Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Killer Edgy Jazz Triplebill This Thursday at Shapeshifter Lab

Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.

As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then reconfigures, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the conventional wisdom that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?

Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.

And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard  to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir. 

February 16, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspired Improvisation from Drummer Devin Gray’s Dirigo Rataplan

Drummer Devin Gray’s recent Dirigo Rataplan – whose name is a mashup of Latin and French, meaning “I direct clip-clop” – is a funky record, especially for improvisational jazz. Bassist Michael Formanek’s full, woody sound complements Gray’s moody, resonantly toned kit – his snare has less snap than boom, and so does everything else for that matter. Gray is an eclectic player, taking the role of both minimalist and colorist here: this is a rare example of no beat going to waste. Saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou round out the band

The opening track, Quadrophonically grows out of a boomy, minimalist pulse into an elegant exercise in two-on-two teamwork, Ballou’s squawk trading with a genial, low-key Eskelin, shadowed by the bass and drums in tandem, rising to anxious and then a sudden calm. Cancel the Cancel features lively, terse horn harmonies over what’s essentially a hip-hop beat: Ballou and Eskelin swipe at each other, then Gray leads everybody down the rabbit hole, back up and down again in to a muffled surrealism that gives absolutely no hint of the surprise ending.

Down Time has the band working variations on a funk tune that go from woozy to wry: Gray’s spare resonance under Formanek’s chords and the horns’ nonchalant bubble is a clinic in how to do more with less. Likewise, early on in the Charles Ives homage Prospect Park in the Dark, Gray builds out of low-key binary horns to a point where most other drummers would bring in the cymbals – but he doesn’t, amping up the nocturnal vibe. Then Formanek tries to pull everybody up with him, but the effect is just the opposite: Gray’s ghostly washes and a final understatedly majestic whoosh put the icing on this crepuscular tableau.

They follow the tersely funky, tongue-in-cheek Talking with Hands with Otaku, spacious microtonally tinged individual lines converging and overlapping, with cleverly dynamic interplay from the whole band, a little trash talking and shadowing, and vividly shifting colors from Gray all the way through. Thickets, a Gerald Cleaver dedication, keeps its moody modalities in disguise until Formanek brings the shivers in – and gets the thing back on track just at the point where it seems like everybody else is ready to shut it down.

The album ends with Katahdin, named for the tallest mountain in Gray’s home state of Maine. There was once a lousy heavy metal cover band by that name – thankfully, this sounds nothing like them. Instead, it’s a catchy, good-natured shuffle that gives Ballou and then Eskelin plenty of space to get sardonic. The compositions’ heads are strong and the playing inspired and on-task: Gray runs a tight ship, knows the strengths of his players and writes to them. New York audiences can watch for a possible rescheduling of the band’s show that was on the calendar at Cornelia St. Cafe last night but may have been postponed for lack of electricity and/or public transit.

November 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tim Kuhl’s Doomsayer – A Real Change of Pace

As a bandleader, Brooklyn drummer Tim Kuhl has made a name for himself for accessible, free-spirited, guitar-based melodic jazz with some neat and unexpectedly extemporaneous twists and turns. His new album Doomsayer – streaming in its entirety at Kuhl’s bandcamp – is a radical departure for him, at least as far as recordings are concerned. It’s like what Kid A was for Radiohead – except that Kuhl’s previous albums as a bandleader, 2009’s Ghost, and King from the year before, are both good. Is this burp-and-fart music, as Maria Schneider derisively calls some free jazz? No. It’s not very accessible, but it’s full of interesting ideas and melody that pops out, sometimes at the last possible minute. Kuhl’s committed and remarkably cohesive supporting cast consists of mostly New York-based free jazz names including Michael Formanek on bass, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Frantz Loriot on viola and Jonathan Moritz on saxes.

It’s not clear why the tracks are color-coded – Red, Green, Gold, etc. A spaciously thumping drum solo kicks it off. Later on there are a couple of extremely cool tone poems of sorts, the group peeling back a bit from a central drone for a doppler effect of sorts. Except for a skronky-tinged solo on the next-to-last track and some gingerly ominous foreshadowing on the final number, Goldberger’s guitar is limited to providing oscillating loops or drones. Kuhl is the bad cop here and he has a great time with the role, particularly on the second cut, Gold, an almost sixteen-minute suite that hints at blues – it’s like a blues on Pluto, verrrrry slow – before a lull accented with creepy, creaky input from various bandmates, followed by a fox-in-the-henhouse routine that eventually works its way into a bracingly atonal swing shuffle.

Kuhl’s smoke-signal accents contrast potently with a wary shout or two from the sax or trombone, and Loriot’s suspensefully rustling viola, on the next track, titled Green. Formanek gets a couple of chances to play tersely yet rather majestically a bit later on. An eleven-minute excursion features some thoughtful conversing between Gerstein and Moritz followed eventually by an artfully layered, classically-tinged shift of textures from one voice to the next before they collapse in a crazed tumble. And the disembodied, ghostly voices against a guitar drone, in White, are a real treat. The album ends with what sounds like a long study in how to hint at coalescing with a circular rhythm: where it goes is the surprise. There’s also a vividly plaintive hidden track that recalls Kuhl’s earlier work, if a lot more rubato. Easy listening? Hardly. Good listening? Absolutely: it’ll get you from Bushwick to midtown and back again, literally if not figuratively, and it’ll keep you awake the whole time.

August 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment