Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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

Mary Halvorson’s Vivid Illusionary Sea: One of 2013’s Best Albums

One night at Issue Project Room [wild guess], Anthony Braxton took guitarist Mary Halvorson aside. “You know, you should write more for large ensemble,” he told her. And she did. Her latest Firehouse 12 release with her all-star septet –  Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Jacob Garchik on trombone, John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums – is a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. She’s leading a series of ensembles at the Stone for a week starting August 13 with sets at 8 and 10 PM. It’s a great opportunity to see one of the most individualistic and intelligent composers in jazz – who’s also an equally individualistic, intelligent player – for relatively cheap in a comfortably intimate room.

Google Halvorson and you may get the impression that she’s somebody at the fringe of jazz, which isn’t true at all. Cutting-edge as her music is, it’s extremely accessible. Here she keeps a group of extremely strong personalities on task throughout a collection of lush but biting compositions, all but the concluding track hers. Smith’s drumming in particular is fantastic – it’s amazing how straightforwardly he plays these tunes while coloring them with his signature, irrepressible, playful wit.

The title track deftly works a circular hook into shifting shades, rising and falling, Finlayson leading the way early on, alternating voices and then Halvorson adding a hint of plinky unease before the arrangement fades down elegantly with dissociative echo effects. Complex yet memorable and not a little suspenseful, it sets the stage. Smiles of Great Men offers low-key sarcasm, a sense that not all is as it should be growing from Halvorson and Hebert’s chordal teamwork to a steady horn-driven crescendo, Halvorson bobbing and weaving uneasily and allusively toward a steely modality. Irabagon steps out of character to provide a sense of calm and then is himself as he veers away, the rhythm section holding it together as the horns chatter.

The richly vivid tableau Red Sky Still Sea builds from skeletal to lustrous, Halvorson’s eerily gorgeous solo elevating to a majestic sway and then the band backs away, Finlayson sailing it to a flamenco-tinged guitar-bass part. Halvorson’s gentle tremolo-picking counterintuitively brings it down to a mutedly dancing Hebert solo – as Finlayson quietly flutters, is this the seaside bugs coming out at night? The sarcasm returns with Four Pages of Robots, essentially a one-chord jam, its coldly mechanical cheer lit up by deft handoffs all around, Irabagon’s faux-dramatics, Garchik echoing Finlayson’s solo on the previous track, Halvorson back in the mix but wailing with a snarling, skronky, noisy attack that finally takes it out with a bang. That’s where she stays through pretty much the whole album: she always leaves you wanting more.

She evokes Steve Ulrich via creepy, tensely reverbtoned lines painting it flat black and then eventually spiraling down to flamenco allusions on Fourth Dimensional Confession, Smith’s low-key cool anchoring a moodily pulsing backdrop: it might be the album’s best track. Another killer cut is Butterfly Orbit with its tango allusions, sharp-fanged guitar hooks, Halvorson using an envelope pedal for an Elliott Sharp-like tone. A squirrelly alto-and-drums duel goes machinegunning and then the whole thing completely falls apart, Halvorson leading the way, keening and burning as Hebert pulls everybody away from the flames. The album closes with a take of Philip Catherine’s Nairam, its long crescendo evocative of the Ravel Bolero, Halvorson in echoey, pensively atmospheric mode as the clave kicks in and then recedes. This is a great late-night album, ominous yet jeweled with shifts in mood, tempo and dynamics – and not a little dry wit – to keep you awake and on edge.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Finlayson’s Debut As a Bandleader Is Everything You Would Expect

Jonathan Finlayson may have grown up as the teenage wunderkind in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, but he has a distinctive, lyrical voice as both a trumpeter and composer. Moment & the Message, his debut with his ensemble Sicilian Defense – pianist David Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid – is one of the most auspicious in recent memory. This album resonates on an emotional and intellectual level, packed with melody, depth and ideas worth stealing. The Coleman influence is there, no question, especially as far as counterpoint and a more or less continuously dancing rhythm is concerned. Finlayson’s tone is more bronze than brass: lively as this music is, there’s a lot of gravitas here. Verelles gets the enviable task of nailing that dark riffage, sometimes with echoes of another dark but irrepressibly funky pianist, Marc Cary (who has a phenomenal Abbey Lincoln tribute out recently).

The opening track, Circus, is a diptych, a playfully dancing, bouncy theme with a long series of eighths from Finlayson, followed by a brooding, almost stalking modal march anchored by Witty’s sepulchral washes. Bad segue, good music. (WARNING – SPOILER ALERT) Lo Haze works a very clever trajectory: it takes the old trope of stating the head and then messing with it and works it backwards. By the end, this majestic, shuffling march has become a gritty, minimalist soul theme, coalescing methodically through many divergences. Ruy Lopez segues out of it with nonchalant conversations between Finlayson and Okazaki, and later Reid and Virelles. Carthage is portrayed as a vibrant if somewhat ominous place, fueled by Virelles’ emphatic, hard-hitting lefthand.

Tensegrity shifts from an artful, baroque-tinged acoustic guitar intro to a wry scramble between Virelles and Reid, in contrast to the serioso melody. Le Bas-Fond also leaps out of an impressionistic intro, this time from Virelles – it’s the most trad, solos-around-the-horn type thing here. Okazaki’s nimble, spot-on vintage 60s staccato soul guitar spices the insistent chords and tersely pulsing trumpet melody of Tyre.

The big epic here is Fives and Pennies, a tone poem that slowly emerges out from under the piano lid – literally – to a long, methodically wary Finlayson solo and finally some unleashed menace from Virelles on the way out. They return to animated and somewhat more relaxed form to wind up the album with Scaean Gates. Pi Recordings, home base for many of the Coleman posse, gets credit for this one.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assessing Steve Coleman’s Systematic Milford Graves Homage

Is there counterpoint in the human body? A tapestry of it. A synapse fires, a muscle twitches, the heart responds and so on, pretty much ad infinitun. That concept serves as the inspiration for Steve Coleman and Five Elements‘ latest album Functional Arrythmias, out recently from the folks at Pi as you may well know at this point. The album title is a clinical term for normal aberrations in the heart rate taken from the lexicon of Milford Graves, the visionary acoustic scientist/pioneer in cardiac medicine/percussion virtuoso/historian who is playing a triplebill tonight, June 12 at 8 PM at Roulette celebrating his many projects and achievements. Among other things, Graves is credited with making the connection between the earliest known musical rhythms, dating from ancient Ethiopia, and the human heartbeat.

For those who haven’t already heard this album, what is there to say about it other than that it’s Coleman being his usual naturalist self, color flying from his sonic easel? It’s a reversion to an earlier sound of his, animated by a cast of  familiar collaborators: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman. Although you wouldn’t know it from the opening tracks, most of the cuts here are short, clocking in at less than four minutes. Long circular rhythmic patterns frequently anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, other times Finlayson shadowing Coleman. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures. Nobody wastes notes.

Song titles refer to parts of the body, sometimes vividly, sometimes unexpectedly. The Sinews predictably rely on propulsive bass, over tricky cymbals. The Medulla-Vagus gives Okazaki his one chance to get expansive here, the brighter counterpoint of the horns contrasting with a surprisingly gentle rhythm. Chemical Intuition is a charmingly suspenseful, sostenuto mood piece, followed by two reggae-tinged numbers, the wry, dub-inflected Cerebrum Crossover and the harder-hitting, catchy Limbic Cry, with its playfully divergent and then reconvergent horns.

The Cardiovascular system works a staggered, galloping pulse with staccato riffage, while Respiratory Flow is the body at rest, systems handing off to one another in turn. Irregular Heartbeats are straightforward and nothing to be feared, explored here as a study in shadowing. Cerebellum Lean features Okazaki playing hook-driven funk on a resonator guitar.  The adrenal glands are portrayed with Ethiopian-flavored modes; the Assim-Alim via bluesy spiritual variations. Hormones give Coleman his one most lengthy opportunity to cut loose on his alto with a characteristic translucence, while the wry Snap-Sis is aptly conversational. To steal a phrase out of the Christian McBride book, is this people music? In other words, is this something for Coleman’s vast fan base among his fellow musicians, or for the people too? Answer: both cerebral and emotive, like a complementary muscle group, yet another ambitious success for Coleman.

June 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meklit Hadero Enchants the Crowd at the Skirball Center

In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.

Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.

Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Interview with Uniquely Eclectic Songwriter Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero is one of the most individual new voices around. Drawing on elements as diverse as oldschool soul, indie rock and global sounds from Ethiopia to Brazil, her songs share a rare thoughtfulness, intelligence and unselfconscious soulfulness. And she’s only been writing songs for five years. In preparation for a series of appearances in Ethiopia, where she was born, Hadero has several New York performances coming up in April, kicking off with a full-band show on April 3 at 7 PM at NYU’s Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place. As gracefully articulate offstage as she is in front of a crowd, she took some time to give us the scoop about what she’s up to lately:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: There’s a youtube comment up about you that salutes you for being both “demure AND badass.” I picked that one because I like it. Are those qualities that you’re consciously trying to communicate in your music?

Meklit Hadero: I guess the idea of the music is to communicate the full range of feeling that is lurking inside us. Sometimes demure is just the right thing, other times, the badass wins.

LCC: You were born in Ethiopia. How old were you when you came over?

MH: I was about a year and a half when I left Ethiopia. After that, we spent 8 months in Germany and then came to the States.

LCC: You spent a considerable part of your life here in the BK. Let me guess which neighborhood – Fort Greene?

MH: True to my nomadic compass, we lived all around Brooklyn. We spent a year living on Eastern Parkway right across from the Botanical Gardens – this was 1986 – then we spent a year in Bay Ridge on 62nd Street, and four years in Park Slope.

LCC: Any thoughts of returning, or have you been priced out of the market like so many others?

MH: I’ll always have a special feeling about New York, and when I’m here, there’s a part of me that still feels moored to the city. But, I don’t really have a desire to settle here. San Francisco brings out different things for me. My apartment there is perched atop Potrero Hill and I can see the whole western slope of the city from my back deck. I call it my “big picture” view ’cause it puts you right in a big picture mindset. There’s no beating that.

LCC: Wow. That is cool. That’s a great view…and a guaranteed workout getting home every night! Did you leave for San Francisco after high school or did you finish there?

MH: There were many stops between New York and San Francisco. We lived in Jacksonville, Florida for a year….I went to high school in Gainesville, Florida, and college in New Haven. Along the way, there was a semester in London, and a summer in Miami. After college, I moved to Seattle and was there for almost two years before I landed in San Francisco in 2004.

LCC: How would you contrast the opportunities for an artist in San Francisco – where it seems to me you found a very nurturing and receptive environment – compared with New York or Brooklyn? Or is that a fair question since you’ve spent more of the past few years in San Francisco?

MH: Well, really, I spent my childhood in Brooklyn, so I can’t really speak to developing as an artist there. I came into my own as a San Francisco musician, which was indeed a wonderful experience. I’d say my relationship to San Francisco is embedded in that. But in the last year, I’ve spent a good deal of time in in New York, and I’ve had such an open-armed reception here as well, especially by artists like Somi, Suheir Hammad, Imani Uzuri, and Morley. I treasure those friendships!

LCC: You’ve played and recorded with unusual combinations of musicians – from a rock perspective anyway. For example, with just ney flute, guitar and voice; or bass, drums, trumpet and vocals. Were these arrangements planned from the beginning?

MH: The arrangements evolved as the songs evolved. Songs are quite mysterious. Sometimes you’ll specifically hear certain instruments as integral to creating a feel, other times it’s more about a particular musician’s hand needing to touch the song. I like the arrangement of classical guitar, upright bass, drumkit, and trumpet ’cause it’s so balanced and allows for a lot of contour. I’m really earthy and the guitar can be too, so my songs need the metal of the trumpet and the kit to cut across that earth, and the bass stabilizes that relationship. The upright bass is just one of my favorite instruments. It is so generous!

LCC: You won’t get any argument from me – those four strings are my lifeline. Now you’re proficient at both guitar and piano – were those instruments part of your earlier life, or just the past five years?

MH: I started playing guitar in mid-2006. At the start, I would play at least three hours a day, so I moved through some phases fast. I actually don’t play the piano, though I use it to write songs. On the piano, you can see everything laid out. I love sitting with the instrument, and having all that sound come at you! There is a sense of largeness to it, whereas playing the guitar feels so intimate, with the wood against your belly. One day I’d like to perform on the piano, and on the drums too. I’ve recently been taking lessons on the kit and it’s this heavenly physicality. It makes me feel strong enough to run for miles.

LCC: How – if at all – do you think your approach to music has been affected by the fact that you’ve only been writing songs for about six years? Has it perhaps allowed you to grow organically, or made you more immune to cliches than, say, someone who’s been immersed in music since day one?

MH: Growing up, I was a lyric memorizer. I could listen to a song a few times and know all the words, and I would always pay attention to meaning. At some point in my early teens, I started to pay attention to the difference between a line being animated because the singer was great, and a line being animated because a line was great. In a way, that was songwriting study. When I discovered Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, they became my touchstone. Musically, I think my philosophy was more like, go with what you hear, and get the skills later. For example, when I started songwriting, I would hear a melody in my head, figure out the chords on the piano, and then learn them on the guitar. It might take 10 months before I could play the song live, but determination and will go a long way. I don’t know if my newness protects me from cliche. I think in a way, it’s because I’m just willing to use the skills that I have and not feel limited by my limitations. I’m still learning a lot about music every day.

LCC: What were you doing artistically before you started playing music?

MH: Singing in the shower! Or singing while walking down the street… Just singing all the time. Actually I wasnt doing much creatively till I decided to finally take music seriously. Music was always the thing that called to me.

LCC: Was there a “eureka” moment where you decided you would do music, or was it a slower awakening?

LCC: There was indeed a eureka moment when I knew I could really be a musician. It was April of 2007, and I had been singing in San Francisco for about two years, with mostly friends and friends of friends coming to my shows. That month, I had a performance scheduled at the Red Poppy Art House and much to my surprise, there was a line around the block and I only knew a couple of people in the audience. I thought to myself, “Who are these people and how do they know about this show!” At that moment, I knew I could really do this.

LCC: You’ve got an amazing band assembled for your April 3 show at NYC’s Skirball Center which includes Keith Witty on upright bass, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Pete Van Nostrand on drums, Analissa Martinez on cello, Jennifer de Vore on cello, Tarrah Reynolds on violin, and Eva Gerard on viola. Are you going to have the full string quartet playing on the songs?

MH: Yes, I’ll have a full string quartet with me for the April 3rd show! The core of the band is drumkit, upright bass and trumpet, and the quartet will join us for five songs. Playing with a string quartet is so luxurious. It feels like lying on a feather bed in the sun. I’m completely excited about to play with all the artists on the bill. They’re stars.

LCC: You’re currently NYU artist-in-residence – I believe that’s your official title. How did that happen?

MH: I was invited to do the residency by Manthia Diawara, and incredible Malian filmmaker and the head of the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. He and I met through Walter Mosley, who is a dear friend of mine. Walter will actually be introducing me for the April 3rd show. Walter brought Manthia to a New Africa Live performance that I did at le Poisson Rouge last June. Post show, Manthia said that he’d like to talk to me about coming to the University for a residency. Since then, we’ve spent months developing the programs.

LCC: Are there other duties there as artist-in-residency other than playing and writing songs?

MH: It’s actually a jam-packed month! I’m sharing the residency with Ghanian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah, also an amazing artist. We’ll be working together creatively, and I’ll be writing a piece to a short visual work of his. We’re also doing lots of panels. I’m organizing one on April 11th called the Tizita Chronicles, using the Ethiopian concept of Tizita to explore collective cultural memory. I’ll also be on the panel Reshaping the Public Imagination through the Arts at the Black Portrait Symposium put on by the uber talented MacArthur fellow and NYU Professor Deb Willis. Information about all this is online here.

LCC: You’re also doing what looks like a really cool afterschool series at the Lincoln Center Atrium on Wednesdays at 4 PM in April with free performances where you’re moderating discussion afterward. You’ve got some cool people on the bill including Chanda Rule and Somi, and some of the guys from Debo Band, who pretty much everybody loves. Can you explain how that’s going to work?

MH: The series is a collaboration between Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artist Program and the Institute for African American Affairs at NYU. It’s all about a space to present the work of artists who are using the ideas that we are exploring in the residency panel series, including Reshaping the Public Imagination Through the Arts, as well as the Tizita Chronicles and Collective Cultural Memory, and multiplicity in the African Diaspora. I think having artists in residence at a university is broadly about finding paths for the NYU students to learn in a different way than they usually have access to. For me, it’s enormously important to offer students a chance to interface with arts and performance as they are lived and experienced, and with access to the artists who create the work.

Though it’s an afternoon series – every Wednesday in April from 4 to 5 PM – and ideal for students, the events are actually completely free and open to the general public. Anyone can come! There will be a 45-minute performance, and then a 15-20 minute Q&A with the artists that I will be facilitating. So it’s a chance to see a wonderful performance and delve into the process with the artists afterwards. The range of folks who are performing as a part of it are just fantastic. The artists include Somi and Chanda Rule on April 6th, Toshi Reagon on April 13th, Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire on April 20th, and the saxophonist and drummer from Debo Band on April 27th. These are all stellar artists and there will be some phenomenal performances.

LCC: I hear Nico’s Chelsea Girl in the opening track on your album – are you a fan of that album at all?

MH: I’ve never heard it before!

LCC: Um, ok! Some times great things are invented simultaneously – or close to it, I guess. I also hear bossa nova, and jazz, and rural Ethiopian music in your songs. On one level, anybody with internet access can discover all this stuff, no problem – but you were a pre-internet baby. Is it worth asking where you picked up these influences?

MH: I feel like anything you love ends up in your work. It might take years for some fragment or another to percolate into a song, or maybe it happens fast. I was a pre-internet baby, but I did have my first email account at 15, and at 18 was immersed in college filesharing. We also used to have listening parties where everyone had to bring music that they thought most of us would never have heard before. It ended up being a lot of folk music from different parts of the world, or obscure local bands from small towns round the globe. I’m also a little bit obsessed by possessing multiple sounds. Even vocally, I really search for different tones and voices to come through. I think that’s what gives an artist the ability to access the range of the human experience.

LCC: Do you come from a musical family?

MH: My parents are doctors.

LCC: The comparison everyone is making, which I think makes sense since you’re known as a fan of hers, is Nina Simone. Did you ever meet her? See her play in concert?

MH: I never met her, and never saw her play live. I almost had the chance at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1997, but the moment passed me by. She was a huge influence…talk about honesty and directness! She taught me that you don’t always have to make something pretty for it to be powerful. Let the power speak for itself. That’s a different kind of beauty.

LCC: It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve necessarily been seeking any kind of fame; your popularity seems to be a more organic thing. To what degree would you agree with the idea that your success affirms the argument that if you give people good music, they’ll listen?

MH: I certainly hope that that’s true. But there are definitely a lot of folks who put major energy towards helping my work make its way in the world and I don’t want to deny that….. But I also do have a natural aversion to the hype machine and for me, making music is certainly not all about fame. I think good music should speak for itself. I hope there will always be space for that. About once a week I get a google alert about a new place to download my music for free, and I can’t say it bothers me. It’s just part of the deal. In a way, it’s flattering because that means that people want to share the songs. It means they’re listening.

LCC: Downloading is the new radio. I think that’s great, actually – so the rest of the world can get to know your music. Here’s a hard one: how would you respond to someone who says “Oh, she’s just trying to be the next Snorah Jones?”

MH: I think if you see me live, it’s clear why that comparison doesn’t really make sense. I once got some great advice about recording an album from a cousin of mine who said “Think about how people listen to music these days… it’s mostly on ipods with earbuds. When you record, sing as though you are as singing into someone’s ear.” That rang true and I sang my album On A Day Like This… that way. But live, there’s a kind of abandon that takes over. There’s more contour and range and way more power.

LCC: In addition to being a musician, you’ve been an advocate for all kinds of good causes. Are there some in particular that we should mention here?

MH: I’d say I’m less into causes and more into a shift in perspective. A big part of my work in the arts is towards seeing the world in greater multiplicity. I feel very passionately about expanding the public narrative that we have around Africa as synonymous with poverty, hopelessness, chaos and despair. The continent is so much more than that. It’s really so many things at once, including real people living real lives, and it’s changing so fast. We have to get way more curious about it, and far less sure that we know how the world is. It’s a great big world out there.

LCC: Anything else we should mention here?

MH: Yes, this May, my band and I are headed to Ethiopia to play at the Music Without Borders Festival, taking place in the cities of Harrar, Gondar, and Addis Ababa. In Harrar and Gondar, the shows will be totally free and open to the public. Addis Ababa’s show will have only a minimal entrance fee, so we’ll really get to connect with the people. In Gondar, we will play upon the site of the landmark Fasilides Castle, built in the mid-1600s by Emperor Fasilides. That’s some serious history!!!!

The Arba Minch Collective, the collective of Ethiopian Diaspora artists that I founded in 2009, will also be there, and we’ll be giving free workshops, and continuing to build our growing relationships with the cultural movers and shakers of the country. I’ll even be taking photos for National Geographic World Music’s website! We’re not getting paid a thing to play, so we’re making it happen grassroots style through an Indie-a-Gogo campaign that we just launched. You can learn more about it or donate here.

March 31, 2011 Posted by | interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2010: The Early Hours

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon aimed to be especially audience-friendly. In the “social media lounge” on the World Financial Center balcony, you could recharge your laptop, play an Evan Ziporyn or Julia Wolfe composition on Rock Band (!?!) and get your hand stamped by the hour. Those with a full twelve hours worth of stamps at the night’s end had earned Marathon Warrior designation, a certificate of merit (suitable for framing!) plus a mention on Bang on a Can’s main site and their twitter page. A little extreme, maybe, but that’s what a marathon’s all about. How does this year’s rank, compared to previous years? From the first four hours’ worth, somewhere around the top. The annual new music showcase runs ’em on and runs ’em off, meaning that if you don’t like the piece or ensemble that’s onstage at the moment, you can always come back in ten minutes and there’ll probably be somebody new up there. This year’s selection of performers and composers was characteristically skewed toward the avant-garde (subcategory: postminimalist) with jazzy edges.

The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble opened the show auspiciously with the drummer/composer’s Perseverance, the centerpiece of the group’s excellent 2009 album Eternal Interlude. Completed on Election Eve, 2008 and dedicated to Obama, it sends three specific sax voices (played by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby and Jeremy Viner) fluttering and flailing against the big band’s majestic swells and a couple of inspired drum breaks by the composer. Eskelin got the Obama role and hung in there tenaciously for all it was worth.

Innovatively and more than a little deviously, German recorder quartet QNG ran through a New York premiere of Dorothee Hahne’s somewhat understated Dance Macabre and its neat half-time ending, and then Paul Moravec’s Mortal Flesh, shifting from hypnotic horizontality to warped baroque, utilizing at least half a museum’s worth of recorders of various sizes. They brought the big seven-foot model out for the final piece, Moritz Eggert’s LOL funny Flohwalze (that’s German for Chopsticks – the tune, that is), mocking and thrashing its cheesiness to the fullest extent that a recorder quartet can thrash.

The mockery continued with Kyrzyg musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutman Sultanbekov playing a simple boing-boing jews harp riff over and over again, completely deadpan until the very end, as if to see if the westerners in the crowd knew they were being had. The crowd’s polite applause seemed to confirm the Kyrzygs’ suspicions. The duo finally played a little country dance on lute and fiddle and that was that.

Florent Ghys effectively took speech patterns and did a one-man band thing, making vaguely baroque-themed loops out of them by playing his upright bass through a series of electronic effects. Eggert then did the same on piano, except that his Hammerklavier III went all-out for laughs and delivered them in droves as he pounded the piano everywhere he could reach, finally kicking up his heel on the low keys and losing his shoe in the process.

The Lucy Moses School’s ensemble Face the Music played Graham Fitkin’s Mesh, which attempts to make a rondo capricioso of sorts out of minimal, circular phrases that eventually move into elevator jazz territory. Following them was a duo playing a Tristan Perich work for tubular bells, electronically processed and amplified to the point that it was like being behind a fleet of garbage trucks with their backup alarms shrieking at full volume: a bathroom break waiting to happen.

Alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, and David Millares on piano played the captivating suite Formation – Lunar Eclipse, cleverly and often intensely exploring permutations of a hypnotic, circular introductory theme that finally got the chance to cut loose when Millares, whose intensity shadowing Coleman’s sax lines all the way through finally got a chance to break loose and wreak some slightly restrained havoc.

With their marimbas, vibraphones, gongs, water jugs and all sorts of other bangable objects, percussion troupe Slagwerk Den Haag opened their short set with the New York premiere of Seung-Ah Oh’s delightfully playful DaDeRimGill, a dramatic laundry-room scenario that managed to be as purposeful and conversational as it was comedic. Marco Momi’s Ludica (an American premiere) displayed the same kind of conversational tradeoffs and humor.

While one trailerload of instruments was being cleared off the stage for another, the JACK Quartet played Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras on the steps in the back of the atrium, amid the audience, moving from characteristic astringent, percussive phrases to swirling and strikingly melodic ambience. It was the big hit of the day, at least until Evan Ziporyn and his group Gamelan Galak Tika were ready to go. Bang on a Can’s Michael Gordon laughed it up with the composer beforehand since the group follow oldschool gamelan tradition, right down to the matching uniforms and seating arrangements. “I thought it was the Bang on a Can pyjama party,” Ziporyn responded sheepishly. “Xenakis, next to a gamelan, really sums up Bang on a Can,” which pretty much says it all.

And the Ziporyn piece they played, Tire Fire, was as aptly titled as it was transcendent. Ziporyn self-deprecatingly remarked beforehand that the piece really had no real reason to exist. Which maybe it doesn’t – other than to give audiences (and ensemble members) a shot of pure adrenaline exhilaration. It’s a triptych of sorts, each theme introduced by the group’s two electric guitarists. The first movement was the eeriest and the best, the ensemble’s bells ringing out an ocean of overtones against the Telecaster’s ominous shades. The two following movements were more optimistic, the second pulsing along with catchy yet stately electric bass. And with that, after four hours of music, it was time to fly out into the hundred-degree heat. Which combined with the messed-up state of the West Village, the police mystifyingly blocking off access to subways from Christopher to 14th St. despite the presence of a huge crowd who’d come out for the gay parade, made the prospect of a return later in the day a foregone conclusion.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments