Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jussi Reijonen Holds the Crowd Rapt Uptown

Wednesday night uptown at Shrine, Jussi Reijonen alluded that the quiet, reflective compositions from his new album Un might be liberating to New Yorkers looking to escape the afterwork bustle outside. Was he ever right. To describe Reijonen’s music, or his quartet onstage as cosmopolitan would be a considerable understatement. Respectively, guitarist/oudist Reijonen, pianist Utar Artun, bassist Brad Barrett and percussionist Tareq Rantisi represent for Finland, Turkey, California and Palestine. While Reijonen’s work, and his playing, span the emotional spectrum, there’s a searching quality to much of it that haunted this performance. He mused to the audience that this might have something to do with a childhood spent in the stillness of Lapland at the edge of the Arctic circle.

Reijonen’s lively, acerbically dancing oud led the band into the opening number, Rantisi’s nonchalantly triumphant cymbal crashes pairing against Artun’s starlit piano flourishes over stark washes from Barrett. An animatedly nocturnal, chromatically bristling Artun solo over a slinky rhythm wound down to a creepily mysterious, modal glimmer and then back up again, Reijonen then taking it in a stark, haunting direction evocative of Marcel Khalife.

While Rantisi had a full drum kit to work with, he colored the songs with boomy hand drum accents, played muffled hoofbeat rhythms on the toms with his hands and nebulous atmospherics with his brushes, ratcheting up the suspense. Likewise, Barrett alternated between long-tone pitchblende lines and agile, looping phrases, adding a minimalist pulse to an absolutely mystical take of John Coltrane’s Naima, Reijonen’s electric guitar bringing it to a rapturous, meditative but uneasy calm, equal parts Messiaen and Bill Frisell, Artun livening it with a pointillistic summer shower on the high keys.

They played Lorenzo Castelli’s Decisions, a gorgeously brooding jazz waltz, as a sonata of sorts, its theme and variations like waves on a rising tide driven by Artun’s sparkling, sometimes sinister crescendos. Reijonen followed with a homage to Toumani Diabate in a duo with Rantisi, energetically evoking spiky kora voicings that uncoiled with a serpentine, hypnotic energy.

And then a turmpet mysteriously wafted into the mix. Was there a ringer in the band walking in from offstage? No. The bartender had apparently decided he’d had enough of the band, so he’d put some high-energy Afrobeat on the house PA – while the set was still in progress! The same thing happened to Raya Brass Band a couple of weeks ago at Radegast Hall. Some people can’t buy a clue, and it’s too bad they work at music venues.

June 14, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jenny Q Chai’s Smart, Intuitive Carnegie Hall Debut

Pianist Jenny Q Chai’s Carnegie Hall debut last night was expertly programmed and packed with joie de vivre: she played as if she had a secret and couldn’t wait to share it with everybody. Her approach to a mix of premieres, 20th and 21st century compositions and an old High Romantic concert favorite matched fearsome technique to a confidently matter-of-fact emotional intelligence. When the material called for space, she let it linger, most notably (and amusingly) in one of the world premieres, Inhyun Kim’s Parallel Lines, a playfully rigorous study in parallelistic close harmonies punctuated by a Day in the Life-style sustained pause. The joke going around the hall was that Chai could have rubatoed it if she’d wanted to. And when she had to reach back for all the power and precision she could muster, whether for the cruelly difficult machine-gun staccato passages of Marco Stroppa’s Innige Cavatina (a US premiere), or the torrid, torrential rivulets of Debussy’s Etude No. 6, she awed the crowd with what seemed to be an effortless articulacy.

Yet despite the pyrotechnics, it was Chai’s sensitivity to color, timbre and emotion that resonated the most. She nailgunned the stratospherically high notes in Ashley Fu-tsun Wang’s Current (another world premiere), but let the murky, contrasting depths speak for themselves. It was arguably the high point of the night, icily misty tonalities in a rather Rachmaninovian architecture, alternating between spacious minimalism and jaunty flair. And when Chai reached the final variation on the opening theme, she let it go out on a quietly brooding note which packed quite a wallop.

Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya was a mixed bag: Chai handled its herky-jerky, explosive clusters with aplomb and then seemed to revel in its low, stalking basslines, one of the piece’s high points: it could have been a hit single, so to speak, if Messiaen had only edited it down to the juicy passages. And even a wardrobe malfunction didn’t distract Chai from from expertly negotiating the juxtaposition between jarring dissonance and comfortable resonance in a couple of Kurtag miniatures, Quiet Talk with the Devil and Les Adieux, both selections from his Jaketok suite. After all this harshness, Schumann’s Kreisleriana was dessert, and Chai played it as as bittersweet reminscence rather than nostalgia: her phrasing throughout it, whether the rivulets of the main theme, the stately requiem of sorts, or the closing waltz, was judiciously terse, a fitting elegy for Schumann’s old friend from literature. The crowd roared for an encore and got two: the first, an unfamiliar, fluid miniature that would have made a good theme for the PBS special Springtime in Alaska (or the equivalent), the second a John Cage vocal number that she tapped out on the piano lid as she sang.

April 20, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bobby Avey Makes an Auspicious Debut

Pianist Bobby Avey’s debut album A New Face instantly elevates him into the ranks of formidable 21st century players like Vijay Iyer, Gerald Clayton, and Marc Cary. Intense, forceful and fearless, Avey has a powerful lefthand like Kenny Barron, a fondness for ominous modal excursions and a vivid sense of melody that hovers between the noir, the Romantics and Olivier Messiaen at his most otherworldly. Along with the other members of his trio, bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Jordan Pearlson, this album features the always estimable Dave Liebman guesting on soprano and tenor sax on four tracks. The chemistry between players matches the quality of the compositions: if there’s been a better jazz debut album this year, we haven’t heard it.

The opening track, Late November begins with a machine-gun circular motif that Avey eventually leaves to the bass and drums and hovers over with a noirish glimmer – and then takes it down to a minefield of modal incisions on the third verse. Much of this album has a bracing third-stream feel and this is a prime example. Meanwhile, throughout most of the song, Pearlson and Kneeland lock in and hammer with Avey, something they do with considerable relish throughout the album. The second cut, In Retreat is a potently evocative, bitter, brooding ballad, Liebman adding understated grey tones over Avey’s richly melodic crescendos, agitated but completely in control. Kneeland takes it out into the depths with a woundedly syncopated solo. Delusion is a study in understated chromatics and rhythmic shifts, another Kneeland solo early on its quiet highlight. The title track kicks off with a tense, macabre-tinged bass solo which Avey expands eerily – it’s a Sam Fuller film played out in the churchyard at Saint-Sulpice, Liebman playing the role of semi-friendly ghost.

After the stalker intro of Less is Less Than Half, the drums prowl around Avey’s minimalism, building to a crashing McCoy Tyner style lefthand hook that winds up in a hammering, fiery, percussive blaze. By contrast, Influence, a duo piece for piano and tenor, shifts between a golden age late 50s vibe and an uneasily unwinding, ripplingly horizontal piano soundscape. The final cuts here reach genuinely majestic heights. Insight unfolds with Avey hammering on an insistent staccato pedal note, expands to a chromatic vamp that he roams around, eventually a marvelously terse chromatic bass solo, and then it all comes together, glimmering and intense. Likewise, Time Unfolding finally throws restraint to the wind after giving Liebman the chance to rove expansively and then finally plunge into the rhythm section’s staccato syncopation before Avey and then Pearlson take it all the way up. Avey’s ceiling is pretty much as high as he want to go with it. Hope you like traveling, dude.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 3/18/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Wednesday’s song is #497:

King Crimson – Starless

Arguably the great British art-rock band’s finest twelve minutes or so, a suite that starts out wistful and eventually goes starless and bible black, John Wetton’s bass climbing deliberately and murderously as Robert Fripp holds down the suspense with his guitar. Classical music devotees will recognize a theme from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – figures that Fripp would be a fan, doesn’t it? From the Red lp, 1979; the link above is a torrent.

March 18, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ten Best Christmas Songs of Alltime

…heh heh heh…

 

10. Linda Draper – Merry Christmas

The New York acoustic rock siren is typically pensive and hardly festive here: play this one early Xmas morning, hungover. Merry Xmas, not.

 

9.  The Pretenders – 2000 Miles

A reader suggestion, thanks for this! The link is a nice live version on youtube.  

 

8. The Reducers – Nothing for Christmas

Bet these Connecticut mod punks never realized how prescient this snide holiday tune would turn out to be when they originally released it as a vinyl single in 1988. Still available on the excellent Reducers Redux compilation from 1991.

 

7. Stiff Little Fingers – White Christmas

The alltime best version – maybe the only good version – of the bestselling song of alltime, classic funny irreverent punk rock, 1978 style.

 

6. Ninth House – You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

Back when they were an artsy, Joy Divisionesque band, the New York rockers used to have a great time with this one no matter what the time of year. Never officially released, although there are several excellent bootleg versions kicking around, particularly from Arlene Grocery circa 2000.

 

5.  Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Spot-on. Words cannot describe. The youtube link above is a priceless live version.

 

4.  The Pogues – Fairytale of New York

Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl play dysfunctional drunken couple, trading insults and invective in perfect holiday style. This link’s a live version too.

 

3. Amy Allison – Drinking Thru Xmas

If this song isn’t universal, you find one that is. “Twelve shots of liquor lined up on the bar/You’ve got all my money and the keys to the car.” It’s vintage Amy. Nice to see the song up on her myspace again.

 

2. Florence Dore – Christmas

Although first recorded by the Posies in the mid-90s, Dore wrote it, and it’s her version from her lone 2002 cd Perfect City that really provides the chills. Xmas may not be suicide season, but this one makes it seem like it is.

 

 

1. Olivier Messiaen – The Birth of Our Lord

As we’ve noted here before, this piece isn’t titled The Birth of Christ. The great composer always put his Catholicism front and center…but maybe he was working for the other team? Nothing but brooding and hellfire in this macabre multi-part suite. The link above is a youtube clip from one of its quieter sections.

December 16, 2008 Posted by | Music, snark | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gail Archer Plays Messiaen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC 5/29/08

A riveting, marathon performance. In the console for the better part of two hours with only a brief ten-minute intermission, Barnard College Music Department chair Gail Archer played all eighteen parts of Olivier Messiaen’s complete Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament) with extraordinary grace and fluidity. Like the composer, Archer is somewhat idiosyncratic, a performer seemingly not particularly fond of and therefore not particularly suited to much of the traditional organ repertoire. In Messiaen, she’s found her holy grail: her performance last night was the last in her own series of Messiaen recitals this year, and without question one of the highlights of the many concerts going on around town this year in honor of the Messiaen centenary. A lesser talent would have fixated on the suite’s many jarring dissonances and the strangeness of its tempos. Instead, Archer treated the audience to a limousine ride through a minefield: fireworks were going off everywhere, but she glided along with an agility that seemed effortless. She even set her tempo to the church’s natural reverb. Much of the piece is fugal, a constant call-and-response between the left and right hand, a device that would quickly get old if not for Messiaen’s extraordinarily imaginative, eerie, often outright macabre melodicism. Archer played at precisely the pace where, when one note would start to fade away, the next would take its place. Whether this was deliberate or strictly intuitive, it was a stroke of genius.

The suite itself is an amazing composition. A work from late in the composer’s life, it features all of Messiaen’s signature characteristics: liturgical themes (Messiaen was a devout Catholic), otherworldly tonalities, unusual time signatures and in this case a defiant resolve to avoid the use of either major or minor chords throughout practically the entire piece. And, of course, birdsong. But here, they are birds of prey, talons outstretched, primed to do battle in the cause of righteousness.

Archer segued seamlessly from one part to the next, making it difficult to tell which was which, although this interpretation made the work admirably whole. For the most part, Messiaen is at his most minimalist here, only rarely utilizing the icy, atmospheric sheets of noise that characterize most of his other great organ works such as the Birth of Our Lord and the legendary Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (Dawn of the Eternal Church). When these did occur, Archer literally pulled out the stops, emphasizing all the drama in the Resurrection, or Jesus’ posthumous appearance to Mary Magdalene, or the exhalted, triumphant prayer that concludes the suite. Otherwise, she calmly let Messiaen’s quieter yet often nightmarish passages speak for themselves. What was left of the crowd at the end of the performance (at St. Pat’s, it’s always hard to tell who’s just passing through, and who’s actually here for the concert) rewarded her with three standing ovations. Which also spoke for itself.

If this concert is any indication, Archer’s new cd of Messiaen works should be very much worth seeking out.

May 30, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: John Scott Plays Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, NYC 12/20/07

This review isn’t meant to be flippant: John Scott is a great artist, and he put on a masterful performance. Yet, it’s a wonder that at some point the church fathers didn’t convene and pose the obvious question: could it be possible that Messiaen was rooting for the other team? Note that the piece Scott played tonight is titled La Nativite du Seigneur (The Birth of the Lord, as opposed to The Birth of Christ). Could it be another Lord, one somewhat darker, that Messiaen was alluding to? This macabre, nine-part suite sounds nothing remotely like the typical Christmastime fare heard in churches across this city, and Scott was brave to play it. It would make a great soundtrack to a horror film. But not a Chucky movie – it would work best with something from Messiaen’s era, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, perhaps. Satanists burn churches when what they should really be doing is sitting in the front row, rapt, as The Birth of the Lord roars from the pipes of the organ.

To add yet another element of the macabre, sirens wailed down Fifth Avenue during the two opening segments. As robustly constructed and insulated from outside noise as the edifice is, it was impossible not to hear them. If anyone had the presence of mind to record the performance, it could be astounding, a sort of accidental, highbrow counterpart to Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night, inevitably rooted in the here and now.

Scott is one of the world’s premier organists, an artist with an almost telepathic intuition for what he plays. La Natitive du Seigneur is not particularly melodic and quite difficult, yet there is substantial wit in this work and Scott treated the standing-room-only crowd to all of it. Olivier Messiaen was a strange bird, obsessed with the sounds of the avian world, and the greater part of his oeuvre is naturalistic to the point of being fussy and contrived. His organ works, especially the immortal L’Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (The Dawn of the Eternal Church) are anything but. Scott zeroed in on several themes that recur throughout the suite, including a fast upper-register flourish that he tossed off with unabashed glee, and brought out every bit of drama in an ominous, low-register pedal figure followed by a tritone (the so-called “devil’s chord”). The piece has two false endings, and Scott’s crescendos up to them were inexorably good. The final part of the suite ends almost as a mocking parody of the conclusion to Bach’s famous Toccata in D, this time a series of three rather than five chords, the last being a sustained major sixth that rattled the walls, ending the piece on a disquetingly unresolved note and earning Scott two standing ovations.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Timothy R. Allen at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/21/07

There’s been a lot of mudslinging lately aimed at certain music blogs who flog the same horse – usually a pretty dead one – over and over again. At the risk of falling into that category, let it be said here once more that the weekly, Sunday 5:15 PM organ concert series here is one of New York’s best-kept secrets. If we had our way, it would be much less of one.

This evening’s recitalist was British native Timothy R. Allen, an organist with a conscience. While working in Londonderry, Ireland, he reached out with an olive branch to his Catholic counterpart, Donal Doherty at the Derry Cathedral. The result was the interfaith Two Cathedrals Festival promoting peace and intercommunity relations, a major accomplishment. Allen’s dedication to social issues is matched by his skill at the console, as tonight’s diverse program demonstrated. He opened with British composer Percy Whitlock’s Fantasie Choral No. 2, in difficult F sharp minor. In contrast to Allen, Whitlock’s politics didn’t extend to his music: he may have been something of a recalcitrant Tory wingnut, but there’s a warmth and a joy in much of his work. Although this particular piece begins in a minor key, it quickly switches to the major, with a soulful, catchy, recurrent theme, essentially a spiritual without words.

Allen then shifted gears dramatically with Messiaen’s Dyptich: An Essay on Life on Earth and Eternal Happiness. The first section is an almost shockingly grotesque fugue, almost a parody, its call-and-response neither major nor minor, twisted, tormented, deliberately and arduously unmelodic. Obviously Messiaen was looking forward to his heavenly reward, which in the second part is predictably calm and ambient, mostly sheets of sound played in the upper registers on the organ’s flutes. Troubled as it is, the first part is exponentially more interesting than what follows.

Allen closed with Alexandre Guilmant’s First Sonata in D Minor, a typical French Romantic piece, quite long for its sonata form. He effectively emphasized the considerable contrast between the boisterous intro and outro sandwiching the quiet, meditative pastorale in between. Yet another superb concert in this sonically rich yet pretty much undiscovered space. Does organ music scare people off? Do agnostics and atheists stay away because they assume a religious undercurrent (a vastly erroneous assumption!)? Or is this series like a favorite restaurant, one that’s nice to see having enough of a clientele to stay in business but not to the extent that reservations are required?

October 22, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments