Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mirian Conti Goes On a Mission Which Was Impossible Until Recently

This past evening in the comfortable, old-world auditorium at the Consulate of Argentina in midtown, Mirian Conti played the first ever North American concert devoted exclusively to the solo piano music of Lalo Schifrin. It could have been a world premiere, although the now 85-year-old Argentine composer has undoubtedly played at least a few solo shows of his own somewhere in the world. Either way, Conti made history with this revelatory performance, especially considering that she was responsible for getting Schifrin to write most of the music.

While Schifrin is no stranger to fans of film scores, he isn’t known as a composer of solo piano works. Long story short: Conti suggested he come up with enough new material or new arrangements for a solo show, and he did. And her dynamic, kinetic, mutable approach to the music did justice to the composer’s ruggedly individualistic blend of neoromanticism, jazz, nuevo tango and vast cinematic themes.

“Other than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this is it,” Conti grinned, closing the bill with the world premiere of Schifrin’s solo piano arrangement of the Mission Impossible theme. Tens of thousands of bands and orchestras have played that tune, and kids have been playing probably more than one simplified piano arrangement since 1973. Perhaps ironically, Conti’s boisterous, irrepressibly hard-hitting version was the key to the entire concert. Consider: the theme opens with a hammering, syncopated blues riff, but expands to lots of unexpected chromatics, a mashup of blues, jazz, tango and hints of Debussy.

So it was no surprise that the rest of the show mirrored those influences in the prolific composer’’s work. Although a formidable lefthand attack is hardly the exclusive domain of Argentine pianists, it’s a distinctive  trope, and Conti did it justice, opening with the wryly titled Tango Del Atardecer, Schifrin new solo arrangement of the main theme form the 1977 movie Tango.

Conti made the tricky idiomatic shifts between nuevo tango, pre-tango Argentine folk and quasi-Second Viennese School tonalities in Danza De Los  Montes look easy. She told the crowd that for a classically-trained musician, the tricky rhythms, syncopation and allusive harmonies of Schifrin’s Jazz Sonata are a real challenge, but she delivered all of that in a strongly dynamic take of its second movement.

She explained that Schifrin had written Tango A Borges as a salute to the writer and his fondness for the tango guardia vieja – surprisingly, he didn’t like nuevo tango. So she made every intense, regal cascade count, up to a wry surprise ending. Her take of Schifrin’s new Suite and Ten Variations was a cleverly referential if hardly reverential capsule history of classical piano from the baroque,through Beethoven to Bartok and then maybe Piazzolla. Conti encored with a brand-new, lushly baroque-tinged lullaby: clearly, Schifrin has plenty of tunes left him him.

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November 30, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Doug Wieselman Releases His Broodingly Hypnotic New Album at the Owl This Thursday 

Multi-reedman Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S has been around for almost as long as his legendary, phantasmagorically cinematic circus band Kamikaze Ground Crew (who played a mesmerizing reunion show at Roulette last fall). He started Trio S as a vehicle for his small-scale compositions, which these days involve a lot of hypnotic loopmusic and water melodies. Georg Friedrich Handel, you’re being schooled!

Wieselman, drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni are playing the album release for their new one, Somewhere Glimmer – streaming at Bandcamp – at the Owl at around 8 on Nov 9; suggested donation is $10. It’s music to get completely lost in, artful variations on very simple, catchy themes, like a less stylized Angelo Badalamenti.

The bandleader’s distantly Balkan-tinged, moodily resonant clarinet loops mingle over Wollesen’s wind chimes and Scarpantoni’s alternately stern and whispery washes in Sesto, the opening track. Wollesen’s gongs and toms then triangulate a series of angst-fueled crescendos.

Dissociative polyrhythms and echo effects slowly coalesce as New River, a tone poem of sorts, finally begins to ripple along: you could call it organic motorik music. Wieselman switches to banjo, anchoring Scarpantoni’s moody melody in That Way, a gorgeously melancholy, Britfolk-tinged waltz

Piper Hill is uneasily airy, its long-tone exchanges fading in and out over a similarly folk-tinged clarinet loop. A Scarpantoni drone and flickers from Wollesen underpin Wieselman’s moody Balkan melismas in Dreambox, which builds to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – it’s the album’s high point. Wollesen’s deep-forest brook sonics open the somber Metal in Wood, which morphs into a 19th century-style chain gang theme.

Hallucination of a Storm juxtaposes ominous low-register washes with Wieselman’s blithe bluegrass mandolin. The album winds up with Birdbath, a wryly bittersweet tableau. Call this jazz, or film music, or whatever you want, it’s one of the most darkly unexpected treats of 2017.

November 7, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epic Lynchian Jazz at Barbes Last Night

Covering music as iconic as the Twin Peaks soundtrack is playing with fire. Last night at Barbes, it was as if guitarist Tom Csatari said, “Fire walk with me!” and his nine-piece band Uncivilized could’t wait to follow him into the flames. It was less an inferno than the slowly gathering menace of a prairie burn – Angelo Badalementi’s David Lynch film scores are all about suspense and distant dread. And it was an awful lot of fun to find out just where this unpredictable crew would take those themes.

They opened with the Twin Peaks title theme. From the first few lingering notes of Csatari’s guitar, it was obvious that they weren’t going to play it completely straight-up, considering that he was already staking out territory around the famous, ominous, two-note opening riff. The genius of Badalaenti’s score is that he uses very simple ideas for his variations for all the femme fatales, wolves in sheeps’ clothing and resolute boy scout detectives. If only for a second, any of them could be pure evil. In that sense, the music perfectly matches Lynch’s esthetic.

Yet as much further out as Csatari and the band took this material, they also stuck pretty closely to the melody and the changes. This was hardly generic postbop jazz with halfhearted alllusions to the tunes and solos around the horn.

And Uncivilized are the least generic jazz group in New York. One of Csatari’s favorite devices is to swing and sway his way up to a big crescendo where the four-horn frontline can shiver and flurry, more or less – sometimes a lot less – in unison. They did that here a lot, as well as messing up the rhythm a little with a couple of what sounded like momentary free interludes over drummer Rachel Housle’s floating swing.

There are some great players in this band, but she was the biggest hit with the crowd, as dynamic as she was subtle – and she’s very subtle. Starting out with a suspenseful, muted thud with her mallets, she muted her snare with a scarf, went to sticks and then brushes, using the trebliest parts of the kit for rat-a-tat riffs and hits in all the least expected places. Can anybody say “DownBeat Critics’ Poll Rising Star, 2017?”

Bassist Nick Jozwiak bobbed and bounced like a human slinky behind his upright, playing terse, rubbery rock riffs bolstered by the occasional looming chord. Guitarist Julian Cubillos shadowed Csatari with a subtlety to rival Housle, particularly when the bandleader was playing with a slide for a hint of extra deep-woods menace. Keyboardist Dominic Mekky sent starry electric piano wafting through the mist in lieu of Badalamenti’s big-sky string synth orchestration, while the horns – flutist Tristan Cooley, alto saxophonist Levon Henry, tenor saxophonist Kyle Wilson and bass clarinetist Casey Berman – built a fluttery, gauzy sheen.

They reached toward the macabre stripper tune inside The Bookhouse Boys, played a tantalizing, single haphazardly uneasy verse of Laura  Palmer’s theme and then found unexpected grit – and a Pink Panther – in Audrey Horne’s theme.

Singer Ivy Meissner joined the band to deliver Julee Cruise’s Nightingale as well as Questions in a World of Blue, opting for soul-infused plaintiveness rather than trying to be the girl at the very bottom of the well. Meissner also sang Shelby, a noir-tinged soul ballad from her excellent debut album from last year. In between, she suddenly disappeared: it turned out that she’d taken a seat on the floor amidst the band.

Additionally, Csatari led the group through a handful of his own enigmatically careening pastoral jazz numbers, including a couple of somewhat restrained “stomps.” Most of what this band plays sounds as if it’s completely improvised, but it’s likely that most of it is actually composed, testament to how fresh Csatari’s charts are. No voicing is ever in constant, traditional harmony with the rest of the group, which enhances the suspense as much as it it opens up the floor for more interesting conversations than most bands dream of starting.

Csatari’s next gig is with Meissner on Nov 13 at 7 PM at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood. And fans of Twin Peaks and deep noir should also check out Big Lazy, who play their monthly Friday night show at Barbes on Nov 3 at 10 PM.

October 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lush, Epic, Hauntingly Cinematic Jazz from the Robert Sabin Dectet

Today’s Halloween album, streaming at Bandcamp, is Humanity Part II, released by bassist Robert Sabin and his dectet in 2015. The black-and-sepia cd packaging leaves no doubt about this lushly Lynchian musical reflection on the horrible things people do to each other There’s a dead woman lying in the woods on the front cover, silhouette of a guy going after his wife with an axe in the cd tray and a gloomy quote about loss and absence from Albert Camus’ La Peste on the inside cover flap.

These piece are epic – the shortest one is more than five minutes and the aptly titled concluding number, Leviathan, clocks in at almost eleven. The title track, a relentlessly enveloping rearrangement of Ennio Morricone’s theme to the John Carpenter film The Thing, opens the suite. Sabin’s bass and Jeremy Noller’s drums keep a calm, clenched-teeth suspense going beneath the band’s tectonically shifting sheets of sound, both tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby and guitarist Jesse Lewis reaching for postbop blitheness but quickly getting pulled down into the mist.

The ten-minute, Ingmar Bergman-inspired Through a Glass Darkly builds morosely out of a brooding guitar vamp. Ben Stapp proves that there can be noir hidden deep in the valves of a tuba, Rigby follows with a long, vividly downcast, smoke-tinted solo of his own and Sabin’s top-to-bottom, Gil Evans-like orchestration is deliciously uneasy. As is the way the guitar, then the bass, then the whole ensemble stalk Noller’s drum solo and make a carnivalesque mambo out of it. Gato Loco ought to cover this.

Sabin takes his inspiration for Scarecrow from the scene of a hanged man in the desert depicted in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A tensely circling bass theme and ambered, spacious horns lead to an enigmatic John Yao trombone solo as the band swings straightforwardly.

Ghost is a portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space, moody horns leading to a pensive Rigby solo. Noller and Lewis team up for an allusively syncopated latin noir pulse, then back away.

Tenebre, inspired by Dario Argento’s cult film, opens with moodily circling syncopation, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwn and trumpet Matt Holman reaching to poke a hole in the grey clouds overhead. The bandleader’s solo swings morosely and then stalks as Leviathan rises from the depths toward macabrely cinematic heights, Irwin offering a sardonically contented wee-hours solo, a crowded club full of unsuspecting victims. Then Lewis hits his distortion pedal and bares his fangs! As the credits roll at the end, the monster gets away to ensure that there will be a sequel – we can hope, anyway.

One of the most lustrously dark and troubled albums of recent years, this could be the great lost Gil Evans record, or the soundtrack to a cosmopolitan David Lynch thriller yet to be made.

October 23, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

Today’s installment for Halloween month is Philip Blackburn’s album Music of Shadows – streaming at Spotify – which was written to be played in the St. Paul, Minnesota sewer system. Innova Records put out this bleak, tectonically and ineluctably shifting triptych in 2014, and it may be the high point of the composer’s career so far.

Blackburn is sort of the shadow image of Brian Eno – his enveloping, often darkly majestic electroacoustic soundscapes tend to whoosh and resonate in the lows, sometimes with provocative samples. His recent works have addressed the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and have lampooned right-wing bigotry. This one is more of a relentless mood piece. Even the mathrock-y bubbles as the second movement opens give way to a coldly echoing, oscillating resonance.

About five minutes into the icy lead-pipe ambience of the opening movement, there are doors slamming and children playing, but the effect evokes a prison vastly more than it does a playground. And the disembodied choir fading in and out eventually blend with the rest of the ghosts.

And for anyone living in an urban area, the album has value to match its gloomy, entrancing artistic merits. Your neighbors might bang on the ceiling if you crank a loud rock record in the middle of the night to drown out the crackhead or the creeps down the hall, but if you blast this, nobody can really complain – and if you’re tired enough, it will eventually lull you back to sleep.  After all, nobody can tell you that you can’t vacuum your floor at four in the morning, can they? That movie you were just blasting? What movie, wink wink! Any nightmares you might have are incidental. Or are they?

October 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

August 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

August 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, gospel music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A History of Bollywood Music and Dance In Colorful 3-D Gets an Epic World Premiere at Lincoln Center

If you think it might be daunting to pull together a band who can competently reinvent seventy years worth of film themes by dozens of different composers, try choreographing every one of those songs for an ensemble comprising eighteen dancers. Heena Patel and Rushi Vakil pulled off that epic feat last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors with the world premiere of their multimedia extravaganza Bollywood Boulevard. A lively and insightful capsule history of Indian cinema as well as a revealing immersion in cinematic cross-pollination and playful mass movement, the performance drew a similarly vast audience of New Yorkers, many of whom knew the songs and sang along lustily.

For those who didn’t know the words, or the source material, or the vernacular, it was still a lot of fun. The band was fantastic, bringing a dynamically shifting rock edge to a wildly eclectic mix of themes, from a couple of baroque-tinged songs from the 1940s, to the mighty, angst-fueled ballads of the golden age of Bollywood in the 50s and 60s, to the funk and disco of the 70s and 80s and finally the surreal mashups of the last three decades.

Raj Kapoor’s 1950s epics and adventure star Amitabh Bachchan’s 70s vehicles featured heavily in the mix as the band kept a steady beat, from ancient carnatic themes interspersed within Gabriel Faure-esque Romanticism, to even more towering Romantic heights, gritty funk, irresistibly cantering bhangra and finally hints of the Middle East, sung with raw gusto by one the guys. The crowd was also finally treated to a couple of verses of Dum Maro Dum, the iconic pot-smoking anthem: remember, marijuana is an Indian herb.

It was particularly fascinating to see singer Rini Raghavan – whose own music with her band Rini is as picturesque as anything on this bill, and rocks a lot harder – bring a gentle melismatic nuance and a striking upper register to much of the quieter material. Playing violin with similar subtlety and plaintiveness, she was as much of a lead soloist as anyone in the group.

It was just as much fun to watch Harshitha Krishnan tackle many of the more kinetic numbers in her majestic, wounded wail. Keyboardist Rohan Prebhudesai spun volleys of microtones, stately orchestral washes and spare piano lines with equal aplomb over the nimble acoustic and electric fretwork of guitarist Niranjan Nayar and bassist Achal Murthy, backed by drummer Varun Das and percussionist Sanjoy Karmakar. Baritone singers Krishna Sridharan and Neel Nadkarni took alternately droll and intense turns in the spotlight as well.

All the while, a pantheon of South Asian deities or facsimiles thereof twirled and pranced and lept and glided across the stage. It wa a nonstop procession of fire maidens, and archers, and warriors…and starcrossed lovers, as the narrative continued into the 90s and beyond. Historical sagas, mythological epics, crime dramas, buddy movies and an endless succession of chick flicks were represented among dozens of Bollywood historical landmarks flashing on the screen above the stage. Personalities and characters from over the decades were gamely represented in a constantly changing series of costumes, with goodnaturedly split-seoond timing, by a cast including but not limited to Aaliya Islam, Aria Dandawate, Avinaash Gabbeta, Geatali Tampy, Manav Gulati, Minal Mehta, Panav Kadakia, Poonam Desai, Proma Khosla, Rhea Gosh, Rohit Gajare, Rohit Thakre, Sean Kulsum, Barkha, Bhumit, Bindi and Pranav Patel.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors ocntinues tonight, August 4 at 7:30 PM with violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson leading a chamber orchestra through lavish new arrangements of J Dilla hip-hop tunes out back in Damrosch Park.

August 4, 2017 Posted by | concert, dance, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piano Titan Vijay Iyer Scores a Harrowing Multimedia Performance

Last night at National Sawdust, pianist Vijay Iyer joined with bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan to create a somber, stunned, broodingly opaque and occasionally picturesque backdrop for Teju Cole‘s  allusively harrowing spoken word narrative, Blind Spot. Informed by history, portraiture, archaeology and Greek myth, Cole’s vignettes traced decades of humans being inhuman to each other, and how conveniently we forget.

Cole didn’t waste any time making his point. One of the first of the photo projections in his series of vignettes was a snapshot of a simple piece of poster graffiti in a Berlin neighborhood which once housed a gestapo torture complex. The message was simple. In black-and-white English, it said, “Sign here.” Cole related that when he returned a week later, the poster had been replaced by a billboard. “Darkness is lack of information,” he mused later during the performance. Is it ever.

Cole nonchalantly offered that his way of seeing had been radically changed by a blindness scare and then an apparently successful eye operation. The unseen seems to be as central to his work as the visible. An elegaic sensibility wove through his quietly provocative, interconnected narrative. Death – by torture, drowning, car accident, Klansmen and genocide – was a constant and pervasive presence.

The music matched the words and visuals. Iyer set the stage with a simple binary chord, a distant star against an obsidian sky. From time to time, the group improvisation became more programmatic – rushing water imagery and a sudden gust off a Swiss lake, for example. The most harrowing moment was when Cole related visiting the site of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and referenced both McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison’s roles in John Coltrane’s classic elegy for the victims, Alabama. Iyer and then Oh both quoted Coltrane’s pianist and bassist briefly – Oh’s sudden, frantic downward cascade might have been the night’s most stunning moment.

There were many others. Iyer began by working uneasy harmonies against a central tone, raga style, eventually building a Satie-esque menace while Brennan bowed her bells. As the night went on, Oh became more present, whether with an unexpected, circling series of harmonics that evoked Stephan Crump, or spare, emphatic accents moving with a slow but immutable defiance away from the center.

Brennan took the lead when Iyer went into Lynchian soundtrack mode, adding shivery chromatic phrases over macabre piano allusions that Iyer quickly embellished so as to keep the suspense from ever reaching any kind of resolution. The three finally reached toward closure with a concluding requiem, but even there the gloom didn’t lift. Earlier, Cole recalled a medieval painting that depicts Agamemnon offering his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that he could start a war with Troy: the anguished tyrant has his back to the viewer, unable to face what he’s just done. These days it looks more and more like the House of Atreus is us.

Iyer plays Tanglewood on July 13 with violinist Jennifer Koh. The next jazz event at National Sawdust – always a pleasure to visit and revel in the exquisite sonics  there – is on August 30 at 7 PM with perennially unpredictable guitar luminary Mary Halvorson; advance tix are $25.

July 9, 2017 Posted by | Art, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

May 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment