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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012

Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.

As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.

1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.

2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.

3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.

4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert  in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.

5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining  forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.

6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.

8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.

9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and  JD Allen on tenor sax.

10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.

11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson  Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.

12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.

13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul  It’s a Mack Avenue release.

14. Guy Klucevsek –  The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.

15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.

16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes

17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives

18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.

19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.

20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.

21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.

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December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watch the Walls Instead – Get the Picture Yet?

Ghosts may come and go, but haunting music is the antithesis of evanescent: it lingers. As does bassist Giacomo Merega’s new album Watch the Walls Instead. It’s a suite, an overture and a coda played with a generally quiet but riveting intensity by two generations of improvisers. Merega gets credit as bandleader for the second time on album, alongside his bandmate, saxophonist Noah Kaplan – from equally eerie art-song warpers Dollshot – plus Italian veterans Marco Cappelli on guitar and Mauro Pagani on violin, and the perennially vital, transformative Anthony Coleman on piano. It opens with a five-part piece for quartet, minus the violin, then five shorter pieces for trios, concluding with the full quintet.

The titles of the quartet pieces refer to colors, although aside from the literally ghostly, spacious Absence of Color, they’re shades of grey, dark against light and every other possible permutation. The group’s singlemindness in maintaining that mood is striking to the extreme, to the point of minimalism. Each piece segues into the next, musicians remaining in their assigned roles. Merega plays electric bass, either muted and murky, or supplying low drones that hover below Coleman’s icy atonalities, moodily terse accents and macabre chordlets. Cappelli supplies pensive single-note lines and often handles the forward motion while Merega’s down in an atmospheric swamp; Kaplan, a master of microtonalities, gets the coveted role of raising the ambience from apprehension to fullblown terror. Whispery, abbreviated conversations between voices, a wary tone poem with Cappelli’s eerie guitar pushing Coleman’s waterdrop piano to new levels of menace lead through a practically silent interlude to an elegaic passage where Kaplan finally gets to introduce an element of pure terror, straining microtonally against the center as Coleman provides bell-like tones.

They segue into the trio section seamlessly, Kaplan and Cappelli working toward a deathly, echoing space-rock scene, following with variations on brooding, simple riffs which turn out to be the suite’s most vividly melodic motifs: they’re reaching for clarity amidst the fog and far from optimistic that they’ll achieve it. The suite ends with Things We Used to Know, a coldly noirish conversation – or argument – between Kaplan and Cappelli.

After the trio finally comes to a full stop, Pagani leads the quintet up with an energetic, biting series of eight-note runs, the rest of the ensemble establising a mood of longing and tension, Kaplan and Pagani circling each other and then joining the rest of the group as they pull hard against an invisible but inescapable center that won’t let them escape. That’s the overture: the coda has Kaplan out in the cold mist playing a mournful, allusively bluesy tune against a muffled parade of voices. Ostensibly this has a sci-fi angle (the cd package has a tongue-in-cheek short story, to be continued with some future project), but it just as easily can be interpreted as a reflection on our own difficult and often menacing times. It’s best enjoyed as a whole: you can get absolutely lost in this. While this isn’t catchy music by a long shot, it’s inescapably gripping, simply one of this year’s best jazz albums. It’s a must-own for fans of free jazz, and for anyone who plays improvised music, it’s packed with inspiration.

June 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Somber Joe Maneri Tribute

It seems that more and more frequently these days, there’s a time lapse between when jazz albums are recorded and when they’re released. The Noah Kaplan Quartet’s Joe Maneri homage, Descendants, was recorded in 2008 and is out now on the estimable German label Hat Hut. As you would expect, it’s a series of free improvisations by a crew with considerable chemistry and collaborative sensitivity: alongside Kaplan, a Maneri acolyte who plays tenor and soprano sax, there’s perennially interesting individualist Joe Morris on guitar, Kaplan’s Dollshot bandmate Giacomo Merega on bass guitar and Jason Nazary on drums. The album begins with a ballad in disguise and ends with a tone poem. Melodic resolution is defiantly resisted whenever it’s hinted at, which is infrequently: an austere, sometimes acidic, frequently elegaic quality persists throughout the album’s six tracks.

The side of Kaplan that isn’t represented here is his wit: Dollshot, his improvisational chamber-rock project with his singer sister Rosalie, delightfully and often cruelly reinvents early 20th century art-song. Instead, his microtonal inflections here evoke more somber emotions, crying, quietly wailing or sirening, sliding gracefully up and down between semiquavers, often straining against the pull of a central tone that appears only by implication. And the band is doing a whole lot of thinking on their feet here along with Kaplan: there’s more pitch-and-follow than there is intricate interplay. Often it’s Merega who holds down the center or establishes a rhythm for the other group members to pull into focus and then back away from. Morris’ casually biting jangle and stinging, trebly tone are perfect for this unit, whether he’s alluding to a big expansive arpeggio, spinning out raindrops for the rest of the unit to run between, or adding incisive accents. Nazary’s presence is affectingly ghostly more often than not, often confined to ominously looming or echoing atmospherics than actual propulsion: as the album cover image (crow on a dead tree limb, stormclouds in the background) indicates, this is dark music. And it’s more or less quiet music: only one of the segments features the kind of atonal bluster commonly associated with this style of  jazz. For those who play this kind of music, there’s plenty of inspiration here: the way Nazary casually punches in to fill out Merega’s insistent pulse on the twelve-minute title track; Morris circling Kaplan, and then the two switching roles, in the cold late-afternoon drizzle atmosphere of the following cut; and the mysterioso rise and fall of the waves of the band together on the final segment. People who need a catchy beat and a singalong melody will have to look elsewhere, but for those who can’t resist an album of strange, sometimes harsh, sometimes hypnotic tonalities, this is an inspiring listen. Joe Maneri, who knew a little something about that stuff, would approve.

February 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dollshot Has Creepy Fun with Classical Art-Song

This is a Halloween album. New York ensemble Dollshot’s M.O. is to take hundred-year-old classical “art songs,” do a verse or a chorus absolutely straight-up and then matter-of-factly and methodically mangle them – which might explain the “shot” in “Dollshot.” Usually the effect is menacing, sometimes downright macabre, but just as often they’re very funny: this group has a great sense of humor. Pigeonholing them as “punk classical” works in a sense because that’s what they’re doing to the songs, but they also venture into free jazz. And all this works as stunningly well as it does because they’re so good at doing the songs as written before they get all sarcastic. Frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan’s otherworldly beautiful, crystalline high soprano, which she colors with a rapidfire vibrato in places, makes a perfectly deadpan vehicle for this material. Pianist Wes Matthews circles and stabs with a coroner’s precision in the upper registers for a chilly, frequently chilling moonlit ambience. In the band’s most punk moments, tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan is the ringleader: when he goes off key and starts mocking the melodies, it’s LOL funny. Bassist Giacomo Merega alternates between precise accents and booming atmospherics that rise apprehensively from the depths below.

The three strongest tracks are all originals. The Trees, written by Matthews, sets nonchalantly ominous, quiet vocals over a hypnotic, circular melody with bass and off-kilter prepared piano that hints at a resolution before finally turning into a catchy rock song at the end. “The trees are falling…the trees are choking…the pail is falling…” Surreal, and strange, and also possibly funny – it perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band. Noah Kaplan’s Fear of Clouds is the most stunningly eerie piece here, ghost girl vocalese over starlit piano and then an agitated crescendo with bass pairing off against quavery saxophone terror – it would make a great horror movie theme. And the closing cut, Postlude, layers sepulchral sax overtones over a damaged yet catchy hook that refuses to die.

The covers are more lighthearted. Woozy sax pokes holes in an otherwise dead-serious and absolutely spot-on version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Galathea and his twisted little waltz, Der Genugsame Liebhaber, which by itself already seems something of a parody. Poulenc gets off a little easier: the band adds add murky apprehension to La Reine de Coeur and leaves the gorgeously ominous Lune d’Avril pretty much alone other than adding some sepulchral atmospherics at the end. Bouncing gently on some completely off-center, synthy prepared piano tones, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here Comes That Rainy Day is reinvented as art-song with a comic wink, yet while bringing the lyrics into sharper focus than most jazz acts do. And a Charles Ives medley of The Cage, Maple Leaves and Evening makes a launching pad for the unexpected power in Rosalie Kaplan’s stratospheric upper registers, as well as Matthews’ mountains-of-the-moon piano and an unexpected minimalist, ambient interlude that only enhances the nocturnal vibe. You’ll see this high on our list of the best albums of 2011 at the end of the year.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Dollshot at Caffe Vivaldi, NYC 2/3/10

Creepy fun in the West Village. Dollshot’s shtick is that they take art songs from the classical and 20th century canon, jam out the intros and outros and a lot of times in between. The effect is inevitably some shade of macabre. Dollshot’s chosen genre may be classical but their vibe is pure punk rock, fearless and iconoclastic. When she wasn’t projecting with a seemingly effortless, obviously classically trained clarity, frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan stood motionless and deadpan in front of the band like a recently undead girl from the Twilight movies. Tenor saxophonist/bandleader Noah Kaplan alternated between slightly restrained bop – this was a small room show, after all – and long, somewhat sinister overtone passages. Pianist Wes Matthews’ precise articulation enhanced the horror-movie music box feel, as did electric bassist Giacomo Merega, supplying slithery cascades when he wasn’t providing a funereal pulse.

Galatea by Arnold Schoenberg was the first recipent of a macabre sax and piano interlude. A couple of Poulenc songs contrasted pretty, impressionistic, almost pop piano with menace from all sides. A Wes Matthews original, The Trees began as a twisted pop song with bass rumbles that the sax would cleverly echo later. The mantra “The trees are falling” gave way to “I can’t reach you with the burning of a thousand hearts,” Merega adding gently elegiac, staccato bass chords on the outro. After a mini-set of Charles Ives songs, they played an instrumental that vividly paired off Rosalie Kaplan’s warm, soaring vocalese with sax that started out grumpy and got angrier quickly. They closed with another Poulenc composition, the overtones of the sax oscillating hypnotically over bell-like, martial bass.

Watch this space for upcoming gigs; like most Brooklyn jazz guys, Noah Kaplan gets around: his next gig is a trio show with Benjy Fox-Rosen (of Luminescent Orchestrii) on bass and Matt Rousseau on drums at Unnameable Books in Ft. Greene on Feb 6.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment