Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pianist Mara Rosenbloom Makes a Fiery Statement With Her Incendiary New Trio Album

Mara Rosenbloom‘s first two albums showcase an elegance and melodicism that compares to Sylvie Courvoisier. Where Courvoisier veers off toward the avant garde, Rosenbloom is more likely to edge toward hard bop, no surprise considering that she has Darius Jones on alto sax as a member of her long-running quartet. But her new trio album, Prairie Burn, with bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor – streaming at Spotify – is her quantum leap into greatness. An absoutely feral, largely improvisational suite, it’s essentially about playing with fire, something Rosenbloom turns out to be very, very good at. She and the trio will be setting a few things ablaze at her birthday show on Dec 15 at around 9 at Greenwich House Music School. As a bonus, Conly opens the night at 7:30 with his Re:Action+1 with Michaël Attias and Tony Malaby on saxes, Kris Davis on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

Controlled burns of pastures and plains are nothing new: take the coastal route to Boston in the fall and you may see one or two in progress. But they’re a lot more dramatic at the edge of the Great Plains where the Wisconsin-born Rosenbloom grew up than they are here…and obviously left a mark on her Recorded in a single four-hour session at Brooklyn’s legendary Systems Two, the album captures both an unbridled ferocity and a remarkable chemistry honed in concert over the course of a year’s worth of gigs.

The result is a fearless, often feral yet extremely intimate and highly improvised performance. What might be most impressive about this is that it’s a true trio effort. Just as JD Allen does with Gregg August and Rudy Royston, Rosenbloom puts her rhythm section on equal footing with her own instrument. Taylor is just as much a colorist, and Conly as much a part of the melody as the rhythm – and Rosenbloom completes that rhythm section as much as she drives the harmonic balance. The opening number, Brush Fire (An Improvised Overture) rises apprehensively with bowed  bass in tandem with Taylor’s increasingly tense, spiraling drums, then calms, Conly steady at the center as the band converges and diverges, Rosenbloom’s dynamic attack embodying elements of 70s ECM, dusky 20s blues, percussive Jason Moran-style insistence, spare gospel-tinged chords and glistening melody. Taylor’s bristling, sparely snare-driven pulse indicate that this is a fire that won’t go out anytime soon

The four-part Prairie Burn suite opens with Red-Winged Blackbird, a jaunty, balletesque pastoral jazz theme based on a popular, playfully joshing rhyme from Rosenbloom’s childhood. The trio expands it to a similar percussive intensity with stairstepping crescendos that sometimes allude to and sometimes directly channel the deep blues that Rosenbloom has immersed herself in most recently. Her cleverly vamping interlude gives Taylor a chance to cut loose, and then turn it over to Conly for some solo comic relief

From there the trio segues into the second segment, aptly titled Turbulence, a tightly bustlning opening interlude giving way to harder-hiting pastoral variations. Conly picks up Rosenbloom’s looping triplets as the pianist’s methodical, kinetically chordal drive shifts around the center. After they wind down to a murky, allusively ominous solo piano interlude, the bandleader springboards off it for terse, ruggedly ambered blues, her uneasily looping lefthand anchoring sternly balletesque, Russian-tinged varations.

Part 3, Work! begins with ruggedly cyclical spin on the earlier triplet theme, Taylor giving it a wry clave, descending to a stern, Monk-like solo interlude and then a long, slow upward drive. The suite concludes with its fourth segment, Songs from the Ground, slowly coalescing from a darkly lingering nocturnal solo piano intro to a spare, resonant gospel-tinged 6/8 riff and moves outward from there, Taylor prowling around the border with increased agitation and driving it upward. Conly’s spare, wistfully bowed phrases deliver to Rosenbloom, who ends it on a note of hope and renewal.

The album’s two final tracks are a blues and a standard. The first is Rosenbloom’s epic take of John Lee Hooker’s I Rolled and I Tumbled. Like Hooker, Rosenbloom takes her time, slowly developing a terse lefthand groove, building intensity with her judicious but assertive righthand chordal attack. She concludes the album by reinventing There Will Never Be Another You as a blues-infused, angst-fueled lament. Mirroring her approach to her own suite here, she chooses to end it sweetly. Count this as one of the ten best jazz albums of the year (you can see all of this blog’s picks when they’re published by NPR).

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December 7, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sara Serpa’s Mobile Puts the World on Notice

In this era where full-length albums are becoming noticeably scarcer, they still make a handy way to follow the careers of the musicians and composers who continue to record them. Notable example: Sara Serpa. Her debut, Praya, was an aptly titled, beachy, enjoyably quirky collection that introduced her as a unique new voice. The singer/composer’s speciality is vocalese: she doesn’t often use lyrics, and she doesn’t scat, per se. She simply performs as an instrument within a group, whether out front or as a member of the supporting cast. Her clear, unadorned, disarming voice has an extraordinary directness, and honesty, and depth of feeling: if it was possible to look a mile down and see the bottom of the ocean with perfect clarity, Serpa would be the instrument to make that happen.

Her second album Camera Obscura, a collaboration with legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, established her as one of the great singers of her time: the album is a hushed, haunting thrill ride. Her latest one, Mobile, solidifies that rep and also puts her on the map as a first-rate composer. Every track here is solid. Serpa may play mostly jazz clubs with musicians from that community, but her style transcends genre. Academics would call it third stream: lately, she’s let some influences from her home country show themselves; she also happens to be unsurpassed at torchily brooding blues ballads.

As emotionally impactful as her music tends to be, it’s also rigorously cerebral. This album includes ten tracks, each inspired by a different book. Its central theme is travel: Serpa is Portuguese, based in New York when she’s not on tour, and obviously no stranger to new surroundings. The compositions follow a clear narrative: to call them cinematic would be an understatement. Ironically, Serpa’s presence here takes a back seat to the band sometimes – and wow, what a band. Pianist Kris Davis makes a perfect choice to channel Serpa’s uneasy yet resolute minor keys, austerely glimmering chordlets and the occasional rippling cadenza. Bassist Ben Street and drummer Ted Poor have a casual but incisive chemistry as they work their way up and down again, while guitarist Andre Matos also contributes.

The opening track, Sequoia Gigantis, begins with her quoting from Travels with Charley by Steinbeck: “The trees are an ambassador from another time.” Building toward an otherworldly ambience, she balances spaciously impressionistic piano and a couple of contrastingly off-kilter guitar excursions right up to a tremendously effective tradeoff to the vocals: it’s almost impossible to tell where the guitar leaves off and Serpa takes over, with an increasing sense of wonder. Ulysses’ Costume is a funk-infused number, Davis and Poor maintaining a dark undercurrent with some creepy Monk-inflected clockwork architecture as Serpa alludes to the hero recalling his journey’s ups and downs. Inspired by V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness – a chronicle of the author’s 1962 trip to India to explore his roots there – Pilgrimage to Armanath sets wary vocalese over austerely spacious electric piano and acoustic guitar, working methodically toward something approaching an epiphany.

Ahab’s Lament – a Moby Dick reference – begins creepy and grows triumphant. As Matos’ guitar climbs judiciously toward a big crescendo, this could be the Grateful Dead in 1969, with a good singer. From there they practically segue straight into If, a chilling return to Serpa’s noir days with Blake. E.e. cummings never sounded so plaintive or torn up, Matos’ chromatics enhancing the wounded ambience. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 2001 African memoir Shadow of the Sun, the next track remains pensive, although it has the most improvisational feel of anything here, Serpa holding the center after the band all climbs together and then goes their separate ways, rustling and scurrying.

Serpa does the Amalia Rodrigues fado hit Sem Razao (No Reason) as rainy day jazz lit up by Davis’ piano behind the clouds, then takes the last verse pretty straight up. Gold Digging Ants, an image from Herodotus, is chilly, insistent and mechanical, most likely a deliberate choice, Serpa offering deadpan menace over apprehensive modalities. Corto (drawing on a Hugo Pratt graphic novel) stays dark and picturesque, an evocation of ocean waves. They end it with City of Light, City of Darkness, influenced by Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues Migueis’ Gente da Terceira Clase (The People in Third Class), a series of interwoven vignettes including what could be bustling subway and street scenes. As one would expect from Serpa, it ends unresolved. There’s an enormous amount to sink your ears into here: count this among the half-dozen best albums of the year in any style of music. Serpa plays the album release show for this one tomorrow night, the 13th at 8:30 at the Cornelia St. Cafe here in town and then on the 15th at the Lily Pad in Boston with Davis, Matos and a similarly solid rhythm section.

October 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sara Serpa Transcends Everything

The theme of jazz singer/composer Sara Serpa’s show last night at the Cornelia St. Cafe was travel. It was all about loneliness, and quiet determination, and ultimately transcendence, something every true adventurer inevitably finds when confronted with challenges they’d never have met if they’d stayed in their comfort zone. Originally from Portugal, now making her home in New York, Serpa obviously knows a lot about that firsthand. Her stage presence is demure bordering on shy: her band intros and announcements between songs didn’t often reach the back of the room. But her vocals were as vivid as her stunningly original, memorable songs, most of them without words. Many of them went on for ten minutes or more, in a somewhat marathon set that literally heated up the room: one can only imagine how hot it must have been onstage. In an unadorned, vibratoless, crystalline delivery with a clarity so pure it was scary, Serpa sang mostly carefully chosen and stunningly nuanced vocalese, backed by an inspired cast including Andre Matos on guitar, Marcus Gilmore on drums, Ben Street on bass and Kris Davis on piano.

Most of the set was new material. The first song, Serpa explained, was inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie: “The music suits the landscape,” she explained, specifically, a San Francisco park. Over bass and guitar, she delivered a brief spoken-word interlude, her vocalese matter-of-fact and persevering with Davis’ stark block chords and Street’s pulsing bass, finally reaching up and parting the clouds triumphantly. The second number moved from variations on Davis’ pensive, terse broken chords to a gorgeously warm, swirling section featuring some gently incisive, vintage Jerry Garcia-inflected guitar from Matos into slowly fading, circular piano. A moodily syncopated, brilliantly understated number in Portuguese was the most trad moment of the night; the next song hinted at bossa nova, through murky, subterranean shifts in the low registers to an unexpectedly jaunty Serpa climb out of the morass, a cleverly circling drum solo and a sudden, cold ending.

Serpa’s new album Camera Obscura, with Ran Blake, is rich with noir ambience (and arguably the year’s best), and as much as there were tinges of this all night, they took it to the next level with a long partita, Gilmore’s artful cymbal work lowlighting Davis’ macabre music-box piano, Serpa maintaining an air of mystery all the way up to Gilmore’s decision to thump around and move the corpse. From the audience’s response, the most stunning moment of the night was a wrenchingly intense, barely three-minute version of Meaning of the Blues, vividly evoking Julie London’s wounded resignation but taking it to a logical, defeated extreme, Serpa’s careful enunciation leaving no doubt as to how badly it would end. At the end, there was a good five seconds of silence before the crowd exploded in applause. The show closed with Ten Long Days of Rain, from Serpa’s 2008 album Praia, an expansive, Radiohead-inflected pop-jazz showcase for her more playful, witty side, notably a cheerfully winking vocalese solo with bluesy soprano sax inflections. Serpa’s next NYC gig is on 10/4 at 9 at Tea Lounge in Park Slope with the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra.

September 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment