Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Poignant, Tersely Crystallized Songs Without Words From Antonija Pacek

Pianist Antonija Pacek plays vivid, often haunting songs without words. Her new album Forever – streaming at Spotify – draws on the highest of the High Romantic, but tersely and poignantly. Her righthand typically carries a vocal line, the left either spare chords, arpeggios or a bassline. If you were the pianist in an artsy rock band, this album is what you would give the rest of the crew to learn. Any third-year student can play every track here. There are no solos, no dynamic shifts, just melody – and an invitation to write lyrics. One can only wonder what a great songwriter like Karla Rose or Hannah Fairchild could do with this. Every piano teacher should own this album: it’s the best kind of example of this type of music.

A cynic would say that there are a million wannabe youtube stars with sad rainy day solo piano or synthesizer playlists that rip off every classical composer from Bach to Dvorak. But this is a cut above. The first track, Sofia is an absolutely shattering, toweringly angst-fueled requiem without words, Chopin through the prism of 20th century Slavic balladry.

Pacek follows that with If Only Time Allowed, neoromantic righthand over Lynchian lefthand. Gone Young is another requiem, a portrait of someone obviously full of life cut down unexpectedly, and too soon

The title track is a saloony Tom Waits-ish theme. Lullaby has playful Asian allusions, while Light is a neoromantic analogue to the Church’s classic, haunted Bel Air. If Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had been a neoromantic guy, he would have written Almost Goodbye.

Before the Rain is catchy, minor-key, almost amusingly insistent and youtube-friendly: it could be Yann Tiersen. In Deep Red, Pacek makes a conflicted piano ballad out of Debussy and a little blues. Inspiration runs thin toward the end of the record but picks up with

Taken on face value, Wanna Dance has to be the most morose pickup line ever written: as sad waltzes go, this is killer. Pacek finally has fun shifting the melody to the lefthand in the stadium-rock theme What’s Waiting for Me. The album’s “secret” track, Before the Storm follows a familiar descending progression, a castle dark, a fortress strong….a melody secret?

December 30, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Lingering, Lynchian Atmosphere From Lucas Brode and Kevin Shea

Guitarist Lucas Brode went to the well for inspiration from David Lynch films and Paul Motian compositions, drank deeply, and came up with his new album Vague Sense of Virtue. A duo recording with brilliant, purposeful drummer Kevin Shea (famously of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), it often brings to mind Bill Frisell, Cameron Mizell or Don Fiorino at their darkest. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The two open with There Is Someone Softly Singing in the Other Room, a pensive, reverb-drenched pastoral jazz theme over Shea’s mist of cymbals and muted rumbles. Train-whistle slides emerge mournfully out of a fog as the duo slowly gather steam in We All Missed & Are Missed, rising to a spacious, twangy soundscape that could be a very long outro in the Big Lazy catalog.

The album’s most epic number is You Will Be Remembered Simply As an Idea. Here as everywhere else, Shea’s looming ambience and judicious use of his hardware are masterful while Brode runs variations on a simple, catchy, tremoloing, distantly Lynchian riff.

The title track comes across as a more ambient take on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky, with some of Brode’s most unexpectedly lively work here. The album’s fifth number, a triptych, begins with a somber, slowly drifting song without words, Brode spiraling and squiggling around with his slide, hitting his distortion pedal as Shea prowls the perimeter. The twinkling, loopy outro is a surprise touch.

Shea supplies the uneasy energy in the spare nocturne Movement or Motionlessness, One and the Same as Brode parses his deep bag of riffs; he brings the album full circle at the end. This is a quantum leap, creatively speaking: he’s really found his muse in this immersively shadowy music.

December 12, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtle, Elegantly Evocative Suspense Film Score From Disasterpeace

Composer Richard Vreeland, a.k.a. Disasterpeace’s orchestral score to the film Under the Silver Lake – streaming at Bandcamp – is a clinic in picturesque, suspenseful new classical composition. The themes are simple, even minimalist in places. Lush, distantly anxious or murky, close-harmonied strings, ambered woodwind/string textures and clarinet/bass contrasts are just a few of the interesting tropes here. There’s a lingering ominousness, delicate ambience punctured by sudden, yet often remarkably subtle figures or percussive accents. Moments of lively activity are infrequent and striking when they appear: the hushed ambience grows quieter and more sinister as the suspense rises toward the end. Featured instruments range beyond the usual orchestral lineup to include pennywhistle, icy electric guitar played through a vintage analog chorus pedal, and what could be either a cimbalom or a prepared piano,

There’s also a jaunty little ragtime strut and a delightful 60s pop hit. And a pointless cover of another hit from that era, a cheesy, orchestrated “R&B” number and a wretched pair of songs from the low point of REM’s career. Beyond that, this is an album will keep you at the edge of your seat for a long time: there are a total of 34 tracks here.

October 25, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deliciously Lynchian Guitar From Ari Chersky

Guitarist Ari Chersky plays a darkly hypnotic blend of ambient soundscapes, slashing guitar jazz and film noir themes. His album Fear Sharpens the Dagger is streaming at Bandcamp, and it’s a great Halloween playlist.

The first track Take The Heart, is a noisier and eventually shreddier take on Angelo Badalamenti dub, as that iconic film composer concretized the style on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Chersky’s bass runs a catchy loop over Craig Weinrib’s shuffling drumbeat while the guitar lingers and then cuts loose, Peter Schlamb’s tinkling vibraphone mingling with the mist of reverb in the background. It sets the stage for much of the rest of the record.

Distant elephantine snorts and warpy outer-space textures punch through the even dubbier backdrop of the second number, Dark Flow. A string section – Joanna Mattrey on viola and Christopher Hoffman on cello – plays wistfully over echoey drainpipe sonics in A Creature Divided, then Schlamb returns to add uneasy glitter over a hazy, drifting background in Magnificent Glow.

Chersky hints that he’s going to make a morose waltz out of Old Line; instead, he loops that melancholy riff as the song shifts between dissociation and minimalistic focus. Burn the Scrolls has a similar architecture, but with layers of uneasy, acidic guitar resonance.

Who Am I to You comes across as a mashup of Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and Bill Frisell in a particularly thoughtful moment. The strings return for On Heavy Wings, a gorgeously bittersweet miniature.  Then the vibes take centerstage in the loopy Lynchian dub theme In Human Form.

Sparse guitar phrases resonate over eerie, stairstepping funeral organ in the aptly titled Haunt: it’s the album’s creepiest and best track. Chersky brings in more than a hint of dusky desert rock in the brief, circling Pride in Effort (An Entity Separate).

Low growls and starry glimmer build a spacy contrast in Wizard in Grey, which segues into the album’s final cut, Out of the Shadows, a maze of loops and flickering accordion. Fans of multi-layered guitar instrumental bands like Steelism and Big Lazy, and David Lynch soundtracks have plenty to feast on here.

October 10, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Dark Moment in New York History with Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

“Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like a galaxy whose name I didn’t know,” Laurie Anderson muses in one of the broodingly atmospheric early numbers on her album Landfall, an epic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. As Halloweenish music goes, the record – streaming at Spotify – strikes awfully close to home for any New Yorker.

The October 2012 hurricane was a defining moment for Anderson. She lived just off the Hudson River, and lost innumerable, priceless scores, archival material and instruments when her basement was flooded. The irrepressible violinist/composer/agitator has never shied away from dark topics, beginning with O Superman, the cynical Iran hostage crisis-themed single that put her on the map. This is arguably her most personal and most music-centric album: she’s more terse instrumentalist than narrator here.

Most of the thirty tracks here are on the short side, three minutes or less. What’s most intriguing about the album is that each member of the quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt, along with guest cellist Jeffrey Ziegler – get to contribute to the compositions, beginning with an ominous, searching, often Indian-tinged opening theme. As the storm looms on the horizon, there’s heavy, portentous ambience, loopy horror-film trip-hop and leaping agitation.

An allusive danse macabre above murky atmospherics signals Anderson and husband Lou Reed’s move to temporary digs in a hotel after they lose electric power. Evidence of cataclysms more commonplace in warmer climates seem shocking here: boats blown from their docks onto the West Side Highway, street signs twisted in the wind.

Anderson devotes as much if not more time to the aftermath. The music is sometimes austere and melancholy, punctuated by frenetic activity as well as coldly surreal variations on the initial trip-hop theme: Anderson’s long relationship with digital technology has always been conflicted.

To her immense credit, she doesn’t lose her signature sense of humor: her observations on people telling their friends about their dreams is priceless. The epic centerpiece, Nothing Left But Their Names, is considerably more disturbing, reflecting on how 99% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. But the most chilling moment of all is when she finally takes us down to the basement.

October 9, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 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 optimistically 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