Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz on an Autumn Day

This has been a year of heroes and zeros like no other. One of the more recent heroes is Jimmy Katz of Giant Step Arts, who has stepped in to program a world-class series of weekend afternoon outdoor jazz concerts in Central Park at a time when musicians have arguably become more imperiled than at any other point in world history. Of the many nonprofits advocating for jazz artists, Katz’s is one of the most ambitious. Before the lockdown, he was booking a series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery, recording them for release on album and also on video, putting his own talent behind the lens to good use. Sunday afternoon’s performance on the southern end of the Central Park mall by vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet wasn’t like a hot Saturday night at Smalls or the Vanguard, but that didn’t seem to be the point anyway. Instead, a small, transient but generally very attentive crowd of maybe fifty people, at the most, scattered around the statue towering over the band, were treated to a thoughtful, very purposeful and occasionally outright haunting show.

Until we get Smalls and the Vanguard back again, in the short run this seems to be the future of live music in New York: communities coming together to support each other. Lately the park has become a pretty much daylong jazz festival, buskers everywhere, and several of them threw some of their own hard-earned cash into tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico’s open case as they passed by. A toddler sprinted up to the group in a joyous attempt to become their dancer, and the band loved it. His muzzled mom snatched him away: the child was distraught.

With mist from Tabanico’s sax and glimmer from Ross’ vibes, pedal down all the way, the group launched into the show with a wary take of what sounded like John Coltrane’s Birmingham. Drummer Craig Weinrib methodically worked his way up to the loose-limbed swing that would propel most of the set: like his bandmates, he was pacing himself. Tabanico set the stage for the rest of his afternoon, building slowly to a coda of insistent bursts and occasional shrieks against the beat.

Bassist Rashaan Carter maintained a more undulating, bubbling approach throughout the set, airing out his extended technique with harmonics in a couple of low-key solos. The bandleader was as terse as always, whether driving through steady but increasingly intense volleys of eighth notes, or providing spacious, judiciously ringing ambience behind the rest of the group.

One of the high points of Ross’ afternoon was an absolutely gorgeous, creepily tritone-infused solo to open the broodingly modal but increasingly funky third number. Another was the rivetingly allusive solo he took during an otherwise upbeat, bluesy swing tune toward the end. The group hinted they’d go further in a latin direction with a catchy, vamping minor-key number punctuated by another emphatically rhythmic Tabanico solo, but ended up holding back.

A return to pensive minor-key balladry – more Trane, maybe? – gave Ross a springboard for a stiletto-precise solo where he completely took the pedal off: it was almost as if he was playing a steel pan. Ross’ next scheduled gig is this Oct 9 at 4 PM with the Jazz Gallery Allstars at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

This particular Central Park series continues on Sept 26 at around 1:30 PM with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Mark Turner, plus Carter on bass again. It’s possible the players may not be at this exact location – on this particular afternoon, there was every possible kind of sonic competition further north, so sometimes you have to move around the park a little. The mall extends from the skating rink to the north, past the Naumburg Bandshell to about five blocks further south. The closest entrance is probably at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

September 22, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Individualistic Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Brings the Lights Up..A Little

Pianist Yelena Eckemoff inhabits the eerie netherworld somewhere between jazz, classical and film music. Russian-born, classically trained, jazz-inclined, she’s one of this era’s most individualistic and instantly recognizable artists. Her back catalog is full of icily intense, glacial themes that are the essence of noir. She’s got a new album, A Touch of Radiance, which raises the luminosity factor to the level of the aurora borealis…maybe. She and the band on the album are playing the release show at the Jazz Standard at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on August 12; cover is $20 and well worth it (and the venue has delicious food).

Eckemoff has assembled a brave choice of supporting cast. Vibraphonist Joe Locke is one of the most gripping, intense players in all of jazz and one of the standout soloists in Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans rarities band. Drummer Billy Hart is the motive force behind the Cookers, arguably the best postbop jazz group alive. Tenor sax player Mark Turner can play anything but is inclined toward the avant garde: he’s got a Jazz Standard gig coming up in September and an album out on ECM. Bassist George Mraz has a checkered past and does a lot to redeem himself here. There’s ostensibly an autobiographical tangent to the album, although the songs and the moods drift from it – which makes it all the more interesting.

The opening track starts with a morosely twinkling intro that quickly morphs into a strolling swing groove that still has Eckemoff looking over her shoulder: the trouble is not over yet, and the pairing with Locke’s vibraphone magnifies the eerie glimmer a thousand times over. It’s a brilliant touch that fits Eckemoff to a T (anybody remember that Twin Peaks movie theme that Locke did with Bill Mays?). They go back to creepy at the end.

The album’s second cut blends blues into Eckemoff’s wounded, shattered motives, Turner taking a pensively hazy solo early on, Mraz driving a dubwise pulse until Eckemoff decides to go for a bit of a bluesy swing before turning it over to Locke, who teams with Hart and says the hell with sadness. But then Hart brings back the sepulchral gloom, all by himself! Who would have thought he had it in him?

Track three is a very effective small-group take on Gil Evans bossa noir. Any exuberance here is credit to Turner, Locke seizing the chance to take it back into the shadows even while the band is quietly swinging. The fourth cut evokes Frank Carlberg at his most evilly phantasmagorical (like on his amazing Tivoli Trio album): this time, everybody is in it, Turner leading the way, Locke close behind. If this is love, then we’re all doomed.

The next cut bounces along heavily. As a cr0ss-genre mashup, it’s sort of the jazz equivalent of a Finnish surf rock song, Eckemoff and Turner jumping at the chance to leap through a series of minor changes and an absolutely creepy, jungly rhythmic thicket. After that, the band sways and swooshes with a Baltic chill through a shapeshifting waltz. The following track is hilarious: ponderous funk and then disco, on this otherwise brutally serious album? The band keeps a poker face all the way through.

Track eight, Tranquility (song titles are an afterthought in the Eckemoff book) has Turner and Locke hinting at balminess before Eckemoff brings it down to earth. It’s a cool (well, chilly) contrast between African-American jazz and Russian classical idioms. Hart’s chill clave drive gives the next track, a low-key, first-gear Mack truck diesel groove. It’s like a portrait of this year’s New York summer: hot days, mercifully cool nights. After all the gravitas, Eckemoff finally achieves the synthesis she’s been shooting for with the title track, a cinematic, crescendoing theme that would have worked for a late-night 70s sitcom (maybe one with a vampire).

Throughout the album, Eckemoff plays with sepulchrally confident chops and an unassailable upper-register glimmer: she’s never met a spiraling icicle phrase she couldn’t nail. For people who like nine-minute songs, and dark music in general, this is one of those rare albums that’s an absolute must-own – and one of the best of 2014.Stream it at Eckemoff’s webpage and decide for yourself.

August 10, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ibrahim Maalouf Draws Inspiration from a Miles Davis Classic

[Editor’s note – when New York Music Daily spun off from this blog, they took the rock and reggae and most of the global sounds with them….and also just about everything that falls under the rubric of noir music. So they took this one too. Once in awhile we’ll throw them something jazzy – today they’re throwing this repost back to us.]

Does it make sense to try to listen to a jazz homage out of context, or – in the case of this particular album – is it inseparable from the its legendary predecessor? Would it be fair to call this homage the best album of the year? Lebanese/French trumpeter/composer Ibrahim Maalouf’s brilliant new new score to the 1927 Rene Clair silent film La Proie Du Vent (Prey to the Wind) takes it its inspiration from Miles Davis’ immortal noir soundtrack to the 1958 Louis Malle film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Maalouf follows the architecture of the Miles record, but not sequentially. As Davis did, when Maalouf gets the chance, he focuses in hard on lighter moments, both to offset and accentuate the relentless darkness of the rest of the soundtrack.

Davis recorded his album haphazardly in a couple of days in a Paris studio with a pickup band, employing the same modal system used for the improvisations on Kind of Blue, with equally powerful results. Maalouf recorded this one in a couple of days in a New York studio, but carefully chose the players – pianist Frank Woeste, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Clarence Penn – since he felt they’d be comfortable with his use of Middle Eastern scales. The Miles record is drenched in reverb, added post-production; Maalouf’s production is as airy and sometimes arid as the film would seem to suggest. Overall, the effect of both albums is the same, an unrelenting unease foreshadowing imminent doom despite all distractions to the contrary. Together and separately, both are classics of the noir pantheon.

Woeste’s icy, Ran Blake-esque flourish introducing Maalouf’s resonant lines over Grenadier’s tersely staggeried syncopation immediately establishes the claustrophobic atmosphere that will resound crushingly throughout most of the score. Clear as this recording is, it feels as if the band is playing from behind a wall, Maalouf tentatively reaching upwards just as Davis did with his title theme. Davis offered temporary reprieves with bass solos, chase scenes and convivial, conspiratorial interludes; Maalouf employs the latter but none of the former, choosing to liven his own score with reggae and clave. But while the latin groove motors along comfortably and expansively, the reggae all too soon gives way to a crypto-waltz, ushering in the somber main theme.

To call the rest of this album Lynchian would be ironic, considering that David Lynch and his frequent soundtrack collaborator Angelo Badalamenti – and others – have drawn so heavily on Miles Davis. Maalouf matches Davis’ restraint, even though he often digresses into Middle Eastern modalites, which the supporting cast let resonate from a distance, leaving plenty of room for the trumpet’s eerie microtones. Yet Maalouf’s attack doesn’t mimic Davis, as the themes build with an expansive, sometimes breathy, sometimes ironic balminess. Turner often plays good cop to Maalouf’s brooding bad one, working the dichotomy for all it’s worth on the aptly titled Excitement, soaring over the band’s uneven pulse before Maalouf takes it down into shadowy noir cabaret. The final three tableaux – chillingly tense variations on a Gallic ballad, a morose wee-hours nocturne and the suspenseful closing theme, propelled by Penn’s judicious hitman tom-tom work – drive this masterpiece home through the mist with a quietly determined wallop. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi; and here’s an enticing clip of Suspicions, one of the score’s most chilling interludes.

February 11, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment