Guitarists who don’t waste notes are a rare breed. They’re even rarer in the world of jambands and summer tours, which is where Charlie Hunter made his mark. As you would expect from a guy who tacked on a couple of extra strings to bolster the low end of his six-string model, groove is his thing. In doing so, he invented his own style of music, equal parts jazz, reggae, funk and vintage soul. And he can be hilarious. His latest excellent, characteristically eclectic album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched is streaming at Spotify. Hunter and his fantastic quartet have a two-night stand coming up on March 8 and 9 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $15. The last time this blog was in the house there, they weren’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum, a good thing since Hunter’s crowd is more likely to smoke than get wasted on the Rockwood’s expensive drinks.
The album opens with the title track, a slow, comfortable swing blues with a characteristically wry, bubbling Curtis Fowlkes trombone solo; then cornetist Kirk Knuffke signals that all may not be so cool after all. Drummer Bobby Previte’s emphatic, tersely swinging slow triplet groove anchors the second track, Looks Like Someone Got Ahead of Schedule on Their Medication, which opens with an amusingly woozy voicings from Fowlkes and Knuffke, then takes a detour to New Orleans before the meds kick in again.
Staccato horns add spice to Leave Him Lay, a mid-80s Grateful Dead style blues fueled by Previte’s swinging, almost disco drive and Hunter’s spiky, Bob Weir-ish chords. We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent is an uneasily swaying midtempo noir theme, like Big Lazy with horns and a long, purposefully crescendoing blues solo from the bandleader. Then Hunter gets even more retro with Big Bill’s Blues, ostensibly a Big Bill Broonzy homage. beginning starkly and then shifting into jubilant Crescent City territory with some artful counterpoint from the horns.
The darkly simmering soul theme Latin for Travelers is a vehicle for a contrastingly bright solo from Knuffke and then Fowlkes, dipping down to just the horns and then back for extra dynamic punch. No Money No Honey is as hard as the funk gets here, although it’s more of a swing tune: everybody in the band, especially Previte, is having a ball with this one.
Who Put You Behind the Wheel opens as a spaciously tiptoeing, Asian-tinged excursion, then morphs into reggae, with a trick ending. The looseness and freeness of Wish I Was Already Paid and On My Way Home mask its relentlessly dark, distantly klezmer-tinged undercurrent . The album winds up with the jaunty, dixieland-ish second-line march The Guys Get Shirts. This works on every level, as first-rate jazz, blues and psychedelia.
Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.
The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.
The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”
Guitarist Ed Cherry’s new album Soul Tree is both trad and unorthodox. When’s the last time you heard of a guitarist leading a B3 organ jazz trio? Usually it’s the organist – Jimmy Smith set the precedent with Jim Hall on guitar, right? But Cherry’s done this before, and his elegant, no-nonsense, chordal-and-blues approach works especially well in this configuration. As usual, he plays with a clean, purist 60s tone with a generous amount of reverb, looking back to Wes Montgomery more on this album than he has in the recent past. He’s playing the release show with his trio – Kyle Koehler on the organ and the Captain Black Big Band’s Anwar Marshall on drums – at Smalls on March 30 at 10 PM. Cover is $20 and includes a drink. With its dusky ambience, Smalls is a good place to see organ jazz, and the sound there is a lot better than it would have been at the gutbucket venues that were home to this stuff a half-century ago.
The album opens on a wry note with a cover of Kool & the Gang’s Let The Music Take Your Mind, reinvented as a swinging New Orleans second line-tinged groove. Aside from the originals here, the other tracks are often hardly what you would expect from an an organ trio. The three do Jimmy Heath’s A New Blue with a spacious midtempo swing: Marshall benefits from an imaginative and similarly vast production which pans cymbals right and left, maxing out the room’s natural reverb along with his vividly misty attack. The first of the Cherry originals, Rachel’s Step, is a latin-inflected shuffle that hits a peak with the guitarist’s jaunty cha-cha of a solo midway through.
The trio do Mal Waldron’s. Soul Eyes as a clave ballad; Cherry’s almost impeceptible drive upwards to a delicious and all-too-brief series of jabs draws on a background that goes back decades, with Dizzy Gillespie and other major figures. Freddie Hubbard’s Little Sunflower vamps along on carefree soul-jazz groove, Cherry building a Wes vibe with his octaves. The other Cherry original here, Little Girl Big Girl works similar territory over laid-back swing, giving Koehler a chance to cut loose.
Marshall builds the Trane classic Central Park West with a nimbly tumbling attack as Cherry bobs and weaves gradefull,, Koehler maintaining a low-key bluesiness as he does throughout the album. Harold Land’s Ode to Angela blends Marshall’s masterful, whispery clave with Cherry’s lingering, summery lines; Koehler’s lyrical solo might be the best one on the whole album. The classic Dave Brubeck ballad In Your Own Sweet Way gets the most hubristic treatment here: it’s barely recognizable. The album winds up with Horace Silver’s Peace, another showcase for Marshall’s meticulous brushwork and the band’s friendly chemistry. Most B3 groove albums are party records; counterintuitively, this one is more spare and reflective. Big up to Cherry for taking the style to a new place. Posi-Tone, home to more good postbop than any other record label still extant, gets credit for putting this one out. It hasn’t officially hit yet, but there’s a track up at their Soundcloud page.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
What’s the likelihood of a legend like Souren Baronian bringing his long-running Middle Eastern jazz ensemble Taksim to a small bar in Park Slope? Thursday night at Barbes, the back room was packed for a transcendent, hypnotically groove-driven set by the multi-reedman’s paradim-shifting quintet. Baronian is 84, looks and sounds at least a quarter century younger. He bantered self-effacingly with the crowd: “We play music from the Middle East, and anything else we can steal.” But when he picked up his reed, or the riq he tapped out beats on when someone else was soloing, he was all business.
Although born here, Baronian personifies everything that’s good about Middle Eastern reed players, delivering his genre-defying material with a directness and clarity that was nothing short of scary. So many jazz players squeal and squawk; Baronian goes straight for the tune. His embellishments tend to be more Middle Eastern and microtonal than they are blue notes in the conventional jazz sense. The bassist, introduced by Baronian as “Sprocket,”, played slinky, undulating microtonal vamps that mingled with the mesmerizing clip-clop of the percussionist – on a couple of darboukas – in tandem with the drums. Oud player Adam Good gets a ton of gigs because he has such a distinctive, individual style, and he managed to sneak plenty of unexpected chords and raga riffage into his bracing, serpentine lines, often doubling the melody in tandem with Baronian.
Baronian opened on soprano sax and then played clarinet for most of the show save for a couple of especially haunting, low-key numbers where he switched to the small, moody, low-midrange duduk. One of the set’s early numbers worked a Macedonian-style trope, happy-go-lucky verse into bitingly apprehensive chorus. Another featured wry variations on a couple of familiar Charlie Parker themes – and then went doublespeed. Desert Wind, a diptych of sorts, began with a brooding duduk improvisation and hit a peak with a matter-of-factly intenese oud solo. When the waitress signaled that it was time to wrap up the set, Baronian laughed and told her that most of his songs were about 25 minutes long – and then picked up his sax and led the band through a scampering number that went on for about half that. What a treat to see such an ageless, soulful master of so many styles, still at the top of his game, in such an intimate space
Ravish Momin’s Tarana have a very bracing, sometimes haunting, hypnotic new ep out, titled After the Disquiet. On a lot of it, the disquiet is still very much present. It’s a duo project with eclectic violinist Trina Basu (also of diverse south Asian influenced violin/cello duo Karavika). Momin’s signature sound comes from his syndrums: recorded live in the studio, it’s electronically processed beats that swing much of the time – much as the sounds are chilly, the feel is organic rather than canned. Basu shifts allusively between terse pizzicato, plaintive chromatic lead lines and the occasionally aggressive staccato passage, alternately ambient and intensely melodic.
The first track, Disposable, works off a north Indian folk theme, edgily terse variations on what sounds like an Italian tarantella. It sets the tone for the rest of the album with striking warm/cold contrasts between violin and drums, Basu working her way up from minimalist pizzicato to stark melody and back down, and then finally a speedy crescendo where she goes high and eerily airy before both strings and drums meet in the middle. That one’s just short of nine minutes of fun.
The second track, Night Song, a homage to the late jazz bassist Wilber Morris shifts from tabla and electronic efx with a somewhat anxious, repetitive violin hook, to a hypnotic blitz of electronic percussion, to a wary chromatic violin theme, to faster trip-hop with pizzicato that fades out gracefully and sepulchrally. An almost nine-minute jam, Black Teeth of Trees sets stately, chromatic pizzicato against a thicket of straight-up 4/4 efx. The final, rhythmically tricky cut, Hava, was inspired by the intricately air-cooled Hava Mahal palace in Jaipur, India. It’s mostly echoey,minimalist drums with ghostly electronic embellishments til the violin comes in hinting at a major key or some kind of resolution, but not going there until almost three minutes in. After alternating passages of solo drums and violin again, it ends unresolved. Fans of adventurous, tuneful, eclectic string bands from Luminescent Orchestrii to Copal will enjoy this.
Nation Beat’s new album Growing Stone is a potent reminder why New York has, despite all attempts to whitewash it, remained such a great cauldron for new music. This band is absolutely impossible to categorize – there is no other group who sound remotely like Nation Beat. Willie Nelson is a fan (he booked them at Farm Aid). With the improvisational flair of a jam band, the danceable vibe of a Brazilian maracatu drumline and the soul of a country band, what they play is first and foremost dance music. If you took Poi Dog Pondering – a good jam band from another generation – subtracted the bluegrass and replaced it with Brazilian flavor, you’d have a fair if not completely accurate approximation of what Nation Beat sound like. They’re sunny and upbeat but also pretty intense.
With its hip-hop beat and Mark Marshall’s wah guitar harmonizing with the violin, the opening track sets the stage for the rest of this incredibly eclectic record. The second track, Bicu de Lambu sets sunbaked slide guitar over Rob Curto’s accordion for a zydeco/country feel with blippy bass and bandleader Scott Kettner’s rolling surf drums. Meu Girassol is the Duke Ellington classic Caravan redone as eerily off-kilter, guitar-driven Afrobeat bubbling over guest Cyro Baptista’s percussion, followed by a briskly cheery horn-driven forro-ska number.
With its soaring fiddles and Memphis soul guitar, the bouncy, swaying title track is a showcase for frontwoman Liliana Araujo’s laid-back but raw, down-to-earth vocals – and is that a Dixie quote? Forro for Salu has a rustic Brazilian string band vibe with the twin fiddles of Skye Steele and Dennis Lichtman over Kettner’s rumbling, hypnotic percussion. They follow that with a summery soca-flavored tune and then a reggae song that goes sprinting into ska. The rest of the album blends bouncy forro, ecstatic New Orleans second-line sounds, retro 20s blues, rocksteady, vintage 60s funk and swaying oldschool C&W and and makes it all seem effortless. It’s out now on similarly eclectic Brooklyn label Barbes Records.
Hazmat Modine are such an amazing live band that it’s almost impossible trying to imagine how they might be able to bottle that magic. Their new album Cicada is a good approximation. Live in concert, their rustic, blues-infused, minor-key jams can go on for ten or twenty minutes at a clip – here, they keep pretty much everything in the five-to-ten range, sometimes even less. While what they do definitely qualifies as psychedelic, otherwise they defy description: there is no other band in the world who sound remotely like them. They’re part delta blues shouters, part New Orleans brass band, part reggae, part klezmer, and all party. As you would expect from a psychedelic band, they put their surreal side front and center – it’s safe to say that nobody has more fun with sad minor keys than these guys. Not only is frontman/blues harpist/guitarist Wade Schuman a potently charismatic presence, he’s also a great wit, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of humor, both lyrical and musical, throughout this album.
The opening cut, Mocking Bird, is a bucolic blues, driven by the oldtimey bounce of Joe Daley’s tuba and the brass section of Reut Regev on trombone, Steve Elson on tenor sax and Pam Fleming on trumpet. They build it up to the point where the two guitars take over, Michael Gomez jabbing and weaving while Pete Smith blasts out distorted rhythm. All the intricate interplay and call-and-response sets the tone for the rest of the album. Natalie Merchant’s airily sultry vocals contrast with the surrealism of the lyrics over a swaying, slink groove on Child of a Blindman, with lapsteel, layers of guitars and horns punching out the hook in tandem with some welcome guest stars, Benin’s high-energy Gangbe Brass Band. The brisk, bluesy Two Forty Seven shifts from an artful series of tradeoffs between instruments to a hypnotic outro where everybody seems to be soloing at once – yet it works, magically. The title track sets a sly spoken-word tribute to the high-volume insect over ecstatic Afro-funk, sort of like a more rustic, acoustic Steely Dan. They follow that with a surprisingly snarling version of Buddy, the innuendo-packed tale of a real backstabber, Schuman in rare form as sly bluesman. The crazed, searing Gomez guitar solo is pure adrenaline.
The instrumental vignette In Two Years has trumbone sailing wistfully over a gamelanesque loop; I’ve Been Lonely for So Long is Memphis soul taken back and forth in time with doo-wop vocals and a New Orleans feel, with the tuba instead of a bass, a blithe harmonica solo, and Elson picking up the pace later on. The Tide, a mini-epic, switches from slowly unwinding delta blues, to a shuffle, to an unexpected Afrobeat interlude with more tasty, growling guitar from Smith. Walking Stick, which may be the most risque song that Irving Berlin ever wrote, gives Schuman and Fleming a launching pad for some genuinely exhilarating solos. A live showstopper, So Glad is a reggae/blues hybrid with some irresistibly amusing blues harp. The album winds up with Cotonou Stomp, an all-too-brief showcase for Gangbe Brass Band, and Dead Crow, an utterly bizarre, hypnotic number that sounds like Love Camp 7 covering Crosby, Stills and Nash and features the Kronos Quartet. Yet another triumph for insurgent Brooklyn label Barbes Records. Count this one high on the list of the year’s most entertaining albums.
In case you were wondering, Steve Wynn has a new album out, Northern Aggression, his first studio album with his regular American touring band the Miracle 3 since 2006’s brilliantly multistylistic tick…tick….tick. It’s everything you would expect from the Carl Yastrzemski of rock. That baseball reference is deliberate: what’s most ironic about Wynn’s career is that despite a seemingly endless series of first-rate albums, not to mention his early years leading iconic, influential indie band the Dream Syndicate, millions know Wynn best as the main songwriter in the Baseball Project, whose songs are featured on broadcasts across the country during the long season. And as fun as that band is, this is better. As with pretty much everything he’s done, many of the songs here are constructed so that there’s plenty of room for a maelstrom of guitar dueling, although there’s understandably less here than there is at live shows where Wynn and his sparring partner Jason Victor go head to head and see how many dangerous new elements they can pull out of the air. One recent review called this Wynn’s most modern-sounding album, and that’s not true. The sound here is vintage, a straight line back to the Stooges, Neil Young, old R&B and soul music, filtered through the eerie fractals of Yo La Tengo and peak-era Sonic Youth (both bands that were influenced by Wynn, by the way, not the other way around).
The opening cut, Resolution, is the closest thing to dreampop he’s ever done, a slow crescendo of suspenseful, murkily cloudy guitar swirl that finds sudden focus in the chorus. The snidely triumpant No One Ever Drowns, an early pre-Dream Syndicate song, is done is pensive, distant new wave that hits another hypnotic peak that just keeps going and going. Consider the Source is a classic, menacing, midtempo, backbeat minor-key gem, all the more impressive that Wynn’s playing piano, Victor is on organ, and that virtually the whole track is an improvisation that came together magically in a single take. The best tracks here might be the allusively menacing, vintage funk-tinged We Don’t Talk About It, the deceptively blithe, equally allusive Cloud Splitter, and the unselfconsciously mournful, pedal steel-driven Americana dirge St. Millwood, which Wynn aptly considered calling Emotional Ambulance Chasers.
Wynn goes back in a dreampop direction with Colored Lights, a sureshot to be a live smash with its big crescendo out. The Death of Donny B is a cover of the theme from the 1969 Carl Fick short film (whose composer remains unknown), done much like the original as a brooding Bill Withers-style funk vamp. The remaining tracks include The Other Side, which wouldn’t have been out of place on Television’s Marquee Moon; On the Mend, another of Wynn’s recent two-part masterpieces, this one shifting from Layla-esque, anthemic pyrotechnics to straight-up riff-rock snarl; and the ridiculously catchy, warmly shufling Ribbons and Chains, which drummer Linda Pitmon – the most consistently interesting drummer in all of rock – absolutely owns. A shout-out to Yep Roc for having the good sense to get behind this. Put this in the Wynn pantheon somewhere between 1997’s Sweetness and Light and the landmark 2000 double album Here Come the Miracles (which was our pick for best album of the past decade).
In 1964, Jerry Garcia and some friends took a road trip east to hear bluegrass music. Among those bands was the legendary Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, whom they got to see more than once on that trip. Almost fifty years later, that band’s mandolinist Jesse McReynolds has recorded an album of Grateful Dead songs – some circles just won’t be broken. Still vital at 81, McReynolds doesn’t sound anywhere near his age, vocally or picking-wise, alternating between long, soulfully expansive solos and the incisive, edgy playing that’s influenced literally generations of musicians. Here he’s joined by a crew including the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s David Nelson on guitar, Randy Brown on bass, Stu Allen on acoustic guitar, Shawn Apple on drums and assorted other players. For those who find the concept of this album absolutely mystifying, the real shocker is that it actually works. Which it should. McReynolds got into the Country Music Hall of Fame on the first ballot: his presence here brings out the best in the supporting cast, who don’t waste any notes throughout a surprisingly varied mix of bluegrass, oldtimey Appalachian folk and straight-up, mellow Americana rock. On his solos, Nelson does an impressive job evoking Jerry’s signature, meandering, scale-based style without going completely over the top.
McReynolds characteristically nails the emotion of every vocal here: the plaintive lament vibe of Black Muddy River – which perfectly captures the folk song feel that Jerry was going for – along with the lonesomeness of Bird Song – an eight-minute version with terse interplay between mandolin and acoustic guitar – and especially the bitter cynicism of Loser, done here far more tensely and faster than the original. Likewise, The Wheel gets a counterintuitively vigorous treatment, layers of hypnotic electric guitar against McReynolds’ long, spiky, gently wintry staccato solo. Some of these songs evoke the Dead on the Reckoning album, especially a swinging version of Ripple. Others rock out a lot more than you’d expect from this crew, notably a darkly pedal steel-tinged Stella Blue and a violin-fueled Fire on the Mountain with yet another devastating vocal from McReynolds – he really gets these songs. By the time they get to Deep Elem Blues, they’re completely in their element: McReynolds makes it clear that it’s a cautionary tale!
Not everything here works: a brand-new co-write between McReynolds and Robert Hunter sounds like a mid-70s outtake, and the big anthemic concert singalongs Franklin’s Tower and Deal swing and miss when they try to the energy up a notch. But their version of Alabama Getaway is a knockout, done as a straight-ahead country shuffle rather than trying to imitate the second-generation Chuck Berryisms of the original. Who is the audience for this? Deadheads, obviously, as many as are left after all these years. And for that matter any fan of the new crop of Americana bands, from Mumford & Sons to Deer Tick. The Dead may be history now, but the music never stopped. This one’s out on the independent Woodstock Records label.
You gotta love a band whose first gig was at a maximum security prison. Thousands of One weren’t inmates at the time, and what they do is legal – at least while Obama is in office. Last night at Nublu the reaction of the people in the crowd pretty much said it all – half of them were bobbing their heads, completely lost in the music. The rest were dancing. The band’s sound echoes and reverberates, bringing a hypnotic, psychedelic dub sensibility to funk, downtempo grooves and hip-hop, with tinges of roots reggae and Afrobeat. A couple of their early jams worked an oldschool 70s disco groove, drummer Joel Blizzard riding the snare and hi-hat behind the echoes of keyboardist Chad Lieberman’s Rhodes piano and Jake Roberts’ hypnotic, reverb-toned guitar vamps. A couple of others kicked off with darkly majestic, cinematic intros, like Dr. Dre or Busta Rhymes would do fifteen years ago – except that these were played on real instruments. Frontman Jhakeem Haltom delivered rapidfire but smoothly fluid, rhythmically dazzling, conscious and defiant hip-hop lyrics when he wasn’t singing, taking a long, trance-inducing conga solo or even playing flute on one long 70s-style soul jam that evoked Gil Scott-Heron’s Midnight Band at their most expansively mesmerizing. The band also brought along an extra alto sax player who doubled on vocals or percussion.
Bassist Brent Eva played a five-string bass with a low B string, delivering an extra cushion for the spine or the booty on the low end, a couple of times slamming out a series of fat, boomy chords as the band’s ten-minute-plus jams finally wound their way to a big crescendoing conclusion; other times, they’d fade down gracefully, a couple of times to trick endings that Lieberman or sax player Mark Wienand would pick up in a split-second and build to another big swell. Wienand’s soprano sax solo on a fast, rocksteady-tinged jam toward the end of their first set added a genuinely riveting undercurrent of unease. Building from a suspenseful Rhodes intro to a murky but catchy funk groove, the best song of the night was Ancestors, Roberts finally kicking out a brief, blistering funk-metal solo right before they finally wrapped it up. Hip-hop with a good live band is always inspiring to see; in this case, the band was as good or even better than the lyrics. Watch this space for future NYC dates.