Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 9/26/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #856:

Betty Carter – The Betty Carter Album

This album was so far ahead of its time it’s not funny. Then again, Betty Carter herself was way ahead of her time: she could say more in a single minute inflection than a lot of singers could in a career. The former Lillie Mae Jones did an Iggy Pop, adopting a nickname she once hated (jazz players in her native Detroit in the 1940s called the irrepressible teenager “Betty Bebop” because her singing was so more imaginative and complex than the simple scatting her bandmates wanted her to do). She was also one of the first jazz stars to go independent: having abandoned the tour circuit to raise a family, her label dropped her. This one was her big comeback, the 1972 debut release by her own Bet-Car label. And it’s characteristically surprising, considering how much quieter this is compared to how joyously intense she could get onstage. Yet while Carter could wail with anyone, it’s her subtlety that ultimately set her apart from her contemporaries, and that nuance really cuts through here, in a mix of standards like You’re a Sweetheart and Sunday, Monday or Always, along with originals like the suspenseful, intense What Is It, Sounds (Movin’ On) and a very brief take of Tight (a live showstopper). The band behind her – Danny Mixon or Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Louis Hayes on drums – follow her lead, keeping it smart and simple – not an easy job, considering what a legendary hardass she was to work with. Rhythm and meter take a back seat to emotion: Carter’s voice leads and everyone follows. And yet it’s not self-indulgent: she dives into these lyrics, especially her own, whether they’re celebratory, plaintive or wary, particularly on the cautionary tale Children Learn What They Live. Carter peaked late in her career: pretty much anything she did after 1980 is worth hearing. Good luck finding a torrent (the title doesn’t exactly make it easy to search for): you may have to grab a bunch of other stuff in order to get this one.

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September 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Whitney James – The Nature of Love

West Coast jazz singer Whitney James’ debut cd is auspicious because she sings nonstandard repertoire, she’s got a great band behind her, she embraces the role of band member rather than just having the other musicians back her up, and most importantly, she knows that less is more. Her voice recalls early 70s singers like Marilyn McCoo and Valerie Simpson, who made their careers in soul music using jazz chops. Yet James also bears some resemblance, if not timbre-wise, to another very popular singer, namely Karrin Allyson. James doesn’t go for Allyson’s fox-in-the-icehouse delivery, but like Allyson, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve. When she’s at the top of her game she draws you in with her clear, vibratoless, sometimes subtly cajoling, sometimes distantly rueful style. That explains why she gets away with what she does here when she covers material that’s been done before by jazz sirens with bigger voices and bigger names. Alongsider her, pianist Joshua Wolff, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan work the corners for subtleties, with Ingrid Jensen adding characteristically terse, rich color, on trumpet and flugelhorn on five of the tracks.

James puts her own subtle (some might say tender) stamp on Tenderly, rather than trying to mimic the iconic Sarah Vaughan version – Jensen is there right off the bat with a smoky/steamy trumpet intro. Whisper Not was a hit for both Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day; here, James and the bass play a carefree game of tag until the swing kicks in. Then Jensen takes a sailing, breezily bluesy solo into a suspenseful spy movie-style bass/drums vamp out of which James bursts unexpectedly with a minor arpeggio. When you think about it, all the great jazz singers basically do horn lines, and that’s exactly what she’s up to here and elsewhere. Although on the intricate, expansive version of the obscure A Timeless Place (The Peacocks), she sings what’s essentially a righthand piano melody against Wolff’s expansiveness and gracefully terse, almost rubato accents by the rest of the band.

Long Ago and Far Away (Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin) was written for a man’s voice; the interpretation here is closer to Billie Holiday, James so comfortable over the bass and drums early on that when Wolff good-naturedly jumps in, the effect is startling. Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You hints at flying off the tarmac, suspensefully, with a neat bass solo; The Very Thought of You counterintuitively gets a dreamy ballad arrangement with romantic muted trumpet. Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is the Ocean gets a psychedelically percussive intro before it goes straight up into the air, as high and far as James and the band can take it. Then Wolff and James take it back down again with what might be the strongest song here, the vividly world-weary obscurity Be Anything. The only misstep on the album is In April, and not because the band does a bad job with Bill Evans’ tune, but because Roger Schore’s lyric has not aged well and at this point in history comes across as rather sexist. James recorded the album in Brooklyn, so a return trip shouldn’t be out of the question: watch this space.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album Review: Smoothe Moose Mixtape #3 – We Love Video Game Music

While you were hunched over the xbox, the mysterious Smoothe Moose crew were busy in their smoky Brooklyn lab concocting a soundtrack for your alternate-universe adventures that’s as cool as it is funny. What they’ve done is taken four video game themes, actually all of them from classics that were either arcade or Nintendo games back in the 80s, and recorded dub versions of them. What hits you right away is how good that music was, even if it was coming out of a tiny, cheesy mono gameboy speaker. Click the link above and get a free download.

A Boy and His Blob, by Smoothe Moose’s Cosmo D and Dr. Thunder, gets the avant garde treatment, with a cello. It goes all spacey when they bring in the phaser, then it’s all blips and bleeps again. Ghouls and Ghosts, by Big Words gets a funky guitar treatment with shuffling triphop drums. This is actually a great song – it would make great surf music. No surprise, considering it’s a Japanese game from 1988. Castlevania is the one here everybody knows: the version by Cosmo D’s Sauce is a sick cyborg gypsy dance with a bop jazz sax solo. The Metroid theme that wraps up the mixtape is just plain good jazz, transformed into what could be an echoey dub version of an early 70s Herbie Hancock theme from one of those 4 AM local channel movies. Amidst all the sonic mayhem, there are good solos from cello, sax and especially the guitar. It’s really funny listening to how ornate this is in contrast to the original game’s lo-fi graphics. As the crew states on the download page, “We love video game music. We hope you’ll listen and be transported back to a different time when the drinks were lemonade and the food was Dunkaroos. Enjoy!”

We’ve been late on picking up on these guys’ mixtapes in the past: we reviewed their first  just when they were getting ready to release their second one (also a free download), and by the time that one was out we were halfway into the hibernation mode that lasted until last month here. The one we missed is some serious, far-out dub, an ambitious, high-energy joint featuring the MK Groove Orchestra’s horn section plus the lush vocals of jazz chanteuse and Bjorkestra frontwoman Becca Stevens. There’s a pretty straight-up version of the Junior Byles classic Curly Locks, which is especially cool considering how crazy the guy is; a sultry Billie Holiday-dub version of We Three by Wayne “The Train” Hancock; a sort of Uptown Top Ranking version of the 80s Chaka Khan cheeseball Ain’t Nobody, and deep space dubs of a Don Carlos and a Thom Yorke song. Stoner heaven.

February 24, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams Live at Parkside, NYC 1/25/08

The best show of the year so far. Erica Smith and her backing trio were celebrating the release of their long-overdue new album Snowblind, and rose to the occasion with a majestic, transcendent performance. Smith is one of those panstylistic rock goddesses like Neko Case, steeped in Americana but lately delving deep into jazz. Nonetheless, this is a rock band, and they rocked. Lead guitarist Dann Baker and drummer Dave Campbell are two-thirds of Beatlemaniac psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7, and they were at the absolute top of their game. Baker’s playful, frequently fiery virtuosity is the perfect complement to Smith’s wickedly catchy, jangly songs, and Campbell might well be the best drummer in rock, an Elvin Jones disciple who in all fairness really ought to be leading his own jazz group.

They soared through the opening track on the cd, the Merseybeat hit Easy Now, then lit into a 60s Memphis soul soundalike driven by a bass riff stolen straight from Duck Dunn. Baker took a screaming, noisy solo after the second chorus and really got the crowd going. They followed with the heartbreakingly beautiful The World Is Full of Pretty Girls, a rivetingly sad, swaying, country ballad, and the lush, romantic Brazilian-inflected Tonight, Campbell expertly conducting the band through a slow, hypnotic fade at the end.

Smith’s set of jazz reminded what a vividly instinctive feel she has for the genre, with a high-spirited version of The Very Thought of You, a very slow, haunting take of One for My Baby, a bouncy Ain’t Misbehaving with false ending and an effectively jazzed-up cover of Livia Hoffman’s sad, beautifully literate Valentine. Campbell brought it down to almost complete silence with a tensely minimal solo. He also got the crowd roaring on a careening, bluesy cover of the obscure Judy Henske/Jerry Yester song Snowblind, the title track from the cd. When the band does this live, they generally don’t give Campbell enough time to solo, probably because drum solos – on the rare occasion that any rock bands other than, say, Journey play them anymore – can take a song into Spinal Tap territory in a split second and leave it there for good. This time, Campbell got at least a couple of minutes to span the globe, throw out some summer snapshots of Bahia, a trip into the mountains of Morocco and then before anyone knew it, he was back on the Lower East Side again.

They saved their best for last, with a towering, nine-minute version of their epic parable All the King’s Horses. It’s a slow, 6/8 ballad, music by Smith, Sean Dolan’s lyric transposing all the deadly effects of post-WWII monopoly capitalism onto a medieval battlefield. Audience members were brought to tears. The bass player, clearly caught up in the moment, went off-mic and sang along with Smith as she brought it to a crescendo at the end of the last verse: “Do you have enough hours to bury your dead, or days in which to atone?” Except that he sang “bodies” instead of “hours.” And then missed his cue to join in with the band singing harmonies on the chorus. They encored with 31st Avenue, a haunting, melancholy track from her previous album, rearranged as a backbeat-driven, psychedelic, lushly romantic hit.

January 28, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Four Headliners for the Price of a Beer at the Parkside 11/28/07

It was Freddy’s Bar night at the Parkside. Since Freddy’s is doomed – failing an intervention from some deus ex machina, the encroaching Atlantic Yards luxury condominium/arena monstrosity is scheduled to engulf and demolish the building that houses the venue– several of the bands from what’s left of the scene there have started playing other places. This is the latest. One of the ways you can tell if a scene is real is if bands share musicians, and this crew takes that concept to an extreme. Lead guitarist Ross Bonnadonna played with Paula Carino, Tom Warnick and John Sharples. Sharples himself drummed for Warnick and then fronted his own band at the end of the night. Bassist Andy Mattina also did double duty with Carino and Sharples.

Carino has made a name for herself by writing heartwrenchingly lyrical janglerock songs, but tonight was her fun set. She has a thing for weird time signatures and did four of them in a row: the caustic Rough Guide to You (“Just take me home,” the narrator sighs at the end, exasperated); the crunchy Discovering Fire; the hilariously punk Old People (“Old people must go/Set them all on an ice floe/Make room for the new old people”) and the quirk-rock hit Robots Helping Robots. She and band burned through the rockabilly-inflected yet mournful Saying Grace Before the Movie, a potently metaphorical tale of a woman alone in a theatre in a No Exit situation, knowing the villain always returns. They dusted off her classic, victorious Venus Records (“You’re my alltime favorite lucky find”) and encored with the scorching Coming To Your Senses, one of her most slashing numbers. The crowd was ecstatic: for once, the sound here was excellent, Carino’s vocals like velvet cake with creme de menthe icing. She would prove a very hard act to follow.

But Tom Warnick was up to the challenge. He’s simply one of the most dynamic, effortlessly hilarious frontmen in all of rock. Marcellus Hall is a good comparison: both like their retro styles, have a great sense of melody and an equally sharp sense of humor. Waving a hammer at the audience and pounding his keyboard with it – from the back of the room, it looked like the real thing, not a prop – he gave his completely off-the-wall, stream-of-consciousness songs just enough menace to give the crowd pause. Warnick does the evil-eye thing as well as Johnny Rotten in his prime: it’s never certain whether he’s just goofing around or whether he really means it, and he clearly gets a charge out of messing with his bandmates just as much as he messes with the audience. His best song was a very funny chronicle about playing a gig later on a Monday night at a club where the promoter expected him and the band to bring at least forty people. He closed the song with a brief quote from the Mission Impossible theme.

He and band also ran through the fast, noir City of Women, which dates back to his days as a guitarist, along with a gut-bustingly funny, twisted travelogue through the south and back: “You always hit the bullseye when I go in the donkey tank,” he mused. Since it was Randy Newman’s birthday – “If it wasn’t for Randy Newman I wouldn’t have written a lot of these songs – it’s true,” Warnick told the crowd – they did one of his songs, a 6/8 number where the narrator gets “some whiskey from a barman, some cocaine from a friend” and sinks into something approaching wry despondency.

After Carino and Warnick, the Erica Smith Jazz Odyssey (as Carino playfully called them) should have been anticlimactic to the extreme. But Smith, radiant in a shimmery black dress, grabbed the crowd and they latched on for the ride. She and the band may play mostly rock, but jazz and soul is where her heart and especially her voice are at, and the band gamely played along while she delivered a goosebump-inducing Cry Me a River along with sultry versions of The Very Thought of You, Ain’t Misbehaving and One for My Baby. They also ran through several of her originals, ranging from the bossa nova soul of the soon-to-be-released Tonight, the backbeat-driven 31st Avenue and a practically heavy metal cover of the obscure Judy Henske classic Snowblind (the title of the band’s forthcoming album).

The evening closed with John Sharples, who as he told the audience is “the anti-songwriter” since he doesn’t write his own stuff, opting to cover his friends’ songs. Good taste is his trademark, as he and the band (with Smith playing rhythm guitar and singing harmonies) launched into the excellent, tongue-in-cheek Blow This Nightclub hit When Amy Says, along with a surprisingly good, bluesy, minor-key Dan Killian song and eventually something that sounded like Minor Threat at halfspeed which Smith sat out (just as well, considering how much louder Sharples was than any of the other bands: he’s pretty punk rock). They closed with Smith bringing down the house as usual with a blazing, passionate cover of the old Beatles tune I’ve Got a Feeling. What a treat for everyone who filled the back room here on a weeknight: four headline-quality acts for the price of a beer, arguably the best lineup in any club this year all year.

November 30, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, philosophy, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Concert Review: Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 7/9/07

The blonde bombshell – sort of New York’s answer to Neko Case, a master of every retro style she’s ever touched – has really come into her own as a frontwoman and bandleader. Tonight Erica Smith owned this place, every square inch (it’s cozy), blazing through a largely upbeat set of mostly unreleased material. They opened with the beautifully evocative, windswept cityscape 31st Avenue (the opening track on her last album Friend or Foe), lead guitarist Dann Baker taking a gorgeous bent-note solo like the one in Blindspot by That Petrol Emotion (does anyone remember That Petrol Emotion? Dollars to donuts Baker does). They followed that with the unreleased Easy Now, a tasty upbeat Merseybeat melody set to a swinging country groove. The next song, a funk number propelled by a fast, growling bass hook stolen straight out of the Duck Dunn catalog, showed Smith at the peak of her powers as white soul sister, circa 1966 maybe. At the end, the band went into a wild noise jam as drummer Dave Campbell (who,with Baker, propels psychedelic rockers Love Camp 7) went looking for the second stone from the sun, but it was clearly Smith’s soaring soprano that left the crowd silent for several seconds after the song was over.

The next tune was also a new one, an impossibly catchy, bouncy 60s-style Britpop hit possibly titled Firefly, guitars and bass weaving and bobbing, alternating between punchy staccato and smooth legato lines. Smith and band like obscure covers, and tonight they mined the 80s LA new wave scene for Where and When by Blow This Nightclub (who were fronted by filmmaker Dan Sallitt), opening the song with pounding chords and a bassline nicked from the Cure’s Killing an Arab. Then they brought it down with a sultry bossa nova song, picked up the pace again with the scorching, unreleased Neil Young-inflected rocker Jesus’ Clown, kept it up with a practically heavy metal cover of Judy Henske’s Snowblind (with a strikingly quiet, artful solo from Campbell), took it back down with the obscure Livia Hoffman gem Valentine (completely redone as a smoldering torch song, something Smith does extraodinarily well) and closed with the old Sinatra standard One For My Baby. Not as good as the Iggy Pop version, but not bad either.

Cangelosi Cards (the Cangelosi Cards? a reference to the diminutive former Mets outfielder, maybe?) followed, an aptly chosen oldtimey quartet: vocals, guitar, harmonica and upright bass, playing blues and pop hits from the 20s and 30s. The musicians have the songs down cold and the petite, retro-garbed singer showed off a spectacular, girlish upper register that seems to owe a lot to Blossom Dearie. “It’s easy to like this band,” remarked one of the musicians who had just played, and he was right.

July 16, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Sasha Dobson and Van Hayride at Banjo Jim’s 5/6/07

Sasha Dobson, a jazz/pop singer who’s now playing guitar as well, has become one of the few NYC artists to get any press in the NY Times, and she’s earned it: she’s what Norah Jones should aspire to be in a couple of years. Dobson has paid her dues playing small clubs over the past several years and sings in a lower register than Jones, but still invites the inevitable Norah comparisons since she’s moved away from jazz toward a more pop style. Her stage persona is more confident, more world-weary and decidedly more mature, perhaps appropriately so. She has a fondness for minor keys and rhythms like bossa nova and tango which are well suited to her sultry delivery. Now if only she could stick to doing her own, surprisingly compelling original material instead of covering the likes of hacks like Richard Julian (who duetted with her on one of his songs and added absolutely nothing: to paraphrase Billy Preston, nothing plus nothing makes nothing).

Van Hayride, the headline act, shares a rhythm section with Dobson, the only conceivable reason (other than careless booking) for them to have followed on the bill: But segue or no segue, they were tremendous, and had the audience in hysterics throughout their completely over-the-top set. Van Hayride features the hardest working man in country music, Jack Grace as frontman plus the piano player from his country band along with guitarist Steve Antonakos (what NYC band is this guy NOT in???), doing country covers of Van Halen songs. These guys are smart: they know that 99% of heavy metal is comedy, and that Van Halen were its finest Borscht Belt practitioners. Grace does a spot-on David Lee Roth parody: during one song, he lay on the floor, the mic just out of his reach, as if so wasted that he lacked the eye/hand coordination to reach out and grab it. “Where’s my mic tech,” he growled. On another song, he slumped backwards against the drum kit, his head up against the kick drum. He put the mic everywhere but where it should be, and made his bandmates laugh to the point where they were screwing up. Which is all part of the act. Van Hayride is a thorough reminder of A) how moronic Van Halen’s lyrics were, B) how even stupider Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was and C) how absolutely necessary Van Hayride is. And it’s a good thing it’s these guys doing it. Grace is the consummate showman, whether fronting this unit or his own far more serious yet still gutbustingly funny band, and he’s never lacked for excellent players behind him. Antonakos plays Eddie Van Halen’s lines pretty much note for note, albeit without the fuzzy distortion or garish flourishes. Van Hayride are in a four-way tie for funniest New York band, along with Tammy Faye Starlite in all her many incarnations; cover band hellions Rawles Balls, whose most recent shows have turned into bacchanalian karaoke sessions; and Cocktail Angst, the Spinal Tap of lounge bands.

To fully appreciate Van Hayride, it helps to know the source material (Doug Henwood, I know you’re out there): there’s a certain target audience here, specifically those who were subjected to the stuff on FM radio in the early 80s (Van Hayride proudly declares that they’re a “David Lee Roth only” Van Halen cover band). But judging from the response of the crowd in the club – a broad cross-section of ages and locales – you don’t have to be a Van Halen fan (or hater) to get a kick out of this. Next time they play, you might as well jump (”So that’s what the song’s about?” Grace asked quizzically as they reached the end). Van Hayride plays every Sunday in May at 10 at Banjo Jim’s.

May 8, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments