Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Noir Unease and Cinematic Wit on Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations

A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!

Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.

With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.

The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far

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July 8, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marc Ribot Brings Noir Heat and Chills at the New School

Without Shahzad Ismaily, this review would not have happened. Not knowing that reservations were required for Marc Ribot’s concert Saturday night at the New School, we showed up without them, and the door crew, expecting a sellout, turned us away (which actually wasn’t unreasonable: by showtime, there were still a few open seats, but the auditorium was pretty close to capacity). Overhearing us kvetching outside and plotting our next move, Ismaily came to the rescue (he doesn’t know us; we’d never met before) and comped us in. So now we know that Shahzad Ismaily is as good a guy as he is a musician. His bass work was as inspiring as always, an effortless mix of fat, slinky, swingingly tuneful riffs and vamps while Ribot and his nine-piece noir orchestra prowled and snarled seductively overhead.

Marc Ribot may be famous for being able to play in any style ever invented, but the chameleonic guitarist has found his niche. He’s never sounded more articulate, or been able to interpolate all the things he does best – menacingly twangy atmospherics, frenetic noise and tersely slashing blues – as entertainingly and irresistibly as he does with his noir soundtrack stuff. Among the material on this cinematic-themed bill were pieces of the soundtrack to the noir films Scene of the Crime and Touch of Evil along with a selection of noir (and noir-influenced) instrumentals by the Lounge Lizards, John Zorn and Ribot himself. It was creepy, and sexy, and intense to the point that by the end, pretty much everybody including the band seemed pretty exhausted. The best New York concert so far this year? Arguably, yes.

One of the night’s high points was a John Barry scene titled Kill for Pussy, from the Body Heat soundtrack, tinkly piano and sultry/deadly Doug Wieselman alto sax over a relentless, brooding pulse that took on a slightly less menacing, more lurid tinge as it progressed. The other was an insistent, galloping Ribot chase scene, the slasher going in for the jugular, spinal cord, skull and everything else within reach in a frenzy of horns and atonal tremolo-picking. His Strat drenched in reverb, Ribot turned a noir cabaret Andre Previn tableau from Scene of the Crime into chilling southwestern gothic, later leading a tongue-in-cheek parade through a reggae version of a Henry Mancini piece lit up by Curtis Fowlkes’ triumphant trombone. The Lynchian midsummer night scene that opened the show vamped on a couple of chords as it shifted almost imperceptibly from suburban gothic twang to a mutant Stax/Volt blues and back again lushly with the strings going full tilt. A John Zorn piece from the 80s burned through an explosion of horns, a chase scene, some Chuck Berry and then reggae, all in three minutes. The rest of the show mixed twisted striptease themes with an evil marionettes’ dance, a cover of the Get Carter theme done as Herbie Hancock might have circa 1971, and a couple of Lounge Lizards tunes: an early one that saw Ismaily walking crazy scales as the band squawked, screamed and shuddered, and a later, much quieter piece that marvelously built suspense, from apprehension to something more like sheer terror. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of this amazing band, which also included John Mettam on drums, vibraphone and bongos; Christina Courtin on viola; Christopher Hoffman on cello; Rob Burger on acoustic and electric piano and organ, and a violinist whose name we didn’t catch.

April 5, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Jazz Passengers and Deborah Harry Party Like It’s 1989

The Jazz Passengers are defined by their sense of humor. Even their name is sardonic, as if to imply that they’re just along for the ride, which of course they aren’t. It’s a deadpan, surreal kind of humor that strikes some people as ineffably hip when it’s actually just a shared cultural response common to most oldschool New Yorkers, and the Jazz Passengers are nothing if not oldschool New York. Last night at the Jazz Standard they brought bundles of that humor, and that’s what energized the crowd – that and special guest Deborah Harry. Yet for all the jokes and satire, they also showed off a vividly perceptive, sometimes plaintive, understatedly sympathetic social awareness: they’re not just a funny jazz/R&B band. Alto saxist/bandleader Roy Nathanson, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer E.J. Rodriguez did time in a late-period version of the Lounge Lizards, so they got an early immersion in jazz spoofery; violinist Sam Bardfeld, vibraphonist Bill Ware and bassist Brad Jones reminded that they were just as in on what was happening half of the time. Sub guitarist Kenny Russell played it pretty straight, alternating between terse wah-wah funk and bright, slightly distortion-tinged sustained passages. Much of their set was taken from their superb, forthcoming album Reunited, their first in over ten years.

Their opening number shifted from ebullient straight-up swing to suspenseful, noirish interludes, Ware nimbly sidestepping Jones’ gritty chordal attack when they brought the lights down low. Fowlkes sang the jaunty early 70s style funk number Button Up with a casually thought-out determination, Bardfeld doing a spot-on imitation of the wah-wah of the guitar when Russell took a solo. Seven, another song from the new cd, held tight to a similar Headhunters/Quincy Jones vibe, Nathanson and Fowlkes moving judiciously from agitation to something approximating atmospherics. Then they brought up “The Baronness.” Deborah Harry has been in finer voice than ever on recent Blondie tours: the Jazz Standard’s crystalline PA system revealed a little more huskiness, a little more grit than typically comes across with a rock band behind her, not to mention a completely natural, slightly sepulchral swing phrasing. The band serenaded her with a creepy, carnivalesque intro that she shouted down. “Blasé was never a strength of mine,” she sang without a hint of irony on her understatedly torchy opening number – it was one of the funniest moments of the night, one that would recur a bit later.

Little Jimmy Scott’s Imitation of a Kiss saw her shift from torch-song angst to a sultry purr: although she wasn’t exactly wearing her heart on her sleeve, she made it clear that this was a welcome return to the good times she’d had with this band in the years between Blondie’s top 40 heyday and their revival on the nostalgia circuit. The opening cut on the forthcoming album, Thought I Saw the Wind, is sung by Elvis Costello with a detached buoyancy; Harry made its down-and-out cinematography austere and poignant, and the band matched her phrase for phrase, sometimes chillingly: “A dime’s not enough, can you spare a quarter?” Up to this point, Nathanson had repeatedly made fun of a pretentious review the band had just received in an Austrian jazz magazine, to which Harry eventually responded, “Does it mean anything?” The answer came in their final song, a shambling cover of the Peaches and Herb elevator-pop cheeseball Reunited, which pretty much brought the house down, and just when it was getting completely out of hand, Harry took it upon herself to sing straight from the review. They encored with an unselfconsciously intense, hypnotically evocative, swirling version of When the Fog Lifts, Bardfeld’s deft accents punching through the mist rising around him. The new album is out in October: watch this space.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 8/12/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time, all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #901:

The Lounge Lizards’ first album

Corrosive punk jazz from 1981. Bracingly assaultive for a few minutes, viscerally painful to listen to for much longer, especially at high volume, it’s the high moment in the history of the brief No Wave movement in New York. Other than a more-or-less steady beat and bassist Steve Piccolo walking a new scale with every measure, loud and growling, the tracks here don’t have much structure. Alto saxophonist John Lurie, his brother Evan on keys and the actually quite talented Anton Fier on drums blast away, with former DNA guitarist Arto Lindsay adding an ominous undercurrent of distorted, atonal chicken-scratch skronk. Other than the originals, there’s a warped version of Harlem Nocturne and even less recognizable ones of a couple of Monk tunes. Easy listening? Hardly, but great fun for fans of angry, noisy music. One suspects that the Luries were more talented than they let on here, especially considering how diversely melodic later incarnations of the Lizards would be. Many of their other albums are worth owning: the ROIR collection of live takes from 1979 through 1981 has a similar gritty savagery; their Live in Tokyo album, from 1986 mines a vastly more suave, somewhat noir vibe, albeit with an almost completely different cast of players. Out of print for years, the debut album is extremely hard to find – most recently, there was a torrent for several dozen Tzadik albums that doesn’t seem to be working anymore. If you find one let us know!

August 12, 2010 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Very Devious News: The Microscopic Septet Is Back in Print!

There has never been a more devious band than the Microscopic Septet. You may consider yourself a bon vivant, but until you have danced – or at least wiggled in your chair – to the Micros at 2 in the morning, you are only a pretender. These two double cds comprise their complete recorded work through 2007: reportedly, there is also an album of all-new material on the way. You may know these guys from the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air, which their pianist Joel Forrester wrote in the early 90s. As purveyors of good times, exuberant wit and extremely subtle satire, their only real competition is genre-blending baritone sax-driven instrumentalists Moisturizer. Like that band, many of the Micros’ songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – have a narrative feel. They could have been the Spinal Tap of jazz – and in a sense they are – but they’re so much more. A typical number could start out as a slow blues, go doublespeed with a swing beat, morph into dixieland for a minute or two, build to a latin breakdown and then go out on a suspense film motif. When they first appeared on the New York scene in 1980, audiences didn’t know what to make of them. Were they fake jazz? A spoof? A straight-up swing band that couldn’t resist a good joke? All of the above is more like it. By comparison, the early Lounge Lizards were conservative.

In a terrific stroke of good fortune, Cuneiform Records has reissued the Micros’ complete recorded works on two double cd’s, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing. The first comprises their first album, 1983’s Take the Z Train, along with their lone ep, Let’s Flip! from 1986, in addition to with several outtakes from that session. The second includes their 1986 album Offbeat Glory and their lone cd, 1988’s Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) plus several bonus tracks.

Take the Z Train was recorded live in analog to two-track tape in a Chinatown studio chosen because it housed a piano that reputedly once belonged to Eubie Blake. The digital remastering here is brilliant: it sounds pretty much like the collectible album that the original has become. It’s the band’s defining statement. Influenced by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson’s ornate arrangements, founder and sax player Phillip Johnston added megadoses of his signature wit, and the band followed along, Forrester (who also writes a lot of their material) on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, Richard Dworkin on drums (both of whom served as Rachelle Garniez’ rhythm section back in 90s), Dave Sewelson (later of the Sewelsonics) on baritone sax, Don Davis on alto and John Hagen on tenor. The album has what’s possibly their prototypical song, Chinese Twilight Zone; the spy theme Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin; the fast, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary; the latin swing number Kelly Grows Up and the absolutely brilliant True, a previously unreleased outtake that sounds something akin to Sun Ra covering a horror movie theme.

Let’s Flip! and the outtakes that follow it were recorded in concert in Europe. It’s the Micros at their most serious, although their energy is undiminished. In addition to Offbeat Glory, Surrealistic Swing includes two bonus tracks featuring John Zorn, who was their original alto player. Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) was originally released on Stash Records, who also did the Reefer Madness album; noted jazz critic Will Friedwald hooked them up with the label. Forrester’s latin and tango inflections come to the forefront here, particularly on the delightful Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys, Dill Pickle Tango and Fool’s Errand. Over the course of these four cds, the band steals licks from the Mission Impossible, Peter Gunn and Summer Place themes, rearranges the Ellington classic Harlem Nocturne as a tango, and quotes from everyone from Louis Jordan to the Skatalites to George Michael. In all seriousness, as amusing as all this is, it’s also virtuosic and absolutely brilliant. Although the Micros didn’t go unnoticed by the mainstream jazz world during their 80s heyday, these two rediscoveries ought to vault them to the prominence they so richly deserve.

February 2, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment