Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

This Hole’s Got a Bucket in It

Ben Syversen plays trumpet in two of New York’s best bands, Balkan juggernaut Raya Brass Band and also ferociously eclectic guitar-and-horn-driven “new Balkan uproar” outfit Ansambl Mastika. His new solo album Cracked Vessel is a masterpiece of warped, paint-peeling noise and spontaneous fun. Part noise-rock, part free jazz, with frequent Balkan and funk tinges, it screeches, squalls and rattles its way through one side of your cranium and out the other. Easy listening? Hardly, but it’s without question one of the most deliciously intense albums of the year (it’ll be on our Best of 2010 list at the end of December). Alongside Syversen’s alternately thoughtful atmospherics, blazing Gypsy sprints and tersely wary passages, Xander Naylor’s guitars do triple duty, serving as both bass and percussion along with providing some of the most memorably twisted sonics recently captured on disc. The beats can get even crazier when Jeremy Gustin’s drums are in the mix; otherwise, he holds this beast to the rails while it thrashes to break free and leap into the nearest abyss.

The album opens with the possibly sardonically titled Frontman, Syversen playing sort of a “charge” theme over percussive, trebly guitar skronk. As is the case frequently here, the drums crash in, the guitar goes nuts – and then it’s over. A staggered, off-kilter stomp with Balkan overtones, Weird Science sounds like a sketch that Slavic Soul Party might have abandoned because it was too crazy even for them, especially as the guitar careens and roars. Bad Idea contrasts pensive, terse trumpet against gingerly stumbling guitar underneath, finally exploding in a ball of chromatic fury and then back down again. Naylor cools the embers with sheets of reverb-drenched white noise.

The fourth track, Untitled, begins with a creepy minimalist Bill Frisell guitar taqsim and gets even weirder: even Syversen’s pensive, sostenuto trumpet can’t normalize this one. Krazzle works a long noise-funk crescendo up to a macabre trill, all the way down through a shower of amplifier sparks to virtual stillness – and suddenly they’re back at it. End of Time turns a playful trumpet-and-guitar conversation into a memorably nasty confrontation and another effective quiet/insane dialectic; From the Abyss has Syversen craftily dodging everything Naylor and Gustin can hurl at him, which is a lot, all the way down to a netherworld where a richly and unexpectedly beautiful minor-key art-rock song assembles itself and then eventually fades. It’s the most counterintuitive and richly satisfying passage in the entire album. There’s also the aptly titled Apparition, a study in percussion on all available instruments; Fried Fruit, a twisted funk tune, and the bonus track, Talk, which hints at minor-key janglerock before going completely off the rails with several blasts of guitar fury and finally a brutal, bodyslamming crescendo. The louder you play this, the more exhilarating it is. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Watch this space for upcoming shows.

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August 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: First Meeting – Cut the Rope

This album is the sonic equivalent of a Thai curry gone awry, where you accidentally use an entire can of green chiles, then you add too much garlic, then you realize you’re out of everything else but spices. So you throw the curry in and sautee everything, but on too high heat – the outsides caramelize while the insides stay raw. And then you discover you have nothing to chase it with, no rice, just water. You might find the results completely inedible, but you’d be surprised to know how many of your friends wouldn’t be able to get enough of that endless, raw burn. Like your kitchen disaster, trumpeter Natusuki Tamura and pianist Satoko Fujii’s new album with Cut the Rope, their free jazz outfit, is more of an abrasive intoxicant than it is music. It’s best described, and experienced, as a whole: it might be best appreciated while under the influence of something and it might (but might not) have been created under the influence of something too.

Drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto doesn’t hang out much: his main job here is supplying a dense wall of white noise via lush layers of cymbals. When he’s not doing that he’s hitting every piece of metal within reach and probably breaking a stick or two. Yet he can be just as delicate, particularly playing bells during a misty, rustically-tinged duet with Fujii’s koto-like prepared piano. Guitarist Kelly Churko (who also plays with Tamura and Fujii in Fujii’s massive Orchestra Tokyo) runs the gamut from eerily tentative blues, to death metal, to chicken-scratch skronk, to running a simple, muted bossa nova beat during a quieter interlude (which eventually gets stomped on mercilessly by the drums). In a stage whisper through his valves, Tamura conjures the ghosts of free jazz trumpeters past, otherwise squalling or bleating, especially during a memorable duel with Churko’s metal riffage. Fujii serves as the voice of reason here, typically introducing what melody there is, whether plaintive and eerie as is so often her custom, or just plain funny (particularly a latin interlude that the rest of the band completely ignores during the practically 25-minute fourth track). But like an overstimulated cat, the noise always lures her away to see what’s up and join the fun. Everyone finally finds his or her feet – pretty much – during a couple of extended, eerily modal loops toward the end, Fujii and Churko’s macabre music box piano and guitar duet taking it down to a delightful surprise ending.

Most people will find this album pure hell to sit through (check out Tamura’s solo work, Orchestra Tokyo or the most recent Tamura/Fujii small combo, Ma-Do for accessible tunes and high spirits). On the other hand, there’s got to be a couple thousand devotees of noise and vigorous free jazz around the world who would find this hard to walk away from. You may have to drag them with you because you may not want to be around it. Can somebody please open a window? It’s smoky in here and everything smells like garlic.

April 2, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Forty Fort

Viciously satirical “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing are back with another album which this time extends their savagery further beyond jazz into rock, pop and even new music. The idiom is still jazz, a particularly purist idiom at that, but the esthetic is pure punk rock. MOPDTK take no prisoners, they acknowledge nothing as sacred and in so doing reaffirm their status as the world’s funniest jazz group. Humor being a function of intellect, they know their source material so well that their sometimes playful, sometimes cruel extrapolations are inevitably spot-on. They have a rep for improvisational wipeouts, but probably much more of this stuff is composed than they would ever let on. From the first few seconds of the album, they are up to no good: bandleader/bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea are the main culprits, although sax player Jon Irabagon – whose recent work is gorgeously lyrical and won him top honors at the Thelonious Monk International competition – and powerhouse trumpeter Peter Evans are very close behind. The song titles on their last album were all towns in Pennsylvania; here, they parody a vintage 60s album shot on the cd cover, as if to say, what could those stoners possibly have been thinking back then? The compositions here are, at least at heart, more accessible and traditionalist than on the Pennsylvania album, which ironically gives the band even more of a launching pad for japes and swipes. And Irabagon’s obscene gesture on the inside of the cd cover outdoes Gene Simmons.

There’s a basic formula at work here, and it’s teamwork – the horns hold it together, at least to the extent that they do, while the rhythm section goes nuts, or the rhythm section goes completely rock, four-on-the-floor while the horns are off in the boposphere. Even so, the changes remain so split-second or out-of-leftfield that it’s impossible to predict what trouble is lurking around the corner from that too-perfect second-line beat or slinky blues bassline. The album’s opening cut is a go-go groove that has Shea acting out from the second bar, Irabagon and Evans squealing off and on behind him as Elliott deadpans it, completely locked in. And then suddenly it’s a straight-up song, no joking – for less than a minute, actually, before Irabagon starts making fun of it again. At the end, Shea lays down a dijeridoo loop that eventually falls apart when nobody can keep a straight face anymore.

The second cut amusingly lifts a bunch of timeworn Weather Report riffs while the rhythm section slowly gets out of hand – Elliott’s phony Jaco solo is to die for. A squalling yet meticulously orchestrated conversation between an agitated Irabagon and Evans trying to calm him down takes it out. Track three, Blue Ball starts out less a mockery than just a good song, unease of the horns obscuring the pretty, bluesy tune underneath. Elliott holds it together on the upper registers before the insistence of the horns takes it hopelessly outside, down to a fluttery chaotic mess out of which Irabagon tries to pull it but then falls back in. What was that title again?

The next cut, Nanticoke Coke would be a pretty ballad if Shea would let it go there, but he won’t let them get far enough into it. On Little Hope, Elliott introduces what would be a minor soul groove in jazz, or a cliched 80s hook if given the right synth tones. Irabagon eventually goes into a squall of overtones as the band keeps the groove tight while the tune disintegrates every which way. The Louis Armstrong-inflected title track waits til the very end to introduce its best joke; Round Bottom, Square Top would be a joyous New Orleans march if Shea would sit still. And then the rhythm section leaves the horns out to dry. The album winds up with a Paul Whiteman-esque swing tune kicking off with some rustic muted work from Evans that gets time-warped to Ornette’s era, and a concert favorite, a cover of Cute by Neal Hefti. Needless to say, it’s anything but, and it gives Shea a chance to remind better than just about any other drummer ever has that drummers should almost always never be allowed to take solos. This band may sarcastically assert that mostly other people do the killing, but in their own twisted way nobody kills more than MOPDTK. And the cd liner notes – by legendary centuagenarian jazz critic “Leonardo Featherweight,” on the use of color in jazz – are worth the price of the cd alone.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Phillip Johnston – Page of Madness

A horror movie soundtrack like no other. In addition to his substantial body of jazz, Microscopic Septet founder Phillip Johnston gets plenty of film work. This one debuted a full ten years ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, played live to the 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness by the Transparent Quartet:  Johnston on soprano and alto saxes, Joe Ruddick on piano and baritone sax, Dave Hofstra on bass and Mark Josefsburg on vibes. More a haunting portrait of insanity than outright horror, A Page of Madness has achieved cult status as a rare example of 1920s Japanese avante-garde filmmaking (Kinugasa cited Murnau’s The Last Laugh as a major influence). For reasons unknown, literally dozens of record labels were approached but were unwilling to release this album, notwithstanding the fact that a more recent electronic score is absolutely lame and only detracts from the movie.

From his work with the Micros, Johnston makes a good match for the flick, being no stranger to effective, frequently very amusing narrative jazz. This is a radically different side of the composer and quite a departure from his usual approach in that there is a great deal of improvisation going on. This one-off set was played to a relatively slow 18ips projector speed, most likely to maximize shading and minimize the herky-jerky fast-forward effect that plagues so much of early cinema. Like the film, Johnston’s composition is sad, viscerally intense and frequently haunting, the group’s improvisations sometimes rising to shriekingly anguished crescendos to match the script, by far the darkest work Johnston has released to date. To call it schizophrenic attests to its success in tandem with the visuals. Many of the instrumental pieces, some as long as nine or ten minutes, segue into each other. The central theme is an indignant, twisted little march, beginning on the vibraphone but frequently picked up by the piano or, toward the end, by the sax, sometimes traded off between instruments. Counterintuitively, it’s Hofstra’s snapping bass that launches a fullblown episode on track nine where the central character loses it for good. Johnston flutters and floats more than he goes crazy, while Ruddick, definitely the star of the show here, gets to fly completely off the hinges with crazed runs from one end of the keyboard to the other, a couple of murderously raging chordal passages and some plaintive sax work in tandem with Johnston.

Toward the end, there’s a ten-minute dream sequence alternating between troubled and balmy until a fullscale nightmare sets in, followed by sort of an overture and closing with a breezy, tinkly swing number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Micros catalog, morphing into a snazzy tango only to end somberly with the central march theme. As much as possible, it’s closure, coming to grips with madness. This is treat for jazz and vintage cinema fans alike as well as anyone who enjoys listening to the darkest stuff imaginable late at night with the lights out. Watch this space for live dates by Johnston with his many diverse projects.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment