Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number winds up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

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August 19, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Transcendent Big Band Jazz Twinbill with the Awakening Orchestra and Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.

Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.

Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.

As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.

Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.

Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.

August 6, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parade of Jazz and Classical Talent Showcases the Sonics at Subculture

There was no need for the parade of musicians on the bill this evening at Subculture to do anything more than phone in their performances. After all, they were only there to give a by-invite-only audience of media and a few friends an idea of how both amplified and unamplified acts sound in the newly renovated space. But they did far more than that: if the quality of most of these artists is an indication of what the venue will be booking in the coming months, that’s something to look forward to. And the sonics here are exquisite, to rival the Village Vanguard and Carnegie Hall: Subculture has quietly vaulted to the ranks of Manhattan’s top-tier listening rooms.

On the unamplified side, a-cappella quartet New York Polyphony – Christopher Dylan Herbert, Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Williams and Steven Caldicott Wilson – blended voices richly and intricately in pre-baroque Palestrina motets and then with a slyly joyous new arrangement of Rosie the Riveter. The up-and-coming ACJW String Quartet – Grace Park, Clara Lyon, John Stulz and Hannah Collins – made energetic work of a Philip Glass excerpt and then took what could have been Schubert’s String Quartet No. 12 – if Schubert had finished writing it – to the next level. The famous nocturnal theme became a suspenseful springboard for animated, even explosive cadenzas, a mystery unfolding with an increasing sense of triumph. Student ensembles can be erratic, but they also bring fresh ears and ideas to a performance and this was a prime example of that kind of confluence.

On the more groove-oriented side, pianist/chanteuse Laila Biali sang her driving, playful new arrangement of This Could Be the Start of Something New with Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Ike Sturm on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. The highlight of the night, unsurprisingly, was pianist Fred Hersch, who delivered an understatedly bittersweet, strolling blend of ragtime-tinged pastoral shades on Down Home, his homage to Bill Frisell (with whom he collaborated memorably about fifteen years ago), a standout track from Hersch’s new live album, Flying Free, with guitarist Julian Lage. Singer Jo Lawry then joined Hersch and over lush, glimmering, Debussy-esque cascades, delivered a biting, half-sung, half-narrated reflection on clueless parades of tourists in the Louvre crowding around to take pics and videos of the Mona Lisa – and then moving on. The two wound up their brief set, joined by Richie Barshay on hand drum, for an electrically dancing, animatedly conversational take of the new album’s bossa-flavored title track, an Egberto Gismonti tribute.

September 16, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tyler Blanton’s New Album Goes Green

It takes chutzpah to use a photo of skunk cabbage as the cover shot for your new cd. That’s what jazz vibraphonist Tyler Blanton did on his new one, Botanic. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s cool jazz with a summery, almost jungly ambience, sometimes evoking other types of vegetation, the kind that typically thrive in tropical climates. Blanton displays a remarkably original style: he’s not a thunderous, showy player in the Joe Locke mold. Rather, he crafts a dreamy, hypnotic web out of subtle, intricate textures, abetted by Joel Frahm on soprano and tenor sax along with Dan Loomis on bass and Jared Schonig on drums (with a couple of tracks anchored by the rhythm section of Aidan Carroll and Richie Barshay).

The title track, a song without words, blends a lot of characteristically interesting touches: a fast triplet pulse, a genial fanfare from Frahm and then a drumline-tinged solo from Schonig as Blanton takes over the rhythm, ratcheting up a mysterious ambience. Foreshadowing switches artfully from straight-up swing to a jazz waltz, sax and vibes working a glistening mesh of echoey broken chords versus staccato sax accents, a latin-tinged drum break and an eerie music-box outro. The prosaically titled Mellow Afternoon turns out to be a quietly lyrical bossa tune, Blanton taking it up once he hits his solo, just enough to break the trance before Frahm comes fluttering down out of the clouds.

The energy level rises as the album winds up. Practically a fugue, Little Two moves from twohanded conversationality to blues, to hypnotic waves of triplets and a muted drum rumble. Hemming and Hawing doesn’t do any of that, actually, working a catchy, soaring hook until Frahm steps in to cool it down, then Blanton runs waterfalls down the scale to pick up the pace again. The album closes with the vintage 60s style Vestibule and its meticulous latticework divided between vibes and sax, Frahm almost jumping out of his shoes with some bop inflections before winding it up on a somewhat triumphant note. It’s a good ipod album, and a good soundtrack for a slow wind back to reality on a Sunday.

November 27, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment