Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Devious Humor and Poignancy on Violinist Mark Feldman’s New Solo Album

Violinist Mark Feldman has been a staple of the downtown New York jazz scene since the 90s, notably in his long-running duo with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Like innumerable artists during the lockdown, he’s put out a solo album, Sounding Point, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s incisive, purposeful and sometimes haunting, everything the artists he’s played with have sought him out for. But there are just as many moments here that border on hilarious. Feldman’s sense of humor has seldom come across so deviously as it does on this album.

Some of these pieces are built around a single melody line, others are judiciously multitracked. The opening number, As We Are features varations on a coy “here we go!” theme, Feldman building to his usual erudite mix of extended technique and economical melodicism, laced with harmonics, swells and delicate pizzicato. The album’s title track has plaintive, spacious phrases over delicately fluttering sustained lines.

Warriors is an amusingly ornamented multitracked piece including but not limited to swirly glissandos, a plucky march, pregnant pauses, hints of darkly rustic blues and Appalachia: it could be completely improvised. Unbound has a bit of a scramble, calmly whistling buffoonery, and a sly classical quote or two.

The album’s big, almost ten-minute epic is Viciously, which is aptly titled, horrified cadenzas emerging and suddenly giving way to spare, pensive variations on a blues riff, surreal glissandos and strangely muted echoes. Rebound is arguably the album’s funniest number, a mashup of echoey extended technique and all sorts of cartoonish japes.

Maniac is more dissociative than frantic, a playful pastiche of concise riffs. Feldman’s final number is titled New Normal: other than being more ghostly and disturbingly furtive than the other tracks here, it’s impossible to read any references to totalitarianism, surveillance or death by lethal injection into it. Violin jazz fans, and anyone with a sense of humor, should check this out.

February 10, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Band Jazz Has Never Been So Much Fun As It Is on Satoko Fujii’s Ninety-Nine Years Album

Satoko Fujii did a second album with her Orchestra Berlin because, she says, “These guys are total goofballs. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much ridiculous fun in the studio as I had with these clowns.”

That’s not really what she said. The official quote from the press release for the album, Ninety-Nine Years (streaming at Bandcamp) is “I think they bring out some part of me that the other bands don’t.”

Like crazed, insane fun. Over the epic course of about ninety albums with umpteen ensembles since the mid-90s, Fujii’s own sense of humor tends to be much more subtle, and her music is almost always on the serious side. This is her cartoon soundtrack, an album for jazz fans with long attention spans who need a good laugh. And yet, there’s plenty of signature Fujii gravitas here as well.

Everything here but the closing number – which begins like Lunar New Year on East Broadway in Chinatown – clocks in at well over ten minutes, sometimes closer to fifteen. The first number, which seems extremely satirical, is Unexpected Incident, as the Japanese government euphemistically termed the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Fujii did a whole Fukushima-inspired album with her Orchestra New York, which this blog chose as best album of 2017).

Fujii’s main axe is the piano, which she plays here; she’s also an excellent accordionist.Tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann shrieks and squalls over the group early on, bassist Jan Roder tirelessly running a loop. There’s a din of a trombone/tenor duel between Matthias Schubert and Matthias Müller, the orchestra picking up a loop of their own. Roder returns more syncopatedly behind an increasingly agitated Natsuki Tamura trumpet solo; the way Fujii sneaks a secondary theme in before Ullmann’s shrill solo coda is artful, and typical of her.

Roder opens the title track, a dedication to Fujii’s late mother-in-law, with an increasingly scrambling solo, eventually joined in wisps and flickers by drummers Peter Orins and Michael Griener and baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek, who works her way to a fond, lyrical upper-register solo. They bring it down to just the drums and Ullmann, who chews the scenery until Fujii signals a steady, bittersweet, chordally brassy theme while Ullmann keeps doing his bad cop in contrast with Owczarek. They end together, warmly.

The funniest number here is On the Way, from its suspenseful, shamanistic twin-drum intro, to brassy hints of reggae, a bit of the rudiments from the drummers, and a grumpily cartoonish solo from Tamura which somebody in the band tries to lure away – the joke is too good to spoil. The faux New Orleans outro will also make you smile.

Oops is a showcase for both vaudevillian absurdity and some very sobering interludes. A triickily rhythmic, circular massed theme gives way to Schubert’s unbridled exuberance, but that’s when Fujii signals for a dirge behind his revelry: there’s no escaping this dark undercurrent. Tamura goes to the Middle East, the bass bubbles tensely, until finally the band erupt in a Keystone Kops charge. A dirge and another charge return along with spacious, bright pulses in between.

They close with Follow the Idea, from crazed New Years festivities, to goofy conversational blips, droll low spitballs and all-stops-out squalling over a thump and a LMAO false ending, Fujii has never made another album like this before – it was one of a dozen she put out in 2018 to celebrate her sixtieth birthday year – and she probably never will again. Enjoy. Big up to the rest of the cast, which includes trumpeters Richard Koch and Lina Allemano; trombonist Matthias Müller; and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi.

January 21, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

James Ilgenfritz Makes a Troubling, Acidically Relevant Operatic Suite Out of a William Burroughs-Classic

In keeping with this month’s epic theme, today’s album is bassist James Ilgenfritz’s musical interpretation of William Burroughs’ cult classic novel The Ticket That Exploded, an “ongoing opera” streaming at Bandcamp. A collaboration with video artist Jason Ponce – who also contributes to the sound mix – it features Anagram Ensemble playing a mashup of surreal, often dadaistic free jazz and indie classical sounds. The text is delivered both as spoken word and by a rotating cast of singers including Nick Hallett, Ted Hearne, Ryan Opperman, Anne Rhodes and Megan Schubert. Burroughs’novel can be maddeningly dissociative, although in its more accessible moments it’s witheringly aphoristic, and often uproariously funny. That sense of humor does not often translate to the music here: it’s usually serious as death and relentlessly acidic. Most of it seems improvised, although that could be Ilgenfritz, a fixture of the New York creative jazz scene prior to the lockdown, toying with the audience.

With his weathered New York accent, Steve Dalachinsky – who knew Burroughs – was a good choice of narrator. In its best moments, this is classic jazz poetry. “It’s the old army thing: get dicked firstest with the brownest nose,” Nick Hallett muses about midway through. Sound familiar?

“If I had a talking picture of you, would I still read you?” Dalachinsky ponders a little later. Again, Burroughs is being prophetic: remember, this was written in the 1960s. An astringent guitar duel – Ty Citerman and Taylor Levine – pushes him out of the picture, only to be eclipsed by an almost shockingly calm moment from the string section at the end. That’s characteristic of how this unfolds.

After a rather skeletal opening number, the two women’s voices reach crushingly screaming and tumbling peaks, contrasting with a persistently offkilter minimalism. Many of the most ominous moments here pair the strings – Julianne Carney on violin and Nathan Bontrager on cello – with Denman Maroney’s eerie piano tinkles.

Ted Hearne gets the plum assignment of introducing the cast of characters in the Nova Mob which several generations of writers and punk rockers would reference in the decades that followed. The brass and strings drift and rustle uneasily, occasionally coalescing for unexpected pockets of clarity or a rare vaudevillian interlude. Percussionists Andrew Drury, John O’Brien and Vinnie Sperazza squirrel around, sparely, on anything that can be wacked.

Dichotomies – man versus machine, the sacred versus the very sacreligious, reason versus unbridled lust, reality versus hallucination – abound, both lyrically and musically. As challenging a listen as this is, in an age where surveillance is becoming a more and more omnipresent threat, it’s also timely:

Why don’t we shut this machine off?
I had all the answers a thousand years ago…
All we had to do is shut the thing off
Soundtrack calls the image police?
Shut off the soundtrack!

January 20, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Muhal Richard Abrams Leaves Us With a Knowing Wink

Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.

The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.

The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.

While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.

There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader Bobby Zankel and his fellow alto saxophonists, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.

January 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

December 18, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Historic Meeting of Some of the World’s Greatest Improvisational Minds

The new release Flow States, a highly entertaining, frequently thrilling improvisatory session recorded in 2015, speaks to the imperiled state of music in 2020. After the lockdowners banned musicians from playing onstage and earning what had essentially become their sole source of income, artists around the world have been flooding the web with all kinds of incredible archival recordings. Desperate times, desperate measures – and the quality of this material reminds us of what we stand to lose if we continue to allow ourselves to be locked down.

This session has special historical value for being the very first time that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell had played with either the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s iconic Marshall Allen, or with Milford Graves, the polymath drummer, cardiac medicine specialist, sound healing pioneer and musicologist. Multi-reedman Scott Robinson pulled the session together. While the session was in an open studio with no separation, the individual voices of this hall of fame lineup are distinct and everybody gets plenty of chances to give the listener goosebumps.

Allen is in the left channel, mainly on alto sax. Mitchell is in the center, beginning on soprano, sometimes shifting in one piece from sopranino to bass or alto. Robinson is on the right, moving from tenor to bass to contrabass and then alto, mixing it up as usual. And you should see Graves’ kit, with all those toms, delivering a majestically boomy, mysterious groove. Who needs a bass when you have that guy in the band?

Mitchell’s rapidfire melismas are so otherworldly and bagpipe-like throughout the first number, Vortex State, that it’s almost as if he’s playing the EWI that Allen has used for so long in the Sun Ra band. Meanwhile, Graves goes to his mallets for a deep, spacious river as Allen and Robinson carry on a lively, sharp conversation from the edges.

Track two, the aptly titled Dream State, floats over Graves’ magically shamanic, muted, steady pulse, sprites slowly popping up amidst the mist. Allen first goes to the EWI in the trio piece Transition State for a woozily amusing contrast with the droll strutting and foghorn sonics from Robinson’s bass sax as Graves builds a hypnotic sway with his cymbals.

Steady State, a duo piece for Graves and Mitchell’s Balkan-tinged sopranino, is arguably the album’s most relentlessly adrenalizing interlude. Allen picks up the EWI again for the wryly spacy warpscape Plasma State, another duo with Graves. Altered State also has ridiculously funny moments, whether it’s Robinson’s heavy-lidded lows on contrabass sax, or Graves sounding the alarm.

Variable State, a conversation between Mitchell and Allen (back on alto), has plenty of jokes too good to give away, but just as much daunting extended technique. The full quartet close with the title track, which with its relentless traffic jam ambience could be called Garden State, where the album was recorded. More auspiciously, a vinyl release is planned, including extra material that wouldn’t fit on this one.

November 27, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

November 26, 2020 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magical, Pensively Conversational Improvisations From Josh Sinton’s Latest Project

The trio What Happens in a Year is a serendipitous meeting of minds, three guys who are great listeners and conversationalists. Formidable and incredibly mutable low-register multi-reedman Josh Sinton first brought guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Giacomo Merega into a rehearsal room to whip up some ideas he could flesh out for an album. Their rapport turned out to be so strong that Sinton decided simply to go with the trio’s spontaneous interactions as his first-ever full-length, completely improvised album, Cérémonie/Musique, streaming at Bandcamp.

As you would expect from Merega and Neufeld, the music here tends to be on the quiet side. As you would expect from Sinton, especially, it’s entertaining, not merely a pattern book to inspire other free jazz dudes. In the album’s opening number, La Politique des Auteurs, Sinton plays spare, rather wistful baritone sax phrases, Merega responding with one of his signature devices, spacious chords. Neufeld enters the picture with skeletal motives and lingering, distant menace. A bustle develops beneath Sinton’s airy lines; Merega’s bubbles evince jarring slashes from the guitar.

Sepulchral ambience punctuated by the occasional cry is the central premise of Algernon, a magically austere soundscape. Change of Scene is much the same: lingering bass clarinet from Sinton, spare volume-knob swells and brooding figures from Neufeld and shadowy low end from Merega…all of which hardly telegraph the sotto-voce revelry to come.

The dissociative low-register prowl from Sinton – back on baritone sax – and Merega in Sleepwalk Digest is spot-on, Neufeld adding unexpectedly wary, skronky accents and menacingly steady, slow chordal cascades. The guitarist’s morosely tolling lines take centerstage over his bandmates’ floating, flitting, ghostly presence in Untethered.

The group follow the same pattern, but even more spaciously and skeletally, in Netherland, at first the most haunting yet ultimately the funniest piece here. They close the album with Music From a Locked Room, an extended, triangulated pitch-and-follow scenario. What a beautifully enveloping headphone album: you’ll undoubtedly see this on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.

November 6, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast Rapture and Playful Scrambles From Brilliant, Individualistic Pianist Eunyoung Kim

Pianist Eunyoung Kim plays improvised music that draws as much on 20th century and contemporary classical music as it does jazz. Her technique is daunting, and she has a rare fluency for orchestrating on the spot. Themes and variations are big with her, as are close harmonies. She flirts with twelve-tone ideas without being tying the knot with them. Her new album, Earworm – streaming at Bandcamp – is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

The first number – each of the album’s tracks is untitled – has a steady, playfully dancing rhythm with hints of swing, tango and the baroque disguised behind close harmonies. If Louis Andriessen played jazz, it might sound something like this.

Track two is a vast, otherworldly, minimalist soundscape, akin to Federico Mompou at a tenth the speed, maybe. Kim returns to playfully rhythmic mode with the tune after that, an increasingly thorny series of curlicuing phrases and variations that grow more murky and hypnotic.

Track four reflects the spacious minimalism of track two, but more somberly and intricately: it brings to mind Satoko Fujii’s most brooding solo work. Blippy, leapfrogging phrases and staccato insistence mingle in the piece after that, down to a striking interlude fueled by stern quasi-boogie low-register work.

Track six begins as a synthesis of the bounciness and the moody minimalism that Kim has been shifting between so far; then she romps toward Monk and gospel music. She finally goes under the piano lid for her seventh improvisation, a momentary return to somber stillness.

With Kim’s steady, bracing modalities and steady, incisive attack, track eight reminds of Keith Jarrett’s 1960s work. Next up, Kim clusters and jabs with breathtaking speed and articulacy: that she waits this long before cutting loose with her chops testifies to her commitment to making a statement rather than showing off.

The album’s tenth track is increasingly hypnotic variations on a wry, loopy modal phrase. Kim closes the record with an approximation of a Monk-ish wee-hours ballad. Like all the albums on the new Mung Music label out of Korea, this was recorded live to a vintage Tascam cassette recorder before being digitized.

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

High-Voltage Piano/Bass Duels and Conversations From Eunhye Jeong and Minki Cho

Pianist Eunhye Jeong’s previous album The Colliding Beings was an epic live recording of ancient Korean pansori themes reinvented as free jazz. Her latest album, Abyss, is a series of duo improvisations with bassist Minki Cho, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s somewhat less expansive: no 25-minute songs this time around.

There’s a persistent good cop/bad cop dynamic between the steady, purposeful bassist and the restless pianist. Unearthly tones, whether keening in the harmonics of the upper registers or the stygian lows, come to the forefront in the duo’s first number, Head Sea. Jeong goes under the piano lid before she moves in, hard, on the piano’s low midrange, while Cho bows and then holds the center, motorboat riffs against a scurry.

Purple Beans has flitting piano accents against a calmer, more circular bass center. The two coalesce, then diverge tensely through a series of tritones, Jeong growing more frantic until Cho centers the music.

Surface Tension begins with churning, rattling atmospherics, Cho running loopy bass variations as Jeong hammers and circles; this time it’s her turn to break the spell. Thumbnail Sketch, the closest reference to swing here, begins with jaunty lowrange flourishes and insistence from the piano against steady bass. The two musicians rise to a coy parody of fanfare and then an anvil chorus which finally gives way to a deadpan, stern conclusion.

Kindred has funkier rhythms, some particularly explosive moments from Jeong and also an unexpectedly icy, terse duet midway through. The closing number, Dokdo 1696 is built around minimalist, suspenseful variations on an octave bass riff, up to some tasty Messiaenic upper-register piano and another anvil chorus, Cho playing voice of reason again. The album also includes a couple of spacious solo bass miniatures.

October 24, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment