Pianist/composer Ayumi Okada writes vivid, cinematic songs without words. Her music is full of stories, and humor, and unselfconscious depth. Much as her sense of melody is appealingly consonant, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a neoromantic: she’s most at home in the borderlands with Debussy and Ravel. A composer-performer, she’s premiering a new piano quintet with a first-class chamber ensemble including star cellist James Waldo on March 10 at 7:30 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 20 Cumming St. in Washington Heights. The group will also play music of Dvorak, Bach, Johann Goldberg, Caroline Shaw and Doug Balliett; admission is $15/$10 stud. Take the 1 train to Dyckman St.
Okada’s debut album is Here, Where the Land Ends and the Sea Begins – streaming at Spotify – a beguiling mix of chamber works. It opens with Okada’s String Quartet No. 1 a steady, bittersweetly theme with echoes of Dvorak and baroque-inflected counterpoint that gives way to a stormily dancing pulse which she elegantly ends up bringing full circle. There’s an arthouse film with a philosophical poignancy that needs this for when the main titles roll, a strongly voiced performance by Waldo, violinists Karen Dekker and Meredith Ezinma Ramsay and violist Rose Hashimoto.
The second work, Cape Roca has a similarly picturesque sweep, Waldo’s austere lines against resonant glimmer and then gracefully ornamented neoromanticism from pianist Alyona Aksyonova. The miniature A Walk in the Park is a showcase for Okada’s playful sense of humor, Aksyonova’s devious leaps and bounds in tandem with peek-a-boo clarinet from Yumi Ito bookending a momentary cloud passing across the sky.
Okada’s Piano Trio No. 1, with the standard orchestration of piano, violin and cello hints at chromatic Shostakovian menace in between stately Piazzolla-esque passages and hints of late Romanticism. The album concludes with a triptych, the Light Princess Suite. Aksyonova plays a majestically enigmatic, emphatically waltzing theme over Waldo’s austere washes in the first movement. The second, where the rest of the strings join in, is awash in moody high/low, still/kinetic contrasts in the same vein as Rachmaninoff’s more airy chamber works. Once again, Waldo’s starkness grounds the piano’s dancing, Debussyesque figures as the suite winds out, artfully shifting meters. It’s Okada at her most colorful and picturesque: this intrepidly dancing creature takes a lot of detours, but she can’t be stopped.
David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.
Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.
The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?
The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones. Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist.
Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.
Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.
About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.
McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways: there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.
What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.
The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved. Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.
Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.
The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.
The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crescendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.
The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.
Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.
Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.
As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of Holmes’ Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect.
A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.
The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.
After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it. Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sionaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.
The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories
The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.
The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.
With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.
The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.
Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.
Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.
Pat Irwin and Daria Grace Bring Their Brilliantly Eclectic Sounds to an Laid-Back Outdoor Show in Queens
The theory that Sunday or Monday are the new Saturday cuts both ways. On one hand, the transformation of hallowed downtown New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods into Jersey tourist trashpits on the weekend has driven some of the best New York talent to gigs and venues that might seen off the beaten path. On the other hand, for the permanent-tourist class whose parent guarantors have driven rents in Bushwick and elsewhere sky-high, every day is Saturday because nobody works for a living. OK, some of them are interns. But that’s a story for another time. For an afternoon that perfectly reflects the state of the city, 2016 and also features some of the city’s most eclectic talent, brilliant singer Daria Grace has put together a triplebill starting at around 4 PM on July 31 in the backyard at LIC Bar, with ex-B-52’s guitarist Pat Irwin playing his often hauntingly cinematic instrumentals, then a set by Norah Jones collaborator Sasha Dobson and finally a set by Grace’s charming uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at around 6.. The venue is about a three-minute walk from the 21st St. station on the 7 train.
Last month’s installment of this same lineup was a treat. Grace did triple duty, first joining Irwin on keys (who knew that she was a more than competent organist?), then adding her signature counterintuitive, swinging, slinky basslines to a set by Dobson, then switching to uke and leading her own band. Irwin opened the afternoon with a set that touched on Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, Brian Eno ambience and most significantly, Angelo Badalamenti noir. He mixed slowly crescendoing, shifting instrumentals from his film work across the years with a couple of new numbers, one more minimalist and atmospheric, the other far darker and distantly menacing. By the time his roughly forty-five minutes onstage was over, he’d gone from solo to having a whole band behind him. Dobson followed with a set that drew on roughhewn 80s indie rock, switching from harmonium to Strat as she led her trio – Grace on a gorgeous vintage 1966 hollowbody Vox bass – through a mix of her solo material and a couple of jaunty Americana-flavored numbers from her Puss & Boots album with Norah Jones and bassist Catherine Popper.
It’s hard to find a window of time for sets by three bands; the last time this blog caught Grace leading the Pre-War Ponies was on a twisted but actually fantastic twinbill back in May at Barbes, opening for psychedelic Middle Eastern metal band Greek Judas (who are back at Barbes tomorrow night, the 28th, at 10). Grace’s not-so-secret weapon, J. Walter Hawkes is an incorrigible extrovert and a charismatic showman, but he really was on his game this time out, whether firing off lickety-split cascades on his uke or on his trombone, which he typically employs for both low-register amusement and purist oldschool swing and blues. A real force of nature up there, he spent the set blasting out droll vaudevillian licks, foghorn riffs and serioso latin lines.
Lately Grace has been doing a lot of gigs with iconic latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez, but this time out she had Russ Meissner behind the kit, who had a ball adding counterintuitive hits and accents to cha-cha jazz numbers like Amapola, from the band’s latest album Get Out Under the Moon. As expected, the big audience hit was Moon Over Brooklyn, which Grace delivered with so much genuine, unselfconscious affection for her adopted hometown that it was easy to forget that you could change the lyrics just a smidge and it would make a romantic anthem for any city, anywhere. Romantic songs are usually cheesy and rote and this was anything but. You can get some romance and some sun on the 31st in Long Island City.
Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.
Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.
Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.
After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly
Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.
Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.
Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Irwin and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.
Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.
Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.
Guitarist Tom Csatari writes some of the most distinctive and thoughtfully compelling music of any composer in New York right now. With epic film soundtrack sweep, the improvisational flair of jazz and grey-sky postrock atmosphere, his work for both large and small groups transcends genre. It’s just good, and it can get dark when the band veers away from pastoral colors. Csatari is bringing his Uncivilized large ensemble to Barbes on March 16 at 8 PM. What they do is well capsulized by the epic track Escarpments (up at Soundcloud), hypnotic post-Velvets meets 70s blaxploitation soundtrack meets chamber noir.
Csatari’s most recent album is with that ensemble and shares its name with them; there are a few numbers from it up at Bandcamp. His most recent release to come over the transom here is Outro Waltz, streaming at his music page. It’s an ambitious double album, the first comprising original compositions, the second a live set of originals and covers recorded at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Csatari’s lineup on this one is only slightly less ornate: along with fellow guitarist Cam Kapoor, there’s Levon Henry on tenor sax and clarinets, Adriel Williams on violin, Ross Gallagher on bass and R.J. Miller on drums. Csatari distinguished himself from the legions of hipper-than-thou jazz guitarists out there in that he’s not afraid of melody and doesn’t feel constrained to play stereotypical jazz voicings or use complicated harmony where a simple major or minor, or a spare, gently emphatic phrase would make more of a point. Bill Frisell seems the most obvious influence, although Jimmy Giuffre and the Claudia Quintet also seems like reference points.
Guitars and percussion open the album with a gamelan-tinged, atmospheric miniature. The group follows that with New Boots, a gorgeously plaintive, trippily jangly pastorale, then Nolan, a purposeful wistful, swaying tone poem with tender sax and violin.
The epic Uncivilized playfully hints at bluegrass; Csatari’s slide guitar and the band’s tricky syncopation give it a desert rock feel transposed to the Eastern Seaboard that eventually decays into a surrealistic improvisation. The warily hazy El Morrisony opens with swirling guitars and bass clarinet over a steady pulsing shuffle spiced with stark violin.
Rawlings II veers between twinkling deep space pulsar sonics and a wistful folk theme, deconstructed. Blues for Robbie mashes up enigmatic 80s indie jangle, pensive Americana and an artfully disguised, Doorsy roadhouse groove. After Plastic shifts elegantly between a loping C&W-inspired theme and a loosely pulsing cinematic vamp. Likewise, Wharfs & Drifts, between angst-fueled guitars and jauntily shuffling violin in tandem with the rhythm section.
With Legion, the band builds fluttery unease over a slow spacerock vamp that the guitars eventually take waltzing. The last of the studio tracks is Sisters, slowly coalescing to a clustering, tensely bubbling interlude and then up toward rock anthemics before descending gracefully.
The live album opens with the band making a long, gospel-infused intro of sorts out of Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land, gently decaying into lingering atmospherics. Thelonious Monk’s Light Blue shuffles coyly between swing and offcenter deconstruction, while Elliott Smith’s Speed Trials reverts to a wistful, swaying nocturnal vein, with an indian summer tenor sax solo by Kyle Wilson at the center. The first original here, Curationisms segues out of it with a return to jangly but purposefully strolling contemplation.
Kingsnoth blends lush sweep and amiably ambling interplay that hints at dixieland but doesn’t go there. Chris Weisman’s The Winning Blues again looks back toward Frisell, in lingering anthemic mode: by the end, it’s a straight-up rock song. Miller, who’s been giving all this a gently swaying groove, finally gets to cut loose as Water Park Rodeo slowly comes together out of starlit guitars to an ominously shivery theme and then an unexpected detour toward 70s psychedelic soul. Call this what you want – jazz, rock, film score – it’s music to get lost in.
On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities
The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.
The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.
The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.