Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

August 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, gospel music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Highlights of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

The way to approach the Charlie Parker Festival in its early years was to show up early, not only because Tompkins Square Park would be packed. If you were lucky, this being the pre-internet era, you’d find a flyer that would give you an idea of whether to spend the afternoon in the park or at Lakeside Lounge around the corner. Often the bill would be so good that the bar wouldn’t even be a consideration until after the show was over. Then the festival became a two-day thing that started uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, winding up the next day downtown, which was twice as cool – a whole weekend full of mostly top-level, big-name jazz, for free. But recent years have not been so kind. Last year’s initial slate was cancelled by Bloombergian edict in anticipation of a hurricane that mysteriously never arrived; the substitute lineup that the promoters cobbled together a few days later for a single Harlem show slipped under most everyone’s radar. This year’s festival continued a downward slide, mirrored by the size of the crowds. Although all the seats uptown were taken by mid-afternoon, downtown seemed to be more poorly attended than ever, no great surprise considering what the bill had to offer in terms of star power and otherwise. If Lakeside was still open, Sunday would have been about about 80% Lakeside and 20% festival.

But over the course of the weekend, there were plenty of memorable moments. Saturday’s bill began with drummer Jamire Williams’ quartet Erimaj. The only thing in their set that alluded to a past prior to about 1967 was a sample from Charlie Parker – who sounded long past his prime whenever the snippet happened to be recorded, Kris Bowers stepping on him with a beautifully lingering series of lyrical piano phrases as he’d continue to do alongside Williams, Vicente Archer on bass guitar, guitarist Matt Stevens on Les Paul and Jason Moran guesting on Rhodes on a funk number. The opening number, aptly titled Unrest, saw Williams rising from tense, portentous In a Silent Way atmospherics to an increasingly agitated state, pushed further in that direction by Bowers’ elegantly biting phrases and Stevens’ crying single-note accents. From there they segued into a radically reinvented, basically rubato take on Ain’t Misbehaving, with fractured lyrics delivered haphazardly by the bandleader as he created a snowy swirl with his hardware, Bowers moving to Rhodes for a bubbly two-chord vamp out. Moran then came up to take over the Rhodes on a steadily paced funk number that evoked the Jazz Crusaders right before they dropped the “jazz.” Stevens’ Choosing Sides set a potently crescendoing, anthemic rock tune to a trickier tempo, then the guitarist went off on a long, meandering tangent, playing endless permutations off a single string in the same vein as 90s indie rock stoners like Thinking Fellers Union. Sometimes rock and jazz are like the sheep and the wolf that you’re trying to ferry across the river along with the lettuce. This was one of those case where the boat wouldn’t hold all three, with predictable results. They went back to the pretty straight-up, echoey Rhodes funk to close it out with an amiably energetic groove.

After a set of standards and soul hits by chanteuse Rene Marie and her trio, a well-liked local attraction, 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes practically skipped to the front of the stage. Playing with the vigor of a man half his age and working the crowd for all it was worth, he took his time getting going, choosing his spots, leaving all kinds of suspenseful spaces for the Fountain of Youth Band: Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Martin Bejerano on piano and a bassist who took considerably fewer chances than his bandmates. It didn’t take long for Haynes and Bejerano to engage in clenched-teeth polyrhythms, the pianist quoting Brubeck’s Camptown Races and then Monk, Shaw – who rose gracefully to the impossible task of filling Charlie Parker’s shoes alongside Bird’s old drummer – weaving his way expertly into a climactic series of trills.

Haynes is the prototype for guys like Tyshawn Sorey, who rather than banging a beat out of the kit, let the sound rise from within: his big, boomy sonics bely the fact that he’s actually not wailing all that hard. That became key to a long, stunningly energetic solo that Haynes eventually used for comic relief as he spun in his seat, dashing from tom to tom, telling the crowd that, no, it wasn’t over yet and he’d let them know when it was. They did a couple of pretty ballads, the second, Springtime in New York rising to a brisk latin pulse, Shaw finally cutting loose with a raw shriek after playing steady, thoughtfully bright bop lines all afternoon, Bejerano taking it back down into darker modal territory before a brief duel with Shaw and a clever series of false endings. All that made their blithe, carefree, casually allusive take on Ornithology seem almost like an afterthought.

Opening Sunday’s festivities with a trio set featuring bassist Philip Kuehn and drummer Kassa Overall, Sullivan Fortner made no attempt to bond with the crowd; he let them come to him. And they did, throughout an enigmatic, introverted, quietly fascinating set. From the still, meditative solo introduction to Thelonious Monk’s I Need You So, the pianist – best known at this point for his work with Roy Hargrove – reinvented it as a tone poem, taking his time building it with stately clusters and big banks of block chords. As he would do throughout the show, Fortner turned the tune over to Kuehn early on, who responded simply and effectively, a potently melodic foil to Fortner’s nebulous sostenuto. An original, Purple Circles built from a similar atmospheric backdrop to hints of a jazz waltz and then samba, once again putting the bass front and center for a long, incisive solo. They took the old standard Star Eyes from rubato expansiveness to a casual bounce, up and then down again. From there they picked up the pace and swung, took a memorable diversion into a beautiful ballad (anybody know what that one was?) and closed with a original that pretty much summed up the set, Overall’s animated swing and Kuehn’s sometimes incisive, sometimes hypnotic pulse walking a tightrope between contrast and seamlessness with Fortner’s opaquely lit chromatics.

And that was pretty much it for Sunday. There was poetry – really, really bad poetry, which no jazz could redeem. There was one of those selfconsciously fussy, arty bands, there was a crooner, and also Patience Higgins and the Sugar Hill Quartet, who excel at what they do – but where they excel the most is on their home turf, after the sun goes down, where it’s a lot easier to get close to the stage and feed off their oldschool energy. At times like this Lakeside becomes even more sorely missed.

August 28, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New England Conservatory Jazz All Star Concert at B.B. King’s, NYC 3/27/10

The New England Conservatory is celebrating its jazz program’s fortieth year – if memory serves right, they were the first established conservatory in the United States to give jazz their official imprimatur, so it would only make sense that by now their alumni list would boast some of the world’s greatest players. Their faculty got to show off their chops (and welcome sense of humor) at the Jazz Standard on the 24th (reviewed here); this particular celebration was a counterintuitively eclectic bill that literally had something for everyone, a series of nonchronological flashbacks between present and various moments from the past, both in terms of the history of jazz as well as that of the conservatory. Ironically, the youngest act on the bill was also the most rustic. Lake Street Dive hark back to the early swing era, a style more vogue in the steampunk scene than mainstream jazz (which is also considerably ironic since their style would have fit in perfectly alongside hitmakers of that era). Rachael Price’s warmhearted, somewhat chirpy vocals blended in perfectly with bandleader/bassist Bridget Kearney’s charmingly aphoristic, period-perfect songs, Mike Olson’s balmy trumpet and Mike Calabrese’s deftly terse drums. Another recent alum, singer Sarah Jarosz (who also proved to be a fine mandolinist) benefited from Kearney and Calabrese’s supple rhythm on a similar original of hers. And Dominique Eade, whose own style runs closer to pop than anyone else on the bill, impressed with a torchy a-capella number.

The piano jazz of the early part of the evening was equally captivating. Jason Moran – who’d joined the faculty just minutes previously – served up an expansive, appropriately lyrical tribute to Jaki Byard, followed by Ran Blake’s purist takes of Abbey Lincoln and Gershwin and a rapturously melodic, hypnotically nocturnal improvisation by Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris.

And it sure would have been nice to have been able to stick around for Bernie Worrell, one of the NEC’s best-known alums – but we were needed elsewhere (a special shout-out to the young quartet – rhythm section, electric piano and guitar – who played tasteful fusion throughout the press party beforehand at the adjacent Lucille’s Bar).

March 28, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field

A delightful, bracing cd for cool autumn nights when it just feels so good to be alive. Scheinman may be best known as a jazz player and composer, but this cd is a multistylistic smorgasbord of instrumentals with elements of classical, rock, film soundtracks and ragtime as well. The band here is is an all-star cast of like-minded envelope-pushing types: Ron Miles on cornet; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; a dream-team rhythm section of Tim Luntzel on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums; Jason Moran on piano; Bill Frisell on guitar and many string players including the members of the ambitious quartet Brooklyn Rider. Scheinman is a master of many moods, and she packs a bunch in here. This may be a fun album at heart, but there’s an awfully lot going on and it’s all good.

 

The album opens with Born Into This, airy and ambient with shades of Jean-Luc Ponty but stark and somewhat rustic, absent any 70s fusion clichés. It builds to a mighty crescendo at the end. I Heart Eye Patch is breezy and playful over a tongue-in-cheek vaudeville beat with a characteristically jaunty yet comfortable Frisell solo. An upbeat piano intro kicks off the aptly titled That’s Delight, eventually joined by the violin.  Ana Eco begins apprehensive and ethereal and grows simply sad and wary – it’s a beautiful song.

 

A showcase for Moran, Hard Sole Shoe bounces along on an almost martial groove spiked with guitar accents until midway through when the horns take over for the piano and the baton is passed to Wieselman…and suddenly it’s floating along comfortably among the clouds. Einsamaller could be a Shostakovich horror movie score,  atmospheric layers of strings building ominously until they’re joined by the horns. It’s a two-part piece, the second opening on a lighter note but getting dark quickly. The not-quite Awful Sad is a pensive ragtime song for violin and piano; Processional, by contrast, is very sad, a slow piano-and-guitar ballad that gets eerier as it goes along, Frisell adding his trademark, bell-like reverb guitar

 

The most cinematic of the cuts here, The Careeners is a boisterous chase sequence. Three Bits And A Horse is brief and somewhat skeletal, its cornet intro building as Frisell kicks around the melody. A Peter Tosh-inflected melody to a staggered reggae beat with some intriguing tempo shifts, Song For Sidiki sends Scheinman flying over the guitar and rhythm section. Then Frisell and the cornet take over. The cd concludes with the thoughtful, ambient Ripples In The Aquifer and the warm open-skies tune Old Brooklyn. This is foremost a treat for jazz fans, but lush with melody that will get pretty much anybody humming along. One of the best albums of 2008, no question. Scheinman’s debut vocal cd, a somewhat rustic collection of Americana songs reviewed here recently, is also worth checking out. The Jenny Scheinman Quartet (featuring Moran, Greg Cohen and Rudy Royston) begins a six-night stand at the Village Vanguard on Oct 28.

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment