Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughns White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

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December 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico’s Andrew Griffiths Speaks for the Choir

Stile Antico, one of the world’s most popular and exciting choirs, made their New York concert debut less than a year ago at Corpus Christi Church uptown. They’ve topped the Billboard classical charts; toured with Sting; and have been nominated for Grammies twice for their innovative and spirited performances of both rare and iconic sixteenth and seventeenth-century compositions. They return to New York on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. Andrew Griffiths, tenor in the group, took some time out of his schedule to give us some insight into what promises to be a particularly intriguing concert:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: First an obvious question – what is the program you’ll be singing on October 16?

Andrew Griffiths of Stile Antico: It’s called In Paradisum, a program of Renaissance music. All the music is either the last piece that the composers wrote, or a piece that bows out with big questions.

LCC: That’s intense.

AG: Surprisingly, it’s very contrasting. Actually we were all very worried that it was going to be very gloomy. But there’s a lot of upbeat music as well as the intense stuff.

LCC: Your new album, Puer Natus Est (A Child Is Born) is medieval Christmas music. Most of us typically equate Christmas music with a festive, celebratory feel. Is there a festive characteristic to this, or another defining characteristic?

AG: I don’t think that it’s your average seasonal holiday album…Christmas was an important time then as now, as the season approached they certainly pulled out all the stops. This actually has as much to do with Advent as Christmas: you have the waiting for Christmas, the anticipation, and then Christmas itself. There won’t be any music on the disc that will be recognizable as Christmas music to people who don’t know anything from this time period…

LCC: At the October 16 concert, are there specific highlights that the audience should be listening for? Any pieces or passages that are personal favorites of yours?

AG: Personally, and for a lot of us, Media Vita by John Sheppard is actually a huge one. It’s one of the longest pieces from the whole period of Tudor music in England. Sheppard is a composer we’ve done a lot, and something that I feel suits us really, really well. This has amazingly sustained passages in six parts; it’s a bit like running a marathon to perform it.

LCC: I think a lot of people over here don’t realize that choral music in the UK is undergoing a sort of renaissance, with an American Idol/Eurovision style tv show and competing choirs. Is it fair to say that you’re rock stars in the UK?

AG: Not really! I think we’re not terribly well known outside the circle of people who know this music. We feel we’ve done more in the US actually than we’ve done at home. We had a NPR feature at very good moment – we started getting emails from truck drivers in the south telling us that they were listening to this on the interstate. It takes a little bit longer to establish yourself in the UK. We now feel that we’re finding our place at this point.

LCC: Are you aware of the Seraphic Fire phenomenon over here in the US?

AG: Actually not…

LCC: They’re a Florida choir who achieved the unexpected by knocking Lady Gag off the top of the itunes charts: they were actually number one in the nation for awhile. They did it with a wonderful recording of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610…

AG: How extraordinary! That’s brilliant…I think when people get the chance to listen to this music, it can be a real revelation. A lot of people have never heard of Monteverdi. To think that there are that many people who will listen to two hours of it is really wonderful…

LCC: Is there a single mission behind Stile Antico, by comparison, say, to the Tallis Scholars? Something that makes you stand out from the other well-known early music choirs out there?

AG: I guess in that we don’t have a conductor…that our collaborative way of making music is unique, I think at least in a group of our size. We explore things much like a string quartet would. We have a lot of rehearsals, so when we get into concert we really know the material inside out. If you haven’t got someone to remind you what a certain gesture means, you really have to know what it’s going to be, or else…

LCC: Since you don’t have a conductor, do you have a signal system of sorts between members, for cues? Or is that necessary?

AG: Only at very specific moments – at the very beginning or ends of things. The analogy of the string quartet, with the first violin having everyone come in at the same time, works here. Remember, we’ve been together for ten years and we still have eight of the original twelve members. It’s very, very important to us that the turnover in the group is as little as possible: we have to know how the others work!

LCC: Given the sheer complexity of what you sing, there are bound to be a few glitches here and there. How do you handle mistakes? Do you go to the trouble of recording yourselves and listening back afterward?

AG: We do listen to things afterward. But remember, if someone misses a key, chances are at least two other people are singing, which minimizes it. More disruptive than hitting the wrong note is a rhythmic mistake: potentially much more of a problem. We’ve actually never had a disaster like that. Most of us have sung since age eight or ten so we’re very used to this.

LCC: What is your preparation for shows? You’ll be on your feet singing for the better part of  two hours, most of it without a break, and you have to hit the notes. Do you have a pre-concert ritual?

AG: We rehearse in the afternoon like everyone else…we do gather before we go on, about five minutes before the show and go over what we want to think about…and we try to keep pretty quiet after that to let ourselves concentrate!

LCC: Your sound is seamless, really together as one – there seems to me to be a lot of chemistry in the group. Are there friendships within Stile Antico that extend beyond the concert hall and rehearsal room? Not that I’m trying to dig up dirt or anything…

AG: We are very good friends actually. There are three sisters in the group, and two of us are married. So that helps when we sit down and just talk about what our goals are, and what we are achieving. But the premise from the beginning was that we were keen to keep it a social thing as much as a musical thing and that’s still true today.

LCC: Rock star question: let’s compare Stile Antico to a rock band for a minute, shall we? Is there a dominant personality? A mystic? A class clown?

AG: Various clowns at various times. We all take the lead on different things, and that spills over into how it organizes us. One of us does the travel, another does the website, we try to play to our different strengths. I don’t think there’s a ringleader…

LCC: Does it ever astound you that you’ve achieved popularity with music that, much of it at least, went centuries without being performed?

AG: I think it’s very exciting. We all really feel strongly that we’re not presenting these in pieces, out of context. We’re sort of taking them out of the museum…people think that it’s such a big thing to play and sing, but these are works that were sung and enjoyed by everyday people hundreds of years ago. We rarely speak of dynamics, per se: we speak about the character of the music…we try to find something in it that resonates with us to resonate with other people as well. We find again and again that people are engaging emotionally with our music. You don’t necessarily have to know the rules and understand it in a scholarly way to appreciate it.

LCC: Your album Media Vita, which came out earlier this year, is not only exquisitely sung, it’s also sonically exquisite. I’m curious as to where you recorded it…

AG: We were so lucky to find a special church in North London: All Hallows, Gospel Oak. It’s not a particularly well-known church. If you’re a recording musician, a lot of people know about it, otherwise not. What actually happened with the church is that they ran out of money as it was being built. The columns are in stone, with a wooden roof. It’s acoustically fantastic.

Stile Antico sing a program including pieces from the 15th to the 17th century by William Byrd, Guillaume Dufay, Nicolas Gombert, Josquin des Prez, Alonso Lobo, Heinrich Schutz, and Orlande de Lassus as well as John Sheppard’s massive, haunting Media Vita at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 338 W 46th St., on Saturday, October 16 at 8 PM. Tickets are available at the Miller Theatre box office, 116th St. and Broadway, open noon-6 PM Monday-Friday, via phone at 212-854-7799 and online.

For those outside of NYC, the rest of the tour schedule is below:

OCT. 7 – DURHAM, NC – Duke Chapel

OCT. 8 – WASHINGTON, DC – NPR – Tiny Desk Concert (national broadcast)

OCT. 9 – PITTSBURGH, PA – Calvary Episcopal Church/Renaissance & Baroque Society

OCT. 11 – CINCINNATI, OH – St. Peter in Chains Cathedral

OCT. 13 – DURHAM, NH – Johnson Theater/University of New Hampshire

OCT. 15 – CAMBRIDGE, MA -St. Paul Church/Boston Early Music Festival

September 28, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Somebodies’ Christmas Show 12/16/09

You know a band has to be good if they can keep a smart crowd entertained with a bunch of Christmas songs. Let’s face it – Christmas music sucks, bigtime. Almost as much as Nickelback or Lady Gag. In fact, the only holiday music that’s any good is the non-Western stuff: Diwali, Passover, Ramadan. And of course Halloween. But the Somebodies – with a lot of help from some good friends – had obviously really worked hard on putting together a theme night that in a lesser group’s hands would have been pure schlock.

The band’s sound is concretized sometime in the 80s: their faster stuff has a scurrying new wave beat; the anthems look back to a time before grunge, before hair metal, in fact, when you were supposed to sing them casually, unaffectedly, without any cliches. But they didn’t play any of those. Usually the bass carries the melody, as Graham Maby used to do on Joe Jackson’s early albums. Their three originals in their set list at Lakeside on the sixteenth included a brisk, punchy pop number that would have made a good b-side to What I Like About You, another with a propulsive, melodic reggae bassline that went doublespeed on the chorus, and the last song of the night, where bassist Luke Mitchell got  to go deep into his bag of chops for some slinky slides, hammer-ons and fat, boomy chords. And these were all well-received, but it was the holiday stuff that made smiles out of winces.

They started with the Eric Carmen weepie (and Rachmaninoff ripoff) All By Myself, just Mitchell and drummer Phil McDonald who gave it the most deviously deadpan vocal you could want. Then frontman/guitarist Pete Derba joined them for Feliz Navidad, which in his hands was basically the same lyric over and over again. That was mercifully over fast. Dylan Keeler of the Disclaimers took a reluctantly amusing turn as Elvis impersonator on Santa’s Back in Town; later, Derba did Blue Christmas back into deadpan territory with some help from a ringer chorus on backup vocals. Kate Thomason and Naa Koshie Mills – the duo who give the Disclaimers their signature soul sound – did a lighthearted rap number, and later a Christmas soul song from the 60s. For her absolutely sultry cover of Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby, Mills peeled off her shiny fake fur coat to reveal an equally shiny 60s cocktail dress and then brought down the house.

Keeler and his fellow Disclaimers guitarist Dan Sullivan gave Santa Claus Is Coming to Town a sublimely ridiculous Blues Brothers vibe, Sullivan doing most of the jumping and kicking around in front of the stage: “He knows when you forget the lyrics,” he deadpanned. But the most affecting moment of the night was when Jerome and Susan O’Brien of the Dog Show led the crowd in an acoustic singalong of So This Is Christmas. “War is over, if you want it…” If only this year’s Nobel winner could have been there, he undoubedly would have a good time, notwithstanding this timely reminder of how little has actually changed since that auspicious day in November of last year.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: A Very Balthrop Christmas

A frequently refreshing and irreverent bunch of brand-new Xmas songs from this motley crew of Brooklynites whose shtick is passing themselves off as the entire population of a small Alabama town. Many of them are here pseudonymously: “Georgiana Starlington” does a fetchingly oldtimey version of the Neill C. Furio classic Christmas in Jail; indie rocker Caithlin de Marrais offers a deadpan funny look at the holiday from the point of view of one media-saturated girl who just can’t get enough, and Andrew Vladeck provides a helpful, polite, politically correct way to extend holiday greetings to those whose holiday of choice might be difficult to discern. The mysterious Benton Whitehall suggests a very bovine replacement for an AWOL Santa on his retelling of the Tennessee Waltz; Luverne Dozier’s Island of Mis Fit Toys is gorgeously eerie, tongue-in-cheek noir cabaret, probably the best track on the cd. Some of this stuff is a little obvious, and there are a couple of nasal whiners here who will drive you to fast-forward in seconds flat, but overall it’s a pretty good time. Available for download here.

December 21, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ten Best Christmas Songs of Alltime

…heh heh heh…

 

10. Linda Draper – Merry Christmas

The New York acoustic rock siren is typically pensive and hardly festive here: play this one early Xmas morning, hungover. Merry Xmas, not.

 

9.  The Pretenders – 2000 Miles

A reader suggestion, thanks for this! The link is a nice live version on youtube.  

 

8. The Reducers – Nothing for Christmas

Bet these Connecticut mod punks never realized how prescient this snide holiday tune would turn out to be when they originally released it as a vinyl single in 1988. Still available on the excellent Reducers Redux compilation from 1991.

 

7. Stiff Little Fingers – White Christmas

The alltime best version – maybe the only good version – of the bestselling song of alltime, classic funny irreverent punk rock, 1978 style.

 

6. Ninth House – You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

Back when they were an artsy, Joy Divisionesque band, the New York rockers used to have a great time with this one no matter what the time of year. Never officially released, although there are several excellent bootleg versions kicking around, particularly from Arlene Grocery circa 2000.

 

5.  Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Spot-on. Words cannot describe. The youtube link above is a priceless live version.

 

4.  The Pogues – Fairytale of New York

Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl play dysfunctional drunken couple, trading insults and invective in perfect holiday style. This link’s a live version too.

 

3. Amy Allison – Drinking Thru Xmas

If this song isn’t universal, you find one that is. “Twelve shots of liquor lined up on the bar/You’ve got all my money and the keys to the car.” It’s vintage Amy. Nice to see the song up on her myspace again.

 

2. Florence Dore – Christmas

Although first recorded by the Posies in the mid-90s, Dore wrote it, and it’s her version from her lone 2002 cd Perfect City that really provides the chills. Xmas may not be suicide season, but this one makes it seem like it is.

 

 

1. Olivier Messiaen – The Birth of Our Lord

As we’ve noted here before, this piece isn’t titled The Birth of Christ. The great composer always put his Catholicism front and center…but maybe he was working for the other team? Nothing but brooding and hellfire in this macabre multi-part suite. The link above is a youtube clip from one of its quieter sections.

December 16, 2008 Posted by | Music, snark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments