Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Yet Another Uneasily Beautiful Album from Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell has a new album out, Big Sur. It’s Pacific Coast pastoral jazz commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist joined by his quintet: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. This may be the sunnier side of Frisell, but there’s a persistent unease that recurs throughout the album: lively and lithe as much of this music is, it’s deep. A couple of themes and variations are interspersed throughout a mix of songs that don’t miss the bass: in places, Frisell’s guitar loops or Roberts’ pizzicato carry a bassline, others don’t address it. Where that happens, the songs make tremendous practice pieces for bass, a challenge to match the minimalism and focus of the rest of the band.

There’s a dancing West African-flavored theme. There’s also a stately march with a considerably more apprehensive edge, moving from the emphatic Going to California with its warm, major-key jangle anchored in overdubbed lows with hints of noir, to the jaunty but wary strut and close harmonies of Gather Good Things, to the spare, understated title track. Highway 1 may be an elegant Sunday drive in one of Jay Leno’s old Pierce-Arrows rather than a hotrod theme, but again, Frisell grounds a persistent eeriness in the low registers: by the end, the funky beat has given way to a sway and a low roar.  The most gripping, and characteristically Frisellian track here might be Shacked Up, with its ambling, blues-tinted, almost cruelly surrealistic Lynchian Pacific Northwest atmosphere.

But there’s humor here too. The Big One has Frisell and the strings doing a tongue-in-cheek faux Ventures impression. If you want to hear Rudy Royston almost play a surf beat – he refuses to completely Mel Taylor it – this is for you. We All Love Neil Young is a playful homage to Shakey’s catchy folk side, Scheinman getting the lead line. And Walking Stick (for Jim Cox) is Frisell at his most jovial and carefree as the band switches up the meter from a ballad to an oldfashioned C&W stroll.

Other highlights include the lively, cinematic Hawks, a syncopated English reel of sorts; Cry Alone, which is more steadily reflective than plaintive; the swaying folk-rock Song for Lana Weeks and the closing track, Far Away, with its unexpected grit and ambiguity barely beneath its windswept terrain. Here, Frisell finally allows himself a few bars’ worth of a solo that quickly tiptoes into the shadows. Where does this fall in the Frisell pantheon? Somewhere in the middle, which makes it one of the best albums of the year.

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July 2, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2012: Good Times at Day Two

Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.

Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.

As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.

And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.

But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.

Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.

By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.

And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.

January 11, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Bowls Project Summons the Spirits

It’s hard to resist a group who feature a bass clarinet as prominently as Charming Hostess do. Their album The Bowls Project is the brainchild of frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg. Stagy, intense and eclectic, it’s part performance art and part what you might call Middle Eastern gothic, with noir cabaret, punk and metal edges. It’s best appreciated as a whole and may be a lot more interesting with a visual element (these related videos offer evidence that it is). In the meantime, the album is out on Tzadik. Eisenberg is not a natural singer, but she rises to the challenge of these unpredictable, narrative songs with a relentless brassiness and punk energy. The themes explore the ceremonial and ritual use of household bowls in ancient Jewish culture in the Holy Land, for fertility, protection from evil spirits, health and good luck. The band is sensational: Jenny Scheinman and Megan Weeder on violins; Jessica Troy on viola; Marika Hughes on cello; Shahzad Ismaily on guitar, Jason Ditzian on that bass clarinet in place of a bass and Ches Smith on drums.

The first couple of numbers are dramatic, exploding into grand guignol, much in the vein of Vera Beren’s recent work; with its screechy strings, the second seems to be an exorcism of some sorts. Ismaily interpolates skronk with rockabilly on the third cut; Malakha, which follows, begins as an uneasy lullaby before the fireworks begin. They take a cue from Led Zep on their version of the old English folksong Gallows Pole, move after that to a proggy dance, a slowly crescendoing funeral march that evokes Persian-American art-rocker Haale, and then the gothic partita O Barren One: “For once the angel of death must flee,” Eisenberg announces at the end. The rest of the album includes a really gorgeous, 1960s soul song, Ismaily doing a sweet Steve Cropper imitation; a couple of minimalist, Siouxsie-esque numbers with a lot of chanting; a darkly Bollywood-flavored anthem and a noirish Tom Waitsy blues with surfy baritone guitar. You want something that covers the stylistic map? It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that more than this group does here.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, experimental music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Real Vocal String Quartet

A cynic might call the Real Vocal String Quartet the happy Rasputina. But that doesn’t give the all-female new music ensemble enough credit – considering the global diversity of styles they play here, a better comparison would be genre-smashing jazz/Americana violinist/composer Jenny Scheinman. Founded by former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Irene Sazer, the Real Vocal String Quartet blend classical, avant garde, bluegrass, Balkan and African influences; the ultimate result is completely unique. While Sazer writes most of the material, violinist Alisa Rose, violist Dina Maccabee and cellist Jessica Ivry also contribute. Everybody sings.

The album opens with a circular arrangement of Kenyan composer and nyatiti lute player Ayub Ogada’s Kothbiro, alternating rhythmic pizzicato with lush washes of ambience in a striking call-and-response. They follow that with a traditional Appalachian dance done as hypnotic Tinariwen-style desert blues, string quartet style. The single best number on the album is the darkly crescendoing, cinematic instrumental Night Game, which nonetheless finds a way to end on a cleverly playful, upbeat note. A diptych here sounds like traditional Italian folk music,  but it’s actually a couple of covers from the catalog of early Brazilian jazz pioneer Pixinguinha. Green Bean Stand harmonizes high vocalese with the strings, morphing into a hypnotically swaying one-chord dance vamp evocative of the ensemble’s Turtle Island cousins. There’s also a hauntingly rustic country song, the violins playing a guitar chart; a hypnotic, ambient tone poem with strings and vocalese; a tricky art-rock song with rousing harmonies, and a wistful vocal tune that gives way to a stately baroque theme. There’s so much here that it ought to appeal to a lot of fanbases: neoclassical types, world music and chamber music fans, and just your average pop/rock person looking for something good for the ipod.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi – Live at Yoshi’s

In terms of lush, exuberant melody, this is without question the most beautiful album of the year in any style of music. Warm, plaintive, sometimes soaring, sometimes contemplative, this live recording by Dutch jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, guitarist Anton Goudsmit and pianist Harmen Fraanje – just out on Challenge Records – captures a characteristic, richly memorable performance. If you get the chance to see this group, don’t pass it up. One part jazz, one part late 19th century Romanticism, with influences from the pampas of Argentina to the Portuguese coast, their style is indelibly unique. What a treat it must have been to be in the club the night this album was made. Yet for all the accessibility, there’s both an elusiveness and an allusiveness to the melodies that draws the listener in: any sense of contentedness is matched by an equivalent longing.

Goudsmit’s guitar opens it eerily, gently tremolo-picking a flamenco melody, Vloeinams finally adding a stately old world beauty, nostalgia balanced by poignancy. They make their way into a playful stop-and-start over what’s essentially a soul-pop song, Vloeimans employing his trademark shifts in intonation. The trio segue seamlessly into the third track, March of the Carpenter Ants, moving through a wary, chromatically-charged Vloeimans solo to a fascinating section akin to a film shot with three cameras onto a single screen a la the Woodstock documentary. Insistent, separate yet together, it’s a moment that screams out for the replay button. That, and headphones.

Goudsmit builds the fourth cut, Ernesto from a minimal intro to a darkly Robbie Krieger raga-inflected passage echoed by piano and trumpet, then shifts into suspenseful tango mode with an understatedly anguished David Gilmour feel that Vloeimans picks up on and takes to its logical crescendo. The next cut, Phillip works a pastoral, Jenny Scheinman-style melody into a gorgeously catchy theme with heavy Ellington overtones. Vloeimans finally goes all the way up on the wings of his glissandos and then down again on the gracefully choreographed Weimar blues Harry Bo, moving optimistically to centerstage against fatalistic piano and guitar. The other tracks on the album include a couple of blues numbers, the first of which morphs cleverly into a pop ballad, the second with a Georgia on My Mind feel with jaunty trumpet and spiky guitar. The only miss here is Somewhere Over the Rainbow, an exercise in implied melody, the trio taking care to skirt its central theme when what they should have done is left it off the set list entirely. Lucky fans can see Eric Vloeimans’ Fugimundi play September 27 at the Rotterdam International Jazz Festival.

September 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Jenny Scheinman and Robbie Fulks at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 7/14/09

Even for a cutting-edge jazz musician, violinist Jenny Scheinman‘s stylistic repertoire is considerably diverse. Tuesday night at Barbes (yeah, that’s awhile ago, but we’re playing catchup from when the computers crashed here at LCHQ) she teamed up with alt-country pioneer Robbie Fulks for a show imbued as much with wit as with dazzling chops.

For all Scheinman’s frequently plaintive, haunting, often atmospheric instrumental work, she reminded how much fun she can be. Fulks made a particularly good choice of sparring partner. While he’s an equally spectacular musician with adrenalizing chops whether playing country or jazzy, western swing-tinged stuff, this time out he left most of instrumental alchemy in Scheinman’s hands. Thankfully, he didn’t do any of his Michael Jackson covers – Fulks plays a mean, completely tongue-in-cheek Billy Jean, and seems to know pretty much everything else on Thriller. As they usually do, they took turns, alternating between each others’ songs. The opener was a pretty, Appalachian-flavored country dance instrumental, followed by a typically playful yet biting Fulks number, The World Is Full of Pretty Girls (and Pretty Girls Are Full of Themselves). At the end, the pretty girl in question ends up going off with Neko Case – not only is she a head case, she’s been playing for the other team all along! He also contributed an amusingly country cover by Hee Haw’s Grandpa Jones.

Fulks remains as defiantly retro as ever. “Let’s fill every hole in their shag carpet,” he said sardonically to Scheinman, a dig at modern recording technique and the use of subsonics on most corporate music (Fulks and Scheinman inhabit a considerably higher place, both sonically and artistically). Then they launched into a sultry country blues featuring some particularly intense staccato playing by Scheinman. This was obviously her show (she doubtlessly introduced Fulks to the joint), and this time out she made her mark most indelibly not as composer or soloist but as a lyricist. A country traveling ballad was considerably wistful, followed by a vividly apocalyptic California narrative where it’s impossible to tell the hippies from the rednecks and a bale of cocaine washes up and then sinks in the lagoon. Scheinman’s going to be a very cool mom someday soon – guessing in about three months – and she introduced what she said was her first pregnancy-inspired song, a poignant country number called The Littlest Prisoner, told from the point of view of a smalltime drug user about to have her baby in prison, and then undoubtedly have it snatched from her. Scheinman and Fulks have been playing once or twice a month at Barbes over the last few months; this is a most intimate way to enjoy the work of a couple of artists who rightfully play much bigger venues.

July 18, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field

A delightful, bracing cd for cool autumn nights when it just feels so good to be alive. Scheinman may be best known as a jazz player and composer, but this cd is a multistylistic smorgasbord of instrumentals with elements of classical, rock, film soundtracks and ragtime as well. The band here is is an all-star cast of like-minded envelope-pushing types: Ron Miles on cornet; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; a dream-team rhythm section of Tim Luntzel on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums; Jason Moran on piano; Bill Frisell on guitar and many string players including the members of the ambitious quartet Brooklyn Rider. Scheinman is a master of many moods, and she packs a bunch in here. This may be a fun album at heart, but there’s an awfully lot going on and it’s all good.

 

The album opens with Born Into This, airy and ambient with shades of Jean-Luc Ponty but stark and somewhat rustic, absent any 70s fusion clichés. It builds to a mighty crescendo at the end. I Heart Eye Patch is breezy and playful over a tongue-in-cheek vaudeville beat with a characteristically jaunty yet comfortable Frisell solo. An upbeat piano intro kicks off the aptly titled That’s Delight, eventually joined by the violin.  Ana Eco begins apprehensive and ethereal and grows simply sad and wary – it’s a beautiful song.

 

A showcase for Moran, Hard Sole Shoe bounces along on an almost martial groove spiked with guitar accents until midway through when the horns take over for the piano and the baton is passed to Wieselman…and suddenly it’s floating along comfortably among the clouds. Einsamaller could be a Shostakovich horror movie score,  atmospheric layers of strings building ominously until they’re joined by the horns. It’s a two-part piece, the second opening on a lighter note but getting dark quickly. The not-quite Awful Sad is a pensive ragtime song for violin and piano; Processional, by contrast, is very sad, a slow piano-and-guitar ballad that gets eerier as it goes along, Frisell adding his trademark, bell-like reverb guitar

 

The most cinematic of the cuts here, The Careeners is a boisterous chase sequence. Three Bits And A Horse is brief and somewhat skeletal, its cornet intro building as Frisell kicks around the melody. A Peter Tosh-inflected melody to a staggered reggae beat with some intriguing tempo shifts, Song For Sidiki sends Scheinman flying over the guitar and rhythm section. Then Frisell and the cornet take over. The cd concludes with the thoughtful, ambient Ripples In The Aquifer and the warm open-skies tune Old Brooklyn. This is foremost a treat for jazz fans, but lush with melody that will get pretty much anybody humming along. One of the best albums of 2008, no question. Scheinman’s debut vocal cd, a somewhat rustic collection of Americana songs reviewed here recently, is also worth checking out. The Jenny Scheinman Quartet (featuring Moran, Greg Cohen and Rudy Royston) begins a six-night stand at the Village Vanguard on Oct 28.

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment