Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

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May 16, 2019 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irrepressible Trumpeter Steven Bernstein Brings His Two Hottest Bands to the Jazz Standard This Week

Sexmob – trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen – have been making magically surreal, darkly cinematic sounds since the late 90s. As you will see below, good things happen when they turn up. They’re at the Jazz Standard tomorrow, March 8 and Friday, March 9 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; $30 cover isn’t too bad considering that the club has no minimums (but good food, incidentally).

Then Bernstein leads his historically-infused, hard-swinging Millennial Territory Orchestra – whose reinventions of Sly Stone songs are a real trip –  there on the 10th and 11th. Check out this lineup: Charlie Burnham on violin; Curtis Fowlkes on trombone; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax; Erik Lawrence on baritone sax; Matt Munisteri on guitar; Ben Allison on bass; and Ben Perowsky on drums. It’s as if legendary Lower East Side hotspot Tonic – where an empty “luxury” condo now stands – was still open.

Here’s what Sexmob sounded like last July in Prospect Park:

“…a wickedly amusing, entertaining score to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno…it’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet…part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.”

They’re saving the fire for the Jazz Standard gigs.

March 7, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Brilliant, Mysterious, Richly Tuneful Album and a Stone Residency by Sylvie Courvoisier

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s new album D’Agala, with her trio – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically dark, rich, gorgeously melodic tour de force. Courvoisier has been one of the most vivid tunesmiths in jazz for a long time. Here she takes that translucent sensibility to new levels, along with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle humor, jaunty interplay and extended technique. She’s played as many Stone residencies as any other member of John Zorn’s circle, and she’s got one coming up starting tonight, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM, running through Feb 11. Cover is $20; the full list of ensembles she’s playing with is here. The Feb 8 show, a duo set with her violinist sparring partner Mark Feldman may be the most intense of all of them.

Impish upper righthand fragments peek over a muted, sotto-vocce ba-bump groove amid pregnant pauses as the album’s opening track, Imprint Double – written for her pianist dad Antoine Courvoisier- gets underway. From there she follows a steady, ominously lingering stroll, Janacek’s tortuous overgrown path dotted with Satie-esque belltones. Then she brings back the opening groove, drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Drew Gress matching the playful suspense.

Courvoisier opens Bourgeois’s Spider – dedicated to sculptor Louise Bourgeois – with chiseling inside-the-piano figures, then pedals down a long runway, the rhythm section matching her increasingly gritty intensity all the way. More of those Satie-esque close harmonies give way to starlit peek-a-boo phrases as Wollesen and Gress hang back, steady and distantly relentless.

All of the tracks here are dedications as well. With its loopy riffs, subtly dancing variations and cat-chasing-the-yarn piano, Éclats for Ornette isn’t hard to figure out. Simone (for Simone Veil) has an aptly rapt, mystical sensibility, cached within Courvoisier’s scampering lines and brought to the forefront by Wollesen and Gress’ looming presence.

Similarly, he and Gress swing the icepick Andriessen changes of Pierino Porcospino (for Charlie), the blues hidden away in Courvoisier’s blips, bleeps and circles bringing to mind Myra Melford in a particularly animated moment. The title track – a salute to Geri Allen – pairs Courvoisier’s somber minimalism against the rhythm section’s insectile scrapes and rustles, Gress adding mutedly brooding blues. Courvoisier weighs that gravitas against lighter, more carefree sounds and opts for an elegy: Allen would not doubt appreciate this.

Circumbent (For Martin Puryear) is the album’s most overtly improvisational number, Courvoisier’s disappearing-ink chordlets and staccato accents grounded by a steady, almost trip-hop sway from bass and drums. Fly Whisk (for Courvoisier’s fellow Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer) interchanges judiciously spaced piano clusters amidst Wollesen’s misty ambience, tersely accented by Gress. The ending is too good to give away, and is vintage Courvoisier. She and Gress switch roles, with her shadowing him throughout the album’s concluding cut, South Side Rules (for John Abercrombie), bass punctuating its resonant, immutable unease as Wollesen builds a cumulo-nimbus backdrop. This record’s going to be on a whole lot of people’s best of 2018 lists.

February 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doug Wieselman Releases His Broodingly Hypnotic New Album at the Owl This Thursday 

Multi-reedman Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S has been around for almost as long as his legendary, phantasmagorically cinematic circus band Kamikaze Ground Crew (who played a mesmerizing reunion show at Roulette last fall). He started Trio S as a vehicle for his small-scale compositions, which these days involve a lot of hypnotic loopmusic and water melodies. Georg Friedrich Handel, you’re being schooled!

Wieselman, drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni are playing the album release for their new one, Somewhere Glimmer – streaming at Bandcamp – at the Owl at around 8 on Nov 9; suggested donation is $10. It’s music to get completely lost in, artful variations on very simple, catchy themes, like a less stylized Angelo Badalamenti.

The bandleader’s distantly Balkan-tinged, moodily resonant clarinet loops mingle over Wollesen’s wind chimes and Scarpantoni’s alternately stern and whispery washes in Sesto, the opening track. Wollesen’s gongs and toms then triangulate a series of angst-fueled crescendos.

Dissociative polyrhythms and echo effects slowly coalesce as New River, a tone poem of sorts, finally begins to ripple along: you could call it organic motorik music. Wieselman switches to banjo, anchoring Scarpantoni’s moody melody in That Way, a gorgeously melancholy, Britfolk-tinged waltz

Piper Hill is uneasily airy, its long-tone exchanges fading in and out over a similarly folk-tinged clarinet loop. A Scarpantoni drone and flickers from Wollesen underpin Wieselman’s moody Balkan melismas in Dreambox, which builds to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – it’s the album’s high point. Wollesen’s deep-forest brook sonics open the somber Metal in Wood, which morphs into a 19th century-style chain gang theme.

Hallucination of a Storm juxtaposes ominous low-register washes with Wieselman’s blithe bluegrass mandolin. The album winds up with Birdbath, a wryly bittersweet tableau. Call this jazz, or film music, or whatever you want, it’s one of the most darkly unexpected treats of 2017.

November 7, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

August 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, gospel music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier Delivers Darkly Intense, Kinetic Individualism with Her Trio at Roulette

It’s hard to imagine a more darkly distinctive pianist than Sylvie Courvoisier. She’s a longtime member of John Zorn’s inner circle, which makes sense considering her blend of moodily resonant neoromanticism, jazz squall and fondness for extended technique….not to mention the often noirish sensibility and rich vein of sardonic, sometimes grim humor that runs through her work. She can sell out the Stone whenever she feels like playing there; it was good to see a much larger crowd than the Stone can hold watching her raptly last night at Roulette, in a vividly conversational set with her long-running trio, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The latter didn’t bring his gongs, but he often used his ride cymbal in tandem with mallets on the toms for the same lingering, otherworldly effect. Gress didn’t walk the changes as much as he danced them, when he wasn’t supplying ambered washes with his bow, or trading off jauntily with the bandleader.

When she wasn’t inside the piano, Courvoisier alternated between carnivalesque, dancing lines, grittily insistent minimalism, broodingly lyrical, resonantly chordal passages, and the occasional flight into frenetic hard bop. When she went under the lid, she muted the strings, then played them with her fingers, with the keys and with mallets, like a vibraphone. Other times she’d rub the strings for a resonance similar to what Wollesen did when he got a keening ring out of a cymbal or two, scraping them with his sticks. The best number of the night was a lengthy, suspenseful triptych incorporating all of those tropes.

Most of the humor involved good-natured jousting, although Gress’ “are we really going to take this to the very top of the fingerboard” jape was a lot of fun. Courvoisier threw elbows at her rhythm section and they threw back; the cleverest of these moments was when Gress hit a minimalist, pedal passage and Courvoisier doubled him….but with her strings muted, adding a ninth interval for extra creepiness. It would have been one thing just to play it on the keys, but the muted effect really drove the sinister effect home.

Qawwali-like, tensely circling low-register riffage expanded into austerely steady, coldly biting Louis Andriesssen-esque bell-tones, then stygian low lefthand pools, then a Lynchian ba-bump roadhouse theme. A sad minor-key waltz awash in cymbals decayed to a muted, mimimalist deep-space pulse that became a clenched-teeth Mission Impossible. Hushed, dusky, misterioso minimalism gave way to upper-register icicles. Phantasmagorical Frank Carlberg-like tumbles sandwiched a defiantly clustering Wollesen solo, followed by flitting, sepulchral piano motives rising to an agitated vortex. Name another pianist who does all of this in about an hour and fifteen minutes onstage.

Courvoisier’s next show is back at the Stone at 8 PM on April 22 in a duo performance with reedman Ned Rothenberg.

April 20, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Met Celebrates Sixty Intense Years of John Zorn

“When we did this at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of months ago, they put us over in the corner,” John Zorn said with a smirk to the crowd massed in the Abstract Expressionism gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier today. “Here, they put us right in front of the Pollock.” Sure enough, right behind Zorn and his bandmate Milford Graves was Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30).

Zorn had already gotten a foot in the door as a composer in the downtown scene during a time when the idea of a Pollock painting at the Met would have raised some eyebrows, not to mention a free jazz saxophonist and drummer squalling and rumbling in front of it. Has uptown finally caught up with downtown? As Dylan said, maybe everything’s a little upside down in New York right now, Zorn being feted at the Met for his antiestablishment antics and vast body of often strangely beautiful work while down in his old Lower East Side digs, it’s mostly Jeff Koons and Miley Cyrus wannabes strutting their stuff in the galleries and onstage. That someone who sounds anything like John Zorn wouldn’t be likely to get a gig in that neighborhood anywhere other than the Stone – Zorn’s own hangout – speaks to the LES’s death by gentrification more powerfully than just about anything else.

But Zorn was at home here and he played to the crowd. An alto saxophonist for the better part of four, maybe five decades, his chops have never been more razor-sharp. This duo improvisation was a roller-coaster ride, a sizzling display of extended technique peaking midway through with an endless series of trills delivered via circular breathing as Zorn slowly and very emphatically made his way up the chromatic scale over Graves’ crepuscular rumble. As intense as Zorn’s music can be, people sometimes forget what a great wit he is, and there was plenty of that here as well: a trick ending, a squonk or two that Graves slapped back at with a cymbal crash, and puckish pauses when least expected. Graves may be best known for his groundbreaking work in cardiac medicine, music history and acoustic science, but at 72 he’s absolutely undiminished behind the kit. And this one was considerably unorthodox: three floor toms, kick drum, ride cymbal and hi-hat, with two snares of differing sizes situated in the very front, Graves leaning on his central tom with his left elbow when he went for the very occasional higher timbre. That persistent low, matter-of-fact approach was the perfect complement to Zorn’s upper-register whirls and shrieks sprinkled with the occasional terse, pensive, chromatic phrase.

Elsewhere throughout the museum, small ensembles performed works from throughout Zorn’s career. In a Halloween-themed room in the American wing, a trio comprised of violinist Chris Otto, violist Dave Fulmer and cellist Jay Campbell had fun with Zorn’s spritely All Hallows Eve. They made it a warily suspenseful game of hide and seek, closer to an alternately lively and wispy Walpurgisnacht among the cicadas than, say, the John Carpenter movie. A quintet of Jane Seddon, Sarah Brailey, Abby Fischer, Mellissa Hughes and Kirsten Sollek sang the alternately rapt and assaultive antiphons of Zorn’s Holy Visions in the considerably more spacious medieval sculpture hall downstairs. Cellist Erik Friedlander treated the crowd packed into a room in the Assyrian section to a judicious, meticulously phrased solo take of Volac, a poignantly pleading partita from Zorn’s Masada: Book of Angels. The highlight of the morning was at the Temple of Dendur, where guitarist Bill Frisell, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen and harpist Carol Emmanuel delivered a lushly gentle but incisively echoing version of the Gnostic Preludes and its warmly enveloping, hypnotic but anthemically interwoven, bell-like harmonies. And the museum opened with a sextet of trumpeters – Nate Botts, Wayne DuMaine, Gareth Flowers, Josh Frank, Stephanie Richards and Tim Leopold – premiering the brand-new Antiphonal Fanfare and its subtly crescendoingly, triumphant variations on a simple phrase a la Philip Glass. The reputedly prickly Zorn seemed anything but and during this piece was moved almost to the point of tears.

There were other performances later in the day for percussion, choir, oud, violin and finally the man himself at the museum’s venerable 1830 Appleton organ. What was all this like? After standing for five hours, with constant distractions from several millennia worth of fascinating stuff on the walls, it was time to call it a day. As the day went on, the crowds grew and everyone had their cameras out; there should be a ton of video out there if those people were generous enough to share it.

September 28, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.

Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?

Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.

Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come.  At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.

Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.

What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.

And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sexmob’s Nino Rota Tribute: Best Album of the Year?

Over the years, with his long-running quartet Sexmob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra and elsewhere, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has made a career of reinventing repertoires to suit his distinctive, livewire style, veering from the sunnier side of the street (Sly Stone) into the shadows (John Barry’s James Bond scores). One of Bernstein’s more ambitious and wildly successful efforts with Sexmob, a collection of Nino Rota themes to Fellini films titled Cinema Circus & Spaghetti, is out now. It’s an interesting coincidence that of all the jazz albums that have come out so far in 2013, the two that pack the biggest wallop are both collections of film music from trumpeters: this one, and Ibrahim Maalouf‘s Wind (itself a homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.) What makes this one so good? Bernstein takes Rota’s themes and strips them to the bone, pulls out the inner noir menace and then brings it centerstage, dripping and lurid. Although some tracks on the album are considerably brighter than that, a gleeful macabre resonance pervades this album. One can only think that both Rota and Fellini would be proud. Hubristic as this sounds, the album is as good or better than the source material. While Bernstein is about a lot more than just menace and rage against the dying of the light, if there’s anybody who gets what noir is all about, it’s him.

They make the Amarcord theme a dirge, maxing out the original’s underlying angst, opening with drummer Kenny Wollesen’s gongs before Bernstein whispers in with a quavering microtonal Peter Lorre unease, Tony Scherr’s magnificently precise, purposeful bass guitar kicking off a slow processional as Briggan Krauss’ tenor sax joins the harmonies. It finally resolves in a menacing minor-key explosion: one of the most deliciously dark pieces of music to come out this year.

Juliet of the Sprits manages to simultaneously be a creepy shuffle and a lively dance, Krauss and Bernstein switching good cop/bad cop roles – and is there a bassist anywhere in the world who gets as juicy and incisive a tone as Scherr does? They strip the La Strada theme down to the underlying tension, first with a reggae pulse, then with a fluttering bop edge. Volpina (also from Amarcord) counterintuitively has the bass doing the lively introductions, then they take it to church with a New Orleans flair. The papararazzo theme from La Dolce Vita juxtaposes jaggedly rhythmic knife’s-edge intensity with a rather sarcastic interpretation of the original’s jaunty swing, Wollesen leading the charge. Toby Dammit’s Last Act reverts to the dirgey ambience, a long workout in downtown Asian inflections and moody reggae lin lieu of monster psychedelia.

The La Dolce Vita main theme strolls acidically along with a shivery bass pulse, a look back to Bernstein’s Lounge Lizards days. Zamparo (from La Strada) brings back the skin-peeling PiL dub vibe, while Nadia Gray (another La Dolce Vita interlude) and The Grand Hotel (from Amarcord) each get ripped to shreds in a merciless circus-punk frenzy, the latter reverting once again to hazy Asian dub. Scherr does Gelsomina solo, with lots of warmly rubato chords, a prelude to a sarcastically marching remake of I Vitelloni. There’s also an epic, bitingly bittersweet bonus track, Spirits of the Dead, Wollesen’s vibraphone and Krauss’ stately multitracking up against Bernstein’s leaps and bounds. Those who aren’t already aware of it may also be interested in Hal Wilner’s 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album, which gave Bernstein his initial inspiration for this one. Best jazz album of 2013? One of them, without a doubt.

May 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment