Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Michael Formanek Plays a Richly Disquieting Brooklyn Album Release Show

Last night at Roulette, bassist Michael Formanek led his Drome Trio with reedman Chet Doxas and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza through two rewardingly acerbic sets to celebrate the release of their new album Were We Where We Were. That title opens up a floodgate of questions: do we romanticize the deeply flawed world we had before the March, 2020 fascist takeover? Are we out of the woods yet? Do Formanek’s stunningly vivid, persistently troubled compositions reflect a present danger? It’s hard to believe that this frequently haunting performance could be as simple as a band merely flexing their chops throughout a set of edgy and unselfconsciously profound new compositions.

Doxas opened the show solo with a simple but spine-tingling series of vaguely Armenian microtonal riffs, Sperrazza quickly rising from a loose-limbed pulse to an increasing storm, Formanek unperturbed at the center, leading the group subtly toward a steady sway as Doxas circled his way through a long, uneasy, Messiaenic passage. Formanek’s allusive solo bubbled and signaled a long, melancholy drift down to a suspenseful handoff to Sperrazza, who then channeled the spirits with a momentary shamanic break. The trio brought everything full circle at several times the energy.

That was just the first 25 minutes or so.

Doxas echoed Formanek’s phantasmagorically-tinged opening solo as Sperrazza’s drizzle gained force in the second number. Wary Jackie McLean-like sax phrases and wispy hints of vaudeville from Sperrazza followed. A coy, wispy sax-drum conversation set off a wistful, spacious solo from Doxas, who’d switched to clarinet. They ended cold.

Pianist Angelica Sanchez then joined them, choosing her spots to bound and ripple with a blithe Monklike swing in the first set’s closing number. Still, a disquiet persisted in her bell-like harmonies. Doxas took over with his muscular tenor lines, Formanek again an anchor with his insistent polyrhythms,

Sanchez opened the second set with an austere, somber solo, elevating to a clenched-teethed, close-harmonied intensity. It seemed she couldn’t wait to lighten the mood somewhat with a series of thorny rivulets. Doxas parsed the lower registers with a sinuous, Charlie Rouse-tinged solo, Formanek taking the song out on a fondly assertive note.

Next, the quartet danced through a catchy, Monkish swing fueled by Sperrazza’s subtle clave and Doxas’ smoky, insistent modal riffage. When he dropped out and Sanchez pulled the curtain back with a catchy if immutably melancholy solo, the effect was viscerally breathtaking.

The number after that made a good segue, with a more brooding chromaticism, through pulses and lulls. A wary mood persisted throughout, even the incisive Monkish riffage and syncopated bounce of the quartet’s concluding tune, with a tremoloing Doxas tenor solo and Sanchez’s eerily lingering incisions. Formanek plays in plenty of groups, but this might be the best of them all. Let’s hope this project continues.

The next jazz concert at Roulette is tomorrow night, Jan 26 at 8 PM, an epic performance where guitarist Joel Harrison leads five different ensembles including his Jazz Orchestra conducted by another fantastic composer, Erica Seguine, plus the New York Virtuoso Singers conducted by Harold Rosenbaum, plus the Alta String Quartet. You can get in for $25 in advance.

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January 25, 2023 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Muhal Richard Abrams Leaves Us With a Knowing Wink

Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.

The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.

The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.

While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.

There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader Bobby Zankel and his fellow alto saxophonists, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.

January 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Resonant, Dynamic, Sometimes Haunting New Album by Pedal Steel Icon Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn is this era’s great master of jazz pedal steel. Her music can be stark and haunting, vast and atmospheric, but also riotously funny. If Buddy Emmons was the Charlie Parker of the pedal steel, Alcorn is its Messiaen. Her new quintet album Pedernal is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the title track, the bandleader’s spare, desolate minor-key blues theme joined by bassist Michael Formanek’s looming accents and then an altered march from drummer Ryan Sawyer as guitarist Mary Halvorson shadows the melody. They pulse in and out of space bubbles, get loopy and coyly chaotic, with a fleeting break for violinist Mark Feldman before returning to an Appalachian ballad without words.

Circular Ruins, inspired by a Utah landscape, has Alcorn at the center of an acidic pool, the band around her fililng out the space with uneasy atmospherics or jagged accents. A subtly playful violin/bass conversation over Sawyer’s muted flutter finally draws Alcorn back into the picture, where she adds echoing, otherworldly, gonglike accents, Feldman fueling an austere haze. The ending will give you goosebumps: this place is haunted!

R.U.R. is Alcorn in amusing mode, with a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-cartoon theme, warpy bubbles from the guitar and steel over a floating swing that drops out as the carbonation bubbles over. The austere washes afterward only last so long before Alcorn brings the revelry back.

The album’s big epic is Night in Gdansk, keeningly atmospheric at first and then slowly coalescing: the way the whole band throw off sparks alluding to a calm folk ballad is artful to the extreme. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann filter through persistently uneasy ambience; austere resonance alternates with playful, clustering squiggles and blips.

They close the album with Northeast Rising Sun, a rousing, anthemic portrait of Alcorn’s native Baltimore that evokes early Pat Metheny without the ubiquitous chorus pedal. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the year. 

December 5, 2020 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