Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Avalon Jazz Band Fuel the Revelry at Symphony Space

On one hand, it was mystifying to see a sold-out crowd sitting sedately through the first three songs of the Avalon Jazz Band’s sold-out show at Symphony Space Thursday night. On the other, it was validating to see the group earning appreciation as a first-class jazz act. Too few swing bands get props for their chops.

This show was the second in a weekly series here called Revelry. Musically speaking, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to the Upper West Side in a long, long time. There were never many venues in the neighborhood to begin with and there are even fewer now. So Symphony Space is really filling a need by booking all sorts of artists who’ve probably never played this far north.

This Thursday, Oct 25 at 8 PM the venue has Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a polymath on oldtime blues guitar, banjo and piano who may be the single most talented musician in all of New York. Ticket buyers 30 and under get in for $20, which is ten bucks off the regular cover charge. The downstairs bar stays open during the show and afterward; last week, ushers were grinningly handing out wristbands which entitled concertgoers to 20% off at the bar. All this is a different kind of return to the venue’s glory days in the late zeros and earlier in this decade when they were booking a ton of global talent in addition to the usual classical and jazz acts.

Last week, it was a four-piece version of Avalon Jazz Band. They opened with a charming, chirpy, playfully conversational take of the old French standard Coquette, frontwoman Tatiana Eva-Marie shimmying and teasing cartoonish riffs – and an irresistibly droll bass solo – from her bandmates. By the night’s third number, people of all ages were beginning to leave their seats and heading down in front of the stage to cut a rug. The snazziest dance moves of the night came from a couple who looked to be in their seventies, clearly old pros at swing dancing.

After starting in Paris, the singer led her quartet to Romany territory – Tatiana is half French and half Romanian – then to New Orleans and finally brought the music full circle. Guitarist Vinny Raniolo aired out his vast bag of riffs, from punchy Django Reinhardt swing, to warily resonant Chicago blues, fleet postbop and some eerie, tremoloing Lynchian resonance capped off with tremolo-picking that was sometimes fluttery and sometimes an icepick attack.

Violinist Gabe Terracciano showed off similar chops, from jaunty Bob Wills-style western swing, to airy Stephane Grappelli-esque phrasing, lots of sabretoothed Romany riffs and stark blues as well. Bassist Wallace Stelzer was amped pleasantly high in the mix, serving as the band’s Secretary of Entertainment with his wry sense of humor, the occasional tongue-in-cheek quote and solos that echoed the guitar.

The songs in the set were just as diverse. They’d played this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, so that was still on their minds. The highlight of the set was a brooding, saturnine take of Hoagy Carmichael’s New Orleans, with new English lyrics by a Crescent City friend of Tatiana’s. Her original, There’s Always a Moon Over New Orleans made a brisk contrast, inspired by the fact that when the band were down there, they never got up until after the sun went down. They mined the repertoire of Charles Trenet and Charles Aznavour for wistfulness, then went scampering up Menilmontant toward the end of the set. Afterward the crowd filed out to the bar, just as Tatiana – who by the end of the set had drained most of a sizeable glass of whiskey – had been encouraging all night. 

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October 22, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; 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.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Threeds’ Oboes Make You Laugh and Give You Chills Too

The idea of a band with three oboes and not much of anything else is pretty awesome in itself. Add an irrepressible sense of humor, a penchant for rearranging familiar tunes in unfamiliar ways, and three players with chops as soulful as they are technically impressive, and you get the Threeds oboe trio. Their new album Unraveled is pure joy – except when it’s bittersweet, or sad, or even haunting, as it is much of the time. Much as Kathy Halvorson, Mark Snyder and Katie Scheele have a great time rearranging Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bjork and others, this is as about as far from a joke record as you can get. Can you say cutting-edge with a smirk?

On the opening track, Joga, they find Bjork’s plaintive inner baroque soul. Their cover of Billie Jean has Pavel Vinnitsky’s bass clarinet playing the bassline perfectly deadpan and mechanical, with the trio in perfect alignment. In the beginning, the arrangement really nails the cold, heartless precision of the original; as it goes on, it’s impossible to escape the context, and becomes just plain hilarious, especially when two of the oboes do those staccato backing vocal lines. Best yet, you can download it for free. While the version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition also has the bass clarinet playing the bassline, it swings, and so do the oboes – it’s blissfully funky. In a pretty stark contrast, Paranoid Android gives Radiohead’s crazy cyborg some real humanity – when it segues into a restless march, it’s one of the most unaffectedly intense moments on the album.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat begins as a duo, with Scott Anderson on acoustic guitar and Halvorson playing Mingus’ sad, bitter lead lines. It’s a potent reminder that Mingus wrote the song as an elegy for Lester Young, the bass clarinet’s sustained lines underscoring Halvorson’s understatedly wounded, blues-infused phrasing. Light My Fire has drums, percussion, and tambourine along with bass clarinet – it works as well as it does because Manzarek nicked a Chopin riff for it! The spiraling bop oboe at the point where the organ solo kicks in is pretty hilarious, and absolutely spot-on. The most intriguingly complex arrangement here is the series of lushly intricate, shifting segments in the suspenseful, nocturnal Spanish Stairs.

Dospatsko Horo is the Balkans done as baroque – it doesn’t quite turn the party into a wake but it’s definitely a radical reinvention. Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark also gets a radical reinvention, in this case as riff-driven 21st century circular music.The other tracks include the classic tango El Choclo done as a brooding yet sprightly baroque round; Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a bolero-flavored pop ballad; Little Feat’s Roll Um Easy, which surprisingly hits a mellow early 70s Allman Brothers vibe, soaring oboes enhancing the blue-sky ambience. The only track here that’s not worth uploading is not the band’s fault. This works on so many levels – as party music, as a monster ipod mix and as sophisticated 21st century stuff. Look for this one on our best-of-2011 list at the end of the year.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Pre-War Ponies Summon the Ghosts of Old New York

Last night at Rodeo Bar the Pre-War Ponies played an irresistible, unselfconsciously romantic mix of obscure swing tunes. Frontwoman Daria Grace leads this unit when she isn’t playing bass in her husband’s Jack’s excellent country band, or in recently semi-resurrected art-rockers Melomane, which doesn’t give her a lot of time – this crew basically plays the Rodeo and Barbes and that’s about it. But her Rodeo gig has been a monthly residency for awhile now, and it’s one of New York’s obscure treasures – just like her repertoire. The songs she likes best are clever, urbane, and catchy, ranging from quirky to downright bizarre. Her voice is stunning, pure and clear but also a little misty, the perfect vehicle for tales of heartbreak and longing and hope against hope that everything will work out in the end. This time out she was backed by a rhythm section along with J. Walter Hawkes doubling on trombone and ukelele, and Mike Neer on acoustic lead guitar.

The best song of the night was a blithe suicide song from 1928, Ready for the River, by Gus Kahn and Neil Moret. “Gonna leave just a bubble to indicate what used to be me,” Grace sang with a carefree nonchalance as the band bounced along behind her. “Gonna keep walking til my straw hat floats.” Her version of Two Sleepy People, a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938, perfectly captured the hazy endorphin bliss of a couple who’ve run out of things to say (or brainpower to say them with) but can’t tear themselves away from each other.

The band’s second set of the night was both fetching and fun. Grace came off the stage to redistribute the bar’s supply of peanuts since a friend of hers needed a refill. Then Hawkes noticed that someone had left a guitar pick in the nose of the bison head to the right of the stage. “Probably your husband,” he told Grace.

“Probably was,” she sighed. She looked at the pick. “Nope. Not his brand.” And then picked up her baritone uke and launched into a tribute to every ukelele song ever written. She brought a distantly smoky charm to Connee Boswell’s All I Can Do Is Dream of You, Irving Berlin’s 1925 hit Remember, and later an understatedly plaintive version of It’s the Talk of the Town. The bouncy, shuffling lament Say It Isn’t So was a launching pad for a rocket of a solo by Neer that leveled off the second time through the verse, followed by a droll muted trombone solo by Hawkes that managed to be completely period-perfect and over-the-top yet poignant all at the same time. The torchy Take My Heart got a buoyant solo from Hawkes followed by more edgy incisiveness from Neer. On the innuendo-driven I Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, Neer punched through the best solo of the night, a rapidfire series of chords with an Asian tinge, as if he was playing a koto. They also did a slinky, gypsy jazz version of Cole Porter’s Primitive Man, from the 1929 film Fifteen Million Frenchmen.

The 1947 tune Brooklyn Love Song has “hey” at the end of pretty much every phrase. Grace lost the second page of her sheet music, so she had to come up with some new lyrics: “Everything happens for a reason. Hey!” Hawkes finally found the missing page; without missing a beat, they jumped back in and wound it up as jauntily as it began.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jared Gold Gets Out of Line

Remember that scene in American Splendor where Harvey opens the review copy of the album he’s just received in the mail, looks at it and then says, glumly, “Oh. Another organ-and-tenor record?” These days, organ-and-tenor records don’t grow on trees anymore, and this one’s hardly ordinary. The title of organist Jared Gold’s third and latest album Out of Line seems to be tongue-in-cheek because there’s a definite continuity here – he really sets a mood and keeps it going. From the wicked minor-key soul riff of the opening track to a barely recognizable soul-infused, Grant Green/Jimmy Smith style version of the old bubblegum pop hit La-La Means I Love You, he and the band here – Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Dave Stryker on guitar and Mark Ferber on drums – establish a warm, nocturnal, retro 60s groove and stay with it.

Preachin,’ a matter-of-factly midtempo soul/blues tune has Stryker casual and sometimes wry, followed by similarly genial bluesiness by Gold. The title track is a subtle bossa shuffle, Gold sun-speckled and summery yet hinting at unease. Their version of Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ is more of a blues-tinted slink than straight-up funk, Stryker’s wah guitar chilling in the back, Gold bringing a late 60s psychedelic chordal feel to the groove. The pretty ballad It Is Well works a gentle handoff from Cheek to Gold, who’s really in an atmospheric, psychedelic mood by now. They follow that with the laid-back, swinging shuffle Down South, both Stryker and Gold lighting up the ambience with incisive, vibrant solos. The Stone Age, a jazzier take on a Bill Withers-style groove, takes it up as high as they get on this album. Stryker raises his lighter amiably, Cheek sails off into the clouds and Gold finally punches out some gritty Jimmy McGriff-style funk.

They close with an updated, funkified version of Skylark. This is a great late-night disc with an especially intimate feel (the organ’s Leslie speaker has been close-miked: you can actually hear Gold’s fingers moving nimbly across the keys). It’s out now on Posi-Tone, who seem to have a franchise on retro lately.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Introducing the Pre-War Ponies

A fixture of the New York music scene, Daria Grace got her start playing bass in recently resuscitated art-rockers Melomane, and was one of the original Moonlighters – fans of that band took to calling her replacement “the new Daria.” But with a voice like hers – a warm, clear, billowy soprano with just the slightest hint of grit that tails off sometimes with a subtle vibrato – there can be only one Daria Grace. While holding down the bass spot in her husband Jack’s terrific country band, she found her way back to oldtime steampunk swing with the Pre-War Ponies. They should be far better-known than they are – this beautifully sunny cd is completely and unselfconsciously romantic and one of the best albums of the year so far. Grace shies away from standards – she’s far more at home with obscure sheet music rescued from junk shops, a reliable source for much of her material. She plays baritone ukelele in this band just as she used to do in the Moonlighters along with rambunctious trombonist J. Walter Hawkes, former Cocktail Angst pianist Jon Dryden and Doug Largent on bass, with fellow New York retro chanteuse Sasha Dobson providing harmonies on one track.

Grace follows the Connee Boswell version of All I Do Is Dream of You, Dryden adding jaunty barrelhouse piano beneath Hawkes’ wry muted trombone accents. It’s something of a shock that at least until now, the swaying, breezy Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn never became the borough’s official theme (once Marty Markowitz leaves office, the band can approach the new Borough President). Hawkes joins Grace here on uke to up the vintage ambience. Got the South in My Soul – a concert favorite and a Lee Wiley hit from 1932 – features a period-perfect, balmy trombone solo. Two Sleepy People (a Frank Loesser/Hoagy Carmichael hit from 1938) absolutely nails the cozy, endorphin-stoked ambience for two lovers who’ve been out all night and are out of thing to say but not to do with each other.

The band recasts Heart and Soul, the lone standard here, as a brisk 1920s style proto-swing strut. The darkly tender Under the Russian Moon, floating on the waves of Dryden’s accordion, is the most delightful obscurity of the whole bunch. The album winds up tantalizingly with The Gentleman Just Wouldn’t Say Goodnight, another junk shop find that Grace credits as “one of the most beautiful songs that nobody has ever heard of.” Grace weaves through its tasty major/minor changes with a wistful, late-night feel that is pure soul. With the Jack Grace Band’s killer new cd hot off the press, that group has been gigging up a storm lately; the Pre-War Ponies’ next scheduled gig is at Rodeo Bar on July 26.

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