Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra Bring Their Epic Sweep and Irrepressible Fun Uptown

The most intriguing big band concert of this new year isn’t happening at the Vanguard, or Birdland, or the Jazz Standard or even Brooklyn’s home to exciting new large ensembles, Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus. It’s happening January 27 starting at 6 PM when the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra play two sets uptown at Shrine. There’s no cover, and it’s happy hour. What more could a jazz fan possibly want, cheap drinks and some of the most individualistic, colorful charts you could hear in 2016?

On one hand, it’s a miracle that the big band jazz demimonde still exists. It’s hardly a moneymaking venture for artists (although venues love it since it draws a crowd). Yet composers persist in keeping the genre alive. Mot big bands play either standards, or the repertoire of a single composer (the Mingus Orchestra and related bands, for example), or their bandleader. The Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra divide their time between the work of their two distinctive composers. It would be overly reductionistic to say that Seguine defines herself with cleverness and eclecticism and Baker with singleminded intensity, but those qualities assert themselves throughout each composer’s work.

Seguine, who conducts the ensemble, distinguishes herself with her vivid, cinematic narratives, counterintuitive Gil Evans-like color contrasts….and her sense of humor. It’s hard to think of another composer whose work can take such amusing twists and turns as as hers does. She also likes to incorporate other genres, from spaghetti western to Romany jazz and carnivalesque themes, into her music. And she likes to swing, hard. Saxophonist Shannon Baker’s compositions tend to be more specifically focused and defined by tectonically shifting sheets, atmospheric cresecendos and long panoramic stretches that provide a launching pad for the band’s individual voices. Yet there’s crossover between the two: they’ve been a good influence on each other.

The orchestra’s music page features audio and video from both. Seguine’s pieces begin with a coyly erudite tango-jazz arrangement of a Bach Adagio which develops into a shapeshifting, multi-segmented epic with plenty of room for solos throughout its kaleidoscopic sweep, Steve Kortyka’s thoughtful and playful tenor sax solo at the center. A segment from her Phases of Water suite builds around a suspenseful pulse straight out of Holst’s The Planets,with eerie chromatics channeled via an agitated trombone solo, mighty swells juxtaposed within its spacious charts, and balletesque hints of Tschaikovsky.

Baker is first represented by The New Day Bends Light, a suspenseful tableau where a choir of voices comes in wordlessly toward the end, then Sonia Szajnberg takes the mic. “We shall not succumb to the shadows” is her mantra. Ed Wood Goes to the Beach takes one of Baker’s signature moody, spacious expanses and fills it up with blazing electric guitar over a careening surf beat. That’s just for starters.

Their most recent show at Shrine was this past September, an exuberant and tight performance from the massive eighteen piece group which included two familiar standouts from the New York big band jazz scene, alto saxophonist Ben Kono and trombonist Scott Reeves (also leader of his own distinctive big band). Considering how tightly the orchestra was packed into the lowlit back room, it was hard to tell who else, other than Baker, was playing. In practically two hours onstage, they aired out a lot of new material, the most stunningly serpentine number being a phantasmagorical suite of sorts by Seguine that warped in and out of a furtive Balkan-tinged theme. If a trip uptown on the 2 or 3 express to 135th seems daunting, the group will be the centerpiece of a massive big band triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on March 8 at 7:30 PM for $15.

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January 24, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sue Mingus Talks About the Mingus Big Band’s New CD, Live at Jazz Standard

The Mingus Big Band’s new album Live at Jazz Standard came out a little earlier this year, an exuberant and often exhilarating mix of classics by the pantheonic composer and bassist. The virtuosic repertory unit who play Mondays nights at the club leap from noir tension, to dizzying bop, to genially melodic playfulness with a focus, intensity and camaraderie that does justice to the composer (full review here coming soon). Sue Mingus – Charles Mingus’ widow, executive producer of the album, and tireless advocate and director of the Mingus repertory bands – gave us some characteristically reflective responses to our questions about the album:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: How happy are you with the new cd?

Sue Mingus: It’s great musicians playing great music. We’re pleased.

LCC: Can I ask why the decision was made to record on New Year’s Eve rather than just some random date? Didn’t the prospect of your typical noisy, increasingly drunken New Year’s Eve crowd scare you off? Admittedly, a Mingus audience tends to be somewhat more urbane than your average New Year’s Eve crowd, but didn’t that concern cross your mind?

SM: No, not at all. We like our audiences any night of the week. We chose to play New Year’s Eve since it’s one of the big nights of the year at a club where we have a residency, the Jazz Standard. Also because we were recorded by NPR that night and broadcast nationally. I should add that the main reason for doing this cd was that we were celebrating, fifty years later, three of the seminal jazz albums. 1959 was a banner year for jazz: Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus and a number of others put out some of their most important albums. Entering 2009, we were celebrating, fifty years later, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Blues and Roots, and Mingus Dynasty. We chose material from those three albums.

LCC: You served as executive producer on this album, so you also selected the songs?

SM: Yes, since it was those albums we were celebrating.

LCC: What is your specific role in relation to the various Mingus repertory bands: this group, the Mingus Big Band and also the Mingus Orchestra and the original unit, Mingus Odyssey?

SM: I started them and I hired them!

LCC: Do you also audition the musicians?

SM: We don’t really need to audition – word gets around! A week ago, last Monday we had a wonderful trumpeter, Avishai Cohen and also Greg Tardy on tenor sax sitting in. New musicians are coming into the band all the time. We have a large pool, over 150 musicians who have learned this music: I have a big spectrum I can draw from each week. I hire the musicians each week and commission the arrangements. A lot of the arrangements are made by the members of the band, for example, last week the band played Meditations for Moses, arranged by bass player Boris Kozlov.

LCC: In addition to the many extraordinary musicians who play Mingus regularly with this unit, there are a couple of ringers on this album, notably Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums – who really takes the energy to the next level – and Randy Brecker on trumpet. How did they come to be part of this recording?

SM: Randy played with us from the start – he was in the original Mingus Dynasty frequently. He’s been playing this music since Charles died and well before: he and Michael Brecker were on the last album with Charles, who as you know, by that time couldn’t play since he was in a wheelchair. Randy’s been a Mingus player for a long time; Jeff plays with us frequently. It wasn’t like outsiders who didn’t know the music.

LCC: It’s been awhile since the Mingus Big Band did an album. When was the last one?

SM: 2007. Live in Tokyo.

LCC: Can we talk a little about the individual tracks? What do you prefer, the Elvis Costello version of Hora Decubitus or the version here, with vocals by Ku-umba Frank Lacy?

SM: I like them both obviously. We love Frank Lacy, he’s a marvelous jazz singer, but we also love Elvis Costello’s version – as you know, he wrote the lyrics.

LCC: Do you have a favorite among the songs on the new album?

SM: It’s hard to choose favorites with Mingus! You want something uptempo? You want something with a classical form, a latin piece, bebop, a beautiful ballad, an extended work? It’s all part of the whole.

LCC: Since the Jazz Standard has one of your bands at the club every Monday, have you thought of doing what the New York Philharmonic Orchestra does, recording pretty much everything and making it available for sale on itunes?

SM (laughs): All it takes is money! We’ve done a dozen albums with the Mingus Big Band, so much of the repertoire has been recorded. But as you know it’s a vast amount of music, and it’s very expensive, to hire the musicians, a studio, the engineers and so forth. It’s a worthy idea, if you know any volunteers for the cause, send them over!

LCC: How do you feel about the fact that a lot of people, maybe the majority of people who hear this album will only hear it in mp3 format rather than at its sonic best on the cd?

SM: I don’t know. People’s listening habits over the years have changed so incredibly much. What do you think?

LCC: I think that the ipod is the new transistor radio. Back in the day there were people who listened to the radio that way and were perfectly satisfied, just as I think that some people are satisfied with the sound of a mp3.

SM: People are used to mp3s now, some people prefer it…

LCC: True. One last question, this is not an easy one, not something we could ever know for sure: what do you think Charles Mingus would have gone on to do, had he lived? When we lost him, in 1979, for example, hip-hop was just around the corner. Do you think he would have embraced that?

SM: It might have been not as challenging as he would have liked. An album he listened to the most the last six months of his life was Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. There’s one whole side that’s cumbia jazz. The other side is the piece Todo Modo, which is “third stream,” as Gunther Schuller called it, classical-jazz fusion. Had he lived, I think that’s the direction he would have pursued. But with Mingus, you never know.

LCC: Any Mingus news that we don’t know about yet that we can report here?

SM: We are having our third Mingus high school competition that will take place in January, our newest project where high school students from around the country come out and compete, February 18-20 at Manhattan School of Music. It’s nice to hear kids playing Mingus with such enthusiasm, and so attentively. This summer, there’s a free concert at Washington Square Park with the Mingus Orchestra on July 27 – and then the band tours!

June 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard, NYC 7/27/09

Every great city has its cosmopolitan traditions, but you can go to Paris or London and find something that equates to Shakespeare in the Park or a picnic at the Cloisters. Only New York has Mingus Mondays. No disrespect to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra or gonzo gospel pianist Rev. Vince Anderson, both of whose weekly Monday shows are rightfully the stuff of legend, but the weekly Monday Mingus show at the Jazz Standard is New York’s most transcendent weekly residency. It’s probably the best in the entire world.

Under the inspired stewardship of the great composer’s widow Sue Mingus, three ensembles alternate from week to week: Mingus Dynasty, the original seven-piece repertory unit; the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra and the mighty Mingus Big Band, who happened to be on the bill Monday night. To play Mingus, you have to have great chops but you also have to have real fire in the belly. Under the direction of bassist Boris Kozlov, the group treated what appeared to be a sold-out house to a passionate, frequently ecstatic performance, which wasn’t particularly surprising considering what a treat it must be to play this stuff. It could be argued that there has been no composer in any style of music who has written with such fearlessness, ferocity or consistently counterintuitive creativity since Mingus’ sadly early demise in 1979. Even when the band had to sight-read a piece, in this case a darkly swaying number doing double duty as workingman’s lament (an update on Stormy Monday) and somber meditation on race from Mingus’ 1965 collaboration with Langston Hughes, they dug in and gave it plenty of gravitas.

Otherwise, the show was a spirited romp through Mingus both popular and obscure. Beyond the noir atmospherics, the swing and the stomp, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mingus’ work is how he’d leap from genre to genre, from mood to mood, sometimes in the space of a few bars. Sometimes that makes for a jarring segue, but the effect is intentional – it keeps both the band and the audience completely tuned in. #29, an early 70s composition stuck a growling, marvelously murky low-register passage in the midst of a bustling, bluesy swing tune that gave tenor player Scott Robinson (who absolutely slayed earlier this month on bass sax with Musette Explosion) a chance to go jaggedly skyward, followed by alto player Mark Ross who took off in a bubblier, more playful direction.

Invisible Lady featured Elvis Costello lyrics sung by trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, pulling out every ounce of sly double entendre when it came to the phrase about the hourglass as the band wove in and out of a warped latin vamp. A 1959 outtake, GG Train,  was exactly the opposite of that other train with a similar name that never arrives, galloping down the track but taking the time to stop for some playful call-and-response between piano and drums and a completely macabre piano breakdown before picking up again with a blazing trumpet solo. They closed with the John Stubblefield arrangement of the classic Song with Orange, a noir blues that morphs into a boogie and then ends surprisingly on a quizzical note just thisclose to unrestrained wrath.

And a word about the venue: if you remember the Mingus Orchestra’s long-running residency at Fez back in the 90s, you’ll also remember how that club had delusions of grandeur but was really a dump, and an overpriced one at that. The Jazz Standard, by comparison has actual grandeur, yet the vibe is downtown and casual. And they have NYC’s best mac-and-cheese – it’s pricy ($8 as of this writing, 7/09) but it’s the gustatory equivalent of the lushest, richest Gil Evans arrangement you can imagine.

July 29, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Top 20 New York Area Concerts of 2007

We’ve done the top 100 songs of 2007, and the top 20 albums of the year, and now it’s time for what we like best, the live stuff. Since any attempt to rank these shows by sheer exhilaration factor would an exercise in futility, they’re listed chronologically. If the show you saw, or the show you played isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it was bad, that just means that in all likelihood we didn’t see it. There are more live gigs in New York in one evening than we saw all year long, and we were trying hard to go out as much as possible and to see the most diverse range of stuff we could, for the benefit of all you readers. Also keep in mind that a pandora’s box of factors that have nothing to do with a band or artists’s performance come into play here, from the sound system to the general comfort level of the venue to how well a club treats the musicians onstage. As with our other year-end lists, take this with a grain of salt: consider it a sounding of sorts, a general indication of what was happening last year in one small demimonde.

Mary Lee’s Corvette at Rodeo Bar, 1/17/07
Two sets of old rarities and current classics from the greatest rock singer of our generation, and a scorching four-guitar edition of her band.

The Avengers at Bowery Ballrooom, 2/3/07
Classic punk done by the most crucial half of the original band (frontwoman Penelope Houston and guitarist Greg Ingraham), less of a nostalgia show than a clinic in good fun.

Justin Bischof at the organ at St. Thomas Church, 3/11/07
The scheduled organist cancelled at the last minute, so the former St. Thomas assistant organist did improvisations, including a symphony that he made up on the spot. Nothing short of phenomenal.

Big Lazy at Luna, 5/20/07
The cd release show for their latest album Postcards from X saw the band thrashing through the instrumentals on their most diverse album to date with predictably fiery, macabre results.

Melomane at Hank’s, 6/7/07
The art-rock band at their majestic, epic best, sounding crystal-clear through the excellent PA at this Brooklyn country music bar

LJ Murphy at the Knitting Factory, 6/12/07
The rock world’s reigning lyrical genius played a typically passionate, fiery show backed by a great Rickenbacker guitarist and rhythm section.

System Noise at Broadway and West 3rd St., 6/21/07
The high point of the first-ever Make Music New York citywide outdoor music festival – that we were able to see before the rain started – was these scorching female-fronted art/noise/punk rockers.

The Mingus Big Band and Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 8/26/07
The grand finale of the year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival was the single best show we saw all year, no contest. A dark, stormy, virtuosic and breathtaking performance by a crowd of great players who realize that Mingus might be the greatest American composer ever.

Amanda Thorpe, Randi Russo and Ninth House at Hank’s, 8/26/07
The haunting Britfolk chanteuse followed by the equally haunting, chromatically inclined indie rock siren, and then the Nashville gothic rockers who at that point had just discovered improvisation, and were having a great time with it.

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 9/29/07
A wild, danceable, completely psychedelic performance of brilliant obscurities from the Peruvian Amazon circa 1972, as well as some originals that sounded completely authentic

Moisturizer at Black Betty, 10/10/07
Two sweaty, bacchanalian sets by the funnest instrumental band on the planet.

Mark Steiner at Otto’s, 10/16/07
He may have played his one New York show of the entire year with a pickup band, but the chemistry of the group was adrenalizingly contagious to the point where the club’s dodgy sound became a moot point.

Golem and Rasputina at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Halloween
Deliriously danceable, oldtime orthodox Jewish dance music followed by a riveting show by the ever-darker, apocalyptically-minded chamber-rock trio.

Dina Dean at Rockwood Music Hall, 11/8/07
She’s always been an A-list tunesmith, but having a band behind her to passionately deliver her beautifully soulful songs is one of the best developments we’ve seen lately.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra Plays Rimsky-Korsakov, Bruch, Lam and Richard Strauss at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 11/18/07
A sweeping, majestic, virtuosic show by a world-class orchestra bringing out all the earthy danceability of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Easter Overture, the longing and anguish of Bruch’s Kol Nidre, and the fascinating timbres of a world premiere by Angel Lam. And then they pulled out all the stops for Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. And made it indelibly their own.

Paula Carino, Tom Warnick & World’s Fair and Erica Smith & the 99 Cent Dreams at the Parkside, 11/28/07
The brilliantly lyrical-minded, very funny Carino, the even funnier and inspiring Warnick and the ever-more-captivating, jazz-minded Smith played what was probably the best triple bill anywhere in New York last year.

The Inbreeds at Banjo Jim’s, 12/9/07
In a hilarious, somewhat stagy show that really ought to be brought to Broadway, the world’s funniest country parody band made fun of every conceivable style of country music.

John Scott Plays The Birth of Our Lord by Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, 12/20/07
Attuned to every emotion in this complex, absolutely haunting suite, Scott brought each and every one of them to life with verve and passion.

James Apollo at Banjo Jim’s, 12/20/07
The southwestern gothic songwriter impressed with a dusty, hypnotic set of one good song after another, not a single clunker. That doesn’t happen often.

Rachelle Garniez at Joe’s Pub, 12/22/07
The cd release for her new one, Melusine Years was a dark, terse yet devastatingly funny and entertaining affair. Just like the album

January 14, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Mingus Orchestra/Mingus Big Band at Damrosch Park, NYC 8/26/07

Before the show started, there was a bag lady sitting on the aisle opposite the sound board embroiled in a heated debate with an unseen opponent. Yes, she had been at the Woodstock Hotel and had a torn, greyed scrap of paper to prove it. Slowly, she was surrounded by tourists, and ended up sleeping through most of the show. Apparently whatever hallucination had been giving her a hard time didn’t like Mingus. Or also fell asleep.

Augmenting the musicians onstage was a group of special guests: an energetic chorus of tree frogs. The peepers were into it tonight, and made themselves known with gusto whenever the music got quiet. However, they had no interest in keeping time with the arrangements. There was also a light on the top floor of the highrise building south of the park that kept going on and off, in perfect time, throughout the show. Perhaps Mingus himself was on hand to give a listen.

Maybe so, because this was arguably the best show we’ve seen this year, right up there with the Avengers at Bowery Ballroom, Big Lazy at Luna and Paula Carino at the Parkside. Composer/bassist Charles Mingus (1922-79) wrote in several different idioms, but his best work is a blend of jazz, classical and horror movie soundtrack. It’s difficult, richly composed, deeply troubled music. Heavy stuff, not for the faint of heart. They played a lot of that tonight along with some more lighthearted fare, a brave thing to do considering that this was a free outdoor show (part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival) which mysteriously draws a mostly neighborhood crowd along with a scattering of tourists. Perhaps the group’s ubiquity on the concert circuit had something to do with it (the Big Band had a Thursday residency at Fez for ages back in the 90s), or, that for the crowd who can actually afford to see them in clubs, money is no object. Whatever the case, there were still a lot of empty seats which grew as the night went on: clearly, the dark side of Mingus is not for everyone.

The Orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller and ironically smaller than the Big Band with only 10 players, opened with a couple of breezily, eerily swinging numbers that evoked something akin to Miles Davis doing Gil Evans arrangements, only better (hubris, I know). Mingus was an angry man, and these tunes had a smirk, as if to say, I just picked your pocket for $20 and now I’m taking a cab down to Toots Shor’s to spend it. Both the Orchestra and Big Band are repertory units, they know this material inside out and mined the melodies for every deliciously evil nuance. Then they did Half-Mast Inhibition, which Mingus composed at age 17. A lot of his material is narrative: this one’s not about impotence, but instead Mingus’ reluctance to meditate his way off the face of the earth (at the time, he thought he could). It’s a deliberately ostentatious, rigorously knotty piece that goes through all sorts of permutations. Hardly his best composition, but the band emphasized the unexpected squeals, squalls and rhythmic innovations that would become trademarks of his later work.

Mingus’s widow Sue, who introduced both sets told the audience that “Against all common wisdom and tradition…normally you open with a swinging, uptempo beat,” the 14-piece Mingus Big Band (minus guitar and bass clarinet, plus more horns) was going to begin the second half of the program with The Children’s Hour of Dream from his three-hour masterwork, Epitaph. This is no ordinary dream, it’s a fullscale nightmare complete with scary figures in the shadows, a chase scene and a shootout, all jumpy chromatic runs and scary trills from every instrument including the piano. They then segued into a jaunty, pretty generic jump blues written as a celebration of the birth of bassist Oscar Pettiford’s new baby boy, a suitable vehicle for the band members to dazzle with their chops. Ryan Kisor on trumpet, Wayne Oscoffery on tenor and Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone all contributed suitably ebullient solos. They followed with the murky, exasperated Noon, Night, one of Mingus’ most famous songs. The rest of the show was upbeat material, including Pinky Please Don’t Come Back to the Moon (Mingus LOVED odd titles) and the deliriously passionate Freedom, Mingus’ acerbic, vitriolic lyrics rapped by the trombonist.  A Civil Rights-era anthem, it ends caustically: freedom for you, not me. Bassist Boris Kozlov directed the ensemble from behind Mingus’ own lionshead bass. What a treat it must be to play this music and in particular Mingus’ basslines on the composer’s instrument. At the end of the show, the band went through a series of false endings, an appropriate way to wind up this gorgeously haunting, surprise-filled evening.

August 27, 2007 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments