Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the bar from a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feral Tunefulness From Cellist Tomeka Reid and Her Quartet

The Tomeka Reid Quartet’s new album Old New – streaming at Cuneiform Records – is the rare jazz album you can play for people who hate jazz, and they’ll end up transfixed. It’s also the rare studio recording that burns, and seethes, and threatens to go off the rails just like a live show. It’s catchy, and ferocious, and bursting with tunes. What an amazing time it seems this band had making it.

In this era where jazz artists leap from one project to the next with barely enough time for it to coalesce, there’s a rare chemistry here, reflecting the group’s longtime associations. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson play together in Halvorson’s Code Girl band,, while cellist Reid and bassist Jason Roebke share early roots in the Chicago scene.

The band scamper and swing hard over Roebke’s chugging bass on the increasingly jagged, noisy title track, Halvorson and Reid trading scrapes, wry trainwhistle lines, eerie jangle and stark, emphatic riffage. Reid says it’s a hymn at the core, but it also seems to draw on early 80s proto-hip-hop like Midnight Starr. Gotta love that Fujiwara rumble on the way out!

Wabash Blues is a Romany swing tune with Reid’s careening cello in the Stephane Grappelli role, at least until it switches to 12/8 time for a bracing, acidic verse, an allusively grim Halvorson pitch-pedal solo and some adenalizing tumbles from Fujiwara.

Niki’s Bop is a shuffling shout-out to Reid mentor Nicole Mitchell, with echoes of both New Orleans and Stevie Wonder, cello and guitar pogoing joyously in their respective channels until Halvorson goes off in a trail of whippit bubbles. Reid and Roebke bubble around a joyously circling Afrobeat riff as Aug 6 gets underway, Halvorson kicking sharp-fanged chords until the group take it out together as a catchy anthem.

The simply titled Ballad is the group’s White Rabbit, a relentlessly uneasy shuffle, Reid’s ominous low-register flutters and shards contrasting with Halvorson’s steady incisions over an increasingly agitated, murky groove. Sadie, a swing tune dedicated to Reid’s grandmother, is the most trad number here, Reid alternating between a second bassline and wryly muted horn voicings, with an unexpectedly hypnotic bounce out.

The album’s most epic and adrenalizing track is Edelin, opening as a misterioso tone poem with flickers and washes from the strings and suspenseful cymbals, eventually coming together as a twisted road theme to rival anything Big Lazy ever put out, all the strings taking turns fanning the flames as the pyre explodes into a conflagration. Peripatetic makes a good segue, a series of increasingly savage climbs that eventually go completely haywire: Halvorson brings in a little funk, but this beast can’t be controlled. The album winds up with RN, which is Reid’s Watching the Detectives, a steadily swaying, broodingly plucked modal theme and variations that unexectedly drift toward sunnier, more psychedelic terrain. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music.

Fun fact: according to the record’s press release, Reid was voted “Violinist/Violist/Cellist of the Year for the second consecutive time by the Jazz Journalists Association.” Does this mean we can vote for JD Allen as trumpeter/clarinetist/saxophonist of the year? Maybe Brian Charette can be pianist/harpsichordist/organist of the year too! Googling for jazz harpsichordists doesn’t get you much, but Brian would no doubt be amped to contend for the award. Or maybe the JJA is just trying to save paper…or precious hard disc space on that old Commodore from the 80s.

December 18, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noir-Tinged Transcendence from Thumbscrew

Thumbscrew‘s show earlier this week at what has become an annual festival at the Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square West was more plaintive and haunting than expected. Guitarist Mary Halvorson left her pitch pedal alone for the most part until the last couple of numbers, where she went crazy with both live loops and warpy Jabba the Hut space lounge sonics. And although she did goose the audience, and maybe her bandmates too, with wry upward swipes at the end of a couple of numbers, she went for noir, and poignancy, and angst throughout most of the rest of the show.

It was almost funny to watch bassist Michael Formanek,, the group’s spokesman this time out, matter-of-factly walking a swing interlude in a tune by drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Otherwise, Formanek punched out miminalist pedalpoint, the occasional looming chord and plenty of somber, bowed phrases, often echoing Halvorson’s lingering, chilly, reverbtoned resonance. His comedic moment was a Sisyphian series of climbs, moving further and further up the scale with a predictable but irresistible tumble at the end.

Fujiwara was his typical counterintuitive self: trios tend to have busy drums, but not this unit. He opened and closed the set with tricky, peek-a-boo polyrhythms, driving the music forward against the beat. Beyond one relatively brief, stampeding cascade toward the end of the set, he kept his cymbals flickering,  with a subtle, lithe attack on the snare and toms.

The trio opened with Snarling Joys, a Halvorson tune, the guitarist foredshadowing the gloom ahead via a pointilllistic series of icepick riffs. Many of the set’s numbers bore a close resemblance to Big Lazy at their most haunting, and exploratory, notably Formanek’s bitterly aching Cruel Heartless Bastards, a take of Jimmy Rowles’ moody classic The Peacocks and Julio De Caro’s Buen Amigo, a tango from the band’s most recent all-covers album, Theirs. The companion album, Ours – all originals, naturally- was also well represented, particularly with a strutting but wounded reinvention of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting which turned out to be a lot more of a lament than a dancefloor hit. Other material was less harrowing: a tricky, serpentine take of Fujiwara’s Saturn Way; an even more rhythmically maddening yet supertight song that sounded like 70s British rock band Wire spun through a cuisinart; and the closing tune, Things That Rhyme with Spangle (that’s a very short version of the official song title), which Halvorson bent and twisted, finally hitting her distortion pedal for some roaring punk chords.

The series of free concerts at the Provincetown Playhouse continues into next week, resuming Monday, July 22 at 7 PM when Rolling Stones multi-saxophonist Tim Ries leads his band. Get there early, i.e. by 6:45 if you want to get in.

July 20, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poignancy, Unease and Playful Improvisation from Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman are one of the most consistently vivid, often hauntingly melodic groups to emerge from the often noisy, acidic New York downtown jazz scene over the past couple of decades. It might seem strange to call a duo a group, but they’ve crystallized a unique and often strikingly poignant sound. Their latest release, Time Gone Out – streaming at Bandcamp – is ironically both their most succinct and expansively ambitious release ttogether They don’t have any duo shows lined up currently, although Courvoisier is playing duo sets this weekend, June 14 and 15 at 8 PM at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with a similarly edgy sparring partner, guitarist Mary Halvorson. Cover is $20.

Feldman opens the new album’s first track, Homesick for Another World, with a steady, allusively chromatic solo passage, then Courvoisier’s harplike brushing under the piano lid signals a shift to misty stillness. The jaunty call-and-response and variations throughout Eclats for Ornette echo Jean-Luc Ponty’s most bop-oriented 60s work, with hints of Stephane Grappelli thrown around while Courvoisier pounces and clusters, up to a bracing, chiming coda.

Limits of the Useful is a playfully crescendoing tone poem, Feldman whirling, sliding and then providing airy ambience for Courvoisier’s unsettling upward stroll; then the two switch roles. They work the same dynamic for Blindspot, but with much more energetic riffage and a droll uh-oh-here-come-the-cops interlude.

From its whirling intro, the album’s epic title track shifts expansively between creepy stillness and the remnants of a cuisinarted bolero. Feldman’s momentary, blazing cadenzas contrast with Courvoisier’s glittering gloom and gravitas as the two rise, fall and then slowly shift toward brightly animated leaps, bounds and glissandos. But all this bustling doesn’t last: is this autobiographical, or a potrait of a thriving scene now scattered by the real estate bubble blitzkrieg?

Crytoporticus has similar Spanish-tinged flourishes, but considerably more flitting ones mingled amid a hazy calm, Courvoisier going under the lid again for dusky flickers. Her haunted Debussyesqe music box interlude midway through is the album’s most arresting moment.

The most striking study in contrasts here is Not a Song, Other Songs, Courvoisier’s stern, stygian lows versus Feldman’s puckish good cheer, although he manages to pull her out of the murk for an unexpectedly carefree, scampering middle section.

The album’s final and most improvisational cut is Blue Pearl, Feldman’s terse phrases holding the center as Courvoisier’s staccato leaps and stabs cover the entire span of the keys. You’re going to see this on a whole bunch of best-of lists at the end of the year.

June 10, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stark, Almost Shockingly Catchy String Tunes and Improvisations From Allstar Trio Hear in Now

Violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi all have busy careers as bandleaders, but they also occasionally play in an edgy, often stunningly catchy trio they call Hear in Now. The project is bracingly and deliciously uncategorizable: ostensibly the music is string jazz, and there’s a lot of improvisation, but also more than a hint of Italian folk, the blues and even string metal. Their latest album Not Living in Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. Reid may be airing out any material from it in two sets at the Jazz Gallery on April 26, the first a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the second with her quartet including Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jason Roebke. Cover is $25.

The trio open the album with a jam, rising from hints of a stately march to shivery squall…and then Frankenstein looks in the window but keeps going. Leaving Livorno is every bit the lament the title suggests, Bolognesi’s stark bowed lines taking centerstage over a whispery backdrop.

Transiti has a staggered staccato pulse, errie close harmonies and a sharp, acidically emphatic cello solo. Requiem for Charlie Haden is unexpectedly catchy, despite the astringency of the circling strings. The aptly titled Circle is even bouncier, bordering on parlor pop in the same vein as groups like the Real Vocal String Quartet: it’s neat how the group shift from punchy to a balletesque strut.

Bolognesi’s steady bowing anchors the sailing melody overhead in the miniature Billions and Billions, another strikingly direct, catchy number. Swift sings the album’s title cut, its message of indomitability set to keening high string harmonies and plucky chords over growly bass.

The album’s second improvisation, interestingly, is just as memorable, waltzing intricately around a circling, blues-tinged hook. Terrortoma is the most darkly bluesy track, with its tight, bracing haronies. The longing in Prayer for Wadud – a diptych – is visceral, Swift’s spare, resonant riffs, Reid and Bolognesi joining underneath with a brooding, bowed riff.

They open Cantiere Orlando with neo-baroque elegance, then hit a spiky interlude and artfully bring the main theme back. They close with the liltingly anthemic waltz Last Night’s Vacation and then the showstopper Cultural Differences, shifting gears hard through minimalism, some atmospherics and then shivery, metal-tinged phrasing. There’s really nothing like this out there.

April 24, 2019 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guitar Goddess Mary Halvorson Plays an Epic Double Album Release Show

There was a point Monday night at the Poisson Rouge where guitarist Mary Halvorson landed on a disarmingly disconsolate four-chord phrase and then ran with it, methodically and gracefully, for longer than she did with any other idea throughout two sets onstage. She doesn’t typically go for the jugular until she’s built up to it, but this was different. Square in the middle of the fretboard, on the middle strings…on an vintage acoustic guitar miked through the PA. Meanwhile, flutist Robbie Lee wafted further and further behind her, realizing that it was the most gorgeous moment in a night that would be full of them.

By the end of the second set, a duet with Bill Frisell, Halvorson had gone back to her hollowbody Gibson electric – and played with a slide. Her brooding, flickering solo was a subtly potent payoff in the wake of a long series of gently keening incisions, Frisell providing a backdrop of warmly wistful pastoral riffs. She’s hardly known as a slide guitarist – this, and the rest of the evening was a message that she’s even more of a polygon than anybody knew. Does she have a Rickenbacker twelve-string stashed away behind the 19th century harp guitar she employed for much for the first set? After almost two hours of a fairly radical departure from her usual enigmatic intensity, that wouldn’t be a surprise.

Some acts make a whole tour out of “album release shows.” Halvorson packed two into one night, celebrating duo releases with both Lee and Frisell. After watching the first set, her album with multi-high-reedman Lee seems to be more composition-oriented than its liner notes indicate. And her set with Frisell, rather than being a high-voltage summit meeting between two of the three greatest jazz guitarists alive, was more introspective and casually conversational. But that made sense, considering that the two guitarists’ new album The Maid with the Flaxen Hair salutes Johnny Smith, one of the godfathers of pastoral jazz.

Goodnaturedly and judiciously, Frisell played second fiddle to his younger colleague, a clinic in spare, purposeful, lingering folk-inflected fills. There were a couple of points early on where he went to his trusty loop pedal while Halvorson went warp-crazy with her octave pedal for some collegial messiness before regrouping for pensive, wistful melody. Otherwise, he gave her a wide berth to indulge in a lot of sarcasm before she pulled back on the pedal and used it for bent-note plaintiveness rather than bizarre space lounge sonics. When they got to Walk, Don’t Run, Frisell seemed poised to leap into the surf, but Halvorson went for restraint instead. Frisell has done a lot of duo work lately and this was a typical example in peak subtlety.

Halvorson’s set with Lee was as allusively haunting as the one with Frisell – a connoisseur of noir, by the way – was warmly tuneful. Although Lee also ceded centerstage to her, his Middle Eastern chromatics and quavering microtones behind her steady, modal single-note lines were exquisitely chosen. Playing the harp guitar – an acoustic predecessor of double-necked Spinal Tap excess – she hammered on the open bass strings and picked out delicate melody against them, sitar-style. Mixing in tense, clenched-teeth tremolo-picking, she held the crowd rapt with her resolutely unresolved rainy-day chords as Lee built a gentle mist in her slipstream.

Frisell’s next appearance is on Sept 23 at the Pacific Jazz Cafe as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

September 19, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

July 9, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Serpentine Majesty with the Tomeka Reid Quartet at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, the Tomeka Reid Quartet limited their savagery to when they really needed to drive a point home. But when they unleashed their inner beasts, the results were sublime.

On one hand, the music swung like crazy, driven by the relentless pulse of bassist Jason Roebke and ever-more-ubiquitous drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who was in as trad mode as he ever gets). On the other, Reid’s compositions can be as dark, and frequently haunting, as they are kinetic and rooted in decades of swing tradition.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson brought her big hollowbody Guild. Was this going to be showcase of too-cool-for-school hardbop voicings? No way. She was a little more restrained than usual, but it wasn’t long before she worked up a murderous thicket of machete tremolo-picking. It would be several songs into the set before she hit her pedalboard and took the tonalities into Jabba the Hut’s outer space lounge. Otherwise, she anchored the songs with expansive series of chords, sparred with Reid, or let her enigmatic phrases linger during the set’s more brooding moments.

Reid also chose her spots. Conventional wisdom is that low-register instrumentalists have no fear of the dark side, and that’s certainly true of Reid, although most of  this set was pretty upbeat. She saved her menacing upward swipes, stark stygian chords and ghostly glissandos – as well as some droll theremin-like harmonics – for when she really needed them. Otherwise, her melody, whether bowed or plucked, swung close to the ground.

The night’s darkest number was a sort of a terse Big Lazy noir cinematic theme with pedaled bass, a cello melody, martial beat and a harried crescendo that more that hinted at cello metal. Another ominous tune embodied resonant, uneasy Wadada Leo Smith blues and starkly modal Amir ElSaffar tonalities, the trio of Reid, Halvorson and Roebke following a tense rubato path.

They opened with a spiky, New Orleans-flavored shuffle and closed with a wary, serpentine piece spiced with the bandleader’s ominous, modal cello trading against Halvorson’s judicious rises and falls, which was a frequent dynamic throughout the show. In between, other highlights included a tune that came across as loopy, dark soukous, along with a staggeredly enigmatic saloon-swing mini-epic, in addition to unexpected detours toward roots reggae, dub and early 80s Pat Metheny. Notwithstanding all the gravitas, everybody in the band seemed comfortable with throwing in an occasional rhythmic swipe for levity’s sake.

Reid’s next New York show is on May 23 at 8:30 PM at the new Stone as part of guitarist Joe Morris‘ quartet. The Bang on a Can organization, who booked this show as this month’s installment of their monthly series at the Jewish Museum, are putting on their annual ten-plus-hour marathon this May 13 starting at noon at NYU’s Skirball Center at LaGuardia and Washington Square South. Admission is free, but get there early if you’re going.

April 28, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jazz Guitar Mastermind Mary Halvorson Embraces Lush, Uneasily Rapturous Improvisational Art-Rock

Mary Halvorson may be known as one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic jazz guitarists, but some of her work skirts the edges where experimental rock and postrock spill over into jazz. She’s also a rare example of a world-class fret-burner who’s also an excellent singer. And she’s also an intriguing lyricist. For whatever reason, the words to the genre-defying songs on her new album Code Girl – streaming at Bandcamp – aren’t imbued with as much of the sardonic humor and stiletto wit that runs through her instrumental work. Amirtha Kidambi sings them with dynamics, drama and passion. The album title is ironic in the genuine sense of the word: it has absolutely nothing to do with tech worship. March tempos are everywhere here: a political reference, maybe? Halvorson and her quartet are playing the album release show tomorrow night, April 3 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard; cover is $25.

As usual, Halvorson’s compositions here go far beyond stereotypical verse/chorus/bridge architecture. The intro to the opening track, My Mind I Find in Time sounds like Bill Frisell playing calypso; then Halvorson shifts to a steady, pulsing drive with hints of Vegas noir. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals ice the backdrop, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire contributes wary resonance and then grit. Kidambi’s soul-infused mantra, “Reconstruction is required in time” has unexpected drama. Bassist Michael Formanek’s final flourishes close it deviously.

Fluttery arioso vocals contrast with the dark lyrical undercurrent of Possibility of Lightning, which morphs into a growling march capped off by some mean tremolo-picking, spins through a vortex of improvisation with Akinmusire anchoring the bandleader’s savagery, then the two themes merge.

The epic Storm Cloud begins as a spare, ominously tremoloing Lynchian set piece, then the whole band march it into moody pastoral terrain. Halvorson hits her pedal for Dave Fiuczynski microtonal warp and Akinmusire wafts as Fujiwara pushes the anthem’s methodical metric shifts:

The clearing of the storm
Finds extra ordinary lives
Pulsing behind the blood

Halvorson and Akinmusire work coy counterpoint over a steady backbeat in Pretty Mountain. The bandleader’s steady, twisted folk arpeggios hold the center; scatting vocals signal an implosion before this wistful travel reminiscence’s punchline kicks in.

Moving between staggered jangle and another march groove, Off the Record has unexpectedly tropical flavor.Formanek artfully hands off the broodingly terse melody to Halvorson as In the Second Before gets underway,Akinmusire and Fujiwara shifting gears from droll to stern. Halvorson builds a roaring crescendo from there, part doom metal, part frantic squall: it’s the album’s high point.

The bandleader has a lot of fun toying with the Orbison noir ballad melody of Accurate Hit, a twistedly spare nocturne for guitar and vocals. Her tantalizing latin noir allusions fuel The Beast, the album’s most picturesque song: is this a seduction or a murder in progress? That song foreshadows the album’s haunting centerpiece, The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon, shifting between atmospheric dark, bossa-tinged folk and a spare sway. Then the group give it a long, thorough, rather wry wringing-out:

Why
In the water
Does laughing make you sink

Rustling counterpoint over yet another march beat give way to a pensive Akinmusire solo and desolate, reverbtoned tremolo-picking from Halvorson in Thunderhead, the closest thing to Frisell she’s ever written.

Halvorson’s muted pulses and enigmatically lingering lines contrast with Kidambi’s majestic delivery and Akinmusire’s uneasy airiness in the simply titled And; the unexpected turn toward New Orleans and then Indian drollery is irresistibly fun. Unsettled yet steady, Deepest Similar is a bittersweet love song, guardedly weighing hope for the future while letting go of the past: perhaps instructively, Kidambi’s angst-fueled vocals rise to their most tortured point here.

The album winds up with an amusing miniature, Armory Beams and then Drop the Needle, where Halvorson manages to orchestrate a shift from tongue-in-cheek and techy to slowly shuffling, moody resonance punctuated by Akinmusire’s pensively sailing lines and Formanek’s steady, bluesy melismas. Much as Halvorson has always been on the cutting edge, this is her most ambitious album to date –

April 2, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment