Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pensive, Original Guitar Jazz from Ryan Blotnick

Ryan Blotnick has an original and distinctive voice on the guitar. His Americana-tinged jazz has some of the opacity of indie rock, but not the peevishness, along with occasional detours toward the baroque. He’s all the more noteworthy for not wasting notes, maintaining a pensive, grey-sky atmosphere for the most part through his new album Solo, Volume 1, streaming in its entirety at his Bandcamp page. His choice of guitar – a rare 1959 Martin 00-18 electric, indistinguishable from its acoustic sister except for the pickup haphazardly built in without any other design modifications – has a lot to do with the sound he gets here. For one, the album’s extreme closemiking raises the intimacy by leaps and bounds – listening to this, it’s almost as if you’re inside the body of the guitar. Being a hollowbody, it gets an unusually interesting, lo-fi resonance that Blotnick mines for a richly subtle sonic pallette by varying his attack and shifting dynamics within the eight compositions here.

His only cover here, Monk’s Mood, is spacious to the point of suspense – as he often does here, Blotnick offers not the slightest hint of where he’s going to go with this, precise and judicious but also restless, sometimes crossing the line into visceral unease. The most intense track here, Dreams of Chloe is a bit of an anomaly, Lynchian and luridly droning, Blotnick fingerpicking both low and high registers for a raw, wailing, desolate ambience.

The Ballad of Josh Barton is a less stylized, more original take on Bill Frisell-style Americana jazz that makes its way to an unexpectedly scampering interlude, Blotnick winding his way out as he alternates oldtime folk lines and variations on slow, watery, strummed motifs. A stubborn absence of resolution pervades this song, as it does many of the other tracks, most notably the next one, Salt Waltz, with its muted Spanish allusions.

Hymn for Steph brings to mind John Fahey, although it’s more expansive, a ghostly tremolo insinuating itself as Blotnick builds to variations on a stately yet nebulous descending riff. The longest track here, Lenny’s Ghost evokes Jorma Kaukonen in inspired early acoustic Hot Tuna mode, working permutations on a dark two-chord folk riff, hinting at flamenco and then spreading its wings and gently sailing aloft with elegant wide-angle arpeggios. Blotnick employs a backward-masking effect for the strangely attractive miniature Intermellen, and closes with the lyrical, allusive Michelle Says, alternating suspenseful crescendos with the album’s most classically-tinged interlude. It’s a great late-night album and a goldmine of inspiration for guitarists in a wide range of styles.

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February 4, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jesus Taco Put an Original, Literate Spin on Americana

Swiss-based lo-fi Americana trio the Jesus Taco’s debut album takes its cue from field recordings: it’s as if they decided to record everything in their collective songbooks. Along with the fully realized creations, there are the fragments, the unfinished numbers and sonic japes that fly by and are gone almost before you realize it. Perhaps to maintain a flow, pretty much every track here segues into the next. Frontman/guitarist Brett Davidson is a strong singer with some Gram Parsons inflections, accompanied by Sascha Greuter on acoustic and electric guitars along with respected luthier Tyko Runesson on mandolin, guitars and blues harp. Darkness alternates with good humor and some hijinks that sometimes seem more fun to the band than to an outsider along with others that are more accessible, and hard to resist. The longer songs and instrumentals are separated by a series of miniatures: simple fingerpicked melodies, astringent washes of feedback, a couple of brief, tuneful ragtime piano interludes, some folk-funk and what seems to be a woman laughing her way through either quoting or impersonating some ditz from reality tv.

The best song here is The Meek, a jangly, symbolically charged folk-rock gem:

When they found me on South Main
There were bruises on my brain
So they put me on ice
The charity wards were swollen with sorrow
But the nurses were nice…
Said I wanted to kill
So they put me on pills for a week…
Wretched are the ways of the weak
And the ways we pray for a winning streak …

The casual ominousness of Ten O’Clock evokes Lou Reed’s Sunday Morning, down to the glockenspiel. A simple litany of wanting more, and more, and more, wastes no time in making its point. One of the later numbers blends sci-fi imagery with an eerie rural milieu; there’s also the aptly titled, cantabile acoustic guitar instrumental So Calm, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the later works of John Fahey, a brief New Orleans/punk rock interlude that evokes the Dead Milkmen, and a gently fingerpicked acoustic ballad in Swedish. It’s another welcome surprise from upstart Swiss label Weak Records.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/11/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #504:

Derek & the DominoesLayla

No way, no way, no way. This can’t be one of the alltime top 666. “Classic rock radio” has burnt this to toast.

 

Oh yeah? Every year, a new generation of gradeschool kids discovers it with fresh ears. And did you know that for all intents and purposes, the hack who gets all the credit for it basically didn’t write it? That opening guitar lick? Stolen straight out of Personal Manager by Albert King. All those layers of crazy slide guitar overdubs? Duane Allman. And the piano part? That was written and played by the drummer, Jim Gordon, who later went nuts, killed his mother and remains institutionalized in California, 25 years later. Contrarians should check out John Fahey’s lovely 1984 acoustic guitar instrumental version. 

March 10, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Breadfoot Featuring Anna Phoebe – Tea with Leo

The heir apparent to the legacy of John Fahey teams up with an inspired violinist on this gorgeously rustic, fluid album of pastoral acoustic instrumentals. Like Fahey, Breadfoot blends 19th century folk, old-time country and delta blues influences but resists any impulse to be bound by the traditional constraints of any of those idioms. What results is equal parts great Sunday afternoon album and passout record: it’ll get you going as well as it gets you down for the night.

The opening track, A Hard Day in Manhattan wanders along with an understatement that would do Fahey proud, an exercise in subtlety and dynamics. It’s all melody, no garish flourishes or ostentation. The album’s second track, the wistful, 6/8 lament Hilary Rose is over too soon, barely into its sad, thoughtful testimonial. By contrast, the following cut, Polly Loved Me (I Know) is a rousing Appalachian dance, sparks flying from the frets of Breadfoot’s six-string banjo (!!) and the strings of the fiddle.

Of the other tracks on the album, the next one, International Esther is probably the most overtly Fahey-esque number and wouldn’t be out of place on Blind Joe Death. That’s high praise. Very nice hesitation time at the end of the tune. Kecha is guitar only, a brightly bouncing open-tuned Piedmont blues melody a la Pink Anderson. The album’s best single cut may be the thoughtful, gently pensive Smoking on the Stoop. The cd concludes with the 6/8 ballad On the Day that I Go, which would make a great soundtrack to that Twilight Zone episode – I think it was called Willoughby. You know the one, the guy takes Metro North from Manhattan, think’s he’s on the way home but he winds up back in the 1800s, watching thekids take hayrides through the dusty, unpaved streets of his town. There’s also a rousing bonus track that kicks in after what seems eternity.

Clocking in at under half an hour, this cd’s greatest flaw is its brevity: it leaves you wanting twice as much. And not that the violin isn’t a welcome accompaniment here, but for anyone who’s heard him live, Breadfoot’s idiosyncratic vision and brilliant melodicism come through clearest when he plays solo. See him when you can. When’s the last time you danced to a solo acoustic guitar instrumental, anyway? Cd’s are available online, at shows and better record stores nationwide.

April 22, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment