Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Ear-Regulars Still Rule Sundays

Popularity is never a reliable barometer for quality: would you stand in line with the tourists and the permanent tourists for eight hours just for a hastily grilled burger at that overpriced joint in that midtown park? Not likely. Longevity, on the other hand, is a sign that something good is going on. The Ear-Regulars began their Sunday evening residency at the Ear Inn over three years ago and are still going strong. What they do is sort of the teens equivalent of what Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started at the Vanguard fifty years ago. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, guitarist Matt Munisteri and the rest of the guys who rotate through the band here get a lot of work, a lot of gigs: this is their fun night out. But it isn’t a gig for messing around. Listeners can get lost in this – but the band doesn’t. The focus they bring to their usual mix of obscurities and mostly obscure classics from the 30s, and sometimes the 20s, is pretty intense, but less so when you realize what a fun time they’re having over there in the corner. This time they had Joel Forbes on bass and Chris Byars on tenor sax, joined by Nathan Botts on trumpet on a couple of numbers. Botts was celebrating his anniversary, so the band ran through a couple of verses of a slow, summery, lyrical ballad of his titled Anna (his wife’s name – she seemed to have no idea that he’d be pulled away from his table to join the band this time out). A little later he joined Kellso, running a couple of warmly bluesy solos on a swinging, warmly familiar midtempo pre-Benny Goodman-style number.

And that’s the vibe they mine. A couple of numbers worked familiar, bluesy changes into chromatic descending progressions on the choruses, a chance for Munisteri to add extra edge and bite to his percussive, incisive playing. He cut his teeth in bluegrass and old hillbilly music, and that influence still rings true, most noticeably during his sinuous bent-note work in one swaying, fluid solo. Solos around the horn is how these guys do it, yet there’s always an element of surprise. Forbes trolled the rich subterranean depths of his bass all night, stickin with a low, rolling groove even when he’d get a verse of his own, Munisteri holding it together with staccato precision as the four-string weaved over the center line and back again. Kellso is a blues guy at heart and brought his usual bluesman’s wry humor and joie de vivre to the songs, whether subtly working the corners with a mute, or casually blazing away over Munisteri’s spiky chordal pulse. Likewise, Byars sailed buoyantly and melodically through the changes. What these guys are playing, after all, are songs – and they keep them that way. The instruments do the singing. By the time they’d wrapped their first set, the crowd had grown to the point that they were backed up all the way to the door: pretty much everyone who didn’t get here by 6:30 didn’t get a seat.

Advertisements

September 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catherine Russell’s Latest Album Does the Time Warp Her Way

Catherine Russell’s latest cd Inside This Heart of Mine is the great album the Moonlighters didn’t release this year. A purist, inspired mix of swing blues and shuffles from the 1920s to the present day, it cements Russell’s reputation as a connoisseur of brilliant obscurities, and a reinventer of some which aren’t so obscure. Her band is phenomenal: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian Grice on drums, with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor sax and clarinet and John Allred on trombone, among others. The oldtime sound here reminds just how edgy, and fun, and actually ahead of its time much of the material here was: the band play it with joyous intensity and bite. This isn’t exactly safe, easy listening.

The title track, a Fats Waller tune, is recast as a slow, darkly torchy swing blues, trumpet and trombone consoling each other. All the Cats Join In transforms Peggy Lee’s seemingly innocuous 1946 jaunt to the ice cream parlor to something far more adventurous, taking it back in time another twenty years to when the place was probably a speakeasy. Block’s sax is so psyched to be there that he misses his exit and stays all the way through the the turnaround. Another Waller tune, We the People, gets a celebratory dixieland-inflected treatment.

The ruefully swinging Troubled Waters, based on the 1934 Ellington recording with Ivie Anderson in front of the band, is a suicide song, but Russell only alludes to it: she doesn’t go over the top, leaving the real mournfulness to Kellso’s muted trumpet. By contrast, Maxine Sullivan’s As Long As I Live is jaunty and understatedly sultry, with genial piano from Shane. The apprehensive ballad November, by producer Paul Kahn, is characteristically dark and understated, pacing along slowly on the beat of Munisteri’s guitar, with lowlit ambience from Rachelle Garniez’ accordion and Sara Caswell’s violin.

Just Because You Can, written by Garniez – one of this era’s most individual songwriters- is a pacifist anthem. Russell gives it surprising snarl and bite, if not the kind of disquieting ambiguity that Garniez would undoubtedly bring to it, Caswell’s violin handing off to Munisteri’s devilish banjo. The rest of the album includes a lazy, innuendo-laden Long, Strong and Consecutive (another Ellington band number); a vividly wary version of Arthur Prysock’s Close Your Eyes; a hilarious take of Wynonie Harris’ 1954 drinking song Quiet Whiskey; a strikingly rustical, even bitter banjo-and-tuba cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful; and a couple of upbeat, 1920s style numbers to close it. The fun the band has playing all of this stuff translates viscerally to the listener. Simply one of the best albums of 2010. It’s out now on World Village Music.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musette Explosion Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/13/08

Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.

Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.

Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.

Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.

In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.

Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ear-Regulars Live 12/23/07: Marquee-Caliber Jazz at a Ghetto Price

One of the most exciting developments in the New York music scene in recent months is this weekly Sunday 8 PM hot jazz session at the Ear Inn run by trumpeter Jon Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri. This is the best deal in town for marquee-caliber jazz: for the price of a drink and a fiver or two for Philip the bucket, you can see an ever-rotating cast of star international players join the two anchors here and push it as far as it’ll go. That was Kellso and Munisteri’s plan from the start, and it was definitely working tonight. The material is traditional jazz (mostly oldtime stuff from the 30s or earlier) but the agenda, as Munisteri put it, is to see “see how far outside we can take it.” By outside, he didn’t mean obscure it or make it deliberately inaccessible. On the contrary, this crew does what all great jazz cats do at the top of their game, hitting a lot of peaks, taking the songs to the limit and sometimes beyond.

The interplay and chemistry between the players is remarkable. They sank their teeth into the old 30s hit Farewell to the Blues, upright bassist Danton Boller taking a solo, and Munisteri didn’t hang him out to dry. When Boller slowed down his run, giving the notes room to breathe, Munisteri picked up the rhythm, comping and punctuating it and it was clear that everybody here is on the same page. Everything sounds better when the band is a team and the song is the manager, and this crew knows that.

Kellso is a bluesman, straight up, no chaser, tonight alternating between gregarious dixieland licks, admirably minimal straight-up blues and a coyly magisterial Prez solo which Boller followed. The likelihood of hearing a Lester Young-inflected horn line played on the bass is pretty rare, but the guy did it. And later in the set he followed another Kellso solo, this time a boisterous, bouncy dixieland one, without straying from the genre. The band was joined this time around by a reed player doubling on clarinet and sax, often working in tandem with Kellso, holding down the melody while Munisteri or Boller were wailing away.

Munisteri is a great listener and expects the crowd to do the same: he doesn’t play very loud, but he doesn’t have to. At one point, he took a solo that was totally B.B. King at his most richly complex until he decided to play fifths on two strings down the scale in some jazz mode. It’s impossible to recall which one it was because the first part of the solo was so amazingly authentic and soulful. Munisteri has blazing speed and a fondness for whipping chords around, but he’s just as likely to mold the melody gently and sparsely (another solo found him tremoloing out his chords a la Bill Frisell, building his crescendo with a lot of suspense). Considering how good the crowd was here tonight in a rainstorm two days before Xmas, with Varick Street closed by police barricades at Charlton Street due to debris from the latest Trump monstrosity falling from several stories above, it would make sense to get here early to assure yourself a seat.

This series started early last summer and it’s picked up enough momentum to the point where it could explode. On one level, that would be fantastic, considering how good the music is and that the players deserve a bigger space. On another level, it’s perfect just the way it is. In the meantime, the Ear Inn – which has admirably designated itself a cellphone-free zone – is the perfect spot, an oasis of decency, good food and fairly reasonably priced drink way over on the west side, a mere couple of minutes walk from the train. Where they put butcher paper on the tables and supply crayons for your personal use.

Believe it or not, this is the only weekly hot jazz blowing session in New York at this time. In a city – or what’s left of it – that has springboarded the careers of so many thousands of great jazz players, it’s about time we had one. Bigtime props to Kellso and Munisteri for getting it going.

December 24, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Concert Review: Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford at Pier One, NYC 7/22/07

Nothing was going to ruin this evening. Not the horrible train ride that unexpectedly lasted almost as long as the band’s first set. Not the small committee of yuppie protozoa in training pants, running around screaming while the band played. Not the yuppie woman (or guy) upwind, drenched in asphyxiating cardamom cologne. Not the gay couple with the six-inch mutt or marsupial or whatever it was that wouldn’t stop yapping. Not the loud woman and her even louder foreign friend seated to the rear, discussing the minutiae of the new mortgage she hoped to qualify for (at that price, honey, you’re being screwed). It was 70 degrees with a steady breeze and no humidity, the sky grey, streaked with radiant pink as dusk slowly settled in. If anyone is alive to read this 20 years from now, let it be known there was such an unthinkably beautiful late afternoon in Manhattan in the dead of July, 2007. And Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford was playing.

Munisteri is an A-list jazz guitarist with a list of A-list credits a mile long. This unit, which criminally only gets together a couple of times a year these days, is his chance to show off his songwriting chops. Munisteri is the wickedly literate jazzcat auteur that Elvis Costello’s always wanted to be, as witty and subtle a wordsmith as a tunesmith. And Will Friedwald, author of the pretty definitive book Jazz Singing is in Munisteri’s corner as well: in his world, wit and subtlety extend to vocals as well. Tonight the supporting cast included his usual sparring partners, the amazingly inventive Will Holshouser (who took most of the solos) on accordion, and Jon Kellso on trumpet, plus excellent upright bassist Tim Luntzel.

They ended their first set with the smoothly evocative When We’re Alone: “This song was meant to be played outdoors, the kind of thing I can usually only do at a cheeseball wedding,” Munisteri told the crowd, and in this upper Westside Woody Allen world of penthouse sophistication, real or imagined, it was an apt choice.

After a short break, they began their second set with the old standard Lazybones, Munisteri solo on guitar, then rejoined by the band on Honey on the Moon, featuring a sweet, bluesy Holshouser solo. Munisteri dedicated the next song to those who’d been displaced by luxury highrises, and anyone building luxury highrises as well. He looked out at the crowd, and the apartment complex at 68th St. towering overhead: “I see Trump,” and then pointing at the rusting hulk of an elevator at the adjacent pier, “And I see dump. I don’t know which I like more…actually as a sixth-generation Brooklynite I do know which I like more and I’m not telling you…since Trump may be part of the reason we’re here tonight.” Then they launched into his original composition This Funny World: “This funny world is making fun of you,” which as Munisteri pointed out could cut any number of ways.

Next, they did the playful, amusing Picciaridu, a track from Brock Mumford’s album, about a young Italian girl on the Lower East Side just about to hit puberty and discover what hellraising is all about. On the following tune, How Can You Face Me Now Munisteri and Kellso carried on a jaunty guitar/trumpet conversation for what sounded like a whole verse before the band kicked in. Let’s Do Something Bad, which is as close to a signature song as Munisteri has, was perfect: it’s a wickedly literate, tongue-in-cheek number about cheating. Playing with a mute, Kellso took an aptly understated, smoothly seductive solo to match the lyrics.

Finally, on the next-to-last song of the night, Munisteri took an all-too-brief, soulful guitar solo: it’s ironic that his own project gives him less of a chance to show off his monster chops than the other units he plays with (notably Rachelle Garniez’ brilliant band). But this one’s all about the songwriting, which is a treat in itself. They closed with the obscure Bing Crosby song T’ain’t So: Holshouser took a long solo and built to a darkly bluesy crescendo while Munisteri shadowed him, ominously voicing the chorus chord changes low on the fretboard. It says something about this band that they could find such rich, troubling complexity in an otherwise long-forgotten old pop song.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what the band name may mean, Brock Mumford is the man widely credited for being the first jazz guitarist.

July 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments