Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.
She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.
Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.
Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.
Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…
Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.
Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.
Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”
The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.
Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.
The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.
The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:
Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…
If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.
The Brooklyn Blowhards Albert Alyer-ize sea chanteys. As bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Lederer told the crowd at their record release show at Joe’s Pub last night, they got their start when trumpeter Kirk Knuffke brought an album of sea chanteys by the Foc’sle Singers over to Lederer’s place. Ayler being Lederer’s “personal muse,” as he put it, the connection was made.
Connection? Isn’t this seven-piece band just a bunch of A-list New York jazzcats having absurdist punk-jazz fun with the last themes you’d ever expect these guys to be pilfering? Well, sort of. But there’s no denying the similarity between the singalong quality of sea chanteys and the disarmingly direct, simple, catchy ideas that Ayler liked to slice and dice. Being work songs, some chanteys have a sway and swing that also dovetails with jazz.
The rest of the band onstage playing these less-than-likely mashups included Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Brian Drye on trombone, Ches Smith on drums and Stephen LaRosa on marching bass drum and percussion. Art Bailey sat behind everyone, played accordion and was only audible during the show’s relatively few quiet moments. Guitarist Gary Lucas guested on resonator on a couple of numbers, alongside Lederer’s wife Mary LaRose, who supplied both low-key, soul-infused vocals and tongue-in-cheek recitations.
Beyond traditional numbers like Hull Away Joe, the band also write their own. Lederer dedicated Black Ball Line to its inspiration, the transatlantic freight company: They opened that one as a tenor sax duet between Lederer and Irabagon, turning on a dime into fullscale freakout and ending with a droll, deadpan marching vamp. Ayler’s Dancing Waters served as a showcase not only for sputtering and frenzy but a surprising, contrasting lyricism. They closed with another Ayler tune, Island Harvest, which with its jaunty calypso chorus and sardonic spoken-word passages juxtaposed with unhinged improvisation, capsulizes what this group is all about.
The night’s funniest moment, out of many, belonged to Iragabon, as you might expect. He opened a sopranino sax solo with a rapidfire practice pattern and wowed the crowd with his unwavering fluidity if not imagination. But then he went into the extended technique, maintaining the same breathtaking precision through all sorts of harmonics and overtones and finally capped it off with a series of defeated squawks. The crowd howled. And just when it seemed that all this would be about fun and games, they hit an unexpected plaintiveness with Santy Anno, kicking it off as a misty dockside tableau and then taking it into darkly resonant territory on the gentle, steady wings of Drye’s trombone. It was a reminder of just how serious the guys in this crazy band usually are.
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.