Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Winter Jazzfest 2014: The Best One Yet, At Least From a Saturday Perspective

The lure of Winter Jazzfest over the last decade or so has been the potential for serious bang for the buck: a marathon of jazz festival stars, cult heroes and heroines jammed into two nights on the Bleecker Street strip. Like the best jazz improvisation, Winter Jazzfest can be transcendent. By the same token, recent years have had many maddening moments, lines outside the clubs gowing to ridiculous proportions, especially as crowds armed with ostensibly all-access passes reached critical mass during the Saturday portion of the festival.

Solution: move the bigger draws to bigger venues. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society sure to sell out a Saturday night gig (which they did, no surprise)? Move ‘em to the expansive, sonically exquisite confines of Subculture. Henry Threadgill leading a new ensemble through an American premiere? No problem. Stick ’em in Judson Church, a comfortable stone’s throw from the West 4th Street subway. This may have been a long overdue move on the part of the festival’s producers, but it couldn’t have been more successful. By midnight, a couple of venues were filled to capacity, but although crowds at the other spaces were strong, there was plenty of room for everybody who was still up for more music.

Argue’s big band threatened to upstage everything else on Saturday’s bill.  How does the composer/conductor keep so much suspense and intensity going when his changes tend to be so static and often so far between? With endlessly surprising, constantly shifting voices, subtle rhythmic variations and a voracious approach to blending genres: the foundations of his songs may go on for what seems forever, but there are a million tunes wafting overhead. They opened with All In, a steadily strolling, spicily brassy homage to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, its centerpiece being a thoughtfully energetic Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo. From there they dove into the opening suite from the ensemble’s latest album Brooklyn Babylon (rated #1 for the year at this blog‘s Best Albums of 2013 page). The whole group reminded how much fun, not to mention aptitude, they have for Balkan music, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen wowing the crowd with her blazing chromatics. From there, Adam Birnbaum’s creepy music box piano kicked off the jackhammer optimism of The Neighborhood, roaring boisterousness juxtaposed with uneasily flitting motives from the reeds. Argue brought that disquiet front and center by fast-forwarding to the brooding Coney Island; they closed with a pastoral Levon Helm dedication, Last Waltz for Levon, featuring a moody, wistful Ryan Keberle trombone solo and a similarly bittersweet duet for Sebastian Noelle’s strummed acoustic guitar and Matt Clohesy’s bass..

Over at Judson Church, the crowd gathered slowly in anticipation of Threadgill’s set and was treated to a magically crepuscular one from pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, the duo alternating compositions. He built to a bracing series of glissandos and trills on his opening number over her hypnotic, harplike inside-the-piano brushings; she followed with a resonant, lingering piece that rose to a creepy altered boogie of sorts. They gave a Feldman suite based on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth a dynamic intensity, brooding sostenuto up against angst-fueled swells and ebbs and ended on a quieter, more suspenseful note with a Courvoisier work.

Threadgill was on the bill to conduct the American premiere of his Butch Morris tribute Old Locks and Irregular Verbs with his new Ensemble Double Up. This turned out to be very much like Morris at the top of his game. Rather than playing purely improvised music, Morris’ larger ensembles would develop variations on a theme or two, sometimes utilizing a couple of pages of composition, and this suite had that kind of ring. Pianist Jason Moran opened with a mournfully elegaic, spaciously funereal, bell-like introduction that rose from stygian depths toward the kind of blues/gospel allusions that Morris liked to employ. From there Threadgill introduced a classically-tinged, anticipatory theme that Jose Davila’s tuba propelled upward in methodical stairstepping waves in tandem with Craig Weinrib‘s trap drums, Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu’s alto saxes blustery and atmospheric in turn over cellist Christopher Hoffman’s uneasy ambience. The group followed the long first movement with two shorter variations, the first opening with dancing, bubbly reeds and fluid upper-register piano, the second kicking off with glimmering resonance from pianist David Virelles, moving toward a distant overture of sorts and a bittersweetly triumphant if somewhat muted coda. It made for an aptly elegant sendoff for a guy who did so much, so elegantly, for largescale improvisation.

Over in the boomy sonics of Vanderbilt Hall at NYU Law School, Mostly Other People Do The Killing had some of the crowd doubled over laughing and some of the older attendees scratching their heads. New York’s funniest, most entertaining band in any style of music, never mind jazz, have a new album out, Red Hot, which parodies every 20s hot jazz trope ever ground into shellac, and the group aired out several of those tunes with characteristically unstoppable verve. What makes MOPDtK so funny is that they really know their source material. For fifteen-second intervals, it was easy to get into toe-tapping mood…but then the band would do something wry or droll or ridiculous and throw a wrench in the works. Trumpeter Peter Evans built an echoey, reverb-infused vortex with endless swirls of circular breathing early on, which bass trombonist David Taylor took to vastly greater deep-space extremes later in the set.

Pianist Ron Stabinsky got plenty of laughs out of a solo that was mostly pregnant pauses, then got people howling with a medley of licks that began in the jazz pantheon but then spanned from Billy Joel to Foreigner…and then to Bach and Beethoven. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea and guest guitarist Jon Lundbom seemed preoccupied with getting the brief period-perfect bits back on track while Evans and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who’d just played tenor and bass clarinet for Argue) engaged in characteristically snide, mealymouthed banter. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the jokes that continued throughout compositions with titles like Seabrook. Power. Plant. (named after frequent MOPDtK guest Brandon Seabrook’s band as well as three towns in Pennsylvania), the Shickshinny Shimmy, Turkey Foot Corner and King of Prussia.

Eyebone, guitarist Nels Cline’s eclectically assaultive, swirling power trio with drummer Jim Black and pianist Teddy Klausner was next and made a similarly energetic alternative to Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, who were scheduled to hit around the same time at the church up the block. They opened with jarringly percolating, fleetingly leaping phrases from Cline’s loop pedals and then hit a deep-water ominousness, went into atmospherics and then a riff-driven, metalish interlude. Klausner followed a Cline descent into messy, muddy terrain with one of his own, then the band brought it up with a roar, ending their set with an aggressiveness that made a great segue with Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon.

E-Sharp didn’t even play guitar in this set, but his tenor sax work mirrors what he does on the frets. It was cool to see the man of a million notes and ideas leading the group through a defly animated workout on minimalist chamber themes. His vigorous, emphatic direction and playing were mirrored by the ensemble, heavy on the low end with twin basses and trombones, Jessica Pavone and Judith Insell on violas plus Jenny Lin on piano and Danny Tunick nimbly negotiating between drums, various percussion and vibraphone. They kicked off with a mighty, Zarathustra-ish theme punctured by the occasional squall or shriek, blustery diversion or Braxton-esque atmospheric swell. Sharp carved out lots of pairings: Pavone an anchor to Lin’s rapidfire knuckle-busting octave attack, the trombones channeling a stormy orchestral bustle, filling the sonic picture from bottom to top, the basses doing the same later on. Sharp filled the brief spaces between movements with fleeting, supersonic upper-register passages and frantic flurries of bop, eventually bringing everything full circle with a series of long, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoing waves upward.

And that’s where the night ended on this end. There was still plenty going on – fusiony funk downstairs at le Poisson Rouge, and was that Craig Handy coincidentally leading that organ groove outfit at Groove? The place was packed; it was hard to see. And the line for the Marc Cary Focus Trio at Zinc Bar stretched around the block – good for him. Matthew Shipp’s trio set back at Judson Church wasn’t scheduled to start yet, but by this time, the prospect of a third consecutive marathon evening of music looming on the horizon and the rain having finally let up, it was time to take advantage of a grace period from the skies and call it an evening. Here’s looking forward to Winter Jazzfest 2015.

January 12, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elliott Sharp: Always on the Cutting Edge

When you think of downtown New York music, one of the first names that probably comes to mind is Elliott Sharp. The iconic guitarist and eclectic-to-the-extreme composer graciously took some time out of getting ready for his gig with his mind-warping Terraplane blues project tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub to shed some light on what he’s been up to recently, and less recently.

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You’re playing Joe’s Pub at 9:30 this Sunday the 11th. Are you going to break out the sax or is this strictly a guitar gig this time? Any special guests we should know about?

Elliott Sharp: Though I played alto sax and bass clarinet on the new cd Sky Road Songs, I won’t be playing them on the gig, just for logistical reasons. Our producer Joe Mardin will appear with us playing keyboard, guitar, percussion, and on vocals.

LCC: You’ve written rock, and film music, and jazz, and synphonic works. At this point in your career, what else is there left for you to do? Is there a new passion that you’re looking to explore further in the coming years?

ES: Though I’ve written a number of operas already, it’s what I’m most interested now. My oepra “Port bou,” about the last day in the life of Walter Benjamin is in the works for 2014 through Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, and through a couple of presenters in Germany

LCC: As chameleonic as you’ve been, composition-wise, your music has a consistent edge. Do you find that edge missing in New York these days?

ES: Certainly it’s missing in Manhattan, though I do find a lot of younger musicians are hungry for that feeling and one finds an audience in some of the Brooklyn venues such as Zebulon, Death By Audio, Freedom Garden…

LCC: You came up as no wave was peaking, and have been a pillar of the avant garde since the 80s. And now there’s a new documentary about you. Can you tell us a little about that?

ES: The doc is by filmmaker Bert Shapiro and was made a few years ago – he covered aspects of my composing, performing, and conducting with my ensemble Orchestra Carbon and had crews in Venice at the Biennale in 2007 and during my tour in China in 2006 shoot footage. It also delves into my personal life – my wife Janene Higgins has all the best lines. Our twins make an appearance as well – they were two years old then.

LCC: When I hear you play, sometimes I hear a little Sonny Sharrock, or James Blood Ulmer…or Eddie Van Halen. Yet as I understand it one of your biggest influences is Hubert Sumlin, someone you’ve collaborated with – and studied with. You’re probably aware that he was also Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player. What did you gain most from working and studying with him?

ES: I loved Sonny Sharrock’s playing when I first heard him back in 1969 – we got to be friends and collaborators later. Jimi was also a huge influence and Hubert of course from before I even knew his name, just hearing him on Howlin’ Wolf records when I was seventeen in 1968 and just starting to play guitar. The country blues players as well. Van Halen not so much – I was doing finger-tapping starting from when I first began playing, influenced by John Cage, Harry Partch, Stockhausen, Xenakis. I learned a lot from Hubert – from listening to his recordings, about phrasing, vocalizing on the guitar, making noises. Then after meeting him, watching how he kept his right hand so loose!

LCC: Your publicist says you can come up with a list of your five favorite moments onstage. I’m impressed: half the time I get offstage and I can’t remember a thing I just did. Can you give us a quick rundown of those moments?

ES: I’m cursed with an excellent memory. Can’t say “favorite”, but key moments include:

1. The first time really entering the void while improvising onstage at a rock festival in Ithaca, NY in 1971with my band St. Elmo’s Fire

2. Performing “samizdat” forbidden concerts in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1983 – this also extends to performing Hungary in 1985 and in the Soviet Union in 1989 the incredible intensity of the listeners! This was like life-and-death for them!

3. Performing my piece Crowds And Power for 21 musicians in 1982 at the Kitchen – my first chance to manifest some of my sonic ideas for large ensemble for a big audience at a historic NY venue

4. Performing for 15000 people outdoors at Pori Festival in Finland with a wild ensemble including Sonny Sharrock, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Edward Vesala, Bobby Previte, Connie Bauer, Tomas Stanko, and more

5. The first performance with Hubert Sumlin in 1994 backing him up with Terraplane at the Knitting Factory – we had met in Chicago in 1983 but this was different – an incredible honor and thrill.

6. The premiere of my orchestra piece Racing Hearts in 1998 by the RadioSinfonie Frankfurt conducted by Peter Rundel. An unmatched experience to hear my sonic ideas come to life in this way.

LCC: You’ve collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Deborah Harry…lots of people. Do you have a favorite among them? Is that even a fair question?

ES: Not really – every collaboration is different and to be savored for what it is. Ideally, you are each putting in equally and I usually find this to be the case. To improvise with Nusrat and his ensemble in a tiny radio studio was overwhelming. I enjoy a fantastic ongoing collaboration with the JACK string quartet – always challenging and stimulating. Improvising in duo with such old friends as Nels Cline, Frances-Marie Uitti, Bobby Previte, Reinhold Friedl, is like the continuation of a ongoing and wide-ranging conversation

LCC: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want, but I’m always curious how composers manage to keep a roof over their heads, and I know that royalties have dried up for lots of folks in recent years. What is your money gig these days? I know you do a lot of film and tv work…

ES: I still tour relentlessly – with two young children it’s difficult to say “no” to anything.

LCC: I always think of you as pushing the envelope and exploring new turf. To what extent is Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane at Joe’s Pub an oxymoron? Or is this a natural progression?

ES: Absolutely natural. Terraplane has played there before to good response. There’s not too many decent places to play in Manhattan plus Terraplane is an odd fit – we’re too weird for the blues clubs, too raucous for the jazz clubs, too unclassifiable for the rock clubs.

Tickets to the Joe’s Pub gig tomorrow night are $20 and are still available; the show starts at 9:30 sharp.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, blues music, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Elliott Sharp’s Binibon Revisits a Notorious 1981 Murder

“Don’t think of this as a moral lesson, just the oldest story in the book, the latest in the series of New York murders…collect them all,” sneers writer/narrator Jack Womack’s character Ted, in the radio play version of Elliott Sharp’s musical drama Binibon, recently released on Henceforth. It’s more of an attempt to capture the surreal and seedy atmosphere of downtown New York in the 80s rather than an actual crime story. The July 18, 1981 murder of waiter Richard Adan by convicted-murderer-turned-author Jack Henry Abbott outside the lower Second Avenue restaurant from which the album takes its title consumes less than five minutes out of a total of fifty-six. Instead, the story focuses on a cast of authentically bizarre characters who may or may not have been regular customers.

Womack’s Ted is a washed-up, know-it-all, alcoholic jazz drummer with a bizarre southern twang who serves as sort of a Greek chorus here. His beatnik affectations and interminable listmaking underscore his bitterness about spending most of his life on the sidelines. Jedadiah Schultz does Abbott (a Norman Mailer protege whose brief literary ascent outside prison walls ended with this murder) with a breathy, stagy intensity, while Queen Esther portrays waitress Susie with a down-to-earth authority and perfect outer-borough accent. Ryan Quinn doubles admirably in the roles of equivocating junkie Johnny and coked-up transvestite Fabuluscious, with supporting roles played by Sonja Perryman as Contessa, a woman with a lot of anger and not a lot of ways of expressing it and Cy Fore as the evanescent murder victim Richie.

Sharp, who plays not only guitar but also bass, drums, saxophones, clarinets and various electronic components here, turns in the performance of a lifetime: it’s arguably his most diverse effort to date. Ever wonder if Sharp could pull off a spot-on imitation of early 80s style Midnight Starr or Herbie Hancock electro-disco? The answer’s here, and it’s yes. He also does ominously multi-layered, Bomb Squad-style noise; dirtily incisive Jeff Beck-ish guitar; Karsh Kale style South Asian drones; a decent facsimile of the Bad Brains in slow mode; late 50s minimalist noir jazz; and the inimitable squall for which he’s best known.

Womack effectively evokes the downtown New York era when watching one’s back was a survival tool rather just a common phrase in rap music, best exemplified by Susie as she catalogs the implements in her purse that could serve as weapons in a pinch. The major characters are all tragic in a classical sense: Abbott’s narcissism, Johnny’s self-deception, and Susie’s willingness to stay in one place til she “dies from the feet up, like a tree with pissed-on roots” will all clearly get them in the end. The minor characters – the practically incoherent Contessa, the tranny, and poor Richie, who doesn’t seem to have a clue even as he steps outside, trying to reason with the guy who will kill him seconds later – are less interesting. But the milieu is spot-on. Ted references downtown characters from crazed killer Daniel Rakowitz (who dismembered his girlfriend, boiled her and then fed her to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park), to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to scores of others mostly forgotten now. What’s perhaps most appealing, and most bittersweet, is that these characters are all oldschool New Yorkers. All but two of them (the killer and the narrator) were clearly born and bred here, and despite their flaws share a wry gallows humor that still exists in pockets in this city, and which is the antithesis of the “esthetic” – if you could call it that – of the pampered, effete, affluent white children who’ve flooded New York in the last ten years. For that alone, this is worth owning and savoring: the score makes it worth returning to many times over.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, drama, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dither Quartet Mess with Your Mind

File this under psychedelia. If you’re a fan of the dirtier, more ominous textures an electric guitar can create, an entire ocean of them, the Dither guitar quartet’s new album is for you. This is one of those albums that sounds like it was an awful lot of fun to make, in places moreso than it is to listen to. Incorporating elements of noise-rock, dreampop, guitar jazz, classical and the avant-garde, Dither’s dense, hypnotic, overtone-laden instrumentals are imaginative, clever, sometimes subtly funny, other times flat-out assaultive. The influence of Elliott Sharp (who wrote the album liner notes) is everywhere, as is that of Steve Reich. But this isn’t mere layers of drones: with five different composers (including Dither’s own Joshua Lopes) represented, there’s a wide diversity among the tracks here. From the first few seconds, it’s clear that trying to figure out which of the group’s members – Lopes, Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and James Moore – is playing what is a lost cause, but there’s a consistent dedication to thinking out of the box and just simply having fun.

The opening track, Lainie Fefferman’s Tongue of Torns, is a pretty standard Steve Reich-ish “let’s all play the same A chord for an hour and a half” except that this one has a surprise, a shock to the system about three quarters of the way through. And they do it again, and again. Pantagruel, written by Lopes, is the most overtly jazz-oriented work here, serpentine ascending progresssions intertwined through off-key, tone-warping patches that eventually crash, burn and then fade out a la A Day in the Life. Lisa R. Coons’ suite Cross-Sections is a showcase for the group’s exuberant command of every guitar texture ever invented, weaving hypnotically through skronk, atmospherics, muted plucking, a long siren passage, raptly still atmospherics and good old-fashioned noise. The showstopper here (they played this at Bang on a Can last year) is Eric KM Clark’s ExPAT, written for “as many guitarists as possible.” It’s a hearing-deprivation piece, each guitarist sonically isolated from the rest of the group, wearing headphones blasting white noise so as to throw their timing off. Yet the group is not so easily distracted! Ominous and intense, it’s a pulsing, echoing choir of hell’s bells, very evocative of Louis Andriessen at his most insistently abrasive. And yet, its shifts are extremely subtle, drifting apart but then coming together before another slight divergence.

Dither plays the cd release show on June 12 at the Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn on a ridiculously inviting bill, a mini-Bang on a Can marathon of sorts with Redhooker, Kathleen Supové and Nick Didkovsky, Elliott Sharp, Matthew Welch, the Deprivation Orchestra of NY, Loud Objects, Mantra Percussion and Florent Ghys, which for a $6 cover turns out to be less than a dollar a band.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment