Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra Bring Their Lush Sounds to Brooklyn

Karl Berger has been a pioneer in large-scale jazz improvisation longer than just about anybody, which explains why his Improvisers Orchestra swings as hard, and interestingly, and often hauntingly as they do. We take them for granted. And we shouldn’t, since their show earlier this week at Shapeshifter Lab personified Bryan Beninghove’s infamous “jazz power play,” i.e. more musicians onstage than in the audience. Even so, the concert was a jazz power play without any subtext. Berger is an elegant and economical pianist, which informs how he conducts. Unlike his colleagues Butch Morris – who tends to follow the traditional small-group approach of taking a meticulously composed piece of music and throwing it to the wolves – or Greg Tate, who favors a more nebulous, slowly shapeshifting style – Berger reaches deep into his bag of riffs and sends them through the orchestra, sometimes wafting, sometimes reeling, sometimes both.

Like the best big bands, this crew use the entirety of their dynamic range. The ensemble weren’t often all playing at once, making those lush crescendos all the more towering and intense. From the piano, Berger initatiated a rather plaintive conversation with guest violist Jason Hwang, then went up in front of the group to conduct the remainder of the show. This time out there were many pairs of voices featured. Sometimes the effect was contrast, as when Yatsuno Katsuki’s richly sustained euphonium traded off with Sana Nagano‘s pointillistic violin agitations, or when singer Mossa Bildner‘s crystalline but wary vocalese sailed over the bass saxophone’s ominous rumble. Other times, the device created a richly interwoven effect, throughout animated exchanges between Sylvain Leroux and his fellow flutist, or bass clarinetist Michael Lytle joining the baritone saxophonist in a slithery duet.

Berger leaned heavily on trumpeter Thomas Heberer for crescendos, to often spine-tingling effect, with long, rapidfire, clustering cadenzas. The single most surprising, and utterly surreal, moment of the night was when guitarist Harvey Valdes fired off a noisy surf-rock solo, playing through a watery mix of chorus and reverb effects as the ensemble swept and dove behind him.

It’s not easy to tell when one piece ends and another begins with this cast – not that there needs to be any kind of definitive beginning or end to what they do. Counting pauses, there seemed to be either two long segments…or maybe the first was cut up into two parts. Either way, both built to lush, swinging swells with the phantasmagorical sweep of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the rough-and-tumble bustle of the Mingus bands. The camaraderie and warmth of the repartee between the orchestra and conductor – and among the orchestra itself – was visceral, and visible: wry smiles and friendly jousting abounded.

Advertisements

December 7, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Idea-Packed Big Band Improvisation from Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio has an intriguingly original album, Autobiography of a Pronoun, out now: the concept is improvisational big band jazz. This isn’t the waves of tunefulness followed by controlled chaos that Butch Morris champions, nor is it slowly shifting Greg Tate-style long-tone improvisation. What fuels this is a good sense of humor and artful orchestration: there are times when the whole ten-piece ensemble is cooking, but more often than not it’s a series of subgroups exploring a particular idea, so when the entire band gets in on it, the upward dynamics pack more of a punch. Most of this music is defiantly atonal, alluding to but seldom hitting a catchy hook head-on, the sixth track’s hypnotically syncopated Ethiopiques being the most memorable melody here in the conventional sense of the word. The presence of both Harry Scorzo’s violin and Jonathan Golove’s cello along with Anders Swanson’s frequently bowed bass add sonics that range from austere to occasionally lush and sweeping. It pretty much goes without saying that those who need a catchy tune to sing along to, or a steady beat to follow, will need to look elsewhere. But for jazz fans with an ear for the unconventional, this can be as much fun as it obviously was for the band to record.

Sample song title: Leg Belly Neon Kill Climb Unaware Pride, the ten-minute opening track. Surrealism reigns, from the pensive third-stream string ensemble introduction, a clave theme with vivid murky/airy contrasts between violin and ambience behind it, wry microtonalisms from Vlatkovich and a tasty Twin Peaks-ian interlude with legato piano leading spacious bass accents. It ends on an ominously agitated note.

The second track is more overtly improvisational, like early ELO on acid, anchored by drummer Michael Burdon’s funky shuffle, with tense strings-versus-horns contrasts, a free interlude that weaves from comedic to apprehensive and a lively, dancing bass solo out. Like the first cut, it has a persistent sense of unease. A three-part suite titled JMZ follows: its first section a rather chilling, twilit conversation between the bass and Wayne Peet’s piano, the second a blues ballad in heavy disguise contrasting rumbling, tumbling rhythms with terse piano and trombone motifs and the final an unexpectedly comic, increasingly rhythmic interlude led by William Roper’s tuba.

A jaggedly swinging large-ensemble piece, the wry Explain Why I Can’t Drive Faster Than the Car in Front of Me builds tension right from the big, lush opening chart, through a jarringly dissonant trombone/violin passage, to Peet’s piano going agitatedly off the edge into biting bop. Brian Walsh’s clarinet holds the funky Queen Dynamo together as the violin swirls and dips acidically before passing off to Jeff Kaiser’s muted trumpet and the trombone. The final piece, Memories Hold My Hand, is a sad, stately, Russian-flavored baroque requiem driven by somber tuba/trombone harmonies over flickering percussion. Those are just the highlights: other elements that are no less interesting emerge with repeated listening. Kick back with this if you’re up for getting swept into what can be an intense, inspiring, entertaining ride.

March 12, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burnt Sugar Play James Brown in Bed-Stuy

Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.

How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.

There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.

And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber: Making Love to the Dark Ages

Believe it or not, this is the tenth album by sprawling avant-jazz megaplex Burnt Sugar. Conceived in 1999 by former Village Voice critic and author Greg Tate as a continuation of what Miles Davis was doing circa Bitches Brew – although they’re a lot closer to the Art Ensemble of Chicago or some of Sun Ra’s deeper-space explorations – Burnt Sugar quickly earned a following both for their epic, atmospheric live performances, and because there were so many people in the band. The full contingent numbers over fifty, including bass star Jared Nickerson (a Tammy Faye Starlite alum), noted jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and baritone sax goddess Paula Henderson of Moisturizer (who also leads a miniature version of the band playfully called Moist Sugar). While the Arkestra Chamber is also a smaller version of the group, the soundscapes on this album are no less vast for the contributions of a couple dozen fewer players. Because of the band’s deliberately improvisatory nature, don’t expect to be able to hear any of the songs on the cd in concert: this is simply the group on a good night when everybody was feeling what they were. Which was good, and always seems to be the case – this cd is nothing if not fun.

With so many people in the band, how do they hold it together? Typically, by throwing chord changes out the window. In place of traditional Western melodic tropes, the band substitutes innumerable dynamic shifts, subtle variations in tempo, parts rising and slowly sinking out of a massive wash of sound. The effect is supremely psychedelic, even trance-inducing. Most of the tracks segue into each other: to go so far as giving them each a name is a bit of a stretch. The opening cut Chains and Water is a long, three-part suite, a typical one-chord jam spiced early on with sax and blues harp solos and an infrequent vocal. The production goes dubwise at the end, whistles and other various disembodied textures floating through the mix, horn charts rising and falling. Part two gets all chaotic, swirling around a repetitive syncopated single-note riff by the massive horn section, finally brought out of the morass on the wings of a nasty, darkly bluesy guitar solo and finally, the hint of a hook, a four-note descending bassline.

Thorazine/Eighty One fades up, anything but a downer layered over a dark, circular bass motif, eventually slowing way down to a long coda, then building skeletal from there with screechy sax and everybody nonchalantly floundering around. Love to Tical is a boisterous funk jam, predictably crescendoing to a searing, spacy guitar solo, then to soprano sax, a chorus of women chanting “feel, feel, feel” distant in the background. From there they segue into Dominata, which gets considerably quieter, layers of cloudy horns over tinkly piano with a bass blip or two.

But just when you think that’s all there is to this group, they hit you upside the head with the fiery title track in all its searing, violin-driven, Middle Eastern-inflected majesty. Like the rest of the tracks here, it’s an epic and it’s worth your investment as the suite morphs into raw, noir trip-hop menace and then into buoyant loungey atmospherics. A smartly chosen number to end a good late-night headphone album on a high note.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment