Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

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May 18, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 7/9/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #570:

Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – Trio

Three of the finest voices of the past decades joined forces in 1987 for this spirited, inspired mix of traditional Americana classics and a few originals. This is Dolly’s project, a landmark in her career because it represented her first break from the pop schlock she’d been covering for the previous ten years or so; likewise, it reinvigorated Harris’ career and underscored Ronstadt’s then-newfound cred as a purist equally adept at rancheras, country and jazz. They do the old Dolly/Porter Wagoner tune Making Plans as well as her own Wildflowers, take their time with The Pain of Loving You, These Memories of You and a plaintive Telling Me Lies, go more rustic with Jimmie Rodgers’ Hobo’s Meditation, the traditional English folk song My Dear Companion and the early Nashville gothic tune Rosewood Casket. Despite dating from the synth era, the musicianship is remarkably inspired as well; the only dud here is a forgettable Phil Spector bubblegum hit. Here’s a random torrent.

July 9, 2011 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Molly’s Third Album Takes Americana Roots Music to New Places

One of the best-loved and smartest Americana roots bands, Red Molly pretty much live on the road. The seamless, soaring intensity of the harmonies and the chemistry between the musicians reflect it: these women are pros. The obvious comparison is the Dixie Chicks, another road-seasoned group, although Red Molly are lot more rootsy and less pop: they’re one of the few groups out there who can slide into an oldtime vernacular without sounding the least bit cliched or contrived. With their high lonesome harmonies, catchy bluegrass-inspired songwriting and incisive acoustic arrangements, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be any less popular than, say, Lady Antebellum (although in certain parts of the world, Red Molly are already more popular than Lady Antebellum). In case they’re new to you, the “Mollies” are Laurie MacAllister on bass, guitar and banjo, Abbie Gardner on dobro and guitar along with the newest addition to the band, Molly Venter (that’s her real name). Their latest album, James, holds to the high standard they set on their first two, while adding a slightly more propulsive edge which makes sense in that this is the first album they’ve done with drums.

The songs are a mix of light and dark. Gardner gets to show off her jazz chops on the western swing classic The End of the Line – Patsy Cline as done by the Moonlighters, maybe? – with some jaunty ragtime piano from her dad, Herb Gardner. The bitter Appalachian gothic lament Black Flowers could be a classic folk song, its narrator taking pains to explain how the only guy in town who’s doing well is the undertaker. The creepy You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive shatters any romantic notion you might have about Tennessee coal mining country, and Tear My Stillhouse Down wouldn’t be out of place on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums.

Falling In, a suspensefully lush, sultry ballad features some absolutely brilliant, understated drum and percussion work from Ben Wittman, who adds similarly clever contributions throughout the album. Gardner’s Jezebel imaginatively blends blues and gospel influences: beware, this girl’s a barracuda! Fred Gillen Jr. guests on Gulf Coast Highway, a warmhearted portrait of an old bluecollar Florida couple trying to hang on in the new depression. There’s also the slowly crescendoing Looking for Trouble, a cautionary tale for a big boozer; the hypnotic, bluesy Troubled Mind, featuring some memorable violin work from Jake Amerding; the swinging honkytonk blues I Can’t Let Go, a showcase for Gardner’s characteristically biting, edgy dobro; and a gorgeous a-cappella version of the old folk song Foreign Lander. Red Molly play the big room at the Rockwood on 2/24 at 7:30 PM; they’re also at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn with Pat Wictor on guitar on 3/19.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | country music, folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 12/1/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #790:

Dolly Parton – Little Sparrow

If you’ve followed this list as we’ve been rolling it out (or as it’s been unraveling, as somebody here put it), you’ve probably noticed an absence of classic country albums. That’s because so many great country artists were singles artists. Their albums tend to have a few good cuts surrounded by lots of filler: songs written on the fly by the producer, or included as a favor to the producer’s out-of-work friends, that kind of thing. Here’s one that’s not. Dolly Parton had written a ton of good songs by the time she put this one out in 2001, the second in a series of extremely successful acoustic albums that saw her return to her bluegrass roots. It’s a loosely thematic Nashville gothic album of sorts with a supernatural theme, its centerpiece the whispery witch’s tale Mountain Angel, followed by the winsome, compelling Marry Me. She’s always been known for wacky covers (she’d do Led Zep the next time out); this one has an actually excellent, unrecognizable version of Shine by Collective Soul (featuring Nickel Creek), and a surprisingly effective cover of Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You. There’s also the soaring, plaintive title track and a lickety-split Seven Bridges Road; a version of I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby that’s even bouncier than the original; the ballads A Tender Lie and The Beautiful Lie (thematic, you see); the Irish traditional song Down from Dover, and the country gospel mainstay In the Sweet Bye and Bye to wrap it up. Dolly sings her heart out and the energy is contagious: the band sound like they’re about to jump out of their shoes with joy in places. Here’s a random torrent.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Dolly Parton – Letter to Heaven

We strive for counterintuitivity: bet you never thought you’d see a Dolly Parton album here, let alone a country gospel record! Letter to Heaven is a reissue, most of its tracks recorded over a three-day span in 1970 and released on her Golden Streets of Glory album in 1971, included in its entirety here along with an outtake and a small handful of subsequent singles, some hits, some not. This is as pop as country ever got back then and yet it’s more country than most anything coming out of Nashville these days. As was the case back then, on many of these songs, by the time the last chorus rolls around, the only things left in the mix are vocals, orchestra and drums. But the changes, and the voice are pure country gospel: Carrie Underwood, eat your Philistine heart out. As with any Dolly Parton recording, she’s the star, although an allstar cast of Nashville studio veterans including pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the late pedal steel player Pete Drake and guitarist Chip Young all get to contribute memorably, if only for a bar or two at a time.

The test of spiritual music is how well it resonates outside the choir, and if there’s anyone capable of transcending that limitation, it’s Dolly Parton. You hear that brittle vibrato and you don’t realize what an explosive upper register she has – it’s amazing how little that voice has aged. Plaintive, longing and above all, humble, she probably had no idea how well this album would withstand the test of time – or maybe she did. She was a first-class songwriter in an age when women were not exactly encouraged (other than by Owen Bradley) to write their own material, and unsurprisingly it’s her own songs here that stand up the strongest. The best song on the album is, perhaps expectedly, the previously unreleased track, Would You Know Him If You Saw Him. Pretty and jangly with guitar and organ, it has Parton gently yet pointedly reminding us not to turn away from those in need: a test could be involved – or just the opportunity to do a mitzvah and feel good about it. Robbins gets to add some marvelous barrelhouse piano on Master’s Hand, which switches in a split second from a retelling of the story of the Flood to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago. Church is fun for this crew! The country gospel classic Wings of a Dove gets mariachi horns; Comin For to Carry Me Home, a country shuffle reworking of Swing Low Sweet Chariot gets a remarkable bounce courtesy of an uncredited bass player (they just ran ’em in and ran ’em out in those days – how little times have changed!). Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man, a duet with longtime harmony partner (and civil defendant) Porter Wagoner has a Johnny Cash feel to it. And the title track runs from schmaltzy to creepy in seconds flat – the little girl misses her dead mom, so she gets hit by a bus. Ostensibly the two are happy together again. By the time the last track, The Seeker (a #2 country hit in 1975) comes up, it’s striking how fast things have changed – the dirt has been scrubbed out of it and exchanged for a swamp-pop bass groove.

Dolly Parton’s latest initiative is typical: it’s called “Dolly Helps Nashville,” a campaign to aid survivors of the recent floods there. Details at her site at the link above. Bless her heart.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | country music, gospel music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Real Live Bluegrass in New York City? Yee Ha!

All you out-of-towners might be shocked to know that there’s a vibrant bluegrass scene in New York. The Dixie Bee-Liners, whose new album just hit #1 on the Roots Music Report got their start here. Since they left town, the best band around these parts is Straight Drive, whose gorgeously soulful performance of old-time, old school style bluegrass at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night would have made Bill Monroe proud. A lot of new bluegrass bands give off a coldly sterile, fussily technical vibe, but not this crew. Fiddle player Ronnie Feinberg made his marvelously precise runs look effortless. Banjo player Terry McGill was even more impressive when not soloing than when he was. He has great technique and a terrific way of building to a crescendo, but when he plays rhythm, he doesn’t just comp chords: he uses the whole fretboard, toying expertly with the melody. He threw everybody for a surprise by ending one song with a couple of high chromatics, and then bent the neck of his banjo ever so slightly to raise the pitch. Their new mandolinist is a vast improvement over the guy he replaced, the bass player pushed the beat along and frontwoman Jen Larson was brilliant as usual. Incongruous as it may seem, the most striking and haunting voice in maybe all of bluegrass belongs not to someone south of the Mason-Dixon line, but to this casually captivating architecture historian originally from Boxford, Massachusetts.

But she didn’t do the haunting thing tonight. This was Straight Drive’s fun set. This crew knows that a lot of bluegrass is dance music, and while they didn’t get the crowd on their feet, everybody except the trio of trendoids in the corner yakking away, oblivious to the music, were swaying back and forth and clapping along. Their version of Bill Monroe’s (Why Put Off Til Tomorrow) What You Can Do Today had fire and bounce; their cover of Hank Williams’ Blue Love was nothing short of sultry. The best of the vocal numbers, which they interspersed among the instrumentals, was a warmly swaying 6/8 number written by Larson that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dolly Parton record from the mid-sixties. Larson can give you chills but tonight’s show proved she can also make you smile and keep your head bobbing in time with the melody. Like most of the best New York bands, they don’t do a lot of shows here because the money is on the road, where audiences are used to lousy cover bands, and a show by a group like Straight Drive is a special treat that you can’t just see any old day.

February 11, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments