Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra Resurrects Rare, Darkly Pioneering Cinematic Swing

Trumpeter Brian Carpenter‘s Ghost Train Orchestra has most recently capitalized on the nuevo moldy fig jazz market; their 2011 album Hothouse Stomp was an irresistibly frantic romp through the books of obscure hot jazz bandleaders Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams. But Carpenter has roots in noir music, from his days with Boston band Beat Circus in the early 90s, so the Ghost Train Orchestra’s new album Book of Rhapsodies is something of a return to form. When it’s not, it’s a mix of early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s. There will be some listeners who see the cd sleeve art or the Raymond Scott compositions and assume that this is kitsch, or will misuse the word “ironic” in describing it, both of which would be a mistake

Beyond the frequent noir, there’s a winking, sotto vocce “see if they get it” to many of these compositions, but that’s less musician-insiderness than simply tongue-in-cheek fun. The album opens with Charlie’s Prelude, by Louis Singer (who wrote charts for the pioneering cult favorite John Kirby Sextet in the 30s), turning the immortal Chopin E Minor Prelude into a borrowed Black & Tan Fantasy with a bluesy slink and a broodingly resonant trombone lead from Curtis Hasselbring. Beethoven Riffs On, also by Singer, swings a theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with a latin-tinged hi-de-ho bounce. Carpenter and ensemble rescue British composer Reginald Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra) from obscurity with a dixieland scamper spiced with the occasional eerie flourish from Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet. And Carpenter’s arrangement of another Foresythe track, Revolt of the Yes Men gives banjoist Brandon Seabrook a chance to buzz and be a tremolo-picking thorn in the side of the orchestra and their intricate exchange of voices; it’s more revolutionary than simply having been ahead of its 1936 era.

Dawn on the Desert, by Kirby Sextet trumpeter Charlie Shavers, does Gershwin’s Summertime as a Hollywood hijaz nocturne, Carpenter’s moody trumpet exchanging with Avi Bortnick’s ominously tremoloing guitar, then morphs into a skronky march reminscent of late 80s John Zorn. The album’s centerpieces, more or less, come from the Alec Wilder catalog: the lushly orchestrated, suspiciously deadpan Dance Man Buys a Farm (an apt juxtaposition with Raymond Scott’s The Happy Farmer); the more moody, tensely pulsing It’s Silk, Feel It; The Children Meet the Train, which is Old Man River thinly disguised at doublespeed; and Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious, which with its sudden jump-cut phrasing is the closest thing here to Scott’s Looney Tunes soundtracks.

There are also a couple additional, absolutely killer tracks from the Scott catalog. At An Arabian House Party works a creepy noir swing fueled by Bortnick’s jagged, Steve Ulrich-esque guitar in place of the original harpsichord part, like Beninghove’s Hangmen playing it very close to the vest. And Celebration on the Planet Mars, with its surreal,  atmospheric swells and fades, serves as a magic carpet for the rest of the ensemble to take for an unselfconsciously joyous, vaudevillian ride. The rest of this edition of the band includes Andy Laster on alto sax; Petr Cancura on tenor sax and clarinet; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba, Michael Bates on bass and Rob Garcia on drums. Their previous album spent a long time at the top of the Billboard jazz charts; one suspects this will do the same. They play the album release show at Subculture at 8 PM on Oct 26.

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October 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dan Willis’ Satie Project II: Best Album of the Year?

Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen’s second Satie Project album is arguably the best jazz album of 2013. That is, if you buy the idea that there could be such a thing as a single top album among this year’s best releases, or that twisted covers of proto-minimalist late Romantic/early Modernist music should be allowed to count alongside original compositions. Willis’ new arrangements of Satie pieces might as well be originals, considering how gleefully and evilly he reimagines them.  Most of Erik Satie’s repertoire was actually much more upbeat than the macabre pieces Willis has selected for inclusion here, but it’s the macabre that has stood the test of time far better than the clever and often droll ragtime hits Satie wrote to pay the bills. Willis plays pretty much every reed instrument ever invented here, including but not limited to oboe, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. Ron Oswanski gets many of the choicest moments here, on B3 organ, Wurlitzer and accordion, alongside Pete McCann on guitar, Kermit Driscoll on bass and the Claudia Quintet’s John Hollenbeck on drums.

Gnossienne No. 7 gets reinvented as murderously twinkling, shuffling Isaac Hayes wah funk, Gnossienne No. 6 as jaunty swing tune driven by Entcho Todorov’s suspiciously carefree violin. Although the versions of Pieces Froide No. 1 and the first of three takes of the main theme of Vexations (Satie’s famous eighteen-hour loop) here follow a steady beat, the way the band completely veers off center while keeping steady and totally deadpan is as amusing as it is disconcerting – this music literally makes you dizzy.

Gnossienne No. 5, a pensively atmospheric oboe feature, is the closest thing to the original here. Gnossienne No. 3 gets whispery noir vocals and a slippery, icy lead line that might be a slide guitar, or Willis’ EWI (electronic wind instrument). Pieces Froide No. 7 is redone as a chamber work that also doesn’t deviate far from the source, while the second alternate take of the Vexations theme goes completely off the rails as the organ and alto sax, and then the rest of the band diverge.

Gnossienne No. 4 gets a creepy crime jazz interpretation with plaintive soprano sax over lingering, red-neon tremolo guitar arpeggios. Gnossienne No. 2 follows a similarly noir trajectory up to a lurid if more energetic ba-BUMP organ groove. Pieces Froide No. 2 brings back a stately chamber jazz ambience; the album winds up with its longest number, the Vexations theme revisited with a wicked, diabolically surreallist microtonal flair that the composer would no doubt love if he was still with us. For Satie fans, this is a must-own; for that matter, this is a feast for any fan of dark, creepy music. Forget just about any other Halloween soundtrack you might have: this is the real deal.

October 8, 2013 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Tivoli Trio

This is exquisitely creepy, surreal stuff. It’s as good a jazz album as has come over the turnstile here so far this year. Jazz pianist Frank Carlberg grew up in Helsinki, fascinated by carnivals and the circus – his neighborhood amusement park featured a small combo, the Tivoli Trio, with the unlikely combination of trumpet, organ and drums. As a composer, Carlberg particularly excels at big band arrangements; this time out, he endeavored to recreate what he’d heard as a child, if only in spirit rather than actual memory. It’s a deliciously twisted, disquieting ride, worth it for the rhythm section alone – John Hebert’s bass and Gerald Cleaver’s drums jump right in on the fun, each taking on a gleefully sinister, gnomish persona.

An off-center fanfare opens the album; bass and drums mimic a restless crowd, and then they’re off with Tricks, a scurrying, phantasmagorically creepy, repetitive music box themed tune. A chase sequence follows with suspenseful variations on the previous theme, Carlberg utilizing a marvelously eerie, repetitive series of horn voicings. On Rumble Mumble, drums take centerstage, Carlberg playing deftly diabolical tritone-flavored accents off them. They follow with a strange little vignette, circular piano riff against bass screeching and squealing like the ghost of a decapitated ape.

Bill’s Hat is sad, tired, possibly murderous little march that morphs into a swinging shuffle, the backstage crew at the sideshow having a little laugh at someone’s expense – Hebert gets to throw some knives at his bandmates’ feet as they dance around. On the next track, Two for Tea, the rhythm section bounces around playfully as Carlberg gets to throw knives this time. This is where the truth comes out: they’re a team of gremlins, everybody off on his own yet completely with the same mind when it comes to trouble. Next is another strange miniature with brief horror-movie, cello-like arco work by Hebert against methodical, glimmering block chords from Carlberg.

Devious and high-spirited, Potholes has Hebert providing atmospherics as the drums creep around disorientingly – then Carlberg comes sailing in, oblivious to the trouble the other two have just been up to. The most straight-up jazz number here, Spit (The Game) works from atonal punches on the piano to block chord work driven by judicious bass chords or scrapy bowing, Cleaver’s ever-present cymbal boom just a mallet’s-length away. Tumbles is evocatively if completely uneasily acrobatic with sizeable breaks for devious bass and drums; the cd winds up with the less-than-subtly menacing, expansive yet poignantly lyrical Harlequin and then a brief reprise for the crowd, Sgt. Pepper style. Put this on and then kill the lights – you’ll see it in December on our best albums of the year list.

May 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nightcall and Rawles Balls Live in NYC 6/10/07

Nightcall is the most exciting new band in New York. It’s retro revivalist Bliss Blood’s latest project, alongside the delightful, old-timey Moonlighters, Polynesian psychedelic unit Voodoo Suite and the acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox. “We’ve invented a new genre: snuff torch songs,” she told the audience, and the result was absolutely riveting. Playing her trusty ukelele, accompanied by upright bassist Peter Maness and electric guitarist Stu Spasm, who used a tiny amp with tons of reverb, she and her accomplices played a mix of covers and originals: all with a crime theme. “In all our songs, the criminal has to win,” she explained. They did sweetly ominous, noir versions of the theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, a Leonard Bernstein composition called Big Stuff (“Not from West Side Story,” Blood told the crowd), and Tom Waits’ Black Market Baby. But their best numbers were all originals, including a haunting Moonlighters tune, Broken Doll. They also played their “signature song,” the lurid tale of an intruder aptly titled Nightcall, and Blackwater, which was far and away the high point of the night. “This is for Halliburton…and the mercenaries in Iraq,” Blood mused aloud. The song began with an ominous minor-key theme, the bass carrying the melody:

Don’t look too closely or you’ll find
He has a mercenary mind
He’ll be your man if you can pay
And when the gold is in his hands
He’ll acquiesce to your demands
Play any game you want to play

After a macabre, chromatic chorus, the bass player scurried up and down the scale like a twisted old man on the way to a Carlyle Group meeting.

In many ways Blood epitomizes what the Bush regime fears the most. She’s a charming, wickedly intelligent, completely innocent-looking Texan who never misses a chance to call truth to power, and does so in a blithely amusing way that doesn’t alienate audiences. Today was Puerto Rican day in Manhattan: “I’m from Vieques,” she joked. “You have to excuse me, I’m all messed up from the stuff they drop there,” referring to all the depleted uranium that’s covered the island over more than a decade of Air Force bomb testing.

“What’s an A minor?” Rawles Balls frontman Nigel Rawles – the former Scout drummer – asked his keyboardist, whom he’d just sent away from the stage.

“A-C-E,” came the reply.

“Can we write on the keys?” Rawles asked the soundman. The answer was no.

Rawles had for some inexplicable reason brought a guitar that was “broken,” he said. Nonetheless, he was determined to get through the show, seated at the piano, an instrument he doesn’t know how to play. Rawles Balls is the cover band from hell, capable of butchering pretty much any song from any era and tonight was a fullscale massacre. Doing his best to hammer out a bassline with two fingers, Rawles must have played At the Hop – or tried to, anyway – at least four times. When they’re on their game, Rawles Balls perfectly embody the true spirit of punk rock, having a gleeful time poking fun at every conceivable aspect of what they play. Taking the concept to the logical extreme, they never rehearse and the band is in a constant state of flux, with practically a new lineup every week: tonight Rawles dragged the estimable Ward White (who played bass in the band for a time) up to the stage. White fed Rawles lyrics as he struggled through the Bowie classic Five Years. “This is the last song we’ll ever play,” Rawles facetiously told the audience, managing to botch even the reference (that’s what Bowie says before Rock n Roll Suicide, dude).

At this point it looks like Rawles may have depleted the talent pool, such as it exists for a band like this. His backing unit tonight, such that it was, included a woman who sang harmonies on a few songs, a friend who knew a few piano chords and another who came up to the stage, tried to get through Fur Elise as Rawles whistled along but gave up in disgust after about fifteen seconds. And the Ward White cameo. And of course they recorded this show, since Rawles Balls has in the past three years released over 50 (fifty) albums, which has to be a record. All but two of those are live concert recordings.

In a sick way, it took a tremendous amount of nerve for Rawles to get up onstage and try to fake his way through an hourlong set, completely unrehearsed, playing an unfamiliar instrument. However, there were indications that he might not have been as completely lost as he seemed: there were clever segues between songs that shared the exact same chord changes, and he did exhibit an ability to at least figure out the bassline to maybe half of what he attempted to play. Then there was the issue of the “broken” guitar. When the Rawles Balls act is working, it’s unimaginably funny. Tonight was a new low: by the time the sound guy gave Rawles the two-minute warning, it was simply a reprieve. Which in itself was pretty amusing.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment