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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013

Narrowing down the best jazz albums of the year to a couple dozen or so is a cruel task: it’s safe to say that there have been hundred of good ones issued this year. This is an attempt to assemble the creme de la creme of this year’s crop in one easily digestible package: apologies to the many, many artists whose excellent releases aren’t included here.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society– Brooklyn Babylon
The esteemed big band composer’s latest thematic opus is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse. Cruelly sardonic jackhanmmer rhythms and mechanically industrial circular vamps juxtapose with a resonant angst that peaks at the end. Balkan and circus flourishes, unorthodox instrumentation and quirky, often plaintive miniatures are interspersed amid the relentless pulse. It captures a moment already gone forever, maybe for good.

The Claudia Quintet – September
Drummer/bandleader John Hollenbeck’s attempt to “rework and transform the traumatic residue” of 9/11 resulted in an emotionally charged inner dialogue and a highly improvised, persistently uneasy, enigmatically enveloping series of themes, each assigned a date from that fateful September. The eleventh is not one of them. Nebulous and opaque, it vividly evokes the stunned, bereaved moment that preceded an outpouring of both wrath and goodwill among the city’s citizens. Maybe Hollenbeck can tackle that moment next.

Sexmob – Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota)
Trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s irrepressible quartet finds the inner noir in Rota’s vintage Fellini film scores and magnifies it with charactistic ambitiousness and eclecticism. Creeping slinky dirges sit side by side with deep dub interludes, carnivalesque, cinematic and occasionally showing the group’s punk jazz roots. A rousing follow-up of sorts to Hal Wilner’s cult favorite 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album.

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – River Runs
This “concerto for jazz guitar and saxophone” portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south and west in all their fearsome glory, an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like Darcy James Argue, Owen delights in unorthodox instruments and voicings, terror just lurking beneath the whitecaps on several of these lush, ambitious numbers.

Ibrahim Maalouf – Wind
This homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud. follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; trumpeter Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the old French silent film, for which this serves as a score, would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting angst foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon, this one with frequent latin tinges amid the gloom.

Michel Sajrawy– Arabop
Romany-flavored Middle Eastern jazz from the Palestinian guitarist and his inspired, polyglot Palestinian-Israeli band, a vividly powerful mix of Middle Eastern and Balkan-tinged romps along with a handful of haunting longer-scale numbers. Sajrawy plays microtonally and very artfully on a standard-issue Strat through an envelope pedal for the blippy tone so common in guitar jazz from east of the Danube – pulsing staccato grooves alternate with intense levantine sax interludes.

Pete Rodriguez – Caminando Con Papi
Salsa themes taken to the highest level of jazz. Trumpeter Rodriguez – son of legendary salsa crooner Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – fires off some of the year’s most spine-tingling and incisive solos with striking terseness and attention to melodic trajectory throughout this surprisingly eclectic collection. Gritty modalities underpin a relentlessly intensity and Rodriguez’ wickedly precise flights and volleys; pianist Luis Perdomo is an equal part of the fireworks.

Bill Frisell – Big Sur
A quintet jazz suite of sorts commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, it’s the iconic guitarist in high spirits, throughout a mix of Lynchian allusions, some surf rock, a Neil Young homage, strolling C&W and a Britfolk theme, with plenty of characteristic grit and ambiguity beneath its windswept surface.

Wadada Leo Smith – Occupy the World
This double-disc collection of towering epics picks up where the trumpeter’s magnum opus from last year, Ten Freedom Summers, left off. 21-piece Finnish ensemble Tumo get to judiciously explore and revel in Smith’s gusty new large-ensemble pieces, a mix of airily expansive, spacious, and majestically intense themes, with Smith’s signature social awareness.

Leif Arntzen – Continuous Break
It was a good year for trumpeters, wasn’t it? On his latest quintet release, one of New York’s most distinctive voices on that horn takes a page out of the vintage Miles Davis book: throw the band a few riffs and have them create songs on the spot. Tuneful and diverse to the extreme, it’s got standards, a tone poem, a gritty minor-key soul groove (which may be the album’s best track) and hotwired improvisation recorded completely live in the studio.

The Monika Roscher Big Band – Failure in Wonderland
The guitarist and her German ensemble stalk their way surrealistically through carnivalesque themes that often border on the macabre, with elements of noir cabaret, horror film music and psychedelic rock as well as big band jazz. Nothing is off limits to Roscher: vocoder trip-hop, gothic cinematics, savage tremolopicking, Gil Evans-esque swells and colors and fire-and-brimstone art-rock sonics.

Fernando Otero – Romance
Some might call this indie classical or even nuevo tango, but the Argentine-born pianist’s sonata transcends genre. It’s a series of themes and variations split between instruments, interchanging between time signatures, interwoven like a secret code. Inspired by Argentine writer and clarinetist Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch, it invites the listener to decide on a “modular” sequence of tracks, perhaps a wry nod to the reality of how listeners work in the iphone era. Taken in sequence, just for starters, this is a harrowing ride.

Hee Hawk – s/t
The most stunning debut in recent months blends the pastoral with the noir: imagine Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film. Bandleader/pianist Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as Romany and film music, often luridly. A torchy stripper blues, hints of the Balkans, Ethiopia, and noir soundtrack atmosphere mix with irrepressible oldtimey swing and a creepy, shivery bolero.

Amir ElSaffar – Alchemy
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter continues to push the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique while also employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations. ElSaffar’s quintet deftly and fascinatingly allude to (and sometimes leap headfirst) into otherworldly microtonal modes throughout a series of sometimes stately, sometimes exuberant, hard-swinging explorations.

The Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea
Lush but biting, the guitarist maintains a lustrous majesty livened with cold mechanical satire and an intricate, incessantly fascinating counterpoint. While Halvorson sometimes bares her fangs with terse, evilly squirrelly cadenzas, she’s not usually centerstage: she leaves that to the constantly shifting, rich interchange of harmonies.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing – Red Hot
The quartet – expanded to a septet with Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Ron Stabinsky’s piano and David Taylor’s bass trombone – burn through their most caustic yet accessible album to date. With 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give the genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. MOPDtK claim not to be satirical, but this could be their most aggressive, and wildly successful, spoof yet. What will these guys come up with next?

Jussi Reijonen – Un
A still, spacious, slowly unwinding masterpiece from the Finnish oudist/guitarist and his quartet. Original night-sky themes and a classic Coltrane cover feature lithely intertwining levantine grooves, bittersweetly Egyptian-flavored motifs and Utar Artun’s eerily twinkling chromatic piano.

Bobby Avey – Be Not So Long to Speak
The most Lennie Tristano-influenced album in recent months is this crushingly powerful, glimmering solo piano album. It’s a mix of clenched-teeth articulacy and brooding pools of moonlit, swampy menace, setting an unwaveringly creepy tone throughout brooding tone poems with jackhammer pedalpoint, hints of Erik Satie and Louis Andriessen.

Kenny Garrett – Pushing the World Away
Garrett gets back to what he does best on this mostly-quartet session packed with several latin-tinged grooves plus those menacing modal vamps that this era’s preeminent alto saxophonist loves so much and plays with such an instantly recognizable intensity.

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
The alto saxophonist expands his singular vernacular with this hard-hitting, rhythmic effort. With a stilletto precision, flurries of postbop liven both the bhangra interludes and sunnier, more pastoral pieces here; guitarist Dave Fiuczynski supplies his signature apprehensive, intense microtonal edge, sometimes veering off toward raw metalfunk.

Dave Douglas – Time Travel
This one doesn’t have Aiofe O’Donovan’s vocals, but Douglas’ translucent tunesmithing doesn’t miss them. The fine-tuned chemistry and interplay between trumpeter Douglas and Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Linda Oh on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and Matt Mitchell on piano showcases one of the most instantly recognizable working bands of recent years, through anthemic arcs, alternately cumulo-nimbus and cirrus ambience, a slide-step stroll and Mad Men-era grooves.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra – Bloom
Luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein, the colors at play on this subtly rhythmic, constantly shapeshifting album tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music. Sara Serpa’s haunting vocalese is the icing on the cake.

Marc Cary – For the Love of Abbey
Cary was Abbey Lincoln’s pianist and music director through the end of her career, and draws on that gig with a loving but also fierce intensity that does her justice. This highly improvised solo collection of Lincoln songs is stormy and ferociously articulate, like the singer herself. It’s cantabile, elegant and regal but also feral, with a shattering final salute.

Fred Hersch and Julian Lage – Free Flying
This tightly choreographed, swinging performance from pianist Hersch and guitarist Lage is so seamless and tightly fluid that it’s often impossible keep track of who’s playing what. A concert recording from the Kitano from earlier this year, it’s a series of Hersch homages to influences from across the spectrum, with a frequent Brazilian flair – and a throwback to Hersch’s indelible duo album with Bill Frisell about thirteen years ago.

Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Book of Rhapsodies
Something of a return to noir form for the trumpeter/bandleader, parsing innovative early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s: Raymond Scott, Charlie Shavers, Louis Singer and Reginald Foresythe.

John Funkhouser – Still
This trio performance from the third-stream pianist/tunesmith alternates moody and rhythmic tunesmithing, murky dirges and lyrical third-stream glimmer. Brooding latinisms, a gloomy version of House of the Rising Sun and a pitch-black raga-inflected title track make this one of the year’s catchiest, hummable yet darkest releases.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – Functional Arrythmias
On which the alto saxophonist pays homage to iconic drummer/polymath Milford Graves with a characteristically vivid, bouncily naturalistic series of illustrations of anatomical phenomena. Long, circular rhythmic patterns anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, bass and drums. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures, and nobody wastes notes.

And a shout out to Dan Willis & Velvet Gentlemen’s scary Satie Project Volume 2 album, as well as to Bryan & the Aardvarks, for their glimmering, nocturnal debut, Heroes of Make Believe. Both came out last year but missed the 2012 best-of list here. Since either of those albums could easily top this one, it would be remiss not to mention them here.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | jazz, lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Inbal Segev and Fernardo Otero Kill the Lights at le Poisson Rouge

To play the cello, you have to be comfortable in the dark. Wednesday night at le Poisson Rouge, cellist Inbal Segev and her old Juilliard pal, pianist Fernando Otero, treated a sold-out crowd to a performance as deep and intense as they could have possibly delivered. Segev wasted not a single second in setting the tone for the night, digging in mightily with a solo rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, BWV 1011. As the chords opening the initial prelude roared through the club’s PA system, it was clear that she was going to follow this haunted road as far as it led. For awhile, it was heavy metal, 1725 style. And when the fugal second part began, she let its stately nonchalance speak for itself, its long sequence of broken chords dancing on a grave, maybe.

Otero, known for his uncompromising, slashing melodic attack and fearlessly dark lyricism, joined her for a set of five of his pieces. Milonga, the first, was done as a murky modal tableau, basically a one-chord rumble like Cecil Taylor in a long brooding moment. It built to rapidfire lower-register boogie that gradually added an otherworldly deep-space glimmer as he developed it, one hand playing off the other with a staccato that surprisingly wasn’t crushing but very subtly modulated: a heavy piece done with dynamics that its mighty wallop overshadowed. Segev got the chance to accent the boogie with a savage staccato and lit into it with relish. The two musicians seem to be kindred spirits, with an easy chemistry that contrasted with the unease and sometimes outright anguish of the material. A song without words artfully contrasted Segev’s apprehensive precision against Otero’s minutely jeweled, otherworldly glimmering righthand clusters; they closed with a diptych with echoes of Satie, Chopin’s E Minor Prelude and ELO, rivulets playing wildly against Segev’s stoicism followed by an animated chase scene that ended on a disconcertingly ambiguous note.

Segev closed with a stunning solo rendition of Kodaly’s Sonata, Op. 9 for Solo Cello. It’s a genuinely phenomenal piece of music, decades ahead of its time. Segev shared some of the highlights beforehand with the crowd, noting that it dates from the same year – 1917 – as the famous Debussy Cello Sonata, and offered a taste of some of the highlights, which utilize a lot of pizzicato and some delicious chordal slipsliding late in the piece. But all the pyrotechnics paled next to the chilling, proto-Shostakovian, stygian mourning of the adagio movement. Opening with some jarring juxtapositions leading into plenty of suspense, it becomes a relentless, crushing dirge before finally reaching for a somewhat macabrely charged energy in the third movement, a thicket of extremely difficult passages simultaneously bowed and plucked (Segev had it down cold) lit up with numerous quotes from Hungarian folk dances. Kodaly, like Bartok, did some serious research in the countryside before embarking on this dangerous journey. The crowd screamed for an encore and Segev rewarded them with a lickety-split, doublestop-driven, perfectly precise version of a sizzling bluegrass theme by fellow cellist Sean Grissom.

June 4, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michel Reis’ Point of No Return Captures the Zeitgeist

Luxembourg-born pianist Michel Reis’ Point of No Return is a stunningly vivid, darkly powerful album, easily one of the two or three best to come over the transom here so far this year. This is not an album of blazing solos or gratuitous displays of chops, yet it conveys an intensity of emotion rarely reached via any approach, whether loud or quiet. The word “haunting” is often misused, but not here. Reis wanders judiciously through minor keys for an austere, rain-drenched, frequently cinematic ambience, leaving plenty of space for the ghosts to wander. Some of this reminds of Fernando Otero in a more restrained, contemplative moment, or Dave Brubeck circa Brandenburg Gate Revisited.

There are so many “OMG, that was good” moments here that it doesn’t make sense to list them all – or ruin the suspense. If you think that a bass solo can’t be plaintive or deliver an impact, let bassist Tal Gamlieli’s cautious, pause-laden one on the sad, plaintive, simply titled Folk Song hit you – it’s what he doesn’t say that resonates most intensely. When Vivek Patel’s flugelhorn and Aaron Kruziki’s soprano sax shadow each other on the austerely catchy opening track, The Power of Beauty, the effect is much the same. As is Patel’s tentative reach and then decision against a flight upwards coming out of Reis’ incisively hammering chords on the bossa-flavored It’s Only Been a Dream. The cinematic Riverside Drive paints a vivid noir tableau, Reis’ uneasy piano flutter matched by Adam Cruz’ drums as the menace rises and then recedes, leaving the calm cityscape ominously unchanged. And The Sad Clown, a darkly carnivalesque song without words, wouldn’t be out of place on Frank Carlberg’s creepily theatrical Tivoli Trio album.

Not everything here is as dark. Sailing Away at Night is an irresistibly fun narrative, moving out into the depths where the waves are calm and the air is still, but then, uh oh, here come the raindrops! Time to head back to port! The title track works off a rippling, circular hook that threatens to head off into Yellowjackets territory but doesn’t, thanks to a scowling bridge and an exchange of fisticuffs between the piano and drums. There’s also a diptych of sorts, Street of Memories followed by Leaning in Towards Tomorrow, that juxtaposes comfortable, distantly blues-pop tv-theme phrases with hints of the otherworldly – clearly, even those safe streets are not without their ghosts. Reis plays the cd release show for this one on April 6 at 7:30 PM at Miles Cafe.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Fernando Otero – Vital

Album title: understatement of the month. Argentinian composer/pianist Fernando Otero gets around: he frequently plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s latin jazz orchestra, has collaborated with Dave Grusin and Dave Valentin and was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for a Carnegie Hall premiere. Vital, his latest album is a darkly austere collection of miniatures for strings and piano, spanning the worlds of neo-Romantic, cinematic soundscapes and jazz. Many of these pieces are absolutely haunting, even macabre: this stuff packs an emotional wallop. It may be only February, but this is a good bet to show up on a lot of “best of” lists at the end of the year.

The album starts out with three pieces for violin and piano: a creepy noir waltz with piano and gracefully pensive Nick Danielson violin that segues into a thoughtful conversation between the two instruments, building with considerable apprehension. Globalizacion takes the form of a rapidfire, shuffling chase sequence – is it us chasing Jeffrey Sachs and his band of robber barons, or are we on the run from them? Siderate starts out as an uneasy Satie-esque tone poem with Hector del Curto’s bandoneon out front, Luis Nacht’s tenor sax rising to a blaring, impatient crescendo before the whole thing winds down with macabre-tinged piano.

Violin takes centerstage on the warmly Romantic La Abundancia, something akin to Jenny Scheinman meets Beethoven. The following track reverts to uneasy mode, a brief warped boogie segueing into what’s billed here as a dance but is more of a chase scene. On Reforma Mental, tinkling noir piano leads into a matter-of-factly ominous tradeoff between bandoneon and strings; the aptly titled, six-minute La Casa Vacia, for piano and violin is raw and woundedly evocative. The album winds up with the atmospheric, nocturnal Noche Iluminada, lit up with long passages for bandoneon and violin and the suspensefully cinematic Fin de Revision with its “what’s up” piano theme that quickly gives way to darkness again. The album’s just out on World Village Music.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment