Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lively, Richly Arranged New Big Band Album and a Smalls Show from Emilio Solla

Pianist Emilio Solla writes colorful, rhythmic, ambitiously orchestrated music that could be called latin jazz, but it’s a lot more eclectic and global in scope than your basic salsa vamp with long horn solos. Like his music, Solla is well-traveled: born in Argentina and now in New York for the past decade after a long stopover in Spain. His new album Second Half with his brilliant nine-piece ensemble La Inestable de Brooklyn – streaming at Spotify– draws equally on Piazzolla-inspired nuevo tango, Brazilian, Spanish Caribbean and American jazz sounds. Solla and his mighty group have a show this Sunday, May 7 at 4:30 PM at Smalls; cover is $20, and you get a drink with that.

The band comprises some of the more adventurous jazz players in New York: Tim Armacost on saxophones and alto flute; John Ellis on tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet; Alex Norris on trumpet, Ryan Keberle on trombone; Meg Okura on violin; Victor Prieto on accordion; Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums. Much as the title of the opening track, Llegará, Llegará, Llegará, implies that there’s something just around the corner, it’s a nonstop series of bright, incisive, alternating voices over a galloping, samba-tinged groove, a real roller-coaster ride, as lush as it is protean.It’s especially interesting to hear Solla’s original here, compared to the blistering cover by bagpiper Cristina Pato, which is practically punk rock by comparison.

The second track, Chakafrik has a brass-fueled Afro-Cuban flavor subtly spiced with accordion and violin and more of those intricately intertwining, polyrhythmic exchanges of riffs from throughout the group. The Piazzolla-inspired Para La Paz brings the volume and tempo down somewhat, but not the energy, lit up by warmly lyrical solos from tenor sax and trumpet up to a big, lush crescendo.

The first part of Solla’s epic Suite Piazzollana (his Spanish group Afines did the second) takes a bouncy folk theme in all sorts of directions: how do you say dixieland in Spanish? Tierra del sur? From there, Solla builds a long, exploratory piano solo, then the band take a judicious, rather tender interlude, Norris’ resonant trumpet paired against Okura’s uneasy staccato violin. The long build out from there makes the group sound twice as large as it is, with their constant exchanges of riffage.

Esencia sets bright, hefty newschool big band textures over an altered clave beat, Solla’s rather droll, vamping second solo kicking off a big, rapidfire, bustling coda. American Patrol is a jovial blend of Mexican folk and New Orleans swing – when the quote from the cartoon comes in, it’s impossible not to laugh. Raro, a bustling, cinematically swinging number, edges toward the noir, with more tasty trumpet-violin jousting and a very clever switch from dancing, staccato brass to brooding nuevo tango orchestration. The last track is Rhythm Changed, another very clever arrangement, with its understated polyrhythms and uneasy harmonies from throughout the band circulating through a pretty standard midtempo swing tune. Throughout the album, the performance is tight and driving but also comfortable: this crew obviously has a good time playing this material, and it’s contagious. Not what you might expect from a group who call themselves “The Brooklyn Unstable.”

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June 3, 2015 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plenty of Revelations from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

It wasn’t any surprise that Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society‘s first set at the Jazz Gallery Thursday night quickly sold out, and the second looked it would also. Brooklyn’s best-known big band jazz act rewarded the crowd with a performance that was as volatile, both musically and thematically, as it was intricately orchestrated, the composer out in front of the ensemble, a close and warm cameraderie becoming immediately apparent. They opened with one of their older numbers inspired by Alan Turing, the legendary WWII British codebreaker and computer visionary who was essentially murdered by the same government he’d saved.  In a way, this set the stage for much of the rest of the night. Argue self-deprecatingly called it “math-jazz,” even though it was a whole lot more than that. One of the defining characteristics of Argue’s music is long pedaled passages – lots of bands like to vamp, but Argue does it with surprising subtlety, an insistent, often constantly shifting meter underpinning all kinds of exchanges from the rest of the band. Watching the band, the inventiveness of Argue’s voicings was busting out everywhere: on this one, how the entire brass section evoked the roar of an electric guitar since there wasn’t one in this arrangement.

Most of this set consisted of the first part of Argue’s latest, explosively evocative album Brooklyn Babylon. As you might expect from a live performance of this extremely tightly orchestrated suite, it was a little looser, more raw, rougher around the edges and more dangerous: more oldschool New York. It’s a narrative told from the perspective of a fictional Eastern European immigrant hired to build the carousel atop the tallest tower in the world (symbolism, anybody?), a job the artisan first embraces and then comes to view with increased horror as the Bloomberg gentrification blitzkrieg gets turned loose on the borough’s remaining working-class neighborhoods. And Argue’s orchestration turned out to be as fascinating to watch as his plot line hit a bullseye, again and again. The rat-a-tat Balkan dance that kicked it off made inventive use of trombones in place of the trubas that a group of, say, Serbians would have used. Dancing flutes juxtaposed with brooding washes of low midrange brass; simmeringly passionate solos from Sharel Cassity on alto sax, Erica Von Kleist on tenor sax and Ryan Keberle on trombone contrasted with anxious, moody atmospherics and coldly mechanical rhythms, drummer Eric Doob often locking into a basic four-on-the-floor rock beat.

Amid the hammering metrics and increasingly anxious, bustling sweep of the band, a mournful Satie-esque quality drifted from a duet between acoustic guitar and piano. A blithe, dancing albeit brief interlude for flutes, and several variations on a haunting, memorable piano-and-guitar riff added unexpected colors and contrast. The group wound up the set with a work commissioned by the Jazz Gallery, blending a Steve Reichian circularity with a cinematic sweep and intensity, Von Kleist’s lyrical tenor solo over Doob’s altered clave punctuated by hypnotically lopsided syncopation from the brass and eventually the rest of the band. They took it up from a brooding, cumulo-nimbus atmosphere to a blazing pulse underpinned by resolute, minimalist piano riffage, Von Kleist dancing her way through the mechanistic maze that kept closing in on her.

After the set, the venue cleared the house, at which point the question arose as to whether to pull rank and take a seat for the second set as well – monkey on back, biting hard – or to give that seat to someone who’d been waiting patiently on the stairs for probably a half-hour or more. Fatigue, more than any genuine altruism, won out over the monkey: the second half, with its harrowing conclusion of Brooklyn Babylon, promised to be even better than the first.

November 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future Looks Bright for Jazz & Colors

The second annual Jazz & Colors festival in Central Park was a success for the same reasons that Make Music NY has been such a failure: time and temperature. Sometimes it’s that simple. Make Music NY synchronizes itself with the worldwide Fête de la Musique (the annual French busk-a-thon) on the June 21 solstice, meaning that musicians playing outdoor spaces around town wait til the sun goes down before they start, just as any reasonable person would. And by then, the rush hour crowd has rushed home to their air conditioning, or at least their window fans. Jazz & Colors, on the other hand, is held on the weekend, this particular Saturday on an absolutely gorgeous, brisk afternoon, and while crowds could have been bigger, they were a good representation of the vast expanse of demographics that make up this city. A scattering of diehards raced across the park to catch their favorite acts, a smattering of tourists seemed smitten by the chance to see so many big names for free, while random groups of New Yorkers from across the age spectrum – many among them who probably can’t afford jazz club prices – took in an eclectic, energetic bunch of performances.

How do you find your way around Jazz & Colors? With a map. This year there was one available online, and there were helpful volunteers handing out copies at the 72nd Street entrance on the west side as well as at some of the performance sites. The concept this year was to have everybody play the same two set lists, mostly standards, with a few unexpected treats and a little room for originals. Placement of the acts playing the roughly four-hour festival was perfect. There was none of the sonic competition you get between stages at, say, a Lollapalooza or Warped Tour, yet the distance between bands was short enough to encourage ambitious spectators to catch several and maybe compare interpretations and arrangements.

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill, leading his explosive Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from behind a real grand piano on the Naumburg Bandshell, sardonically thanked the promoters for “Telling us what songs to play,” although he hastened to add that this had been a valuable learning experience. Unhappy with one arrangement they’d devised, they’d tossed it out and come up with a new one on the fly. Toward the end of one characteristically high-voltage Afro-Cuban romp, he gave his bassist a solo – who says that playing bass in a big band is a thankless task? They eventually went off set list for Las Vegas Tango, doing it as a psycho mambo that practically outdid Gil Evans and was too much fun to be vengeful, although a crescendo or two more might have pushed it past redline. Then they did their “We Live in Brooklyn Baby Milongo,” as O’Farrill put it, mambo-izing Roy Ayers’ many-times-sampled groove.

To the north and west, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry was playing a similarly groove-driven set, leading a quartet with bass, drums and electric piano through a mesmerizingly pulsing, tropical take of A Night in Tunisia, swapping Eastern Hemisphere for the west. Then they kicked off Ray Noble’s Cherokee as brightly trad, tiptoeing swing before fattening it with a Nuyorican sway, Terry eventually swapping his sax for a chekere and adding another layer of irresistible rhythmic energy. A little further south, Brian Charette‘s organ “sextette” turned in one of the funniest and least expected moments of the afternoon on the turnaround out of the chorus of an otherwise aptly moody, shadowy Harlem Nocturne, where the horns all went crazy for a bar or two before the verse slunk around again  They also made sly ghetto lounge jazz out of Take the A Train, swung Coltrane’s Grand Central Station hard with solos from alto and tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet, and gave Terry a run for his Cuban money with that same Dizzy Gillespie tune, Charette playing basslines with his left hand since he didn’t have his Hammond B3 with the pedals.

Meanwhile, just up the hill, bassist Russell Hall was leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars – in this case, a quartet that seemed to be a mostly student ensemble – with a purist but puckish touch, at one point wrly kicking off a solo with some unexpected, sotto vocce high horn voicings when the tenor saxophonist passed him the baton. And it was good to be able to catch the tail end of the string-driven Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy outside the Delacorte Theatre, featuring the bandleader on cello and vocals along with Charlie Burnham on violin plus bass, guitar and drums. Hughes sang without a mic, but she didn’t need it, wrapping up her set with a richly bittersweet, darkly bluesy “love song to New York and Gil Scott-Heron.” By now, clouds had settled in overhead and fingers were getting cold, so the conclusion was timed perfectly. There were many other A-list bandleaders playing across the park, including but not limited to drummer Kim Thompson, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, klezmer-jazz trumpeter Frank London, bassist Gregg August, guitarist Joel Harrison, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and over a dozen other groups. If jazz is your thing – and if you’re reading this, it probably is –  and you’re in New York a year from now, don’t miss this festival.

November 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miguel Zenon at the Top of His Game at the Vanguard and in Puerto Rico

What’s the likelihood of walking down into a random bar late on a Sunday and hearing an absolutely shattering version of one of the saddest songs ever written? If the bar is the Village Vanguard and the artist onstage is Miguel Zenon and his quartet, there’s your answer. That was how the Puerto Rican-born alto saxophonist began the final set of  his most recent weeklong stand there, with an angst-riddled version of the classic Sylvia Rexach bolero Alma Adentro (Deep in My Soul). That the songs after that one weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the ability of Zenon and the rest of the group – Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Eric Doob on drums – to maintain a mood.

For someone as expansive as Zenon can be – the guy likes to stretch out, and is very generous with solos – he’s incredibly purposeful. He didn’t make an entrance until Perdomo had established a morosely glimmering ambience, pedaling the opening minor chord in tandem with the bass. Zenon then chose his spots, at one point lowlighting a particularly creepy Perdomo glissando with his own equally macabre, murky modalities. They brought the intensity to redline slowly, in clusters, from there, fueled by Doob’s hypnotically circular phrases, hitting hard but carefully articulate.

They kept the moody gravitas going with another Rexach hit, Olas y Arenas (Waves and Sand), matching the longing and alienation of the legendary Puerto Rican chanteuse’s original, Zenon establishing a suspenseful but vivid push-pull, Perdomo’s chenched-teeth, percussive attack contrasting with Zenon’s calm beachfront evocation, Perdomo quoting from Riders on the Storm before finally rising to a crescendo and a false ending. They lightened just a bit, reaching torward straight-up clave with a memorably rippling take of Rafael Hernandez’ slightly less angst-ridden Silencio, then worked a haunting sax/bass intro into a minor-key ballad that sounded like it was going to be yet another Rexach tune, or maybe Sumemrtime, but turned out to be neither. Artful polyrhythmic tradeoffs between Zenon and the rhythm section followed an expansive upward trajectory to a leaping, triumphant sax solo on the next number, they closed with an edgy, dancing number in 9/4, Zenon’s jaggedly terse lines handing over to Perdomo, who took it into the wee hours (literally) as Doob finally seized the role of one-man salsa rhythm section, firing off wry timbales and conga lines.

Zenon also has a strongly evocative new album out, recorded last year, which is somewhat different. Titled Oye! Live in Puerto Rico, it works an energetic yet restrained vibe. Culled from a two-night stand in Rio Piedras, it has an immediacy that gives the sense that those sitting under the air conditioner might have been especially grateful, even if if was dripping on them (which happens sometimes down there,  Puerto Rico not being a particularly seasonal place). Bookended by a brief, rather joyous intro and outro, Zenon makes his way through an allusive, long-form take on Oye Como Va before expanding on four numbers which are almost as long (the shortest is almost nine minutes), teaming up with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin plus drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesus.

The heavy percussion in tandem with the bass evoke a piano in many places: Valentin is the rare electric four-string jazz guy who doesn’t try to Jaco it. Zenon evokes the haunting timbre of a Middle Eastern ney flute on his own Hypnotized, with a wary/lively dichomtomy; the band take their time with Silvio Rodriguez’ El Necio, then romp through Zenon’s catchy, hypnotically insistent JOS Nigeria and then a long, simmering take of his Double Edge, the bass and then the sax jabbing at Escapa as the drums break loose. And in a wry nod to where the album was recorded, the photo under the album’s cd tray shows an old AC unit which seems to be mounted somewhat less than parallel to the floor and ceiling. Whether or not it was dripping is anyone’s guess.

May 21, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marshall Gilkes Puts Out a Gorgeous Album of Nocturnes

A theme and variations in the style of a classical sonata, trombonist Marshall Gilkes’ new Sound Stories is one of the most beautiful albums of nocturnes issued in recent years. Essentially a sequence of songs without words, it’s a richly memorable, warmly enveloping suite, evoking Brahms or Schubert as much as it does Frank Foster or Coltrane in particularly lyrical mode. Gilkes brings a direct clarity but also blues-infused nuance to his phrasing; tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin adds a welcome, occasionally acidic bite when he’s not contributing harmonies amidst the enveloping warmth and glimmer. Bassist Yasuhi Nakamura’s concise, incisive lines and drummer Eric Doob’s purposefully rumbling upward trajectories also serve to elevate Gilkes’ elegant compositions above the level of serene contentment.

A flamenco-infused riff anchored by pedal-point piano opens the first track, Presence, pianist Adam Birnbaum memorably setting the stage for the rest of his performance here with a vividly moody neoromantic waltz interlude. The second part’s variations feature smartly developed interplay between trombone and sax, McCaslin artfully shadowing the melody as it winds out. The second diptych here is perhaps sarcastically titled Anxiety – it’s a casual, unselfconsciously attractive ballad with intriguing dynamic and rhythmic shifts, dancing latin allusions, bass taking over as anchor in place of the piano and McCaslin’s slightly off-center lines adding just enough apprehension to give the listener pause without ruining the mood.

Downtime begins as a march and features some absolutely gorgeous horn harmonies, a tersely attractive bass solo and tinges of Celtic melody. A dramatic fanfare takes centerstage in the funky, early Herbie Hancock-inflected Slashes, a launching pad for some strikingly insistent teamwork between McCaslin and Doob. They go back to third-stream balladry – and a series of droll quotes from standards – with Bare, then build the original theme from slinky bossa to a bustle with Armstrong, the final diptych here, Gilkes taking a turn in the shadow role as a calming counterpart to McCaslin’s animated unease. First Song crystallizes the central theme as a wistful, glimmering cinematic main-titles piece: there’s a film or cable tv show out there that needs this. The final track, Thruway is where Gilkes throws caution to the wind and the band really cuts loose with a salsa-infused improvisational flair: it makes a triumphantly unexpected coda for a work otherwise defined by impeccable craftsmanship. Who is the audience for this? Jazz fans, obviously, although the sheer attractiveness of the tunes here will reach fans of both classical and pop music.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment