Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Bliss Blood and Al Street’s Evanescent: One of the Year’s Best Albums

It’s always cool when a great artist decides to give away free tracks. When those tracks are among that artist’s best ever, it’s time to get busy downloading. Bliss Blood – New York’s reigning goddess of retro – decided to put the debut album by her new duo project Evanescent, with guitarist Al Street, up at reverbnation as a free download. Her Hawaiian swing crew the Moonlighters may be iconic among NYC artists, but they’re only her best-known group: in the last ten years, she’s also sung straight-up swing jazz, creepy cinematic noir songs, and barrelhouse blues (and S&M punk rock, if you count her teenage band the Pain Teens from the early 90s). But this flamenco-tinged unit with just ukulele, acoustic guitar, Blood’s lush, velvet vocals and a ton of reverb that amps up the lurid factor, may be her best yet. The joke here is that this music is actually the furthest thing from evanescent – it lingers and haunts. Blood has never sung better – the Moonlighters’ harmonies range from sensual to chirpy, but here Blood runs deep and dark with an unexpected gravitas and also a sultry allure that beats anything the Moonlighters have done – and they’re a great band.

The first track, Swallow the Dice, sets the stage, lowlit in red: it’s a menacing flamenco waltz, a defiantly metaphorical tribute to beating the system. Likewise, the steadily pulsing Liplock mines a series of double entendres, some of them ironic: play your cards too close to the vest and risk losing everything. Bulletproof is absolutely gorgeous, seductively bittersweet, all too aware of how invulnerability can be a double-edged sword:

Impervious to pain
I dream undaunted
Until I’m wanted and flaunted again
Bad bargain, maybe
I made it, unflinching
I keep it, bewitching
And blindly I see
It’s a barrier around me
Makes me bulletproof
Nothing can touch me
No one but you

The strongest track, lyrically at least, is Blackwater, a blistering broadside originally done by Blood’s “crime jazz” band Nightcall during the waning days of the Bush regime when mercenaries in Iraq were slaughering civilians left and right. Here it’s reinvented with a sarcastic rockabilly shuffle rhythm as Blood rails against the consciousless cynicism of the soldiers of fortune who think nothing of “blood spilled on the sand.” The sultriest track is The Palace of the Wind, its Dr. Zhivago ambience lush and pensive over Street’s agile broken chords. With just ukulele, bells and vocals for most of it, Butterfly Collector wouldn’t be out of place in an early 60s Henry Mancini soundtrack. There’s also the torchy, Freudian Legend of a Crime; the brisk, galloping Ella Es el Matador, the give-and-take of a hookup explained as a bullfight; the echoey, pillowy, sad guitar-and-vocalese instrumental Firefly, and the sly, reggae-tinged come-on Your Mayhem. One of the best albums of the year, for free. Evanescent play DBA at 113 N 7th St. (Berry/Wythe) in Williamsburg on 4/16; 4/22 they’re at Cin-M-Art Space, 43 Murray Street, (W. Broadway & Church).

April 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Unexpected Treat from Dave Holland and Pepe Habichuela

Spring cleaning has its rewards. Pretty much every attempt to clean up the server at Lucid Culture HQ causes strange and sometimes beautiful things to float to the surface. Case in point: this album. The media kit file wouldn’t open and went into the trash, but the tracks remained. A listen to the first song was addictive – it was impossible to stop with the next track, and the one after that. The first begins with a long, flamenco-tinged bass solo, of all things. Flamenco guitar follows it, solo, darkly atmospheric rather than all melodramatic like the Gipsy Kings, with the thump of a cajon in the background. It’s basically a modal vamp on a couple of chords, the guitar with a harplike clarity and articulation. What was this magical music and who was playing it?

A little googling revealed the answer: back in October, legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland joined forces with Spanish gypsy flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela and his son Joseli (of crossover flamenco group Ketama) along with a percussionist, and put out this tremendously cool album, simply titled Hands. As it turns out, this is the result of a rather long process, Holland seeking to immerse himself in flamenco and become a good flamenco bassist rather than trying to jazz up the music, sometimes playing vocal lines on his bass. To his credit, not only did he become a good flamenco bassist, he keeps very good company. Although this is a pretty straight-up flamenco album, there are other influences here, especially Brazilian. What’s most striking is how judicious and thoughtful the guitar is, and how unpredictable the compositions are. There are crescendos to big choruses, but no cliches, and also no grand guignol, and a lot of counterintuitive touches. For example, on Camaron (“Shrimp”), Habichuela essentially plays an indie rock melody, Holland responding with a long, aptly cantabile solo. Then, on El Ritmo Me Lleva (“The Beat Moves Me”), the two guitars and bass follow a rhumba beat, with an airy, almost Pat Metheny-ish feel.

The title track starts out hinting at samba but quickly goes back to a tersely bristling flamenco groove, following an absolutely delicious, un-flamencoish chord progression and then a long, pensive bass solo that again stays solidly in flamenco territory. Likewise, Holland mimics the guitars on the most traditional number here, Puente Quebrao. Habichuela offers a solo guitar tribute to his new bass-playing friend; Joyride, by Holland, is the gentlest, most Brazilian-inflected tune here. There’s also the joyously crescendoing, tango-tinged Subi la Questa; Holland’s Whirling Dervish, a spotlight for Josemi’s rapidfire fretwork, and the rippling closing track. What a fun discovery at close to midnight on a work night – it’s less like being transported to a sangria-fueled gypsy campfire than to Holland’s studio where this beautifully intricate stuff began life.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Genre-Smashing New Guitar Albums from Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins

Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.

Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.

Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.

Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment