Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,” violinist and singer Skye Steele intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn, David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Steele’s stately angst in Heartbreak. Vilnai layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

 

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May 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ljova’s New Cinematic Album – A Movie for the Ears

Virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova’s new album is a lot like the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, but more emotionally diverse and ultimately not as dark. A cinephile since childhood, he includes pieces here which have appeared over the last couple of years in films by Francis Ford Coppola, James Marsh, Lev Polyakov and several others. Fans of gypsy music are probably wondering if this is the new Romashka album – well…no, although that charismatic and equally eclectic gypsy band is featured pretty spectacularly on side one (Ljova has arranged the album with a happy A-side, and a more brooding B-side that ends rather hilariously). It’s literally a movie for the ears: that these vignettes and longer set pieces stand up as well as they do without the visuals testifies to how strong they are. Ljova’s signature ironic humor is in full force here, although the strongest cuts are the darkest ones. Many of these scenes clock in at under two minutes, even less than one in several cases.

On many of these tracks, Ljova plays an invention he’s recently popularized, the famiola, a hybrid six-stringed viola whose tonal capabilities surpass those of a guitar. As a result, his own multitracked soundscapes take on an unexpectedly lush, orchestral sweep. Being Russian by birth, it’s no surprise that he tends to favor minor keys, although the stylistic range of these instrumentals (and a handful of vocal tunes) is amazing: a couple of bluegrass numbers (including one lickety-split romp with Ljova backed by Tall Tall Trees); several moody, classically-tinged set pieces; a stately baroque minuet that turns absolutely creepy a second time around; and an anxiously crescendoing theme that very cleverly morphs into something far less stressful in the hands of Romashka clarinetist Jeff Perlman. And guest guitarist Jay Vilnai imbues the most gripping track here, a noir tableau titled Midnight Oil Change, with a distant but ever-present Marc Ribot-style menace.

As varied and enjoyable as all these are, it’s the gypsy music that’s probably going to be uploaded the most: a big, climactic, triumphant scene; an expansive, trickily rhythmic anthem; a fragment of an old Ukrainian song delivered with chilling expertise by Romashka frontwoman (and Ljova’s better half) Inna Barmash; and a blithe, jazz-tinged theme that also goes completely creepy when they reprise it. And Ljova had the good sense to put a genial, Gershwinesque stroll in the hands of this band rather than doing it as chamber music, a choice that pays off deviously the first time around and absolutely diabolically the second. Put on headphones (not those stupid earbuds), close your eyes, watch the crazy characters in motion. Ljova’s next gig is with his folks, Russian song icons Alexander Zhurbin and Irena Ginsburg at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 on Jan 15, advance tickets are very highly recommended.

January 3, 2012 Posted by | classical music, gypsy music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit – A New Song

Exciting stuff.  In addition to playing guitar in boisterous NYC gypsy dance hellraisers Romashka, Jay Vilnai also leads this adventurous, innovative group. Its underpinnings are gypsy and Balkan music, but there’s a lot more to it than that: Ljova and the Kontraband, with their Russian, classical and jazz influences are a good comparison, although Vilnai’s songs are all instrumentals and with the guitar have more of a jagged, careening feel. Another good comparison is pan-Balkan juggernaut Ansambl Mastika, although Vilnai’s music has a less improvisational focus. This stuff is all about crescendos: pretty much everything eventually builds to some kind of big coda or whirling cauldron of sound, but it’s about how they get there, the fanning of the flames as much as the inevitable big blaze. Like many of the great blues guitarists (Matt Murphy particularly comes to mind), Vilnai plays a lot of horn lines and with the distortion on, giving him an incisive edge that stays just thisfar from total Balkan savagery, the effect is intense. While many of the songs here are very fast and fiery, nobody’s wasting any notes, a welcome touch. 

 

The title track jumps in, dizzying and polyrhythmic, ominous washes of distorted guitar building to a biting solo replete with evil chromatic percussive intensity. That feel recurs dramatically from time to time throughout the cd. The second cut, Serpent Dance is authentically serpentine, winding, twisting and jazzy. The sarcastically titled Lento evokes Ljova & the Kontraband, pretty pastoral violin from the reliably excellent Skye Steele followed by edgy rumbling guitar into a jazzily expansive solo that gets all pretty and anything but lento!

 

The bouncily stark Jasmine kicks off with cello and resolute 8th-note guitar, growing darker as Vilnai goes up the scale. And then there’s a frenetic, out of breath clarinet solo from the band’s reed man, Greg Pickard. Tabur, with its tricky, rattling rhythm under ambient strings builds to a typical crescendo and a nice bass solo as the string section goes crazy in a whirling cauldron of noise. The cinematically-tinged Marketplace morphs from a pretty much straight up Bulgarian dance, casual and midtempo into a sizzling Balkan guitar solo followed by a more astringent one by Steele. The most overtly jazzy number here, Circe features Vilnai getting all frenetic yet precise in something of an Allan Holdsworth mode followed by some playful eeriness from Pickard, the spaces between the notes just as ominous as what’s being played. Arguably the best song on the cd, Shelter Me Beneath Thy Pinion gets going with an ominous buildup, whirling strings, cymbals and some understatedly slashing chordal work from Vilnai into a completely savage Middle Eastern jazz/metal solo, another wild crescendo with the strings screaming and then a long, strange, atmospheric outro. If the band is half as good live as they are on this cd they must be amazing in concert. Watch this space for NY area live dates.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment