Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

John Yao’s Triceratops Is Warm-Blooded and Has a Brain

Trombonist John Yao‘s music tends to be vivid, colorful and cinematic. As you would guess from someone who named his current quintet Triceratops, he also has a sense of humor – these guys are actually the furthest thing from dinosaurs. The quintet’s eruditely tuneful debut album How We Do – streaming at Bandcamp – is a change of pace in that Yao’s game plan was to challenge himself writing harmonically transparent charts for three horns in a chordless band, as well as to mix up the textures for the sake of contrast. Improvisation tends to wander further outside here than in the rest of his catalog, occasionally with more of a hardbop edge as well.

It doesn’t take Jon Irabagon two minutes into the opening number, Three Parts As One, before he’s skronking and then warmly rejoining the frontline, with a bit of a cheery Tex-Mex touch echoed by fellow altoist Billy Drewes over the clustering rhythm section of bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Mark Ferber.

Brendler pedals spacious, syncopated chords as the moody, rather majestic Triceratops Blues lurches along: thematically and tunefully, it brings to mind JD Allen’s occasional work with multiple-horn bands. The album’s title track slowly coalesces, like a B train slowly making its way out of the yards and then picking up the pace, in this case with a jaunty steamwhistle shuffle.

The Golden Hour is aptly titled, a waltzing study in lustre, divergent and convergent architecture, both harmonically and rhythmically, with a killer, bracingly spiraling solo from Drewes at the center. Doin’ the Thing has a matter-of-fact, Adderley Brothers-tinged swing, a wiseass Irabagon solo, Yao taking his time and choosing his spots afterward.

Circular Path has a lovely lullaby of an intro, Irabagon’s lyricism (is that a sopranino sax?) echoed by Yao as the rhythm drifts out tidally. Yao mashes up early 60s-style Prestige Records swing with momentary indie classical-style echo phrasing and an artful tempo change in Two Sides. The group wind up the album with Irabagon’s suspiciously cheery Tea for T, complete with a sprint to the finish line.

For a digital recording, the production values are outstanding; you can hear every woody note in Brendler’s spring-loaded lines, the snap of Ferber’s rims and every icy whisper of the cymbals.

November 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moppa Elliott Brings His Twisted, Hilarious Parodies to Gowanus

Is Moppa Elliott this era’s Frank Zappa? Elliott is funnier, and his jokes are musical rather than lyrical, but there are similarities. Each began his career playing parodies – Zappa with the Mothers of Invention and Elliott with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Their bodies of work are distinguished by an equally broad and spot-on sense of humor, with a cruel streak. With Mostly Other People Do the Killing – the world’s funniest jazz group – seemingly in mothballs at the moment, Elliott has gone out and made a lavish triple album with three separate, closely related ensembles. The world’s funniest jazz bassist is playing a tripleheader, with sets by each of them tomorrow, Feb 15 at Shapeshifter Lab starting at 7 PM with the jazz octet Advancing on a Wild Pitch, following at 8 with quasi-soul band Acceleration Due to Gravity and then at 9 with instrumental 80s rock act Unspeakable Garbage. Cover is $10.

Where MOPDtK savaged Ornette Coleman imitators, fusion jazz and hot 20s swing, among many other styles, the new record Jazz Band/Rock Band/Dance Band gives the bozack to New Orleans shuffles, Kansas City swing and retro 60s soul music, and attempts to do the same to 80s rock. It hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, although there are three tracks up at Soundcloud. Throughout the record, Elliott is more chill than ever, letting his twisted compositions speak for themselves.

It’s redemptive to hear how deliciously Elliott and the “dance band” mock the hordes of white kids aping 60s funk and soul music. This sounds like the Dap-Kings on a cruel overdose of liquid acid, trying desperately to hold it together. Without giving away all the jokes, let’s say that drummer Mike Pride’s rhythm is a persistent punchline. And yet, as relentless as the satire here is, there are genuinely – dare we say – beautiful moments here, notably guitarist Ava Mendoza’s savage roar and tuneful erudition: she really knows her source material.

The horns – trumpeter Nate Wooley, trombonist Dave Taylor, saxophonists Matt Nelson and Bryan Murray – squall when they’re not getting completely self-indulgent, Mendoza serving as good cop. Guitarist Kyle Saulnier and pianist George Burton fall somewhere in the middle along with Elliott. As an imitation of an imitation, several generations removed from James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Louis Jordan, this is hilarious stuff. The arguably most vicious payoff of all is when they swing that unctuous King Crimson tune by the tail until it breaks: it’s about time somebody did that.

Advancing on a Wild Pitch – with trombonist Sam Kulik, baritone saxophonist Charles Evans, pianist Danny Fox and drummer Christian Coleman – is the jazz group here, akin to a less ridiculous MOPDtK. As with that band, quotes and rhythmic japes factor heavily into the sarcasm, but you have to listen more closely than Elliott’s music usually demands to pick up on the snarky pokes. This is also his chance to remind the world that if he really wanted to write slightly above-average, derivative postbop jazz without much in the way of humor to score a record deal, he could do it in his sleep. But this is so much more fun!

Again, without giving away any punchlines, the length of the pieces and also the solos weighs in heavily. Oh baby, do they ever. They savage second-line shuffles, the Basie band, early Ellington, 30s swing and doofy gospel-inspired balladry, among other things. If you really want a laugh and can only listen to one tune here, try St. Marys: the most irresistible bit is about midway through. Even so, there are long, unselfconsciously engaging solos by Fox and Kulik in the two final numbers, Ship and Slab, which don’t seem like parodies at all. If Elliott has a dozen more of these kicking around, he could blend right in at Jazz at Lincoln Center – and maybe sneak in some of the really fun stuff too.

Unspeakable Garbage’s honking instrumental approach to cheesy 80s radio rock is too close to its endless litany of sources to really count as parody. With blaring guitar, a leaden beat and trebly synth, they devise mashups from a list including but not limited to Huey Lewis, Van Halen, Pat Benatar and Grover Washington Jr. This predictable shtick gets old fast: Spinal Tap it’s not. You’d do better with Murray and his band Bryan & the Haggards, who have put out three surprisingly amusing albums of instrumental Merle Haggard covers.

February 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gorgeously Haunting New Album and a Queens Residency from Lyrical Trombonist John Yao

Trombonist John Yao thinks big. His music is incredibly catchy, often cinematic, with epic sweep and abundant humor, whether he’s leading his 17-Piece Instrument big band or his quintet. But his latest quintet album, Presence – streaming at Bandcamp – is a radical departure. A distantly haunting, persistent sense of loss pervades the compositions. The central theme seems to be how to maintain a sense of continuity when everything goes horribly awry, in the wake of losing a good friend. It’s one of the half-dozen best jazz releases of 2018 so far.

On one hand, this is a new direction for the typically extroverted Yao. On the other, the frequent latin grooves here are familiar territory, considering his longtime association with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. Yao has a monthly residency at Terraza 7 in Queens, where he’s playing tonight, May 16 at 9 PM with a slightly different lineup than usual: Billy Drewes on saxes, Jon Irabagon on tenor, Peter Brendler on bass and Jeremy Noller on drums. Cover is $10.

The album opens with Tight Rope, an uneasy psychedelic latin funk number, Randy Ingram’s lingering Rhodes holding the center as Iragabon’s soprano sax methodically and enigmatically leaps around, the bandleader introducing an unexpected calm. It wouldn’t be out of place in the early 70s Eddie Palmieri songbook.

The title track is more contemplative, drummer Shawn Baltazor working subtle permutations on a simple clave, around the kit, Ingram and Yao finding closure with concise solos. Baltazor ushers in the third number, the broodingly starry ballad M. Howard with muted polyrhythms beneath Yao’s sober foghorn riffs and Ingram’s moody piano, Brendler holding close to the center, up to a pensively spacious solo. The horn harmonies rising behind Ingram’s angst-fueled modal piano solo are a high point out of many on this album.

Over the Line has a funky sway and more of the gorgeously muted melodicism that pervades the record, Yao making his way through the album’s most enigmatic yet haunting solo, then hands off to Irabagon’s flickering ghost of a sopranino sax solo as Ingram glimmers eerily in the upper registers. Baltazor’s rise from sepulchral to resigned and energetic caps off one of Yao’s best compositions. 

The tumbling, altered New Orleans-isms and chattering individual voices of the free interlude Fuzzy Logic are suspiciously joyous. The shadowy, blues-tinged modalities of Nightfall make a stark contrast, Yao reaching down into the well to pull up some sustenance over a nimble, crescendoing, syncopated drive.

He opens 1247 Chestnut, a tone poem of sorts, with a goodnaturedly terse theme over muted, rubato tom-toms, Irabagon’s soprano further lightening the mood, Ingram branching outward with rustling neoromanticisms. The album’s final number is the aptly titled Bouncy’s Bounce, which has a triumphant Louis Armstrong-ish swing, a celebration of getting back in the groove to stay.

May 16, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitarist Chris Jentsch Air Out His Latest Vivid, Cinematic, Politically Relevant Suite

Where so many jazz musicians write riffs and then jam them out, guitarist Chris Jentsch writes lavish suites – which he then plays with remarkable terseness and attention to detail. His narratives are vivid and often very funny. His latest, Topics in American History, couldn’t be more relevant. Leading his sardonically titled No Net in what was the final live performance of those songs last week at Greenwich House Music School, Jentsch played with his usual purposefulness. restraint and sense of the musical mot juste, joined by an all-star cast including Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet, David Smith on trumpet, Brian Drye on trombone, Michel Gentle on flutes, Jacob Sacks on piano, Jim Whitney on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums.

Last-minute substitution Jon Irabagon did a heroic job reading his parts, as Jentsch acknowledged, adding both volleys of postbop purism on tenor sax along with wry, microtonally-tinged humor that dovetailed with the bandleader’s own sensibility.

The centerpiece of the show was Dominos, a forebodingly expanding tableau that brought to mind Darcy James Argue in particularly sinister mode. A sotto-voce, latin-tinged, quasi-Lynchian spy theme that explores Cold War-era paranoia, its high point was a distantly grim, hazily sunbaked Jentsch solo midway through.

The evening’s coda, Meeting at Surratt’s, was arguably even better. The band built hushedly marching, conspiratorial ambience around a wistfully folksy Ashokan Farewell-ish theme to commemorate Mary Surratt, the first woman in US history executed for a Federal crime. The proprietor of the Washington, DC boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot for the Lincoln assassination, she may well have been innocent. Ineluctably and somberly, the band made their way through its mighty, cinematic sweep, from southern gothic to Morricone-esque insistence, down to a single macabre swoop from Jentsch’s guitar, a body falling from the gallows.

The rest of the set was just as diverse and no less gripping. Tempest-Tost, inspired by an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, followed the steady if turbulent path of Ellis Island immigrants, Jentsch’s low, looming solo front and center. Smith and Drye’s irresistibly cartoonish dueling personalities brought jaunty banter to the New Orleans-tinged Lincoln-Douglass Debates. The uneasily expanding vistas of Manifest Destiny – with incisive solos from Whitney, McGinnis and Irabagon, the latter on soprano – grew more satirical in Suburban Diaspora, its vintage soul roots subsumed by blustery faux-optimism. And the night’s opening number, 1491, bookended a jaunty tropical-tinged shuffle with wryly jungly atmospherics – clearly, the continent was in a lot better shape that year than the next, when the slaver Columbus arrived.

May 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show

Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.

Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is. Credit Great Plains gothic songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister for bringing the two together: they first performed in Bannister’s Fort Greene living room.

And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.

Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.

Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.

Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.

July 19, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The World’s Funniest Jazz Band Return to Their Favorite Brooklyn Spot

What makes Mostly Other People Do the Killing so damn funny? They do their homework, they really know their source material and they can spot a cliche a mile away. Over the course of their dozen-album career, the world’s most consistently amusing jazz band have pilloried styles from hot 20s swing to post-Ornette obsessiveness. They also did a pretty much note-for-note recreation of Kind of Blue (that was their “serious” album). Their latest release, Loafer’s Hollow – streaming at Spotify – lampoons 1930s swing, Count Basie in particular. There’s an additional layer of satire here: ostensibly each track salutes a novelist, among them Vonnegut, Pynchon, Joyce, Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace. The band return to their favorite Brooklyn haunt, Shapeshifter Lab on June 29 at around 8:15, with an opening duo set at 7 from their pianist Ron Stabinsky with adventurous baritone saxophonist Charles Evans. Cover is $10.

The band keeps growing. This time out the three remaining original members – bassist Moppa Elliott, multi-saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea – join forces with Stabinsky, banjo player Brandon Seabrook, trombonist Dave Taylor and Sexmob trumpeter/bandeader Steven Bernstein, an obvious choice for these merry pranksters.

This is  a cautionary tale, one negative example after another. Respect for bandmates’ space? Appropriateness of intros, lead-ins, choice of places to solo or finish one? Huh?  For anyone who’s ever wanted to take their instrument and smash it over the head of an egocentric bandmate, this is joyous revenge. It also happens to be a long launching pad for every band member’s extended technique: theses guys get sounds that nobody’s supposed to.

It’s not easy to explain these songs without giving away the jokes. Let’s say the satire is somewhat muted on the first track, at least when it comes to what Seabrook is up to, Bernstein on the other hand being his usual self.

Honey Hole – a droll ballad, duh – is where the horns bust out their mutes, along with the first of the chaotic breakdowns the band are known for. Can anybody in this crew croon a little? We could really use a “Oh, dawwwwling” right about here.

A strutting midtempo number, Bloomsburg (For James Joyce) takes the mute buffoonery to Spike Jones levels. Kilgore (For Kurt Vonnegut) its where the band drops all pretense of keeping a straight face, from the cartoonish noir of the intro (Seabrook’s the instigator) to the bridge (not clear who’s who – it’s too much), to Stabinsky’s player piano gone berserk.

Stabinsky’s enigmatic, Messiaenic solo intro for Mason & Dixon (For Thomas Pynchon) is no less gorgeous for being completely un-idiomatic; later on, the band goes into another completely different idiom that’s just plain brutally funny. Likewise, Seabrook’s mosquito picking and Taylor’s long, lyrical solo in Meridian (For Cormac McCarthy) are attractive despite themselves. Maybe that’s the point – Blood Meridian’s a grim story.

The band returns to a more subtle satire – such that it exists here – with Glen Riddle (For David Foster Wallace), in many respects a doppelganger with the album’s opening track. They wind it up with Five (Corners, Points, Forks), which gives the gasface to Louis Armstrong – and reminds how many other genres other than jazz this band loves to spoof. As usual, there are tons of quotes from tunes both iconic and obscure:  this is the rare album of funny songs that stands up to repeated listening.

Not to be a bad influence, but these catchy, jaunty tunes reaffirm that if the band  really wanted, they could just edit out the jokes and then they’d be able to get a gig at any respectable swing dance hall in the world  Another fun fact: this album was originally titled Library (all MOPDtK albums are named after towns in Elliott’s native Pennsylvania). In researching the area, Elliott discovered that before it was Library, it was Loafer’s Hollow. The more things change, right?

June 27, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Daniel Bennett Brings His Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Jazz Songs to the Lower East Side

Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.

The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.

Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.

Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.

Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.

Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.

March 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brooklyn Blowhards Make Crazy Jazz Out of Sea Chanteys

The Brooklyn Blowhards Albert Alyer-ize sea chanteys. As bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Lederer told the crowd at their record release show at Joe’s Pub last night, they got their start when trumpeter Kirk Knuffke brought an album of sea chanteys by the Foc’sle Singers over to Lederer’s place. Ayler being Lederer’s “personal muse,” as he put it, the connection was made.

Connection? Isn’t this seven-piece band just a bunch of A-list New York jazzcats having absurdist punk-jazz fun with the last themes you’d ever expect these guys to be pilfering? Well, sort of. But there’s no denying the similarity between the singalong quality of sea chanteys and the disarmingly direct, simple, catchy ideas that Ayler liked to slice and dice. Being work songs, some chanteys have a sway and swing that also dovetails with jazz.

The rest of the band onstage playing these less-than-likely mashups included Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Brian Drye on trombone, Ches Smith on drums and Stephen LaRosa on marching bass drum and percussion. Art Bailey sat behind everyone, played accordion and was only audible during the show’s relatively few quiet moments. Guitarist Gary Lucas guested on resonator on a couple of numbers, alongside Lederer’s wife Mary LaRose, who supplied both low-key, soul-infused vocals and tongue-in-cheek recitations.

Beyond traditional numbers like Hull Away Joe, the band also write their own. Lederer dedicated Black Ball Line to its inspiration, the transatlantic freight company: They opened that one as a tenor sax duet between Lederer and Irabagon, turning on a dime into fullscale freakout and ending with a droll, deadpan marching vamp. Ayler’s Dancing Waters served as a showcase not only for sputtering and frenzy but a surprising, contrasting lyricism. They closed with another Ayler tune, Island Harvest, which with its jaunty calypso chorus and sardonic spoken-word passages juxtaposed with unhinged improvisation, capsulizes what this group is all about.

The night’s funniest moment, out of many, belonged to Iragabon, as you might expect. He opened a sopranino sax solo with a rapidfire practice pattern and wowed the crowd with his unwavering fluidity if not imagination. But then he went into the extended technique, maintaining the same breathtaking precision through all sorts of harmonics and overtones and finally capped it off with a series of defeated squawks. The crowd howled. And just when it seemed that all this would be about fun and games, they hit an unexpected plaintiveness with Santy Anno, kicking it off as a misty dockside tableau and then taking it into darkly resonant territory on the gentle, steady wings of Drye’s trombone. It was a reminder of just how serious the guys in this crazy band usually are.

April 7, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Killer Edgy Jazz Triplebill This Thursday at Shapeshifter Lab

Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.

As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then reconfigures, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the conventional wisdom that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?

Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.

And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard  to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir. 

February 16, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment