Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show

Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.

Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is. Credit Great Plains gothic songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister for bringing the two together: they first performed in Bannister’s Fort Greene living room.

And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.

Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.

Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.

Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.

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July 19, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weekend Jazz Gallery Stand and a Killer, Funny New Album by the Dan Weiss Large Ensemble

Drummer-led bands tend to be excellent. And they should be. Good drummers are more in demand than any other musicians: consequently, they tend to have enormous address books. So it was hardly difficult for Dan Weiss to pull together his Large Ensemble, which includes singers Jen Shyu and Judith Berkson, harpist Katie Andrews, bassist Thomas Morgan, alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianists Jacob Sacks and Matt Mitchell, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein,

Their latest album Sixteen: Drummers Suite (due out momentarily from Pi Recordings, hence no streaming link yet) celebrates the work of some of the greatest names in jazz drumming, with original conpositions springboarding off a series of the bandleader’s favorite riffs from across the ages. It’s an awful lot of fun. The band moves between jaunty interplay, frequent droll/serioso contrasts and playful echo phrases, relying heavily on Shyu and Berkson’s ghost-girl vocalese. It’s indie classical with more complex rhythms and what sounds like purposeful improvisation, although it could be completely composed. The AACM’s album with Fontella Bass could be an influence. Weiss and the group are celebrating the album’s release with a weekend stand, sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on February 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22

Weiss kicks off the album solo with a terse series of licks that the ensemble will build on later. The compositions’ titles all refer to iconic jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones and so on. The arrangements very seldom have the full orchestra going all at once, instead relying on momentary handoffs, slowly rising trajectories and frequent pairings or conversations. Those can be downright hilarious. The interlude during Max where it sounds like John Zorn doing P-Funk, Weiss’ abrupt WTF reaction to increasingly cacaphonous sax chatter in Tony and the many, many, many trick endings in Philly Joe are some of the best. There are plenty more.

In their most hectic moments, the band evoke the Claudia Quintet on crank; in their most ornately lustrous, Karl Berger joining forces with Roomful of Teeth. Most of the seven tracks here are partitas, shifting completely from one theme to a seemingly unrelated one. Although the segues are a little off-kilter, the music is consistently interesting. Elvin has jaunty wafts of vocalese from Shyu to Berkson and come-hither fingersnaps. Max features tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions between faux-metal fuzzbox guitar and Berkson’s arioso vocalese…and then takadimi drum language taking over in the drollery department.

For all its hijinks, the creepy piano riffage early on in Tony foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. There are echoes of Missy Mazzoli in a rare carefree mood throughout the vocal swoops and dives in Philly Joe. Klook features an enigmatic, starlit interlude amidst its circling, indie classical-influenced riffage, as does Ed. That passage is a stark, desolate one with acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and tinkly piano, straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Even for those who don’t get all the references and insider jokes here, this is still an awfully fun ride.

February 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

40Twenty Explore Moody Depths and Raucously Funny Postbop Jazz at Seeds in Brooklyn

It was about midway through jazz quartet 40Twenty’s performance last night at Seeds that bassist Dave Ambrosio took a purposeful, moodily strolling solo. As pianist Jacob Sacks played judiciously plaintive chords and the occasional flyswatter accent, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza got his floor tom crackling almost like a bass cab with a loose cone. Building a series of surrealistically altered press rolls, he was damned if he wasn’t going to max out the mystery, the perfect level of rattle and hum. You, too, would have been transfixed if you’d been there. Moments like that make it all worthwhile, justifying the shlep all the way out to what’s essentially an unairconditioned brownstone building foyer in what used to be deep Brooklyn and has become more and more Notbrooklyn.

40Twenty take their name from the golden-age jazz club tradition of playing a (frequently exhausting) series of sets, forty minutes onstage, twenty minutes off and so forth. But that’s as retro as the quartet gets. All the band members write, including trombonist Jacob Garchik, whose job in this crew is low-key, lyrical frontman. True to their name, their two sets, timed almost down to the second, explored the band’s two contrasting sides. The first was hauntingly resonant, neoromantically-colored themes. The night’s best number was one of those, a wounded, modal, slowly anthemic piece that built to a flurry of a false ending…and then the band took it doublespeed, swung the hell out of it and basically turned it inside out when Garchik and then Ambrosio aired out their variations on it. The other was another slow one, less overtly wounded but just as purposeful, where Garchik took charge of maintaining the overcast mood.

Much as this group looks back to Mad Men-era postbop, they don’t imitate it: the blues for them are more an allusion than any kind of statement one way or the other. The other side of their music involves deconstructing swing, especially in terms of metrics, and it’s here where they can be devastatingly funny. In fact, their jokes are too good to give away. One frequent jape involves beats that seem random but probably aren’t. Another is good old-fashioned jousting. There was one point where one band member (to tell you who it was would be a spoiler: you really should go and see for yourself) egged his bandmate on, the defensive player took his eye off the ball and the aggressor then went in for a slam-dunk that got everybody in the band laughing: especially the guy who’d allowed it. Maybe the funniest moment of all of them involved repetition and how much a band – or an audience – can stand.

This is an overgeneralization, but the upper-register side of the band – Sacks and Sperrazza – tend to be the cutups, and the guys on the low end – Garchik and Ambrosio – the serious ones. Although they all varied their roles, Garchik lightening up at the very end in a blithe swing romp as Sacks showed off some wicked chops with a breathtaking, lickety-split, precise series of cascades. He could play Liszt well, if he wanted to. But he probably finds this kind of music more interesting. And the cameraderie between the guys is familiar, and insightful: even during a more-or-less free interlude during the first number, everybody was listening, and waiting til there was a clear path to the basket to lay their shots in. 40Twenty are two nights into their five-night stand at Seeds, 617 Vanderbilt Ave. between Bergen and St. Mark’s; take the 2 or 3 to Bergen or the B/Q to Seventh Ave. Their shows tonight, July 24 and the next two nights start around 8:30; cover is just ten bucks.

July 24, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mary Halvorson’s Vivid Illusionary Sea: One of 2013’s Best Albums

One night at Issue Project Room [wild guess], Anthony Braxton took guitarist Mary Halvorson aside. “You know, you should write more for large ensemble,” he told her. And she did. Her latest Firehouse 12 release with her all-star septet –  Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Jacob Garchik on trombone, John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums – is a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. She’s leading a series of ensembles at the Stone for a week starting August 13 with sets at 8 and 10 PM. It’s a great opportunity to see one of the most individualistic and intelligent composers in jazz – who’s also an equally individualistic, intelligent player – for relatively cheap in a comfortably intimate room.

Google Halvorson and you may get the impression that she’s somebody at the fringe of jazz, which isn’t true at all. Cutting-edge as her music is, it’s extremely accessible. Here she keeps a group of extremely strong personalities on task throughout a collection of lush but biting compositions, all but the concluding track hers. Smith’s drumming in particular is fantastic – it’s amazing how straightforwardly he plays these tunes while coloring them with his signature, irrepressible, playful wit.

The title track deftly works a circular hook into shifting shades, rising and falling, Finlayson leading the way early on, alternating voices and then Halvorson adding a hint of plinky unease before the arrangement fades down elegantly with dissociative echo effects. Complex yet memorable and not a little suspenseful, it sets the stage. Smiles of Great Men offers low-key sarcasm, a sense that not all is as it should be growing from Halvorson and Hebert’s chordal teamwork to a steady horn-driven crescendo, Halvorson bobbing and weaving uneasily and allusively toward a steely modality. Irabagon steps out of character to provide a sense of calm and then is himself as he veers away, the rhythm section holding it together as the horns chatter.

The richly vivid tableau Red Sky Still Sea builds from skeletal to lustrous, Halvorson’s eerily gorgeous solo elevating to a majestic sway and then the band backs away, Finlayson sailing it to a flamenco-tinged guitar-bass part. Halvorson’s gentle tremolo-picking counterintuitively brings it down to a mutedly dancing Hebert solo – as Finlayson quietly flutters, is this the seaside bugs coming out at night? The sarcasm returns with Four Pages of Robots, essentially a one-chord jam, its coldly mechanical cheer lit up by deft handoffs all around, Irabagon’s faux-dramatics, Garchik echoing Finlayson’s solo on the previous track, Halvorson back in the mix but wailing with a snarling, skronky, noisy attack that finally takes it out with a bang. That’s where she stays through pretty much the whole album: she always leaves you wanting more.

She evokes Steve Ulrich via creepy, tensely reverbtoned lines painting it flat black and then eventually spiraling down to flamenco allusions on Fourth Dimensional Confession, Smith’s low-key cool anchoring a moodily pulsing backdrop: it might be the album’s best track. Another killer cut is Butterfly Orbit with its tango allusions, sharp-fanged guitar hooks, Halvorson using an envelope pedal for an Elliott Sharp-like tone. A squirrelly alto-and-drums duel goes machinegunning and then the whole thing completely falls apart, Halvorson leading the way, keening and burning as Hebert pulls everybody away from the flames. The album closes with a take of Philip Catherine’s Nairam, its long crescendo evocative of the Ravel Bolero, Halvorson in echoey, pensively atmospheric mode as the clave kicks in and then recedes. This is a great late-night album, ominous yet jeweled with shifts in mood, tempo and dynamics – and not a little dry wit – to keep you awake and on edge.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vivid Melodies, Nimbly Negotiated by the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album, Bloom is luminous, lush and symphonic in a Maria Schneider vein. Although there are many different colors at play here, they tend to be bright, summery and vibrant. Translucent motifs shift through the arrangements with an unlikely nimble, assured, fleet-footedness for such majestic music: both the composer/conductor and her nineteen-piece ensemble deserve credit for manuevering through so many intricate turns. One particularly luminous timbre among many is singer Sara Serpa, whose wordless vocals add either brightness or opacity, depending on context. She’s a particularly good addition considering how singable Kakitani’s themes are. Throughout the album’s eight tracks, there are allusions to Brazil, the Romantic and late 70s Weather Report in the more amplified moments, but ultimately she has a singular voice.

The title track opens, a clinic in almost imperceptible crescendos, syncopated, suspenseful swells making way for an expansive John Bailey trumpet solo and then spiraling Jason Rigby tenor sax over Mark Ferber’s energetically dancing drums. As it reaches final altitude, Rigby builds to rapidfire clusters as the banks of clouds coalesce and move around him.

Electric Images moves around a lot; hazy ambience becomes a bright jazz waltz, bubbly Mike Eckroth Rhodes piano signals a tempo shift that slowly rises with Serpa’s guardedly hopeful lines, then lushness alternates with austerity all the way through a jaunty series of exchanges with the drums. Nobody gets stung in the Bumblebee Garden; rather, it’s a serene place for reverie from Serpa, trombonist Matt McDonald adding bluesiness to a decidedly non-bluesy atmosphere that builds to some tremendously interesting counterpoint between orchestra subgroups.

Dance One, inspired by the Matisse portrait of dancers in mid-stride, kicks off at full steam, working a tune evocative of the Police’s King of Pain, rich with countermelodies, smartly crescendoing John O’Gallagher alto sax and a nifty series of trick endings. Opened Opened , the first of two pieces from Kakitani’s suite Reimagining My Childhood, expands a traditional Japanese folk melody with a bluesy minor-key edge fueled by serioso Serpa vocalese, smoldering Kenny Berger bass clarinet and fiery dynamics that turn the low brass loose with an unexpected ferocity in what at first appeared to be such a gentle piece of music. The second song from that suite, Dragonfly’s Glasses is basically a segue and considerably brighter, lit up by a casual, airy Ben Kono alto sax solo as it sways up to another false ending.

Islands in the Stream is not the Kenny Rogers schlockfest but an original (Kakitani may not have been born yet when that monstrosity hit the airwaves). That too makes a good segue: Afrobeat allusions give way to a jazz waltz, Berger’s baritone sax handing off to Pete McCann’s bell-like solo guitar, trumpeter Matt Holman building from wary to carefree before tenor saxophonist Mark Small darkens it again…and then McCann takes it up, unleashed and screaming. The final track, Skip, takes a gentle ballad melody, syncopates it in 9/4 up to a dancing Eckroth piano solo, lets trombonist Mark Patterson heat up the warm lyricism and takes it out with a joyous Weather Report pulse. Other contributors to this disarmingly attractive album include Jeff Wilfore and David Spier on trumpets, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Jeff Nelson on bass trombone and Dave Ambrosio on acoustic and electric bass.

The Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra plays the cd release show on Feb 11 at 7:15 PM at Drom; advance tix are only $10. They’re also playing Shapeshifte Lab on Feb 28 at 8 for the same deal.

January 31, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment