Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ran Blake Headlines a Transcendent NEC Jazz Bill at Symphony Space

The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.

Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed.  Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.

Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.

In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.

Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nicholas Urie’s Big Band Album Explores the Brilliance of Bukowski

Charles Bukowski liked Beethoven, maybe because he recognized a fellow drunken genius, maybe because Beethoven is great drinking music. Would Bukowski have appreciated Nicholas Urie’s new Bukowski-themed big band album, My Garden? Maybe. Urie’s intent here is to honor Bukowski’s legacy by elevating him above his popular image as the poet laureate of fratboy excess. A good guess is that the frequently astringent third-stream atmospherics would have grabbed him, not to mention that all but one of the tracks here illustrates a poem or a Bukowski quote. And the one that doesn’t is ironically right up his alley, booze-wise: “Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat. It makes you lean: against bars, tables, chairs and poles.” Its main character aside, this is a fascinating modern big band album with some delicious charts, clever and even psychedelic production and an A-list of jazz talent, most of them from the New York area.

If you can get past – or don’t mind, or even enjoy – Bukowski’s gimlet-eyed perspective, he was an amazing observer. It’s hard to find someone who can distill an idea to its essence like he could, and usually did. Urie knows this, and takes his cues from there. As much as the arrangements here are lush and rich, there are no wasted notes: the band’s focus is intense. The brief opening track, Winter: 44th Year sees Bukowski feeling suicidal, knife in hand, drunk-dialing some woman and getting her answering service (this was in the days before voicemail), brought to life with moody, swirling atmospherics. Round and Round – the simple phrase “you have my soul and I have your money” – makes an uncharacteristically roundabout way to explain away a dayjob, and the music perfectly captures this, the band’s circular chromatics leading to a careful, soberly disdainful Rhodes solo from Frank Carlberg, up to impatiently circling Kenny Pexton tenor sax and then a labyrinth of vocal overdubs from Christine Correa. John Carlson’s ominous solo trumpet kicks off the title track – “pain is flowers blooming all the time,” vivid rainy day ambience walking steadily with the trumpet and then Alan Ferber’s trombone lifting the downcast atmosphere a bit with wryly bluesy tints as the band swells behind him.

A very cleverly disguised ballad, Weeping Women illustrates Bukowski’s claim that he would have offered women more solace if they hadn’t been so high-maintenance. Awash in shifting segments, Carlson, Douglas Yates on alto and Jeremy Udden on soprano sax alternate voices in a conversation, less weepy than brooding and somewhat conspiratorial. A predictably shrill crescendo is followed by a laugh-out-loud disappointed ending: Bukowski would have liked this! Another circular number, Lioness – “There’s a lioness in the hallway: put on your lion’s mask and wait” is vigorous fun, driven by Carlberg’s unbridled, staccato piano. The arguably strongest track here is Slaughterhouse – “I live in the slaughterhouse and am ill with thriving” –  a feast of tectonic shifts and high/low contrasts, Udden’s soprano sax against Max Siegel’s bass trombone, with a bit of a round and a neat soprano/alto conversation over just the rhythm section. The last track, Finality, illustrates a rather nihilistic portrayal of a crazy Ezra Pound repudiating his life’s work, a moment that ostensibly comes to all of us. Pexton’s tenor rises gravely against Carlberg’s judicious, acidic chords, then Carlson’s trumpet blazes while Rome burns in the distance. The one bit of a letdown here is the number about beer not making you fat, which Correa sings like a wine drinker – or your mother – against the rhythmically tricky playfulness of the chart which then goes completely off the charts when the booze kicks in. Sober, it’s a great album – how does it sound after a few drinks? That’s a question that deserves an answer!

March 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ran Blake and Christine Correa Create New Elements

Here’s one for the nonconformists’ club. As has been the case in recent years, the perennially individualistic Ran Blake doesn’t go so much for the noir sound for which he’s best known: instead, the pianist mines a terse, often minimalist third-stream sensibility – Toru Takamitsu’s more recent work comes to mind. Christine Correa works a constant series of unexpected shifts with her low soprano/alto. It’s an interesting voice with an original delivery. She dips down to the bottom of her range where the real soul is, a la Nina Simone, unafraid to let a blue note slide a little further than most jazz stylists; seconds later, she might surprise you with a chirpy swoop like Anita O’Day in her prime. Although these two have done it before, Blake isn’t the first pianist you might think would collaborate with a singer (although his work with Jeanne Lee is pretty extraordinary). In fact, Blake and Correa’s new album Out of the Shadows isn’t so much a matter of chemistry as it is that each complements the other in welcome and unexpected ways. Although she’ll bend a melody to suit her needs, Correa is often the anchor here, Blake the colorist and essentially the lead on a lot of the songs. And the cd is aptly titled: menace often takes a back seat and even disappears.

The title track is a rarity, originally recorded in an orchestral version by June Christy, done here with masterfully terse suspense (and inspired, Blake takes care to mention, by the Richard Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase). Their version of The Thrill Is Gone isn’t the B.B. King classic but a song from an early talkie circa 1931, redone with icy sostenuto chords that only hint at ragtime. Deep Song – a Billie Holiday tune dating from one of her early troubled periods has voice and piano holding a rubato conversation, vividly and poignantly, a device they use to equally potent effect on the segue between The Band Played On and Goodbye Yellow Bird. Fine and Dandy and When Malindy Says are swing number deconstructed and playfully reassembled as Dave Brubeck might do. And Goodbye (which Blake learned from Jimmy Guiffre, and plays solo here) is a brightly terse reminiscence that, as is the case so much on this album, only alludes to being a requiem.

Correa uses Una Matica de Ruda as a showcase for unbridled, imploring, Middle Eastern-tinged a-cappella intensity. By contrast, she delivers Max Roach’s Mendacity – a favorite of Blake’s – with a bitter cynicism rather than trying to match the abrasiveness of the original political broadside. And she does Jon Hendricks’ Social Call with an off-guard woundedness that does justice to the version popularized by Betty Carter. Intense and cerebral yet unselfconsciously raw and soulful, this album – and this collaboration – will resonate with anyone who appreciates those qualities, beyond the jazz idiom where these two artists are typically pigeonholed, for better or worse.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment