Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Hazmat Modine’s Cicada: Rustic Oldtimey Psychedelia

Hazmat Modine are such an amazing live band that it’s almost impossible trying to imagine how they might be able to bottle that magic. Their new album Cicada is a good approximation. Live in concert, their rustic, blues-infused, minor-key jams can go on for ten or twenty minutes at a clip – here, they keep pretty much everything in the five-to-ten range, sometimes even less. While what they do definitely qualifies as psychedelic, otherwise they defy description: there is no other band in the world who sound remotely like them. They’re part delta blues shouters, part New Orleans brass band, part reggae, part klezmer, and all party. As you would expect from a psychedelic band, they put their surreal side front and center – it’s safe to say that nobody has more fun with sad minor keys than these guys. Not only is frontman/blues harpist/guitarist Wade Schuman a potently charismatic presence, he’s also a great wit, so it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of humor, both lyrical and musical, throughout this album.

The opening cut, Mocking Bird, is a bucolic blues, driven by the oldtimey bounce of Joe Daley’s tuba and the brass section of Reut Regev on trombone, Steve Elson on tenor sax and Pam Fleming on trumpet. They build it up to the point where the two guitars take over, Michael Gomez  jabbing and weaving while Pete Smith blasts out distorted rhythm. All the intricate interplay and call-and-response sets the tone for the rest of the album. Natalie Merchant’s airily sultry vocals contrast with the surrealism of the lyrics over a swaying, slink groove on Child of a Blindman, with lapsteel, layers of guitars and horns punching out the hook in tandem with some welcome guest stars, Benin’s high-energy Gangbe Brass Band. The brisk, bluesy Two Forty Seven shifts from an artful series of tradeoffs between instruments to a hypnotic outro where everybody seems to be soloing at once – yet it works, magically. The title track sets a sly spoken-word tribute to the high-volume insect over ecstatic Afro-funk, sort of like a more rustic, acoustic Steely Dan. They follow that with a surprisingly snarling version of Buddy, the innuendo-packed tale of a real backstabber, Schuman in rare form as sly bluesman. The crazed, searing Gomez guitar solo is pure adrenaline.

The instrumental vignette In Two Years has trumbone sailing wistfully over a gamelanesque loop; I’ve Been Lonely for So Long is Memphis soul taken back and forth in time with doo-wop vocals and a New Orleans feel, with the tuba instead of a bass, a blithe harmonica solo, and Elson picking up the pace later on. The Tide, a mini-epic, switches from slowly unwinding delta blues, to a shuffle, to an unexpected Afrobeat interlude with more tasty, growling guitar from Smith. Walking Stick, which may be the most risque song that Irving Berlin ever wrote, gives Schuman and Fleming a launching pad for some genuinely exhilarating solos. A live showstopper, So Glad is a reggae/blues hybrid with some irresistibly amusing blues harp. The album winds up with Cotonou Stomp, an all-too-brief showcase for Gangbe Brass Band, and Dead Crow, an utterly bizarre, hypnotic number that sounds like Love Camp 7 covering Crosby, Stills and Nash and features the Kronos Quartet. Yet another triumph for insurgent Brooklyn label Barbes Records. Count this one high on the list of the year’s most entertaining albums.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Hazmat Modine at City Winery, NYC 9/18/09

The New York Gypsy Festival‘s decision to scatter shows throughout the year, beginning in the spring, was an ambitious choice but ultimately a successful one. Although the past ten days or so were especially gypsy, with the Gypsy Tabor Festival out in Brooklyn and a whole bunch of similar bands playing the rock clubs, there was a full and enthusiastic house at City Winery Friday night for Hazmat Modine and Hungarian sensations Little Cow. The Hazmats opened and pandemonium reigned, no great surprise: there are few other acts in town who bring as much intensity and pure unadulterated fun to the stage. Frontman/harmonica player Wade Schuman wasn’t as completely gonzo as he can get, but the band was. This is a wild, extroverted crew: Pete Smith and Michael Gomez on electric guitars, Pam Fleming (back from the disabled list) on trumpet, Reut Regev on trombone and other horns, Steve Elson on tenor sax and other reeds, Rich Huntley on drums, Joseph Daley on tuba and Erik Della Penna of Kill Henry Sugar guesting on vocals on a couple of numbers.

The set list was characteristically eclectic. The blues standard Something You Got, an uncharacteristically major-key tune for this band, was elevated to the level of an ecstatic New Orleans second-line march. Irving Berlin’s tongue-in-cheek Walking Stick became a racewalk and got the crowd in front of the stage twirling just as crowds of the thirties must have done in the old vaudeville theatres. Gomez used it as a launching pad for a particularly ferocious, offhandedly raging solo, Fleming further cementing her reputation as the Human Crescendo – in this case, it was the flying lead-in to her solo, out of one by Schuman, that was the high point, but it sent the intensity level to redline in a split second as Huntley led the charge with a relentless volley of rimshots.

A new one sounded like a hypnotic early twenties delta blues number as R.L. Burnside might have done it, casually careening with more blazing fretwork from Gomez. Best song of the night was a surprisingly low-key and extremely effective Schuman instrumental, Grade A Grey Day, with Fleming bringing in the cumulo-nimbus and Elson on sax fluttering through them. After that, they flipped the script with another original that started out with Little Feat exuberance, building joyously to a 60s soul vamp with the horns blazing. They closed with Bahamut, the surreal, calypso-inflected title track to their most recent album, a somewhat surprising choice considering the long, mysterious spoken-word passage in the middle of the song. And when Schuman got there, no surprise, the dancers took a break. But they all got back into it when the song picked up again, Smith fanning the flames with a potently percussive, chord-chopping solo.

And what of the headliner, Little Cow? There were technical difficulties, no fault of the band or the club. And by a quarter to one in the morning, an hour and a half past their stage time, it was sadly time to call it a night – a strategy that paid off the following day throughout a successful, marathon sixteen-hour attempt to help some New York friends pack up and become ex-New Yorkers. Watch this space the next time Little Cow comes to town: they’re reputedly amazing in concert.

September 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Greta Gertler & the Extroverts at Mercury Lounge, NYC 8/13/07

Expat Australian keyboardist/singer Greta Gertler’s imagination knows no bounds. Tonight she ran amok, trampling every convention, leaving no good idea unexplored. She’s a shapeshifter: the first album she recorded was orchestrated rock, the second a richly layered pop record, and her latest, Edible Restaurant blends art-rock and ragtime (see our very favorable review). Tonight saw her doing completely rearranged versions of some of her pop gems, including Martin’s Big Night Out (“They danced to this in Australia,” she told the audience encouragingly, but the impressively good Monday night crowd was rapt and stayed put), and Everyone Wants to Adore You. Radiant in a shimmery blue dress, she mined the depths of her Nord Electro keyboard for some of her favorite, 70s-inflected settings: echoey Fender Rhodes, Arp synthesizer with a watery flange effect, and the classic, slightly trebly Yamaha electric piano tone that seemingly every band from Supertramp to the Boomtown Rats were using late in the decade. She’s a fine player, but what really comes across live is the strength of her writing and how counterintuitive it is: just when you think she’s going to settle into a standard verse/chorus/verse progression, she goes off on some wild tangent that sounds like something from early, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, or Shostakovich, or some bizarre English dancehall song from the 1920s.

Her backing band, including Beaver Bausch on drums, Hazmat Modine guitar sharpshooter Michael Gomez and the reliably high-energy J. Walter Hawkes alternating between muted trombone and ukelele, stayed with her and held up their end. Gomez is a fiery, bluesy cat: after he took a particularly evil, tersely minor-key solo toward the end of Veselka, Gertler’s tribute to the East Village kasha-and-pierogies institution, she followed his lead, closing the song with an ostentatiously eerie, monster-movie run down the scale into a cold, echoey pool of noise. They also played a new one about the komodo dragon in a zoo who recently experienced spontaneous oogenesis (or immaculate conception, if you prefer), as well as a slightly abbreviated take of the new album’s bustling title track, and the strangely captivating If Bob Was God, which does double duty as Dylan tribute and sultry tale of longing and determination to bring it to a crescendo, if you follow my drift. They closed with a deadpan, oompah version of the AC/DC karaoke standard It’s a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock N Roll – deadpan until Hawkes took a long, completely silly, completely over the top heavy metal ukelele solo. By the time he finally got to the top of his tiny little fretboard, everybody in the house, the band included, couldn’t stop chuckling. All in all, this was pretty typical of what you can expect from a bandleader – and band – with a boundless sense of fun. What a great night!

August 14, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Greta Gertler & the Extroverts – Edible Restaurant

David Byrne got it right: we need more songs about buildings and food. This album doesn’t have much of the former, but there’s a lot of the latter. How delicious. This is Australian expat singer/keyboardist Greta Gertler’s third consecutive brilliant album. Her first one, The Baby That Brought Bad Weather (recorded after her second one), was a meticulously arranged pop masterpiece. Her second one, Nervous Breakthroughs, was a richly melodic orchestral rock record and even better than the first. This comes as quite a change: it’s a gorgeously stark, retro, mostly acoustic album, tastefully produced with grand piano, electric guitar, tuba, drums and occasional strings. Unsurprisingly, the whole cd has a somewhat old-timey, ragtimish feel to it.

The album opens with Wrist Slasher, a blithely eerie number that’s mostly just voice and solo piano: the narrator sometimes dreams of “floating away on the back of a stingray in a glass of champagne.” Gertler sings in a high, cheery soprano, which occasionally seems at odds with her frequently pensive songwriting. It gives the listener pause: she may want music, and happiness, that’s “good and simple,” as she explains on another track here, but there’s always a lot going on in her songs. Most usually it’s absolutely fascinating.

The album’s title track vividly evokes the chaos of a busy eatery at peak hour, an endless series of unexpected shifts: staccato piano, tuba and guitar, then horror-movie chromatics on the chorus, then back to bouncy, then the eerie piano again. It winds up with a slow, swinging passage straight out of 70s art-rockers Supertramp. The first time around, there’s a dirty, skronky guitar solo by head Extrovert Pete Galub, then a bluesy one by dangerous retro virtuoso Michael Gomez (who also plays lead in Hazmat Modine). The lyrics are a hoot, but they’re poignant as well:

This piano is out of tune
The neighbourhood is filled with gloom
I’m bumping into chairs
I’m spilling drinks on tables
Some may say I’m a nervous wreck
No therapist can cure my debt
I want to find a place
Where I know how to relax
Here I came from a lucky land
Sometimes I miss the grass and sand
An immigrant without a plan
Just a shitload of luggage
Now I’ve circled the city seven times
Like a conservative Jewish bride
And for the reception
I’d like to invite you all to
The Edible Restaurant
Where you can even take a bite out of the waitress

The next track, Bessie is a mostly slow piano ballad, an inscrutably wistful number, seemingly about a friend who’s gone AWOL. Gomez contributes a beautiful, deceptively dark David Gilmour-esque solo on lapsteel. After that, on the hustling, bustling Bergen Street, the narrator finds herself “caught in the middle of a passive aggressive storm,” yet intent on pursuing the object of her desires. The following track If Bob Was God is an intense, heartfelt ballad, electric with longing and desire:

I don’t want to be
One of the boys again
It’s happened to me
Ever since the age of ten…
I have to let you know tonight

This album is littered with New York references and this is one of the most evocative.

The next song, Aching Melody is a slinky, sexy tune, Wurlitzer and drum machine, which Gertler will employ occasionally to entertaining effect at solo shows. She follows that with a powerful antiwar anthem, Uniform, which could be for the zeros what Supertramp’s Crime of the Century was for the 70s. Told from the point of view of a nameless, nationless draftee who did everything to avoid joining in the killing, it’s the most powerful song on the album. The cd’s next track, Veselka, brings some substantial, stick-to-your-ribs comic relief: it’s a tribute to the legendary Ukrainian pierogi joint on Second Avenue. Apparently Gertler had been away from the place for awhile and the waitstaff missed her. “See the years passing by, Veselka still serves the oldest recipes!” Gertler blissfully exclaims. There’s a very witty Balkan interlude toward the end of the song, with some juicy guitar from Gomez (Gertler knows her gypsy music: see Nervous Breakthroughs for her sizzling instrumental The Hot Bulgar). The cd concludes with a brief instrumental reprise of the opening track. What a great album, definitely one of the two or three best of the year so far. Five pierogies. With applesauce and sour cream and several beers. CD’s are available at shows, in Australia and online. Incidentally, if you read the small print at the bottom of the cd case, you’ll see that the album was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. Now just imagine the NEA giving, say, Randi Russo a grant. Makes you want to…well, shouldn’t say here, not since everyone’s eating.

June 13, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments