Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Fearless Singer Reinvents Jazz Luminary’s Compositions in the Here and Now

Allegra Levy’s lyrics have a somewhat cynical, noir-ish take on the world – right up my alley,” says trumpeter John McNeil. That’s an understatement. The New York singer and jazz songwriter is a McNeil protegee, and has most recently written lyrics to a bunch of his compositions dating from the early 80s into the zeros. Then she had the chutzpah to release them as a new album, Lose My Number, with an otherwise all-female band, streaming at Soundcloud.

The intrigue with Levy is that she’s always been a bit of a cipher, someone with a fondness for working allusion and understatement to her advantage. Not nearly so much here. Suddenly Andante Cantabile Levy is, well, the name on the album cover, fearless yet often more misty.

“Another night that I could have been somebody’s someone…fickle fortune would finally be mine,” she intones just short of breathlessly in the album’s opening number, Samba de Beah. But, “Now misfortune is aways by my side.” There’s a gorgeously scrambling Carmen Staaf piano solo over a similarly dramatic backdrop from bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark.

Livin Small turns into an understatedly corrosive reflection on settling for less than we deserve in gentrification-era New York, a determined clave tune with an incisive solo that Staaf refuses to let go of as Rothwell dances over steady washes of cymbals. Remember, New York had a housing crisis long before the lockdown.

The third track, Tiffany is the key to the album. McNeil came up with the song after a gig, walking past Tiffany’s to the train, frustrated that he couldn’t afford the kind of bling he wanted for his fiancee. In this pulsing, rippling nocturne, Levy captures the quiet triumph of walking down Fifh Avenue in the wee hours and realizing that the two didn’t need bling because they had each other.

The composer trades irresisibly amusing, terse phrases with the bandleader in Strictly Ballroom, reinvented as matter-of-fact, metoo-era swing. The even harder-swinging C.J. has irresistible, LOL drum breaks and obvious political subtext. The question is which real-life figure Levy is referring to:

And you’re thinking that you could be what we need
The savior, incomprehensible
And you don’t realize that we look at you
And see zero more than hero

“And in an ocean of despair, a rising tide will leave you stranded,” Levy warns in her interpretation of Dover Beach, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a lifeguard. Clark’s cymbal work, always a treat through the album, really makes a mark here. The cynicism hits redline in the oldtimey Ukulele Tune, Staaf’s judicious Rhodes voicings matched by Levy’s muted strumming and venomous lyrics

Opening with a wryly lyrical McNeil solo, the version of Zephyr here is a spare, gorgeously autumnal reflection, The Peacocks minus the birds, Rothwell adding balletesque grace. The band close with the title track, a redemptively scurrying, increasingly hilarious swing tune reflecting Levy and McNeil’s mutual inability to suffer fools gladly. He obviously fanned a fire under her that had been smoldering for a long time. Stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020. Looks like the polls – the jazz kind as well as the political kind – are going to be a tough call this year.

September 29, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hush Point: Not So Quiet

The debut release from Hush Point is a casually jaunty, low-key summery album. Trumpeter John McNeil and alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden front this pianoless dual horn band. Aryeh Kobrinsky plays bass and contributes the album’s concluding, understatedly celebratory, New Orleans-flavored track; Vinnie Sperazza, whose elbow-dodging shuffles are one of the best things about the recent Ben Holmes Quartet album, does much the same here on drums. With a somewhat muted, dancing rhythm, the quartet sets a mood and maintains it – no wasted notes, good energy, interesting repartee. The groove bounces unpredictably enough to keep everyone on their toes – unostentatious, purposeful, focused.

There are two Jimmy Giuffre compositions here. The first, Iranic, is done as an airy shuffle, with skeletal drum interludes punctuated by similarly skeletal flourishes from the horns. The second, a punchy, amiable McNeil arrangement of The Train & the River has the sax cleverly shadowing the trumpet, Udden eventually reaching for as boisterous a crescendo as there is here.

There’s considerable similarity between the remaining tracks, by both McNeil and Udden. The former contributes Peachful, an easygoing, balmy, summery bounce; Finely Done, an allusive retro 60s number that reaches for and finally hits a shuffling swing; and the warmly upbeat, blues-infused Get Out. Udden’s are somewhat more pensive and grounded in tunesmithing rather than improvisation. B. Remembered offers a lively, swinging variation on the first McNeil track. Bar Talk (yup, that’s a pun) features intricate, baroque-tinged three-way counterpoint between the bass and the horns and forms a diptych with the ballad Fathers and Sons, which finally loosens and gives Sperazza a chance to expand. New Bolero, the darkest and strongest track here, cleverly shifts to doubletime and back, working its way to an unexpectedly moody slink before the band cuts loose and swings it.

July 29, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The NEC Jazz Faculty All-Stars at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/24/10

To steal a line out of the Jim Macnie fakebook (he gets a shout-out because he’s on the side of the angels), this was the coolest faculty meeting you could imagine. The New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty distinguish themselves in a lot of ways but most of all because they maintain fulltime live performance schedules. As trumpeter John McNeil, the group’s class clown, sardonically told the sold-out house at the Jazz Standard last night, a NEC gig assures that you always have the means to pursue others! Which might explain why this gig was a clinic, if hardly an academic one. The camaraderie between McNeil – whose compositions dominated the set list – alongside tenor titan George Garzone, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist Cecil McBee and sub drummer Richie Barshay (Billy Hart couldn’t make it) is comfortable and intiutive, facilitating a clinic in effective listening, trusting one’s bandmates and seeing that trust richly rewarded. It’s not likely that anyone shopping music conservatories was in the crowd, but if they had been, they were either sold or holding out for a bargain that doesn’t exist.

They opened with segueing McNeil numbers, Nanotechnology into Alone Together, mysterioso modal into catchy hook into swing featuring the first of several fast, fluid Garzone solos, McBee going in the opposite direction with lots of space. McNeil got a lot of laughs telling the crowd how he’d named another tune, CJ, after a woman he was pursuing. In retrospect, he should have known that you have to try a little harder than just a blues if you want to impress a woman. Something else that McNeil didn’t know when he wrote it thirty-one years ago, almost to the day: you don’t write the blues before the woman, you write the blues after. But it gave Carlberg the first of many foundations to enigmatically warp the time as he would all night, McBee taking it out quietly, tersely and eerily.

A homage to Piaf, whom McNeil had a crush on as a kid, built from plaintive, insistent piano to gently pulsing, Ray Brown-esque bass, Garzone eventually going major on minor to enhance the somber intensity. Frank Carlberg’s composition Consternation (after the Bird tune A Confirmation) driven by some utterly marvelous Barshay cymbal work, saw the band playfully interjecting themselves into the drum solo. The night’s last number was the best, a Dave Liebman composition that nobody could remember the title to, but they played the hell out of it – a murky modal masterpiece with scurrying rhythm section, icy Carlberg minimalism and more rapidfire Garzone sharpshooting, McNeil avoiding the murk at first but eventually plunging right in as the rhythm section took it all the way up with a stomp that built thisclose to complete ferocity, McBee again leading it out on a quietly moody note. This show was part of NEC Jazz Week in NYC, an allstar series of concerts continuing tomorrow through the big blowout at B.B. King’s on the 27th – the complete schedule is here.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment