Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lara Downes Takes Aim at the Glass Ceiling With a Lavishly Diverse New Album of Works by Women Composers

The title of pianist Lara Downes‘ lavish, wildly diverse new album Holes in the Sky – streaming at her music page – is not a reference to eco-disaster in the wake of a vanishing ozone layer. It’s a celebration of elite women composers and artists which takes the idea of smashing the glass ceiling to the next level. Some of the album’s grand total of 22 tracks, all by women composers, are complete reinventions. Others among the wide swath of styles here, from classical, to jazz, to Americana and the avant garde, are more genre-specific, Downes shifting effortlessly and intuitively between them.

She’s playing the album release show this Sept 13 at 7 PM at National Sawdust with an all-star cast including but not limited to harpist Bridget Kibbey, eclectic chanteuse Magos Herrera and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Advance tix are $35 – which includes a copy of the new cd – or $25 without one. Even better, the show is early enough, and the venue is close enough to the Bedford Ave. L train that you’ll be able to make it home afterward without having to deal with the nightly L-pocalypse.

Notwithstanding that classical musicians are typically expected to be able to make stylistic leaps in a single bound, Downes’ project is dauntingly ambitious. But she drives her point home, hard: women composers have always been on equal footing with men, artistically, even while the music world has been a boys club for so long.

Most of the music here tends to be on the slow, pensive side. Downes opens the album solo with the spare, ragtime-inflected gravitas of Florence Price’s Memory Mist. Judy Collins sings the pastoral ballad Albatross with an austere reflection over Downes’ sparkly evocation of guitar fingerpicking. There’s more art-song with Margaret Bonds’ Dream Variation (with an understatedly resonant vocal by Rhiannon Giddens); and Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles’ Farther from The Heart, sung with similar restraint by Hila Plitmann.

Works by contemporary composers are an important part of this project. The neoromantic is represented vividly by Clarice Assad’s A Tide of Living Water; Paula Kimper‘s Venus Refraction; the late Trinidadian pianist Hazel Scott’s Idyll; Marika Takeuchi’s bittersweet waltz, Bloom; and Libby Larsen‘s Blue Piece, a duet with violinist Rachel Barton Pinel

The American avant garde works here include Meredith Monk’s circling Ellis Island; Paola Prestini‘s spacious, animated Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women; Elena Ruehr‘s astringently dynamic Music Pink and Blue; and Jennifer Higdon‘s Notes of Gratitude, with its call-and-response between muted prepared piano and glistening, resonant motives; Arguably the most gorgeous of all of them is the  Armenian-influenced, Satie-esque Aghavni (Doves) by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

Downes proves to be equally at home in the jazz songbook, particularly with a broodingly reflective, instrumental arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s Favorite Color. There’s also the Billie Holiday hit Don’t Explain, with Leyla McCalla on vocals; Ann Ronell’s saturnine Willow Weep for Me; Georgia Stitt’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed; Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston’s Rainbow; and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Just for a Thrill, sung with dusky intensity by Alicia Hall Moran.

Downes also plays a couple of original arrangements of folk lullabies. Herrera sings the Argentine Arrorro Mi Niña,; Downes closes the album with a hauntingly fluttering take of the old Americana song All the Pretty Little Horses, featuring cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing and all-girl choir Musicality. Even for diehard fans of new music, this is an eye-opening survey of important women composers from across the decades.

September 11, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magos Herrera and Javier Limon Hold the Crowd Rapt in an Intimate Duo Show

 

Mexican singer Magos Herrera reaffirmed her presence as one of the most eclectically compelling singers in any idiom in an intimate duo performance with guitarist Javier Limon for media and a select group of friends at a Chelsea gallery Thursday night. Her previous album Mexico Azul celebrated the African roots of much of Mexican music and culture. Dawn, her new collaboration with Limon, she said, made the connection between Mexico and Spain seem “perfectly natural,” a rather brave assertion for someone whose career has advocated so strongly for the people of her native land. But it’s a quietly stunning move for her: throughout an all-too-brief, set, she and Limon enjoyed a casual chemistry but also an intense focus and commitment to finding the most subtle shades in the music.

Herrera sang in her signature, minutely jeweled contralto until finally going way up, further than you would expect someone with such command of her low register would be able to. Limon played sparingly and judiciously, letting his phrases breathe, matching the singer’s penchant for not wasting notes, which made his occasional flamencoesque flurry all the more intense. They opened the set with a syncopated tango of sorts, Herrera’s delivery managing to be both misty and disarmingly direct at once. Then they reinvented Skylark as a richly suspenseful, spaciously contemplative mood piece with hints of both flamenco and Andalucian music.

Throughout the rest of the set, Limon would sometimes shadow the vocals, following Herrera’s crescendoing, upward ascents with his own. On occasion, he’d light up a slowly swaying theme with a sputtering crescendo much in the way that Herrera would add gracefully scatting accents to bring a chorus to a gentle peak, singing in both Spanish and English. This approach maintained the flamenco influence without the cliches that so many acts who didn’t grow up with the music employ for over-the-top affect. They ended with a number that began with a rainy-day theme that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Sade catalog and then took it out almost as a march, with a series of hypnotically shifting vamps.

And speaking of Sade, there’s been a void where that singer once reigned as the queen of artsy, sophisticated romantic chanteuses. Which would give Herrera room to take over that role, if she wanted. Obviously, she might find that limiting: she’s a more subtle and diverse singer than Sade, and her interests run far beyond romantic balladry. But she’s got the torchy delivery, plaintiveness and sense of longing. What if Herrera – or someone like her – decided to take the Mexican bolero and reinvent it as American torch song? Wouldn’t it be cool if the default boudoir music of the west was a style refined and brought to its pinnacle by Mexicans? Forget about Obama’s lip service about immigration reform: there are an awful lot of places in this country where Mexican-Americans are under fire. What a pleasant and subtle way to fight back against all that repulsiveness – and to jumpstart the reconquista. Just a thought…

April 19, 2014 Posted by | concert, gypsy music, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Magos Herrera’s Mexico Azul Reinvents Classic Film Music

Singer Magos Herrera’s latest effort Mexico Azul is a jazz (and occasionally jazz-pop) album first and foremost, using classic Mexican film themes from the 1940s through the 60s as a stepping-off point rather than trying to recapture the originals’ magically lo-fi yet towering ambience. Herrera’s unadorned, carefully modulated contralto is in full force here, yet she also shows off an impressively soaring upper register. This was obviously a labor of love for the chanteuse, who’s been outspoken about how this album is a celebration of the “Africanness” of Mexico and Mexican culture – an admirable goal, considering what a melting pot the country has been throughout history. The group behind her is first-class, with Luis Perdomo on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Alex Kautz on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, Tim Hagans on trumpet and Adam Rogers (of Randy Brecker’s band) on guitars.

The opening track, Alvaro Carrillo’s Luz de Luna is much more terse than the lush ranchera original, with a spiky Rogers acoustic solo. Herrera’s version of Noche Criolla falls somewhere between the furtiveness of the original and the ecstatic Celia Cruz version, featuring more nicely slinky work from Rogers. Interestingly, Herrera’s version of Agustin Lara’s Azul is a lot more moody and expansive, Hagans’ occasional trumpet accents the only concession to the boisterousness of the original. Angelitos Negros, an orchestrated Pedro Infante bolero hit from the 1948 movie of the same name gets a smartly smoky treatment with Hagans mining that vein memorably. The airy, atmospheric intro to Alvaro Carrillo’s Seguire Mi Viaje’s leads into judiciously hushed clave jazz lowlit by Perdomo’s careful phrasing and an artfully tiptoeing Patitucci solo. It’s catchy and accessible without being the least bit cliched.

An original composition, Voz Antigua (A Mi Tierra) works an understatedly plaintive ambience and a gingerly shapeshifting piano groove. The cover of Lamento Jarocho distantly echoes the suspensefully pensive bounce of the Agustin Lara original, while another Alvaro Carrillo number, Que Sea Para Mi gets a gentle, nocturnal bossa bounce. Everybody from Javier Solis to Luis Miguel has covered Tres Palabras: Herrera and band reinvent it as a coyly understated romp, from the scatting on the intro to Hagans’ jauntily retro, bluesy muted solo. The most radical, and deliciously successful reinterpretation on the album, Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores’ Obsesion is so slow that it’s creepy, Hagans lurking behind Perdomo and Rogers’ brooding, incisive lines. The album ends up with marvelously original take of Dos Gardenias, considerably darker and more suspenseful than the Antonio Machin tango from the 40s. This album works on a lot of levels, as jazz and also as pop music – the one thing this isn’t is nostalgia. For that you’ll have to go to youtube: many of the original versions of these songs are there.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment