What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.
Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.
Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.
Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.
After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.
Sara Serpa is one of the most distinctive voices in any style of music, and widely regarded as the most original vocalist in jazz. A protegee of legendary noir pianist Ran Blake, vocalese is her thing. She doesn’t often sing lyrics, preferring the role of instrumentalist. But what an instrumentalist! Her hauntingly clear, crystalline soprano made the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra’s debut album one of the most arresting releases of this past year. She’s got a new duo album, Primavera, with her partner, guitarist/tunesmith Andre Matos and an album release show May 22 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the west village on an excellent doublebill with the similarly inclined Emilie Weibel, who’s releasing her playfully quirky oMoO solo vocal project.
Serpa’s earlier compositions are meticulously constructed, and more shapeshifting and longscale than the terse pieces here. The album opens with the title track, a loopy vocal phrase underpinned by uneasy guitar, down to a lull and then up with a dancing crescendo. Tempo, the first of Matos’ compositions here, is a guarded waltz, a horror film theme minus the strings. It’s good to see Serpa asserting herself as a pianist – on this track, on Fender Rhodes – as well a a singer.
Rios, another Matos number, is a catchy waltz, the opposite of the previous number, but just as catchy, lit up by some frenetic melodica from Leo Genovese. Choro, also by Matos, juxtaposes flitty guitar and Greg Osby soprano sax against Serpa’s resolute vocals. A Serpa original, Kubana is just plain amazing, her soaring, multitracked vocals harmonizing with Matos’ understatedly gorgeous, jangly chords all the way up to a haunting, anthemic conclusion.
Another Serpa original, Song for a Sister is a warm, springlike number, Matos’ spacious, methodical interlude giving way to gently dreamy, shimmery vocals. Caminho, by Matos, brings back a brooding, waltzing theme, a Lynchian summer theme that darkens as it goes along.
Matos and Serpa join for restrained, almost skeletal settings of Alberto Caeiro poems, then Serpa’s Novem works a circular theme that goes swinging with a hypnotic piano/guitar vamp – it’s Wes Montgomery noir, if such a thing can exist. They reinvent the Ran Blake/Jeanne Lee classic, Vanguard, as a spaciously unwinding, uneasily matter-of-fact theme, expanding beyond the luminous mystery of the original. Gardening, by Matos, cleverly morphs from a canon to a dance over a catchy, nonchalant guitar loop. They do Guillermo Klein’s Se Me Va La Luz as an insistent anthem fueled by Matos’ percussive chords and close with a bluesy Serpa setting of an E.E. Cummings [Ha Ha, So There] poem in the same spare, resonant vein as Tin Hat’s versions of that poet’s stuff from a couple of years ago. Up to this point, intensity has been Serpa’s great shining quality; as spare, and sometimes low-key, and fun as this album is, she hasn’t relented, and Matos keeps pace all the way.
Saxophonist Uri Gurvich’s BabEl, out earlier this year from Tzadik, blends Middle Eastern influences into jazz with a rich, often majestic power. It’s one of the best albums of 2013..The ensemble here is the core of drummer Francisco Mela’s group, Gurvich out front of Mela, bassist Peter Slavov and pianist Leo Genovese and guest oudist Brahim Frigbane.
They waste no time going deep into a brooding desert mode with a Fribgane taqsim on the intro to the evocative Pyramids, Gurvich’s bitingly bright alto over a dancing rhythm. It’s half a step removed from what could otherwise be a droll Mexican folk melody – but that half step makes all the difference as they ride a long, darkly triumphant vamp out. Dervish Dance works a catchy, Joe Jackson-ish latin tune over a spiraling rhythm, Gurvich’s spiraling chromatics handing off to a dusky piano/bass/drums rumble.
Nedudim – Hebrew for “Journeys” – maintans the modal intensity over dancing rhythm and a terse Genovese piano vamp. After yet another biting Gurvich solo, Genovese – now on organ – takes it into phantasmagorical Ray Manzarek territory. Alfombra Magica follows that and keeps the magic going, a launching pad for subtly dark thematic variations from Gurvich and a coyly terse Slavov solo.
Scalerica de Oro jazzes up a Ladino folk tune and gets more interesting as it goes along, with repeated dynamic shifts and a Genovese organ solo played through a wah for extra surrealism. The Hagiga Suite works its way from apprehensively circling atmospherics to a spine-tingling, spiraling Gurvich solo, Genovese’s nonchalantly hard-hitting solo winding down to a fade. A jazz waltz, Camelao pairs off Genovese’s machinegunning piano with Gurvich’s calming cool. The album ends with the reflective, moody Valley of the Kings, Gurvich running lithe variations on a catchy Middle Eastern pop hook as the band switches up the rhythm underneath. This is only a capsule and really doesn’t do justice to the kind of animated teamwork that Mela and Slavov build together, or to Genovese’s gritty blend of Argentinian and Levantine flavors, both which reveal themselves more and more with repeated listening.