Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Epically Tuneful, Colorfully Cinematic Jazz from Linda May Han Oh and Her Killer Band at the Vanguard This Week

There was a point about midway through the first song of of bassist Linda May Han Oh’s first set last night at the Vanguard where tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel broke into a wide-mouthed grin, staring to his left. At that moment, guitarist Matt Stevens was perusing a gritty, spacious solo punctuated by several judicious pauses. What was he doing between phrases that had goosed Wendel so hard?

As it turned out, it was drummer Obed Calvaire’s long, leapfrogging, crescendoing polyrhythms that had grabbed him – and soon, pretty much everybody else within earshot. There were innumerable other “this is why we love jazz” moments throughout the night. She’s back there tonight, July 3 through 7, with sets at 8:30 and a little after 10; cover is $35 and worth it.

Oh has made waves in the past couple of years as sidewoman to the stars, but her own work is often her best, and this show was characteristic. When a band is having fun, that translates to the audience. Oh gives her crew – which also included her significant other, pianist Fabian Almazan, the not-so-secret weapon in this quintet – plenty to sink their teeth into. Like the best film and classical composers, she starts with the simplest materials – sometimes just a single-note rhythm – and subtly introduces variations that often go in completely unanticipated directions.

The most vivid showstopper of the night was a piece from a forthcoming film, portraying the moment when a young Brazilian woman is kidnapped into the sex trade. Oh’s wistful, insistent opening solo became considerably more plaintive the second time around, Almazan’s glittering chords elevated the constantly shifting ground to majestic heights, and the tropical milieu quickly took a backseat to a fond goodbye to happiness. As Oh saw it, this could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

The group opened with Blue Over Gold, a Rothko shout-out that built from a warily insistent, percussive bass phrase to a recurrent four-chord cluster punctuated by Wendel’s hardbop and finally Calvaire’s rumbling attack. Yoda, which Oh dedicated to her mentor of a sister (“She’s a lot prettier,” the composer grinned) began with even more tightly wound, syncopated, minimalist bass and rose to punchy heights on the waves of Almazan’s piano.

While she played most of the set on her usual upright model, Oh also pulled a beautiful, full tone from her Fender on a couple of numbers, especially when playing chords. It was a welcome change from the legions of slap-happy funkpapa cliche-heads playing Weather Report covers and such a few blocks south on Bleecker. It was also rewarding to see how much more she’s singing: her soaring vocalese compares with another rising star string player, guitarist Camila Meza.

The night’s funniest tune was Speech Impediment, a winsomely persistent portrait of a stuttering dude who nonetheless finds a way to get the girl. Wendel got the funniest arrythmic bits, but both the bandleader and Calvaire were close behind, with a deadpan wit that brought to mind the Dutch clown prince of jazz, Misha Mengelberg. They returned to close the set on a more acerbically kinetic note. Oh has grown significantly as a writer over the past few years, to become one of the most consistently interesting bassist-composers around; you should see her.

July 3, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Winter Jazzfest 2015, Night One: More and Less Transcendent Moments

What’s the likelihood of seeing both the ICP Orchestra and Dave Douglas on the same night? If you’re at the Rotterdam Jazz Festival, that’s hardly out of the question. And that’s why, despite its many issues, Winter Jazzfest is always worth coming out for.

“We’re the Instant Composers Pool, from Amsterdam,” bassist Ernst Glerum almost gleefully told the crowd who’d gathered close to the stage yesterday evening at le Poisson Rouge for a rare US appearance by the ten-piece surrealistic swing unit. That pun is intentional: their closest US counterpart is the Microscopic Septet, although where the two groups share an irrepressible wit, the Instant Composers are heftier and a lot trippier, given to absurdist call-and-response, round robin hijinks that can either be deadpan or completely over the top, and long dissociative interludes. There was plenty of that in their all-too-brief, roughly 45-minute set, but there was also a lingering, disquieted, crepuscular quality as well.

When he wasn’t dancing around the stage and directing split-second bursts from the horns and the reeeds, cellist Tristan Honsinger traded incisively airy lines with violinist Mary Oliver. Pianist Uri Caine, subbing for octogenarian legend Misha Mengelberg – chilling back in Holland – stayed pretty much within himself while the horns pulsed and sputtered and then pulled together with a wistfully ambered gleam. Extrovert drummer Han Bennink – who has more than a little Mel Taylor in him – threw elbows and jabs on his toms to keep the audience on their toes, especially in the most trad moments. What distinguishes this crew from the other satirical acts out there is their command of swing, and the gravitas that was in as full effect as the comedic bits. The audience screamed for an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly austere, string-driven miniature.

Douglas is another guy who infuses his music with plenty of wit, if it’s more on the dry side. On a night where a lot of the best acts were off limits, interminable lines stretching down the sidewalk outside several venues, what a treat it was to go up the stairs into Judson Church to see the trumpeter doing his usual mix of melodic splendor along with the pastoral soul that’s become part and parcel for him lately. Pianist Matt Mitchell colored both the Americana and the spiritual-based material with an upper-register, reflecting-pool gleam as Douglas and tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts ranged from homespun reflection to judiciously placed flurries of bop. Both bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston kept their cards close to the vest as the rhythms would stray outside and then return to within the lines. And how cool was it to watch Royston feel the room, letting its natural reverb do the heavy lifting throughout his shuffles and spirals? Extremely. The highlight of the set was JFK: The Airport – “Not an endorsement,” Douglas said emphatically – a bristling, hypercaffeinated clave-cinema theme whose understated exasperation, channeled by Douglas and guest trumpeter Avishai Cohen, was characteristically spot-on.

Because Winter Jazzfest has such an embarrasment of riches to choose from, it’s hard not to be greedy: when an enticing set is sold out, as many tend to be, you have to be resourceful and willing to roll with the punches. Marc Ribot’s set with a string section at one of the off-Broadway theatres had a ridiculously long line of hopefuls waiting in vain to get in. But back at the church, Battle Trance were more than an impromptu Plan B: what a revelation the tenor sax quartet – Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner – turned out to be. Beginning with barely a whisper, negotiating their way calmly and envelopingly through a baroque-tinged, cleverly polyrhythmic, interlocking minimalist sonic lattice, they rose to a mighty exchange of glisses (Coltrane would call them arpeggios), an understated display of extended technique and circular breathing. Throughout their set, they literally breathed as a single entity. In its most vigorous moments, their performance had the same raw power and chops that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson showed off at last year’s festival.

As for the rest of the night, there seemed to be more non-jazz acts than usual on the bill. An ensemble playing a Donald Byrd tribute opened for the ICPs, vamping on a chord or two, one of the jams sounding like a bluesier take on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t jazz either. Up the block, Brandee Younger – who’s made a lot of waves at her recent slate of shows at Minton’s uptown, being heralded as the next Dorothy Ashby – shared the stage with a tightly swinging if generic funk band whose own vamps subsumed the jazz harpist’s tersely ringing, starkly blues-drenched phrasing. There was no small irony in the fact that even such a stereotypically Bleecker Street band would have probably had a hard time getting a gig there under usual circumstances, considering their slightly unorthodox instrumentation. Perish the thought that the Jersey tourists would have to contend with something they’d never heard before. “Is that a hwawp?”

Winter Jazzfest continues tonight, Saturday, Jan 10 starting a little after six PM: ticket pickup starts a half-hour beforehand at Judson Church. If you’re going you’d best get there on time.

January 10, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legendary Jazz Ensemble ICP Orchestra Wrap Up Their US Tour

This album makes a good segue with Marc Ribot’s Saturday night concert. Dutch jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg and his ten-piece band ICP Orchestra (Instant Composers Pool) are legendary in European jazz circles and respected outside the continent for their mix of lavish arrangements and devious improvisation. They’re currently on US tour (see remaining dates below); their latest cd, simply titled ICP Orchestra (since superseded by a new vinyl album!), is a cinematic, noir-tinged concert recording from 2009. These folks date from the 1960s (Mengelberg was composing ten years before then), and as expected, there’s plenty of absurdism, irony and humor in their work. As is obvious from the first track here: a brief, klezmerish song with vocals, the band waiting impatiently to spin off their axis.

Which they do quickly on the second track, led by violinist Mary Oliver’s nightmare cadenzas establishing the noir ambience which returns again and again here, through a thoughtful Thomas Heberer quartertone trumpet solo over a steady detective beat. Then it walks and screams and falls apart in a series of cacaphonic, unrelated conversations that rise to a din, and then out cold. It’s paradigmatic for what’s to come, with saxophonist Michael Moore’s Sumptious, shifting from a richly melodic, distantly ominous late 50s theme to rubato, uneasy atmospherics. The next cut contrasts Oliver’s shrieky excursions with judicious, apprehensive piano from Mengelberg, followed by a radically deconstructed take of Herbie Nichols’ Busy Beaver, Oliver leading the charge out of the morass with a lusciously memorable crescendo.

The horror reaches breaking point with the sixth track, Mitrab, an improvisation that quickly rises to terror, sax shrieking out of a chilly, starlit piano intro, individual voices falling away, less horrified as it winds down. The Lepaerd, a jaunty swing tune, builds nonchalantly to a chase scene, falls away and then rises with the whole orchestra blazing. They follow it with the funniest track here, a low, rustling, conspiratorial tone poem, except that everyone seems to be the end of their own individual phone conversations. At the end, they walk out of the room, leaving the violin still fully engaged and completely unperturbed. They close with an altered swing blues by bassist Ernst Glerum and then a clever, amusing version of Ellington’s Sonnet in Search of a Moor (from the classic 1957 Suite Thunder) where the bass gets all the melody lines and the solos. Throughout the set, there are inspired moments from the whole group, including Han Bennink on drums, Tristan Housinger on cello, Wolter Wierbos on trombone and Tobias Delius on tenor sax. Remaining US tourdates are:

April 7 – Austin / Epistrophy Arts

April 8 – Houston / Nameless Sound

April 9 – Des Moines / Caspe Terrace

April 10 – Chicago / Hungry Brain

April 11 – Chicago / Cultural Center

April 12 – Seattle / Earshot Jazz

April 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Explosive Surfy Jazz from the Best-Dressed Guy in Holland

Jazz composer Misha Mengelberg’s stuff is a big hit in his native Holland because it’s very accessible and a lot of fun. Seeing as his compariot, debonair alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman’s mission is to “bring jazz back to the dance floor,” it made a lot of sense for Herman to do a Mengelberg album, which turned out to be a big hit there in 2009. Herman – a genuine star not only in his native land, but throughout Europe – is now on US tour, trying to move bodies (the schedule is here) while promoting a stunningly deluxe new edition of that cd, Hypochristmastreefuzz (More Mengelberg). The title may sound like a Saturday Night Live skit, but the studio album is a mix of upbeat, dancefloor-ready jazz (when was the last time you heard that, huh?), just now reissued with a bonus ecstatic live cd mining a sly, devious vibe that’s pure punk rock. The band behind him – bassist Ernst Glerum, drummer Joost Patocka (of Euro-jazz doyenne Rita Reys’ band), keyboardist Willem Friede and guitar cult hero Anton Goudsmit – straddle the line between precision and abandon (more the latter than the former), with predictably entertaining results. The point of all this seems to be how far outside they can take Mengelberg’s often stunningly memorable, melodic compositions.

Much of the studio album is a trio performance with sax, bass and drums, bass walking blithely while Herman jumps playfully in and out of focus, skirting the melody. There are a lot of creatively disquieting touches here: a disarmingly pretty pop melody against the doppler effect of freeway traffic; the eerie children’s choir that introduces an offhandedly intense, chromatic number, and a distantly noir ballad with nebulous sax over a mellotron string section. There’s also a bright calypso tune and a couple of irresistibly surf-tinged songs, one with a Memphis go-go feel, the other a bouncy bolero (aptly titled A Little Nervous, in Dutch) with busy drums and bowed bass.

But the hourlong live disc from last year’s North Sea Jazz Festival is the piece de resistance. Herman plays his ass off; Goudsmit steals the show on the darker numbers. The most exhilarating number is called Do the Roach, Jim Campilongo surf/jazz taken to a blistering extreme, Goudsmit echoing Bill Frisell at his wildest, throwing off a blast of reverb-drenched metal fragments. The vigorous version of A Bit Nervous has Patocka doing a spot-on Mel Taylor impersonation; it sounds like Laika & the Cosmonauts with a good sax player. And Herman matches Goudsmit’s unhinged exuberance as they transform the Memphis go-go of Brozziman into crazed surf jazz, working their way out of the previous tone poem’s gritty, scrapy ambience. By itself it would be one of the year’s best jazz albums; alongside the studio disc, it makes a great introduction to a player and a group who deserve to be as well known in the US as they are at home.

November 8, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment