Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.
The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.
The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.
Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!
Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.
It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.
Guitarist Tom Csatari writes some of the most distinctive and thoughtfully compelling music of any composer in New York right now. With epic film soundtrack sweep, the improvisational flair of jazz and grey-sky postrock atmosphere, his work for both large and small groups transcends genre. It’s just good, and it can get dark when the band veers away from pastoral colors. Csatari is bringing his Uncivilized large ensemble to Barbes on March 16 at 8 PM. What they do is well capsulized by the epic track Escarpments (up at Soundcloud), hypnotic post-Velvets meets 70s blaxploitation soundtrack meets chamber noir.
Csatari’s most recent album is with that ensemble and shares its name with them; there are a few numbers from it up at Bandcamp. His most recent release to come over the transom here is Outro Waltz, streaming at his music page. It’s an ambitious double album, the first comprising original compositions, the second a live set of originals and covers recorded at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Csatari’s lineup on this one is only slightly less ornate: along with fellow guitarist Cam Kapoor, there’s Levon Henry on tenor sax and clarinets, Adriel Williams on violin, Ross Gallagher on bass and R.J. Miller on drums. Csatari distinguished himself from the legions of hipper-than-thou jazz guitarists out there in that he’s not afraid of melody and doesn’t feel constrained to play stereotypical jazz voicings or use complicated harmony where a simple major or minor, or a spare, gently emphatic phrase would make more of a point. Bill Frisell seems the most obvious influence, although Jimmy Giuffre and the Claudia Quintet also seems like reference points.
Guitars and percussion open the album with a gamelan-tinged, atmospheric miniature. The group follows that with New Boots, a gorgeously plaintive, trippily jangly pastorale, then Nolan, a purposeful wistful, swaying tone poem with tender sax and violin.
The epic Uncivilized playfully hints at bluegrass; Csatari’s slide guitar and the band’s tricky syncopation give it a desert rock feel transposed to the Eastern Seaboard that eventually decays into a surrealistic improvisation. The warily hazy El Morrisony opens with swirling guitars and bass clarinet over a steady pulsing shuffle spiced with stark violin.
Rawlings II veers between twinkling deep space pulsar sonics and a wistful folk theme, deconstructed. Blues for Robbie mashes up enigmatic 80s indie jangle, pensive Americana and an artfully disguised, Doorsy roadhouse groove. After Plastic shifts elegantly between a loping C&W-inspired theme and a loosely pulsing cinematic vamp. Likewise, Wharfs & Drifts, between angst-fueled guitars and jauntily shuffling violin in tandem with the rhythm section.
With Legion, the band builds fluttery unease over a slow spacerock vamp that the guitars eventually take waltzing. The last of the studio tracks is Sisters, slowly coalescing to a clustering, tensely bubbling interlude and then up toward rock anthemics before descending gracefully.
The live album opens with the band making a long, gospel-infused intro of sorts out of Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land, gently decaying into lingering atmospherics. Thelonious Monk’s Light Blue shuffles coyly between swing and offcenter deconstruction, while Elliott Smith’s Speed Trials reverts to a wistful, swaying nocturnal vein, with an indian summer tenor sax solo by Kyle Wilson at the center. The first original here, Curationisms segues out of it with a return to jangly but purposefully strolling contemplation.
Kingsnoth blends lush sweep and amiably ambling interplay that hints at dixieland but doesn’t go there. Chris Weisman’s The Winning Blues again looks back toward Frisell, in lingering anthemic mode: by the end, it’s a straight-up rock song. Miller, who’s been giving all this a gently swaying groove, finally gets to cut loose as Water Park Rodeo slowly comes together out of starlit guitars to an ominously shivery theme and then an unexpected detour toward 70s psychedelic soul. Call this what you want – jazz, rock, film score – it’s music to get lost in.
Pianist Romain Collin is one of those rare artists who can’t be pigeonholed. His music defies description. Much of it has the epic sweep and picturesque quality of film music, although his noir-tinged new album, Press Enter is not connected, at least at the moment, to any visual component other than your imagination. Some of it you could call indie classical, since there are echoes of contemporary composers throughout all but one of its ten tracks. And while it’s not jazz per se, it ends with a muted, wee hours solo piano street scene take of Thelonious Monk’s Round About Midnight. For those of you who might be in town over the Thanksgiving holiday, Collin and his long-running trio, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott are playing a three-night stand, November 27-29 at Iridium at 8:30 PM.Cover is $27.50.
The opening track, 99 (alternate title, at least from the mp3s this blog received: Bales of Pot). Is it a reggae number? Nope. It’s a brief series of variations on a tersely circling, Philip Glass-inspired theme. If Rick Wakeman could have figured out how to stay within himself after, say, 1973, he might have sounded something like this. Like Clockwork, true to its title, takes that motorik riff and then expands on it, with echoes of both Glass and Keith Jarrett, slowing it down for more of an anthemic sweep. It sets the stage for how Collin will use his trademark textures – acoustic piano echoed by very subtle electroacoustic textures, from simple reverb, to doubletracking on electric keys, to light ambient touches.
Raw, Scorched & Untethered actually comes across as anything but those things: it’s a stately, brooding quasi horror film theme that picks up with a jackhammer insistence, in the same vein as Clint Mansell might do. Cellist Laura Metcalf adds elegantly austere textures as she does in places here. Holocene hints that it’s going to simply follow a rather effete series of indie rock changes but then edges toward pensive pastoral jazz before rising with a catchy main-title gravitas and then moving lower into the reflecting pool again. The Kids circles back toward the opening track, but with a wry, Monkish sensibility (although that whistling is awful and really disrupts the kind of subtly amusing narrative Collin could build here without it).
The darkest, creepiest and most epic track is Webs, alternating between stormy menace and more morose foreshadowing over stygian, bell-like low lefthand accents. Another menacing knockout is Event Horizon, which eerily commenorates the eventual exoneration – courtesy of the Innocence Project – of seven wrongfully convicted men. Separating them, San Luis Obispo is an unexpected and pretty straight-up take of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Color. Collin then reverts to no-nonsense macabre staccato sonics with The Line (Dividing Good and Evil). The album isn’t up at the usual places on the web, although there are three tracks streaming at ACT Records’ site, and Collin has an immense amount of eclectic material up at his Soundcloud page.
Sybarite5 are a game-changer in the chamber music world. A cynic might say that the chamber music world needs a change: what appeared to be a sold-out, mostly twentysomething crowd Sunday night at Subculture might have agreed. Maybe it’s Sybarite5’s imaginative, genre-defying programming that pulls a younger demographic. Or maybe it’s their obsession with Radiohead: their 2013 album of new arrangements of songs by that band is a landmark in art-rock, a genre they also embrace. Whatever the case, they drew raucous applause and screams for an encore that might not have been out of place in another century when string quintets were more common, but aren’t exactly what you come to expect in the more sedate confines of, say, Carnegie Hall.
The group – violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt – opened with the first of the Radiohead covers, 15 Step, reinventing it as a kinetic, almost funky piece with hints of a canon but also a lively country dance, some of the members beating out a rhythm on the bodies of their instruments. They followed with a contemporary piece, Dan Visconti’s Black Bend, which slowly came together as a blues and then drifted from the center again.
Merdinian’s Armenian-Argentinian heritage came to the forefront with a couple of Armenian folk songs, a plaintive lament and then a bracing dance from the Komitas catalog. They offered a rapturously tender take of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel, but then reveled in another Piazzolla piece, Esqualo, bringing its shark-fishing narrative to life with a sinewy intensity. It was here especially that Levitt’s role made itself clear, driving the music with the power of a rock bassist.
There was also more Radiohead (a surrealistically pulsing take of Weird Fishes and a broodingly anthemic remake of No Surprises); Shawn Conley’s Yann’s Flight, a cinematic depiction of Hawaiian hang gliding; a tensely circular, cinematically crescendoing Jessica Meyer premiere, and a romp through a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany number that was as feral as it was majestic. They encored with an irresistibly droll mashup of the old 80s cheese-pop hit Take on Me with Flight of the Bumblebee. Anyone who thinks that chamber music is strictly for greybeards wasn’t at this show. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tschaikovsky the news.
Last week’s triumphant reprise of the initial show at Littlefield staged by composer/violinist/impresario Christopher Tignor, a.k.a. @tignortronics was magical. Sometimes lush and dreamy, other times stark and apprehensive or majestically enveloping, often within the span of a few minutes, Tignor and the two other acts on the bill, cellist Julia Kent and guitarist Sarah Lipstate a.k.a. Noveller put their own distinctly individualistic marks on minimalism and atmospheric postrock. There was some stadium rock, too, the best kind – the kind without lyrics. And much as the three composer-performers were coming from the same place, none of them were the least constrained by any kind of genre.
Kent and Lipstate built their sweeping vistas out of loops, artfully orchestrating them with split-second choreography and elegant riffage, both sometimes employing a drum loop or something rhythmic stashed away in a pedal or on a laptop (Lipstate had two of those, and seemed to be mixing the whole thing on her phone). Tignor didn’t rely on loops, instead fleshing out his almost imperceptibly shapeshifting variations with an octave pedal that added both cello-like orchestration and washes of low-register ambience that anchored his terse, unselfconsciously plaintive motives.
Kent opened her all-too-brief set with apprehensive, steady washes that built to an aching march before fading out quickly. Between songs, the crowd was rapt: although there were pauses in between, the music came across as a suite. An anxious upward slash gave way to a hypnotic downward march and lush, misty ambience; a little later, she worked a moody, arpeggiated hook that would have made a good horror movie theme into more anthemic territory that approached Led Zep or Rasputina, no surprise since she was a founding member of that band (no, not Led Zep). Slithery harmonics slashed through a fog and then grew more stormy, then Kent took a sad fragment and built it into a staggered, wounded melody. She could have played for twice as long and no one would have said as much as a whisper.
Tignor flavored his judicious, sometimes cell-like themes with deft washes of white noise and his own slightly syncopated beat, which he played on kick drum for emphatic contrast with his occasionally morose, poignant violin phrases. A long triptych moved slowly upward into hypnotic, anthemic cinematics, then back and forth and finally brightened, with a surprisingly believable, unexpectedly sunny trajectory that of course Tignor had to end enigmatically. A slow, spacious canon of sorts echoed the baroque, more melodically than tempo-wise, its wary pastoral shades following a similarly slow, stately upward tangent. He played a dreamy nocturne with a tuning fork rather than a bow for extra shimmer and echoey lustre and wound up his set with another restless if judiciously paced partita.
Where Kent and Tignor kept the crowd on edge, Lipstate rocked the house. She began with a robust Scottish-tinged theme that she took unexpectedly from anthemic terrain into looming atmospherics. A rather macabre loop hinting at grand guignol became the centerpiece of the big, anthemic second number, long ambient tones shifting overhead.
She followed a broodingly circling, more minimalist piece with an increasingly ominous anthem that more than hinted at David Gilmour at his most lushly concise, then a postrock number that could have been Australian psych-rock legends the Church covering Mogwai, but with even more lustre and sheen. She lept to a peak and stayed there with a resounding, triumphant unease as the show wound out, through an ominous, cumulo-nimbus vortex and then a long, dramatically echoing drone-based vamp that brought the concert full circle. Tignor promises to stage another concert every bit as good as this one this coming spring; watch this space.
A project originated by guitarist Chris Botta and drummer Joe Branciforte, the Cellar & Point are sort of Claudia Quintet meets Sleepmakeswaves meets Wounded Buffalo Theory. Mantra Percussion‘s Joe Bergen plays vibraphone, immediately drawing the Claudia Quintet comparison, which is further fueled by the nimble string work of violinist Chistopher Otto and cellist Kevin McFarland, who comprise one-half of the adventurous Jack Quartet. Guitarist Terrence McManus and bassist Rufus Philpot round out the band. The backstory – Botta and Branciforte as teenage buds in New Jersey, hanging out and blasting Rage Against the Machine – makes sense in context. Their debut long-player, Ambit, is just out from the folks at Cuneiform who have it up along with the rest of their vast catalog on bandcamp. The Cellar & Point are playing the album release show on a killer triplebill at Glasslands on Nov 19 starting around 9 with epically sweeping art-rock chorale the Knells and the alternately hypnotic and kinetic Empyrean Atlas. Cover is ten bucks; it’s not clear what the order of bands is but they’re all worth seeing.
The album’s opening track, 0852 is characteristic: tricky prog-rock metrics drive lush ambience with lingering vibraphone, slide guitar (and maybe ebow) and some artfully processsed pizzicato from the string section that adds almost banjo-like textures. Arc builds out of swirly atmospherics to a matter-of-fact march and then an animatedly cyclical dance with tinges of both west African folk music and King Crimson.
There are two Tabletops here, A and B. The first juxtaposes and mingles lingering vibes, stadium guitar bombast and lithely dancing strings. The second layers rainy-day vibes and strings with terse Andy Summers-ish guitar. There are also two White Cylinders: number one being a seemingly tongue-in-cheek mashup of brash jazz guitar, vividly prickly mystery movie textures and Reichian circularity, number two tracing a knottier, somewhat fusiony Olympic film theme of sorts.
If Ruminant is meant to illustrate an animal, it’s a minotaur stewing down in the labyrinth, awaiting an unsuspecting victim – one assumes that’s Bergen playing that gorgeously creepy piano in tandem with the eerily resonant guitars and stark strings. By contrast, Purple Octagon shuffles along with a more motorik take on what John Hollenbeck might have done with its vamping dynamic shifts – or the Alan Parsons Project with jazz chords. The somewhat dirgey, gamelan-tinged title track’s final mix is actually a recording of a playback of the song’s original studio mix made in an old rotunda in the Bronx in order to pick up vast amounts of natural reverb.
There are also a couple of reinvented pieces from the chamber music repertoire: a stately, wary Radiohead-like interpretation of an Anton Webern canon and a György Ligeti piano etude recast as a hypnotically pulsing nocturne. Is all this jazz? Not really. It’s not really rock, either. Indie classical, maybe? Sure, why not? Postrock? That too. Ultimately it boils down to what Duke Ellington said, that there are two kinds of music, the good kind, like this, and the other kind.
Since the late 90s, Gutbucket have distinguished themselves as purveyors of moody, sardonic, cinematic instrumentals that combine jazz improvisation with noirish rock themes. You could call them a more jazz-inclined version of Barbez, and you wouldn’t be far off. If you miss the days when Tonic was still open and edgy sounds were an everyday thing on the Lower East Side, you’ll be psyched to know that Gutbucket are doing a stand at the Stone from Nov 18 through 23 with two sets nightly at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $10. As you would expect from pretty much everybody who plays there, the band are doing several interesting collaborations and are making a live album in the process. The most enticing set of all might be the early show on opening night when the music will have some added lushness via the strings of the Jack Quartet.
Frontman/guitarist Ty Citerman also has a wickedly fun, tuneful, genre-defying sort-of-solo Tzadik album, Bop Kabbalah, out with his Gutbucket bandmates Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, Adam D. Gold on drums plus Balkan trumpeter Ben Holmes. Although the themes draw on traditional Jewish music, jazz tropes and rock riffage take centerstage. The first track, The Cossack Who Smelt of Vodka (possible ommitted subtitle: what cossack doesn’t smell of vodka?) follows a tensely cinematic, noirish trajectory to a long outro where Citerman’s tensely insistent guitar pairs against Thomson’s calmness.
Conversation with Ghosts works a catchy minor-key theme punctuated by droll leaps and bounds up to a long Holmes solo, then the band reprises it but much more loudly and darkly. Snout moves from squirrelly free jazz into a brief Romany dance, then the band refract it into its moody individual pieces, transforming what under other circumstances would be a party anthem into a fullscale dirge.
The Synagogue Detective bookends a tongue-in-cheek cartoon narrative with alternately biting and goodnaturedly prowling solos from Citerman, Holmes and Thomson. Likewise, they liven the skronky march After All That Has Happened with squalling Steven Bernstein-esque flourishes. In lieu of hip-hop flavor, Talmudic Breakbeat has an unexpected lushness, neatly intertwining voices, some drolly shuffling rudiments from Gold and the album’s most snarling guitar solo.
The album’s most deliciously epic track, Exchanging Pleasantries with a Wall moves up from echoey spaciousness, through a disorienting, funereal groove that brings to mind low-key Sonic Youth as much as it does Bernstein’s arrangements of old Hasidic nigunim. The closing cut puts a clenched-teeth, crescendoing noir dub spin on a broodingly austere old prayer chant. Now where can you hear this treat online? Um…try Citerman’s soundcloud page and youtube channel for starters; otherwise, the Stone is where it’s at, next week.
A Darkly Riveting Concert and an Upcoming Parkside Show by Diana Wayburn’s Dances of the World Ensemble
You might think from the name of the group that pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble play ballet music. That might be possible, but while their music is kinetic and intensely rhythmic, it has an edge and an individuality that transcend the boundaries of African music, classical, jazz, rock and film music while combining elements of all those styles. While Wayburn’s music often reminds of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopiques, or Astor Piazzolla’s shapeshifting, tango-based compositions, her sound is unique. There is no band in the world who sound anything like this group. If darkly glimmering, intense, energetic sounds are your thing, they’re playing the Parkside tonight, Nov 2 at 7 PM. Which might seem a strange place to see a chamber ensemble, but this group is just as at home in a rock venue as on a classical stage or in a jazz club.
Wayburn’s recordings – up at her Soundcloud page – encompass influences from West Africa to Spain, Argentina and beyond. The group’s concert at St. Marks Church this past September was much darker, more intense and seemingly jam-oriented than any of those tracks suggest: this is first and foremost a high-voltage, dynamic live band. Their opening number at that show began as a leapfrogging dance, Wayburn opening with a jaunty flute solo before handing off to trumpeter Marco Coco and violist Adam Matthes’ lingering lines. As the piece took on a moodily hypnotic Ethiopiques groove, trombonist Spencer Hale and then guitarist Ken Silverman took it deeper and deeper into the shadows, the guitar finally leading them up with a spiraling 70s art-rock feel before the band took it back down again. They let it wind out on an unsettled, unresolved note.
Switching to piano, Wayburn brought to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal, but with a towering, art-rock grandeur lit up with eerie chromatics and passing tones as the brooding second tune got underway. Coco added a tinge of the Middle East, Silverman some more traditional jazz phrasing and then Wayburn played bitingly rippling, incisive neoromantic lines all the way through to a triumphant downward cascade out. She and the band would revisit a similarly epic intensity with a brisk tango of sorts later in the show.
They played a more spacious, spare, bouncy number in between, with methodical solos from flute, trumpet and trombone over an insistent pulse reminiscent of American Indian music. They followed that with a gorgeously cinematic number fueled by Silverman’s insistence and Wayburn’s glistening minor-key piano, the most distinctively Ethiopian-flavored tune in the set. Andy O’Neill’s tumbling drums fueled the one-chord jam they closed with, Coco taking his time, choosing his spots and finally getting pretty wild before the group took it down into an ominously moody interlude fueled by Hale’s mournful trombone, then rising as the guitar and trumpet lept and jabbed over the murk underneath. Obviously, the lows resonated more mightily and maybe more menacingly in the church’s boomy sonics than might be the case in another room, but the intensity of this band – and Wayburn’s catchy, deceptively simple phrasing and intricate thematic variations – will be a factor no matter where they play. Catch them now before Wayburn gets a big Hollywood film score deal and all of a sudden the only place you’ll be able to find them is in much larger, pricier venues.
You know electroacoustic? Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Ziegler’s duo show last month at South Street Seaport was diesel-acoustic. Positioned at the tip of a former shipping pier, possibly for the sake of approximating a nordic fjord, the two jammed their way through alternately rustic and assaultively improvisational themes against a rumbling backdrop of ferries, tugboats and water taxis. And it was totally punk rock, a style that Pohjonen seems to spring from.
When Ziegler wasn’t playing elegant washes of counterpoint to complement Pohjonen’s spiraling phrases, he was scraping on the strings, sticking a conductor’s baton under the bridge of his cello, wailing and screeching and shrieking to the point where it looked like something was about to break. Cellists from famous string quartets typically play ancient instruments from centuries past: this cello looked like it could have been a recent model, straight from the factory floor. Pity the musician who gets it secondhand: it’s been abused.
Pohjonen brought a pedalboard and played like a noiserock guitarist much of the time, with loops and distortion and also a setting that gave his squeezebox a majestic church organ sound. His technique was spectacular: blistering, machinegunning volleys of notes decaying to a drone or vice versa. Ziegler typically got to play good cop to Pohjonen’s viking madman when he wasn’t trying to burn holes in his fingerboard with his rasping attack. They hit a couple of big anthemic peaks, took a departure into a gracefully lilting dance that could have been Celtic – it’s amazing how much cross-pollination ancient folk music hints at – then a Middle Eastern-flavored interlude with a spiky acoustic guitar cameo from Gyan Riley and wound up on an ecstatic note. Props to the River to River Festival folks for having the courage to book an act this adrenalizing and cutting-edge.