Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

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September 9, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Brooklyn Residency By the Best Singing Pianist in Jazz

Lately there’s been a lot of top-drawer jazz popping up in some unexpected places. When Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy booked the Jazz Passengers for a weekly residency, that sent a signal. Likewise, the cavernous Williamsburg beer garden Radegast Hall books many of this city’s best swing bands, but it’s not known as a listening room – and if you’ve witnessed the din there on the weekend, you know why. But that’s not always the case.

This September, the venue has booked pianist/singer/composer Champian Fulton for a Monday night, 8 PM weekly residency that resumes September 18. If you’re a serious jazz fan and you’re on a budget – the venue doesn’t charge a cover – you’d be crazy to miss this. If Manhattan is easier for you, she’s also at Smoke on Sept 7 with sets at 7:30, 9 and 10:30. 

Watching her figure out where she was going to go, in a spit-second, pensive smile on her face a couple of weeks ago at her first night at the Brooklyn venue was great fun – and a revelation. Fulton is known as a singer. Dinah Washington is the obvious influence – Fulton’s 2016 album After Dark got a big thumbs-up here, as did her 2017 all-instrumental release, Speechless. The former is a subtle reinterpretation of songs that other chanteuses tend to mimic rather than putting their own stamp on. But while nuance is what distinguishes Fulton’s vocals, she’s got fire in her fingers. Not to disrespect Diana Krall’s piano chops, and Karrin Allyson is a much better pianist than she typically lets on, but there’s no other singer in jazz with chops as fast and fluid as Fulton’s  Nor is there a pianist with her speed and prowess who’s equally gifted on the mic.

Through almost a full two sets, she only played one instrumental, a percolating postbop shuffle to open the night – understandable considering that most of the acts here have vocalists. The rest of the set was mostly standards, which also makes sense considering where she was. It was what Fulton did with them that separates her from thousands and thousands of loungey acts around the world. For example, was she going to follow that snarkly little curlicue with another devious glissando? Yessssssss. Maybe one more time? Nope. She’d already moved on to a big hammering series of downward chords.

“Every gig is a good gig,” she mused between sets. Confident words – or just the daily routine for one of the great wits in jazz, who makes no secret how much fun she’s having onstage. Her rhythm section shuffled and swung tersely and tightly behind her as she made her way through one eclectic intro after another: hard blues into Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone, plaintive classical balladry into April in Paris. Then she’d take flight over the entire span of the keyboard, trickly highs to looming lows, slowly building to a crescendo and then back at times. Like her vocals, the musical jokes were subtle, but there were a lot of them, quotes from other tunes as well as unexpected peek-a-boo phrases and more. See for yourself next month.

August 29, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic New York Jazz Cats Take Lots of Chances; One of Them Risks a Bed-Stuy Gig

Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.

Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.

The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.

As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.

From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.

The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?

December 15, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Puppeteers Take Harlem by Storm

[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

You could call the Puppeteers a latin jazz band, but they’re a lot more than that. Pianist Arturo O’Farrill brings everything he does in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (who have a phenomenal new album, The Offense of the Drum, coming out): Afro-Cuban grooves, symphonic gravitas and a biting edge that sometimes slinks off into noir. Vibraphonist Bill Ware also brings some of the noir he does so memorably in the Jazz Passengers, but his duels with O’Farrill on the band’s debut album make it one of the most flat-out exciting jazz albums released in the past several months. Thursday night at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, the two were wise to put bassist Alex Blake out front: with his terse but frenetically hammering solos on both bass and bass guitar along with his nonchalantly animated scatting, he was a big hit with the crowd. And he did all that sitting down for practically the whole show. With a fullsize bass, to call that a stretch is no joke, but Blake reached way up for the low notes – surreal, huh? – and made it look effortless.

Drummer Jaime Affoumado played mostly with brushes, deftly shifting from one Spanish Caribbean beat to another and then to straight-up funk from time to time. His purposeful drive kept one of the early numbers from drifting into Mad Men soundtrack territory. During a solo later on, he wryly impersonated a salsa percussion section, first with timbale riffage on the bell of the ride cymbal, then tapping out a bomba beat on the snare.

This gig was more about friendly camaraderie and exploration than megawatt solos. O’Farrill brought an unexpected and very effective wariness to a tempo-shifting, dynamic take of Resolutions, Ware and then Blake maintaining the mood throughout expansive solos. Ware’s jazz waltz Peaceful Moment gave the vibraphonist a chance go to deep into lushly lingering, nocturnal Milt Jackson territory before picking up the pace. Later the band looked back to Coltrane for a take of Soul Eyes that began with a resonant tenderness and then went on a methodical trajectory upward.

On this particular night, the version of Ware’s Bio Diesel was a lot more warmly straight-up and funky than the surrealistically bubbly album track – Ware revealed that he’d written it for his girlfriend, who works in alternative energy. Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now got the night’s most acerbic, hard-hitting crescendos from both O’Farrill and Ware, but the night’s most memorable number, by O’Farrill, was arguably its most pensive one. Opening with a poignant neoromantic glimmer, the pianist then brought his trumpeter son Adam up to contribute an almost minimalistically wired solo, carefully and methodically crafting an uneasy mood that the rest of the band kept close to the vest and never deviated from.

June 7, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wickedly Fun, Adrenalizing Sounds from the Puppeteers

The Puppeteers‘ debut album is packed with the kind of fun you would expect a bunch of guys to be having at their local. Which is where the band came together, and where they got their name, from the now-defunct South Slope, Brooklyn jazz bar. The ringleaders of the band are polymath pianist Arturo O’Farrill and Jazz Passengers vibraphone powerhouse Bill Ware, with Alex Blake on bass and Jaime Affoumado on drums. It’s a wild, adrenalizing, tuneful ride.

Ware sets the stage with an impossibly machineguning solo that O’Farrill just has to match, and he does, and then he leaves it to the rhythm section. That’s the lickety-split swing tune, On the Spot, that opens the album. Another tune by Blake, Jumping, puts O’Farrill in the driver’s seat, and he owns it all the way through its clenched-teeth noir swing to a crash of an ending. In Whom is a distinctive, chromatically-charged O’Farrill tune, and another blast of adrenaline from the pianist. He gets plenty of high-fives for his role leading the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, a unit that doesn’t give him as much room to cut loose and show off his blazing chops like he does here.

Ware fuels the agile, waltzing Peaceful Moment (peaceful, yeah, right!) with a tightly wound baroque-tinged intensity, O’Farrill’s sizzling righthand spirals contrasting with the minimalist bass solo and then the vibraphone-driven ballad that the song morphs into. Bio Diesel, by Ware, has a lively, bracing offcenter sway, as if to say, “We’re fueled by something weird, but it’s working.”

O’Farrill elevates Affoumado’s ballad Dreams of Dad with rapidfire, bluesy spirals that keep going even as the drums drop out: the adrenaline just won’t stop. Likewise, O’Farrill’s jackhammer lefthand propels Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now up to a clever, intricate interweave of upper righthand bustle in tandem with the vibes. Then Ware’s latin-tinged Lonely Days Are Gone (a Box Tops reference) contrasts O’Farrill’s spins and dips with Ware’s tersely swinging lines. They wind up the album with another Ware tune, The Right Time, with a similar dichotomy, Ware playing voice of reason to O’Farrill’s cyclotron pyrotechnics. Has the word “adrenaline” appeared here yet?

A word about the venue the band takes their name from: wrong place, wrong time. Situated about equidistant from Barbes and I-Beam (and now Shapeshifter Lab), Puppets had good sound, great food and the best veggie burger beyond the outskirts of Rastafarian Crown Heights. But they were never able to catch on with the youngish crowd that comes out to I-Beam for cutting-edge sounds and the latin-inclined acts favored at Barbes – or with an older neighborhood crowd that might have been into Puppets’ more oldschool postbop acts. Charging more of a cover than their neighbors probably had something to do with that too. Until tourists other than those who live there start to make the South Slope a destination – or the neighborhood is taken over completely by a Wall Street crowd – would-be impresarios should take notice.

April 23, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz Passengers Are Excited to Be Reunited, No Joke

The Jazz Passengers’ new album Reunited – their first in over ten years – is as nonchalantly cool as anything they’ve ever released. Saxophonist Roy Nathanson’s cinematic compositions are as imagistic as ever, imbued with his signature wit, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes every bit the vintage soul crooner, both on the horn and the mic and vibraphonist Bill Ware his understatedly counterintuitive self. Violinist Sam Bardfeld, bassist Brad Jones, drummer E.J. Rodriguez and guitarist Marc Ribot channel their signature out-of-the-box arrangements, melodic pulse, slinky latin groove, and eclecticism, respectively. Much of this has an early 70s psychedelic feel, from the brief period where soul music, funk and jazz got to mingle unmolested before fusion came along and busted up the party.

Elvis Costello sings the opening track, Wind Walked By, a casually strolling noir-tinged New Depression era swing tune: “Shit out of luck, the American way.” Ware’s vibes eerily anchor Nathanson’s alto sax, Ribot’s guitar supplying a distant unease, swaying from nonchalant blues to off-center skronk on the outro. Seven, an instrumental works a hypnotic circular motif like an early 70s Herbie Hancock soundtrack number, Fowlkes and Ribot’s wah guitar building suspense up to a violin/guitar swirl. Fowlkes sings Button Up, a matter-of-fact soul/jazz groove, wah guitar mingling with Ware’s expansive, deadpan, bluesy cascades. Thom Yorke’s The National Anthem trades midnight Heathrow airport corridor atmosphere for 4 AM Ninth Avenue Manhattan drama – with Ribot and then Bardfeld skronking and screeching behind the aplomb of the rest of the crew, it’s every bit as menacing as the original. The best single song on the album might be Tell Me (by Fowlkes/Nathanson, not the Glimmer Twins), dark latin soul morphing into a buoyant 6/8 ballad, the warmth of the trombone silhouetted against the plinking thicket where Ware and Bardfeld are hiding out.

They redo Spanish Harlem as laid-back organ-driven swing with an amusing Spanglish skit, Ware, Fowlkes and Rodriguez joined by a whole different crew including Russ Johnson on trumpet, Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola and Susi Hyldgaard on vocals. There are also two bonus live tracks with longtime collaborator Deborah Harry. Think of Me, a Brad Jones/David Cale composition is lusciously restrained Twin Peaks swing. And who would have thought that she’d sing this 1995 concert version of One Way or Another (redone here brilliantly as Brat Pack-era suite) better than the original – or for that matter that she’d be an even more captivating singer in 2010, as recent Blondie tours have triumphantly shown. The only miss on the album is Reunited (the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop monstrosity), which pulls plenty of laughs in concert but misses the mark here: garbage in, garbage out. You could call this cd the comeback of the year except that there’s nothing really for them to come back from other than a long absence – which is happily over now. Last month’s shows at the Jazz Standard saw them clearly psyched to be back in action again; hopefully there’ll be more of it.

October 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment