Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mighty Swing from Trombonist Ryan Keberle’s Big Band Living Legacy Project

Trombonist Ryan Keberle recently commented in the New York City Jazz Record that music educators like himself ought to spend more time figuring out how to get their students to find “the zone,” where they can improvise at the highest level. One way to do it was how Keberle did it at Hunter College last night with his Big Band Living Legacy Project, surrounding himself with a crew of big band jazz legends, many of whom had mentored him or inspired him to transcribe and learn solos they’d played on albums over the past several decades. With this group, Keberle spent most of his time conducting rather than soloing, but when he did – especially during his own luminous, Gil Evans-ish arrangement of Summertime, which he sheepishly told the crowd he’d decided to reinvent as a trombone feature – he very tersely and poignantly headed straight for “the zone” and stayed there. And no wonder. Who wouldn’t be inspired to take it to the next level, surrounded by the players onstage?

This is an amazing band. The show was mostly upbeat swing blues tunes, the majority from the Basie book, with a trio of numbers associated with Ellington along with boisterous, brass-fueled takes of JJ Johnson’s Say When, Thad Jones’ Big Dipper, Sy Oliver’s Looselid Special and the old Benny Goodman chestnut King Porter Stomp. Scott Robinson stood in for Goodman, as Keberle wryly put it, with his whirling clarinet and then his blues-infused tenor sax work. Baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) showed off a period-perfect, mile-wide tremolo on an achingly lyrical take of Ellington’s I Like the Sunrise, from the Iberian Suite. James Zollar delivered crescendos that ranged from sizzling to droll from behind his mute alongside his fellow trumpeters Bob Millikan, Earl Gardner and Greg Gisbert. Altoist Jerry Dodgion got a couple of soulful spots late in the show, up front in the sax section alongside Billy Drewes and Bill Easley.

Watching bassist Rufus Reid move from the simplest pedalpoint on the oldest numbers to a majestic stroll on the more recent material was a capsule history of big band jazz rhythm. Likewise, Carl Allen’s trip through beats from across the decades, from shuffles on the ride cymbal through more artful, unexpected ka-THUMP syncopation on the more blazing tunes, while pianist Alan Broadbent colored the songs with ambered blues tones and the occasional misty interlude way up in the highest octaves.

Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – whose mighty gravitas anchored the Arturo O’Farrill band’s sensational show a week ago at the Apollo – drew plenty of laughs as he faked out the crowd with pregnant pauses in a romp through Thad Jones’ The Deacon, one of the Basie tunes. His fellow ‘bone guys Mike Davis and Clarence Banks also got time in the spotlight later on, no surprise considering who the bandleader was. The highlight of the set might have been a richly gospel-inspired take of Mary Lou Williams’ wickedly catchy Blue Skies. Or it could have been the majestic version of Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, or the nimble, incisive run through Isfahan a few numbers later. With this kind of material and these kind of players, you just sit and sway in your seat and take it all in and remain grateful that you live in an era where people still play this kind of music – and pass it on to another generation.

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May 20, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Explosive Finale to the One World Symphony’s Season

“When’s the last time you went to a symphonic concert and looked at the program and didn’t see a single date of death?” conductor Sung Jin Hong asked the Chelsea crowd assembled at the One World Symphony‘s concluding concert of the 2013 season this past May 20. Hong had a good point: it’s not often that an established fullsize orchestra programs a whole bill of living composers. Hong designed this one to go out on an explosive note and succeeded spectacularly. While he didn’t address the concert’s politically charged content, the program did: “American Affairs: Great • Atomic • Desire.”

This orchestra is known for surprises, and there were a couple early on that raised the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the bill. Soprano Adrienne Metzinger went deep into noir cabaret mode for a lurid take of Benjamin Britten’s Funeral Blues, backed with a stalker’s intensity by pianist Gulnara Mitzanova and the orchestra’s first chair bassist, Justin Lee. Soprano Sonya Headlam had a hard act to follow, but ended up raising the roof with a spine-tingling take of Gershwin’s Summertime, the orchestra lush and balmy behind her as she went to the top of her register, adding a tingling mix of overtones and blues as she brought the song to redline with a triumphant crescendo.

Spring-loaded, catlike and looking somewhat feral on the podium, Hong ran the rest of the concert as a suite – he has a Leonard Bernstein-like aptitude for making connections between what at first glance might seem like completely unrelated pieces. Over the evocative, bittersweetly orchestrated ragtime of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Headlam continued with a more subtly vivid song, Where Is the Old Warm World, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed Daisy offering some wistful foreshadowing. Mezzo-soprano Eva Sun then gave voice to the character Myrtle’s plaintive ache as the backdrop grew more contemplatively atmospheric.

Soprano Ashley Becker aired out the moody intensity of two songs from Andre Previn’s score to A Streetcar Named Desire: the uneasy Sea Air, and a sultry take of I Want Magic. From there they segued into two selections from John Adams’ chilling Robert Oppenheimer-inspired Doctor Atomic, Mitzanova returning for a broodingly opaque turn in front of the orchestra singing Am I In Your Light, the atomic scientist’s wife’s lament.

Baritone Douglas Jabara got the most spectacular of the vocal numbers and made the most of it with a gut-wrenchingly intense, anguished take of Batter My Heart, channeling what the composer felt to be Oppenheimer’s dread for the death and destruction his invention was about to cause (and for his legacy no less, it seems) via text from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV. Offstage before the concert, Jabara said that he believed that Oppenheimer knew the sonnet, and he sang it with that kind of bitter certitude, dashing offstage with a dramatic self-effacement as it ended. From there the orchestra took the Bernard Herrmann-esque horror to a logical, shattering conclusion via a bridge written by Hong as a showsstopping percussion feature with the timpani, gongs and bass drum exploding and then lingering in a firestorm of waves for what seemed minutes on end. It captured the catastrophic horror of the explosion over Hiroshima, not to mention the horrific loss of civilian life, more evocatively than words could possibly have expressed.

Hong programmed the world premiere of his own Edge immediately afterward, a bold and potentially suicidal choice given the previous work’s pyrotechnics. That the conductor’s equally haunting narrative – a setting of Sylvia Plath’s final poem, loaded with vengeful Medea references – wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to its power, and the orchestra’s commitment to it. Soprano Sara Paar had only been given a week to learn it, Hong told the crowd, but she brought it to life with a clenched-teeth, angst-fueled focus against shivery layers of glissandos from the strings. Even when the work lightened toward the end – Plath wasn’t going to kill her kids, after all – the mortally wounded atmopshere lingered. Few orchestras would take such a gamble by ending their season on such a dark note; then again, this ensemble has no fear of taking chances.

May 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dianne Nola’s Queen Bee: Gorgeous Purist Blues

Blues pianist/chanteuse Dianne Nola has a gorgeously purist album out titled Queen Bee, after the Slim Harpo song, which she imaginatively covers. Nola is oldschool: her playing is judicious. It’s clear that she knows Otis Spann and James P. Johnson, and she’s got a jackhammer left hand – we’re talking McCoy Tyner power here – and a sense of melody that likes the occasional wry flourish to drive a phrase home, but stays within the song. You won’t hear any endless volleys of Professor Longhair licks here, or for that matter, any cliches. Nola has a message to get out and that message is soul. Vocally, she’s a jazz singer at heart, but she doesn’t clutter the songs: her approach to the lyrics mirrors how she plays the piano, tersely and purposefully, as informed by gospel as it is the blues.

Most of the songs here are solo piano and vocals; multi-reedman Ralph Carney serves as a one-man dixieland band on the slow, torchy opening track, Down in the Dumps, and the closing cut, a tongue-in-cheek original, Garbage Man, which adds bluesy double meaning to the exasperated story of a woman trying to get some rest during the usual morning rattle and clatter. And blues harpist Jimmy Sweetwater adds some thoughtfully crescendoing work, notably on the sultry, swinging Do Your Duty, which hitches a restrained gospel joy to a New Orleans groove.

The covers here get an imaginative reworking: See See Rider is reinvented as languid boudoir ragtime, while a hard-hitting version of Leadbelly’s Grasshoppers in My Pillow plays up the lyric’s bizarrely surreal angst. Sippie Wallace’s Mighty Tight Woman is the most straight-up, matter-of-fact number, punctuated by a washboard solo. The title track hits with a resolute force, while Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me gets a twinkling, suspenseful approach, appropriate for a blueswoman who refuses to settle. But the originals here are the best. Free showcases Nola’s soaring upper register: this carpe diem anthem wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez songbook. By contrast, Pocketful of Blue comes together slowly, like Nina Simone would do in concert, and then works a dangerous, darkly sensual soul groove. It’s the most overtly jazzy track here and a quietly moody showcase for Nola’s ability to mine a subtly brooding phrase.

At her New York gig last week with the reliably charismatic LJ Murphy, Nola proved to be every bit the match for the noir bluesman, scatting her way cleverly through an a-cappella number and then joining him for a memorably careening duet. Watch this space for future shows.

May 30, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Is What We Lose If We Lose Japan

Watching Japanese pianists Miwa Onodera and then Hikaru Nakajo play the piano expertly, and soufully, at Pro Piano’s benefit for Japan in their wonderfully low-key recital space on Jane Street in the West Village Sunday afternoon was surreal to the extreme. Had they already been fatally poisoned by radiation from the Fukushima plant? Would they (hopefully!!!) find a place here in the US? We can talk clinically or cynically about an “extinction event,” but when we look at the individuals impacted by this catastrophe, a chilling reality sinks in. The corporate media, under instructions from the richest one tenth of one percent of the population, wilfully fail to acknowledge the reality of the situation lest there be a Grapes of Wrath in reverse, a mass exodus from the West Coast, as there should be. Forget for a minute that the water in Tokyo is undrinkable and the air there is unbreathable. Radioactive iodine a thousand times more lethal than governmentally approved “safe” levels has been found in drinking water in British Columbia; the organic milk in San Francisco is not far behind. Clarinetist Thomas Piercy, who accompanied Onodera virtuosically and intensely with a riveting, crystalline tone, went to Japan a couple of days after this concert. Pray for him if you believe in prayer.

The concert was beautiful, and austere, and also passionate, every emotion you would try to evoke if you might be playing your last show. One can only hope for composer Tsuboi Ippo, whose preludes Nakajo and Onodera played. The most hauntingly beautiful moment of the night was a duo performance by Piercy and Onodera, a poignant, elegaic Chopinesque Ippo nocturne whose sadness translated even more vividly in light of the past three weeks’ events. They also played a casually crescendoing, absolutely brilliant version of Piazzolla’s Grand Tango, Onodera holding back until the end when she crashed in with a triumphant majesty, and a couple of Gershwin pieces, a nonchalantly sly It Ain’t Necessarily So and an inventively hazy take on Summertime.

Nakajo played a series of Ippo preludes that ranged from suspenseful Chopinesque Romanticism to acidic modernism; Onodera followed with more, ending with a very smartly understatedly version of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 – where other pianists would have gone for the jugular with this showstopper, she made it a clinic in judicious dynamics. One can only wonder how many others like her won’t make it to New York in the coming months.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doug Webb’s New Renovations Takes It Up a Notch

Last summer, jazz saxophonist Doug Webb released an entertainingly trad album titled Midnight. This new one, from the same session, is called Renovations. If we’re in luck, maybe we’ll live to see them reissued together as Midnight Renovations. Intriguing title, huh?

This one is a lot more upbeat, occasionally pretty intense. Buckle your seatbelt – bet you’ve never heard as energetic a version of Satin Doll as the one that has the band jumping out of their socks as animatedly as they do for seven minutes and change here. Besides Webb on tenor, there’s Joe Bagg on piano, Stanley Clarke on upright bass and Gerry Gibbs on drums. Larry Goldings’ casually rippling, summery piano provides an apt backdrop for the languid soprano sax lines on a swaying midtempo version of Then I’ll Be Tired of You – and his organ background comes through fluid and concise, a long solo taking everything up to a crescendo that holds back just thisshort of joyous. An especially amped version of Vernon Duke’s hit I Can’t Get Started, from the long-forgotten film Follies of 1936, has Webb charging hard alongside Mahesh Balasooriya’s express-train piano.

With Goldings manning the throttle again, a tensely swinging I’ve Never Been in Love Before contrasts with Webb’s long, comfortable runway landing, and then brings in some genial blues with the piano. They take Nat Cole’s You’ve Changed doublespeed at just the right random moment; Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away from Me, the bluesiest tune here, is also unsurprisingly the most rustic.

Toots Thielemans’ Bluesette is reincarnated, stripped down to what’s basically a rapidfire two-chord jam, Webb’s soprano sax taking a clarinet-like tone, Balasooriya spinning off some wildfire cascades to Webb who takes them even higher: it’s a triumphant pinnacle in an unlikely setting, more than hinting at how much further outside they might be capable of going if they went on longer. The album’s closing cut, Henry Mancini’s Slow Hot Wind – now there’s a title for the moment, huh? – is sort of the mirror image of that, slowly pulsing and sultry, with a geniunely fluid, relaxed solo by Clarke where he doesn’t overvibrato it, Webb’s tenor pushing the caravan along with a stream of eighth notes, Goldings’ dynamics refusing to let the suspense go too far one way or another, Webb finally joining him and they tumble into the vortex. It’s another welcome out-of-control moment – Lisa Simpson, eat your heart out. If you’re wondering what that’s all about, Webb voices her sax parts on the tv show. This one’s out now on Posi-tone.

March 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 2/26/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #703:

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris: Leonard Bernstein

Today we turn from the obscene and juvenile to one of the most urbane and sophisticated albums on this list. It might come as a surprise to some that for several generations of New Yorkers, these pieces were a rite of passage, as much a staple of frathouses as concert halls. This is George Gershwin at the peak of his powers as one of the first, and best, white bluesmen. And who more appropriate to deliver the jaunty ragtime suite Rhapsody in Blue along with its companion An American in Paris – one of the most unselfconsciously romantic pieces of music ever written – than Leonard Bernstein? The first he does with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (assembled by the label) and the second with the NY Philharmonic. This late 80s reissue makes a diptych of both epically sweeping mid-50s mono recordings. Strangely, a little sleuthing didn’t turn up a single link for the album, although you can download them separately: Rhapsody in Blue here and An American in Paris here.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Russell Saint John Sings Hall Johnson’s Spirituals in NYC 2/25/10

Hall Johnson, baritone singer Russell Saint John told the crowd last night at Merkin Hall, was a pretty amazing guy. World-renowned as a choirmaster and vocal coach in the 1930s onward (he taught Marian Anderson, among others), he learned piano from his sister at age eight, taught himself violin and viola after seeing Frederick Douglass’ grandson play a recital, and seems to have been a musicologist from a very early age. His arrangements of the spirituals he grew up with as the son of an AME minister bear a considerable resemblance to his contemporary, George Gershwin, which may seem ironic but actually further validates Gershwin as being true to the source of his inspiration. Because what Johnson was going for, in establishing, cataloguing and transcribing an African-American spiritual canon, was authenticity. He saw spirituals as an individual expression, and as high art: he had no use for “barbershop harmony,” as Saint John explained. Backed by Broadway United Church of Christ organist/pianist Douglas Drake’s smartly understated interpretations of Johnson’s remarkably terse, Romantically-tinged piano arrangements, Saint John – featured soloist in the choir at the Bronx’s Fordham United Methodist Church – gave the songs a stylistically diverse, emotionally varied, vibrato-laden treatment which obviously drew deeply on his operatic training and experience.

It was a good choice of singer and pianist, because Johnson’s scores, obviously influenced by European lieder and opera, so heavily emphasize the singer. Many of the arrangements – Wade in de Water, Witness [to My Lord] and I’m Gonter Tell God All o’My Troubles [spelling used here is Johnson’s] featured the vocals leading the piano, which would then gently, unostentatiously offer the occasional embellishment, Debussy taking a casual detour into the blues. Several of the one-chord minor-key blues numbers – the bitter chain gang song Swing Dat Hammer, for example – hark back vividly to Africa; others, like the raptly beautiful, atmospheric My Lord, What a Mornin’ and the absolutely gorgeous Let de Heb’n Light Shine on Me pulsed along on more varied changes, the first fertile seeds of musical cross-pollination on these shores.

Above all, Johnson took these songs seriously. What’s inarguable is that gospel music has great power; what’s open to interpretation is what that power might be. Gospel choirs make unbeatable party music; Johnson’s vision, it seems, was a considerably more personal one, an intimate communion rather than a communal fest. So it was no surprise that his arrangements of numbers like Keep A-Inchin’ Along held back from exploding into joyous ragtime. As is so often the case with spirituals, the subtext screamed. “There ain’t no crying over there,” Saint John reminded in Heaven Is One Beautiful Place: substitute “Africa” for “heaven” and the anguish of a captive held prisoner in an alien land is impossible to turn away from. At the end of the concert, Drake got a chance to join Saint John in taking the volume up as high as it would go, on intense, percussively chordal versions of the proto-soul song My God Is So High and a blazing encore of My Good Lord Done Been Here. At this point in the concert, there was no use in trying to hold back anymore – the spirit would not be denied.

February 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Surfing with Cellos: Quattrocelli in Their New York Debut, 4/17/08

Harsher critics would have called this a pops concert: among the selections in the group’s impressively diverse set at Trinity Church were several movie themes. Just about anything with the slightest bit of melody sounds good if played on the electric guitar, and the same could be said for the cello. But it was  German cello quartet Quattrocelli’s playful, often astonishingly imaginative arrangements that ultimately won over the crowd and earned them a standing ovation. Everybody knows the Godfather theme, but how many have heard it all the way through? Quattrocelli’s cover of that old chestnut brought out every bit of tragedy in Nino Rota’s score. Likewise, they did a full-length version of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible, its middle section revealing itself full of bracing atmospherics worthy of Messiaen. And their cover of Misirlou – yet another composition best known to most audiences as a surf song – started out remarkably authentic, one of the players doing percussion on his cello with his fingers, evoking the dumbek (a hand drum that appears in most Middle Eastern music) which was almost undoubtedly on the original Greek version. But after the bridge, one of the cellists took it straight into Agent Orange territory, wailing furiously on the song’s famous riff while the others played subtly off the melody.

Otherwise, the group proved themselves at home with a wide range of styles. These ranged from baroque (Bach’s famous Air on a G String) to classical (two short, striking Shostakovich pieces, the Balkan dance Ball at the Palace and the hauntingly gorgeous Chitarri, which as one of the group explained became a tv spy show theme), to modernist (a jazz piece by German composer Helmuth Brandt, a Hans Eisler nocturne and a Gershwin medley wherein one of the cellists mimed a trombone while the rest of the group authentically mimicked the horn’s voicings, with hilarious results). Their encore, My Way, was uncharacteristically timid, crying out for a Sid Vicious standin to take over and put some kind of original stamp on it. But it made a point: Quattrocelli sound like no other chamber quartet in the world, and they’re fearless about it. Their next US tour promises to include works by American composers, which should be interesting, to say the least.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment