Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.
Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.
About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.
McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways: there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.
What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.
The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved. Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.
Ben Holmes has a distinctive, soulfully purposeful voice on the trumpet. He plays with Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah, Russian Romany party band Romashka and the funky Brooklyn Qawwali Party, among others, and on the jazz side with his quartet featuring trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, bassist Matt Pavolka and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Holmes also has a pensive, often haunting new duo album, Gold Dust, with brilliant accordionist Patrick Farrell. The two are playing the release show on June 7 at 8 PM at Barbes.
Much as Farrell has supersonic speed and is one of New York’s great musical wits, and Holmes tends to play tersely, with plenty of gravitas, the album doesn’t have the kind of dichotomy you might expect. Most if not all of the music here is on the somber side, and the duo lock into that mood. They open the album with a purposefully stripped-down, lithely dancing arrangement of a stately Shostakovich piece. From there they take their time building the catchy, klezmer-tinged Black Handkerchief Dance from a dirge, Farrell using every inch of register at his disposal, from keening highs to murky lows, up to a more triumphantly bouncy pulse.
The next number is a suite. Holmes and Farrell exchange warily spiraling leads and contrapuntal riffs as it opens, then Farrell anchors a grey-sky theme with an airily otherworldly, Messiaen-esque ambience, then the duo pick up the pace and make a rustically off-center Balkan dance out of it. The Shostakovich tune that follows it is all about distantly ominous foreshadowing punctuated by uneasy cadenzas.
Zhok, a brooding Balkan waltz, makes the most of a stripped-down arrangement, first with the instruments trading off and then intertwining up to a big crescendo. A New Mammon is similarly moody, a grey-sky Balkan pastorale, something akin to the Claudia Quintet without the drums taking a stab at Eastern European folk. From there they pick up the pace with a jaunty Erik Satie ragtime waltz and then go back into pensively subdued territory with Peace, whose calm ambience can’t hide a lingering unease, building suspensefully from spacious solos from both instruments to a rather guarded optimism.
From there they pick up the pace again with Honga, its tricky, Macedonian-flavored shuffle beat, animated tradeoffs between instruments and intricately ornamented trumpet leads. The final track, Romance, blends oldschool jazz balladry with a more modernist feel, Farrell leading the way. A lot of people are going to like this album, fans of jazz and classical as well as Balkan and Middle Eastern music.
It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the thrilling, chromatically charged sounds of Armenian music than Richard Hagopian. During his sold-out show Sunday night at Symphony Space, the virtuoso oudist took a moment to proudly reflect on how just about every household in the global Armenian diaspora had at least one of his longtime band Kef Time‘s albums. Otherwise, Hagopian’s sense of humor was more self-effacing. As he explained, he joined his first band at age nine: “We weren’t very good, but the older people thought we were,” he grinned. His next gig came at eleven, playing with a group whose members were about seven decades older, an early immersion in the kind of obscure treasures that he’d bring to a global audience over the decades to come.
A record-setting two-year run with Buddy Sarkissian’s showband on the Vegas strip led to the birth of Kef Time and endless touring: meanwhile, Hagopian ran a music venue in his native Fresno. This concert also featured his son Harold, an equally brilliant musician, doubling on kanun and violin and served as emcee, giving his dad a chance to reflect on his career and explain the songs both for the Armenian and English speakers in the audience. Ara Dinkjian played guitar, sometimes doubling the melody line, other times supplying what were essentially basslines when he wasn’t anchoring the music with brisk chordal rhythm. Percussionist Rami negotiated the songs’ tricky 9/8 and 10/8 time signatures with a hypnotically kinetic aplomb, playing both goblet and frame drums.
Considering how much Turkish-language material there was on the bill, Harold Hagopian reminded that there’s no more cognitive dissonance in an Armenian listening to Turkish music – or vice versa – than there is for a Jew to listen to German music. The quartet opened with a couple of lush, windswept classical pieces, the first by blind oudist Udi Hrant Kenkulian, the group often playing the same lickety-split, spiky, microtonally-spiced phrase in unison. Being on the Silk Road and culturally diverse, the music of Armenia is something of a cross between Arabic and western sounds – while in Arabic music it’s usually the microtones that make it so haunting and otherworldly, in Armenian music it’s often the passing tones, neither major nor minor in a western scale, which enhance its enigmatic magic.
Hagopian opened a couple of later numbers with pensive improvisations – otherwise, he fired off wild flurries of tremolo-picking, flying joyously through the songs’ bracing modes. His son has a similar, wickedly fast, precise attack on the kanun, switching to violin for the later part of the show and getting to show off his command of tersely resonant, atmospheric lines. Several of the vocal numbers had an ironic humor: Hele Hele, a folk song – about “a guy who likes a girl but who can’t get to first base with her,” as the senior Hagopian put it – along with an insistent “dragon dance” inspired by Indian music, and Her Hair Was Blonde, the sadly swaying lament of a New Jersey immigrant whose first choice of fiancee has just been promised to another guy with more money.
Nane Suyu, an elegant tribute to one of the first jazz oudists, Chick Ganimian, was more subdued. After that, the band picked up the pace with Nihavent Longa, a tribute to to another legendary oudist, George Mgrditchian. They ended with Drumsalero, a vaudevillian fanfare of sorts in tribute to Sarkissian – an innovator known for employing a full kit’s worth of goblet drums onstage – which gave Rami a chance to cut loose in between jaunty riffs from the rest of the band.
The World Music Institute, who put this bill together, has a similarly enticing program coming up at Symphony Space on May 7 at 7 PM. Titled Strings of the Black Sea, it features Crimean Tatar violinist Nariman Asanov, Brooklyn accordionist Patrick Farrell, Cherven Traktor’s Bulgarian gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev and Christos Tiktapanidis on the pontic lyre. Tickets are $30 and available both at the box office and through the WMI. Here’s what most of this cast of characters sounded like playing this same program four years ago.
As fans of the music know, Canada is a hotbed for gypsy jazz. It’s the French connection. Eclectic Halifax septet Gypsophilia are one of the most exciting groups playing that style to come out of the Great White North, and they’re coming to New York for two June shows. June 6 they’ll be at Rock Shop in Gowanus at 9 PM with charismatically assaultive, noir bluespunks the Reid Paley Trio opening, then they’re playing at Drom the following night, June 7 on a fantastic triplebill with the Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Italian band Taluna for a ridiculously cheap $10.
Gypsophilia have a new ep, Horska, just out and will no doubt be airing out the songs on it in concert. Its title track is an absolute smash, a creepy noir theme that goes through all sorts of permutations over Adam Fine’s pulsing bassline, Sageev Oore’s menacingly distant piano interspersed between biting solos from violinist Gina Burgess, trumpeter Matt Meyer and an especially ominous, microtonal one from guitarist Alec Frith. They reprise the song at the end of the album in an echoey, effects-laden dub version that’s just as dark.
In between there’s the jauntily swinging, hi-de-ho romp Bir Hakeim, which is less Egyptian than Parisian, maybe inspired by the Paris Metro stop which commemorates the World War II battle. They follow that with the intricate Oh My Orna, crescendoing from a baroque-tinged waltz to a wistful theme carried by the violin and echoey electric piano. Corentin Cariou has a bit of Romanian feel, speeding up and slowing down again, followed by the edgy Stickm, another catchy minor-key tune that hits a peak with Meyer’s muted trumpet solo. There are seemingly thousands of bands paying homage to the Django Reinhardt legacy – many of them do it well, but few are as distinctive and interesting as Gypsophilia.
[Over the past couple of weeks, this blog has supplied its sister blog New York Music Daily with lots of content. Today it’s payback time]
Budapest Bar made their North American debut last night at CUNY’s sonically superb Elebash Hall just north of the Empire State Building. The Hungarian band works a cosmopolitan gypsy vibe, as opposed to a rural one, meaning that they play a more concert hall-oriented mix of styles which include both jazz and classical music. They outdid Nick Cave at noir, did the “most famous Hungarian song ever,” Gloomy Sunday, as an elegant funereal instrumental, and covered Haydn and Lizst, including the latter’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 complete with rapidfire cimbalom solo by Mihaly Farkas. A bit later on, the cimbalom virtuoso ended his solo with a blindfold on and didn’t miss a beat: it was the biggest crowd-pleasing moment of many.
Frontman Robert Farkas began with a boisterous number that he spiced with some droll flourishes, pulling a string over the bridge of his violin for some creepy horror movie door-closing tonalities, switched to guitar a couple of times midway through the show and ended with a high-spirited series of birdsong voicings on the final encore. Keyboardist Karoly Okros wore a path into the stage, alternating between piano and accordion – if he’s not the only guy who’s equally adept at Liszt and noir Americana, then Hungary has something on the US. Bassist Richard Farkas (this seemed to be a family event, no surprise in gypsy circles) held the careening monstrosity to the rails, whether with a terse minimalist pulse on the gypsy numbers or nimbly walking the scales on the jazz tunes. The speed, virtuosity and soul these guys and women channeled makes most American gypsy bands pale by comparison.
The band brought two singers. Juci Nemeth sang the higher, more ethereal numbers; Tania Saedi, with her sultry alto voice, handled the jazzier material with a sassy aplomb worthy of Ella Fitzgerald. But it was Nemeth who took the most spectacular flights of the night on a rapidfire, diabolical shuffle right before the encores. Gypsy bands in Budapest bars from the turn of the 19th century through the Nazi invasion played a vast spectrum of music from the dead-serious classical pantheon to the wildest jazz: this concert, with its tangos, swing tunes, explosive cadenzas and expert showmanship brought that world alive again in all its pyrotechnic glory.
Eclectic violin virtuoso and composer Alicia Jo Rabins – formerly of Golem and currently with Girls in Trouble – has put together an intriguing new show titled A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. She debuted it here in New York Thursday night at Joe’s Pub. It’s billed as an attempt “to investigate the intersection of mysticism and finance, the inevitability of cycles, and the true meaning of wealth.” Hot on the heels of a sold-out show (the next one is also at Joe’s Pub on Thursday, Nov 15 at 7), Rabins was gracious to answer a few loaded questions about it:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Kaddish is something we say for the dead. Is Bernie Madoff dead?
Alicia Jo Rabins: Yes, Kaddish is the prayer for the dead – and it’s also, extremely rarely, used to mark excommunication, when a person becomes “dead” to the community, as in that amazing scene in the Jazz Singer. So I’m playing with that meaning and also with the idea of mortality – Madoff’s, and our own.
LCC: Do you find it particularly reprehensible that Madoff deliberately chose to victimize other Jews?
AJR: Well, in the piece I mention that these kinds of schemes are often referred to as affinity scams because people prey on those from their own community, taking advantage of the natural sense of trust that exists between people from a similar background. So – reprehensible, yes, and extreme – but surprisingly not uncommon.
LCC: In your research, how many of the main characters in this did you talk to? Madoff himself? Harry Markopoulos? Any of the SEC people? I remember how the Madoff family did a huge amount of PR for damage control, and then they disappeared, or tried to. Did you talk to any of them?
AJR: I decided not to approach the Madoff family because I wanted to maintain some sense of objectivity and distance from the central players in the story, and to look at it from the perspective of the supporting players – a lawyer defending the victims from clawbacks, an FBI agent on the case, a financial risk officer at a bank who advised against investing with Madoff and was initially rebuked.
LCC: Lurid as the scandal was, Madoff doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly interesting guy. He had a lot of stuff, and flaunted it, and that’s about all he seemed to be interested in. Or is there more to him than that?
AJR: I was actually interested in the many reports I read that Madoff did not particularly flaunt his wealth – in the rarified world of hedge funds, he was relatively modest – still absurdly wealthy, but not particularly showy about it. Apparently that actually led people to trust him more. Learning that was one of the things that drew me deeper into the complexities of the story.
LCC: Considering that the biggest ponzi schemer of all time was once head of the NASDAQ stock exchange, what does this portend? How many other Madoffs are there out there? Or is it ultimately just one big casino?
AJR: I heard this question so many times in my research – people saying “Isn’t the whole stock market a giant ponzi scheme anyway?” I certainly don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an important question for America at this moment.
LCC: To what degree are we all implicated in this – for buying into the system that tolerates and even abets criminals like Madofff, or for foolishly believing that the system would thoroughly police itself?
AJR: I couldn’t agree more – if one can agree with a question. And I would add, how does this sort of belief or faith in capitalism tie into our spiritual condition as a nation at the moment? To what degree are we responsible for one another? These aren’t just theoretical questions. Should people making millions from stock trading have to contribute towards the health care of people making ten dollars an hour? Should higher education be subsidized for those who can’t afford it? I stay out of the political angle in this piece and focus more on the spiritual questions, but really, it’s all the same.
Alicia Jo Rabins plays A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff at Joe’s Pub this coming Thursday, Nov 15 at 7 PM: $15 tickets are still available as of today.
In an email the day before his show last night at Symphony Spaace, composer/violist Ljova Zhurbin described his ensemble the Kontraband as being “wry, fierce and ready.” Which is a considerable understatement, given that their set included several eclectic, evocative film pieces; a lullaby; western Ukrainian klezmer songs; a couple of jazzy gypsy numbers; a brand-new rock anthem; and a ukulele-style arrangement of a Mahler symphonic theme for solo viola. Zhurbin happens to be one of the world’s foremost violists; there isn’t a symphony orchestra or string quartet that wouldn’t be happy to have him. But he’d rather write film scores and lead this dazzlingly cosmopolitan string band, this time out featuring accordion virtuoso Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and drummer/percussionist John Hadfield energetically and expertly filling in for the band’s Mathias Kunzli.
They opened with Blaine Game, a hypercaffeinated, trickily rhythmic, shapeshifting romp written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop in between jazz workshops that Zhurbin had been invited to teach there. They followed with Plume, a pensively swaying, lushly crescendoing atmospheric piece written for a documentary film about a World Cup competition for homeless European soccer players a few years ago. Then they launched into Love Potion, Expired, a boisteriously leaping, amusingly picturesque gypsy dance written, Zhurbin explained, when he was “moonlighting” in the gypsy band Romashka and had designs on the band’s frontwoman. Unlike the song’s storyline, this one ended well: the two ended up marrying, and with that, he brought his wife Inna Barmash to the stage for a series of intense, often harrowing klezmer numbers. Barmash is gifted with a diamond-cutter soprano; how subtly yet powerfully she weilds it is viscerally breathtaking to witness. They began with a sad waltz done as a duo between the couple, a vengeful dirge titled Koyl (Yiddish for “bullet” – you can guess the rest) and a couple of bitingly expressionistic, minor-key settings of poetry from across the ages. The most gripping of those was an early medieval German poem (retranslated wonderfully from Russian by Barmash) which commented caustically on a decline of civility and civilization that, as Zhurbin alluded, potently echoes our own era.
Not everything they played was that intense. Zhurbin brought out a couple of songs inspired by his two sons. Benjy, the oldest, got a playful, deviously joyous, bouncing number – if this portrait is accurate, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His brother Yossi got a steady, more serioso song in the form of a lullaby, but with an amusing ending.
After the absolutely ridiculous Mahler theme and a darkly majestic, brand-new art-rock anthem, they wrapped up the set with the title track to the Kontraband’s absolutely brilliant 2008 album, Mnemosyne. It’s an increasingly angst-driven exploration of self-imposed exile: Barmash delivered goosebumps with her spun-silver wail as she took it all the way to the top of the final crescendo over Farrell’s rapidfire rivulets, Savino’s steady, incisive pulse and Zhurbin’s richly plaintive melodicism.. Zhurbin’s next New York show is with bassist Petros Klampanis’ excellent gypsy-flavored jazz group at Drom on Oct 11 at 7:30; the Kontraband will be at the Brooklyn Museum on January 5 at 5 PM.
Hungarian combo Tarkany Muvek put a deviously entertaining, traditionalist spin on what we in the cimbalom-deprived United States tend to lump together under the nebulous rubric of gypsy jazz. The group’s latest album Introducing Tarkany Muvek is out as a digital download from World Music Network and it’s tremendously enjoyable, as original as it is intelligent. Frontwoman Juliana Paar’s high soprano ranges from misty, to stark and haunted, to wounded and brittle, over the richly resonant cimbalom (Hungarian hammered dulcimer) of the group’s main composer, Bálint Tárkány Kovács along with multi-reedman Gergo Kovats (also of Koala Fusion and Oláh Dezso Septet), violist Endre Papp and bassist András Bognár. They have a sense of humor (the first song on the album is titled Bite It) and shift seamlessly between folk and jazz idioms. A bouncy Hungarian torch song becomes a jaunty jump blues; Kovats’ tenor sax ranges from Louis Jordan ebullience to Philip Glass hypnoticism, and Papp’s elegant orchestration gives the music a welcome heft and lushness.
That first track sure has some bite: a protege of the legendary Kalman Balogh, Kovacs prowls from apprehensive to triumphant and back, sometimes in a split second, then the song goes halfspeed with a misty tenor sax interlude before picking up again. They follow that with a pensive, starkly hypnotic ballad and then the ironically-charged Hush Peacock, which segues into a bouncy Hungarian torch song that morphs unexpectedly into a lickety-split jump blues. There’s a trancily rhythmic number built on a Steve Reich-esque circular riff, a rubato folk-rock ballad with flute aptly titled Autumn Sketch; a tongue-in-cheek bounce entitled So Much I Love, and a cleverly low-key, loungey take on the gypsy standard Csirrip that Paar sinks her fangs into just enough to keep the irony in the red.
They follow that with an instrumental that sends the sax soaring over a tense, mysterioso background that the cimbalom eventually joins to add an extra layer of suspense that Kovats eventually ends up shattering – it’s one of the album’s most enjoyable moments. After that, they take an absolutely charming stab at a tiptoeing retro Roaring 20s vibe that wouldn’t be out of place in the Lake Street Dive fakebook, then wind up the album with a number that begins on a minimalist, Satie-esque note, Kovats’ smoky sax adding a warm wee-hours edge before the whole band picks it up and sends it up flying. Lucky Hungarian fans can catch their next gig on September 7 at 9 PM at the Mustache Festival.
Prime movers in the gypsy jazz resurgence, the Hot Club of Detroit’s new album, Junction, features a somewhat revamped lineup since bassist Andrew Kratzat suffered a near-fatal car accident last year. But there’s good news on all fronts: Kratzat and his fiancee continue on their road to recovery, and the band found a capable replacement in Shawn Conley. Otherwise, the original core of accordionist Julien Labro and guitarists Evan Perri and Paul Brady is back, joined this time out by reedmen Jon Irabagon and Andrew Bishop plus chanteuse Cyrille Aimee, with whom they’ve toured extensively. Irabagon’s wit and supersonic chops, Bishop’s eclecticism and ironclad sense of melody and Aimee’s purist charm each contribute to the diversity of the songs here. In the spirit of the band’s previous efforts, this album imaginatively blends jaunty grooves with ideas from all over the musical spectrum, continuing to push beyond traditional gypsy jazz.
That’s apparent right off the bat with a funky Irabagon composition, Goodbye Mr. Anderson (a Matrix reference, in case you might be wondering). It’s basically a two-chord jam with a catchy turnaround: spiraling solos from Labro’s accordion and Perri’s electric guitar set up an even more blistering, adrenalizing one from the composer himself.
They follow that with Song for Gabriel, the first of several Perri/Labro co-writes, bouncy and lyrical with some rich alto sax/accordion harmonies. Aimee sings La Foule over tricky, syncopated gypsy jazz: it’s a mouthful, and rather than trying to outdo Piaf, Aimee takes it in a much more understated direction, Perri adding an aptly wistful, expansive acoustic guitar solo.
An upbeat tune simply titled Hey! makes a launching pad for a wildfire cutting contest between Irabagon and Bishop: after a roller-coaster ride of doublestops, trills, unexpected hesitations and gritty microtones, they take it down to a cool accordion/bass/guitar pulse. Chutzpah, a John Zorn homage, kicks off with a tongue-in-cheek improvisational intro and then adds a subtle klezmer tinge, Irabagon springboarding off it with microtonal alto sax pyrotechnics. Then they resurrect a rare Django mass (which Reinhardt left unfinished), Messe Gitane, accordion taking the rather morose role of the church organ, Perri’s guitar eventually taking it into warmer terrain and then handing off to Bishop’s crystalline clarinet.
Django Mort, a setting of a Jean Cocteau poem is delivered very low-key by Aimee over a slow, stately sway. The cinematic, pensively swaying title track, with its folk-rock tinges and plaintive accordion, reminds of Montreal eclecticists Sagapool. The most memorable of all the tracks here, Midnight in Detroit is over too soon in just over a couple of minutes, Labro’s Balkan swirls lighting up the guitars’ nocturnal backdrop.
There’s also a George Shearing homage done as an offcenter, pensive ballad; the deliciously original Puck Bunny, a wry mix of country blues,gypsy swing and jump blues that evokes the Microscopic Septet’s take on Thelonious Monk; a vocal take on Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman that far surpasses a similar version by [who???] which was a rock radio hit in the 70s; and a Phish cover which transcends the original simply by not being an embarrassment. It’s out now on Mack Avenue.
Sagapool hail from Montreal. They play tunefully esoteric, mostly minor-key instrumentals that would make a good soundtrack to a David Cronenberg film somewhere in the woods north of Quebec City. Their new album features Luizio Altobelli’s accordion, Guillaume Bourque’s clarinet, Alexis Dumais’ piano, Zoe Dumais’ violin, Dany Nicolas’ acoustic guitar and Marton Maderspach’s lithe, subtle drums as the main instruments, although they also use banjo, bass, alto sax, mandolin, electric piano, sandpaper and “whispering.” Gypsy music is an obvious influence, and there’s a little of that here, but they also touch on classical, jazz and various folk styles. Some of their stuff reminds of eclectic San Francisco group Pickpocket Ensemble. Although not a theme and variations per se, the album works best taken as a single integral work, as if actually intended to be a movie soundtrack. The tunes are catchy and will linger in your head long after the sun goes down for good.
The opening cut is set in a Montreal park, a slightly aching accordion melody that builds to a motorway anthem as the drums rumble along, muffled against swooshing ambience. They follow that with Coeur D’Aiguille (Eye of the Needle), a wistful clarinet waltz with glockenspiel and ambient accordion. Le Vent Des Iles (Island Breeze) is another waltz, this one more pensive and featuring the piano. It rises to a sailing clarinet solo and then a romp through a majestic swirl of arpeggios in the style of 70s art-rock bands like Genesis. From its staccato piano intro to its tense violin/accordion melody, Le Fil Boreal (Edge of the Northern Lights) sounds like it’s about to explode into a big anthem but never quite gets there. La Tristesse De L’Ampleur (Sad Expanse) is a rather plaintive folk/jazz guitar tune that shifts between tricky and funky, and another moody waltz, clarinet soaring brightly upward.
The two tracks here where the grey-sky atmosphere lifts are Marcel, a jaunty, carefree dixieland-flavored number, and the amusing closing cut, Mon Cousin Joue Du Synthe (My Cousin Plays Synth), a dark minor-key theme bookending some unexpectedly silly, campy 80s new wave tropes. There’s also a brooding neoromantic piano waltz with Erik Satie echoes; another violin tune that shifts between waltz time and trickier rhythms; and the vividly crescendoing De Cordes et De Bois (Strings and Wood), which matter-of-factly builds until it lifts off and becomes an action movie theme – and then reprises an earlier melody. Who is the audience for this? Montreal bartenders on the day shift; northern New England shopkeepers who aspire to be classier than Walmart; people whose days begin late and end early or wish that was the case.