Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s the ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

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October 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Joris Lacoste Brings His Hilarious Found Sounds to NYC

The second the supertitle of a 2003 pre-Iraq War George W. Bush television address hit the screen, chuckles made their way through the audience at Joris Lacoste‘s Suite No. 2 at the French Alliance this past evening. The same thing happened a little earlier with a less unintentionally funny announcement from a Donald Trump property. But those were the coarsest jokes in an evening full of them, most of them vastly more subtle and just as crushingly relevant. It’s something of a shock that as of late this evening, tomorrow’s performance is not sold out. Seriously: if you need a laugh, this is is for you. Friday’s show, in comfortable, plush Florence Gould Hall at 55 E 59th St. is at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Is it choral music? Not really, although there are moments where the five-person lineup (three men, two women) join voices seamlessly. Is it theatre? In the sense that the cast are narrating material from the vast online archive L’encyclopedie de la parole, yes. Is it comedy? Extremely. Central to this performance is a reading of the Portuguese parliamentary decision – rendered in a deadpan monotone in the original language, with English supertitles – to cut salaries and necessary services in order to meet the German bankers’ Euro membership requirements. Superimposed amidst this are dialogue from a porn video, a mallstore opening celebration, a frustrated cellphone customer telling off her provider network, and other reconstructed random moments too good to give away here.

Some of the more obvious LOL sequences are a soccer coach’s predictably over-the-top pregame address to his team, a cruelly inept song performed at an open mic, a drunk girl on reality tv and a family video where a fascist Christian family – their most likely closeted gay patriarch included – publicly disown their openly gay son. Less obvious and arguably funnier found footage, all narrated in a deadpan, straightforward fashion that only amps up the LOL factor, includes a haphazardly spot-on diatribe on racism from a drunken, homeless African immigrant in the Paris subway (in French) and a scary manifesto from a wannabe Islamofascist terrorist in Australia (in Arabic).

Cornered after this past evening’s show and asked whether the more seemingly private moments were hacked, Lacoste cited the web, and particular Youtube and Facebook as endless sources of inspiration…and raw material. And he’s site-specific: he tailors this performance to every location where it’s staged. The most New York-centric quote of this particular show was also among the most touching. Where, among all available historic landmarks,  does Lacoste’s breathless teenage pal want to convene with all her friends? At Anthology Film Archives. Otherwise, be careful – your online indiscretions might just show up in Lacoste’s Suite No. 3!

September 10, 2015 Posted by | drama, Live Events, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 12/26/10

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues as it does every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #765:

Songs by Tom Lehrer

“What I like to do is to take some of the songs that we know and presumably love [pause for audience snickering] and get them when they’re down, and kick them.” From the time he debuted with this 1953 independently released, lo-fi solo piano album, Tom Lehrer understood that 90% of humor is based on cruelty. The prototypical funny guy with the piano was still at Harvard when he pressed a few dozen copies for his friends and classmates who’d seen his shtick in the student lounge. If he came out with this kind of stuff today, no doubt he’d have billions of youtube hits. Hostile, sarcastic and fearless, his satire is spot-on and strikingly timeless, despite the fact that it relies exclusively on innuendo and is therefore G-rated. One by one, he skewers dumb college football songs (Fight Fiercely, Harvard); hillbilly music (I Wanna Go Back to Dixie); cowboy songs (The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be); ghoulish Irish ballads; Stephen Foster-style schmaltz (My Home Town); and Strauss waltzes (The Weiner Schnitzel Waltz). He also includes an early stoner anthem (The Old Dope Peddler), a klezmer parody (Lobachevsky) that does double duty as a satire of academia, I Hold Your Hand in Mine (which predates the Addams Family) and When You Are Old and Grey, a snide and equally ghoulish sendup of old people. While it doesn’t have the Vatican Rag, I Got It from Agnes, Pollution or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, it’s the most consistently excellent Lehrer collection out there. If you like this stuff you’ll also probably like his 1959 live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. He retired from music early in the 1960s and went on to a slightly less acclaimed but ostensibly just as rewarding career as a Harvard math professor. Here’s a random torrent.

December 25, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 11/22/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #799:

Millie Jackson – Live and Uncensored

The funniest woman in soul music, Millie Jackson got her start singing gospel, but by the mid-70s she’d gone from the sacred to the profane and stayed there, taking Bessie Smith innuendo to its logical, smutty extreme. L’il Kim and Foxy Brown have nothing on this woman. Her studio albums were popular for obvious reasons, but her live shows were beyond hilarious. This double live lp from 1979 doesn’t have the classic Lick It Before You Stick It, but it’s got most of her funniest songs, recorded in front of a well-oiled, extremely responsive crowd – as much as she plays the role of a woman who’s been dissed too many times and isn’t going to let a guy do that to her again, the guys love her. She does the innuendo thing with Logs and Thangs, Put Something Down on It and the deviously juvenile Never Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night. The big over-the-top hit – a Beethoven spoof – is the Fuck You Symphony. Much of the time, the band launches into a funk vamp for her to rap over: the best one of these is a particularly venomous, obscene diatribe directed at soap operas and those who watch them (she’s not a fan – she thinks they’re racist and they rot your mind). When she’s on top of her game, her covers, like Sweet Music Man and If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right) are viciously satirical – this may be soul music, but the vibe is pure punk rock. This one was reissued sometime in the 90s as a twofer with the equally raunchy 1982 album Live and Outrageous. Now in her sixties, Jackson has toned it down a bit, most recently as the afternoon drive dj on an Atlanta radio station. Here’s a random torrent.

November 22, 2010 Posted by | funk music, lists, Music, music, concert, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives: The John Kerry Fundraiser at Sin-e, 8/26/04

[Editor’s note – we’re still on vacation and raiding the archive for some fond memories. This is a particularly bittersweet one, from the days when every New York band, outside of Williamsburg, at least, was desperate to vote the Bush regime out of office…and for awhile it looked like it really would happen in 2004]

Randi Russo had organized this fundraiser for the John Kerry campaign, unsurprisingly drawing an A-list of New York rock talent who connected electrically with the audience: they may have been preaching to the converted, but this show left no doubt that New York is still a Democratic town. Literate songwriter Erika Simonian opened. Nuance is her defining characteristic, along with a deadpan, cynical sense of humor. The highlight of her set, for that matter probably the highlight of the night – at least from the crowd’s delirious reaction – was I’ve Got a Song (as in, “I’ve got a song, it goes FUCK YOU”), a kiss-off anthem that this time out took on extra significance when she dedicated it to Bush. Her band was tight, accordionist Paul Brady was incisive and captivating as always but the muddy sound mix sometimes deadened her vocals – the sound guy was obviously trying to fix it, with minimal results.

Paul Wallfisch of Botanica did three songs solo on his trust old Wurlitzer electric piano, one of them a Jacques Brel cover, before the rest of his band joined him for a spot-on, passionate version of The Flag (“When I stand and face the flag/I see my country wrapped in rags”), from their 9/11-themed album Botanica vs. the Truth Fish. They eventually did a stripped-down, careening version of the gypsy-punk title track from that album plus some more straight-ahead, rock-oriented new material. Guitarist Pete Min ably channeled their former axeman John Andrews’ reverb-laden parts and their new drummer locked with bassist Christian Bongers’ spiraling, melodic lines.

Interestingly, Melora Creager, frontwoman and first-chair cellist of goth-tinged chamber rock band Rasputina was the big draw of the early part of the night: the goth girls shrieked when she hit the stage, then exited en masse when she was done. Seeing her play solo for over 40 minutes was even more impressive than watching her with the band. She plays most of the leads herself and didn’t miss a beat while singing in her signature deadpan, vibrato-laden, oldtimey delivery. She went into character and stayed there, cracking everybody up: too many jokes to remember. The highlight of the set was her closer, A Quitter, an uncharacteristically direct account of teen suicide.

Russo would later release her set as the Live at Sin-e album (still streaming in its entirety at deezer after all these years). Happily, that recording minimizes the boominess that plagued her set. They opened with a bouncy, funky League of the Brigands, followed with a swinging cover of Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons, a marauding blast through the Middle Eastern-tinged antiwar anthem Live Bait and a gently mysterious, warmly swinging version of the janglerock hit Get Me Over. A rapidfire, scurrying version of Parasitic People contrasted with the hypnotic, Smog-like ambience of Shout Like a Lady (title track to her 2006 studio album), a snarling version of the embattled workingwoman’s anthem Battle on the Periphery and a clattering take of the usually hypnotic, strikingly optimistic Ceiling Fire to close the set on a high note.

Tammy Faye Starlite headlined. Backed by just an acoustic guitarist, the fearless satirist/actress/comedienne ran through a pointed, typically hilarious mix of songs and spontaneous riffage on the Bush regime. She’s a potent voice for the Democrats this time around (if they can stomach her genuine punk rock attitude and take-no-prisoners commentary). The big showstopper this time out was I Shaved My Vagina for This, one of the most amusingly feminist numbers from her country-flavored first album. Matching the ferocity of Amy Rigby to the uninhibited, stream-of-consciousness hilariousness of Lenny Bruce, it was a girl-power anthem that anyone could sing along to if they stopped laughing long enough.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Neil Innes at B.B. King’s, NYC 4/20/10

It’s a vaudeville device as old as vaudeville itself: get the crowd to repeat a series of phrases that begin innocuously and gradually become more and more ridiculous until the entire audience are making complete fools of themselves. Neil Innes got the house to affirm, in pretty perfect unison, that they’d never repeat anything that anyone purporting to being an authority figure wanted them to repeat – and they kept going, through a couple rounds of “Help me, Rhonda,” and would have gone on longer had the legendary Monty Python funnyman not grown sick of it. He did it again at the end of the show, getting everybody to do a big, fat raspberry, and spit all over each other. What was it that W.C. Fields said you could never underestimate?

Not every joke that Innes made was this broad or unsubtle, in fact just the opposite. The genius of Monty Python is in the casual absurdities, the little asides that you might miss if you’re not paying attention, or not on the same wavelength. There was a lot of that kind of humor, and a lot of music too – this was every bit the concert it was billed as, Innes showing off an impressive proficiency on acoustic guitar, piano and an oversized mandolin and a wryly tuneful, new wave soul songwriting style more than a little evocative of Graham Parker. And not all of it was funny, particularly a rather morbid, chordally complex number toward the end of the set, and the final encore, titled Old Age Becomes Me, a recent song that Innes had written to commemorate his 65th birthday. And old age does become him, resolutely absurdist after all these years, as quick to pick up on any incongruity or hypocrisy that crosses his radar as he ever was.

It was a mix of material from throughout Innes’ career. He briefly revisited his Bonzo Dog Band days, then ran through some silly old 1920s British music hall pieces, getting a boisterous call-and-response going with the crowd. The recent stuff riffed on an old guy trying to come to grips with the internet, a faux Mexican folk song about the seemingly impossible but very real decline of television to even greater lows – “I was the toilet bowl germ with the wicked grin,” the perplexed narrator dreams – and a send-up of French chanson delivered in the person of “Jean-Paul Satire.” The audience responded warmly to a couple of bits from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the pieces de resistance were the Rutles songs, both from the movie and the even more hilarious 1997 Archaeology album, a phony Beatles Anthology that remains the gold standard for musical parody. The musical riffs were only half the fun – hearing the songs live, the gems hidden in the nooks and crannies jumped out when least expected. The curmudgeonly Irish cop in Doubleback Alley (i.e. Penny Lane) may drive the local kids crazy, but he’s looking out for them: “Stay away from the man in the ice cream van whose face was queer.” Innes proved equally adept at parodying Elton John, donning a pair of Williamsburg trendoid glasses, pounding the piano and slurring his lyrics through an absolutely ridiculous, absolutely spot-on ballad titled Godfrey Daniel. Considering that Monty Python after all this time remains a phenomenon that a new generation discovers every year, it wasn’t surprising to see how young most of the crowd was. Now if they can only put their slavish devotion to the man behind them and take his words of wisdom literally…

April 24, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 12/4/08

The top 666 songs of alltime countdown continues, one day at a time all the way to #1. Thursday’s is #600:

Tammy Faye Starlite – I Shaved My Vagina for This

The cult artist/comedienne/chanteuse/agitator is the closest thing to Lenny Bruce that we have today, someone who never fails to find her mark because she’s so damn funny. This one, from her first cd, is a typically clever, drop-dead hilarious feminist rant disguised as a country song.

December 4, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , | Leave a comment

Where was everybody last night?!?!?!

Did everyone decide once and for all that New Year’s Eve is amateur night and thus to be avoided? Has the last sophisticated New Yorker finally left the building? Do the people of the East Village now go to Times Square with the rest of the tourists? Or are the fun people in this town so broke now that nobody can afford to go out anymore? Last night at Lakeside, Tammy Faye Starlite played with her sick Stones cover band the Mike Hunt Band and while there were plenty of people there, it was nowhere near the mob scene that follows wherever she goes. It’s not like this generation’s answer to Lenny Bruce didn’t sell out the time before, or the time before that. The woman is an incorrigible exhibitionist, for god’s sake: you’d think that alone would have brought half the guys in town down to Avenue B.

This time, the band was actually good. When’s the last time you heard a Stones cover band play a song you didn’t know? They actually managed to stump me a couple of times. And at one time or another I’ve owned everything the Glimmer Twins ever did up until Steel Wheels (which actually has some good songs on it: Hold Onto Your Hat, anyone?). They didn’t do that, but they did Fingerprint File and a whole bunch of cleverly chosen clunkers. From what was on the set list last night, someone unfamiliar with the Stones would come away thinking that they sucked pretty badly. Which was the biggest joke of the night. But where the hell was everybody? Are there any stubborn old-school nightcrawlers left out there, or has everybody moved to Philly or Jersey City?

January 1, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Rant | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment