Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare Bass-and-Vocals Album and a Joe’s Pub Release Show from Kavita Shah and François Moutin

Considering that singer Sheila Jordan has made bass-and-vocal duets such an integral part of her hall of fame career, it’s no surprise that her protegee, Kavita Shah would release an album full of them. Most of the tracks on her latest release, Interplay – streaming at Spotify – are duo arrangements with bassist François Moutin. The two are playing the album release show this May 30 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $20.

Beyond Jordan’s obsession with the format, recordings of just bass and voice are rare. It’s impossible to know for sure, but bass-and-vocals albums are even rarer: Jordan’s catalog included, it’s hard to imagine more than a couple dozen of them ever having been made. Two from recent years are especially noteworthy. Singer Lauren Lee’s Velocity Duo with bassist Charley Sabatino put out an especially playful one, Dichotomies, in 2015. The benchmark for the format, at least in this century, belongs to singer Jen Shyu and bassist Mark Dresser’s transcendent, phantasmagorical 2011 release, Synastry. How does the new one by Shah and Moutin compare?

For one, it’s more of a study in contrasting voices – Moutin percolating and Shah simmering alongside – than an attempt to pull together a cohesive whole. And it’s a mix of originals and standards. The duo open with one of the latter, You Go to My Head, which is all about dichotomies, in this case Shah’s assertively full-throated, bittersweet delivery against Moutin’s tightly unclustering lines that veer in and out of swing time. Their take of La Vie En Rose follows the same format, if more swingingly, at least until Shah starts scatting and then Moutin takes a bubbly, straightforward solo.

The first of the originals, Coming Yesterday pairs Shah’s energetic airiness against ageless nonagenariian pianist and longtime Moutin collaborator Martial Solal’s alternately saturnine and sprightly piano. Moutin incisively shadows Shah’s stately delivery throughout the catchy, recurrent vocal riffage of Bliss. The contrast in Falling in Love with Love, one of the more contiguous numbers, is between Shah’s blissful interpretation versus Jordan’s grittier approach – at 89, she can still hit the high notes!

A Shah original, Aigue Marine also features Solal’s uneasy close harmonies behind her tropical angst; it’s the album’s strongest track. Her resonance and melismas over Moutin’s stabbing pulse in Dafnis Prieto’s Blah Blah carry its tango-jazz intensity with full-band power. Similarly, the album’s most retro number, Utopian Vision, has plenty of swing and gusto despite the stripped-down setup.

Shah’s steady vocalese pairs with Moutin’s strolling lines in the album’s title track, up to a jauntily flurrying bass solo. Shah vamps on ukulele in the tropical-flavored The Provider’s Gone. The album closes with Peace, another collaboration with Jordan, shifting in and out of waltz time, Shah the ingenue alongside her mentor’s calm, wise intonation.

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May 25, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rudresh Mahanthappa Brings His Sizzling Indian-Flavored Take on Charlie Parker to the Jazz Standard

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of the world’s most individualistic and thrilling musicians, a wide-ranging scholar of jazz as well as Indian music. His latest album, Bird Calls – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically unconventional effort, heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, although not a tribute album per se. His performance with the quintet on the album at this year’s Winter Jazzfest was a spine-tingling display of chops, ideas, and high-voltage banter between the musicians. He’s doing it again, playing the album release show at the Jazz Standard on March 24 with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM with a slightly different crew: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Bobby Avey, bassist François Moutin and drummer Jordan Perlson. Cover is $25.

Musicians have been highfiving each other in song for eons. The shout-outs to Bird on this album are all over the place, some as simple as Mahanthappa playing his own tune over Parker’s changes, to switching up the rhythm of a Bird melody or solo, along with more artfully concealed passages. Whatever the case, it’s classic Mahanthappa, ancient-sounding, often majestic Indian motifs within a somewhat harder bop framework than usual.

The album juxtaposes brief interludes with larger-scale numbers. Bird Calls #1, which opens it, is a brief, murkily suspenseful modal platform for the first of many animated sax-trumpet conversation (at Winter Jazzfest, they really took their time and had a ball with this). On the DL (a reference to Bird’s Donna Lee) opens with the same interplay at triplespeed or more – how firebrand young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (son of latin jazz maven Arturo) matches Mahanthappa’s silken, precise intonation is stunning. At Winter Jazzfest, Indian percussion master Vish, of dancefloor groove instrumentalists SuKhush commented that if this was a sine wave, it would be completely flat [thanks for the company and the erudite insights, guys!].

Sax and trumpet join in a tightly rhythmic duet with echoes of Indian bhangra brass music, followed by Chillin’, referencing Bird’s Relaxin’ at the Camarillo in bubbly, joyous trumpet/sax eschanges, graceful melismas from O’Farrill and long, elusive flights from Mahanthappa. They follow a playful, masterful solo sax passage replete with overtones and subtle rhythmic shifts with Talin Is Thinking, inspired equally by Parker’s Mood and Mahanthappa’s young son. A pensive march that rises to majestic, fiery heights, pianist Matt Mitchell’s resonant, hard-hitting but surgically precise pedalpoint enhances the shadowy Indian-tinged mystery underneath.  Moutin’s dancing, kinetic lines blend with and then leap from drummer Rudy Royston’s steady, subtle rat-a-tat drive: who knew he could channel an intricate tabla rhythm yet bring it into the 21st century, thousands of miles away?

Both Hands (based on Dexterity) is another showcase for clarity and rapidfire precision from sax and trumpet, hard bop over a briskly rumbling, hypnotic backdrop, Mitchell nimbly choosing his spots. A rustling Moutin solo leads into the wryly tiltled Gopuram (referencing Steeplechase – in India, a gopur is a temple tower), a tersely simmering, modally-charged number that reminds of Marc Cary (has he played with Mahanthappa? What a collaboration that would be!).

Maybe Later (drawing on Now’s the Time) contrasts lively, upbeat postbop horn riffage with a sternly rhythmic underpinning, with an acidically rippling Mitchell solo over Royston’s tumbling aggression and jabs. An expansive Mitchell solo sets the stage for Sure Why Not? (a shout-out to Confirmation and Barbados), the album’s least Indian-flavored and most lightheartedly pulsing track. The album winds up much the way it started, but with a staccato pulse, referencing Bird’s Anthropology with all hands on deck, blistering spirals from Mitchell and a hard-charging sax/trumpet debate. In case you haven’t figured out, there’s no one on earth who sounds remotely like Rudresh Mahanthappa, and he’s a force of nature live. This show promises to be amazing, get there early.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar Strikes Gold with Alchemy

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar‘s paradigm-shifting career blurs the boundaries between jazz and traditions from across the Middle East, both ancient and in the here-and-now. His new quintet album, Alchemy, stays within the jazz idiom while pushing the envelope with Middle Eastern themes, melodies and technique as well as employing western classical architecture. This is a sonata of sorts, two central themes with many variations and plenty of room for thoughtfully crafted individual contributions and solos from Ole Mathisen on saxes, John Escreet on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.  Echoes of the traditional Iraqi melodies that ElSaffar plays in his Safafir project are plentiful throughout the album, mingling with boisterous postbop improvisation as well as ElSaffar’s signature steely focus and sharp, vivid tunesmithing. And as much as this is cutting-edge to the extreme, ElSaffar being a generally very serious guy, both the playing and compositions here have an unexpected amount of sardonic wit. Whether serious or less so, what’s here has a lot in common with recent work by Vijay Iyer, a frequent ElSaffar collaborator.

The opening track, Ishtarun, introduces a stately, chromatic, flamenco-tinged canon that the ensemble explores through a misterioso piano-and-bass interlude, ElSaffar circling uneasily around the tonic as the band blusters. Nid Qablitum sets the rhythm loose and livens it, a rippling piano solo kicking off a series of jaunty, wryly puddle-jumping variations. The triptych Embubum – Ishtarun – Pitum returns with a Miles Davis-esque gravitas, its purposeful stroll serving as a launchpad for ElSaffar’s unexpectedly bluesy solos and then a return to hypnotic yet biting, chromatically-fueled insistence before a big crescendo and some jousting between trumpet and sax.

12 Cycles builds a series of loops, in more of an indie classical than a jazz vein: ElSaffar’s circling trumpet artfully expands them, Escreet again adding a suspenseful edge along with eerie close harmonies from the horns. Quartal opens with those close harmonies but quickly swings hard with Mathisen’s refusenik sax edging toward microtonality yet without the slightest reference to any Orientalisms, Escreet defiantly echoing it, Moutin intertwining with the piano and then Weiss’ rustling, furtive drumwork. Balad brings back a stately, somber ambience with creepy, neoromantic microtonalisms from pretty much everybody over moody, prowling rhythm – it’s one of the album’s many high points.

5 Phases reworks the circular, Steve Reichian theme while adding a microtonal edge and a more dancing rhythmic drive, soprano sax shadowing the trumpet over a sotto vocce cymbal shuffle that builds to a sardonic faux-martial theme and variations.  Athar Kurd brings back the briskly walking hardbop, a feature for more spiraling, stairstepping sax and a deviously scurrying Moutin solo. Miniature #1 hardly qualifies as one: it’s about a four-minute reprise of that dancing, circular riff with a cool boomy/whooshy drum/cymbal dialectic and tensely agitated, quietly chattering horns. Ending Piece is the summation where the themes come together: lively, dancing, looped motives followed by more straight-ahead bluesy riffage; a delightfully messy sax/trumpet conversation; droll hints of funk from the bass and eerie close harmonies from the horns as Escreet chooses his spots. It’s one of the most successfully ambitious albums of recent months, full of disquieting energy and a contender for best of 2013. Pi Records gets a shout-out for yet another important, doubtlessly influential release.

December 21, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weighing in on the New Rudresh Album

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new album Gamak, out from ACT, hits the street today. The jazz media genuflects to the alto saxophonist’s virtuosic, boundary-stretching technique, range and imaginative compositions: is this all it’s cracked up to be? Pretty much. It’s a major album, not just because it’s pushing the envelope further and further into microtonal territory, but because it’s exciting, hard-edged music. This is what happens when the core of Jack DeJohnettte’s band is left to their own inventive devices. Much has been made of how Rudresh (nice to be instantly recognizable in jazz by your first name alone, isn’t it) has drawn on his Indian background, but this isn’t “Indian jazz” – he has a singular vernacular As you would expect, the microtones keening and bending from Dave Fiuczynski’s guitar strings are more strikingly otherworldly than the single-note lines of the sax, but both musicians are often hanging in scales that don’t exist in western music – and so much the better. Bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss hit hard and keep it terse behind them.

The opening track slams along on a rapidfire bhangra riff from the sax, then they swing it down to a memorably wall-bending, creepily microtonal Fiuczynski solo and eventually crunch their way out. A long, memorably disorienting interlude from Fiuczynski leads to a spiraling exchange with the sax on the raga-inspired second cut, Weiss driving it purposefully as the bandleader evokes the eerie timbres of a Turkish ney flute. After a disarmingly lyrical, syncopated shuffle tune, they bring back the eerie tonalities with We’ll Make More, a more radical, pummeling yet funky revisitation of the raga melody that opened Rudresh’s pioneering 2003 album Black Water.

A track from that album, Are There Clouds in India is as balmy as the original but more surreal and uneasy, both guitar and sax building to bustling tension and then moving back toward a semblance of calm comfort, exchanging airy volleys in a mysterious new language. Lots of Interest makes all this look easy – it’s actually anything but – indulging Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torso side before reverting to staggered funk.

They follow a practically minimalist bass solo with Copernicus and its machinegun sax over nervous changes, then Wrathful Wisdom with its breath-stopping swoops, wry Fiuczynski humor and Middle Eastern allusions. That part of the world is referenced more directly on Ballad for Troubled Times, Rudresh driving it with a liquid legato, Moutin artfully choosing his spots to illuminate. The album ends with a miniature, Majesty of the Blues which is more of a math-jazz piece. What may be this album’s strongest suit is that it softpedals the strange scales: melody is so front and center that it’s sometimes beside the point that so much of this is blue notes. Which, ultimately, is what defined the roots of jazz and will define its future branches.

January 29, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jean-Michel Pilc’s Essential Combines Great Wit and Great Chops

Jazz pianist Jean-Michel Pilc’s new live solo album Essential is just out on Motéma, and it’s a match of astonishing chops and playful wit, in fact, one of Pilc’s best creations. A defiant advocate of pure improvisation, the way Pilc takes both original and classic themes, deconstructs them or reconstructs them, all the while making them up on the spot, is extremely entertaining. As he explains, literally everything here is improvised with the exception of one in a series of fascinating miniatures titled Etude-Tableaux – and that one Pilc came up with only a few days before he recorded this concert. The cd version of this album features features not only live concert material but also a video of a special private performance from the two-night stand where this material was recorded.

Utilizing the entirety of the piano’s range, Pilc will occasionally venture beneath the lid and coax timbres directly from the strings themselves. There’s also evidence here of Pilc’s seemingly ambidextrous two-handed approach which on occasion resembles two separate voices, sometimes conversationally, but more often than not has them working virtually independently of one another. Also in full effect is Pilc’s puckish sense of humor. A delightful version of Caravan becomes a game of hide-and-seek, Pilc interjecting seemingly random fragments of the melody amid low, rumbling, pedaled atmospherics or joyous righthand cascades, practically a mashup of the original with an improvisation. Likewise, Pilc artfully skirts the melody of Take the A Train, a wry contrast between low boogie woogie-tinged lefthand and devious flourishes in the right. Someday My Prince Will Come hints at a darkly suspenseful bluesy ballad approach before flying off into the upper registers; by contrast, Pilc takes Chopin’s A Minor Waltz and turns it into a foundation for alternately bracing and warmly consonant lyrical passages, an utterly original repurposing which begins with pain and poignancy but ends on a hopeful note.

Yet the original improvisations are the pieces de resistance. The title track is a thoughtful, methodical blues ballad shaded grey – it’s slow enough that the listener can think along with Pilc and watch how he does it, finally scurrying off before returning to the source. The series of Etudes-Tableaux begin with a somewhat austere boogie, followed by a deliciously bouncy, fractured pop melody with an amusing series of endings; a starlit ballad that opens the door wide on the kind of riveting intensity Pilc can deliver; another that could be Haydn through the prism of Scott Joplin; a contrasting miniature that evokes both Erik Satie and the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays; and a Brubeck-esque jazz waltz that plays clever rhythmic tricks. There’s also a judicious, expansive version of I Remember You; an eerie music-box take of Scarborough Fair; an arrestingly brooding, compelling Blue in Green, and Mack the Knife, reinvented as a jester.

Pilc is playing a bunch of festivals this summer including Montreal; his next NewYork dates seem to be Aug 30-31 at the Blue Note with Pilc Moutin Hoenig Potter featuring his longtime rhythm section, bassist François Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig, plus saxophonist Chris Potter.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gaida – Levantine Indulgence

Syrian-born chanteuse Gaida’s debut cd has been highly anticipated in world music circles: for once, it’s a release which lives up to its hype. Her high, versatile voice with just the hint of a jazzy, smoky edge draws comparisons to Natacha Atlas, and like Atlas, she proves equally captivating not only at the levantine ballads intimated by the title, but also bossa nova and rock. What’s most notable is how she and the group behind her shift between styles, often mingling jazz and Brazilian motifs within a traditional levantine framework. As much as there may be tears close to her eyes, as she puts it, on many of these songs, there’s also joy and exuberance. When she became part of the scene at New York’s music mecca Alwan for the Arts, a who’s who of expatriate Middle Eastern musicians assembled around her. The band on the album is extraordinary – credits include Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and santoor, Bridget Robbins on ney flute, Johnny Farraj on riq, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq and Zafer Tawil on oud, qanun and percussion. In fact, the album’s title track may be its most disarmingly beautiful, a taqsim (improvisation) with Gaida’s fetching vocalese surrounded by wary qanun, percussion and even a terse upright bass solo.

The cd begins with a classic Mohammed Abdel Wahab style Egyptian ballad featuring ney flute and characteristically vivid trumpet accents from ElSaffar. Ammar picks up the pace with insistent buzuq and oud chords and a triumphantly ululating choir of women’s voices – and even a little piano for extra spice. Gaida’s most wrenchingly intense vocal here is on the imploring habibi jazz ballad Khaifa Uhibuka, which segues into a slinky levantine number featuring qanun and oud. There’s also a haunting piano-based European-style art-rock song (with Arabic lyrics), a swaying, upbeat one-chord groove number, a straight-up bossa song, and the majestic anthem Bint Elbalad, wrapping up the album with intense, darkly soulful solos from buzuk and trumpet once again. You’re going to see this on a whole lot of “best-of” lists at the end of the year, including ours. Gaida plays the cd release show on 3/21 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, advance tickets are an absolute must because the show will sell out.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment