. Then, on El Ritmo Me Lleva (“The Beat Moves Me”), the two guitars and bass follow a rhumba beat, with an airy, almost Pat Metheny-ish feel.

The title track starts out hinting at samba but quickly goes back to a tersely bristling flamenco groove, following an absolutely delicious, un-flamencoish chord progression and then a long, pensive bass solo that again stays solidly in flamenco territory. Likewise, Holland mimics the guitars on the most traditional number here, Puente Quebrao. Habichuela offers a solo guitar tribute to his new bass-playing friend; Joyride, by Holland, is the gentlest, most Brazilian-inflected tune here. There’s also the joyously crescendoing, tango-tinged Subi la Questa; Holland’s Whirling Dervish, a spotlight for Josemi’s rapidfire fretwork, and the rippling closing track. What a fun discovery at close to midnight on a work night – it’s less like being transported to a sangria-fueled gypsy campfire than to Holland’s studio where this beautifully intricate stuff began life.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Do It Again

This album is hilarious. The thing to keep in mind about Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord is that they have an alter ego, Bryan and the Haggards, who play twisted covers of Merle Haggard songs. That “other” band’s lone release (so far), Pretend It’s the End of the World was one of the funniest and best albums of the past year. This new album, credited to Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord and titled Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!, follows in the same vein. On one hand, it’s a surprisingly straight-up groove album, but all those grooves, and most of the surprisingly memorable tunes, are ultimately nothing more than fodder for satire and destruction. As you would expect from these guys, it’s cruel and funny and kind of punk although the band has pretty awesome chops for a punk jazz band: Lundbom on electric guitar, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto sax, Moppa Elliott on bass and Danny Fischer on drums along with guest Matt Kanelos (leader of plaintively tuneful Americana soul band the Smooth Maria) on electric piano.

The first track is the most straight-ahead, kicking off with an animated Irabagon/Lundbom conversation over Fischer’s deadpan leaden pulse. The guitar picks up a loop, saxes converge and diverge and then Lundbom plays an absolutely stunning chorus-box solo that finally goes off into skronk at the end. That’s for the adrenaline junkies. Kanelos’ astringent, hypnotic, Herbie Hancock-tinted riffage anchors the second track, The Bravest Little Pilot No. 2. As expected, Irabagon veers quickly from lyrical to satirical; Kanelos echoes that a bit later on, steady and increasingly unsteady as it winds down with unexpected grace. Ears Like a Fox is LOL funny, a R&B satire straight out of the Mostly Other People Do the Killing school of deconstruction. Everybody eventually picks up a cheesy riff and then shoots spitballs at it while Fischer finally hits a tongue-in-cheek groove with cluelessly blustery early Ringo style cymbal work.

Taking its name from a fish delivery service, Meat Without Feet has what sounds like a hip-hop beat chopped and backward masked, except that it’s live. It’s a great song – Elliott’s insistent bass chords join in lockstep with a trudging Fischer as Murray takes a long, completely over-the-top, kazoo-like solo on his “balto” sax, Lundbom coming in gingerly and then somewhat sternly working the edges of the melody, as if to say, c’mon guys, get it together. They segue into the fifth track, New Feats of Horsemanship, a brutal slow ballad satire – the savage joy of Murray’s completely unhinged mockery has to be heard to be appreciated. They close with Faith-Based Initiative – you know from the title that it has to be a joke, and it is, a silly go get ’em horn theme and cruel variations. As Elliott runs a deadpan, percussive staccato riff, Fischer lopes across the toms and eventually decides to start hitting on the “one,” one of the funniest moments here among many, matched by Lundbom’s alternate octaves and crazed tremolo-picking and then Irabagon’s constipated elephantine grunting as the rhythm section staggers away, aghast. On one level, it hurts a little to give away all these punchlines; on the other hand, no words could really do justice to them. The album is out now on Hot Cup Records – you’ll see this here at the end of the year on our best of 2011 list if we get that far. Lundbom and his merry band play the cd release show for this one tonight at nine at Zebulon.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legendary Jazz Ensemble ICP Orchestra Wrap Up Their US Tour

This album makes a good segue with Marc Ribot’s Saturday night concert. Dutch jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg and his ten-piece band ICP Orchestra (Instant Composers Pool) are legendary in European jazz circles and respected outside the continent for their mix of lavish arrangements and devious improvisation. They’re currently on US tour (see remaining dates below); their latest cd, simply titled ICP Orchestra (since superseded by a new vinyl album!), is a cinematic, noir-tinged concert recording from 2009. These folks date from the 1960s (Mengelberg was composing ten years before then), and as expected, there’s plenty of absurdism, irony and humor in their work. As is obvious from the first track here: a brief, klezmerish song with vocals, the band waiting impatiently to spin off their axis.

Which they do quickly on the second track, led by violinist Mary Oliver’s nightmare cadenzas establishing the noir ambience which returns again and again here, through a thoughtful Thomas Heberer quartertone trumpet solo over a steady detective beat. Then it walks and screams and falls apart in a series of cacaphonic, unrelated conversations that rise to a din, and then out cold. It’s paradigmatic for what’s to come, with saxophonist Michael Moore’s Sumptious, shifting from a richly melodic, distantly ominous late 50s theme to rubato, uneasy atmospherics. The next cut contrasts Oliver’s shrieky excursions with judicious, apprehensive piano from Mengelberg, followed by a radically deconstructed take of Herbie Nichols’ Busy Beaver, Oliver leading the charge out of the morass with a lusciously memorable crescendo.

The horror reaches breaking point with the sixth track, Mitrab, an improvisation that quickly rises to terror, sax shrieking out of a chilly, starlit piano intro, individual voices falling away, less horrified as it winds down. The Lepaerd, a jaunty swing tune, builds nonchalantly to a chase scene, falls away and then rises with the whole orchestra blazing. They follow it with the funniest track here, a low, rustling, conspiratorial tone poem, except that everyone seems to be the end of their own individual phone conversations. At the end, they walk out of the room, leaving the violin still fully engaged and completely unperturbed. They close with an altered swing blues by bassist Ernst Glerum and then a clever, amusing version of Ellington’s Sonnet in Search of a Moor (from the classic 1957 Suite Thunder) where the bass gets all the melody lines and the solos. Throughout the set, there are inspired moments from the whole group, including Han Bennink on drums, Tristan Housinger on cello, Wolter Wierbos on trombone and Tobias Delius on tenor sax. Remaining US tourdates are:

April 7 – Austin / Epistrophy Arts

April 8 – Houston / Nameless Sound

April 9 – Des Moines / Caspe Terrace

April 10 – Chicago / Hungry Brain

April 11 – Chicago / Cultural Center

April 12 – Seattle / Earshot Jazz

April 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ken Peplowski’s In Search of… Finds a Groove

The cd cover of veteran big-band reedman Ken Peplowski’s new album In Search of… pretty much tells the story. Pictured at the edge of the sidewalk, playing his clarinet in the yellow neon light of a sepia-toned, twilit Downtown Diner in the shadow of downtown Manhattan skyscapers, this is oldschool after-hours music. With all but the final three tracks recorded live in the studio in a single take, there’s a comfortable familiarity here – you can hear the voices of the players as they respond to cues and solos – but also plenty of surprises. For the casual fan, it’s an album of spirited nocturnes; hardcore jazz types will be amazed by the liquid crystal clarity of Peplowski’s legato – what flows from his horn is rivers rather than single notes – and some unexpected tunes. Here he plays clarinet and soprano saxophone, backed by Shelly Berg on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass and John Hamilton (leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and his own trio, whose excellent 2009 album we didn’t exactly do justice to here) on drums. There are also three additional tracks with Greg Cohen on bass, Joe Ascione on drums and percussion and Chuck Redd on vibraphone.

They open it with The Thespian, by Freddie Redd, a lyrical ballad that jumps into doublespeed, piano and sax playing a double line before Peplowski’s soprano sax goes out exploring. The strongest tune here is Kennedy’s, Love’s Disguise, Hamilton’s hushed brushwork a clinic in good tast pushing the syncopated Cuban beat – as is Kennedy’s genial, melodic bass solo. More of those suspenseful brushes color an expansive, Romantically tinged version of When Joanna Loved Me; Hamilton’s warm samba groove, Falsa Baiana, gives Peplowsky a long launching pad for some boisterously tropical excursions. The relatively obscure Rodgers/Hart tune, A Ship without a Sail shifts rhythms back and forth to drive up the emotional impact;  the brooding quality of Peplowski’s clarinet elevates another showtune, With Every Breath I Take, far above its origins.

Berg has a couple of tunes here, a warmly summer 6/8 ballad that contrasts vividly with pensive clarinet, and a briskly comedic, almost dixieland dedication to Peplowski, who gamely plays along with the portrait of an irrepressibly good-natured guy who can’t sit still. And then Berg more than matches him for boisterous antics. The album winds up with an unexpectedly poignant take of This Nearly Was Mine, Berg adding suspense with some rubato solo piano as a bridge, and a tight bass/sax duo of No Regrets. The only misses are the Beatles and Professor Longhair cuts that end it; if you’re planning on using this as 4 AM wind-down music (it’s perfect for that time of night/day), either put those tracks somewhere else on your ipod or program the cd differently. Is this album a throwback to a better time and place? From a look at the cd cover, it’s hard to think otherwise. It’s out now on Capri Records.

March 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Randi Russo Releases the Best Album of 2011, So Far

For over a decade Randi Russo has lurked amongst the elite of New York’s rock underground. Her 2001 album Solar Bipolar, a cauldron of screaming, whirling guitars and anthemic lyrical intensity, achieved cult status among devotees of noise-rock. Since that time, her prolific catalog has grown to include skeletal, sepulchral folk-rock, janglerock, punk and most recently, psychedelia. Her latest album Fragile Animal is logical extension of the psychedelic direction she first began gravitating toward in the mid-zeros before breaking up her band and then slowly regrouping. This packs as much of a wallop as anything she’s done before, yet sometimes that wallop is a playful one. The one aspect of Russo’s songwriting that hasn’t always come through as clearly as her defiant, resolute individualism is her sense of humor, but it does here. Co-produced by Russo and the Oxygen Ponies’ Paul Megna and released on the insurgent Hidden Target label, this is a lush, swirling mix of guitar and keyboard textures, Russo’s velvet voice steady above the maelstrom. While it’s never wise to assume that an album released so early in the year will beat out everything else that appears between now and December, it’s going to take a miracle to surpass this one. Welcome to the best album of 2011, so far.

The first track is Get Me Over, setting the stage for what’s to come, Russo’s quiet desperation and need to escape muted by the whirling sonics, backward masking and unselfconscious backbeat beauty of the melody. Venus on Saturn is hypnotic, insistent post-Velvets rock, a scathingly funny slap upside the head of a drama queen: “Without it she’d be boring, and no one would care to listen; now, she’s just annoying – yet she’s getting all the attention.” With guitarist Don Piper’s crazed leads fueling its stampeding Helter Skelter stomp, Alienation is a study in paradoxes, the push and pull of the need to connect versus the fear of scaring people off by confronting them with reality.

Invisible is her September Gurls – hidden beneath its ethereal layers of vocals and multiple-tracked guitars is a classic pop song. In a way, it’s the ultimate outsider anthem: she may be invisible, but she’s also bulletproof. “No one can touch me now, no one can bring me down,” Russo asserts with a gentle steeliness. It contrasts with the hypnotic, Steve Kilbey-esque mood piece I Am Real, anchored by Piper’s harmonium, which contrasts in turn with the wryly cheery Beatlisms of Invitation, which follows.

Russo’s voice finally cuts loose on Swallow, a soaring, crescendoing portrait that will resonate with anyone who’s had to swallow their dreams as they run to catch the train to some dead-end destination or dayjob. With its mechanical drums balanced by simmering layers of guitar feedback and a mammoth crescendo out that’s part Led Zep and part Egyptian funeral procession, Head High offers a more optimistic outlook for would-be killer bees stuck in a deathly routine. True to its title, the dreamy Hurt Me Now is more sad lament than kiss-off anthem, lit up by Lenny Molotov’s vivid lapsteel leads. The album winds up with the haunting, relentless epic Restless Raga, twisting a Grateful Dead reference into an escape which could be completely liberating…or it could be death:

Heart’s all empty and I don’t care
‘Cause I can steal yours with my stare
And I’m gonna ride that final wave
Of excitement to my grave

The album is available exclusively for a week starting today at Russo’s bandcamp site (which is preferable to the other usual sites, where it will be in about a week, since bandcamp’s downloads are more artist-friendly, not to mention sonically superior). Randi Russo plays the cd release show for Fragile Animal on April 17 at 9 PM at the Mercury Lounge with another first-rate, lyrical Hidden Target band, the Oxygen Ponies.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rough Guide to Bellydance: No Bruises, Just Fun

The new second edition of the Rough Guide to Bellydance is just out. In case you might be wondering, it’s not a S&M album, nor is it just an update on the 2002 original: this is a brand-new collection, and like the first one, it’s a gorgeous mix of mostly oldschool, richly orchestrated levantine dance sounds. A lot of these are vamps that hang on a single, hauntingly microtonal mode, or alternate between a couple of them; as with most bellydance tunes, the rhythm is slinky and more straight-up than is often the case in improvisational or operatic Middle Eastern styles. For what it’s worth, the album is being marketed as a workout record: the ancient art of raqs sharqi as aerobics, with a bonus cd (not viewed here) with instruction and several additional musical selections for practicing all the moves. But as much as this is ultimately dance music – mostly of the classical kind – it’s first and foremost for listening. And it’s a mix that’s particularly close to our hearts, as several of New York’s hometown Middle Eastern music stars are represented here.

Violinist Hamouda Ali gets to open it with the catchy, slinky instrumental El Samer, lush strings alternating with ney flute over hypnotic, boomy percussion. Maurice Chedid’s much more modern Ya Samara and Alouli switch back and forth between his trademark oud synthesizer patches, fast and scuttling – he’s pretty much a one-man orchestra. Setrak Sarkissian contributes a ridiculously catchy, subtly accelerating piece for quartertone accordion and orchestra; the Al Ahram Orchestra have two majestic, sweeping tracks here as well, as does Jalilah featuring qanun player Hossam Shaker, the second an unpredictably shapeshifting suite. The epic grandeur reaches a high point with the Cairo Arabic Music Ensemble’s Nesma’t El Nile. There’s also Gizira Band’s accordion-and-strings piece Basbousa (Arabic for “honeycake”); eclectic New York group Sammarkand’s hypnotic, electroacoustic update on a levantine theme; and oud virtuoso Richard Hagopian collaborating with edgy Bulgarian alto saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, the Mehanata house band leader. If you like this, you also ought to check out last year’s Rough Guide to Greek Cafe, which mines the same kind of haunting microtonalities of this one.

March 19, 2011 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carol Lipnik’s M.O.T.H. Brings up the Lights

Gorgeously orchestrated, warm and often sultry, shapeshifting chanteuse Carol Lipnik’s latest album M.O.T.H. (meaning Matters of the Heart) is an unexpected treat from someone who’s made her name as a purveyor of brilliantly surreal, carnivalesque songs. As you would expect, those songs frequently create an atmosphere of menace; here, that menace still looms in places, but from a considerable distance. Love or hope are always portrayed as part of a dialectic with pain on the other end, especially on a handful of settings of Rumi poems. Behind Lipnik, this version of Spookarama includes her longtime collaborator, dark jazz piano genius Dred Scott (who also contributes other keys, bass, drums and guitar on one track) along with Jacob Lawson on violin, Tim Luntzel on bass and Jim Campilongo guesting on guitar on one track.

It opens on a bouncy, playfully seductive note with Firefly: “In my dream world, you’re my temple.” It goes from playful to dark and back again and then ends cold. With its dark tango pulse, Undine Unwitted is characteristically surreal – “When I was a mermaid, I tried to pull you underwater, but you became the water” – and grows to a lush grandeur. The following track, told from the point of view of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, offers a perspective that’s genuinely poignant rather than camp, an outsider anthem if there ever was one and a showcase for the upper registers of Lipnik’s breathtaking four-octave range.

With the first of the Rumi lyrics, Poison Flower sets uneasily psychedelic layers of vocals over a wary violin waltz, a vivid portrayal of temptation and desire. The long, psychedelic title track alternates hypnotic ambience with a big, stomping, hard-rocking chorus; the following Rumi-themed number sways with echoes of 60s psychedelic folk-rock. Based on a Laura Gilpin poem, The Two Headed Calf presents another sympathetic view of a freak: he may be facing imminent death and then possibly several posthumous lifetimes in a museum, but for now he’s looking at the stars, and he sees twice as many as we do. Michael Hurley’s Werewolf (famously covered by Cat Power) sticks closer to the original, done with a menacing sway and some deliciously noir, twangy Campilongo guitar. Spirits Be Kind to Me, written by Tom Ward, is darkly bouncing and stagy: Lipnik keeps the drama understated, making it more of an invocation than a plea. The album winds up on a gracefully majestic note with Love Dogs, based on yet another Rumi poem: “Your pure sadness that longs for love is the secret cup.” Count this among the most stunning releases of 2011. Lipnik plays a weeklong stand at PS 122 from April 15 through the 22nd with another extraordinary singer, John Kelly: their new collaboration explores the visions of a critically injured trapeze artist who in order to escape his pain imagines himself entering the world of Caravaggio’s paintings.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment