Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Microscopic Septet Play Monk to a Tie

It makes sense that the Microscopic Septet would do a Thelonious Monk cover album. Their new album Friday the 13th is a mix of unselfconsciously joyous, sometimes devious new arrangements of tuneful toe-tapping gutbucket jazz. Monk can be weird and offputting sometimes – not that those traits are necessarily a bad thing in music – but he can also be great fun, and this is mostly the fun Monk. In their thirty-year career, the Micros have lived off their reputation as one of the alltime great witty jazz bands, to the point of being something of the Spinal Tap of the genre. They’ve never met a style they couldn’t lovingly satirize, but this isn’t satire: it’s part homage, part using the compositions as a stepping-off point for their trademark “did you hear that?” moments.

Monk is also very specific: there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. So covering such an individual artist is a potential minefield: when the originals are perfectly good as they are, the obvious question arises, why bother? Unless of course you do them completely differently, and then run the risk of losing the very quality that made them appealing to begin with. How sanitized is this? How slick and how digital is this album, compared to the originals? The good news is that it’s not particularly slick, the production is bright but not obtrusive and and the arrangements are as unpredictably entertaining as you would expect from this crew – which is a lot. Co-founder and pianist Joel Forrester knew Monk personally, and it’s obvious that they’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways. For Forrester in particular, this is a tough gig – although he’s played Monk for decades, comparisons will inevitably spring up, and it’s safe to say that he gets it, letting the new charts speak for themselves. Was it alto sax player Charlie Rouse who said that “Monk keeps it simple and proper”? Forrester does exactly that. The songs here are a mix of iconic standards along with a couple of unexpected treats: an off-kilter, martial version of the extremely obscure Gallop’s Gallop that comes thisclose to galloping off the cliff, and a fluid, relaxed take of the vacation tableau Worry Later, one of several numbers to feature a stripped-down arrangement, in this case mostly for rhythm section and sax. In that sense, they adhere closely to Monk’s tendency to pare down segments of the songs, especially for solos, even when he was working in a setting larger than a quartet.

The opening track, Brilliant Corners establishes another very effective arrangement strategy here, portioning out pieces of the melody to individual voices, one by one. The title track gets a slightly more straight-up swing treatment than the original, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston contributing spot-on, blithely wary atmospherics. By contrast, Teo gets a bizarrely effective trio arrangement – most of it, anyway – with boomy surf drums and scurrying Don Davis alto sax. Pannonica maintains the lyrical feel of the original while adding a long, deliciously swirling, lush outro; Evidence substitutes dual and trio sax riffage in place of the suspiciously blithe latinisms of Monk’s version.

We See is redone as a funky shuffle with big grinning solos by Davis and bassist Dave Hofstra; likewise, Bye-Ya also funks up the original without losing any of its catchiness. The single most gripping arrangement here, Off Minor, finds its inner noir core and dives deeply into it with a spine-tingling series of handoffs as the saxes go up the register in turn, one by one. Likewise, Mysterioso goes cinematic with big sax swells, syncopated duo voicings and a creepy march out. The album winds up with a neat version that makes short work of Epistrophy: originally a boogie blues, they turn it into a little diptych, moving from echoes of Coltrane to a smooth swing with more of the tasty soprano/baritone tradeoffs that occur throughout this almost infinitely surprising album.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Phillip Johnston – Page of Madness

A horror movie soundtrack like no other. In addition to his substantial body of jazz, Microscopic Septet founder Phillip Johnston gets plenty of film work. This one debuted a full ten years ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, played live to the 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness by the Transparent Quartet:  Johnston on soprano and alto saxes, Joe Ruddick on piano and baritone sax, Dave Hofstra on bass and Mark Josefsburg on vibes. More a haunting portrait of insanity than outright horror, A Page of Madness has achieved cult status as a rare example of 1920s Japanese avante-garde filmmaking (Kinugasa cited Murnau’s The Last Laugh as a major influence). For reasons unknown, literally dozens of record labels were approached but were unwilling to release this album, notwithstanding the fact that a more recent electronic score is absolutely lame and only detracts from the movie.

From his work with the Micros, Johnston makes a good match for the flick, being no stranger to effective, frequently very amusing narrative jazz. This is a radically different side of the composer and quite a departure from his usual approach in that there is a great deal of improvisation going on. This one-off set was played to a relatively slow 18ips projector speed, most likely to maximize shading and minimize the herky-jerky fast-forward effect that plagues so much of early cinema. Like the film, Johnston’s composition is sad, viscerally intense and frequently haunting, the group’s improvisations sometimes rising to shriekingly anguished crescendos to match the script, by far the darkest work Johnston has released to date. To call it schizophrenic attests to its success in tandem with the visuals. Many of the instrumental pieces, some as long as nine or ten minutes, segue into each other. The central theme is an indignant, twisted little march, beginning on the vibraphone but frequently picked up by the piano or, toward the end, by the sax, sometimes traded off between instruments. Counterintuitively, it’s Hofstra’s snapping bass that launches a fullblown episode on track nine where the central character loses it for good. Johnston flutters and floats more than he goes crazy, while Ruddick, definitely the star of the show here, gets to fly completely off the hinges with crazed runs from one end of the keyboard to the other, a couple of murderously raging chordal passages and some plaintive sax work in tandem with Johnston.

Toward the end, there’s a ten-minute dream sequence alternating between troubled and balmy until a fullscale nightmare sets in, followed by sort of an overture and closing with a breezy, tinkly swing number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Micros catalog, morphing into a snazzy tango only to end somberly with the central march theme. As much as possible, it’s closure, coming to grips with madness. This is treat for jazz and vintage cinema fans alike as well as anyone who enjoys listening to the darkest stuff imaginable late at night with the lights out. Watch this space for live dates by Johnston with his many diverse projects.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes Again 6/5/08

As regular readers of this page know well, multi-instrumentalist/chanteuse Rachelle Garniez has been playing a regular residency at Barbes at 10 the first Thursday of the month for what seems like forever. Tonight it was just her and longtime bassist Dave Hofstra, who’d patiently pedal a chord or run the changes while Garniez made up her mind what joke she wanted to tell or what she wanted to play next. The primary reason Garniez is such a captivating performer is because she never plays the same song the same way twice, not remotely. The rotating cast of characters backing her onstage is part of it, as is the wide diversity of styles in her repertoire, but it’s mostly because she’s not just entertaining the crowd: she’s also entertaining herself. Being someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, if something is good enough to tickle her, it’ll probably tickle everybody else too. Tonight it was less about the jokes and more about the music: she made up a set list on the spot and then played it, more or less all the way through without interruption.

Playing accordion, Garniez opened with a tongue-in-cheek, newish cabaret number. She likes to jam out intros and outros, using them basically as background for improv comedy. The big crowd-pleaser of the night was the bouncy Kid in the Candy Store with its sly Freudian metaphors and intro which of course Garniez made up on the spot. She also did another metaphor-driven number, Tourmaline, the anthropomorphosed semi-precious stone whose flaws make it all the more interesting, along with a towering, chordally-infused take of the Johnny Thunders classic You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. When the scars go, they let you know, and Garniez brought out every ounce of ache in the lyric.

Later, she switched to piano for Quality Star, which might be her best song. It’s a long, slowly crescendoing art-rock epic that builds to become one of the most savage kiss-off anthems ever. Casually and matter-of-factly, Garniez related her tale of a marriage gone horribly wrong, tinkling the handbells she’d brought with her as she opened the song, an effect that gave the crowd pause even while they were chuckling, while Garniez took her time climbing to the chorus:

But you say
Monsters like us don’t make good husbands and wives
But monsters lead such interesting lives
Now I don’t know what you’re hoping the future might bring
But monsters make the best of everything

Then she took a solo. On the album, her guitarist Matt Munisteri cranks it up just enough to hammer the point home, gently; live, it screams out for a vindictive crescendo, but in typical counterintuitive fashion, Garniez didn’t do that. Instead, she gave it a dismissive, even indifferent tone with an offhand series of jazz chords down the scale to where the outro starts to kick in:

You couldn’t pay me to go back
You couldn’t pay me to go back
You couldn’t pay me to go back to where I’ve been

And followed that with the very subtle revenge anthem After the Afterparty, the opening track on her latest cd Melusine Years (our pick for best album of 2007). Then she picked up her accordion again and reverted to the lighthearted tone she’d started with, closing with the punked-out oompah song Pearls and Swine, a reliable crowd-pleaser.

Here in the blogosphere – isn’t that where we are? – it’s considered gauche to spend too much time on any one band or artist. Nobody wants their blog to be dismissed as just another fansite, after all. But Garniez’ shows are all so different and so much fun for such widely different reasons: she’s someone you can actually go see every month without ever running the risk of boredom. If this review – and the next, and the next, because there will be more, never fear – succeed in failing to bore you, that’ll mean that we’ve been able to capture a little of what makes this elusive performer so spectacularly good.

June 6, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Rachelle Garniez – Melusine Years

Melusine translates from the French as water nymph or naiad (Rachelle Garniez is a Pisces, which may explain a few things). Nothing very watery about this album, though, unless you count the picture on the cd’s lyric booklet showing Garniez lounging on the Staten Island Ferry. To say that this is her best album to date may not seem like the staggering achievement that it is, until you realize that her last one, Luckyday remains one of the best albums of the decade. To surpass it was a Herculean feat, and Garniez has pulled it off, seemingly effortlessly. Simply put, there is no better singer, no better songwriter, no better keyboard player and – especially – no better live performer in all of rock than Rachelle Garniez. If you can call what she does rock.

Luckyday was a lush, ornately orchestrated blend of retro styles, and this one, while drawing from the same corners of vintage Americana, is somewhat more intimate. Garniez sings and dazzles on accordion, piano, bells and plays a little nylon-stringed guitar, accompanied by brilliant lead guitarist Matt Munisteri and low-frequencies expert Dave Hofstra, who plays upright bass and also tuba on one song. Garniez’ songs are timeless yet immutably rooted in the here-and-now. Most of what’s here has a blackly humorous, apocalyptic undercurrent: this is a loosely thematic concept album about fiddling while Rome burns.

It kicks off with After the Afterparty, an understatedly bitter midtempo piano ballad with an absolutely killer chorus gently illuminated by some expert Munisteri electric guitar fills. Garniez loves to vary her vocal delivery from a whisper to a roar – she sings in character, and she has a whole stable of them. But her voice here is plainspoken and sad, and it’s nothing short of riveting. This is a story of rejection. In the spirit of perhaps her best song (Quality Star, from Luckyday), it ends on a subtly vengeful note:

After the afterparty
You hailed me a taxi
And I buckled up for safety
Maybe I’ll live to be an old lady
With lots of big hats and jewelry

And an inscrutable air of mystery
And when questioned about my history
I’ll smile oh so sweetly
And whisper oh so discreetly
I can’t remember a thing

The following track, the bouncy, old-timey, accordion-driven Tourmaline brings the low-end gemstone to life in 6/8 time:

We all know you came in through the kitchen
Cause the floor sorta sticks to your feet
When you go better you use the back door
He’ll be waiting for you on the street
Oh he closes his eyes when he kicks you
For a cat cannot look at a queen
Realize when his memory tricks you
Oh he’s nothing but snow on your screen

After the amusingly brief Back in the Day (“When the saints came marching in/Nobody paid no mind so they marched right back out again”) and a sweetly soaring country song, Garniez reverts to her fondness for the underdog with Shoemaker’s Children, a Munisteri showcase. It has the feel of a Charley Patton classic, a haunting, rustic open-tuned blues for banjo and guitar, and it’s one of the more overtly ominous numbers on the cd:

‘Bout an hour before the flood
There’s nary a rat to be seen
And the people swarm the city to grab one last glimmer of green
Make way for the shoemaker’s children
Here they come marching down your street
Ten million strong they limp along on their twisted and broken feet

The next cut, Bed of Cherries is deliberately inscrutable: other than a possible reference to a cover album by the Church, this strange but beautifully played and sung catalog of unrelated objects seems to be more of a secret message than something written for the world. Then Garniez overdubs layers and layers of her own vocals to create an entire gospel choir on the rousing fragment Mama’s Got a Brand New Baby (which she uses as an intro for Tourmaline at live shows).

Lyrically, the album’s high point is the following track, People Like You. The sarcasm is brutal: over a blithe, finger-popping beat, Garniez does her best Rickie Lee Jones imitation. It’s arguably the most scathing, spot-on critique of the trendoids who have taken over New York that anyone’s written to date:

If you came here to make it big, well I wish you the best of luck
You can always head back out west if you ever get stuck
But if you came here to jerk my chain, I wish you the very worst
I don’t mean to be a pain but baby I got here first
And it’s people like you
Who don’t know pride from shame
And it’s people like you…
Who will never place a face before a name

Garniez toys with the “people like you” hook on the chorus, first accenting the “you,” then the “like.” The reason for the effect becomes clear at the end of the song when she starts going on about how everyone likes the newcomers: in fact, she ends up unable to resist them too. Yeah, and pigs can fly.

The cd continues with the macabrely amusing Pre-Post Apocalypse, something of a punk rock oompah song, followed by The Best Revenge, a sardonic yet stoically mournful account of living it up while temperatures rise, the poles melt and unspoiled children face a tough road ahead. As Garniez tells it, they rise to meet it, an unexpectedly hopeful end to an otherwise completely pessimistic song.

Like its predecessor, Melusine Years falls into a category that transcends any “best album of the year” designation [although it did make it to #1 on Lucid Culture’s Best Albums of 2007 list – Ed.] If the human race exists a hundred years from now, this album will be as revered a cautionary tale as George Orwell’s 1984. If not, it’s a fitting epitaph. In the case of the former, it ensures Garniez a permanent place in the pantheon of great American songwriters. Rachelle Garniez plays the cd release for Melusine Years at Joe’s Pub on December 22 at 9:30 PM.

December 18, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments