Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Darkly Thorny New Album and a Nublu Release Show From Gordon Grdina’s New Trio

Like Adam Good and Brian Prunka, Gordon Grdina is the rare double threat on both oud and electric guitar. His style is closer to Good’s savage attack than Prunka’s more spacious, spare approach. Grdina’s often seethingly complex new album Nomad, with his recently formed trio including pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black, is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s playing the album release show on Jan 17 at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C (4th/5th Sts.), at a very early hour for that venue, 6 PM; cover is $10.

Grdina’s writing for piano here is exquisitely grim, and Mitchell returns the favor with some of his most sharp-fanged playing. The opening track, Wildfire skronks and prowls around, the pianist’s enigmatic chords and loopily twisted boogie holding the center. After piano and guitar wind into a tight spiral, everything falls apart, Mitchell’s ominous minimalism finally gaining grativas and pulling the band together again.

Grdina gives the album’s title track a thorny solo intro, Mitchell nimbly handling some daunting, darkly insistent lefthand/righthand polyrhythms, Black’s flurries keeping this one on the rails. Ride Home, meant to evoke the wear and tear of the road, is simultaneously steady and staggering, Mitchell’s eerie stairsteps against Grdina’s weaving, wandering lines, shadowed by Black; Grdina’s final, savage coda packs a wallop.

Benbow, inspired by a California hotel which reminded Grdina of the one in The Shining, gets a spacious but gritty solo guitar intro, a long, tightly clustering crescendo and an evilly glittering Mitchell solo. Loopy, disconcerting belltone phantasmagoria and surprise funk from Black permeate Thanksgiving; the trio wind up the album with Lady Choral, a wry paraphrase of “Larry Coryell” that came to Grdina in a dream. Mitchell’s disorientingly Messiaenic solo sets the scene, Grdina taking his time with his oud for the album’s most unselfconsciously majestic interlude. This is an artichoke of an album: you have to get past the spines to find the reward inside.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the bar from a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World-Famous Big Band Celebrates Pantheonic Painters

Since prehistory, musicians have been inspired by visual art. But there’s never been a big band jazz album featuring works by multiple composers referencing paintings from across the decades. The new Jazz and Art record by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – streaming at youtube – took almost a decade to create. New York’s most renowned big band premiered it live in 2010, playing to projections overhead. The vast stylistic range of the music mirrors the art that springboarded it, including works by Romare Bearden, Winslow Homer and Piet Mondrian.

The sheer fun that the composers here had writing for this mighty beast of an ensemble is visceral, and the orchestra reward those efforts lavishly. The album opens with a Stuart Davis-inspired triptych by Doug Wamble. The first segment, The Mellow Pad, is a moody, New Orleans-tinged cha-cha in the same vein as Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole, with spare, bluesy Vincent Gardner trombone at the center. Likewise, the second part is a paraphrase of When the Saints Come Marching In, with bright spotlights on Marcus Printup’s trumpet and Sherman Irby’s alto sax. The group take a pointed, almost tiptoeing swing through the ragtime-tinged conclusion, Dan Nimmer’s piano pushing it further into postbop.

Gardner contributes the epic Sam Gilliam shout-out Blue Twirl, developing slowly from Messiaenic birdsong-like chatter, to wry jesting, a silky clave and a brisk swing, bassist Carlos Henriquez signaling the changes. Marsalis, altoist Ted Nash and trombonist Elliot Mason punch in hard with solos.

Trombonist Chris Crenshaw gets the plum assignment of tackling Bearden’s iconic collage The Block with sweeping, jump blues-inspired swing, Nimmer pouncing, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines leading the group into a balmy Harlem evening. Coming full circle with a triumph at the end, it’s the album’s most vivid, memorable number.

Low brass and percussion build ominously looming ambience as trombonist Papo Vasquez’s salute to Wilfredo Lam, the Orisha Medley: Air, Earth, Fire, Water gets underway. Anchored by a steady Afro-Cuban groove, the composer hands his imposing solo off to Marsalis, who raises the roof, the whole crew joining the blaze.

Bill Frisell was an apt choice to pitch in a Winslow Homer-inspired diptych, an allusively folksy, bittersweet waltz and a boisterous jump blues, the latter of which is the most modernist number here. Nimmer’s elegant cascades and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding’s enigmatic, airy work liven Andy Farber’s colorful, cinematic arrangements.

The lustrous introduction to trumpter Tim Armacost’s Mondrian tribute The Repose in All Things is a false alarm. It turns out to be a bright, bustling excursion, Irby buoyantly setting up trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s crescendo. The album winds up with Irby’s Twilight Sounds, for Norman Lewis, expanding joyously on a vaudevillian theme. If you like your jazz blazing, brassy and evoking decades of history, crank this record.

January 11, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense, Purist Party Jazz and a Lincoln Center Gig with Zaccai and Luques Curtis

Completion of Proof, the 2011 debut album by Zaccai and Luques Curtis, was a fierce, latin-tinged protest jazz record whose centerpiece was a chilling, caustically Mingus-esque triptych titled The Manifest Destiny Suite. Their long-awaited follow-up, Algorithm – streaming at Bandcamp – has much of the same veteran lineup. But it’s somewhat of a thematic shift, a similarly vivid, often intense but otherwise much more optimistic shout-out to Art Blakey and his associates who’ve mentored them over the years. It’s first-class, golden-age style party music. They’re playing the release show on Jan 15 at 7:30 PM at Dizzy’s Club. Cover is steep – $35 – but it’s a chance to hear two of the most sought-after sidemen around doing their own material, alongside the allstar vets who helped them get to where they are now..

They open the album with the Jackie McLean salute Three Points and a Sphere, drummer Ralph Peterson’s loose-limbed drive paired against Zaccai Curtis’ jaunty piano, their longtime bandmates Donald Harrison on alto sax and Brian Lynch on trumpet following with long solos, choosing their spots. Onstage, it would be a high-voltage set-ender that gives everybody a chance to cut loose.

The album’s mathematically-inspired theme continues with Phi, a salute to the circular ratio that kicks off with a shamanistic drum solo, then goes vamping with a cheery, funky latin soul groove and a good-natured piano-bass conversation between the bandleaders. Chief gives the guy it’s dedicated to, their longtime employer, a platform for sailing, spiraling sax solos over a similar but punchier rhythmic drive. ”

Parametric has an edgily familiar, moodily modal salsa-influenced simmer that Lynch latches onto with a fanged intensity echoed more distantly by the piano. Torus has to be the most gorgeous jazz waltz ever dedicated to a donut, while The Professor has a similarly dark, gospel-tinged majesty, Lynch taking a saturnine climb to redemption.

The album’s final trio of numbers were written as a sequel to The Manifest Destiny Suite. Lynch, Peterson and then Harrison wail up a storm in the somewhat uneasily tumbling Undefined (that’s what you get when you divide anything by zero). The allusively regal, briskly swinging horn showcase Staircase of Mount Meru sends a shout to the Indian mathematician Pingala, who discovered the construction commonly known as Pascal’s Triangle. They wind up the album with Sensei, a carnaval-esque vehicle for incorrible extrovert Peterson to do some flexing, This is one of those albums where afterward you might say to yourself, “Damn, good thing I didn’t just write this off as a bunch of road warriors recycling old ideas.”

January 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Connie Han Brings Her Relentless, Uneasy Urban Bustle to Birdland

If you follow jazz, you may have been put off by the way pianist Connie Han has been marketed. But musically, there’s no denying that she hit the ground running with her debut album Crime Zone, streaming at youtube. The album title reflects her relentless, hard-hitting attack, fondness for disquieting modes and bustling vamps that sometimes inch over the line into urban noir. And her career is still young: she’s got plenty of room to grow. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 12 at 5:30 PM; you can get a bar seat for $30.

The album opens with Another Kind of Right, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III dancing tensely between the raindrops, either in front of the band or in tandem with trumpeter Brian Swartz over Han’s icepick chords. Even when she switches abruptly to Rhodes midway through, the snap of Edwin Livingston’s bass and swing of Han’s frequent co-writer Bill Wysaske’s drums save the tune from falling off the edge into fusion territory.

The album’s title track pounces hard, the bandleader indulging in some wry polyrhythms before pulling the music down into a dark reflecting pool. Then Smith brings it up again, incisively, to a long (some might say overlong) series of bluesy Han cascades. The allusive, wary modalities in By the Grace of God more than hint at a narrow escape in contrast to Smith’s gritty, genial upper-register riffage; Han eventually drives it into sunnier territory.

Her eerie belltones and Smith’s microtonalities, and the two’s moody conversation to wind out the song, help elevate Sondheim’s Pretty Women above the level of Broadway schlock. As hard-charging as Southern Rebellion is, it takes awhile before Han rises beyond standard blues and postbop tropes; Wysaske takes it down into some misterioso press rolls before one of the false endings that Han loves so much.

Gruvy is an expansive Rhodes tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the later Steely Dan playbook. The album’s arguably best numnrt is a solo piece, the determined, grimly clustering quasi-boogie A Shade of Jade: with this kind of intensity, who needs a band?

The solidly strolling swing tune Member This is another number that brings to mind Donald Fagen, but the 1970s version. Is That So? Looks back to Dizzy Gillespie’s early adventures with samba rhythms, with some welcomely spacious playing from both Smith and Han. They close the album with the edgy, racewalking Extended Stay, Han coyly accenting a balletesuqe bass solo. When Han reaches the point where she can take extended solos without falling back on a lot of well-worn chromatic and blues runs, she could be dangerous.

January 6, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brian Charette Takes Organ Jazz to Edgy, Entertaining New Places

As Brian Charette tells it, his first solo organ record was a hit with his colleagues at baseball stadiums. Which makes sense. If an organist is a serious team player, he or she (thinking of Eddie Layton and Jane Jarvis here) can influence the outcome of a game. But first they have to engage a screaming mob, and be heard over them (unless it’s the Mets and there’s nobody there). Charette can’t resist an opportunity to entertain, although his sense of humor usually comes out in jousting with bandmates and making deadpan insider jokes rather than outright buffoonery. His follow-up solo album, Beyond Borderline – streaming at youtube – doesn’t seem to have any baseball subtext: it’s an endless supply of WTF moments interspersed among just about every possible style that might fit what Charette obviously sees as the very broad category of jazz organ. His next gig is not as a bandleader, but a relatively rare one as a sideman with hard-hitting saxophonist Mike DiRubbo‘s quartet at 10:30 PM this Friday and Saturday night, Jan 3 and 4 at Smalls.

The new album is a mix of solo versions of originals along with a couple of organ arrangements of Ellington tunes. Charette opens it with Yellow Car, a briskly strolling Jimmy Smith-style blues spiced with sly jabs and blips. He really cuts loose with his signature unpredictability in Wish List, a punchy, rhythmically shifting mashup of creepy Messiaen and jaunty Booker T. Jones (don’t laugh, it actually works). The first of the Ellington tunes, Chelsea Bridge gets reinvented with a triumphantly crescendoing resonance. The other one, Prelude to a Kiss validates Charette’s decision to go for grandeur.

The rest of the originals begins with Girls, a straight-up, catchy swing tune with a disquietingly atmospheric interlude midway through. The dark blues and latin influences really come to the forefront in Good Tipper – the title track of his 2014 album – Charette walking and strutting the bass with his lefthand beneath the mighty chords and spacious riffs of his right.

His solo take of one of his creepiest and best numbers, Hungarian Bolero, is evenmore minimalistically menacing as he fades the volume back and forth: it’s a little early in the year to be talking about best songs of the year, but this is one of them.

Silicone Doll is an organ arrangement of Satin Doll: Charette speeds it up a little. By the time you hit 5th of Rye, you may find yourself wondering, who needs bass and drums? His love of dub reggae and penchant for wry quotes come through in Aligned Arpeggio. Herman Enest III, a shout-out to Dr. John’s longtime drummer better known as Roscoe, has a recurring riff nicked from Joni Mitchell (or did she steal it from the Night Tripper?)

Charette winds up the album with Public Transportation, a bubbly, lickety-split tune that obviously  refers to some city other than New York, where the subway and buses actually run. As organ jazz records go, this is vastly more purposeful, original and less outright funky than what’s usually found in that demimonde.

January 2, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fearlessly Funny, Politically-Inspired Trip From Trumpeter Jaimie Branch

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch‘s latest album Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most surreal, amusing yet also ferociously relevant album yet. The centerpiece is the fiery diptych Prayer for Amerikkka, opening with Lester St. Louis’ gingerly incisive cello riffs. Branch’s trumpet defiantly shouts above a gloomy, swaying, starkly gospel-tinged sway from bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor. “We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists, coming for you as they dig in your paychecks – they think they run this shit,” Branch snarls as the guys in the band do a surreal call-and-response behind her. The strings flutter ominously, then shift to a brisk, increasingly lush pulse. “What is love when it’s all just memory, in solitude – this is a warning, honey, they’re coming for you!” Branch follows with a scream, then twelve-string guitarist Matt Schneider fuels a flamenco-tinged stampede out.

Branch opens the album with Birds of Paradise, a hypnotic, balafon-like loop and seagull-scape. After her mighty two-part broadside, an increasingly agitated string interlude leads into Twenty Three n Me: Jupiter Redux, its catchy, brightly loopy theme sailing over a steady clave and background squall, peaking with an explosively echoey vortex.

Jungly samples and a spare, echoing bass/cello duet introduce Simple Silver Surfer, a ridiculously surreal, spikily vamping faux-surf tune that Branch finally pushes toward New Orleans. Slow tectonic shifts permeate the album’s title track, then Taylor’s playfully tumbling drums take over and segue into the jubilant Nuevo Roquero Estereo, reprising the album’s loopy opening theme with spare, terse trumpet riffage and dubwise electronics.

Branch winds up the record with an irresistibly hilarious, catchy oldschool soul groove titled Love Song, dedicated to “all those assholes and all those clowns out there, you know who you are.” Her talking trumpet will have you rolling on the floor: it’s the best straight-up dis recorded this year. What an unselfconsciously, ridiculously fun album.

December 21, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.

December 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feral Tunefulness From Cellist Tomeka Reid and Her Quartet

The Tomeka Reid Quartet’s new album Old New – streaming at Cuneiform Records – is the rare jazz album you can play for people who hate jazz, and they’ll end up transfixed. It’s also the rare studio recording that burns, and seethes, and threatens to go off the rails just like a live show. It’s catchy, and ferocious, and bursting with tunes. What an amazing time it seems this band had making it.

In this era where jazz artists leap from one project to the next with barely enough time for it to coalesce, there’s a rare chemistry here, reflecting the group’s longtime associations. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson play together in Halvorson’s Code Girl band,, while cellist Reid and bassist Jason Roebke share early roots in the Chicago scene.

The band scamper and swing hard over Roebke’s chugging bass on the increasingly jagged, noisy title track, Halvorson and Reid trading scrapes, wry trainwhistle lines, eerie jangle and stark, emphatic riffage. Reid says it’s a hymn at the core, but it also seems to draw on early 80s proto-hip-hop like Midnight Starr. Gotta love that Fujiwara rumble on the way out!

Wabash Blues is a Romany swing tune with Reid’s careening cello in the Stephane Grappelli role, at least until it switches to 12/8 time for a bracing, acidic verse, an allusively grim Halvorson pitch-pedal solo and some adenalizing tumbles from Fujiwara.

Niki’s Bop is a shuffling shout-out to Reid mentor Nicole Mitchell, with echoes of both New Orleans and Stevie Wonder, cello and guitar pogoing joyously in their respective channels until Halvorson goes off in a trail of whippit bubbles. Reid and Roebke bubble around a joyously circling Afrobeat riff as Aug 6 gets underway, Halvorson kicking sharp-fanged chords until the group take it out together as a catchy anthem.

The simply titled Ballad is the group’s White Rabbit, a relentlessly uneasy shuffle, Reid’s ominous low-register flutters and shards contrasting with Halvorson’s steady incisions over an increasingly agitated, murky groove. Sadie, a swing tune dedicated to Reid’s grandmother, is the most trad number here, Reid alternating between a second bassline and wryly muted horn voicings, with an unexpectedly hypnotic bounce out.

The album’s most epic and adrenalizing track is Edelin, opening as a misterioso tone poem with flickers and washes from the strings and suspenseful cymbals, eventually coming together as a twisted road theme to rival anything Big Lazy ever put out, all the strings taking turns fanning the flames as the pyre explodes into a conflagration. Peripatetic makes a good segue, a series of increasingly savage climbs that eventually go completely haywire: Halvorson brings in a little funk, but this beast can’t be controlled. The album winds up with RN, which is Reid’s Watching the Detectives, a steadily swaying, broodingly plucked modal theme and variations that unexectedly drift toward sunnier, more psychedelic terrain. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music.

Fun fact: according to the record’s press release, Reid was voted “Violinist/Violist/Cellist of the Year for the second consecutive time by the Jazz Journalists Association.” Does this mean we can vote for JD Allen as trumpeter/clarinetist/saxophonist of the year? Maybe Brian Charette can be pianist/harpsichordist/organist of the year too! Googling for jazz harpsichordists doesn’t get you much, but Brian would no doubt be amped to contend for the award. Or maybe the JJA is just trying to save paper…or precious hard disc space on that old Commodore from the 80s.

December 18, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

December 9, 2019 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment