Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Characteristically Dark, Cinematic New Album and a Smalls Gig from Phillip Johnston

Best known as a co-founder of the irrepressibly cinematic Microscopic Septet, saxophonist Phillip Johnston has also unsurprisingly done a lot of film work in addition to a bunch of smaller-group projects over the years. He’s playing with the celluloid-oriented Silent Six tonight, Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, although his latest project is with a smaller group, the darkly picturesque organ quartet the Coolerators.

Their new album, Diggin’ Bones, is streaming at Bandcamp. As the bandname indicates, the Thelonious Monk influence that informs so much of what Johnston has done throughout his career is front and center here. The tunes are a mix of older material rearranged for organ quartet plus some deliciously menacing new material which gives new meaning to the term “gutbucket organ music.”

The opening track, Frankly, sets the stage, a carnivalesque strut juxtaposing Alister Spence’s smoky, menacing organ against Johnston’s more lighthearted riffage, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Nic Cecire light on their feet. Further back in the mirror but just as present is a certain cover of Pictures at an Exhibition.

What Is Real?, a catchy number that dates back to the 80s, expands out of a syncopated Lou Donaldson-tinged soul-jazz tune, the bandleader sailing uneasily overhead. The title track blends elements of Monk, klezmer and latin noir, Spence raising the suspense with his blend of marionettish staccato and funereal swirl that loosens and lightens, Johnston’s biting modalisms bringing it full circle.

Temporary Blindness is a more latin-flavored take on the album’s opening track: the macabre duet between Spence’s stabbing organ and Swanton’s bowed riffage is one of the album’s high points. Later, which dates from Johnston’s days as a busker in San Francisco in the 70s, is an altered waltz with a surreal, enveloping blend of Monk, the Middle East and psychedelic rock. It’s the album’s most epic and strongest track out of many.

The lone cover is The Revenant, by 70s folk noir icon Michael Hurley, reinvented as a wistful, sparsely arranged shuffle groove with an aptly ghostly, tiptoeing Swanton solo. Legs Yet is the group at their slinkiest and most modally improvisational – and the most traditional, funky organ jazz tune here. Trial By Error – which Johnston had originally recorded with accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek – has a brisk, brightly pulsing klezmer influence fueled by Johnston’s acerbic yet balmy soprano sax attack.

Regrets #17, another number that dates from the 80s, works tight variations on a bluesy chromatic swing theme: here and throughout the album, Spence’s smoky ripples bring to mind the great expat New York organist Jordan Shapiro. The final cut, Ducket Got a Whole In It brings the album full circle with a creepy circus flair. This is arguably the best band Johnston has worked with outside of the Micros, and this album is one of the best and most tuneful of 2018.

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November 27, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

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.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mattson 2 Invent a New Genre: Their Own

If you like 80s music, jazz, and/or watery guitar with the occasional touch of twang and reverb, this is for you. The Mattson 2’s latest album Feeling Hands blends elements of 80s Britpop, classic jazz guitar and surf music into a coolly energetic instrumental rock style that’s uniquely their own. Guitarist/bassist Jared Mattson sometimes evokes the frenetic, jazzy virtuosity of Paul Cavanagh, of 80s cult heros The Room; drummer Jonathan Mattson shifts effortlessly from surf rumble to 80s bounce to more intricate, cerebral patterns.

The album opens with Pleasure Point, a twangy sci-fi instrumental that adds an 80s edge to classic Shadows-style surf. With its simple, catchy chorus-box guitar hooks, Black Rain wouldn’t be out of place on a New Order album circa 1985. Ode to Lou (Lou Donaldson, maybe?) matches blithe Wes Montgomery-ish guitar to David Boyce’s fluttery but balmy tenor sax. They take a spacious, almost rubato Bill Frisell style noir Americana theme and follow it with a clangy variation that goes in a jazzy mid-80s Britpop direction… with a 70s soul string chart!

Mexican Synth is not particularly Mexican: it’s more like George Benson goes to Manchester. Guest Ray Barbee delivers a long, absolutely sensational, casually savage guitar solo on Chi Nine, Jared Mattson’s furious righthand attack shadowing him. When the strings come in, it’s something of a relief from all the wild intensity. Give Inski’s (what’s up with these titles, huh?) vamps on the opening chords of the Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: essentially, it’s a funk tune done in straight-up 4/4. There’s also the surf jazz number Obvious Crutch, judicious verse alternating with intense chorus, and Man from Anamnensis, opening with a minimalist, early 80s style new wave hook and builds from there, like the Mighty Lemon Drops gone to the Newport Festival. Fans of all the aforementioned artists ought to check this out. It’s out now from Galaxia.

July 29, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment