Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Sardonically Sinister Evening with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?

The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.

The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it

This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.

Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

October 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories

The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.

The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.

With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.

The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.

Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.

Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pedro Giraudo Big Band Bring Their Pan-American Intensity to the Jazz Standard

Pedro Giraudo is one of the most sought after bassists in New York. Born in central Argentina, he’s unrivalled as a tango bass player, but he’s also immersed himself in several jazz styles. His dedication to the latter is borne out by not one but two albums of soaring, adrenalizing original big band music. The latest one, Cuentos, is streaming at Spotify. He and the latest incarnation of his long-running large ensemble are playing a couple of sets tonight April 12 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard. Cover is $25.

The album’s ambitious opening track, Muñeca makes very clever, blustery, pulsing fun out of a merengue groove, trombonist Ryan Keberle adding a long, bittersweetly soulful solo over pianist Jess Jurkovic’s practically frantic, incisive drive, followed by a precise round-robin throughout the band and then a return to moodily circling, Darcy James Argue-ish riffage. This doll is a trouble doll!

Giraudo dedicates the epic four-part Angela Suite to his daughter. Replete with various bulked-up Argentinian folk rhythms, it opens with a warily swinging, dynamically-driven, tango-inflected Overture – guessing that’s the excellent Alejandro Aviles on the spiraling alto sax solo that rises to a harried peak before Jurkovic’s powerful turn into brighter territory. The tiptoeing, misterioso false ending is a real trick since Jurkovic gets to take it out on a warmly bluesy note.

Part two, Ojos Que Non Ver (Eyes That Don’t See) opens with a moody trumpet/piano dialogue before the clouds break and the orchestra enters, but the trumpet takes it down again as the emotional roller coaster goes on. A waltz, creepily tinkling piano and a momentary. horrified, chaotic breakdown segue into the tiptoeing, suspenseful, lavishly lyrical La Rabiosa (The Rabid One). The bright, angst-fueled brass juxtaposed against the ominous pedalpoint of the low reeds – and a haggardly bristling Carl Maraghi baritone sax solo – brings to mind Chris Jentsch‘s cult classic Brooklyn Suite. This suite winds up with a mighty return to the opening theme

The ballad La Ley Primera (Rule #1) gives tenor saxophonist John Ellis a platform for a tender, lyrical solo as the ambience behind him grows more lushly enigmatic, up to swirling neo-baroque figures throughout the band. El Cuento Que Te Cuento builds off a circular Maraghi bass clarinet riff over a trip-hop rhythm, up to the most easygoing and retro swing theme here – although it quickly crescendos to an uneasily majestic bossa interlude capped off by a long, brooding trumpet solo.

Push Gift builds quicly out of individual voices to a catchy circle dance with a wry Dave Brubeck reference, restless  (and sometims cynical) reeds and piano paired against lustrous brass, a creepy gothic piano/tenor duet and a bittersweetly lively coda. The final number, Nube (Cloud) is the most retro track here, an uneasily dynamic jazz waltz. This isn’t carefree, bubbly latin jazz: it’s an intense and richly nuanced, intense. thoughtful performance from a talented ensemble also including but not limited to trumpeters Jonathan Powell, Josh Deutsch and Miki Hirose; tenor saxophonist luke Batson; trombonists Mike Fahie, Mark Miller and Nate Mayland; drummer Franco Pinna and percussionist Paulo Stagnato.

April 12, 2016 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band Air Out Their Mighty, Slinky Cumbia Sounds at Two Shows This Coming Week

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band are one of those groups whose music is so fun that it transcends category. Is it cumbia? Big band jazz? Salsa? It’s a little of all that, and although it’s a sound that draws on a lot of traditions from south of the border, it’s something that probably only could have happened in New York. For more than three years, the mighty sixteen-piece ensemble has held a monthly residency at Zinc Bar. They’ve also got two enticing upcoming shows: one at Winter Jazzfest, on their regular home turf at twenty minutes before midnight on Friday, January 15 (you’ll need a festival pass for that), and also at about 10:30 PM on January 18 as part of this year’s South American Music Festival at Drom. That lineup, in particular, is pretty amazing, starting at 7:30 PM with magically eclectic singer (and member of Sara Serpa’s dreamy Mycale project) Sofía Rei, slashingly eclectic Pan-American guitarist Juancho Herrera and band, singer Sofía Tosello & innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño, then Uribe, then the psychedelic, surfy, vallenato-influenced art-rock groovemeisters Los Crema Paraiso and extrovert percussionist Cyro Baptista’s group at the top of the bill sometime in the wee hours. Advance tix are $20.

Frontman Uribe leads the group from behind his accordion, and sings – it’s hard to think of another large ensemble in New York fronted by an accordionist. Those textures add both playfulness and plaintiveness to Uribe’s vibrant, machinegunning charts. The group’s debut album, Cumbia Universal – streaming at Sondcloud – opens with Yo Vengo (Here I Come), with its mighty polyrhythmic pulse between trombones and trumpets, all sorts of neat counterpoint, and Uribe’s accordion teasing the brass to come back at him. They take it doublespeed at the end.  ¿Qué Vamos a Hacer Con Este Amor? (What Are We Going to Do with This Love?) is a funny salsa-jazz number spiced with dancing exchanges of horn voicings, a duet between Uribe and chanteuse Solange Pratt. She has lot of fun teasing him in his role as a chill pro, trying to resist her temptations.

El Avispao (The Cheater) isn’t about infidelity – it’s a bouncily sarcastic commentary on the corruption that plagues Latin America, with a sardonic tv-announcer cameo and faux fanfares from the brass. The intro to Goza Cada Dia (Enjoy Yourself) has one of the most gorgeous horn charts in years, expanding into individual voices as it goes along: there are echoes of Memphis soul, Afro-Cuban jazz and classic 70s roots reggae, but ultimately this is Uribe’s triumph. Ruben Blades duets with the bandleader on the album’s title track, a jubilant mashup of Caribbean and Pacific coastal cumbia, with a dixieland-tinged solo from Linus Wynsch’s clarinet and a more wryly gruff one from baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi.

¿Por Qué Se Ira Mi Niño? portrays the anguish of losing a child – Uribe’s native Colombia has a higher infant mortality rate than this country, perhaps three times worse. Matt McDonald’s brooding trombone underscores the sadness of the vocals on the intro, then the band takes it toward salsa noir territory. The soca-flavored Caribe Contigo offers upbeat contrast, anchored by stormy brass and capped off with sailing clarinet. Welcome to La Capital, a bustling Bogota street scene, brings to mind the psychedelic lowrider soul of early 70s War, Ignacio Hernandez’ guitar sparkling amid the endless handoffs among the horns.

The cumbia cover of the Beatles’ Come Together is just plain hilarious – and the way the original vocal line gets shifted to the brass isn’t even the funniest part. The album winds up with the unexpectedly bristling, hi-de-ho noir cumbia jazz of  Ya Comenzó La Fiesta (The Party Starts Here). Crank this in your earphones as you try to multitask, but expect people to be looking at you because you won’t be able to sit still.

January 10, 2016 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Miguel Zenon Explores Multimedia Jazz and Nuyorican Identity on His Majestically Insightful New Big Band Album

It’s never safe to nominate anybody as being the very best on a given instrument – unless maybe it’s something obscure like the contrabass clarinet. As long as Kenny Garrett’s around, it’s especially unsafe to put an alto saxophonist at the front of that pack. But it is probably safe to say that no other alto player has been on as much of a creative roll as Miguel Zenon has been lately. His sound, and his songs, can be knotty and cerebral one minute, plaintive and disarmingly direct or irresistibly jaunty the next. His latest album, Identities Are Changeable (streaming at Spotify), explores the complexities of Nuyorican heritage with characteristic thoughtfulness and verve. He and his longtime quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – have a a rare Bronx show coming up on March 20 at 7:30 PM at the Hostos Center Theater, 450 Grand Concourse, 2/4/5 to Grand Concourse/149th St. Tix are very reasonable, $15/$7.50 stud/srs.

It’ll be especially interesting to see how Zenon handles the music from the new album onstage, not only because it’s a big band album but that it’s a mix of jazz and spoken word. The ensemble opens with De Donde Vienes (i.e. “where you from?”), which sets a pastiche of Zenon’s friends and family explaining their sometimes tangled roots over a lively, circularly vamping backdrop. The title track begins the same way, a discussion of cultural identity and assimilation set to a more skeletal vamp, which then builds to a bright, trumpet-fueled largescale arrangement. Zenon finally makes his entrance on a dancing yet pensive note, aptly depicting the New York/Puerto Rico dichotomy that sometimes pulls at Nuyoricans. Perdomo follows with one of his signature glistening interweaves before the brass brings back a tense balminess, a storm moving in on Spanish Harlem.

My Home, another big band number moves from shifting sheets of horns into a moody, syncopated clave lit up by more carefree Zenon phrasing behind the snippets of conversation and finally a majestic, darkly pulsing coda. Same Fight, an elegantly but intensely circling big band waltz offers some fascinating insights on commalitities between Nuyoricans and American blacks: “If I didn’t speak Spanish, people would assume I was African-American,” one commentator relates. A somewhat more sternly rhythmic variation, First Language, follows, with some deliciously interwoven brass and Tim Albright’s thoughtfully crescendoing trombone solo

Second Generation Lullaby bookends a starkly dancing bass solo with a more lavishly scored, warmly enveloping variation on the initial waltz theme. The most salsafied track is Through Culture and Tradition, mixing up high-voltage bomba and plena rhythms and riffage into a large ensemble chart that’s just as epically sweeping as it is hard-hitting. Zenon closes with a relatively brief outro that brings the album full circle. What might be coolest about the entire project is that all the talking isn’t intrusive and actually offers a very enlightening look at how cultures in New York both blend and stay proudly true to their origins. It’s a sweet album from Miel Music (sorry, couldn’t resist).

November 16, 2014 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blitz the Ambassador’s Native Sun Blazes and Burns

This is the rare hip-hop album that’s as interesting musically as it is lyrically, in fact more so. That’s because Ghanian-American hip-hop artist Blitz the Ambasssador is also a bandleader, mixing Afrobeat with funk, the occasional slow jam and roots reggae for a completely unique sound. The hooks here are wicked: like Blitz’s lyrics, they come at you hard and fast. There are a lot of musicians on the album: the core band, with Raja Kassis on guitar, Ramon de Bruyn on bass and a soaring horn section with Jonathan Powell on trumpet, Ron Prokopez on trombone and Ezra Brown on tenor sax is killer, with a mix of real percussion and canned beats that sound organic more often than not.

The opening track sets the stage for everything that follows: snakecharmer flute kicks off a balmy, hypnotic Afrobeat instrumental, slinky guitar intermingling with the horns and Blitz’s rapidfire lyrics: he wants to leave no doubt that he’s arrived, “Top ten on itunes without a deal.” A love letter to Africa personifies the continent as a woman: “Most of the men that said they loved you robbed you blind,” Blitz snarls, the sway behind him building to a biting, staccato Afro-funk interlude. He delivers a couple of joints in his native dialect over catchy, Ethiopian-flavored, hypnotic vamps; the reggae-flavored Best I Can gives a shout-out to the American hip-hop artists who inspire their African colleagues, Blitz making it clear that all he’s interested in is rocking the mic, not striking any stereotypical, corporate faux-gangbanger pose.

The next track is a slow jam with a breezy sax solo, segueing into the album’s best cut, the absolutely gorgeous Accra City Blues. A lament for a lost girlfriend in both English and Blitz’s native tongue, it’s packed with delicious touches like a sax solo run very subtly through a phaser, and an eerily twangy, absolutely noir guitar outro. With its mighty horn hook, Free Your Mind is a call for solidarity against corruption and African tyrants that couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The brief Victory is the most traditional, American-style rap number here, which segues into the bitter, knowing title track, illuminating the struggle that African immigrants face here as the band works a richly psychedelic early 70s style wah funk groove. The album winds out with a surprisingly mellow, thoughtful acoustic guitar interlude. So many different styles of music here, so many different possible fans: this guy’s no dummy. Blitz the Ambassador plays the cd release show for this one at SOB’s on May 4 at 9.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, rap music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment