Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

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September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Torchy Surrealism from Rayvon Browne

Rayvon Browne is neither a rapper nor a rockabilly guy. Rayvon Browne is actually the rather charming, torchy, lo-fi duo of singers Cal Folger Day and Morgan Heringer. Heringer has the higher voice and more traditionally jazz-oriented phrasing; Day’s low soprano packs more of a wallop, with a flair for biting blue notes a la Jolie Holland. Songwise, the two are like no one else. While a lot of their album Companion flits from one style to another in the span of seconds, and it sounds like it was recorded in somebody’s bedroom (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), there’s a lot of sophistication here considering that they’re “swapping around on piano, uke, guitar, mandolin, melodica, Casio, & more.” Betty Carter is a possible influence; so is Laura Nyro. Then again, they may have never heard of either, considering how different this is.

“Having a boyfriend ain’t the Christian thing to do,” the two harmonize, deadpan, on the opening track, over swaying acoustic guitar with whispery traces of piano and Sarah Stanley’s flute. It’s a soul song, basically. The degree to which this is satirical is hard to gauge. Heringer sings the second track, Cocktease, bewildering swirly interludes juxtaposed with terse Fender Rhodes bossa nova that gets interrupted by buzzy overdriven electric guitar. She also takes the lead on a slightly less surreal number, Cat on Chest, seemingly addressed to a small friend uninterested in anything more than a warm place to sleep. You know how cats are, they run the show.

The fourth track, Queen sounds like a Joni Mitchell demo from around 1975 – again, not necessarily a bad thing. Where Is My Boyfriend begins with an out-of-tune piano playing Brill Building pop and quickly goes rubato: “Getting wasted on a Wednesday night, waking up to the cat…I lost my lover on the Long Island Railroad, now they’re burning Pennsylvania Station to the ground…where is my boyfriend, please tell me he’s coming,” Heringer sings with a pervasive, bluesy unease. Strange and bracing stuff. Day evokes another Lady Day on Having a Luv, in restrained but sultry mode over an unexpectedly shimmery backdrop of acoustic guitar, tinkly piano and Joel Kruzic’s terse bass. And Heringer’s swooping harmonies add a joyous energy to Day’s torchiness on Cocktail, over minimal guitar/bass backing. The last track on the album has a prosaic, nervous girl-writing-in-her-diary folk feel: the album would be better off without it. Otherwise, these unpredictable songs draw you in and then disarm you with their quirky charm. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp site; their next New York gig is on August 11 at 11ish at a Gathering of the Tribes, 285 E 3rd St. at around 11 PM.

July 27, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Robin O’Brien – Eye and Storm

“It’s nice when people say a song of mine makes them cry, but I’d much rather it make them vomit their feelings,” Robin O’Brien once told Interview Magazine. However much the chanteuse might want to induce such a visceral reaction, the most she’s going to evince from of anyone with this album, her second on Chicago label Luxotone Records, is tears – buckets of them. Both O’Brien’s lyrics and her musical sensibility are remarkably terse and crystallized, often imbued with a white-knuckle intensity, but it’s her voice that elevates her above most other singers out there. It’s a powerful, soaring vehicle, equally honed to gospel elation, fiery Siouxsie-esque accusatory tones and a soulful belt that vividly echoes Laura Nyro. This is a thematic cd, a requiem for something. Taken at face value, it could be a breakup album, but it’s obviously much more than that – there’s a subtext here, a longing in the face of loss, less the lament of a lover than of a dreamer.

 

The hypnotic, almost tribal opening track, Waiting for Daniel (One) sets the tone, the narrator sharing a Chelsea memory with considerable anguish:

 

Inside the room where all my music dies

Where all my tears can’t make it come alive

 

By contrast, the second song, Mobile, with its layers of vocals is pure joie de vivre, an update on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds-period style: “We got an energy and a will to last forever!” The fierce, accusatory Monday comes as close to having a modern commercial feel as there ever is here, producer George Reisch coloring it with characteristically tasteful, warmly sparse electric guitar. O’Brien most closely evokes Laura Nyro on the blue-eyed soul standout Body Run Down, then her anxious anticipation turning to the horror of abandonment on the hypnotic, ragaesque When You’re Talking.

 

Looking for Daniel (Two) picks up the pace, feeling like a great lost track from the Velvets’ third album. The next track, L.O.V.E. Love is the album’s anguished centerpiece, the narrator realizing she’s reached a dead end, meticulously arranged layers of vocals swirling around: “This part is over/Party’s over.” From there, it’s a return to the cd’s earlier, hypnotic feel, and then Maysong, a showcase for O’Brien to air out her voice, backed only by acoustic guitar. Accented with a stark string arrangement, Walking Through You aches for a hope that will never be realized; then, on 10th Avenue, O’Brien shows off her powerful gospel pipes for all they’re worth. From there, the lights darken quickly, from the angst-driven lost-love ballad So Good, the jazzy Joni-isms of If You and the rivetingly resigned, Linda Thompson-inflected Britfolk feel of the cd’s concluding cut, I Can’t Make You. It would not be an overstatement to rank Eye and Storm on the same level as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or with a lament by Mary Lee’s Corvette or Neko Case. Anyone with the strength – or the need – for the purity and intensity O’Brien offers on this album will find layers and layers of it here.

April 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment