Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz for Radiohead Fans

What if there was such a thing as warm Radiohead? Or would that defeat the whole point of Radiohead’s music? To what degree is it necessary to rely on coldly slick digital production and mechanical arrangements to communicate a feeling of disconnection and alienation? What if a group managed to recreate the apprehensive, trippy ambience of Radiohead using real instruments instead of computers and electronic effects?

There are two answers to that question. The first you probably know because it goes back a few years – to the Radiodread album by the Easy Star All-Stars. But that band’s roots reggae cover versions are a parody. Those spoofs are as amusing as they are because roots reggae is such a viscerally warm style, 180 degrees from the source material. Then there’s the new Watershed album by eclectic Japanese jazz pianist Satoko Fujii’s Min-Yoh Ensemble. Min-yoh is Japanese folk music; the album is an attempt to explore themes from that tradition. By whatever quirk of fate, or clever design (Fujii can be devious, and is encyclopedically diverse), this album doesn’t sound particularly Asian.

What it sounds most like is Radiohead, beginning with its somber piano introduction, evoking the first seconds of Kid A and moving on from there. That track, aptly titled The Thaw, eventually reaches a distant bustle, with Natsuki Tamura’s trumpet, Andrea Parkins’ accordion and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all emoting restlessly, separate and alone. The band pair off in twos in the sonic equivalent of split-screen cinematography on the next track, Whitewater, Parkins hypnotically holding to a Beatlesque hook. Where Radiohead use loops, this group will run a circular theme over and over, sometimes with the trumpet, other times with the piano as the other instruments scurry and diverge. The third track has the trumpet holding it down with a brooding riff very similar to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here as the other players go their separate ways, somewhat furtively. The fourth runs a loop until it literally explodes – it doesn’t take long – and then the individual pieces rise and squall over an elegantly murky backdrop. Wary atmospherics grow lively and then subside. The final cut alternates swirls of creepy vocalese with trumpet: it would be a fantastic choice as horror film music as the plot closes in on the killing scene. Of course, evoking Radiohead to any extent at all may not have been part of the plan here: sometimes great ideas are invented more or less simultaneously. Whatever the case, Radiohead fans ought to check this out: the similarities are remarkable.

Fujii also has two other more specifically jazz-oriented albums also out on her terrific little Libra label: the exuberant, boisterously funny and even more cinematic Eto, with her Orchestra New York big band; and Kaze, a a somewhat stark, sometimes abrasive, like-minded collaboration with French trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins.

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October 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, 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

CD Review: Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band

This is the third classic album playfully covered by the all-star New York-based roots reggae crew the Easy Star All-Stars, after Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread. Basically, what they discovered is you can take pretty much anything and make reggae out of it and it’ll sound good. Consider: Shinehead took the odious Seals & Crofts hit Summer Breeze, changed the lyrics, retitled it Collie Weed and…a classic! Thankfully, this album demonstrates far more craftsmanship and subtlety. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s actually better than the original. The band is vastly tighter and the production is far more focused yet brimming with little touches that are often laugh-out-loud funny, much in the same vein as Brian Jonestown Massacre or XTC’s lovingly spot-on parodies of 60s psychedelia, issued under the Dukes of Stratosphear pseudonym a little over 20 years ago.

 

At the end of the opening theme, in lieu of McCartney’s satirical voiceover, a toaster delivers a brief Rasta benediction. From there, the producers have completely mixed up the tracks, but it’s still a fun ride. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds has bright, melismatic Frankie Paul loverman vocals with ringing guitar that pays homage to the original. Getting Better features the Mighty Diamonds on vocals, sounding as good as ever, slowing it down from the original’s farcical stomp. The only drawback is that the original’s silliness was its selling point: rearranged this way, it’s a nice poppy reggae song, nothing more.

 

Fixing a Hole features none other than Max Romeo on vocals, a hilariously apt choice considering his notoriously disingenuous claim that his big hit Wet Dream was actually about a leaky roof! This one gets deliciously spacy echoes of vintage Scratch Perry. She’s Leaving Home gets a soulful, rather sultry vocal treatment by a newcomer, Kirsty Rock over a fast rocksteady beat. Without missing a beat, the bass drops out and the reverb kicks in when you least expect it. For the Benefit of Mr. Kite has the English Beat’s Ranking Roger on lead vocals, bringing it up doublespeed from the spacy dub first verse and then back again just as fast.

 

Within You Without You has a sitar and Matisyahu doing his best cantorial impression, and he actually doesn’t embarrass himself, with a vivid string section playing much of the original sitar part. When I’m Sixty-Four begins with a trombone call and goes on for over five minutes, Sugar Minott on vox, a showcase for the excellent horn section featuring the nucleus of the Burning Brass, baritone sax virtuoso Jenny Hill and trumpet goddess Pam Fleming, with an understatedly woozy dub breakdown.

 

Lovely Rita has Bunny Rugs and U-Roy, the latter taking it back to 1972 or so with his best Dread in a Babylon-style off-the-cuff nonsense. Good Morning Good Morning is the weakest track here, Steel Pulse sounding slick and uninspired like they were on their studio albums from the 80s rather than mining the classic, dark, heavy sound they’ve recently rediscovered with a vengeance. Surprisingly, the Sgt. Pepper reprise is next, followed by A Day in the Life. Done with an insistent Ras Michael style riddim, it has Michael Rose of Black Uhuru and Menny More sharing vocals, the band holding perfectly steady as the orchestra rises to a crescendo, the final piano note oscillating dubwise for just as long as George Martin’s fist-on-the-strings. A Little Help from My Friends has Luciano on lead vocals, and it might be the best song he’s ever done, thanks to the band’s inspired performance. Right now the whole album is available for streaming at imeem. Caveat: after the first song, don’t forget to refresh the page, otherwise you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad. And make sure your popup blocker is working.

 

Since this crew seem to have dedicated themselves to covering one iconic artist after another, we’d like to suggest a few ideas. Dread at the Apollo would be James Brown covers, preferably recorded live, uptown at the same place – hey, it would be a short train ride for most of the musicians. The Man in Red, Gold and Green would be Johnny Cash songs. And to give the lady performers a chance to flex, how about Fox Confessor Bring de Herb? That would be Neko Case, yeah mon!  

April 14, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment