Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Magical Vocal Quartet Mycale Sings the Fun Side of John Zorn at the Stone This Week

John Zorn assembled vocal quartet Mycale in 2009 to create new arrangements from his exhaustive magnum opus Book of Angels – Volume 2. The group’s debut, Mycale: Book of Angels, Vol 13 (hard to keep track of all of this, isn’t it?), came out a year later. Now the quartet – Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa and Malika Zarra – have a brand new release, Gomory, and a weeklong stand at the Stone starting on September 15 and continuing through the 20th with sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15. Two choice options among many standout lineups include the late set opening night at 10 PM with Serpa’s City Fragments Ensemble – Serpa, Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson (voices); Andre Matos (guitar); Matt Brewer (bass); and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), and then the official album release shows with the full Mycale quartet at 8 on Saturday the 19th.

That much of Zorn’s more recent oeuvre has been thorny and challenging has somewhat overshadowed the sheer fun and liveliness of much of his previous output, and this album is a prime example. All the singers here are composers and bandleaders, and offer their individual lyrics and arrangements to the album’s eleven tracks, each of then named for a specific angel. The choir members also bring their own strongly distinctive vocal styles. Here, Gottlieb is the most plush and powerful, Serpa the most individualistic: she is unsurpassed in the world for awestuck reflecting-pool clarity. Zarra is the most down-to-earth and gives Gottlieb a run for her money in the power department. Sofia Rei is the most versatile and hardest to pin down: she hasn’t yet settled on a style that’s distinctively her own, maybe because she’s so good at so many things.

The album opens with her ticklishly polyrhythmic chart (a theme that develops into many subsequent variations) for the opening track, Huzia, equally informed by tango and takadimi drum music, with a numerological Spanish lyric by Lindy Giacomán Canavati that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavy metal record. In the same vein, Sofia Rei also provides the arrangement for the Renaissance-tinged, austerely angst-laden Yofiel, as well as an ominous lyric for Peliel (translated from the Spanish):

Pouring your soul into a paper river
You broke the silence and its accomplices.
Afternoon charm, dawn betrayal,
The feeble knife quenched your thirst

Zarra provides Arabic lyrics and an boisterously crescendoing arrangement for Tzadkiel, a mashup of Veracruz folk and West African traditions. In Grial, she switches to French to illuminate an playfully dancing atmosphere that’s “Seductive as a sign…magical, ephemeral, that we cannot keep in a corner or hold in our hands.” Gottlieb’s contributions include arrangements for Mumiah – with text by Almog Behar – as well as the swinging Qaddisin – a blend of Bulgarian and klezmer tonalities – and Shahariel, a canon that turns hilariously goofy in a split-second.

Serpa – who seems to be the ringleader of this merry band – provides the architecture for Achuston, a primordial ocean tableau, akin to the Swingle Singers covering an uneasily creeping Procol Harum song, maybe. She also gets credit for the distant, ominously circling arrangement for Belial, and also Paschar, the starkest track here. For whatever reason, at least from this small sample, she seems the most at home with Zorn’s signature Orientalisms.

Musical mystery fans will have a field day trying to figure out who’s singing what – for purposes of enjoyment, it’s best just to let these four singers draw you into their alternate universe. If the angels had a party, this is what it would sound like. There’s tantalizingly little of this online right now, but you can get a taste at Gottlieb’s music page.

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September 12, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Edgy Middle Eastern Big Band Jazz from Alon Yavnai

Israeli jazz pianist Alon Yavnai & the NDR Bigband have an understatedly powerful, very smart new album just out, Shri Ahava (Hebrew for “love poem”). He’s playing the cd release show at Birdland this Sunday at 6 (six) PM with a fantastic New York band featuring Paquito D’Rivera and Malika Zarra: if you’re a fan of Gil Evans, or Middle Eastern jazz innovators like Gilad Atzmon or Amir ElSaffar, this is a show you shouldn’t miss.

The album’s most striking track is titled Travel Notes. Yavnai has a long history with D’Rivera, so it’s no surprise that he’d be as fond of melodies and beats from south of the border as he is of the many traditions from his own part of the world. This one takes a bouncy Peruvian festejo groove and works a mighty series of shifting motifs from the orchestra to a biting, Arabic-tinged interlude where the piano mimics an oud. From there they works variations on the theme through rapidfire solos by trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt and clarinetist Lutz Buchner to a fiery, practically stampeding conclusion. It’s a major moment in recent big band jazz.

Two other equally intriguing tracks are both pastorales that unexpectedly and vividly go noir. Au Castagney is a cinematic epic that leaps from comfortable cinematic ambience to become a spy story set in wine country, with deliciously creepy solos by Yavnai and guitarist Sandra Hempel, who mines some luridly terse Marc Ribot-style tonalities. Then there’s Ilha B’Nit (Beautiful Island), a homage to Cape Verdean music that shifts from lush exchanges of washes carried by two or three voices, to stormier, more rhythmic intensity that brings in some unexpected funk before going out with a darkly memorable bluster.

Bitter Roots is a hybrid Afro-Cuban/Egyptian groove that grows from increasingly agitated cadenzas over a one-chord jam to a series of hypnotic circular riffs. Zriha (Sunrise) builds from bright, optimistic atmospherics to an unexpected wariness calmed by a Frank Delle baritone sax solo, rising matter-of-factly to a clever false ending. The opening, title track juxtaposes pensive solo piano passages with sweeping, majestic charts set to an insistent bossa pulse; the album ends with a requiem for Yavnai’s friend, the late drummer Take Toriyama, brooding solo piano giving way to an exchange of voices that slowly introduce warmer, more comforting variations. Jazz doesn’t get as accessible yet as cutting-edge as this very often.

March 21, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment