Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stunning, Haunting New Compositions by One of New York’s Most Adventurous Bassists

Good bass players are like good singers: they get enlisted for a wider range of projects than most musicians. Bassist Max Johnson is probably as well known for his work in Americana as he is with jazz. He’s playing the latter, leading an intriguing trio with tenor saxophonist Neta Ranaan and drummer Jason Nazary on Jan 28 at 7:30 PM at the Django; cover is $25.

But Johnson has another side, as a composer of new classical music. On his latest album When the Streets Were Quiet – a reference to The Trial, by Kafka – he appears only as a conductor, leading a chamber ensemble of violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem and pianist Fifi Zhang.

The opening number on the album – streaming at New Focus Recordings – is Minerva, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. After a spacious introductory reference to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble work a simple, increasingly emphatic, steadily acidic counterpoint. Quartet for the Beginning of Time, maybe?

Johnson switches out piano for viola for the quartet on the title track. Hatem’s clarinet moves broodingly over an uneasy, close-harmonied, organ-like sustain from the strings. A couple of shivers and subtle swells further indicate that trouble is brewing. Frey leads the strings deeper into otherworldly microtonal territory, as minutely modulated tremolo effects signal the clarinet’s mournful return and a solemn, slowly drifting procession out. Franz Kafka would be proud to have inspired music this spellbinding.

Next up is Johnson’s String Trio for violin, viola and cello. The more somber, sustained moments of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 spring to mind, Cauley leading a slow but ineluctable upward trajectory toward horror. Hadge leads the group into more calming terrain, with distant echoes of what could be a Britfolk ballad mingled within the unease. The trio take their time moving between a jaunty bounce and portentous swells on the way out.

Hatem, Frey and Zhang play the final piece, Echoes of a Memory, again echoing Messiaen at his sparest. Pianissimo highs against stygian lows give way to a cautious, icy pavane of sorts, part Federico Mompou, part Bernard Herrmann. This doesn’t sound anything like what Johnson will likely be playing with the jazz trio on the 28th but it’s often transcendent. Is it fair to be talking about one of the best albums of the year when we’re not even done with January yet?

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January 22, 2023 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Improvisation at Its Most Adrenalizing and Interesting at Barbes

That two of New York’s best bass players made the trip to Park Slope to watch their four-string colleague Max Johnson improvise with saxophonist Matt Nelson and drummer Brian Chase last month speaks for itself. Opening for Balkan brass legends Slavic  Soul Party, the trio delivered everything that makes improvisation the highest musical art form, at least when everybody’s on their game. Suspenseful slow builds, boisterous conversations, viscerally breathtaking displays of extended technique, stories, ideas, good jokes: this set had it all. Johnson is bringing the potential for all that back to Barbes on Dec 12 at 8 PM with a new trio including Anna Webber on tenor sax and flute plus veteran Michael Sarin on drums.

The first guy to pull out all the stops at the November 6 gig was Nelson. Playing soprano sax, he  fired off what seemed to be twenty nonstop minutes of circular breathing. Part of what required that was endlessly circling variations on the kind of tightly clustering, cellular phrases he plays in Battle Trance. That was spectacular enough, but he raised the bar several notches, punctuating the river of sound with wildfire, Coltrane-like glissandos, paint-peeling duotone harmonics, shrieks and wails. At the end, he was about as winded as any horn player can be: to say that this was epic to witness is an understatement. Switching to tenor, he gave himself some opportunities to breathe for the rest of the set, but the intensity was pretty much unrelenting.

Johnson was also on a mission to air out his chops, whether bowing whispery, ghostly harmonics, churning out mesmeric, pitchblende rivers of chords on the two lowest strings, racewalking through swing and taking a couple of bouncy, funky detours for the closest thing to comic relief here. Meanwhile, Chase took charge of the dynamics: he was on sentry duty. Whenever it seemed that a lull might be imminent, he’d smack something and the rest of the trio would pick up on the signal. At one point, he pulled the bell of the hi-hat off the stand and gave it a solid whack: it turned out to be the cork on this champagne bottle. Flickering through his hardware and along the rims, wirewalking on the bell of his crash cymbal and driving the final nail through whatever peak presented itself, he engaged the audience as tersely and emphatically as he did his bandmates.

This month’s show has similar potential if completely different personalities. As an improviser, Webber is more of a tunesmith but isn’t afraid of noise. Sarin comes from a completely different era and idiom, but so does Chase, who’s had a money gig with an indie band for years. You can see for yourself what kind of quirk and charm and maybe new elements get invented on the 12th of the month at Barbes.

December 6, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment