Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Kronos Quartet, Emily Wells and My Brightest Diamond Sparkle and Flicker at Lincoln Center

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – this past evening at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

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July 25, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors: Bad Segues, Amazing Show

By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.

“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.

Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.

The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.

August 3, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, gospel music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubek Quartet with Simon Shaheen at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/5/09

In their New York debut, Iraqi-American trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar’s seventeen-piece Middle Eastern jazz orchestra the Two Rivers Ensemble were nothing short of transcendent. Since music in the Middle East goes back so many millennia, most attempts at melding jazz with music from the region have come out of the jazz arena. This particular ensemble comes at it from the opposite direction, layering a feast of tonalities from both hemispheres with the occasional jazzy flourish over a slinky, Levantine-style snakecharmer groove, at times evoking Mingus in their most darkly lush moments. The music was as hypnotic as it was otherworldly beautiful. ElSaffar began the show on santoor (a hammered zither that sounds almost identical to a kanun) before moving to trumpet and eventually vocals. The full orchestra, with trumpet, santoor, alto and baritone saxes, ney flute, trombone, guitar, upright bass, drums, percussion, vibraphone, kamancheh (spike fiddle), oud, lute and piano would come together as they reached a swell, but frequently there would be just a couple or small handful of musicians playing off each other intricately over the beat.

The first of their long pieces, which could be something of a suite, was a stately rollercoaster ride of dynamics, moving up and then down again with solos from bari sax and trumpet with starkly beautiful piano accents, fading down to the bass solo that would eventually start the next composition. That one had an even more otherworldly feel, caught somewhere in limbo between major and minor but resolving to neither, lit up by a gorgeous oud solo played against the beat and another by the guitarist, moving from the Levant to gently incisive, staccato blues. Guest vocalist Gaida – a pioneer and a star in her own right – contributed heartfelt, shimmering vocalese on a couple of the latter pieces, the last – a fanfare and the night’s most overtly jazzy number – in tandem with ElSaffar. Considering how fascinating the solo spots were, it would hardly be fair to single out only a few of the players, but it was also impossible to keep up with ElSaffar’s band intros at the end to figure out who was playing what. Of those, Michael Ibrahim’s straightforward ney flute and practically macabre zurna (Turkish oboe) playing, Vijay Iyer‘s wirewalking piano work and ElSaffar’s own microtonal trumpet were especially captivating. ElSaffar also has an intriguing project, Salaam, with his sister Dena – their auspicious new album comes out August 11, watch this space for a review. And just for the record, this is the culture that Dick Cheney, in his insatiable greed for oil, wanted to destroy.

Dave Brubeck is 89, so he can do whatever he wants. Yet the jazz piano icon remains as deviously shapeshifting and fascinating as ever. He and his quartet had just been in Washington where there’d been an Ellington festival going on, and since Duke is Brubeck’s hero they took a stab at Take the A Train and reinvented it with characteristic passion and nuance. As usual, they messed with the time signature – a couple of particularly poignant 6/8 passages led by the piano – when bassist Michael Moore wasn’t pushing it along with a growling, hypnotic power, or when alto player Bobby Militello wasn’t giving it a warm, sailing vibe. After they’d run through the head the last time, Brubeck added a cleverly playful little fugue between the left and right hands. Brubeck has always been more about substance and innovation than flash, so if he’s lost some speed, it hardly makes a difference: the swing, the ideas, the timing and the voicings are as vital as ever.

Swanee River got a similar treatment, shifting subtly from poignancy to exuberance, Militello leading the charge. It’s a Raggy Waltz was similarly, warmly expansive, Brubeck pulling out the hooks and then reassembling them, drawing in his bandmates when everything was back together. This group has been a Lincoln Center Out of Doors institution for over a decade, and among their notable concerts are a handful of collaborations with the extraordinary Armenian oud player George Mgrdichian. It was no surprise, then to see the equally extraordinary oudist/violinist/composer Simon Shaheen join them for a couple of numbers. He played oud on the first, a murky, atmospheric tune that didn’t really come together, and it didn’t help that Militello stepped all over him before finally realizing that he’d overswung, finally taking a seat after all that exertion. They closed with a spirited Take Five, Shaheen adding subtle textures and harmonies on violin in tandem with the sax. How they manage to keep that one fresh after all these decades is testament to both the song and the quality of the crew that played it last night.

August 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Mingus Orchestra/Mingus Big Band at Damrosch Park, NYC 8/26/07

Before the show started, there was a bag lady sitting on the aisle opposite the sound board embroiled in a heated debate with an unseen opponent. Yes, she had been at the Woodstock Hotel and had a torn, greyed scrap of paper to prove it. Slowly, she was surrounded by tourists, and ended up sleeping through most of the show. Apparently whatever hallucination had been giving her a hard time didn’t like Mingus. Or also fell asleep.

Augmenting the musicians onstage was a group of special guests: an energetic chorus of tree frogs. The peepers were into it tonight, and made themselves known with gusto whenever the music got quiet. However, they had no interest in keeping time with the arrangements. There was also a light on the top floor of the highrise building south of the park that kept going on and off, in perfect time, throughout the show. Perhaps Mingus himself was on hand to give a listen.

Maybe so, because this was arguably the best show we’ve seen this year, right up there with the Avengers at Bowery Ballroom, Big Lazy at Luna and Paula Carino at the Parkside. Composer/bassist Charles Mingus (1922-79) wrote in several different idioms, but his best work is a blend of jazz, classical and horror movie soundtrack. It’s difficult, richly composed, deeply troubled music. Heavy stuff, not for the faint of heart. They played a lot of that tonight along with some more lighthearted fare, a brave thing to do considering that this was a free outdoor show (part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival) which mysteriously draws a mostly neighborhood crowd along with a scattering of tourists. Perhaps the group’s ubiquity on the concert circuit had something to do with it (the Big Band had a Thursday residency at Fez for ages back in the 90s), or, that for the crowd who can actually afford to see them in clubs, money is no object. Whatever the case, there were still a lot of empty seats which grew as the night went on: clearly, the dark side of Mingus is not for everyone.

The Orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller and ironically smaller than the Big Band with only 10 players, opened with a couple of breezily, eerily swinging numbers that evoked something akin to Miles Davis doing Gil Evans arrangements, only better (hubris, I know). Mingus was an angry man, and these tunes had a smirk, as if to say, I just picked your pocket for $20 and now I’m taking a cab down to Toots Shor’s to spend it. Both the Orchestra and Big Band are repertory units, they know this material inside out and mined the melodies for every deliciously evil nuance. Then they did Half-Mast Inhibition, which Mingus composed at age 17. A lot of his material is narrative: this one’s not about impotence, but instead Mingus’ reluctance to meditate his way off the face of the earth (at the time, he thought he could). It’s a deliberately ostentatious, rigorously knotty piece that goes through all sorts of permutations. Hardly his best composition, but the band emphasized the unexpected squeals, squalls and rhythmic innovations that would become trademarks of his later work.

Mingus’s widow Sue, who introduced both sets told the audience that “Against all common wisdom and tradition…normally you open with a swinging, uptempo beat,” the 14-piece Mingus Big Band (minus guitar and bass clarinet, plus more horns) was going to begin the second half of the program with The Children’s Hour of Dream from his three-hour masterwork, Epitaph. This is no ordinary dream, it’s a fullscale nightmare complete with scary figures in the shadows, a chase scene and a shootout, all jumpy chromatic runs and scary trills from every instrument including the piano. They then segued into a jaunty, pretty generic jump blues written as a celebration of the birth of bassist Oscar Pettiford’s new baby boy, a suitable vehicle for the band members to dazzle with their chops. Ryan Kisor on trumpet, Wayne Oscoffery on tenor and Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone all contributed suitably ebullient solos. They followed with the murky, exasperated Noon, Night, one of Mingus’ most famous songs. The rest of the show was upbeat material, including Pinky Please Don’t Come Back to the Moon (Mingus LOVED odd titles) and the deliriously passionate Freedom, Mingus’ acerbic, vitriolic lyrics rapped by the trombonist.  A Civil Rights-era anthem, it ends caustically: freedom for you, not me. Bassist Boris Kozlov directed the ensemble from behind Mingus’ own lionshead bass. What a treat it must be to play this music and in particular Mingus’ basslines on the composer’s instrument. At the end of the show, the band went through a series of false endings, an appropriate way to wind up this gorgeously haunting, surprise-filled evening.

August 27, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments