Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Velocity Duo Entertain With Just Bass and Wordless Vocals

On one level, the Velocity Duo‘s new album Dichotomies – streaming online at singer Lauren Lee’s site – is avant garde to the extreme. On the other, it’s very accessible and irresistibly fun. You’d hardly guess that just vocals and bass (that’s Charley Sabatino on the four-string) could be this entertaining. The duo are playing the album release show tomorrow night, May 6 at 6 PM at the Whynot Jazz Room on Christopher St.; cover is $10, and there’s probably a drink minimum, the venue site isn’t clear on that.

Rare as bass-and-vocal albums are, the obvious recent point of comparison is singer Jen Shyu‘s 2011 masterpiece, Synastry with bassist Mark Dresser. Both that album and this new one have a dramatic flair, but where Shyu goes for pointed sociopolitical commentary and knifes-edge theatrics, Lee goes for mood and ambience with frequent bursts of humor. And where Shyu writes lyrics, Lee sings vocalese, which raises the conversational factor with Sabatino (who is an equal even if he’s not centerstage in this collaboration).

The album title says it all: the three first tracks are Apathy/Desire, Awe/Melancholy, and Disappointment and Joy. Again, as these titles indicate, Lee and Sabatino are working contrasts rather than opposite extremes. Sometimes the two take separate roles, other times working in tandem to bring each emotion or mix of emotions to life. The first track seems to be the former, Lee’s carefree, soul-infused flights and occcasional detours into jazz scatting contrast with Sabatino’s close-to-the-vest, almost claustrophobic minimalism. The second is airy and spacious: Sabatino’s punchy, percussive, incisive lines give these tunes a much-needed drive. The third sets a bittersweet, jazz-tinged Lee against Sabatino’s steady, dancing low-register lines.

Likewise, Elation/Woe pits Lee’s blithe scattting – the album’s most straight-ahead jazz passages – against Sabatino’s somber, rustically bluesy lines…until he goes up the scale and joins the fun. Holiday/Death – what a contrast, huh? – pairs Sabatino’s furtiveness with Lee’s operatically-tinged leaps and bounds. Hunger/Satiety is both the album’s most outside moment and also one of its funnier ones, while on Insecurity and Substance Sabatino once again anchors Lee’s LMAO attention-deficit attack with his gravitas until he too can’t resist getting in on the joke.

Lee’s sarcastic noodling on Narcisissm/Selfless is even funnier – it’s hard to see where if at all a contrast comes in. Skeptical/Naive also goes for laughs, but far more subtly, at least til midway through. Likewise, the bass/vocal tradeoffs in Tranquility/Cacaphony are more low-key. The album winds up with a strange and thought-provoking dichotomy, Uncomfortable/Placid. These short, most likely at least half-improvised vignettes transcend the question of whether or not this is jazz or indie classical or whatever mix of genres it might be: it’s just good, fun music.

May 5, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bass and Vocals Like Never Before

Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser’s Synastry album came out this past August on the enterprising Pi Records label, and it’s a stealth contender for best jazz album of 2011. Both artists have worked the outer margins of jazz under the lights, Shyu with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, Dresser with innumerable others, most famously Anthony Braxton (who’s got a new opera in the can – watch this space). Shyu’s claim to fame is that she mingles her languages (along with her native English, she speaks many others from both Europe and Asia) into a style of vocalese where she’ll drop actual words or phrases in if she sees fit. And when she does this, she sings in what appears to be perfect accent, a difficult task that literally stretches her ability to turn a phrase and is one of the reasons why she is such a distinctive vocalist. Few other singers in jazz, or for that matter any other style of music, are as unselfconsciously graceful as Jen Shyu, whether dipping gently for a throaty blue note or flying high, clear and unadorned, employing timbres that seldom occur in western music. Dresser’s fondness for utilizing the entire sonic spectrum that can be conjured from a bass makes him a perfect complement to the vocals here, providing some striking textural contrasts, but also some unexpectedly fascinating harmonies further up the scale: the two make a good team. Unsurprisingly, on this album, they share composition credits on every track, and a commitment to melody that’s unusual for artists who can be at home as far outside as these two can go. And as much as Shyu’s style gravitates toward the bracing and otherworldly, they cover a surprising expanse of emotional terrain.

The opening track, Slope a Dope, sets the tone for most of what’s to come: Dresser works a methodically propulsive, deceptively simple, in this case circular groove as Shyu casually vocalises a warmly bossa-flavored, buoyant melody over it. A simple, modal theme that Dresser stakes out incisively gives Shyu the chance to color the following track much more brightly than its title, Quietness of Memory – Recovery, would suggest. The third cut, Mauger has Shyu reaching for a sometimes whispery insistence as Dresser alternates between a hypnotic bounce and a tersely exploratory attack before they join forces and go off animatedly in a more tropical direction.

The title track is the most traditionally free piece here. Shyu leans toward a pensive torchiness while Dresser plays it very spacious, minimalist and tongue-in-cheek, taking out his bow between beats for textures that range from ghostly to abrasive. Floods, Flame, Blades takes on a slinkily anthemic, remotely Brazilian feel, rather than a direct evocation of any of the title’s menaces, while Mattress on a Stick is a funny song, Shyu airing out her upper register and stream-of-consciousness over Dresser’s overtone-drenched, rhythmic bowed chords. By contrast, Chant for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a tribute to the Korean-American novelist/performance artist who was murdered at age 30, is understatedly apprehensive. It’s pretty rubato for a chant, and the most overtly avant piece here. Dresser shadows her rhythmically as Shyu works outward and around a central octave motif a la Amy X Neuburg.

The rest of the album reaches back for bits and pieces of tradition as it follows an individualistic tangent. Lunation is just plain hilarious – Shyu gets going with some very clever “-ation” rhymes before a double entendre that will have you keeling over. Kind of Nine has hints of Bollywood over a staggered groove and Shyu’s trademark mishmash of phonemes, while Telemotion alludes to a swaying blues ambience but deliberately never gets past first base (almost said “first bass”…this is the kind of album that’ll do that to you). The duo close on a wary note with Night Thoughts, driven by Dresser’s dark chords. Imagine what Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus might have been able to pull off had he lived, and you get a sense of what Shyu and Dresser have done here.

November 30, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment