Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Three of the World’s Great Jazz Voices Sing the Blues

One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.

Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.

The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.

The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.

Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!

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September 26, 2016 Posted by | blues music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catherine Russell Brings Back the Blues and Jazz Roots of Classic Soul

[republished, more or less, from Lucid Culture’s more rock-oriented sister blog New York Music Daily]

Catherine Russell is the kind of jazz luminary you might discover at three in the morning,  belting her heart out with an obscure funk band who later change their name and style and become a huge draw on the indie rock circuit. In the fourteen years since that initial sighting – true story -she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way.Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.

The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.

The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.

The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).

Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.

The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:

Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette

The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.

May 14, 2014 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2013: A Marathon Account

The narrative for Winter Jazzfest 2013 wrote itself. “The festival began and ended with two extraordinary trumpeters from Middle Eastern backgrounds, Ibrahim Maalouf early on Friday evening and then Amir ElSaffar in the wee hours of Sunday morning.” Except that it didn’t happen like that. Maalouf – whose new album Wind is a chillingly spot-on homage to Miles Davis’ noir soundtrack to the film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud – was conspicuously absent, with visa issues. And by quarter to one Sunday morning, the line of hopefuls outside Zinc Bar, where ElSaffar was scheduled, made a mockery of any hope of getting in to see him play. But a bitingly bluesy, full-bore cadenza earlier in the evening from another trumpeter – Hazmat Modine’s Pam Fleming – had already redeemed the night many times over. In more than fourteen hours of jazz spread across the West Village (and into the East) over two nights, moments of transcendence like that outnumbered disappointments a thousand to one.

A spinoff of the annual APAP booking agents’ convention, the festival has caught on with tourists (the French and Japanese were especially well-represented) along with a young, scruffy, overwhelmingly white crowd like what you might see at Brooklyn spots like Shapeshifter Lab or I-Beam. Those crowds came to listen. Another tourist crowd, this one from New Jersey and Long Island, ponied up the $35 cover for an all-night pass and then did their best to drink like this was any old night on the Bleecker Street strip, oblivious to the music. It was amusing to see them out of their element and clearly nervous about it.

That contingent was largely absent on Friday – and probably because of the rain, attendance was strong but not as overwhelming as it would be the following night. Over at Bowery Electric, drummer Bobby Previte led a trio with baritone saxophonist Fabian Rucker and guitarist Mike Gamble to open the festival on a richly murky, noir note, raising the bar to an impossibly high level that few other acts would be able to match, at least from this perspective (wth scores of groups on the bill, triage is necessary, often a cruel choice between several artists). Watching Rucker build his way matter-of-factly from a minimalistically smoky stripper vamp to fire-and-brimstone clusters of hard bop was like being teleported to the jazz club scene from David Lynch’s Lost Highway.

Over at le Poisson Rouge, chanteuse Catherine Russell delivered a mix of alternately jaunty, devious and poignant swing tunes, none of them from later than 1953, the most recent one a lively drinking song from the Wynonie Harris book. Guitarist and music director Matt Munisteri added his signature purist wit and an expectedly offhand intensity on both guitar and six-stirng banjo as the group – with Ehud Asherie on piano, Lee Hudson on bass and Mark McLean on drums – swung  through the early Ella Fitzgerald catalog as well as on blues by Lil Green and Bessie Smith, riding an arc that finally hit an unselfconsciously joyous note as they wound it up.

Jamaican jazz piano legend Monty Alexander followed, leading his Harlem-Kingston Express as they turned on a dime from pristine swing to a deep and dark roots reggae pulse. Alexander has been having fun with this project – utilizing what are essentially two discrete groups on a single stage, one an acoustic foursome, the other a fullscale reggae band with electric bass, keys and guitar – for a few years now. This was as entertaining as usual, mashing up Uptown and Jamdown and ending with a singalong on Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. In between, Alexander romped through jump blues and then added biting minor-key riffage to Marley classics like Slave Driver and The Heathen. Alexander was at the top of his game as master of ceremonies  – he even sang a little, making it up as he went along. It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the Irie Island.

Across the street at the Bitter End, Nels Cline and Julian Lage teamed up for a duo guitar show that was intimate to the extent that you had to watch their fingers to figure out who was playing what. Both guitarists played with clean tones and no effects, meticulous harmonies intertwining over seamless dynamic shifts as the two negotiated blue-sky themes with a distant nod to Bill Friselll…and also to Jerry Garcia, whose goodnaturedly expansive style Lage evoked throughout a handful of bluegrass-tinged explorations. On a couple of tunes, Cline switched to twelve-string and played pointillistic rhythm behind Lage, who was rather graciously given the lion’s share of lead lines and handled them with a refreshing directness – no wasted notes here. The two beefed up a Jim Hall tune and closed with a trickily rhythmic, energetic Chris Potter number.

The Culture Project Theatre, just off Lafayette Street, is where the most improvisationally-inclined, adventurous acts were hidden away – and by the time Boston free jazz legends the Fringe took the stage for a rare New York gig, the place was packed. The trio of tenor saxophonist George Garzone, drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood gave a clinic in friendly interplay, leaving plenty of space for the others’ contributions, each giving the other a long launching pad for adding individual ideas. Gullotti was in a shuffle mood, Lockwood a chordal one, Garzone flirting playfully with familiar themes that he’d take into the bop-osophere in a split second, the rhythm section leaving him to figure out what was happening way out there until he’d give the signal that he was coming back to earth.

Nasheet Waits’ Equality was next on the bill there and was one example of a band that could have used more than the barely forty minutes they got onstage. It wasn’t that they rushed the songs, it was simply that this band is obviously used to stretching out more than they got the oppportunity to do, shifting shape rhythmically as much as melodically, through compositions by both the drummer/bandleader and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. Warmly lyrical sax found a murky anchor in Vijay Iyer’s insistently hypnotic pedalpoint and block chords, Mark Helias propelling their third tune with careful permutations on a tireless bass loop. They danced out on a biting, latin-tinged vibe.

Seabrook Power Plant, somewhat less lethal and toxic than their name implies, closed out Friday night with a pummelling yet often surprisingly melodic set for the diehards who’d stuck around. Brandon Seabrook – the Dick Dale of the banjo – teamed up with bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Jared Seabrook for a hard-hitting, heavily syncopated, mathrock-tinged couple of tunes, the bandleader’s right hand a blur as he tremolopicked lightning flurries of chords that were more dreampop than full frontal attack. Then he picked up the guitar, started tapping and suddenly the shadow of Yngwie Malmsteen began to materialize, signaling that it was time to get some rest and get ready for day two.

Word on the street has been that the best strategy for the Saturday portion of the festival is to pick a single venue out of the total of six and camp out there, as one of the organizers sheepishly alluded as the evening got underway. This year that turned out to be gospel truth, validating the decision to become possibly the only person not employed by the Bitter End to spend six consecutive hours there. That choice wasn’t just an easy way out. Right through the witching hour, there were no lulls: the bill was that strong.

Percussionist Pedrito Martinez opened with his group: the sensational, charismatic Araicne Trujillo on piano and vocals, Jhair Sala on cowbell and Alvaro Benavides on five-string bass. Playing congas, Martinez took on the rare role of groovemeister with a subtle sense of dynamics, through a swaying set that was as electrically suspenseful as it was fever-pitched and diverse, slinking through Cuban rhythms from across the waves and the ages. Trujillo was a force of nature, showing off a wistful, bittersweet mezzo-soprano voice in quieter moments and adding fiery harmonies as the music rose. Given a long piano solo, she quoted vigorously and meticulously from Beethoven, Chopin and West Side Story without losing the slinky beat, matching rapidfire precision to an occasionally wild, noisy edge, notably on a long, call-and-response-driven take of Que Palo.

Chilean-American chanteuse Claudia Acuna was next, leading her six-piece band through a raputurous, hypnotic set that drew equally on folk music and classic American soul as well as jazz. Her voice radiates resilience and awareness: one early number broodingly contemplated ecological disaster and other global concerns. Chords and ripples rang from the electric piano, ornamented elegantly by guitarist Mike Moreno over grooves that rose and fell. After sultry tango inflections, a moody departure anthem and a surprisingly succesful shot at jazzing up You Are My Sunshine, they closed with an understated take on Victor Jara’s Adios Mundo Indino.

Of all of these acts, saxophonist Colin Stetson was the most spectacular. Playing solo is the hardest gig of all, notwithstanding that Stetson has made a career out of being a one-man band, one that sounds like he’s using a million effects and loops even though what he’s playing is 100% live. Tapping out a groove on the keys of his bass sax, sustaining a stunning mix of lows and keening overtones via circular breathing, some of what he played might be termed live techno. Holding fast to a rhythm that managed to be motorik and swinging at once, he evoked the angst of screaming in the wilderness – metaphorically speaking. Or being the last (or first) in a line of whales whose pitch is just a hair off from being understandable to others of the species, explaining how he felt a kinship with the “Cryptowhale” recently discovered on US Navy underwater recordings. Switching to alto sax, he delivered his most haunting number, spiked with sometimes menacing, sometimes plaintive chromatics and closed with a slowly and methodically crescendoing piece that built from dusky, otherworldly ambience to a firestorm of overtones and insistent, raw explosiveness. Of all the acts witnessed at this year’s festival, he drew the most applause.

In a smart bit of programming, trumpeter Brian Carpenter’s nine-peice Ghost Train Orchestra was next on the bill. Carpenter’s previous album collected jaunty, pioneering, surprisingly modern-sounding hot 20s proto-swing from the catalogs of bandleaders like Fess Williams and Charlie Johnson, and the band played some of those tunes, adding an unexpected anachronistic edge via biting, aggressive solos from tenor saxophonist Andy Laster and Brandon Seabrook, wailing away on banjo again. As the set went on, a positively noir Cab Calloway hi-de-ho energy set in, apprehensive chromatics pushing bouncy blues to the side, Mazz Swift’s gracefully edgy violin contrasting with Curtis Hasselbring’s terse but forceful trombone lines.

In addition to innumerable jazz flavors, this year’s festival featured a trio of acts who don’t really play jazz at all and the most tantalizing of them, Hazmat Modine, happened to be next on the bill. Frontman Wade Schuman played his chromatic harmonica through a series of effects that made him sound like a hurdy-gurdy on acid…or helium, depending on the song. Lively handoffs and conversations, notably between tuba player Joseph Daly and trombonist Reut Regev but also guitarists Pete Smith and Michael Gomez, Rachelle Garniez on claviola and accordion, Steve Elson on tenor sax, Pam Fleming on trumpet, and Rich Huntley on drums burst out of everywhere. Huntley took an antique field holler rhythm and made a hypnotic mid-70s disco-soul vamp out of it, as well as romping through samba swing, Diddleybeat, calypso or reggae, as on the minor-key but ecstatic opening tune, So Glad. The French have anointed the Hazmats as a blues band (their album Bahamut was the #1 blues album of the year there) even though they interpolate so many different styles into the genre and then jam them into unrecognizability. It was just as well that this set proved to be the final one of the festival – at least from this point of view – because after they’d vamped through a wryly surreal but ecstatic take of the carnivalesque tropicalia of the album’s title track, there was nowhere to go but down.

January 15, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Torchy Jazz Reinventions from Catherine Russell

Eclectic chanteuse Catherine Russell’s new album Strictly Romancin’ may have been timed to a Valentine’s Day release, but it transcends anything that might imply. A Louis Armstrong homage of sorts (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band), it’s a loosely thematic mix of brilliantly reinvented yet period-perfect swing and blues tunes, plus a gospel number featuring Russell’s 86-year-old mom’s powerful contralto harmonies. The album fuses many of the best ideas to come out of swing, soul and blues over the past hundred years. Russell has put out good albums before, but this is the New York-based vocalist’s greatest shining moment out of many. She’s always been a highly nuanced, versatile singer: she is an extraordinary one here, her eclecticism reaching new heights of sensitivity and sophistication, even beyond that of her excellent previous album Inside This Heart of Mine. Most of the A-list crew here played on that one: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds.

It’s also a great shining moment for Munisteri, possibly the most imaginative purist in jazz, someone whose immersion in the history of American roots music is deep but hardly reverential: he takes all these old songs and makes them sound as fresh and fun as they must have been when musicians first sank their teeth into them in the 30s and 40s. For example, the opening track, Under the Spell of the Blues takes its cue from the Ella Fitzgerald original, but adds a spring-loaded intensity with precise piano and Russell’s maple sugar, Bessie Smith-inspired vocals. If you’ve had enough of I’m in the Mood for Love for this lifetime and the next, you need to hear this version: Barbato and then Munisteri rescue it from schlock hell and transport it to swing heaven.

Cab Calloway’s Wake Up and Live is done as an refreshingly brusque, no-nonsense piano shuffle with Munisteri reaching for a rockabilly vibe – and it works perfectly. Ev’ntide, a rare Hoagy Carmichael tune is wee-hours dixieland, fueled by Kellso’s sly, souful wit. Lil Green’s Romance in the Dark, a slowly swaying blues ballad is the most overtly romantic tune here, followed by a jauntily sophisticated take on the Ellington/Strayhorn jump blues I’m Checking Out, Goom-bye. Abbey Lincoln’s No More gets the full-on, potently determined Nina Simone treatment, while Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby (another Louis Armstrong tune) gives Russell the chance to show off her coy side; Munisteri’s deviously spiraling  solo takes it to its logically adrenalized conclusion.

Everything’s Been Done Before looks back to the swinging Luis Russell/Louis Armstrong version, but takes it further south with Aaron Weinstein’s violin and Barbato’s accordion blissfully handing things over to Munisteri’s sly, googly-eyed shuffle. The most overtly bluesy, raw number here, Ivory Joe Hunter’s Don’t Leave Me has Munisteri channeling T-Bone Walker at his most suavely incisive. I Haven’t Change a Thing balances showtune bravado with blues soulfulness, with biting rhythmic tradeoffs to keep everybody guessing; it makes a good segue with the brisk Ellington tune Everybody Loves My Baby and its snazzy horn charts. The album winds up with a jauntily irresistible take of Red Allen’s Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing, the most oldtimey cut here, banjo and band taking it doublespeed and back, again and again with a perfectly choreographed charm. A lot of people are going to love this album: jazz purists, kids who have just discovered oldtimey music, hardass blues fans and maybe even some of the crowd who gravitated to Norah Jones ten years ago when that singer reminded so-called mainstream audiences that jazz was once everybody’s music. The album is out now on Harmonia Mundi; Russell also did a characteristically brilliant live set on NPR which you can stream here. You’ll see this on lots of “best albums of 2012” lists this year.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Catherine Russell’s Latest Album Does the Time Warp Her Way

Catherine Russell’s latest cd Inside This Heart of Mine is the great album the Moonlighters didn’t release this year. A purist, inspired mix of swing blues and shuffles from the 1920s to the present day, it cements Russell’s reputation as a connoisseur of brilliant obscurities, and a reinventer of some which aren’t so obscure. Her band is phenomenal: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian Grice on drums, with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor sax and clarinet and John Allred on trombone, among others. The oldtime sound here reminds just how edgy, and fun, and actually ahead of its time much of the material here was: the band play it with joyous intensity and bite. This isn’t exactly safe, easy listening.

The title track, a Fats Waller tune, is recast as a slow, darkly torchy swing blues, trumpet and trombone consoling each other. All the Cats Join In transforms Peggy Lee’s seemingly innocuous 1946 jaunt to the ice cream parlor to something far more adventurous, taking it back in time another twenty years to when the place was probably a speakeasy. Block’s sax is so psyched to be there that he misses his exit and stays all the way through the the turnaround. Another Waller tune, We the People, gets a celebratory dixieland-inflected treatment.

The ruefully swinging Troubled Waters, based on the 1934 Ellington recording with Ivie Anderson in front of the band, is a suicide song, but Russell only alludes to it: she doesn’t go over the top, leaving the real mournfulness to Kellso’s muted trumpet. By contrast, Maxine Sullivan’s As Long As I Live is jaunty and understatedly sultry, with genial piano from Shane. The apprehensive ballad November, by producer Paul Kahn, is characteristically dark and understated, pacing along slowly on the beat of Munisteri’s guitar, with lowlit ambience from Rachelle Garniez’ accordion and Sara Caswell’s violin.

Just Because You Can, written by Garniez – one of this era’s most individual songwriters- is a pacifist anthem. Russell gives it surprising snarl and bite, if not the kind of disquieting ambiguity that Garniez would undoubtedly bring to it, Caswell’s violin handing off to Munisteri’s devilish banjo. The rest of the album includes a lazy, innuendo-laden Long, Strong and Consecutive (another Ellington band number); a vividly wary version of Arthur Prysock’s Close Your Eyes; a hilarious take of Wynonie Harris’ 1954 drinking song Quiet Whiskey; a strikingly rustical, even bitter banjo-and-tuba cover of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful; and a couple of upbeat, 1920s style numbers to close it. The fun the band has playing all of this stuff translates viscerally to the listener. Simply one of the best albums of 2010. It’s out now on World Village Music.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rachelle Garniez and Mojo Mancini at the Canal Room, NYC 4/7/10

Rachelle Garniez was all business this time out. New York’s most individualist steampunk siren usually engages the audience much more than she did last night in a brief duo show, playing accordion with her longtime partner in crime Matt Munisteri on acoustic guitar and banjo. This was the greatest-hits set. She dedicated a swinging, metaphorically-charged version of Tourmaline (from her Melusine Years album, which topped our Best Albums of 2007 list) to an ancestor, Mary Delaney, who had sailed to New Orleans from Ireland in “one of those cast iron bathtubs.” The offhandedly menacing stream-of-consciousness polka punk of Pearls and Swine, said Garniez, sounds Mexican to Germans and vice versa. After a coy, brief take of the innuendo-laden, bluesy Medicine Man and a rather sweet version of Grasshopper, creatively reinterpreting an old Aesop theme, Munisteri got to take the best solo of the night, expansively and incisively through a whole verse and chorus of the torchy Swimming Pool Blue. The crowd wanted more; they didn’t get it.

Mojo Mancini played about an hour’s worth of deliciously creepy, mostly downtempo, cinematic groove instrumentals. Like a twisted hybrid of the Crusaders or early 70s Herbie Hancock and Tuatara, they’d find a haunting chromatic riff and linger on it for minutes on end, with judicious yet playful solos from everyone. Guitarist John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash’s husband and longtime musical director, seems to be in charge of keeping track of the changes in this unit as well. Drummer Sean Pelton and bassist Conrad Korsch locked into a groove which moved gracefully from slinky trip-hop to pounding funk and pretty much all points in between, anchored by either fluid Hammond organ or eerily reverberating Rhodes piano from Dylan sideman Brian Mitchell and spiced with both tenor and baritone sax from Rick DePofi. Mitchell used a vocoder to reach for the furthest level of hell on an unabashedly silly, funkified cover of the David Essex K-tel hit Rock On; other times, he’d mess with his portamento, sometimes in tandem with Leventhal for an out-of-focus, watery menace. They brought Garniez up for a purposeful, straight-up cover of the old jazz standard Comes Love – she chose her spots, alternating between a wondrous Blossom Dearie soprano and a brassy, brazen belt, feeling her way between one kind of over-the-top and another and whichever she’d switch into, it worked like a charm. The band also accompanied a sword swallower, who was impressive with all his super-long balloons and giant screwdriver, yet ultimately his presence onstage stole the spotlight during one of Mojo Mancini’s most interesting numbers, a quietly intense, suspenseful minor-key excursion.

The only drawback was the incessant drum machine. These guys are topnotch players: during a quiet intro, Leventhal and DePofi both had trouble connecting with the click, but when the volume picked up to the point where it was all but inaudible, they swung like crazy. Musicians this good don’t need a click track – why they had one is a mystery. Mojo Mancini’s new album is very much worth your time – watch this space for a review in the next couple of weeks.

April 8, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Graham Dechter – Right on Time

Jazz guitarist Graham Dechter’s debut as a bandleader is auspicious to say the least. A John Clayton protégé, he made his debut with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at nineteen. Four years down the road, as befits a guitarist whose main gig is a big band, Dechter eschews gratuitous solo lines in favor of an assured, frequently aggressive chordal attack which nonetheless abounds with subtleties in voicing and shading. He plays straight through his amp without effects, generally with a round, slightly bassy tone that grows to include just a hint of distortion, threatening to combust at any second, when he feels like sending a crescendo over the edge. What’s most impressive about this is that Dechter does it mostly with either familiar or canonical material – it’s a cover album, but the interpretations are unquestionably his. It’s quite a ride.

Backing him are his bandmates: his mentor Clayton on bass, Jeff Hamilton (whose latest as bandleader, Symbiosis, is also excellent) on drums, and the vividly lyrical Tamir Hendelman on piano. The album kicks off a briskly swinging, meaty take on Low Down (by Thad Jones, NOT Boz Scaggs), following with a Jobim cover, Wave, subtly and effectively bluesy with a brisk and confident Dechter crescendo followed amusingly by Clayton’s tiptoeing around, up to a sneaky false ending from Hamilton. The group take their time with The Nearness of You (Hoagy Carmichael), giving it plenty of room to breathe, Hendelman’s solo echoing Dechter’s casual terseness.

I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues (one of three Ellington tunes here) is a showcase for Dechter’s sly aplomb with subtle hammer-ons and tremolo picking. The comparison might seem over-the-top, but Dechter’s seemingly intuitive feel for the blues and fresh chordal approach remind of a young Matt Munisteri (albeit without the bluegrass), especially in the suaveness of In a Mellow Tone. Here he eggs his bandmates on, to the point where Hendelman smacks his way in with some impatient staccato as the first guitar solo winds up, then nips at Dechter’s heels for the rest of the song. And when it’s Clayton’s turn to step out, he comes in with a train whistle. Otherwise, Johnny Hodges’ Squatty Roo is a lickety-split romp full of post-Wes Montgomery guitar articulation; his saxist dad Brad Dechter’s bluesy title track works as both clinic in keeping it simple and on track, and an exercise in trick endings; and the old standard Broadway provides ample opportunity for Dechter to muscle up its horn chart. Considering the amount of time the players on this album have clocked together, it’s no surprise to hear such an abundance of convivial, good-natured jousting and interplay. Dechter’s wunderkind years may be behind him now, but with a whole career in front of him, it’ll be very interesting to watch him develop. Let’s hope he starts playing his own compositions – if this cd is any indication, they ought to be captivating. And if not, he’s made a mark as an individual, first-class interpreter worth watching over the months and years to come.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Concerts in New York in 2009

Of all our year-end best-of lists (the 100 Best Songs of 2009 and 50 Best Albums of 2009 included), this is our favorite, because it’s the most individual (everybody has a different list) and it’s closest to our raison d’etre, live music in New York. Last year’s was difficult enough to narrow down to twenty; this year’s is criminally short. We could have put up a top 100 concerts list and it would be five times as good. 

This was the year of the Beast – Small Beast at the Delancey, New York’s most exciting weekly rock event. We caught onto this slowly – the concert series ran for about a month before we discovered it – but when we did we were there almost every week. Occasionally someone will ask, since you have a music blog, why don’t you start booking shows? With Small Beast, there’s no need: it’s your weekly chance to discover the edgiest, smartest rock-ish talent from Gotham and across the globe. You’ll see a lot of those shows on this list.

Yet 2009 was a weird year for us – running a New York live music blog and not being in town much of the time made it problematic, to say the least. Week after week, we watched from a distance, enviously as half the city got to see stuff we never did. In August, the Brooklyn What did a killer triple bill with Palmyra Delran’s garage band and amazing latin ska-punk-gypsy rockers Escarioka at Trash Bar, but we weren’t there. The second night of the Gypsy Tabor Festival just a few weeks later looked like a great time, but we missed that one too. As the year winds down and we finally (hopefully!) start to reap the rewards of a whole lot of hard work, it appears, pending some absolutely transcendent show exploding onto the radar, that this is it for our Best Shows of 09 list. Needless to say, we can’t wait for 2010.

Since any attempt to rank these shows in any kind of order would be an exercise in futility, we just listed them as they happened:

The Brooklyn What at Fat Baby, 1/15/09 – since we’d just reviewed a couple of their shows in the fall of 08, we didn’t even review this one, fearing overkill. But on what was the coldest night of the winter up to that point, they packed the club and burned through a characteristically fun, ferocious set, maybe fueled by the knowledge that one of their idols, Ron Asheton, had left us.

Kerry Kennedy at Rose Bar, 1/21/09 – the noir chanteuse was at the absolute top of her game as quietly resilient siren and southwestern gothic bandleader.

Paul Wallfisch and Larkin Grimm at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/9/09 – the Botanica frontman (who books Small Beast) turned in a typically fiery set, followed by the avant-chanteuse who battled and finally lashed out at a crowd of clueless yuppie puppies who just didn’t get what the show was all about.

Kotorino at Pete’s Candy Store, 4/13/09 – the quietly multistylistic, gypsyish band filled the place on a Monday night and kept the crowd riveted as they all switched instruments, beats and genres over and over.

The New Collisions at Arlene’s, 4/23/09 – Boston’s best new band blazed through an early 80s inflected set of edgy powerpop.

Paul Wallfisch, the Ulrich-Ziegler Duo and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/23/09 – after Wallfisch had set the tone for the night, Big Lazy’s Steve Ulrich and Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler played hypnotic, macabre guitar soundscapes followed by the ferociously lyrical retro 60s chamber pop of Joe McGinty and Ward White.

The American String Quartet playing Irving Fine and Robert Sirota’s Triptych at Bargemusic, 4/26/09 – a sinister ride through works by one of the leading lights of the 1950s avant garde followed by a haunting, intense performance of contemporary composer Sirota’s 9/11 suite.

Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at Small Beast at the Delancey, 4/30/09 – after Wallfisch got the night started, Beren roared and scorched her way through a pummeling, macabre set. Then Spottiswoode impressed with a subtle set of nocturnes, setting the stage for Wynn, playing together with his friend and ex-lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in several years, a feast of swirling, otherworldly guitar overtones.

The Friggs and the Chrome Cranks at Santos Party House, 5/8/09 – a triumphant return for the popular 90s garage girl rockers followed by the equally triumphant, reinvigorated, snarling sonic attack of another one of NYC’s best bands of the 90s.

The French Exit at Local 269, 5/13/09 – NYC’s best new dark rockers playing one of their first shows as a four-piece, rich with reverb, tersely incisive piano, haunting vocals and defiant lyricism.

Chicha Libre on the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Boat, 5/15/09 – definitely the best party of the year that we were party to, a swaying excursion through psychedelic, surfy cumbia music, past and present.

Paul Wallfisch, Darren Gaines & the Key Party and Alice Texas at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/4/09 – Wallfisch kicked it off, Gaines and a stripped-down trio impressed with gutter-poet, Lou Reed/Tom Waits style rock and then Alice Texas turned in a swirling, incandescent, gently assaultive show that reminded how much we miss Tonic, the club where she used to play before it was torn down t0 put up plastic luxury condos.

Paul Wallfisch, Marni Rice and the Snow at Small Beast at the Delancey, 6/22/09 – another Wallfisch night, this one featuring the great LES accordionist/chanteuse/cabaret scholar and then Pierre de Gaillande’s clever, haunting art-r0ck crew.

Ian Hunter at Rockefeller Park, 6/24/09 – the former Mott the Hoople frontman, at age 70, has simply never written, played, or sung better. This show was a real revelation.

Daniel Bernstein at Sidewalk, 7/9/09 – the underground songwriter/lyricist/tunesmith casually burned through one haunting, haunted, ridiculously catchy tune after another.

Randi Russo and the Oxygen Ponies at the Saltmines, 7/10/09 – another haunting show opened with the absolute master of the outsider anthem, who did double duty playing in Paul Megna’s equally dark, intense, lyrical indie band.

The Main Squeeze Accordion Festival: Musette Explosion, Suspenso del Norte, Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet, the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Roberto Cassan and John Munatore, Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica and Peter Stan at Pier One, 7/11/09 – squeezebox heaven.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Damrosch Park, 8/5/09 – cutting-edge Middle Eastern-inflected jazz followed by one of the great ones, undiminished and still inventive at 89.

Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/19/09 – the panstylistic rock goddess played several good New York shows this past year, but this one with Matt Kanelos on piano and glockenspiel and Billy Doughty on drums and melodica was pure transcendence.

Carol Lipnik, Bonfire Madigan, Rachelle Garniez, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and McGinty and White at Small Beast at the Delancey, 11/23/09 – what seems at this point to be the single best show of the year (if only because it’s the most recent one on the list) matched Lipnik’s phantasmagoria to Madigan’s equally artful chamber pop, Garniez’ irresistible charisma and ferocity, Beren’s contralto classical punk assault and then Ward White took over where the sirens had been and sang what could have been his best show ever.

December 3, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Musette Explosion Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/13/08

Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.

Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.

Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.

Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.

In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.

Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment