Lucid Culture


John Medeski Explores a Different Time at the Stone this February

Pianist John Medeski has an upcoming residency at the Stone from Feb 18 through 23 with sets at 8 and 10 PM featuring a diverse cast of characters, mostly a series of trio performances. While it’s a safe assumption that some of those sets will to some extent reprise the kind of grooves he made a name for himself with in Medeski Martin & Wood, recent years have seen Medeski play with a depth that transcends anything he ever did with MMW. In other words, Medeski is at the absolute peak of his career right now as both a composer and performer. His latest album A Different Time, the first release on the recently revived OKeh label, is a highly improvised solo piano quasi-suite that draws on influences as diverse as noir piano legend Ran Blake, Erik Satie, Ravel and the early Modernists as well as later 20th century minimalism.

The backstory is interesting: Medeski thought he had the album in the can until producer Henry Hirsch encouraged Medeski to try his studio’s 1924 Gaveau piano, built in a nineteenth century style that allows (and in fact requires) more nuance than the Steinway model that was being used to track the album. A little messing around turned out to be a revelation, so Medeski ended up re-cutting the tracks on the Gaveau, in the process adding a lot of unplanned material.

The result is soulful and frequently troubled music. Medeski plays these vignettes with a pensive, uneasy and utterly unpredictable rubato – he likes to pedal the lows and ornament his lingering, brooding themes with rippling upper-register filigrees and clusters of grace notes, moving upward or downward with the flick of a wrist. The album’s opening title track of sorts moves from a resonant rainy-day atmosphere through the hint of an anthem, a restart at the bottom of the scale, lingering Satie-esque minimalism, and then tumbling/tinkling motives that wouldn’t be out of place in the Federico Mompou repertoire

Medeski teases the listener as the cinematic, neoromantic prelude I’m Falling slowly morphs into a fullscale ballad. He adds clever palindrome effects to a quirky reinterpretation of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, then offers a homage to Blake – with whom Medeski studied at New England Conservatory – via a careful march that defiantly resists any resolution even as it hints at the blues. Graveyard Fields works suspenseful allusions to Asian melody and a moody waltz, while Luz Marina, an elegy for an orphan girl, references both the blues and a Satie Gymnopedie, coalescing with a Brad Mehldau-like vividness.

Medeski follows the gospel-tinged miniature Waiting at the Gate with Lacrima, whose morose insistence matches its spaciousness, again echoing Blake at his most moody and pensive. The album ends with an ironically elegaic, resonant, allusively bluesy remake of Otis, a track from MMW’s debut album. Is this jazz improvisation? Definitely. Classical music? Why not? And it testifies powerfully to the kind of literally transcendent results you can get when you defamiliarize and throw yourself into an unexpected situation.


January 27, 2014 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake Headlines a Transcendent NEC Jazz Bill at Symphony Space

The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.

Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed.  Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.

Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.

In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.

Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.

March 25, 2013 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine Find the Groove

Potently intelligent, pensively psychedelic, soul/funk band Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine’s new album The Only Way Out Is In sneaks up on you. Taken as a whole, it’s a mood piece, but it’s also a slinky dance album. What’s most impressive is how aware Rooker is. With her brooding, sometimes sultry, sometimes wounded contralto voice, her lyrics draw just as deeply from conscious hip-hop as from classic soul and funk. The band behind her plays with jazz chops, but with restraint: her collaborator Ben Tyree on guitar, Mamiko Watanabe on electric piano, Lawrence Qualls on drums, Jahmal Nichols handling most of the bass work, V. Jeffrey Smith on tenor and soprano saxes plus a number of guests including John Medeski on organ on several tracks along with Will Martina (of Burnt Sugar) on cello. The album kicks off auspiciously with What If, an existentialist’s dilemma:

What if there’s no rules
What if there’s no truth
What if all we’re believing is a story that we choose
What if what they told you
Don’t ever come true
Better come up with your own script
To live your life through

It sets the tone for the rest of the album, guitar and organ shifting over a slow, fluid, hip-tugging organic groove, with an aptly apprehensive trombone solo from Roland Barber.

The bouncy third-wave soul of Sellin Ya Soul brings back memories of acts like Sandra St. Victor back in the 90s. “I could be a pretty good plenty o’thangs but none of which could touch just being me and I’m good with that, thank you very much,” Rooker asserts. They follow that with the hypnotic I Feel Like and its dark, goth-tinged bassline: “Lord help me remember what I’m fighting for.” The next track, Play is wickedly catchy indie funk – did these guys used to go see Noxes Pond play shows around town about ten years ago? Weather offers blippy, rainy-day ambience; the big ballad Thank You is a trip back in time to Memphis, contrasting with the minimalist bass pulse of Rise and the lush balminess of the title track.

Rooker goes ballistic and straight to the target with the cinematic cautionary tale When We Gon Care, a furiously potent rant against a laundry list of evils: disinformation by the corporate media, the destruction of the environment by multinational corporations, drug companies inventing phony diseases to sell worthless “cures,” and most of all, apathy. It’s Jello Biafra updated for the teens, with better vocals. They wrap up the album with an instrumental, a James Brown-inspired number and the gospel-infused Wait in Line. Count this as one of the most kick-ass albums to come over the transom here recently. Stephanie Rooker & the Search Engine play the big room at the Rockwood on Jan 23 at 8.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments