Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lincoln Center’s 2018 Midsummer Night Swing Series Opens With Potent Relevance and Breathtaking Musicianship

At the risk of getting into serious trouble saying this, there hasn’t been such a stunning display of jazz talent on any New York stage this year as there was last night at the kickoff of Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival. The inspiration for the mighty big band, the Sisterhood of Swing, was the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group, who debuted eighty-one years ago. As bandleader, trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg took care to remind the audience who packed Damrosch Park, those women risked their lives playing music together.

The members of this group weren’t risking their lives, but arguably the majority of them were out of their element. And few among this allstar cast play regularly with large ensembles, fewer still with a group the size of this one. The majority are bandleaders who play their own material rather than bouncy 1930s swing. Yet everybody seemed to be pretty much jumping out of their shoes to be involved in this project.

In two lengthy, hard-swinging sets that spanned from standards to cult favorites and an obscure gem or two, the fourteen-piece ensemble offered tantalizing glimpses of pretty much each member’s personality, yet in a completely different context considering where they’re usually found.

The audience responded most explosively to tenor saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman’s serpentine climb to the vocal stratosphere in one of the night’s few ballads, quite a contrast with her rapidfire scatting in a Benny Goodman diptych during the first set. Another big hit was tapdancer Michela Lerman’s nimble solo over Savannah Harris’ irrepressibly boisterous, tropically-tinged tom-tom syncopation, mirroring the drummer’s rambunctious drive in the second set’s opening number, Lady Be Good.

At the piano, Champian Fulton delivered purist, masterfully spacious, blues-drenched lines that fit the material perfectly, especially when the band threw her what could have been the night’s longest solo. In her first turn on the mic, she projected with a surprisingly steely intensity, then a second time around worked knowingly triumphant, bluesy, Dinah Washington-inspired melismas.

Lead trumpeter Jami Dauber joined with her brassy bandmate Linda Briceño and Skonberg as well in a wildly crescendoing, tightly spinning exchange in the wryly titled Battle of the Bugles, one of a handful of numbers from the catalog of Sweethearts of Swing creators Kat Sherrell and Natalie Wilson. Bassist Endea Owens benefited from excellent amplification, giving her a forceful presence. Chloe Feoranzo stood out most noticeably with her gritty baritone sax work; trombonist and singer Emily Asher also got time in the spotlight to channel some goodnaturedly wry humor. Lead alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin played punchy soul alongside her fellow reedwomen Thurman and Sharel Cassity.

On clarinet, Anat Cohen spun silky arpeggios on the less breathlessly pulsing numbers and delivered joyously dancing dixieland when the pace picked up, notably alongside violinist Regina Carter in A Woman’s Place Is in the Groove, a deliriously frantic obscurity by 1930s vioinist Ginger Smock. The two worked more calmly and majestically in a new instrumental arrangement of My Baby Just Cares for Me. The group closed with a joyously edgy take of the klezmer-tinged romp Doin’ the Uptown Lowdown, made famous by Mildred Bailey with the Tommy Dorsey band. The crowd didn’t want to let the band go after discovering this new sensation.

This year’s Midsummer Night Swing series continues through July 14 with a more eclectic series of dance bands than ever. Tomorrow at 7:30 PM it’s salsa pioneer and “El Rey de la Pachanga” Joe Quijano y Su Conjunto Cachana. It’ll cost you $17 to get out on the dance floor, something an awful lot of people last night were doing.

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June 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Year’s Midsummer Night Swing Festival Kicks Off on a Powerfully Relevant Note

Midsummer Night Swing is a New York rite of passage. Everybody does it at one time or another. It’s hard to think of a more romantic date night. Every year starting at the end of June, Lincoln Center rolls out a real dancefloor at the southwestern corner of the campus in Damrosch Park, where an eclectic series of bands serenade the dancers with everything from 30s big band swing to 20s hot jazz, salsa dura, and this year, even classic honkytonk. Not everybody dances; lots of folks just come out for the music, or to watch the spectacle. By Manhattan jazz club standards, admission is a real bargain at $17, and there are deals if you go to multiple shows, as many people do.

This Tuesday, June 26 at 7:30 PM is kickoff night with a monster all-female band assembled by Lincoln Center specially for this occasion. They take their inspiration from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing group. Trumpeter Bria Skonberg leads this multi-generational mix of allstar and rising star talent, which features Regina Carter on violin, Anat Cohen on clarinet and Champian Fulton on piano with Lakecia Benjamin, Sharel Cassity, Chloe Feoranzo, and Camille Thurman on saxes; Emily Asher on trombone; Linda Briceño and Jami Dauber also on trumpets; Endea Owens on bass and Savannah Harris on drums.

If you’re going there to listen, who among these artists should you single out? Pretty much all have them have gotten some ink here at one point or another. One of the most obvious choices is Anat Cohen, who turned in what was arguably the most riveting performance at last year’s Charlie Parker Festival with her epic, often hauntingly mysterious, klezmer-influenced tentet, testifying to her prowess in a big band setting.

On one hand, her latest album, Live in Healdsburg – streaming at Spotify and recorded in California a couple of years ago – is 180 degrees from that, a duo performance with the similarly lyrical Fred Hersch on piano. Yet in its own way, it’s just as lavish, an expansive, warmly conversational, vivid and unselfconsciously joyous collaboration.

Hersch opens the night’s first track, the aptly titled A Lark, with impressionistic, Debussy-esque belltones before Cohen gently dances in and then all of a sudden it’s a surreal update on ragtime. The push-pull between Cohen’s voice of reason and Hersch’s trickster is irresistibly fun, especially when the two switch roles and Cohen goes spiraling. Neither have ever glistened more than they do here.

Another Hersch number, Child’s Song is both more spaciously tender and tropical, giving Cohen a launching pad for her terse, crystalline, often balletesque lines, especially when Hersch mutes his insistent, pointillistic approach. Hersch begins the first Cohen tune here, The Purple Piece with a brooding austerity: it’s as far from over-the-top as you can get. Cohen maintains the bluesy bittersweetness with her aching melismas over an understated waltz rhythm, Hersch grounding it with his expressive neoromantic chords and occasional, more incisive shifts.

As they do with many of the songs here, they build from opacity to an understated swing and then playful, experimentation in a pretty radical remake of Isfahan. Then in in the last of the Hersch pieces, Lee’s Dream, they jump out of their shoes gracefully over a precise, distantly stride-influenced piano drive that bookends a flutteringly disorienting interlude.

From Hersch’s phantasmagorical intro to Cohen’s similarly canivalesque shifts between wistful blues and eerie microtones, the album’s most lavish number could be characterized as a haunting improvisation loosely based on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Their approach to Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz is similar if somewhat more flitting. They encore with a similarly individualistic version of Mood Indigo, Cohen’s low, meticulously somber approach lightened somewhat by Hersch’s spare, steady, glimmering architecture. There could be plenty of moments like this from a completely different crew on Tuesday night in the park.

June 23, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charenee Wade Tackles the Impossible Challenge of Covering Gil Scott-Heron

Conventional wisdom is that if you want to cover a song, you should either completely reinvent it, or improve on the original. Trying to improve on anything from the immense catalog of the late, great jazz poet/hip-hop/psychedelic funk icon Gil Scott-Heron‘s catalog may be an impossible task, but as far as reinventions are concerned, the field’s wide open. Singer Charenee Wade tackles that challenge on her ambitious new album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. She’s playing the release show at the Jazz Standard on July 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: cover is $25.

For those unfamiliar with his catalog, Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, ranks with Bob Marley, the Clash and Johnny Cash. Scott-Heron may not be quite as well-known, but his searing, fearlessly political music is every bit as powerful as anything those artists ever put out. Many consider him to be the first major hip-hop artist. Over the course of a forty-plus year career, Scott-Heron ripped racists and rightwingers to shreds, called bullshit on his own community and was one of the few American artists to call attention to the apocalyptic danger of nuclear power: his unforgettably ominous cautionary anthem We Almost Lost Detroit predated the Chernobyl disaster by a dozen years, and was the standout track on the otherwise forgettable No Nukes concert compilation album.

Maybe wisely, Wade and her band steer clear of most of Scott-Heron’s major works, instead focusing on more obscure tracks.There are two songs from Scott-Heron’s auspicious 1971 Pieces of a Man album, another two from 1975’s far more mellow The First Minute of a New Day. She and the band kick off the opening number, Offering, from the latter album with a strikingly straightforward delivery that actually manages to one-up the original. The genius of the arrangement is Brandon McCune’s steady piano augmented by Sefon Harris’ vibraphone, plus guitarist Dave Stryker’s brittle but triumphant cadenzas.

Another track from that album, Western Sunrise is a real revelation, bassist Lonnie Plaxico kicking it off with a catchy hook, Wade establishing a tricky tempo that ironically puts her unaffectedly strong vocals front and center, reinforcing Scott-Heron’s sardonic commentary on American exceptionalism. She ends it with a misty scat solo that the composer would no doubt appreciate.

Of the two tracks from Pieces of a Man – Scott-Heron’s first recording with a full band – Wade goes for fullscale reinvention with a scamperingly salsafied take of Home Is Where The Hatred Is, in her hands an even more chilling portrait of ghetto abandonment and alienation spiced with rippling solos from Harris and McCune. When she toys with the song’s haunting. concluding line, the effect is viscerally spine-tingling. Likewise, Wade reimagines the other track from that album, I Think I’ll Call It Morning, as a spirited if rainswept late 60s soul-jazz waltz as Roberta Flack might have done it.

Interestingly, the most epic number here is a shapeshifting take of Song of the Wind, an optimistic Afrocentric peacenik anthem from the 1977 Bridges album: the sparkly piano/vibes arrangement raises the energy of the undulating Fender Rhodes-driven original. A Toast To The People, one of the lesser-known tracks from the iconic 1975 From South Africa to South Carolina album, also gets an expansive treatment, Wade maintaining an enigmatic, misty distance from Scott-Heron’s snide, insistent delivery, Stryker channeling a period-perfect feel with his octaves.

Arguably the most apt choice of songs here is Ain’t No Such Thing As Superman, from the 1974 album The First Minute of a New Day – simply being sung by a woman, let alone with as much conviction as Wade brings this, elevates Scott-Heron’s message of community solidarity. Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner narrates the historically biting proto hip-hop intro to Essex/Martin, Grant, Byrd & Till, an improvisational tableau with a lively solo from saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Likewise, Christian McBride provides a spoken-word intro to a lushly assertive take of the understatedly snide Peace Go With You Brother, from the 1974 album Winter in America. The most obscure track here is The Vulture (Your Soul And Mine), a clave-soul mashup based on a cut from Scott-Heron’s final and forgettable album I’m New Here.

Is That Jazz is the one song that would have been really awesome to hear Wade do here. Can’t you imagine Plaxico playing that bitingly bluesy intro…and then Wade scampering down the scale, or up the scale as that groove kicks in? And wouldn’t that be hilarious when she got to the chorus? Is that jazz? OMG, is that jazz! The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link: put out a Google alert for when it hits Spotify, Soundcloud or Bandcamp.

July 7, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marc Cary Electrifies the Jazz Standard

Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio is well-named. The pyrotechnic, perennially soulful pianist and his longtime drummer Sameer Gupta share a close cameraderie – Gupta’s reliance on toms where other drummers would use cymbals underscores Cary’s relentlessly rhythmic drive and gravitas. Yet for all Cary’s hard-hitting, magisterial intensity, he has an unexpectedly wry wit. Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard he juxtaposed that good-natured humor with the spine-tingling power he’s best known for. Despite the gloomy skies overhead, it was strange to see that the club wasn’t sold out, although there were plenty of A-listers who’d come out to enjoy the ride, Joe Locke and Renee Rosnes among them.

It didn’t take Cary long to go deep into the music and get completely lost in it, to the extent of forgetting song titles and losing track of time. At the end of the early set, realizing he’d gone past curfew, he did a closing number anyway, a characteristic blend of grit and blues-infused lyricism in 10/4 which he said was inspired by repeated visits to the Chappaquiddick Indian reservation in Massachusetts: “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!”

Getting to that point was a rich and stormy experience. Most of the trio’s material drew on the group’s new Four Directions album, bassist Rashaan Carter sometimes locking with Cary’s piledriver lefthand, other times – especially when Carter switched to Fender bass – coloring the material with a dancing, trebly timbre. Cary’s fiery volleys of block chords alternated with spacious passages where the pianist would back off a bit and then add a little texture or a gentle phrase from the synth he’d perched on top of the piano. And most of the time the effect, whether a wash of strings or a hint of organ, enhanced the intensity rather than adding a comedic effect – although there were a few moments like that, one where Carter took the idea and flew with it on the Fender through a long series of woozy, tremoloing chords.

Cary prefaced a Jackie McLean tune with an anecdote about eavesdropping on McLean and Arthur Taylor grousing about how to get their new-jack supporting cast to take their game to the next level. He brought up rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to guest on a raga, a tough assignment since she was limited to jamming out on a single mode, but she signaled in on Gupta’s elegantly flurrying tabla and added a jaunty, crystalline-toned flair. They turbocharged He Who Hops Around – which nicks the bassline from Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca – juxtaposing lickety-split swing with leaping piano and bass motives and then an unexpected clave groove from Gupta, and also ramped up the energy on Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from the new album. Cary’s steely chordal assault anchoring an expanding melody that was as plaintive as it was powerful. It is never safe to say that any one player is the best on any particular instrument, but this show left the undeniable feeling that there is no other pianist who employs virtuoso chops to deliver emotional impact more effectively than Marc Cary. One final thought: have he and Kenny Garrett ever shared a stage? That could be really electrifying.

December 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment