Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

May 31, 2017 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).

November 16, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gregg August and Sextet Smolder at Smoke

On one level, it could be said that bassist Gregg August and his band put on a clinic in straight-ahead latin-flavored postbop last night at Smoke. But the show was also just plain good fun: the sextet’s judicious exuberance was contagious. Much as August’s compositions can be rigorously cerebral and often very intense, they’re just as catchy  The solo of the night – at least from the generously expansive first set – was from Yosvany Terry on alto sax, who began with a goodnatured nonchalance and worked his way methodically and increasingly apprehensively to a shivery, menacing coda on For Max, a wickedly hook-driven, vintage Miles Davis-inflected number from August’s latest album Four by Six. Trumpeter John Bailey channeled his inner bluesman, tenor saxophonist John Ellis worked the corners dynamically over the sometimes incisively dancing, sometimes radiantly resonant piano of Xavier Davis, drummer Rudy Royston pushing the clave by riding the rims, throwing elbows at August with playful polyrhythms. And for all of August’s wry wit – most noticeably during a solo late in the set, where he seemed to draw a blank and then decided to make a good joke out of it – his music is serious. Darkness and transcendence were in full effect.

They only did the traditional solos-around-the-horn thing once, on the opening number, Deceptions, Royston more than hinting that he was in the mood for more than a steady swing groove,  finally taking it outside as August held the rhythm in place, switching to terse, even minimal, from out of a tirelessly racewalking pace. The night’s second tune built on a ridiculously catchy ensemble hook from the horns over clave syncopation – that groove was nearly ubiquitous even when it was implied, which was much of the time. A little later, they mixed up the beats with an epically intense take of Sweet Melody, a dark salsa jazz piece, Davis building noir ambience with lingering, glimmering chromatics over Royston’s hypnotically simple pulse, Terry switcing to chekere and energizing the crowd with his agility on the big rattle. They gracefully faded down all but one of the songs, which made sense considering that everybody in the band is busy with other projects (August is first chair bassist in the Brooklyn Phiharmonic and also joins forces with Royston in JD Allen’s trio), and may not have had much rehearsal time at their disposal. But any chance to see August lead a band and play his own music is a treat, and made the trip uptown to this cozy, sonically rich spot well worth the effort.

February 7, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brian Charette’s Music for Organ Sextette Takes the B3 to the Next Level

Brian Charette’s an interesting guy. He practices an unorthodox style of kung fu; he writes authoritatively on topics like chord voicings in Messiaen; and he plays the Hammond B3 organ like no other jazz musician. That might be because he was on the fast track to a career in classical music before being sidelined by a severe finger injury. So he went into jazz, and the world is richer for it. Charette employs every inch of his B3 for an unexpectedly diverse, rich sonic spectrum. His compositions are counterintuitive, catchy and clever, but not too clever by half. His latest album, Music for Organ Sextette is cerebral and witty, packed with good tunes and good ideas: it shifts the paradigm as far as carving out a place for the organ in jazz is concerned. The band here is superb and rises to the occasion, with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums.

Bright and ambitious, the opening track, Computer God sets the tone, the organ against punchy punctuation from ensemble horns over a bossa beat that morphs into a vivid dichotomy between wicked chromatic chorus and a tricky, circular, riff-driven verse. Charette’s use of the organ’s highest, most keening tones, along with DiRubbo’s occasional diversion into microtones, adds edge and bite. They follow that with a miniature straight out of Scarlatti, Fugue for Katheleen Anne, and then into the Ex Girlfriend Variations, who if the music is to be believed is a nice girl but she just won’t shut up. It’s a soul song, essentially, building to a nimbly orchestrated thicket of individual voices and New Orleans allusions that threaten to completely fall apart but never do. A study in incessant tempo shifts, Risk disguises a soul/blues tune within all kinds of hijinks: a coy fake fanfare from Frahm, an unselfconscious yelp from Charette and an irresistibly amusing trick ending. The funniest track here is The Elvira Pacifier, a spot-on parody of a device that every Jamaican roots reggae band always overdoes in concert. It gives Rueckert the chance to prove he’s a mighty one-drop player; Frahm acquits himself well at ska, but DiRubbo and Ellis don’t take it seriously at all. As they probably shouldn’t.

Equal Opportunity offers a launching pad for all kinds of dynamic contrasts: shifting use of space, lead-ins stepping all over outros, whispery lows versus blithe highs, Charette and DiRubbo using every inch of their registers. Prayer for an Agnostic proves the band just as adept at a slow, sweet 6/8 gospel groove, lit up by a spiraling Collins solo; Late Night TV explores a wry, sometimes tongue-in-cheek go-go vibe and then hits unexpectedly joyous heights. French Birds, a slyly polyrhythmic swing tune, features all kinds of nimble accents from Rueckert and reaches for noir ambience, followed by the creepiest track here, Mode for Sean Wayland, jagged funk juxtaposed against eerie, otherworldly interludes that make psychedelia out of big Messiaenesque block chords. The album ends with Tambourine, the album’s one funky “Chicken Shack” moment that takes a jaunty turn in a Booker T direction. It’s a fun ride, and will make new believers of jazz fans who might mistakenly think that all B3 grooves are created equal.

May 24, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, reggae music, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment