Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stunning, Haunting New Compositions by One of New York’s Most Adventurous Bassists

Good bass players are like good singers: they get enlisted for a wider range of projects than most musicians. Bassist Max Johnson is probably as well known for his work in Americana as he is with jazz. He’s playing the latter, leading an intriguing trio with tenor saxophonist Neta Ranaan and drummer Jason Nazary on Jan 28 at 7:30 PM at the Django; cover is $25.

But Johnson has another side, as a composer of new classical music. On his latest album When the Streets Were Quiet – a reference to The Trial, by Kafka – he appears only as a conductor, leading a chamber ensemble of violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem and pianist Fifi Zhang.

The opening number on the album – streaming at New Focus Recordings – is Minerva, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. After a spacious introductory reference to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble work a simple, increasingly emphatic, steadily acidic counterpoint. Quartet for the Beginning of Time, maybe?

Johnson switches out piano for viola for the quartet on the title track. Hatem’s clarinet moves broodingly over an uneasy, close-harmonied, organ-like sustain from the strings. A couple of shivers and subtle swells further indicate that trouble is brewing. Frey leads the strings deeper into otherworldly microtonal territory, as minutely modulated tremolo effects signal the clarinet’s mournful return and a solemn, slowly drifting procession out. Franz Kafka would be proud to have inspired music this spellbinding.

Next up is Johnson’s String Trio for violin, viola and cello. The more somber, sustained moments of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 spring to mind, Cauley leading a slow but ineluctable upward trajectory toward horror. Hadge leads the group into more calming terrain, with distant echoes of what could be a Britfolk ballad mingled within the unease. The trio take their time moving between a jaunty bounce and portentous swells on the way out.

Hatem, Frey and Zhang play the final piece, Echoes of a Memory, again echoing Messiaen at his sparest. Pianissimo highs against stygian lows give way to a cautious, icy pavane of sorts, part Federico Mompou, part Bernard Herrmann. This doesn’t sound anything like what Johnson will likely be playing with the jazz trio on the 28th but it’s often transcendent. Is it fair to be talking about one of the best albums of the year when we’re not even done with January yet?

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January 22, 2023 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Somber Joe Maneri Tribute

It seems that more and more frequently these days, there’s a time lapse between when jazz albums are recorded and when they’re released. The Noah Kaplan Quartet’s Joe Maneri homage, Descendants, was recorded in 2008 and is out now on the estimable German label Hat Hut. As you would expect, it’s a series of free improvisations by a crew with considerable chemistry and collaborative sensitivity: alongside Kaplan, a Maneri acolyte who plays tenor and soprano sax, there’s perennially interesting individualist Joe Morris on guitar, Kaplan’s Dollshot bandmate Giacomo Merega on bass guitar and Jason Nazary on drums. The album begins with a ballad in disguise and ends with a tone poem. Melodic resolution is defiantly resisted whenever it’s hinted at, which is infrequently: an austere, sometimes acidic, frequently elegaic quality persists throughout the album’s six tracks.

The side of Kaplan that isn’t represented here is his wit: Dollshot, his improvisational chamber-rock project with his singer sister Rosalie, delightfully and often cruelly reinvents early 20th century art-song. Instead, his microtonal inflections here evoke more somber emotions, crying, quietly wailing or sirening, sliding gracefully up and down between semiquavers, often straining against the pull of a central tone that appears only by implication. And the band is doing a whole lot of thinking on their feet here along with Kaplan: there’s more pitch-and-follow than there is intricate interplay. Often it’s Merega who holds down the center or establishes a rhythm for the other group members to pull into focus and then back away from. Morris’ casually biting jangle and stinging, trebly tone are perfect for this unit, whether he’s alluding to a big expansive arpeggio, spinning out raindrops for the rest of the unit to run between, or adding incisive accents. Nazary’s presence is affectingly ghostly more often than not, often confined to ominously looming or echoing atmospherics than actual propulsion: as the album cover image (crow on a dead tree limb, stormclouds in the background) indicates, this is dark music. And it’s more or less quiet music: only one of the segments features the kind of atonal bluster commonly associated with this style of  jazz. For those who play this kind of music, there’s plenty of inspiration here: the way Nazary casually punches in to fill out Merega’s insistent pulse on the twelve-minute title track; Morris circling Kaplan, and then the two switching roles, in the cold late-afternoon drizzle atmosphere of the following cut; and the mysterioso rise and fall of the waves of the band together on the final segment. People who need a catchy beat and a singalong melody will have to look elsewhere, but for those who can’t resist an album of strange, sometimes harsh, sometimes hypnotic tonalities, this is an inspiring listen. Joe Maneri, who knew a little something about that stuff, would approve.

February 17, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Contemplating Travis Reuter’s Rotational Templates

Hmmm…does Rotational Templates – the title of jazz guitarist Travis Reuter’s new album – mean “basic plan for solos around the horn?” No. It’s not clear what it means, but this pretty meticulously thought-out album is a great ipod listen, and as cerebral as it is, there’s feeling along with all the ideas. It’s hard to pigeonhole, a good sign: you could call it psychedelic improvisational postbop. Reuter is a thoughtful player with a tremendous command of unexpectedly non-guitarish textures. What becomes obvious only a few minutes into this album is that he really knows how to seize the moment, but also when to let the moment go because it’s over. He’s got a good band: Jeremy Viner on tenor sax, Chris Tordini on bass, Bobby Avey taking a turn on electric piano this time out and Jason Nazary on drums.

The first track sets the stage: Viner and Tordini carry the central theme as Nazary roves and prowls, Reuter providing nebulous atmospherics via a swooshy effect. He parallels the sax and then finally comes up acidally, bouncing off the rest of the band as Avey takes a turn in the shadow position. The second cut is the first of a diptych. Residency at 20, Part 1 introduces an off-center, circular theme that Viner pokes at suspiciously, Tordini signaling an absolutely delicious, otherworldly, icily ambient guitar interlude (is that a backward masking pedal?) that eventually begins to smolder and then throw off sparks as Reuter edges his way out of the morass.

The most mathematical number here is Singular Arrays, a blippy ensemble piece featuring some sly roundabout work from Nazary and a judiciously sinuous solo from Avey imbued with his signature gravitas that gives the song some welcome muscle. When Reuter starts bobbing and weaving, the spiky thicket of notes makes it impossible to tell the guitar from the piano. Its cousin track, Flux Derivatives uses the skeletal outline of a ballad to frame resolute solos from Viner and Avey, Reuter taking his time before spiraling up and bringing up the heat. The album closes with the second part of Residency at 20, Avey left to hold this together as the drums shuffle off on their own, Reuter adding a couple of amusing quotes, with Avey rocking the boat to the point where Reuter turns it loose with an unexpected, unrestrained joy. Good ideas, good playing, five guys at the top of their game.

May 17, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments