Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry Party Like It’s 1989

The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.

Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.

Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.

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

Mercury Falls Looms Ominously in the Distance

The cover image of Mercury Falls’ new album Quadrangle is apt, a collage of ominous stormclouds. The album itself is sort of the calm before the storm: it’s beautifully moody, pensive rainy-day music, a suite of atmospheric soundscapes blending elements of jazz and minimalism with occasional light electronic touches and a tinge of dub. The band – saxophonist Patrick Cress (also of Telepathy), Ryan Francesconi on guitar, Eric Perney on bass and Tim Bulkley on drums – share a remarkable chemistry and intuition. As a whole, they allude to themes more than than stating them outright, skirting both the melody and the rhythm, an effective strategy for building considerable suspense. It’s basically a suite, variations on a series of motifs interspersed with minimalist, sometimes jagged, sometimes ghostly fragments that appear in the mist only to fade from view seconds later.

The opening track Spring Pools begins with a foghorn in the distance and builds around a noirish sax motif, somewhat evocative of Jimmy Scott’s Sycamore Trees. Speak Without Ears has the sax entering over a vaguely Kurt Cobain-ish acoustic guitar figure, methodically crescendoing to a funky baritone sax hook, down and then back again in a vein that reminds of New York noir instrumentalists Mojo Mancini. Eventually, it segues all the way into the fourth track, guitar emerging astringently from nebulous ambience.

The most striking composition here is the understatedly modal, ominously cinematic, sardonically titled Insurance Rep, contrasting a warmly anthemic 6/8 melody with eerily tense atmospherics, Bulkley raising the ante as he will even further on the following track, Solar Plexus. On that one, he prowls around as Francesconi and Cress finally take it all the way up to a blazing yet understated, terse crescendo, washes of distorted electric guitar beneath upper-register sax incisions. They segue out on an unexpectedly optimistic note, a pretty lullaby melody coming together slowly out of the clouds. It’s a great wind-down album, a great headphone album and a clinic in smart, decisive interplay. Bay area fans can catch Mercury Falls on September 16 at 10 PM at the Makeout Room, 3225 22nd St. in San Francisco.

September 4, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment