Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

June 15, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Weekend Jazz Gallery Stand and a Killer, Funny New Album by the Dan Weiss Large Ensemble

Drummer-led bands tend to be excellent. And they should be. Good drummers are more in demand than any other musicians: consequently, they tend to have enormous address books. So it was hardly difficult for Dan Weiss to pull together his Large Ensemble, which includes singers Jen Shyu and Judith Berkson, harpist Katie Andrews, bassist Thomas Morgan, alto saxophonist David Binney, tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor, guitarist Miles Okazaki, pianists Jacob Sacks and Matt Mitchell, trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein,

Their latest album Sixteen: Drummers Suite (due out momentarily from Pi Recordings, hence no streaming link yet) celebrates the work of some of the greatest names in jazz drumming, with original conpositions springboarding off a series of the bandleader’s favorite riffs from across the ages. It’s an awful lot of fun. The band moves between jaunty interplay, frequent droll/serioso contrasts and playful echo phrases, relying heavily on Shyu and Berkson’s ghost-girl vocalese. It’s indie classical with more complex rhythms and what sounds like purposeful improvisation, although it could be completely composed. The AACM’s album with Fontella Bass could be an influence. Weiss and the group are celebrating the album’s release with a weekend stand, sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on February 12-13 at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22

Weiss kicks off the album solo with a terse series of licks that the ensemble will build on later. The compositions’ titles all refer to iconic jazz drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones and so on. The arrangements very seldom have the full orchestra going all at once, instead relying on momentary handoffs, slowly rising trajectories and frequent pairings or conversations. Those can be downright hilarious. The interlude during Max where it sounds like John Zorn doing P-Funk, Weiss’ abrupt WTF reaction to increasingly cacaphonous sax chatter in Tony and the many, many, many trick endings in Philly Joe are some of the best. There are plenty more.

In their most hectic moments, the band evoke the Claudia Quintet on crank; in their most ornately lustrous, Karl Berger joining forces with Roomful of Teeth. Most of the seven tracks here are partitas, shifting completely from one theme to a seemingly unrelated one. Although the segues are a little off-kilter, the music is consistently interesting. Elvin has jaunty wafts of vocalese from Shyu to Berkson and come-hither fingersnaps. Max features tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions between faux-metal fuzzbox guitar and Berkson’s arioso vocalese…and then takadimi drum language taking over in the drollery department.

For all its hijinks, the creepy piano riffage early on in Tony foreshadows a lot of what’s to come. There are echoes of Missy Mazzoli in a rare carefree mood throughout the vocal swoops and dives in Philly Joe. Klook features an enigmatic, starlit interlude amidst its circling, indie classical-influenced riffage, as does Ed. That passage is a stark, desolate one with acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and tinkly piano, straight out of the Iron Maiden playbook. Even for those who don’t get all the references and insider jokes here, this is still an awfully fun ride.

February 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jonathan Finlayson’s Debut As a Bandleader Is Everything You Would Expect

Jonathan Finlayson may have grown up as the teenage wunderkind in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, but he has a distinctive, lyrical voice as both a trumpeter and composer. Moment & the Message, his debut with his ensemble Sicilian Defense – pianist David Virelles, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Keith Witty and drummer Damion Reid – is one of the most auspicious in recent memory. This album resonates on an emotional and intellectual level, packed with melody, depth and ideas worth stealing. The Coleman influence is there, no question, especially as far as counterpoint and a more or less continuously dancing rhythm is concerned. Finlayson’s tone is more bronze than brass: lively as this music is, there’s a lot of gravitas here. Verelles gets the enviable task of nailing that dark riffage, sometimes with echoes of another dark but irrepressibly funky pianist, Marc Cary (who has a phenomenal Abbey Lincoln tribute out recently).

The opening track, Circus, is a diptych, a playfully dancing, bouncy theme with a long series of eighths from Finlayson, followed by a brooding, almost stalking modal march anchored by Witty’s sepulchral washes. Bad segue, good music. (WARNING – SPOILER ALERT) Lo Haze works a very clever trajectory: it takes the old trope of stating the head and then messing with it and works it backwards. By the end, this majestic, shuffling march has become a gritty, minimalist soul theme, coalescing methodically through many divergences. Ruy Lopez segues out of it with nonchalant conversations between Finlayson and Okazaki, and later Reid and Virelles. Carthage is portrayed as a vibrant if somewhat ominous place, fueled by Virelles’ emphatic, hard-hitting lefthand.

Tensegrity shifts from an artful, baroque-tinged acoustic guitar intro to a wry scramble between Virelles and Reid, in contrast to the serioso melody. Le Bas-Fond also leaps out of an impressionistic intro, this time from Virelles – it’s the most trad, solos-around-the-horn type thing here. Okazaki’s nimble, spot-on vintage 60s staccato soul guitar spices the insistent chords and tersely pulsing trumpet melody of Tyre.

The big epic here is Fives and Pennies, a tone poem that slowly emerges out from under the piano lid – literally – to a long, methodically wary Finlayson solo and finally some unleashed menace from Virelles on the way out. They return to animated and somewhat more relaxed form to wind up the album with Scaean Gates. Pi Recordings, home base for many of the Coleman posse, gets credit for this one.

July 6, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assessing Steve Coleman’s Systematic Milford Graves Homage

Is there counterpoint in the human body? A tapestry of it. A synapse fires, a muscle twitches, the heart responds and so on, pretty much ad infinitun. That concept serves as the inspiration for Steve Coleman and Five Elements‘ latest album Functional Arrythmias, out recently from the folks at Pi as you may well know at this point. The album title is a clinical term for normal aberrations in the heart rate taken from the lexicon of Milford Graves, the visionary acoustic scientist/pioneer in cardiac medicine/percussion virtuoso/historian who is playing a triplebill tonight, June 12 at 8 PM at Roulette celebrating his many projects and achievements. Among other things, Graves is credited with making the connection between the earliest known musical rhythms, dating from ancient Ethiopia, and the human heartbeat.

For those who haven’t already heard this album, what is there to say about it other than that it’s Coleman being his usual naturalist self, color flying from his sonic easel? It’s a reversion to an earlier sound of his, animated by a cast of  familiar collaborators: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, electric bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman. Although you wouldn’t know it from the opening tracks, most of the cuts here are short, clocking in at less than four minutes. Long circular rhythmic patterns frequently anchor tight counterpoint between the horns, other times Finlayson shadowing Coleman. Riffs are simple, direct and memorable as expected; funk beats morph through tricky time signatures. Nobody wastes notes.

Song titles refer to parts of the body, sometimes vividly, sometimes unexpectedly. The Sinews predictably rely on propulsive bass, over tricky cymbals. The Medulla-Vagus gives Okazaki his one chance to get expansive here, the brighter counterpoint of the horns contrasting with a surprisingly gentle rhythm. Chemical Intuition is a charmingly suspenseful, sostenuto mood piece, followed by two reggae-tinged numbers, the wry, dub-inflected Cerebrum Crossover and the harder-hitting, catchy Limbic Cry, with its playfully divergent and then reconvergent horns.

The Cardiovascular system works a staggered, galloping pulse with staccato riffage, while Respiratory Flow is the body at rest, systems handing off to one another in turn. Irregular Heartbeats are straightforward and nothing to be feared, explored here as a study in shadowing. Cerebellum Lean features Okazaki playing hook-driven funk on a resonator guitar.  The adrenal glands are portrayed with Ethiopian-flavored modes; the Assim-Alim via bluesy spiritual variations. Hormones give Coleman his one most lengthy opportunity to cut loose on his alto with a characteristic translucence, while the wry Snap-Sis is aptly conversational. To steal a phrase out of the Christian McBride book, is this people music? In other words, is this something for Coleman’s vast fan base among his fellow musicians, or for the people too? Answer: both cerebral and emotive, like a complementary muscle group, yet another ambitious success for Coleman.

June 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nothing Uncertain About Patrick Cornelius’ Maybe Steps

The big deal about this album is that Gerald Clayton’s on it. Getting one of the most innovative pianists in jazz right now confers instant cred on alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius’ latest effort, Maybe Steps. And it doesn’t disappoint – as melodic jazz goes, it’s a consistently surprising, often understatedly intense ride. There’s a lot of depth here, diverse and sometimes divergent ideas and emotional tones within a single piece along with the occasional offhand classic riff reference. What makes this such a hard album to shut off is that the band never hits anything exactly head-on: they keep you waiting and keep you guessing. Cornelius plays with a misty, opaque tone alongside Clayton with Peter Slavov on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums, with Miles Okazaki on guitar and Assen Doykin on piano on one track.

The opening track is a triplet tune with subtle modal shifts, rises and falls. As he does later on here, a lot, Cornelius goes bright against a somewhat tense background but then follows Clayton into moodier and then memorably choppier territory. The title track – a Trane pun – swings til it hits an eerie bump in the road that Clayton pulls out of with bluesy allusions. But when Cornelius hits it, he lets the darkness settle for awhile before bringing the lights up again. Bella’s Dreaming, a brief nocturne, is a clever remake of One for My Baby. Brother Gabriel, with its attractive, syncopated pulse, serves as a showcase for a suspensefully spacious solo from Clayton, working his way out of the murk only to hint that he’d like to go back there.

They pick up the pace with the briskly catchy, biting Shiver Song, Cornelius deadpan and blithe over the melody’s edgy acidity, Clayton spiraling nimbly after him. Into the Stars, a ballad, contrasts a blippy Okazaki excursion with boomy, tensely tiptoeing bass. The strongest songs out of the whole bunch are the casually bittersweet A Day Like No Other and the Jackie McLean-ish Echoes of Summer, Cornelius keeping his triumphant solo casual and close to the vest. The album winds up with a purist, glimmering piano-sax version of Kurt Weill’s My Ship, an almost frantically swinging cover of George Shearing’s Conception and the potent concluding cut, a brooding tango, Cornelius evading resolution (and that pink slip, DFA notice or wave of the girl’s hand) at every turn. Count this as one of the most consistently interesting and tuneful jazz releases of 2011, out now on Posi-Tone. Cornelius is at the Bar Next Door in a trio with Linda Oh and Paul Wiltgen on Oct 6 and then at the Jazz Gallery on Nov 16 at 9 with this band playing the cd release show.

September 19, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment