Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Joy with Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes

Every year here, sometime in December, there’s a list of the best New York concerts from over the past twelve months. Obviously, it’s not definitive – nobody has the time, and no organization has the manpower to send somebody to every single worthwhile concert in this city and then sort them all out at the end of the year.

But it’s an awful lot of fun to put together. Legendary Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian has a way of showing up on that list just about every year, and he’ll be on the best shows of 2018 page here, too. This past evening at Barbes, he and his Taksim ensemble – Adam Good on oud, son Lee Baronian on percussion, Mal Stein on drums and Sprocket Royer on bass, tucked way back in the far corner – channeled every emotion a band could possibly express in a tantalizing fifty minutes or so onstage. Surprise was a big one. There were lots of laughs, in fact probably more than at any other of Baronian’s shows here over the past few years. There was also longing, and mourning, and suspense, and majesty and joy.

Baronian came out of Spanish Harlem in the late 40s, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. Considered one of the original pillars of Near Eastern jazz, as he calls it, Baronian immersed himself in both bebop and what was then a thriving Manhattan Armenian music demimonde. In the years since, he literally hasn’t lost a step. Much as he can still fly up and down the valves, and played vigorously on both soprano sax and clarinet, his performances are more about soul than speed and this was typical. Some of his rapidfire rivulets recalled Coltrane, or Bird, but in those artists’ most introspective and purposeful moments. And neither dove headfirst into the chromatics to the extent that Baronian does.

He opened with a long, incisively chromatic riff that was as catchy as it was serpentine – a typical Baronian trait. Good doubled the melody while Royer played terse low harmonies against it, the percussion section supplying a solid slink. Baronian’s command of Middle Eastern microtones is still both as subtle and bracing as it ever was as he ornamented the tunes with shivery unease as well as devious wit.

Throughout the show, he’d often play both soprano and clarinet in the same tune, then put down his horn and play riq – the rattling Middle Eastern tambourine – while other band members soloed. The night’s two funniest moments were where he led them on boisterous, vaudevillian percussion interludes with as many cartoonish “gotcha” moments as there was polyrhythmic virtuosity.

Where Baronian made it look easy, Good really dug in and turned a performance that, even for a guy who’s probably one of the top half-dozen oudists in New York, was spectacular. Brooding, ominously quiet phrasing quickly gave way to spiky, sizzling tremolo-picking, pointillistic volleys of sixteenth notes and a precise articulation that defied logic, considering how many notes he was playing. Getting the oud sufficiently up in the PA system helped immeasurably – oud dudes, take a look at this guy’s pedalboard, for the sake of clarity and a whole lot more.

The night’s best number also happened to be the quietest and possibly the most epic – considering how many segues there were, it sometimes became hard to tell where one tune ended and the other began. Baronian played this one on clarinet, looming in from the foghorn bottom of the instrument’s register and then rising with a misty, mournful majesty. As the song went on, it took on less of an elegaic quality and became more of a mystery score. Royer’s spare, resonant groove, Stein’s elegant rimshots, the younger Baronian’s otherworldly, muted boom and Good’s shadowy spirals completed this midnight blue nocturne.

They picked up the pace at the end of the show, taking it out with a triumphant flourish. On one hand, that Baronian chooses Barbes to play his infrequent New York gigs (he’s very popular in Europe) is a treat for the cognoscenti, especially considering how intimate Brooklyn’s best music venue is. But if there’s anybody who deserves a week at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, it’s this guy.

Watch this space for upcoming Baronian Barbes gigs. In the meantime, Good is playing one of his other many axes, guitar, with slashing, careening heavy psychedelic band Greek Judas  – who electrify old hash-smuggling anthems from the 30s and 40s – tomorrow night, Sept 8 at Rubulad. It’s a lo-fi loft space situation with a Burning Man vibe – fire twirlers, space cake and absinthe could be in the picture. Cover is $10 if you show up before 9; email for the Bushwick address/info.

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September 7, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Whirlwind Improvisation and Smashing Tunefulness from Jane Ira Bloom at NYU

This past week, NYU held a little jazz festival of their own, featuring some top-tier talent. Saxophonist Tom Scott and the Rich Shemaria Big Band recorded a live album at the cozy Provincetown Playhouse amphitheatre on Saturday night. Pianist Shemaria’s colorful, hefty new charts brought some welcome gravitas to some of Scott’s biggest solo and LA Express hits, notably a rather torchy take of the love theme from Taxi Driver and a bustling, surprisingly un-dixielandish reinvention of the Paul McCartney single Listen to What the Man Says. Among his many wry between-song anecdotes, Scott revealed that McCartney had summoned him to an afternoon session, on no notice, to play soprano on that one – and that the scratch track, which Scott had no idea was being recorded, was what eventually ended up in the song. You’ll be able to hear all of that and more sooner than later.

Much as it would have been fun to catch another individualist saxophonist, Dave Pietro and his group in that same space later in the week, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom turned in a spectacular, whirlwind set a couple of days beween those shows, leading a trio with bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte. It was a great way to cap off a week of listening on loop to that newly discovered 1963 John Coltrane session that everybody’s been talking about.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to make any close comparison between this rhythm section and Coltrane’s, there were similarities between how both Helias and Jimmy Garrison would hold the center as Previte or Elvin Jones chewed the scenery. The three veterans onstage sandwiched volley after volley of inspired camaraderie and conversation between Bloom’s signature, fiercely tuneful, acerbic riffs. Helias started a game of whiffle ball, Previte flicking back his responses harder and harder until he hit on an altered clave. Likewise, the bassist’s looming, low-register bowing gave Previte a comfortable launching pad for his pummeling toms and pinballing romps along his hardware.

Stage right, Bloom was a spring-loaded presence, weaving and pouncing, whipping her horn in a semicircle for a flange effect, spiraling through achingly intense, rapidfire trills and Coltrane-esque glissandos. The winner of the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll for soprano sax aired out a lot of recent material from her trio album, Early Americans, with these guys. Several of the numbers looked to Emily Dickinson’s work for inspiration: Bloom seems committed to helping rescue the poet from the posthumous branding which cast her as a wallflower when in fact she was puckish and engaging.

Was the best song of the set Dangerous Times, Helias’ brooding bowing giving way to the bandleader’s uneasy bustle and eventually a turbulently thrashing coda? Maybe. Previte’s coy pointillisms and then a pretty successful attempt at getting a simple triangle to evoke epic majesty were some of the night’s funniest moments, as Singing the Triangle got underway. And Bloom painted a Van Gogh wheatfield of sound in Cornets of Paradise, a more triumphantly crescendoing tableau.

The NYU festival may be over, and Bloom doesn’t seem to have any other gigs coming up at the moment, but there is a brass festival with a program TBA at the Provincetown Playhouse – on Washington Square South west of W 3rd St – at 7 PM on July 27.

July 15, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newly Unearthed John Coltrane Rarities For Your Listening Pleasure

Is the new John Coltrane album Both Directions At Once the holy grail of jazz? No. That would be the Queen’s Suite, or Mingus’ Epitaph.

Furthermore, this new Trane record isn’t a full-fledged album. Minus the seven alternate takes recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder at a marathon March 6, 1963 studio session, it’s more of an ep.

By one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz, at the top of their game, painstakingly immortalized on analog tape. More than anything else, it captures these artists completely in their element, catching magic in a bottle and then trying to sort it out. Which they never got to finish, which is why we haven’t heard it til now. And we all should. It’s streaming at Spotify.

Every track here that has a name has already seen the light of day, whether on live recordings or posthumous compilations. The big story is that there are three previously unreleased, untitled originals along with what are essentially a couple of covers. Considering the glut of dodgy field recordings and soundboard tapes from forgotten European radio broadcasts and such, this is a more significant find than it might seem.

The first of the originals finds Coltrane on soprano sax,running a bitingly catchy, allusively Middle Eastern modal cluster and variations, Elvin Jones’ jubilantly decisive cymbal flares and tom-tom tumbles anchoring Jimmy Garrison’s supple swing and McCoy Tyner’s emphatically expanding web of piano chords.The bassist methodically bows the blues by himself, then leaps back in as the band dances it out. The bandleader’s bracing, woody tone and the occasional effortless whirlwind arpeggio leave no doubt which hall of famer is playing the horn here.

The second untitled original, another soprano tune, is even catchier and is the one that thousands of bands will be covering in the next couple of years. The quartet push the borders of a simple ascending progression, with a haphazardly tasty sax-and-drums interlude midway through. Tyner’s scampering righthand echoes Coltrane’s approach over what less adventurous fingers could have turned into a predictable blues resolution, and Garrison’s muted chords and syncopation add levity as Jones gets tantalizingly brief time motoring down the launching pad.

The final original, called “Slow Blues,” is neither. It’s a subtly polyrhythmic epic over a floating swing, Garrison’s muted insistence shadowing the sax as Jones holds the center. Coltrane delivers more aching overtones, squalls and squeals than anywhere else here as he searches around for a foothold: you can draw a straight line to today’s most purposeful sax voices, from JD Allen to Noah Preminger. Tyner finally takes over from the sax and that’s where the blues kicks in, at least as much as it does at all. Listening to Coltrane construct and then deconstruct his intricate latticework as the full quartet winds the piece out is a rare treat.

The brief, loose-limbed take of Nature Boy here is a fade up from a mutedly jubilant, Bahia-tinged bass-and-drums groove, Coltrane choosing his spots, riding the chromatic escalator and then sliding down with a sage effortlessness. He plays alto here, going for smoke and grit. Tyner has either decided to sit the whole thing out, or he’s done by the time the band get to this edit.

The version of Villa – a Franz Lehar number first released in 1965 – shuffles along genially. Even on this otherwise pretty generic swing tune, the chemistry between Jones’ ride cymbal and Tyner’s lefthand is stunning. The early trio version of Impressions – which Coltrane would later use later that year as an album title track- has a carefree, exploratory feel, Garrison reaching up to stab holes in the clouds as the bandleader unravels and then rips at the easygoing central theme, Jones building to a deviously vaudevillian, retro 30s attack.

The version of One Up One Down here is a real sizzler, Tyner just short of frantic while Coltrane pulls out the stops with his insistent clusters and Jones does the same with his machinegunning volleys. Tyner’s coy, charming righthand runs offer unexpected contrast. Coltrane would later release it on what album.

The seven alternate takes here all have their moments. Plenty of other artists would have seen fit to release them; this group obviously held themselves to a higher standard. A somewhat more feathery take of Villa, a hard-charging, abbreviated first take of Impressions, a similarly electric, longer second one, and a relaxed, more tropical version of the first untitled original are the highlights and transcend mere marginality.

It’ll be very interesting to see if Tyner pulls out any of this material for his shows at the Blue Note, where he’ll be on July 30 and 31 with sets at 8 and 10:30 PM. You can get in for $30.

July 8, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flute Music for People Who Hate It

The Ali Ryerson Jazz Flute Big Band‘s album, just out from Capri, is titled Game Changer. And it is, both in the sense of advocacy for an instrument that’s still considered esoteric in jazz, and for its unexpectedly stunning sonics. Don’t think of this as a flute album – consider this a wind ensemble playing big band jazz, and when you realize that except for the piano, bass and drums, it’s all flutes, you”ll realize how brilliant it is. Ryerson was clearly fed up with being castigated for her choice of jazz instrument, so she rounded up eighteen (18!) other jazz flutists for ten long, lush, nebulously epic arrangements of classics, a couple of Neal Hefti tunes plus a modern bop number and one pilfered from the late Romantic canon. With their Gil Evans-esque colors, these imaginative, ambitious arrangements span the entire spectrum of the flute (the presence of many alto and bass flutes here has a lot to do with the lush sonics), creating a sort of a big band jazz counterpart to famed multi-recorder avant-garde ensemble QNG.

The album’s charts are expansive, pillowy, balmy, and often swoony: intentional or not, much of this is boudoir jazz. Bassist Rufus Reid (whose first solo is way up the scale, wryly consistent with the album theme) and Akira Tana on drums and percussion join with pianist Mark Levine to keep this big pillow on the bed. They open with a scampering Levine arrangement of the Clifford Brown classic Dahoud, with a solo from Paul Liberman; with its many timbral contrasts, it’s amazing that there are no saxes on this. Mike Wofford’s Gil Evans-inspired arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Ana Maria is moodily orchestral: flute soloist Marc Adler sneaks his way out of a syncopated thicket, choosing his spots as the rhythm section crashes.

Another Wofford arrangement, Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments has the best of the solos, from Hubert Laws, who keeps it cool and mentholated as band swings. Steve Rudolph’s chart for Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child has the orchestra doing it as translucent clave, soloist Jamie Baum’s alto flute tersely dancing, Levine tiptoeing over the cloudbanks into unexpected and welcome darkness. A Bill Cunliffe chart for Dizzie Gillespie’s Con Alma alternates between light and lustrous, waltz time and clave; it’s true to its era, with a lively Nestor Torres solo.

Neal Hefti’s Girl Talk is reinvented via a subdued Michael Abene chart with an unexpected moodiness: there’s considerable irony in how all these flutes give this otherwise rather lightweight tune plenty of gravitas, soloist Holly Hoffman maintaining the mood, then handing off to Ryerson (on alto flute) and then Reid. The other Hefti tune, also arranged by Abene, is L’il Darlin, Bob Chadwick’s bass flute seamless with the ensemble on the lower end through a series of clever rhythmic diversions.

Andrea Brachfeld’s long, energetic solo on Coltrane’s Impressions evokes the ebullience of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. There’s also a terse, bolero-ish Wofford arrangement of Tom Harrell’s Sail Away with Ryerson on alto flute, and an imaginative Billy Kerr arrangement of the famous Gabriel Faure Pavane with some nimbly shifting banks of sound throughout the ensemble. One glaring omission: nothing from the Dave Valentin book. Now there’s a guy who transcended any perceived limitations on his instrument! But that’s a minor quibble. Play this for someone who doesn’t like the flute and watch their jaw drop when you tell them what it is.

September 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jussi Reijonen Holds the Crowd Rapt Uptown

Wednesday night uptown at Shrine, Jussi Reijonen alluded that the quiet, reflective compositions from his new album Un might be liberating to New Yorkers looking to escape the afterwork bustle outside. Was he ever right. To describe Reijonen’s music, or his quartet onstage as cosmopolitan would be a considerable understatement. Respectively, guitarist/oudist Reijonen, pianist Utar Artun, bassist Brad Barrett and percussionist Tareq Rantisi represent for Finland, Turkey, California and Palestine. While Reijonen’s work, and his playing, span the emotional spectrum, there’s a searching quality to much of it that haunted this performance. He mused to the audience that this might have something to do with a childhood spent in the stillness of Lapland at the edge of the Arctic circle.

Reijonen’s lively, acerbically dancing oud led the band into the opening number, Rantisi’s nonchalantly triumphant cymbal crashes pairing against Artun’s starlit piano flourishes over stark washes from Barrett. An animatedly nocturnal, chromatically bristling Artun solo over a slinky rhythm wound down to a creepily mysterious, modal glimmer and then back up again, Reijonen then taking it in a stark, haunting direction evocative of Marcel Khalife.

While Rantisi had a full drum kit to work with, he colored the songs with boomy hand drum accents, played muffled hoofbeat rhythms on the toms with his hands and nebulous atmospherics with his brushes, ratcheting up the suspense. Likewise, Barrett alternated between long-tone pitchblende lines and agile, looping phrases, adding a minimalist pulse to an absolutely mystical take of John Coltrane’s Naima, Reijonen’s electric guitar bringing it to a rapturous, meditative but uneasy calm, equal parts Messiaen and Bill Frisell, Artun livening it with a pointillistic summer shower on the high keys.

They played Lorenzo Castelli’s Decisions, a gorgeously brooding jazz waltz, as a sonata of sorts, its theme and variations like waves on a rising tide driven by Artun’s sparkling, sometimes sinister crescendos. Reijonen followed with a homage to Toumani Diabate in a duo with Rantisi, energetically evoking spiky kora voicings that uncoiled with a serpentine, hypnotic energy.

And then a turmpet mysteriously wafted into the mix. Was there a ringer in the band walking in from offstage? No. The bartender had apparently decided he’d had enough of the band, so he’d put some high-energy Afrobeat on the house PA – while the set was still in progress! The same thing happened to Raya Brass Band a couple of weeks ago at Radegast Hall. Some people can’t buy a clue, and it’s too bad they work at music venues.

June 14, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doug Webb Slays With His Own Stuff

If you see a lot of jazz, you’re probably used to watching familiar faces run through familiar material and wondering to yourself, what if they were left to their own devices? What if they did their own stuff – would they take it to the next level? Doug Webb’s latest album Swing Shift is one answer to that question.

Back in April of 2009, the saxophonist sequestered himself in a Los Angeles studio for a marathon session with a rotating cast of characters. By any standard, the results were spectacularly successful, netting enough material for two good-naturedly energetic, expertly delivered albums of mostly standards, 2009’s Midnight and 2010’s Renovations…and this one. If edgy postbop jazz is your thing, this is your album: Posi-Tone definitely saved the best for last. Webb has chops that’ll make your eyeballs pop. Remember that old Coltrane line about how “everybody thinks I’m playing glissandos but they’re really arpeggios,” or something like that? Whether playing tenor or alto, Webb is on that level, technique-wise, rising with seemingly effortless ease from liquid crystal swirls to gritty, clenched-teeth squalls in places. But this isn’t a chops album – it’s a hot vibe album on a high-octane tip in the same vein as Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers.

Rhythmic shifts are key here, even as they gradually get into it with Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes, done as a matter-of-factly swinging blues ballad. Webb takes it doublespeed in a split second, almost imperceptibly, setting up an incisively scampering Larry Goldings piano solo, then resuming his pace without breaking a sweat – or so it seems. Then they jump into the centerpiece of the album, the practically 23-minute Patagonia Suite, a co-write for Webb and bassist Stanley Clarke (who proves to be the perfect fit for this record, whether turning in tireless overtime walking scales, adding low-pressure buoyancy with judicious, juicy chords and even leading the band through a reggae-tinged interlude toward the end). Playing alto with a high, biting, practically snarling tone, Webb casually makes his way through steady eighth-note clusters built around a simple minor-key riff, to wailing squalls, to a dark, stern, straight-ahead, thoughtfully JD Allen-esque interlude that he ends completely unleashed. The architecture is just as smart as the playing, Webb assigning pianist Mahesh Balasooriya (and, to a lesser extent, Clarke) the tough role of following with long solos that echo the sax’s shift from methodical to completely unhinged. Both players register a bullseye, drummer Gerry Gibbs (who played the entire session) cleverly building suspense with his one deadpan, matter-of-fact solo.

In fact, the piece as a whole seems to be a series of variations on Frank Foster’s gorgeously edgy Simone, which is the track that follows: whether their version served as the prototype, or was intended as a coda, it works magically, with a jaw-dropping, supersonic cadenza by Balasooriya, incessant but almost imperceptible tempo shifts and a relentlessly bracing, modal attack by Webb.

They do Rogers and Hart’s Where or When as a trio with no drums, Joe Bagg playing piano with terse hints of stride: even here, Webb is still wired from track two and in edgy minor mode, which redeems this increasingly moldy oldie many times over. They follow that with a Webb/Gibbs duo, Rizone, swirling clusters versus steadily shuffling rhythm and wind up the album with another bracing Webb/Clarke collaboration, Apodemia, evocative (as much of this album is) of Kenny Garrett’s best 1990s-era work. As they do with Where or When, they take their time pulling it together, Clarke fueling the smoldering blaze with his chords, Bagg’s piano unveiling a rippling midnight ambience while Webb broodingly contemplates his next move, the band swaying expectantly underneath. Other than the first track, the tension never really lets up here. This isn’t late night sleepy jazz and it sure as hell isn’t boudoir jazz but as a shot of adrenaline after a rough day at work, it’s unbeatable. Lisa Simpson would be proud (Webb plays her sax parts on tv).

March 14, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Joel Yennior Trio’s Smart, Entertaining Debut

Trombonist Joel Yennior is best known for his work with Either/Orchestra, but he’s also a composer and bandleader with an often deviously witty signature sound. His free jazz quartet Gypsy Schaeffer’s most recent album, from last year, was an absolute delight. So is his latest project, the Joel Yennior Trio’s debut cd, Big City Circus. And it’s more diverse than the wickedly playful improvisations that he excels at: his dark, pensive central suite here is just as compelling as the more upbeat compositions. This group has an interesting configuration: Yennior is joined here by Eric Hofbauer on guitar and Gary Feldman on drums: as a bassless outfit, the trio deftly switch around to provide a low-register pulse, whether the guitar is pedaling a chord or a low note on the beat, Yennior pulls his slide all the way out, or the drums rumble around. And it makes the arrangements interesting, particularly on Monk’s Gallop’s Gallop, Yennior and Hofbauer switching roles, Hofbauer doing subtly spot-on rhythm and bass at once during the first verse.

The genial original swing tune Dancing Dave sets a warmly melodic tone that remains throughout the album. Burt Bacharach’s A House Is Not a Home is a showcase for gently swaying, warmly tuneful upper-register work from Yennior as the guitar and drums swing tersely underneath. A shapeshifting Ran Blake ballad, Breakthru is closer to Gypsy Schaeffer’s unpredictable jams than anything else here, Hofbauer and Feldman prowling around, waiting for the moment when they all pull it together at the end.

Another original, Postcard to Dorothy is a vividly expressive, wistful jazz waltz. Yennior goes low and outside as Hofbauer solos gently up to a simple Coltrane-esque hook, some deft drum accents and then back. The centerpiece of the album is the practically sixteen-minute three-part suite Justice Lost, inspired by a dispiriting turn Yennior took as a jury member (it was a murder trial: they didn’t convict). They kick it off with a big, cynical intro, liberally quoting the Godfather theme, Feldman’s cymbals and eventually Hofbauer’s guitar chords resounding memorably beneath Yennior’s protesting trombone. The second part is a mournful Ellingtonian blues with some bitterly rustic muted playing by Yennior and a couple of pointedly ironic passages where guitar and trombone go off on completely different tracks but then lock back in a split second. It winds up with a staccato tango that hints at collapse, which it does after a bright solo by Yennior. Feldman gets marvelously suspenseful and whispery, trombone and guitar diverge further and further from any kind of resolution, and then it’s over. The album closes with a brightly tuneful, shuffling version of Estrellita, a Mexican pop song from the 1950s popularized by Charlie Parker. It’s a stealth candidate for best jazz album of 2010.

August 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment