Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Gil Evans Centennial Album: A Major Moment in Jazz History

Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell launched the Gil Evans Project last year to commemorate the centennial of the most cinematic composer in the history of jazz. To date, Truesdell has staged a series of commemorative big band concerts as well as releasing the album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Given access to the Evans family archive, Truesdell unearthed numerous unrecorded works, ten of which are included here: three compositions and seven arrangements. As history, it’s a fascinating look at the development and crystallization of Evans’ visionary style. As a work of art, it’s classic Gil Evans: deep, rich and relentlessly intense, a titanic achievement and a major moment in jazz history, on par with the discovery of Charles Mingus’ Epitaph. It trivializes any consideration of where this album might stand on a “best albums of the year” list: this is music for eternity.

Evans was the personification of noir. His lush, epic charts refuse to cede defeat even as the shadows creep in – or sweep in, which is more often the case. His influence cannot be understated, although, strange as it may seem, he remains an underrated composer: his best work ranks with Shostakovich, or Ellington, both composers he resembles, often simultaneously. The mammoth orchestra here, totaling 36 musicians, rises to a herculean challenge: some of the playing here is so brilliant as to be career-defining. The high-water marks here are the original works. The first previously unreleased piece, Punjab, was originally intended to be released on the legendary 1964 lp The Individualism of Gil Evans but for some reason never made the cut (maybe because it’s almost fifteen minutes long). The sonics could only be Evans, a spectrum reaching from the darkest depths to the most ethereal highs. The composition hauntingly blends Middle Eastern and Indian themes with energetically jazz and blues-based interludes, a characteristic roller-coaster ride from Dan Weiss’ hypnotic tabla introduction, to screaming woodwind cadenzas, menacing low brass portents and suspensefully whispery washes, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s long, allusively modal, spiraling solo accented by Frank Kimbrough’s apprehensively twinkling piano and the devastatingly direct drums of Lewis Nash. As usual, the soloists are interpolated within the framework of the whole: in many cases Evans creates the illusion that there is interplay between the chart, or at least part of the orchestra, and the soloist.

The work that Truesdell – one of the world’s leading Evans scholars – ranks as the composer’s magnum opus is the nineteen-minute-plus triptych Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long. Although versions of these pieces were released separately in the 60s, the arrangement for the three pieces together is from an unrecorded 1971 Berlin concert and it is as massive as Evans ever got (which says a lot). Vibraphonist Joe Locke turns in the performance of a lifetime injecting luridly macabre phrases, alternately stealthy and breathtakingly frantic, over ominous cumulo-nimbus backdrops, murderously mysterious climbs from the depths and incessantly terse, shifting voices within the orchestra. Wilson follows with an equally astonishing, memorable solo, riddled with microtones like a bullet-spattered getaway car. The angst is inescapable, notwithstanding Beethovenesque brass luminosity, a warmly soulful Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, Evans’ signature light/dark contrasts everywhere and an ending that is completely the opposite of everything that foreshadows it.

An equally noir if slightly shorter track here, with a previously unreleased arrangement from that 1971 concert, is Kurt Weill’s Barbara Song. Evans recorded this on the Individualism lp with a band only two-thirds the size of the ensemble here and the result is a mighty, surrealistically chilling, absolutely transcendent sweep. Locke again dazzles and ripples in a centerstage role, this time providing illumination over the sometimes distant, sometimes imminent sturm und drang driven by Nash’s succinct insistence and the lurking bass trombone of George Flynn.

Most of us know The Maids of Cadiz from the Miles Ahead album; the version here dates back seven years earlier to 1950 and Evans’ tenure in Claude Thornhill’s big band. It’s a revealing glimpse of Evans at work in a similar context, it’s almost twice as long and seems about fifty times as big. It’s amazing how Evans would go from the exuberantly ornate tango-jazz of this chart to the plushness – not to mention the terseness – of his version for Miles Davis. This one features prominent, portentous bass from Jay Anderson, a vividly nocturnal Kimbrough solo and a warm, absolutely gorgeous solo out by trumpeter Greg Gisbert.

A handful of tracks also portray Evans the working musician and his approach to some of the more pedestrian fare that paid his rent. How About You, a jaunty, dixieland-flavored Thornhill-era track, shows how he was employing alternate voicings throughout the orchestra just as cleverly as he would later in his career, not to mention the demands those charts made on the musicians. The closing cut, Look to the Rainbow – with vocals by Luciana Souza – first comes across as a relatively generic samba-pop song…but wait til the lush, bittersweet crescendo kicks in as the song winds up! And Evans’ own early 50s composition Dancing on a Great Big Rainbow – which somehow evaded making it onto vinyl despite being in the catalog of three of its era’s most popular big bands – seems a prototype for how he’d take a song from its upbeat origins and transform it into something completely different. This one grows wings but does the opposite of taking flight.

There are two other vocal numbers here, both of them absolutely Lynchian. Smoking My Sad Cigarette, sung with equal parts sadness and sass by Kate McGarry, features a pillowy arrangement that finally morphs into a swaying blues. The oldest track here, Beg Your Pardon, dates from 1946; Wendy Gilles sings it and absolutely knocks it out of the park with her coy, split-second, spot-on melismas. And Who’ll Buy My Violets, a ballad from the Thornhill era, is arguably the most Lynchian track here, Kimbrough doing an unexpected Floyd Cramer impersonation as the orchestra swells behind him and imbues what seems on the surface to be an innocuous pop melody with morose gravitas.

The sonic quality of the album is extraordinary: the care and attention to close-miking and minute detail is meticulous. Although nothing beats the vinyl warmth of a vintage Gil Evans record, this is the most sonically gorgeous digital recording of Evans’ work ever made. Kudos to engineer James Farber and the rest of the orchestra: flutists Henrik Heide and Jesse Han; oboeists Jennifer Christen and Sarah Lewis; bassoonists Ben Baron, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta; multi-reedmen Dave Pietro, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson, Brian Landrus and Charles Pillow; horn players Adam Unsworth, David Peel and John Craig Hubbard; trumpeters Augie Haas and Laurie Frink; trombonist Ryan Keberle; tuba player Marcus Rojas; guitarists James Chirillo and Romero Lubambo, percussionist Mike Truesdell and tenor violinist Dave Eggar. It would take a book to give due credit for what they’ve accomplished here.

July 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rosler’s Recording Booth: A Trip Back and Forth in Time

Darkly surreal and often quirkily charming, Rosler’s Recording Booth is one of the most original album concepts in recent months. Rosler’s narratives, sung by a diverse cast from the worlds of both music and theatre, trace what could be a day in the life of an Audiola or Voice-o-Graph, the lo-fi coin-operated recording booths of the 1940s and 50s where for as little as a quarter, you could make your own five-minute single. Rosler’s eclectic career has spanned the world of film music, choral music and jazz, including a 2010 collaboration with Bobby McFerrin, so it’s no surprise that the songs here bridge several styles. In keeping with the vintage concept, many of the tunes have an oldtimey feel: Lee Feldman’s similarly eclectic work comes to mind.

You’ve probably at least heard of the hit single, Doris From Rego Park, sung by Rosler himself – it’s a youtube sensation. For several years the late Doris Bauer was a frequent caller to Steve Somers’ postgame show on the New York Mets flagship station, WFAN. While there have been more articulate baseball fans, like all Mets fans in recent years, she suffered, her suffering made all the more obvious since she had respiratory problems that made it difficult for her to complete a sentence, and seem to have curtailed much of any hope for a social life. Rosler sings to her gently over a hypnotic, new wave pop-tinged keyboard lullaby, almost as one would to a child. As sympathetic a portrait as Rosler paints, it evokes a crushing loneliness.

The rest of the album ranges from upbeat to downright haunting. Spottiswoode lends his rich, single-malt baritone to two cuts: a garrulous, ragtime-flavored number sung by a construction worker to his absent girlfriend in a New York of the mind, decades ago, and another considerably more angst-driven, also vividly depicting an old New York milieu. Tam Lin sings a pensive 6/8 ballad, a childhood reminiscence with Irish tinges. Terry Radigan takes over the mic on a jauntily creepy circus tune, an understatedly chilling account of homelessness through a little girl’s eyes, and a quietly optimistic wartime message home from a young woman to her family – it’s never clear what exactly she’s doing or where she is, which makes the song even more intriguing. Kathena Bryant brings a towering, soulful presence to the September song Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Done, Jeremy Sisto sings a broodingly psychedelic criminal’s tale, and Rosler himself leads the choir through a deftly orchestrated reminiscence…of singing in a choir. Behind the singers, a rotating cast of musicians includes Chicha Libre’s Josh Camp on keys, Deoro’s Dave Eggar on cello and Mojo Mancini’s Shawn Pelton on drums.

In the leaps from the past to the present and then back – not to mention between styles and singers – the unifying concept of the recording booth sometimes disappears. And a few of the songs are duds: quality songwriters typically have a hard time dumbing themselves down enough to write easy-listening radio pop, and Rosler is no exception. But that’s where the ipod playlist comes in: all together, this makes a really entertaining one.

July 28, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fred Hersch’s Coma Dreams Premiered Memorably in New Jersey

My Coma Dreams: the title of Fred Hersch’s eclectic new multimedia suite evokes a lurid, surreal netherworld. At the world premiere yesterday at Montclair State College in Montclair, New Jersey, the brilliant jazz pianist and an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by Gregg Kallor revealed it to be definitely surreal, less lurid than one would imagine, blackly amusing and ultimately a genuinely heartwarming portrait of joie de vivre triumphing over enormous odds. In order to facilitate a cure for a particularly virulent case of pneumonia, the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York put Hersch into a medically induced coma, from which he was not expected to emerge as his old self, perhaps not at all. Yet he did, and after what must have been a grueling rehabilitation process, resumed playing, touring and ultimately making a beautifully lyrical solo album, Alone at the Vanguard, this past December. Hersch’s newest work makes a good companion piece to John Kelly’s The Escape Artist (just reviewed here), another harrowing narrative with a similar gallows humor, also set at St. Vincent’s.

With a narrative by Herschel Garfein, spoken and often sung by actor Michael Winther, the suite shifts between the dreams that Hersch was able to remember from his two months in the coma, along with Hersch’s own observations and those of his doctor and his lover, who maintained a resolute vigil throughout the ordeal. The transitions between narrative voices can be awkward – sometimes it’s less than clear who’s telling the story. But to paraphrase Garfein’s program notes, the story takes a back seat to Hersch’s musical interpretation of it, and of the dreams, often stunningly lyrical, haunting and also uproariously funny.

In one of the early dreams, Hersch finds himself bound and gagged in the back of a van. How he tries to ransom himself from his kidnapers is characteristic of the wry surrealism here, and it’s vividly portrayed via a frantically pulsing, Mingus-esque tableau that gave drummer John Hollenbeck a deliciously amusing interlude to sprint from the scene, less Keystone Kops than Dragnet. Another dream involves a party on a plane – and then another plane, albeit one either set in another century, or with costumes to match. “One cool airline!” is Hersch’s interpretation, the band swinging through a sultry tango-flavored piece lit up by the string quartet of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence and Deoro cellist Dave Eggar.

The most stunning number on the bill relates to a dream concerning a duo improvisation in Brussels that is fraught with anxiety but ultimately works out well. Beginning with a hypnotic, plucked pedal figure on violin, much of it is essentially a one-chord vamp that builds to an almost cruel suspense with a long, surreal, noir Twin Peaks piano solo whose bright, lurid menace is literally breathtaking. That tune is soon followed by an equally vivid one where Hersch – a Thelonious Monk devotee – finds himself in a cage alongside the guy with the beard and the hat. There’s a composition contest: whoever comes up with a piece of music first gets out. Hersch busies himself while Monk relaxes with a grin; the music gives Hersch an opportunity to literally channel Monk’s playing, with every subtle and not-so-subtle weird dissonance, smokily warped blues phrase and roll he can come up with – and there are many. It’s the longest section here.

The two funniest ones are parodies, and both got the audience roaring: the first a sendup of a schmaltzy girl-in-a-coma afterschool special tv show, the second titled Jazz Diner, a cruelly entertaining account of another dream where Hersch finds himself playing straight man to a diva doing hours and hours at a jazz diner in the woods. Just when the satire starts to feel interminable, Hersch decides he’s had enough and makes the piece interesting,  Steven Lugerner‘s tenor solo beginning as something of a spoof but soon taking off with an energetic unease. By contrast, Hersch offers a requiem, stately and elegant with the strings gently amping the sadness, for the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s – the first New York hospital to have an AIDS ward, which Hersch credits with saving his life more than once.

There are also songs, and strangely, neither Hersch’s cerebral wit nor his purist melodicism translate to them: the effect is like following Monk with Journey, or more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber. But except for one of them, they’re over soon. There’s also a video component, which at best is redundant and at worst is distracting (jazz audiences like to watch the musicians). But the strength of the compositions, and the playing, transcends these minor flaws. The rest of the ensemble included trombonist Mike Christianson, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, multi-reedman Adam Kolker and bassist John Hebert: one hopes that this stellar crew can be part of the Manhattan premiere of this powerful and compelling work.

May 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, drama, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deoro’s Eclectic Cello Rock Strikes Gold at the Rockwood

New York is full of good cello rock bands. Serena Jost is about to put out a new album; Blues in Space are playing the Highline the first week in January; Erin and Her Cello are about to do her “holiday spectacular” at the Rockwood this Friday. Last night, cellist Dave Eggar’s band Deoro played the Rockwood and proved equally good at an absurd number of styles. The first ten minutes of the show capsulized a lot but not all of the surprises that would come afterward. Backed only by nimble five-string electric bass and smartly terse drums, Eggar fired off a snazzy display of overtones, a Middle Eastern flourish and then a verse of Silent Night that he peeled away from, Jimi Hendrix style, into a cello metal boogie. A swaying dance alternated with stark, still, moody passages, the bassist sneaking in and introducing a tango beat. A hypnotically circling avant garde-tinged motif segued into a dramatic art-rock dance, in 6/8, and then their drummer finally sang an apprehensive reggae number about impending ecological disaster. Earlier this year, the band recorded their album New Kingston Morning at the legendary Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica, Eggar taking obvious pride in announcing that it had been nominated for a Grammy.

Singer Dina Fanai joined them, adding her unselfconsciously soulful, nuanced alto to a haunting Middle Eastern song that began with a suspenseful drone, Eggar building slinky snakecharmer atmosphere behind Fanai’s impassioned intensity. It was the high point of the night. And then it morphed into another artsy, Jean-Luc Ponty-esque dance. The rest of the set included a country gospel number that they’d recorded with Dr. Ralph Stanley; a fiery rap-metal number with some tongue-in-cheek guitar voicings on the cello and a savage lyric about the Iraq war; the gently bucolic title track to the new album, and Follow Me to the Sun, another album cut, sung by the drummer, eventually morphing into a bouncy disco vamp. Is there any style of music this band can’t do? Apparently not. The impressively full house, especially for what is now an unseasonably cold night, wanted more.

And the show was even educational. As it turns out, Silent Night has a second verse (they sang it, joined by a powerful bass singer from the Metropolitan Opera). Like Meet the Mets, nobody ever hears it – and also like Meet the Mets, it doesn’t really need it. Simon and Garfunkel’s version put that song out of reach for good a long time ago.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Thomas Simon – Moncao

Haunting and hypnotic, Thomas Simon’s new album is a suite of eerie, mostly instrumental soundscapes evoking both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd as well as Bauhaus and, when the ghostly melody begins to take a recognizable shape, Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Incorporating elements of minimalism, sci-fi and horror film scores as well as goth music and oldschool art-rock, it’s an ominous treat for the ears. Over a murky wash of drones, Thomas’ guitar rings, clangs and occasionally roars, moving in and through and then out of a swirling sonic whirlpool, frequently churning with both live and looped percussion. The reliably brilliant Dave Eggar adds layers of cello in the same vein: a flourish here and there and tantalizing snatches of melody that inevitably give way to dark atmospherics.

The title track is much like what Pink Floyd was going for on One of These Days – a staggered, swaying drumbeat, a series of low drones swooping and out of the mix and a forest of minimalist reverb guitar accents. Simon will pull off a hammer-on quickly, or add a silvery flash of vibrato a la David Gilmour – and then send the lick whirling over and over again into the abyss. The second movement, In the Middle of Nowhere, sets a distantly nightmarish scene – a tritone echoes in the background, fading up and back down as the guitar moves ominously and modally around the tonic – and then the cello leads the drums in, and the headless horsemen are off with a gallop. They bring it down to that macabre tritone hook, then bring it up, then back down again for over fifteen minutes.

The third movement works a simple descending hook over a trip-hop loop, sparse piano over washes of guitar noise. Up Against the Wall is a maze of backward masking and disembodied textures, sort of a synthesis of tracks one and three. They take it down and then out with stately yet raw guitar. The closest thing to a coherent song here, Altered Planet evokes the Church with its washes of cello and guitar: “Where we going, we need somewhere to hide” becomes “Where are you going, there’s nowhere to hide,” sirens appearing and then fading out before the guitar finally takes it up in a blaze of distortion. Somewhere there is an epic, dystopic film that needs this for its score. Maybe it hasn’t been made yet. Simon’s sonic palette is actually far more diverse than this album might indicate – his live shows can be very lively. Thomas Simon plays Small Beast upstairs at the Delancey on June 14 at around 9.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment