Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

July 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimstically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Side of a Grimly Prophetic Post-9/11 Masterpiece

Pianist Vijay Iyer offers some eerie context for the new album InWhatStrumentals – streaming at Bandcamp – an instrumental version of his classic 2003 In What Language collaboration with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd. “We were just coming to terms with the facts on the ground, which today seem frighteningly ordinary: mounting intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and other nonwhite people; traumatic raids of immigrant communities by the INS (later Homeland Security); the prospect of endless, amoral war waged under false pretenses; the callous neoliberal agendas of globalization and disaster capitalism; and an unprecedented power grab enacted under cover of jingoism and feigned incompetence.”

Plus ça change!

What differentiates this from the original is that there’s no lyric track. This turns out to be the rare hip-hop album whose music is as turbulently cinematic as the lyrics. The original album title was taken from a quote by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who a few months prior to 9/11 was detained while trying to catch a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport and then sent back, rather than being allowed to continue on his way. The gist of Panahi’s question is that reason and common sense are useless when dealing with little Hitlers.

Listening to the music without the voices of a parade of people persecuted during the wave of anti-immigrant paranoia after 9/11 is a bit strange, and removes a whole layer of context. But that music has held up magnificently. The opening number, the first movement of the suite The Color of My Circumference has Iyer’s darkly swarming piano rivulets over anxious, insistent, circular rhythms. Eventually drummer Trevor Holder and bassist Stephan Crump join the pummeling attack, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax and Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet floating overhead. Everything soon fades out.

Along with Ladd’s coldly techy layers of spy-movie keys, cellist Dana Leong figures heavily into the ominous swirl and staggered pulse of The Density of the 19th Century. Throughout the rest of the album, the disquiet is relentless, whether from guitarist Liberty Ellman’s bordering-on-frantic, circular riffs, Akinmusire’s forlorn, desolate lines, Mahanthappa’s enigmatic bhangra riffage, and Holder’s tense, practically motorik rhythms. Some of these themes are over in little more than two minutes, others take more time to draw you into the vortex. Sometimes the bustle of these airport scenarios masks the sinister forces lurking at the gates, other times that cold suspicion and assumption of criminality is front and center. So when the band pivot toward warm roots reggae in Taking Back the Airplane, or offer calm, enveloping hope in Asylum, the effect is especially striking.

The artists are donating proceeds from sales of the new record to organizations supporting immigrant groups and communities of color imperiled by the lockdown.

May 24, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brooding, Indian-Tinged Silent Film Score From Guitarist Rez Abbasi

Guitarist Rez Abbasi‘s score to Frank Osten’s 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice echoes the movie’s Indian milieu, shifting moods on a dime along with the narrative. The soundtrack is streaming at Bandcamp. Abbasi’s next gig is Feb 26 at 8:30 PM at the Bar Next Door, leading a trio with Rashaan Carter on bass and Luca Santiniella on drums; cover is $12.

The movie opens with Mystery Rising. which is more opaque than outright mysterious, a jazz waltz with distant carnatic tinges from Pawan Benjamin’s bansuri flute and percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy’s flickering accents, Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and Jennifer Vincent’s cello adding somber contrast. There’s even more of a sense of foreboding in Hopeful Impressions, a strolling trio piece for guitar, cello and Jake Goldblas’ drums.

Abbasi hits his sitar pedal for the bubbly Love Prevails against Goldblas’ wry faux-tabla rustles. Likewise, the guitar-sitar voicings and swoopy backward-masked riffs of Facing Truth seem to be played with one eyebrow raised. Abbasi goes back to acoustic alongside Benjamin’s spare soprano sax for a miniature, Amulet & Dagger, then picks up his Strat again for the unexpectedly catchy, uneasily art-rock tinged diptych Blissful Moments. Anchored by Vincent’s hypnotic bass pulse, Seven Days Until News keeps the brooding ambience going.

With its moodily descending and then circling chromatics, Duplicity is one of the most haunting interludes here (full disclosure: nobody at this blog has seen the film). Jugglers, a lively little bit of carnatic jazz, is more straightforward than the title implies. As for Snakebite, it’s a brief, tectonically shifting tone poem.

The way Abbasi orchestrates the cello/sax harmonies to mimic a harmonium in Moving Forward is especially artful. Wedding Preparation turn out to be less harried and stressful than simply straightforward: even as the rhythms diverge, it’s the album’s most recognizably postbop jazz moment. A relaxed pastoral feel recedes for more anxious tonalities in Morning of the Wedding, lingering throughout the quiet foreboding of Gambling Debt.

Dissociative individual voices flutter throughout Boy Changes Fate, giving way to the tensely anthemic, pastoral stroll of Falsehood. Vincent picks up her cello, Benjamin his bansuri for a bit in Changing Worlds, obviously a key moment with its understated syncopation and troubled sax crescendo.

Abbasi grafts a Terry Riley-esque loop atop the crescendoing stalker theme Chase For Liberation and brings the score full circle with True Home. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s small-ensemble adventures in jazz, or guitarist Jonathan Goldberger‘s more cinematic work ought to check this out.

February 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distantly Creepy, Bite-Sized Cinematics From Pianist Akira Kosemura

Pianist Akira Kosemura‘s has a darkly resonant new ep of brief, memorable solo pieces, titled Romance, streaming at Bandcamp.

The title cut is an elegantly brooding, chromatically incisive, somewhat minimalist waltz. It’s an opening theme for a suspense film waiting to happen…and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Kosemura takes its series of precisely articulated broken chords and makes more of an angst-fueled ballad out of them with the second movement, In the Middle of a Bridge. The clouds lift somewhat with the more enigmatic yet hopeful harmonies of the final movement, Reach Into the Sky. Third time’s a charm: about nine minutes of first-class grey-sky music from an expert in the field.

 

February 11, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.

January 31, 2020 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Darkly Picturesque Double Album and a Carnegie Hall Debut by Cutting-Edge Bassist Sigurd Hole

Sigurd Hole gets more sound out of his instrument than virtually any other bassist alive. He’s made a name for himself as a purveyor of brooding, envelopingly minimalist themes, but he also uses the entirety of what his instrument can produce. He has a picturesque, vastly dynamic new solo album, Lys/Morke, recorded outdoors on a desolate island off the coast of his native Norway. He’s making his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Hall on Feb 3 at 8 PM, performing many of these pieces. Cover is $25; the record hasn’t hit his Bandcamp page yet.

The first disc begins with the epic Lys. Over sounds of wind and water, Hole employs his bow for harmonics from across the audible spectrum, steady, hypnotic microtonal arpeggios, shivery shards, steady, peacefully minimalist washes and cautious, low-register footfalls.

That template describes much of what Hole does throughout the rest of the record, with frequent, bracing close harmonies, percussive moments and a pensive sketch or two. There’s a breathtaking display of extended technique that would make Charles Mingus proud, where Hole plays what’s essentially a bagpipe dance using high harmonics.

A lively, hypnotically circling theme evokes West African mbira music. In one of the album’s lighter moments, a lumberjack meets considerable resistance in the forest, or so it would seem. The most amusing vignette sounds like a reel of tape winding. Behind Hole, there are moments where the waves or the wind seem to pick up, adding to the general sense of desolation.

That really comes to the forefront as the second record coalesces. Increasingly otherworldly, eerily reverberating, pulsing variations on a stygian drone lead to more discernible, suspenseful melody, beginning with an unexpectedly catchy, gloomy chromatic theme. Hole goes down to his tailpiece for keening, scraping, brushy textures. Hypnotic echoes give way to slowly shifting cloudbanks, low/high contrasts, and a dirge of sorts that morphs into what could be Philip Glass.

Increasingly agitated, sawing phrases grow calmer and more enveloping. The slowly crescendoing vastness of the disc’s title track leads to a spare, spacious conclusion. This isn’t just a showcase for Hole’s fellow bassists to admire: fans of metal, the dark side of psychedelia and jazz improvisation ought to check out these strange and unique creations.

January 26, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surreal, Occasionally Assaultive Epics and a Bushwick Brewery Gig from Bassist James Ilgenfritz

You’re going to want to turn down the volume on your device for the first track on bassist James Ilgenfritz‘s wildly uncategorizable new album You Scream a Rapid Language – streaming at Bandcamp – especially if you’re wearing earbuds. Some of this is assaultive, abrasive music, but it can be a treat for people who gravitate toward those kinds of sounds. The bassist’s next gig is a two-night stand with multimedia artist and playwright Sarah Krasnow at Honey’s, a mead brewery at 93 Scott Ave. in Bushwick on Jan 4 and 5 at 8 PM. Cover is $10; since this is happening over another L-pocalypse weekend, if you’re not in the neighborhood, it’s going to be a bitch to get to. The closest train that’s running is the M to Myrtle Ave; you could take your chances with the bus after.

Muted, pummeling beats anchor violinist Pauline Kim Harris’ sharp, shrieking, slashing upper-register riffage in the album’s first track, Terminal Affirmative. As usual, Ilgenfritz writes for every fraction of the available sonics, from nails-down-the-blackboard upper-register harmonics, to cello-like low-midrange washes, to pings and thuds from Alex Cohen’s double bass drum. .And just when you think this might be all shards and fragments, it turns into a witchy tarantella.

The second number, Apophenia III: The Index is a twistedly disjointed electroacoustic epic with lots of sardonic wah-wah, a talkbox, creepy, minimalist piano from Kathleen Supove, sepulchral wisps from James Moore’s guitar and Jennifer Choi’s violin, and a bit of a strolling stalker theme. How to Talk to Your Children About Not Looking at the Eclipse, a chattering solo tableau for Margaret Lancaster’s solo flute, is as ridiculously picturesque as the title suggests.

Freaky faux-operatic spoken word, fragmentary Joseph Kubera piano, flickering bass and lingering vibes from William Winant blend uneasily, sometimes edging toward horror, in Apophenia IV: A Bell in Every Finger. It could be a performance art parody, or maybe everybody just got really stoned before improvising it. Either way, it runs out of gas short of the twelve-minute mark. The album winds up with the five-part suite Fanfares For Modest Accomplishments, played by violin duo String Noise and spanning from chirpy, minimalistic acerbity, to wry conversationality, playfully adrenalizing rollercoaster interludes and a coy false ending.

December 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lea Bertucci Brings Her Otherworldly Sonic Cocoon to Downtown Brooklyn

Sound artist Lea Bertucci‘s magically enveloping ep Resonant Field materialized here back in May and is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing on a great twinbill on Oct 22 at 8:30 PM at Issue Project Room in a duo set with alternately feral and meticulous singer Amirtha Kidambi  opening for improvisational Japanese noise band Asa-Chang & Junray in their US debut. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

The first track on the album is Wind Piece, a desolately drifting tableau with creepy microtones, close-harmonied resonances and stealthy, squiggly accents filtering through the mix. Finally, at the end, Robbie Lee fires off (or more likely, loops) a series of triumphant riffs on baroque flute.

The second track, Warp & Weft comes across as what might happen if the reeds around the low A key on an accordion decided to all meditate themselves into a vast poppy field populated by the occasional slug or wandering bee, eventually taking shelter as a gentle rain moves in. Bassist James Ilgenfritz’s increasingly unhinged, tremoloing, heavily processed lines as the piece winds out raises the adrenaline factor exponentially.

Bertucci layers drones, slowly rising sheets of sound and uneasy, wavering phrases in the even more epic, practically eighteen-minute title track. A multi-layered, ghostly, gently echoing, dynamically shifting, Pink Floydian rainscape ensues.

Bertucci closes the recording with Deliquescence, its flickers and then eerie, concentric upper-register circles over omious brown noise wafting in the background, You are returning to the primordial ooze that spawned you and still loves you after many thousands of years, so dive in.

October 20, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment