Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Auspiciously Eclectic Ethiopian Sounds from Samuel Yirga

On his new album Guzo, Samuel Yirga polishes his reputation as a distinctive, individualistic voice on the piano. The Ethiopian-born, classically trained player has an extremely eclectic background encompassing jazz and funk as well as dub, notably with popular Ethiopiques project Dub Colossus. Here he blends the biting, austere motifs of traditional Ethiopian music with pretty much every other style he’s mined, emphasis on jazz as well as expansively moody, neoromantic solo pieces. As you might expect from someone with a background in dub, Yirga has a remarkable appreciation for space and dynamics: he lets notes linger, isn’t afraid to get very, very quiet, and his music is all the richer for it. While he can play very expressively, he chooses his spots, developing his ideas slowly and judiciously, leaving plenty of breathing room. The album was recorded with two different bands, in both his hometown of Addis Ababa and in the UK. All but one of the tracks are originals.

Yirga’s most exciting compatriot here is massinko fiddle player Endris Hassan, whose shivery, microtonal lines add an especially haunting edge to the pulsing, dub-influenced opening track as well as two others. Track two, Tiwista, features somberly bracing Ben Somers tenor sax over a steady, practically minimalist piano/bass vamp that Yirga eventually takes skyward with a series of spiraling clusters. The understatedly funky Firma Ena Wereket features more chilling massinko, a lushly dramatic horn chart and some memorably creepy, tersely chromatic explorations from Yirga – it’s one of the album’s high points.

From there, Yirga establishes a solo theme that sounds sort of like a minor-key variation on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which he returns to several times , first taking on a majestic, gospel-flavored tinge, then working it through a pensive, minimalist waltz. The most lushly arranged pieces here feature the Creole Choir of Cuba, first exploring a nebulously cinematic theme with electric guitar, reggae-ish bass and towering banks of horns, then soaring through a similarly lush version of Rotary Connection’s 1971 psychedelic soul anthem I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. This stuff is a lot closer to film music than jazz.

Moving along, Yirga romps through a carefree, dancing solo number, followed by the strikingly eclectic My Head, an ensemble piece that incorporates everything from romping salsa to creepy music-box motifs and artful vibraphone voicings, set against distantly menacing, swirling tenor sax from Feleke Hailu. The album ends with a ferocious return to moody, modal Ethiopiques and then a new wave soul number, African Diasopra, Nicolette Suwoton stoically lamenting how Africa has been looted by imperialists and their collaborators: “You give your gifts away for shiny plastic things.” It’s an unexpected way to end an album full of surprises.

October 15, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Truth About Bio Ritmo

Bio Ritmo’s new album La Verdad uses oldschool, classic Fania era salsa as its stepping-off point and blends in trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub for a sound that’s absolutely unique, and absolutely psychedelic. Keyboardist Marlysse Simmons-Argandona is their secret weapon. Sometimes she anchors the music with darkly reverberating Fender Rhodes lines; other times she goes way up for a glimmering, pointillistic, starlit vibe; then she’ll swoop in with the organ or shift to swinging Afro-Cuban salsa piano riffs. The horns move from bright, incisive bursts, to big, lushly jazzy swells, with frequent breaks for individual solos, as the timbales rattle, the congas hold the tunes close to the ground and the bass rises with a body-tugging groove. Singer Rei Alvarez is a mercurial, slyly surreal presence: when there are lyrics here, they work on several different levels.

As you would expect from a great oldschool album, there’s a distinct Side One and Side Two side here. The opening cut features unexpected touches like wah-wah keys and a blippy bass solo along with some tasty brass parts. A couple of the jazzier tracks, like the title number and Caravana del Vejicante (Clown Parade) often resemble the excellent, shapeshifting latin-influenced jazz group Either/Orchestra, with their cleverly shifting brass segments and smirking keyboard interludes. The third track, Dina’s Mambo, contrasts psychedelic slinky, conspiratorially swinging, psychedelic keys with hi-beam horns; the fourth, Carnaval, builds nonchalantly to a punked-out Afrobeat feel. There’s also the deliciously noir Verguenza (Shame); the bouncy, surprisingly carefree, sarcastic Majadero (The Noodge); the even creepier, Thelonious Monk-ish Lola’s Dilemma with its subtle dub echoes spicing up a tiptoeing son montuno melody; and the hidden track, an absolutely killer dub version of the second cut. If you wish you’d lived through the classic salsa era of the 70s – or if you did – this one’s for you. Bio Ritmo play the album release show for this one tonight at 10 at Southpaw; those who prefer the superior sonics at SOB’s should check out their Manhattan release show there at 8 PM on Nov 18. Also recommended: Bio Ritmo’s sister band Miramar, who recreate classic Puerto Rican boleros from the 1950s (and create some of their own) with a similarly dark psychedelic edge.

October 28, 2011 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dub Is A Weapon Vaporises the Competition

Dub Is a Weapon is another one of those great live bands that everybody takes for granted: like John Brown’s Body (just reviewed here), the road is where they excel. But they’re just as good in the studio.Want to get to know Dub Is a Weapon? This band knows how to get you hooked. Head on over to their music page and get four free downloads of their most popular songs. Then you can download the live shows up at archive.org. After all that, if reggae, or dub, or stoner music is your thing, you will probably want their latest album Vaporised, which is just out.

These guys really max out the possibilities you can get with reggae. Their instrumentals typically kick in with a catchy hook, feature a lot of gorgeous guitar/alto sax harmonies, and as much as you can get absolutely lost in a lot of this, it’s more straight-ahead and tuneful than all the dub acts who just vamp out on a single chord. If you know somebody who thinks dubstep is cool, turn them on to this – it’s the real deal. In fact, in a strangely woozy way, this album is one of the best of 2011.

These songs are long, six or seven minutes at a clip. The first one, Turbulence sets an eerie minor tune over a bubbly bassline and quickly goes down to just bass, percussion and wah guitar. Then the horns come in – it’s like classic Lee “Scratch” Perry but with more energy. They go spinning down to bass versus drums, then up to a sunbaked bluesmetal guitar solo that eventually pans your headphones. Finally, after about six minutes, it goes back to the hook and then sneaks out. It’s a good indication of what to expect as the album goes deeper.

Turmoil lets the aliens in the front door early. A balmy sax emerges and floats overhead, the bass goes up an octave, unexpectedly, the band cooks and then chills out again. Track three, Seven Doors starts out as ska before the rhythm goes completely haywire – is that 17/4 time? And then they do a really cool organ interlude, like dub Lonnie Smith. Asheville is not the bluegrass that its title might lead you to believe: it’s a launching pad for a long, thoughtful alto sax solo. The one vocal number here, Forwarding Home, is a sly, knowing Rasta repatriation anthem with a nice chromatic chorus and lots of snaky Middle Eastern-tinged guitar.

Persistence is another fast one with a sweet Balkan horn hook, a brisk drum/bass interlude and a lot of tongue-in-cheek scratchy guitar noise. A slinky minor-key groove, Curva Peligrosa has more of those nice guitar/sax harmonies, a slow, hypnotic guitar solo and a couple of echoey breakdowns. The best solo of all of them is from the guitar, on the devious, poppy Destiny – which is actually a one-chord jam if you think hard enough about it. The last cut, Insurrection keeps a suspenseful roots pulse going all the way from the trippy intro through some LOL swoopy stuff from a theremin, which the guitar finally nudges out of the picture, as if to say, enough. Then the theremin comes back in just to give the guitar the finger. Watch this space for NYC area shows.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars: The Ultimate 4/20 Experience?

What happened Wednesday night? Oh yeah, it was 4/20 (google it if you don’t know already). Seriously, though, John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars brought a potentially mind-melting bill of cutting-edge roots reggae to an enthusiastic, sold-out, smoked-out crowd at Highline Ballroom. JBB are a band everybody takes for granted: they live on the road, play pretty much every major festival and have earned themselves a rep as one of the most reliably entertaining psychedelic acts out there. They take reggae to the next level: maybe more than any other modern reggae band, they’ve been responsible for pushing its evolution while keeping the spirit of the classic 70s Jamaican sound alive. Anyone who doesn’t know them should go to the band’s site and grab the two albums – including a delicious live collection assembled from last year’s tour – plus the assorted tracks that they’re giving away for free.

They wound their way into the set casually and methodically, Nate Edgar’s catchy basslines anchoring the bounce as drummer Tommy Bennedetti artfully worked the edges with some neat fills and cymbal hits. This band has always had a feel for dub, but they’ve bred it to a sticky purity. They don’t overdo it, breaking the songs down to a vortex of space echo for maybe a chorus at a time, not much more, before circling back to an earthy groove. One of the band’s trademarks has always been to have all kinds of fun with keyboard effects: switching effortlessly through every wah setting and woozy patch within reach, keyboardist JP Petronzio was obviously entertaining himself as much as he was the crowd. A recent track, So Aware blended Ethiopian influences with a couple of neat dub interludes, as did another one, basically a one-chord jam that pulsed along on a catchy, circling hook as the guitar and keys intertwined until any attempt to figure out who was playing what was a waste of time. It was more fun just to stand and sway as the waves of sound kept coming. A fierier, minor-key track, The Gold took a swipe at the current system, offering hope for a different, less money-oriented culture. Resonant and resolute in front of the band, singer Elliott Martin had the waves of bodies swaying along with him through the majestic, more traditional echoes of Speak of the Devil. A long instrumental section followed in the same vein, with another dub interlude, a sweet organ solo and a trick ending. The set wound up with the catchy, upbeat The Grass; the towering epic Blazing Love, trumpeter Sam Dechenne at one point playing what could have been the most interesting one-note solo ever done, blipping and blasting his way into and then out of the murky sonic kaleidoscope; and Zion Triad, a suite that took it up into the rafters much like how Burning Spear would close his shows back in the 80s.

If JBB represents everything that’s good about current-day reggae, the Easy Star All-Stars are the funniest reggae band alive. The crowd that stayed for them had really come out to make it the 4/20-est night of the year, and when the band launched into Pink Floyd’s Breathe (from the band’s first adventure in classic covers, Dub Side of the Moon), they went nuts. After about a minute of oscillating On the Run synth, when Jenny Hill substituted a bubbly jazz flute interlude for one of David Gilmour’s anguished guitar solos, it was impossible not to laugh. Which is why it’s so mystifying that this band’s devious, far-reaching sense of humor is so absent from their original stuff. They opened with a number possibly titled Don’t Give up the Music, a dead ringer for Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Come, delivered fervently by an animated, dancehall-style frontman. The reggae-pop they did afterward was competent, their bassist singing one number while firing off one tricky hook after another, but it never resonated more than it did when they finally did Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band and then an irresistible singalong of A Little Help from My Friends, everybody’s glowing coals raised high in the air. Their Radiodread stuff is arguably even more imaginative and lots of fun – and for obvious reasons doesn’t sound much like the originals. But when they brought up some guy from a reality tv show to embarrass himself in front of the band, it was time to call it a night and head to the train.

And a big shout out to Winston who was playing the subway platform in the wee hours at 14th Street. This was a late one for the veteran West Indian busker with the battered keyboard and the sweet soul voice. He’s at least fifty, possibly a lot older but he’s still here entertaining tired travelers more nights than not. He might have been the best singer of the whole night. He’s sort of a live, one-man Gil Bailey Show: mention a classic rocksteady or reggae tune from the 60s or 70s and he probably knows it. He doesn’t have a website but you can take a flyer with his number on it when you throw something in his tip bucket.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 4/12/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #658:

The Congos – Heart of the Congos

Considered to be dub producer genius Lee “Scratch” Perry’s finest hour, this 1977 roots reggae classic was reissued as a double cd in 1993 along with a handful of rare, consistently excellent, absolutely psychedelic dub versions of original album tracks. The harmony trio’s lead singer Cedric Myton’s falsetto soars over the oldschool backing unit, including Boris Gardiner on bass and Ernie Ranglin on guitar, as Perry moves one instrument and then another through the mix, twisting and turning them inside out, sometimes breaking it down to just the drums or the bass, everything drenched in reverb. The songs run the gamut: from the remake of the old mento song Fisherman (complete with a basso profundo shout-out to a local herb dealer); the hypnotic chant Congoman; the gospel-influenced Open Up the Gate, Sodom and Gomorrow and Can’t Come In; the sufferahs’ anthems La La Bam Bam (Jamaican patwa for “clusterfuck”) and Children Crying; and the Rasta anthems Ark of the Covenant, Solid Foundation and At the Feast. Here’s a random torrent.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comic Wow’s New Album is Pure Psychedelic Genius

A couple of weeks ago we invented a drink. We call it Drano. It’s very simple, Tropical Fantasy Blue Raspberry soda and vodka (hey, when there’s torrential rain outside, sometimes you have to make do with what you have in the fridge). It’s the perfect drink, both visually and tastewise, for the new Comic Wow album Music for Mysteries of Mind Space and Time. Playful, tongue-in-cheek, sometimes silly, often ridiculously psychedelic, it’s 1960s-flavored, cinematic rock instrumentals in the same vein as the Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack or XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear project. And it’s pure genuius: it could be a stoner soundtrack to a long-lost low-budget 1968 Cypriot detective film. With an absurd collection of every rock effect from the era – wah-wah, reverb, echo, melodies sputttering up dubwise into the mix only to retreat seconds later, or panning across the speakers and then back – it works equally well as satire and homage to psychedelic excess, especially because the tunes are so catchy. With a museum’s worth of vintage keyboard patches, banjo (?!), guitar, bass and drums, it has the same kind of WTF, out-of-the-box creative quality as the Peruvian chicha music from the 70s we love so much.

The first track is typical: a distantly Pink Floyd-style melody but with honkytonk instrumentation that telegraphs the ornate art-rock majesty that will appear soon. The second track is also basically a country melody, starting out with banjo and then morphing into an oscillating electro keyb song and again. The unselfconsciously amusing, swinging Jazz Computer assembles an impossible series of electric piano layers, blippy, bouncy and reverberating – and is that an Omnichord? Another track sets woozily oscillating Dr. Dre synth over Penny Lane piano – it’s ridiculously catchy and ought to go on longer than it does.

The next one takes what you can do with a clavinova to its logical extreme and then suddenly morphs into a trippy late 90s style interlude – with a vocoder. After that, a spy theme emerges gradually from a clubby techno vamp with fake horns and Spike Jones effects, switches to a brief, off-kilter Beefheart guitar-and-drums interlude followed by an Alan Parsons Project sequencer-and-synth segment. A march titled Encore Electronics Flute Fax starts out just plain hilarious and then gets ominous and dramatic, then goes for even more laughs with a flute-driven early 70s style chase scene. Chimp on a Pew reaches for trippy menace a la the Electric Prunes, a feel they take to the next level on Minor Hexagons. The longest number is Water Music Treadmill, a one-chord jam that mines dark, thumping, hypnotic Black Angels ambience. The album closes with Meet the Vampeatles which is just plain sick, a tv theme as written by Jeff Lynne and done by the Bonzo Dog Band, maybe. It’s out now on Asthmatic Kitty.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: iLa Mawana at Sullivan Hall, NYC 5/6/10

Here’s a fun band to check out this summer if you can figure out how to spell their name (you have to wonder how stoned whoever came up with that one was). iLa Mawana play all different kinds of roots reggae – upbeat anthems, slow grooves, sweet ballads and some psychedelic dub – and do all of it well. Late on a weeknight, they kept the Sullivan Hall crowd in the house and had everybody swaying through a 40-minute set that could have gone on for twice as long if the club had let them. Bassist Ryan Hinchey was perfect, supplying fat, chronic low end just a hair behind the beat like Family Man Barrett did in the Wailers. Drummer Sammy Wags had the one-drop down cold but also had a lot of different beats up his sleeve, especially on the faster numbers, abetted by a nimble conga player stashed toward the back of the stage. Organist Jason Moore added funky blips and bleeps when he wasn’t washing away the River of Babylon with a river of his own; guitarist Dave Rosen didn’t get the chance to step out much, but when he did he showed off a warm, understated Steve Cropper soul style. Singer Gianpaolo Blower goes for casual and laid-back – this band is all about good vibes – with some brassy, spot-on high harmonies from the band’s friend Sarah, who came up from the audience to join them for the second part of the set. They segued from their slinky opener, Dub Electa into a quick romp through a hypnotic one-chord jam, then into another original featuring a casually bluesy solo from their excellent alto sax player (their three-piece horn section added a welcome brightness over the trance-inducing pulse of the bass). Shifting chords hypnotically until it was practically impossible to find the beat – just moving anywhere at this point felt good – Tree Dub gave their trumpeter a chance to choose his spots.

The title track to their forthcoming new album Soldiers of Sound was as dubwise as they got, bringing it down with simple yet dizzyingly effective reverb guitar. The set wound up with a couple of fast, bouncy numbers, Frankly and Mortal Motion and closed with the big, spiritually charged Karmaland that wound down to just a tasty keyboard solo over the bass and drums at the end. If roots reggae is your thing – from the classics to current-day stars like Groundation and Meta & the Cornerstones – iLa Mawana (there – got it right) will hook you up. The cd release show is at Harpers Ferry in Allston, MA on 5/15; summer tourdates below.

May 07 – Greene, NY – Headyfest

May 08 – Narragansett, RI – The Wheelhouse

May 15 – Boston, MA – Harpers Ferry

May 20 – Miami Beach, FL – Purdy Lounge

May 21 – Sarasota, FL – Pastimes Pub

May 26 – Gainesville, FL – Backstage Lounge

May 27 – Orlando, FL – Plaza Theatre

May 28 – Panama City Beach, FL – Reggae J’s

May 29 – Satellite Beach, FL – Sports Page

May 30 – Sebastian, FL – Captain Hiram’s Resort

June 01 – Austin, TX – Flamingo Cantina

June 06 – Huntington Beach, CA – Gallagher’s Pub

June 16 – Portland, OR – Mt. Tabor Theater

June 17 – Arcata, CA – Jambalaya

June 18 – San Francisco, CA – Mojito

June 19 – San Francisco, CA – The Mezzanine

June 26 – Block Island, RI – Captain Nick’s

June 27 – Block Island, RI – Captain Nick’s

July 08 – Westerly, RI – Paddy’s Beach

July 16 – Rochester, NY – Dubland Underground

Aug 27 – Ithaca, NY – Castaways

Also worth knowing if Afrobeat is your thing – the massively funky, horn-driven 12-piece band Emefe, who played before iLa Mawana were also a lot of fun and had a lot of people dancing.

May 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment