Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Edgy String Band Eclecticism from the Real Vocal String Quartet

Former Turtle Island Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, a pioneer of string-band improvisation, founded the all-female Real Vocal String Quartet. You could characterize them as a less caustic. considerably more eclectic alternative to Rasputina. They’re playing Barbes on Oct 13 at midnight – and then they’re at Passim in Cambridge, MA the next day at 4:30 PM! That same sense of adventure pervades their music, drawing on genres from around the world to create an enchanting, original, sometimes gypsy-tinged blend.

The best song on their 2010 self-titled debut was a radical reworking of a Paul Simon song, of all things. This time around, they open their new album Four Little Sisters by radically reworking Regina Spektor’s Machines, first giving it a slyly satirical, robotic bounce and then roaring through an outro that’s the furthest thing from detached and coldly mechanical. Everybody in the band – Sazer, violinist Alisa Rose (also of Quartet San Francisco), violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry – contributes vocals as well, therefore the band name.

Sazer’s instrumental Homage to Oumou follows, a swinging minor-key gypsy/klezmer romp capped by a blazing violin solo, held down by Ivry’s alternately stark, bowed washes and swinging pizzicato basslines. Elephant Dreams, by Rose, has a fresh, distantly West African tinge, swinging counterpoint and an edgy series of bluesy exchanges.

They begin Gilberto Gil’s Copo Vazio with an insistent staccato pulse, growing to pensive, lush chamber pop with a tersely thoughtful Sazer solo. Likewise, Maccabee’s arrangement of the cajun dance Allons a Lafayette gives it plenty of oomph – and some neat four-part vocal harmonies.

Duke Perarson’s Sweet Honey Bee is transformed by a Sazer arrangement into a tioptoeing but acerbic blues ballad with a long, intricately intertwining jam at the end – it makes a good segue with Vasen guitarist Roger Tallroth’s Falling Polska, a moody mix of the baroque and the Balkans. Durang’s Hornpipe, dating from the American Revolution, gets a rousing cajun treatment, and then a long jam, a vein they return to with the album’s more nocturnal concluding track, Grand Mamou Waltz. There’s also a bright, blue-sky cover of the Dirty Projectors’ Knotty Pine. It’s hard to think of another recent album that so entertainingly connects jazz, indie classical, jamband rock and so many other worlds as this one does.

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October 9, 2012 Posted by | folk music, jazz, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jazz Composer Howard Wiley’s Latest Album Looks Deeply Inside the Prison System

Howard Wiley’s 2006 album The Angola Project took its impetus from the saxophonist/composer’s experience with prisoners in the music program – such that there is one – at notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana. Five years later, he’s released a sequel, 12 Gates to the City, somewhat less grim but still unflinchingly aware of the harsh day-to-day conditions behind bars on the site of a former slave plantation – and something of a celebration of the efforts of the inmates there to maintain their sanity. Blending original jazz with rustic, bucolic gospel themes similar to the field recordings of convicts made by Allen Lomax and John Oster, this makes a good companion piece to Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement album (just reviewed here). It’ll resonate with fans of both classic gospel music and retro Americana interpreters like Lavay Smith and Daria Grace. Shelby plays bass here, alongside Wiley on alto and soprano saxophones, Geechi Taylor on trumpet,Yeruda Caesar-Kaptoech and Dina Maccabee on violins, drummer Sly Randolph, trombonist Danny Armstrong and singer Faye Carol.

There’s a lot of vocalese on these songs without words: in a way, Carol is the bad cop, the powerful low end, alongside an uncredited voice whose scatting has a distinctly Asian flavor. There’s considerable irony that an album that more than alludes to a kind of de facto slavery that’s still practiced in this country would evoke China, much of whose export economy is based on it. There are also echoes of the baroque on many of the tracks here which have strings, notably the warily hypnotic Come Forth (To the House of the Lord). The album builds with the rippling gospel boogie Old Highway 66 – which wouldn’t be out of place in Rev. Vince Anderson’s catalog – to the longing and stateliness of Captain Donna DeMoss, a tribute to the prison guard who impressed Wiley with her humanity during his time with the inmates.

Endless Fields, which depicts a cotton plantation ready for picking, adds jazz embellishments to a vintage 20s swing-pop tune. John Taylor, dedicated to a strong-voiced inmate who by all accounts was prohibited by the warden from participating in music, brutally evokes a master-slave relationship, with uneasy scurrying rhythms paired off against suspiciously blase piano. The rest of the album balances a handful of warmly swinging, wordless gospel numbers with a searing big band gospel jam, a gritty hip-hop number about life on the inside, and a diptych of tone poems that serve as the background for a thoughtful spoken-word interlude by former inmate Robert King, who aptly connects the dots between the American prison system and the practice of slavery.

As is commonly known, major multinational corporations rely on prison labor for everything from piecework to customer service. If you manage to get through to a call center at a major telecommunications company, you may well be talking to a prisoner. In one notorious case, California state prison laborers were forced to remove “made in China” tags and replace them with “made in USA” stickers. Such practices are typically justified by corporate executives as a way to maintain “competitiveness.” Interestingly, in economic terms, competitiveness equals hours worked divided by wages: slavery, theoretically if not realistically speaking, is infinitively competitive. One can only imagine the howls of indignation from the corporate elite should there be a public outcry against this shameful system. While there’s no harm in giving inmates a productive way to pass the time, like stamping out license plates or highway signs, displacing workers in the outside world is another matter. Meanwhile, entire rural areas have come to depend on the prison system as a sole source of income. To slow the steady flow of predominantly black and latino convicts from mainly urban areas would severely impact certain segments of the countryside: divide and conquer taken to its logical, ugly extreme.

February 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Real Vocal String Quartet

A cynic might call the Real Vocal String Quartet the happy Rasputina. But that doesn’t give the all-female new music ensemble enough credit – considering the global diversity of styles they play here, a better comparison would be genre-smashing jazz/Americana violinist/composer Jenny Scheinman. Founded by former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet blend classical, avant garde, bluegrass, Balkan and African influences; the ultimate result is completely unique. While Sazer writes most of the material, violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry also contribute. Everybody sings.

The album opens with a circular arrangement of Kenyan composer and nyatiti lute player Ayub Ogada’s Kothbiro, alternating rhythmic pizzicato with lush washes of ambience in a striking call-and-response. They follow that with a traditional Appalachian dance done as hypnotic Tinariwen-style desert blues, string quartet style. The single best number on the album is the darkly crescendoing, cinematic instrumental Night Game, which nonetheless finds a way to end on a cleverly playful, upbeat note. A diptych here sounds like traditional Italian folk music,  but it’s actually a couple of covers from the catalog of early Brazilian jazz pioneer Pixinguinha. Green Bean Stand harmonizes high vocalese with the strings, morphing into a hypnotically swaying one-chord dance vamp evocative of the ensemble’s Turtle Island cousins. There’s also a hauntingly rustic country song, the violins playing a guitar chart; a hypnotic, ambient tone poem with strings and vocalese; a tricky art-rock song with rousing harmonies, and a wistful vocal tune that gives way to a stately baroque theme. There’s so much here that it ought to appeal to a lot of fanbases: neoclassical types, world music and chamber music fans, and just your average pop/rock person looking for something good for the ipod.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments