Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

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May 24, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, 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

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).

November 16, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Incendiary, Articulate Jazz and Poetry on Bobby Watson’s Latest Project

Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.

Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”

The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.

They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.

After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s  Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds  as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nicholas Urie’s Big Band Album Explores the Brilliance of Bukowski

Charles Bukowski liked Beethoven, maybe because he recognized a fellow drunken genius, maybe because Beethoven is great drinking music. Would Bukowski have appreciated Nicholas Urie’s new Bukowski-themed big band album, My Garden? Maybe. Urie’s intent here is to honor Bukowski’s legacy by elevating him above his popular image as the poet laureate of fratboy excess. A good guess is that the frequently astringent third-stream atmospherics would have grabbed him, not to mention that all but one of the tracks here illustrates a poem or a Bukowski quote. And the one that doesn’t is ironically right up his alley, booze-wise: “Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat. It makes you lean: against bars, tables, chairs and poles.” Its main character aside, this is a fascinating modern big band album with some delicious charts, clever and even psychedelic production and an A-list of jazz talent, most of them from the New York area.

If you can get past – or don’t mind, or even enjoy – Bukowski’s gimlet-eyed perspective, he was an amazing observer. It’s hard to find someone who can distill an idea to its essence like he could, and usually did. Urie knows this, and takes his cues from there. As much as the arrangements here are lush and rich, there are no wasted notes: the band’s focus is intense. The brief opening track, Winter: 44th Year sees Bukowski feeling suicidal, knife in hand, drunk-dialing some woman and getting her answering service (this was in the days before voicemail), brought to life with moody, swirling atmospherics. Round and Round – the simple phrase “you have my soul and I have your money” – makes an uncharacteristically roundabout way to explain away a dayjob, and the music perfectly captures this, the band’s circular chromatics leading to a careful, soberly disdainful Rhodes solo from Frank Carlberg, up to impatiently circling Kenny Pexton tenor sax and then a labyrinth of vocal overdubs from Christine Correa. John Carlson’s ominous solo trumpet kicks off the title track – “pain is flowers blooming all the time,” vivid rainy day ambience walking steadily with the trumpet and then Alan Ferber’s trombone lifting the downcast atmosphere a bit with wryly bluesy tints as the band swells behind him.

A very cleverly disguised ballad, Weeping Women illustrates Bukowski’s claim that he would have offered women more solace if they hadn’t been so high-maintenance. Awash in shifting segments, Carlson, Douglas Yates on alto and Jeremy Udden on soprano sax alternate voices in a conversation, less weepy than brooding and somewhat conspiratorial. A predictably shrill crescendo is followed by a laugh-out-loud disappointed ending: Bukowski would have liked this! Another circular number, Lioness – “There’s a lioness in the hallway: put on your lion’s mask and wait” is vigorous fun, driven by Carlberg’s unbridled, staccato piano. The arguably strongest track here is Slaughterhouse – “I live in the slaughterhouse and am ill with thriving” –  a feast of tectonic shifts and high/low contrasts, Udden’s soprano sax against Max Siegel’s bass trombone, with a bit of a round and a neat soprano/alto conversation over just the rhythm section. The last track, Finality, illustrates a rather nihilistic portrayal of a crazy Ezra Pound repudiating his life’s work, a moment that ostensibly comes to all of us. Pexton’s tenor rises gravely against Carlberg’s judicious, acidic chords, then Carlson’s trumpet blazes while Rome burns in the distance. The one bit of a letdown here is the number about beer not making you fat, which Correa sings like a wine drinker – or your mother – against the rhythmically tricky playfulness of the chart which then goes completely off the charts when the booze kicks in. Sober, it’s a great album – how does it sound after a few drinks? That’s a question that deserves an answer!

March 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Hottest New Big Band in NYC

The Ayn Sof Orchestra and Bigger Band are the most exciting new development in big band jazz in New York. To call them the “Jewish big band” is to say that they play large ensemble jazz works liberally sprinkled with themes and motifs from Jewish music. Some of the compositions are jazz arrangements of folk songs; their originals, contributed by several members of the ensemble, draw sometimes deeply, sometimes loosely on klezmer or Middle Eastern melodies. The group, a mix of some of the most highly sought-after jazz talents in the city, has been playing together for about a year, with a monthly residency at bandleader/tenor sax player Greg Wall’s Sixth Street Synagogue. Monday night’s sold-out show at the Cell Theatre in the West Village was a revelation.

They opened with a lush, sweeping, bracingly layered number by former Lou Reed tenor player Marty Fogel, a showcase for a slinky, klezmer-tinged solo from trumpeter Frank London and a bit later a no-nonsense one from trombonist Reut Regev. A composition by guitarist Eyal Maoz was a characteristically surfy sprint, complete with his own joyously showy, increasingly unhinged solo and some effect-laden, shuffling B3 organ groove work from Uri Sharlin (who’d switched from piano, and would later move to accordion). Wall sardonically announced that someone in the crowd had promised their grandmother some klezmer, so they blasted through a towering, majestic Fogel arrangement of the traditional Kiever Bulgar dance, more jazz than klezmer, with long, expressive trombone and accordion solos and a tricky false ending. A tune by alto player Paul Shapiro worked a bouncy soul organ groove that took on a latin vibe as it motored along. Another Fogel original introduced the night’s most darkly bracing tonalities, a 6/4 stomp featuring a blazing Balkan solo by trumpeter Jordan Hirsch; trumpeter Pam Fleming’s Intrigue in the Night Market was downright sexy, her own slyly cosmopolitan solo growing more rootless, the band restlessly and suspensefully rising to a big crescendo out of it.

The second half of the concert began with jazz poetry on Talmudic themes, Wall or London offering energetic accompaniment for a series of animated spoken-word interludes, sometimes playing in tandem. The whole band joined in as they went along; some were wryly humorous, but ultimately they preached to the choir, if as heatedly as that hardcore punk band who celebrate the virtues of learning Torah. The band eventually wound up the show on a blissfully carnivalesque note with a humor-laden latin soul groove featuring an uninhibitedly buffoonish Maoz solo, a similarly amusing, blippy one from Sharlin on organ and a typical monster crescendo from London, who’d been doing them all night whenever the moment appeared. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 2/5/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #174:

Gil Scott-Heron – We Almost Lost Detroit

Based on the John G. Fuller expose, this is an understated, haunting look at a narrowly averted nuclear disaster that almost took out a major American city. Now there are actually global warming activists who support the use of nuclear power. How quickly we forget – can anybody say “Chernobyl?” From the South Africa to South Carolina album, 1975; there’s also an even tastier live version on the No Nukes concert anthology.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Literature, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 1/12/10

Every day – wifi signal willing – we count down the best 666 songs of alltime. Tuesday’s is #198:

Gil Scott-Heron – B Movie

The great soul/jazz poet at the peak of his powers, a savage dismissal of lightweight Hollywood candidate Ronald Reagan released just after the disastrous 1980 election. From the Secrets album, 1981; the link above is the complete eight-minute diatribe on youtube. There’s also a killer version on the Live Somewhere in Europe album from the early 90s.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment