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.

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

Ran Blake and Christine Correa Create New Elements

Here’s one for the nonconformists’ club. As has been the case in recent years, the perennially individualistic Ran Blake doesn’t go so much for the noir sound for which he’s best known: instead, the pianist mines a terse, often minimalist third-stream sensibility – Toru Takamitsu’s more recent work comes to mind. Christine Correa works a constant series of unexpected shifts with her low soprano/alto. It’s an interesting voice with an original delivery. She dips down to the bottom of her range where the real soul is, a la Nina Simone, unafraid to let a blue note slide a little further than most jazz stylists; seconds later, she might surprise you with a chirpy swoop like Anita O’Day in her prime. Although these two have done it before, Blake isn’t the first pianist you might think would collaborate with a singer (although his work with Jeanne Lee is pretty extraordinary). In fact, Blake and Correa’s new album Out of the Shadows isn’t so much a matter of chemistry as it is that each complements the other in welcome and unexpected ways. Although she’ll bend a melody to suit her needs, Correa is often the anchor here, Blake the colorist and essentially the lead on a lot of the songs. And the cd is aptly titled: menace often takes a back seat and even disappears.

The title track is a rarity, originally recorded in an orchestral version by June Christy, done here with masterfully terse suspense (and inspired, Blake takes care to mention, by the Richard Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase). Their version of The Thrill Is Gone isn’t the B.B. King classic but a song from an early talkie circa 1931, redone with icy sostenuto chords that only hint at ragtime. Deep Song – a Billie Holiday tune dating from one of her early troubled periods has voice and piano holding a rubato conversation, vividly and poignantly, a device they use to equally potent effect on the segue between The Band Played On and Goodbye Yellow Bird. Fine and Dandy and When Malindy Says are swing number deconstructed and playfully reassembled as Dave Brubeck might do. And Goodbye (which Blake learned from Jimmy Guiffre, and plays solo here) is a brightly terse reminiscence that, as is the case so much on this album, only alludes to being a requiem.

Correa uses Una Matica de Ruda as a showcase for unbridled, imploring, Middle Eastern-tinged a-cappella intensity. By contrast, she delivers Max Roach’s Mendacity – a favorite of Blake’s – with a bitter cynicism rather than trying to match the abrasiveness of the original political broadside. And she does Jon Hendricks’ Social Call with an off-guard woundedness that does justice to the version popularized by Betty Carter. Intense and cerebral yet unselfconsciously raw and soulful, this album – and this collaboration – will resonate with anyone who appreciates those qualities, beyond the jazz idiom where these two artists are typically pigeonholed, for better or worse.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford at Pier One, NYC 7/22/07

Nothing was going to ruin this evening. Not the horrible train ride that unexpectedly lasted almost as long as the band’s first set. Not the small committee of yuppie protozoa in training pants, running around screaming while the band played. Not the yuppie woman (or guy) upwind, drenched in asphyxiating cardamom cologne. Not the gay couple with the six-inch mutt or marsupial or whatever it was that wouldn’t stop yapping. Not the loud woman and her even louder foreign friend seated to the rear, discussing the minutiae of the new mortgage she hoped to qualify for (at that price, honey, you’re being screwed). It was 70 degrees with a steady breeze and no humidity, the sky grey, streaked with radiant pink as dusk slowly settled in. If anyone is alive to read this 20 years from now, let it be known there was such an unthinkably beautiful late afternoon in Manhattan in the dead of July, 2007. And Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford was playing.

Munisteri is an A-list jazz guitarist with a list of A-list credits a mile long. This unit, which criminally only gets together a couple of times a year these days, is his chance to show off his songwriting chops. Munisteri is the wickedly literate jazzcat auteur that Elvis Costello’s always wanted to be, as witty and subtle a wordsmith as a tunesmith. And Will Friedwald, author of the pretty definitive book Jazz Singing is in Munisteri’s corner as well: in his world, wit and subtlety extend to vocals as well. Tonight the supporting cast included his usual sparring partners, the amazingly inventive Will Holshouser (who took most of the solos) on accordion, and Jon Kellso on trumpet, plus excellent upright bassist Tim Luntzel.

They ended their first set with the smoothly evocative When We’re Alone: “This song was meant to be played outdoors, the kind of thing I can usually only do at a cheeseball wedding,” Munisteri told the crowd, and in this upper Westside Woody Allen world of penthouse sophistication, real or imagined, it was an apt choice.

After a short break, they began their second set with the old standard Lazybones, Munisteri solo on guitar, then rejoined by the band on Honey on the Moon, featuring a sweet, bluesy Holshouser solo. Munisteri dedicated the next song to those who’d been displaced by luxury highrises, and anyone building luxury highrises as well. He looked out at the crowd, and the apartment complex at 68th St. towering overhead: “I see Trump,” and then pointing at the rusting hulk of an elevator at the adjacent pier, “And I see dump. I don’t know which I like more…actually as a sixth-generation Brooklynite I do know which I like more and I’m not telling you…since Trump may be part of the reason we’re here tonight.” Then they launched into his original composition This Funny World: “This funny world is making fun of you,” which as Munisteri pointed out could cut any number of ways.

Next, they did the playful, amusing Picciaridu, a track from Brock Mumford’s album, about a young Italian girl on the Lower East Side just about to hit puberty and discover what hellraising is all about. On the following tune, How Can You Face Me Now Munisteri and Kellso carried on a jaunty guitar/trumpet conversation for what sounded like a whole verse before the band kicked in. Let’s Do Something Bad, which is as close to a signature song as Munisteri has, was perfect: it’s a wickedly literate, tongue-in-cheek number about cheating. Playing with a mute, Kellso took an aptly understated, smoothly seductive solo to match the lyrics.

Finally, on the next-to-last song of the night, Munisteri took an all-too-brief, soulful guitar solo: it’s ironic that his own project gives him less of a chance to show off his monster chops than the other units he plays with (notably Rachelle Garniez’ brilliant band). But this one’s all about the songwriting, which is a treat in itself. They closed with the obscure Bing Crosby song T’ain’t So: Holshouser took a long solo and built to a darkly bluesy crescendo while Munisteri shadowed him, ominously voicing the chorus chord changes low on the fretboard. It says something about this band that they could find such rich, troubling complexity in an otherwise long-forgotten old pop song.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what the band name may mean, Brock Mumford is the man widely credited for being the first jazz guitarist.

July 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments