Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Jazz Passengers Are Excited to Be Reunited, No Joke

The Jazz Passengers’ new album Reunited – their first in over ten years – is as nonchalantly cool as anything they’ve ever released. Saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s cinematic compositions are as imagistic as ever, imbued with his signature wit, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes every bit the vintage soul crooner, both on the horn and the mic and vibraphonist Bill Ware his understatedly counterintuitive self. Violinist Sam Bardfeld, bassist Brad Jones, drummer E.J. Rodriguez and guitarist Marc Ribot channel their signature out-of-the-box arrangements, melodic pulse, slinky latin groove, and eclecticism, respectively. Much of this has an early 70s psychedelic feel, from the brief period where soul music, funk and jazz got to mingle unmolested before fusion came along and busted up the party.

Elvis Costello sings the opening track, Wind Walked By, a casually strolling noir-tinged New Depression era swing tune: “Shit out of luck, the American way.” Ware’s vibes eerily anchor Nathanson’s alto sax, Ribot’s guitar supplying a distant unease, swaying from nonchalant blues to off-center skronk on the outro. Seven, an instrumental works a hypnotic circular motif like an early 70s Herbie Hancock soundtrack number, Fowlkes and Ribot’s wah guitar building suspense up to a violin/guitar swirl. Fowlkes sings Button Up, a matter-of-fact soul/jazz groove, wah guitar mingling with Ware’s expansive, deadpan, bluesy cascades. Thom Yorke’s The National Anthem trades midnight Heathrow airport corridor atmosphere for 4 AM Ninth Avenue Manhattan drama – with Ribot and then Bardfeld skronking and screeching behind the aplomb of the rest of the crew, it’s every bit as menacing as the original. The best single song on the album might be Tell Me (by Fowlkes/Nathanson, not the Glimmer Twins), dark latin soul morphing into a buoyant 6/8 ballad, the warmth of the trombone silhouetted against the plinking thicket where Ware and Bardfeld are hiding out.

They redo Spanish Harlem as laid-back organ-driven swing with an amusing Spanglish skit, Ware, Fowlkes and Rodriguez joined by a whole different crew including Russ Johnson on trumpet, Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola and Susi Hyldgaard on vocals. There are also two bonus live tracks with longtime collaborator Deborah Harry. Think of Me, a Brad Jones/David Cale composition is lusciously restrained Twin Peaks swing. And who would have thought that she’d sing this 1995 concert version of One Way or Another (redone here brilliantly as Brat Pack-era suite) better than the original – or for that matter that she’d be an even more captivating singer in 2010, as recent Blondie tours have triumphantly shown. The only miss on the album is Reunited (the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop monstrosity), which pulls plenty of laughs in concert but misses the mark here: garbage in, garbage out. You could call this cd the comeback of the year except that there’s nothing really for them to come back from other than a long absence – which is happily over now. Last month’s shows at the Jazz Standard saw them clearly psyched to be back in action again; hopefully there’ll be more of it.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry Party Like It’s 1989

The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.

Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.

Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Creepy and Dreamy with Mojo Mancini

New York noir doesn’t get any better than this. With Big Lazy on the shelf, Mojo Mancini has moved in to take over the role of New York’s most deliciously creepy instrumental group. With allusions to the Doors and Henry Mancini, they’re aptly named, blending a stylish dark rock vibe with equally dark Hollywood atmospherics. Their album is sort of an accident: tenor sax player Rick DePofi, Rosanne Cash bandleader/guitarist John Leventhal, drummer Shawn Pelton, Bob Dylan keyboardist Brian Mitchell and bassist Conrad Korsch would get together and jam just for fun, or to blow off steam between gigs and/or recording dates. Happily, they had the good sense to record these jams, realizing that they had genuine magic on their hands. The arduous task of sifting through the tapes fell to DePofi, a professional recording engineer. This is the result. At one point or another, all the songs here sway to a trip-hop beat – and as dark as a lot of them are, there are also several which are irresistibly funny.

The album opens with a characteristically eerie, David Lynch style wee-hours scenario, Leventhal playing terse, tense jazz lines against Mitchell’s organ swells. Gansevoort, named after the street just off the Westside Highway where the album was recorded (and where bodies were once dumped with regularity) is an echoey trip-hop organ funk groove, part early 70s Herbie Hancock score, part sleek stainless steel club music, part Jimmy McGriff. Just Sit, featuring a sample of poet/activist Jack Hirschman, welds watery 1970-era David Gilmour chorus-box guitar to balmy sax over a laid-back funk groove.

Leventhal turns an expansive, sunbaked guitar solo over to DePofi’s tenor on the pensive Clear Fluids, which then winds it up to a big crescendo. The dub-inflected Peace Plan moves from spacy Rhodes piano to a sparse, Steve Ulrich-style guitar hook. The most Steve Ulrich-inflected number here is Let Us Pray, with its Twilight Zone organ, David Gilmour noir guitar lines and a couple of playfully sacrilegious Lawrence Ferlinghetti samples. There’s also a big sky theme, its disquieting undercurrent evoking Bill Frisell; a cinematic mini-suite with smoky sax that evokes mid-90s REM side project Tuatara; the banjo trip-hop of Long Neck, and the echoey, dubwise Slipper Room with its maze of keyboards and a rousing organ crescendo that segues into the next tune. Play loud, play after dark for best results.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Rachelle Garniez and Mojo Mancini at the Canal Room, NYC 4/7/10

Rachelle Garniez was all business this time out. New York’s most individualist steampunk siren usually engages the audience much more than she did last night in a brief duo show, playing accordion with her longtime partner in crime Matt Munisteri on acoustic guitar and banjo. This was the greatest-hits set. She dedicated a swinging, metaphorically-charged version of Tourmaline (from her Melusine Years album, which topped our Best Albums of 2007 list) to an ancestor, Mary Delaney, who had sailed to New Orleans from Ireland in “one of those cast iron bathtubs.” The offhandedly menacing stream-of-consciousness polka punk of Pearls and Swine, said Garniez, sounds Mexican to Germans and vice versa. After a coy, brief take of the innuendo-laden, bluesy Medicine Man and a rather sweet version of Grasshopper, creatively reinterpreting an old Aesop theme, Munisteri got to take the best solo of the night, expansively and incisively through a whole verse and chorus of the torchy Swimming Pool Blue. The crowd wanted more; they didn’t get it.

Mojo Mancini played about an hour’s worth of deliciously creepy, mostly downtempo, cinematic groove instrumentals. Like a twisted hybrid of the Crusaders or early 70s Herbie Hancock and Tuatara, they’d find a haunting chromatic riff and linger on it for minutes on end, with judicious yet playful solos from everyone. Guitarist John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash’s husband and longtime musical director, seems to be in charge of keeping track of the changes in this unit as well. Drummer Sean Pelton and bassist Conrad Korsch locked into a groove which moved gracefully from slinky trip-hop to pounding funk and pretty much all points in between, anchored by either fluid Hammond organ or eerily reverberating Rhodes piano from Dylan sideman Brian Mitchell and spiced with both tenor and baritone sax from Rick DePofi. Mitchell used a vocoder to reach for the furthest level of hell on an unabashedly silly, funkified cover of the David Essex K-tel hit Rock On; other times, he’d mess with his portamento, sometimes in tandem with Leventhal for an out-of-focus, watery menace. They brought Garniez up for a purposeful, straight-up cover of the old jazz standard Comes Love – she chose her spots, alternating between a wondrous Blossom Dearie soprano and a brassy, brazen belt, feeling her way between one kind of over-the-top and another and whichever she’d switch into, it worked like a charm. The band also accompanied a sword swallower, who was impressive with all his super-long balloons and giant screwdriver, yet ultimately his presence onstage stole the spotlight during one of Mojo Mancini’s most interesting numbers, a quietly intense, suspenseful minor-key excursion.

The only drawback was the incessant drum machine. These guys are topnotch players: during a quiet intro, Leventhal and DePofi both had trouble connecting with the click, but when the volume picked up to the point where it was all but inaudible, they swung like crazy. Musicians this good don’t need a click track – why they had one is a mystery. Mojo Mancini’s new album is very much worth your time – watch this space for a review in the next couple of weeks.

April 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

Viennese-born jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul died September 11 in his hometown after a battle with cancer. He was 75. Zawinul pioneered the use of electronic keyboards in jazz and was a major influence on his fellow musicians, notably Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. While studying at the Berklee School of Music in 1958, Zawinul was hired away by Maynard Ferguson, and later played with Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley. While with Adderley in the 1960s he wrote Mercy Mercy Mercy, one of the first jazz songs to use an electric piano. Later in the decade he contributed the title track to the milestone Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, Davis’ first venture into the electric sound that he would expand on and continue to use throughout the remainder of his career.

In 1970 Zawinul founded Weather Report along with sax player Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Arguably the most important of the jazz fusion bands of the 70s, Weather Report played a mix of high-energy, funky jams and quieter, more reflective material. Zawinul’s work with the band – which later included legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius – broadened the sonic palette for jazz keyboards, utilizing different electric pianos, synthesizers and effects including wah, reverb, distortion and loops. It is hard to think of a jazz or funk musician since 1970 who was not influenced in some way, directly or indirectly, by Zawinul and Weather Report.

Zawinul’s best-known composition was Birdland, the opening track from Weather Report’s 1977 album Heavy Weather. What Take the A Train or Take Five were to earlier eras, Birdland was to the late 70s and early 80s, the most popular jazz song of its time. Even punk rockers knew the song’s simple, celebratory hook. After Weather Report dissolved in the early 80s, Zawinul led the Zawinul Syndicate, a fusion group that he played in until very shortly before his death, releasing several albums on his own BirdJAM label.

While jazz fusion remains a dirty word in some circles because of its use of rock arrangements and steady 4/4 time (not to mention the fact that fusion was the forerunner of Lite-FM style elevator jazz), there is no denying Zawinul’s pioneering influence, his uncanny sense of melody, his formidable chops and his brilliance as a bandleader.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, obituary | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment