Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be juat as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed sentiment that via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

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September 29, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

August 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Majestic Menace and a Free Download From an Iconic Big Band

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society rank with the Maria Schneider Orchestra as this era’s greatest big bands, even if Argue’s eighteen-piece behemoth hasn’t been around as long as hers. While his recorded catalog is understandably smaller, he has more albums than you might be aware of, including a trio of live collections. OK, their 2011 release, Live at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is an ep – and you can download it for free at Bandcamp. Argue is bringing this mighty crew to the Jazz Standard on Aug 29, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is not cheap – $30 – but if there’s any band alive who’re worth it, it’s this one.

The ep has only three tracks, but they’re epic. Recorded on a brief East Coast tour, they constitute some of the most sinister material from the 2009 Infernal Machines album. The first number, Ferromagnetic is pure Lynchian menace, opening with a sinister Bernard Herrmann noir twinkle, then Sebastian Noelle’s guitar twangs and the reeds flutter. A mean guitar riff circles as the orchestra pulses and the skies redden, then everybody drops out for a suspenseful bass-and-synth interlude. Is that Ingrid Jensen on the solo trumpet, echoing and sputtering, before the guitar, low reeds and brass move in with a grim anthem?   

Right where Jon Wikan’s polyrhythmic intro to the album’s mightiest number, Phobos, is about to shift from suspense to “drum solo,” bassist Matt Clohesy steps in with his macabre, modal riffs, echoed by the guitar.The title refers to the Mars moon destined to someday either crash into the planet or shatter from the force of gravity as it falls, an angst underscored by John Ellis’ big tenor sax crescendo. A bit later Noelle reemerges to shadow its increasingly frantic Tourette’s, the rest of the group following an ineluctable course.

The final cut is Transit, another dark masterpiece with the same blueprint: whispery intro, ominously chromatic, mantra-like riffage and variations. Space: the final destination. Jensen’s roller-coaster of a trumpet solo has to be heard to be believed: people practice their whole lives and never play something so thrilling. Recommend this to your friends who might not know the band. It’s as close to a bite-size introduction as there is and a rare gem in the ever-more-imposing Argue catalog.

August 23, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miho Hazama Reinvents Thelonious Monk

More about that Big Heart Machine show tonight, Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery: Miho Hazama is conducting. Of all the major big band jazz artists right now who would be right for the job, Hazama is at the top of the list for this gig (along with Darcy James Argue, who produced the cinematic group’s killer debut album). Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is cheap by this venue’s standards at $15.

While Hazama’s own music is lush, wildly inventive and among the most exciting large ensemble work being written these days, she’s also in demand as an arranger and conductor. One prime example is The Monk: Live at Bimhuis, her forthcoming live album with the Metropole Orkest Big Band due to be streaming at Sunnyside Records this month. It’s a great opportunity to hear Hazama doing somebody else’s material, having what was obviously a great time in the process.

This is as close to a period piece as you’ll ever hear from her. She clearly gets the quirkiness, creepiness and also the deep blues in Monk’s music, right from the droll, pulsing opening of Thelonious, which seems to offer a nod to the similarly clever Monk interpretations of the Microscopic Septet. The group swing it with a brassy drive,Hans Vrooman getting the impossible task of playing the Monk role, and true to form he keeps things simple and proper. Trumpeter Rik Moi, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen and clarinetist Leo Janssen supply purposefully bluesy solos as the orchestra digs in and swings up to a jaunty dixieland crescendo.

Hazama’s charts here are often based on solo Monk piano recordings. Her take on Ruby My Dear begins with lingering, ambered Ellingtonian lustre, Moi contributing terse spirals as the rhythm section kicks in. Hazama’s deft, momentary exchanges of voicings throughout the ensemble are tantalizingly tasty, as is the return back to spare, sober glimmer.

Hazama’s most iconoclastic reinvention here bookends an otherwise gorgeous Friday the 13th with a cha-cha that borders on cartoonish  – not that Monk was necessarily opposed to that. Marc Scholten bubbles and leaps on clarinet, up to a nifty, suspenseful interlude centered around circling riffs by Vroomans and guitarist Peter Teihuis. Moi adds a bittersweet flugelhorn solo over a steady pulsing backdrop

The orchestra have a ball with Hazama’s Jersey noir allusions and contrasting swing blaze in Hackensack. Scholten and Teihuis go spinning through the blues, backed by big swells, brass glissandos and then a wry round robin of dixieland.

Round Midnight opens with a raptly muted moroseness, Moi’s flugelhorn carrying that legendary, brooding bolero riff over Vroomans’ judicious backing. Hazama’s cuisinart chart gives just about everybody a flickering moment in the spotlight as the voices shift like holiday lights about to go haywire.

With Hazama’s latin-inspired polyrhythms, taut close harmonies and blazing intensity, Epistrophy is the album’s big showstopper. Trombonist Louk Boudenstejn takes the long way around the launching pad, while Janssen is more low key, up to a triumphant coda. The night’s final number is a subtle, muted take of Crepuscule With Nellie, both Vroomans and the rest of the group matching Hazama’s terseness and clever polyrhythms.

It’s a triumph for the ensemble, which also includes Paul van der Feen and Max Boeree on saxes and clarinet, Ray Bruinsma, Nico Schepers and Martijn de Laat on trumpets, Jan Oosting, Jan Bastiani and Martin van den Berg on trombones, Aram Kershbergen on bass and Marcel Serierse on drums.

August 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Colorful, Auspicious Debut Album and a Jazz Gallery Show by the Mighty Big Heart Machine

Big Heart Machine’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is not for curmudgeons. It’s for people who appreciate robust tunesmithing and vivid, lavish arrangements with a sense of humor. That quality is all too often missing in big band jazz, which might explain why two of the heaviest hitters in the field – Darcy James Argue and Miho Hazama – have thrown their weight behind it. Argue produced the record; Hazama will be conducting the 20-piece orchestra at the album release show on Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $15, a real bargain at this joint.

Texture-wise, this is a very colorful album, loaded from the top to the bottom of the sonic spectrum like a pastrami sandwich at the old Stage Deli. Bandleader/tenor sax player Brian Krock writes cinematic, shiftingly kinetic music that at its most intense is almost a dead ringer for Argue’s work – it can be as impactful as it is sardonic. ’The opening track, Don’t Analyze opens with Krock’s balmy intro, then polyrhythms kick in with a laid-back sway and plush pulses throughout the ensemble. Variations on a stalking bass melody contrast with sly P-Funk keyboard textures; after a long crescendo, there’s no easy resolution.

The album’s centerpiece is a five-part suite, Tamalpais. The opening segment, Stratus builds high-sky ambience with microtonal understatement over a melody that slowly develops out of the bass. The segue into Deep Ravine comes across like Argue doing the Theme from Shaft. Nick Grinder’s trombone and Yuhan Su’s vibes do a wry dance over John Hollenbeck-esque pointillisms. Staggered motorik beats emerge from a haze, capped off by Olli Hirvonen’s shrieking guitar; flittingly amusing faux-dixieland gives way to battlefield guitar mist..

The somber piano/trumpet duet between Arcoiris Sandoval and Kenny Warren that introduces Stinson Beach brings to mind the muted angst of the conclusion of Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon, rising with jaunty swirls and pulses as the sun emerges over the Bay Area. And yet, a grim memory persists as Krock bobs and weaves, dark and bluesy, over the orchestra’s heavy resonance.

Gingerly tiptoeing vibes pair off against low brass foreshadowing as Dipsea Steps gets underway. The way the pairings shift afterward, from trumpet against guitar power chords, to neooromantic piano and vibes, up to where wary tenor sax and the orchestra coalesce, is as much fun as it is a clinic in clever composition

The suite comes full circle (a device Krock excels at) with Cirrus. Is this not as high as the intro? Sort of. Wistfully energetic muted trumpet spins over a resonant backdrop of guitar, Dr. Dre synth and orchestration throughout what’s essentially a tone poem.

There are two more stand-alone tracks. Jelly Cat emerges from wispiness to emphatic bursts of close harmonies and a spare interlude for trombone against the highs. The clarinet’s descent from the clouds is one of the album’s high points, up to a boisteously funky ending. 

The epic closing number, Mighty Purty begins with peekaboo voices, shifts to allusions to trad 50s ebullience, a return to bittersweet piano and trumpet and a long upward climb. A gritty interweave of trombone, tenor and eventually the rest of the horns take it skyward over a heavy Pink Floyd sway. This is the frontrunner for best jazz debut album of 2018. Who would have thought that Krock’s roots are as a metal guitarist tirelessly copying Dimebag solos? 

August 13, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Claudia Quintet Make a Triumphant NYC Return Uptown

What’s the likelihood that a band would be better now than they were over two decades ago? The Claudia Quintet defy those odds. They didn’t invent pastoral jazz, but pretty much every rainy-sky jazz group with an accordion (who don’t play Romany guitar swing, anyway) owe a debt to drummer John Hollenbeck’s long-running ensemble. It’s been awhile since they’ve played a New York gig, let alone one at a prestige venue like the Miller Theatre, where they’ll be on March 24 at 8. Tix are as affordable as $20.

On one hand, it’s a good bet that pretty much everybody who’s a fan of the band already has their most recent album, Super Petite, streaming at Cuneiform Records. If the group are new to you, they’re a vehicle for Hollenbeck’s more concise compositions – he saves the most lavish ones for his equally tuneful and relevant Large Ensemble. This 2016 release is as good a place to start as any to get to know the band: the tunes are slightly more condensed than usual, with plenty of cinematic flair and wry humor. Beyond this one, the band’s essential album is September, ironically their most improvisational release, a brooding examination of post-9/11 shock and horror that would have been a lock for best album of 2013 had Darcy James Argue not decided to release Brooklyn Babylon that same year.

Super Petite opens with Nightbreak, an echoey nocturne fueled by Matt Moran’s summer-evening vibraphone, lingering in stereo over the bandleader’s muted, altered shuffle as Chris Speed’s clarinet and Red Wierenga’s accordion waft amid the starry ambience. There’s a Charlie Parker solo hidden deep in this night sky.

Hollenbeck’s all businesslike while Wierenga runs a wary, pulsing loop and Speed sniffs around throughout JFK Beagle, the first half of a diptych inspired by airport drug-sniffing dogs. The second, Newark Beagle begins much more carefree but then Moran takes it into the shadows: cheesy Jersey airports are where the really sketchy characters can be found. There’s more similarly purposeful, perambulating portraiture and a memorably jaunty Speed clarinet solo a bit later on in If You Seek a Fox.

Bassist Drew Gress dances through the acidically loopy, hooky ambience in A-List as the bandleader drives it forcefully: being a meme is obviously hard work. Wierenga’s swoops and dives over Moran’s high-beam gleam is one of the album’s high points. Speed takes careening flight in Philly, a wry shout-out to Philly Joe Jones and how far out a famous shuffle riff of his can be taken.

High harmonies from Wierenga and Moran take centerstage and eventually hit a very funny ending in the brisk but idyllic Peterborough, home to the MacDowell Colony, where Hollenbeck wrote it. Rose Colored Rhythm takes its inspiration from Senegalese drummer/composer Doudou N’Diaye Rose, an epic journey through haze to insistent minimalism, cartoonish riffage and wry syncopation all around.

Pure Poem, which draws on knotty numerical sequences from the work of Japanese poet Shigeru Matsui, has hints of bhangra jabbing through Hollenbeck’s boisterous pointillisms. The album concludes with Mangold, a shout to his favorite Austrian vegetarian restaurant (such things exist – there’s hope for the world!). With sax and vibraphone joining for a belltone attack, it’s unexpectedly moody. Heartwarming to see a band who’ve been around for as long as these guys still as fresh and indomitable as ever.

March 12, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High-Voltage Suspense and State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz From Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Uptown Saturday Night

The suspense was relentless throughout Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s sold-out concert Saturday night at the Miller Theatre. Although a couple of numbers on the bill had genuinely visceral suspense narratives, there was no central mystery theme. That’s just the way Argue writes. What a thrill!

Throughout the show, four of the composer/conductor’s favorite tropes jumped out over and over again: artful variations on simple, acerbic hooks; circular phrases that widened and sometimes contracted; unexpected pairings between instruments, and high/low contrasts that often took on a sinister quality. Gil Evans did a lot of that, but drawing on vintage swing; Argue does that with just as much symphonic sweep, but more acidic harmonies.

Obviously, with a eighteen-piece big band, there was a whole lot more to the night than just that. They opened the first of their two marathon sets with Phobos, a mighty showstopper from the group’s debut album Infernal Machines, inspired by the moon of Mars which will someday either crash into the planet or shatter under the force of gravity. Drummer Jon Wikan’s first ominously shuffling notes of the night introduced bassist Matt Clohesy’s grim, gothic riffs that bookended the piece, guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s smoldering chords looming behind the steady interweave of brass and reeds. Tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ lyrical solo proved to be a red herring.

They’d revisit that catchy, cinematic ominousness with a pulsing take of Transit, seemingly slower and more portentous than the album version, to close the first set with a mighty, cold ending that nobody but the band could see coming.

Blow-Out Prevention, a shout-out to Argue’s late influence Bob Brookmeyer, juxtaposed bright but astringent brass harmonies against a shifting, lustrous backdrop. All In, a tribute to the late, longtime Secret Society mainstay and “trumpet guru” Laurie Frink, got a Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo which offered somber homage to her old bandmate, then took a triumphantly spiraling turn and eventually wound down against pianist Adam Birnbaum’s stately, Satie-esque minimalism.

Codebreaker, a salute to Alan Turing, bristled with spy-movie twists and turns but never went over the edge into John Barry-style menace. The second set was a performance of Argue’s recent, mammoth, labyrinthine Tensile Curves, inspired by Ellington’s Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue. The bandleader, who was in rare form as emcee, explained that he’d decided to assemble the piece – a commission requiring a full forty minutes of music – as a study in subtle rhythmic decelerations. And much as it was a clinic in the use of that effect, it also was packed with innumerable dynamic shifts, a wryly squirrelly Sam Sadigursky clarinet solo, a much longer and eventually wildly churning one from trombonist Ryan Keberle, and a characteristically translucent one from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill – among other things.

Animatedly loopy phrases filtered throughout the ensemble, from a snide, nagging introductory theme through a final comfortable touchdown on the runway. Let’s hope this mighty tour de force makes it to the web – and maybe even a vinyl record – sooner than later. A towering performance for the rest of the crew, including but not limited to saxophonists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trumpeters Seneca Black, Matt Holman and David Smith, trombonists Mike Fahie, Jacob Garchik and George Flynn.

The next show at the Miller Theatre is on Feb 13 at 6 PM with the Mivos Quartet playing new works by  Marisol Jimenez, Jeffrey Mumford, their own Victor Lowrie and Mariel Roberts. It’s one of the wildly popular free concerts here. Get there close to when the doors open at 5:30 and there might be free beer or wine; show up later and there probably won’t be.

February 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lavishly Fun Camaraderie with Peter Apfelbaum’s New York Hieroglyphics at the Stone

Sunday night Peter Apfelbaum wrapped up a weeklong stand at the Stone with a sprawling, serpentine, unselfconsciously joyous (and surprisingly tight) performance by his long-running large ensemble the New York Hieroglyphics. It’s a fair guess that crowds outside of New York would pay obscenely to see such a pantheonic lineup, which also comprised trumpeter Steven Bernstein, trombonists Josh Roseman and Natalie Cressman, violinist Charlie Burnham. guitarist Will Bernard, tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, multi-reedman Norbert Stachel, bassist Brad Jones, drummer JT Lewis and singer Abdoulaye Diabate.

They played with the cameraderie of a group that’s existed, if on and off and bicoastally, for forty years, dating from Apfelbaum’s teenage years at UC/Berkeley. They’ve come a long way since the days when they had to rehearse in a local park since they “Couldn’t play if there were adults around,” as Apfelbaum wryly recounted: they were a lot further out back then.

Here the improvisation was more focused on solos and pairs than mass squall. In that context, Bernstein and Roseman played with a resonant restraint, eschewing the ripsnorting attack they could have pursued with this group in past decades. Violinist Charlie Burnham took a long, starkly emphatic wah-wah solo; bass and drums shifted the night’s final number further and further from Malian duskcore slink toward reggae but never actually landed in Kingston as they’d been hinting. Cressman – daughter of the group’s original trombonist, Jeff Cressman – played a clinic in slicing and dicing judicious blues phrases from the top to the bottom of the scale, and later sang a pretty straight-up oldschool 60s-style version of the Prince ballad Sometimes It Snows in April.

Apfelbaum began the set with one of his signature uneasy, acerbic piano figures, later switching to tenor sax as the composition shifted from an emphatically moody, Darcy James Argue-esque theme to something akin to Argue’s big band tackling the kind of Indian tunes that the Grateful Dead were pilfering in the 1960s. A big, bright, brassy false ending was the high point, echoed at the end of the show with a cantabile lustre that left the crowd wondering where the choir was hidden.

Apfelbaum opened that one solo on melodica before handing off its jauntily circling Tuareg rock riffage to Bernard, who turned in a performance worthy of Tinariwen: he really ha a feel for that stuff. In his impassioned tenor Diabate sang the lyric about a genie who hasn’t arrived yet, joined in a celebratory, seemingly impromptu singalong by the rest of the band.

In between, Apfelbaum led the group from tensely syncopated Afro-Cuban piano verses to expansive vistas that finally straightened out closer to Havana than Senegal. Much of this material, he said, is scheduled to be recorded soon: from this performance, it’s definitely ready.

August 2, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sardonically Sinister Evening with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?

The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.

The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it

This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.

Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

October 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment