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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Another Enigmatic, Devious Album From Mr. Ho

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica began as an Esquivel cover project and quickly expanded to become a vehicle for multi-instrumentalist/percussionist bandleader Brian O’Neill’s erudite grooves, part exotica lounge band, part droll Raymond Scott-esque third-stream ensemble and once in awhile, expanding to become an explosive big band. With the smaller unit, it continues to amaze how big and lush a sound O’Neill gets out of a simple vibraphone/flute/bass/drums quartet. Their first album, a collection of Esquivel tunes, was a mixed bag; their second, Third River Rangoon, a richly woozy, psychedelic glide down a jungle river of the mind. Their third, Where Here Meets There is a suite, more or less: while the compositions don’t segue from one into another, O’Neill sets a mood immediately and maintains it, hypnotic and resonant yet a lot more rhythmic than their previous effort.

The opening track, Chiseling Music, introduces the nebulous, enigmatically minimalist feel that dominates most of these compositions, guest Tev Stevig’s spiky tanbur contrasting with balmy atmospherics. Beginning with echoey hand drum and then a slowly winding vibraphone solo, Sansaz dances, but as if underwater, finally emerging to come face-to-face with the cold, distant menace of that tanbur again. Maracatune for Chalco works a vamping, Esquivelic low-versus-high contrast, bass handling some of the highs, flute some of the lows as it grows more kinetic and then suddenly eerie as percussionist Shane Shanahan comes to the foreground.

Would You Like Bongos with That Fugue? is O’Neill in droll third-stream mode, a dancing Jason Davis bass solo at its center as the atmospherics recede back into the mist. Ritual Mallett Dance – inspired by paradigm-shifting percussionist Chano Pozo, with distant ecchoes of flamenco and cha-cha – mashes up de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and Dizzy Gillespie’s Guachi Guaro. They follow that with a Gershwin triptych that makes bouncy bossa out of ragtime, finally sending Geni Skendo’s flute soaring skyward, Peggy Lee’s Siamese Cat Song making a somewhat predictably cartoonish appearance midway through. The album ends with a masterfully misterioso, brooding take of Cal Tjader’s Black Orchid, Stevig managing to fire off an oud solo that doesn’t sound Middle Eastern, looping bass and then ambient flute maintaining a suspenseful edge as O’Neill’s vibes get busy. Adding to the fact that this a fascinating and often very fun album is that there is no band on the planet that sounds remotely like Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – not even any of those long-defunct Esquivel ensembles who inspired them.

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November 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Plays a Rare Big Band Show of Ludicrously Fun Esquivel Tunes

Forget for a minute that Juan Garcia Esquivel wasn’t the world’s most memorable composer, or that a lot of his stuff sounds like Lawrence Welk on acid. This evening at Pace University downtown, polymath percussionist Brian O’Neill’s big band version of his sometime Esquivel tribute project Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica played an irresistibly fun show that emphasized Esquivel the satirist, one of only a small handful of occasions that Esquivel’s big band music has been presented in concert in this country by a large ensemble. Along with the vaudevillian cartoonishness in Esquivel’s music, there’s a sense that everything is fair game for a spoof, especially American standards from the 30s through the 50s. Over-the-top as Esquivel generally is, there’s a subtly defiant reconquista going on if you listen closely.

Which O’Neill has done, to an extreme: virtually everything the 22-piece ensemble played, he’d transcribed by hand from the original albums. O’Neill has had a ball with this group, and his enthusiasm turned out to be contagious, boiling over into the band and the audience, who gave him a standing ovation. Recreating charts by ear for instruments as seemingly ill-paired as pedal steel, chimes, pandeiro, Hammond organ and a vintage synthesizer that basically doesn’t exist anymore might seem like a thankless task, but O’Neill loves his job: having to figure out, for example, whether a phrase buried in the mix is either the Hammond, or four alto saxes in harmony.

Esquivel’s main shtick became a familiar trope after just a few songs. The juxtaposition of extreme lows versus extreme highs, bass trombone and vibraphone, gong and flute, served as a comedic device as much as it showcased the wide-angle stereo sound he helped pioneer at RCA Studios back in the mid-50s. It’s also psychedelic to the extreme. Watching this show without being stoned was a trip: it’s hard to envision Esquivel in the studio without a haze of Acapulco Gold or whatever primo bud Mexicans were smoking back then drifting from the control room. The version of Take the A Train that the band played evoked a scene where one guy passes the joint to Esquivel and then suggests, “Why don’t make it sound like a real train?” Many giggles later, the choo-choo theme, complete with steam-valve vocalizations from the four vocalists onstage, made its way around the room.

As conductor, O’Neill took advantage of the chance to show off his chops on piano, vibraphone and various percussion instruments, including a LMAO two-monkeys-faking-each-other-out duel on cajon with bongo player Wilson Torres. The leader of the three-piece trumpet section, Bryan Davis, had been chosen for his ability to hit Esquivel’s cruelly difficult high notes, and he made it look easy. Bass trombonist Chris Beaudry got plenty of punch lines early on; as the concert went on, steel player Tim Obetz, organist/pianist Rusty Scott and then the vocalists got momentary cameos to swoop and dive and get impossibly surreal. Yolanda Scott’s stratospheric, crystalline wail paired against murky percussion on the intro to Esquivel’s version of Harlem Nocturne was wickedly adrenalizing…and then the song turned into a red-eyed grin of a cha-cha. The same vibe appeared in Boulevard of Broken Dreams, as if to say, “You Americans can’t really take this gloomy stuff seriously, can you?”

The rest of the show wavered between biting and ticklish. A slinky bolero from the 70s fueled by unexpectedly moody guitar from Tev Stevig evoked the dark side of Chicha Libre, and the closing cha-cha, Ye-Yo, got a drive from drummer Gary Seligson that the group picked up on in a split-second, as if everybody was hell-bent on getting some of that stuff. By contrast, Esquivel’s most famous song, Mucha Muchacha spun off sparks around the ensemble as they grinningly vamped it up to a surreal linguistic exchange between the vocalists. There were too many other bright and amusing moments to count from the rest of the crew, including trumpeters Paul Perfetti and Mark Sanchez, trombonist Dan Linden, horn player Ken Pope, flutist/saxists Sean Berry, Marenglem Skendo, Alec Spiegelman and Russ Gershon (of the mighty Either/Orchestra), singers Jennifer O’Neill, Kristina Vaskys and Paul Pampinella, bassist Jason Davis, and percussionist Jeremy Lang.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2011

If there’s one thing this page tries to avoid, it’s redundancy: if you’ve been here before, you’ve noticed that coverage here typically focuses on talent flying under the radar. That’s not to imply that the Marsalises, Vijay Iyers and Christian McBrides of the world aren’t valid artists, only that you probably already know about them. And there’s actually an album by a Marsalis (although not one who might immediately spring to mind) on this list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the most dedicated listener only has the opportunity to hear, at the most, a few hundred out of the thousands of jazz albums released every year. Then there’s the big can of worms that spills over with every attempt to rank them. How do you compare a big band with a stark bass-and-voice duo? How does a recording of sepulchral flute-and-percussion improvisations weigh up against a collection of intricate, politically fueled, narrative compositions? Isn’t all that just apples and oranges? Consider this a perhaps misguided stab at tackling all of the above, keeping in mind that the difference quality-wise between #1 and #25 here is infinitesimally small – all the albums here are worth your time.

Most years, trying to decide just which jazz album is the year’s best is a crapshoot. This year, however, there’s one that stands out over the rest of a very strong crop, and that’s the Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof. Written by pianist Zaccai Curtis as the Bush regime was finally coming to an end, it’s a towering, sometimes wrathful, cruelly sarcastic concept album that explores the effects of fascism and those who perpetrate it, from the school hall monitor to heads of state. As political art, it ranks with Mingus and Shostakovich for its insight and bleak, ironic wit: as music, it’s hard-hitting, ambitious but searingly melodic, as political music has to be. Drummer Ralph Peterson (who also put out a dynamite album of his own this year, Outer Reaches, a Larry Young tribute) gets special mention for propelling this monster: the rest of the cast includes Luques Curtis, Jimmy Greene, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Pedrito Martinez.

JD Allen, who topped the charts here with I Am I Am in 2007, gets the #2 spot for VICTORY!, his elegant and equally hard-hitting trio sonata album with Gregg August and Rudy Royston. The tenor saxophonist’s laser-beam sense of melody, his majestic and fearlessly brooding, chromatically-charged themes, his artful use of his rhythm section and imaginative employment of duo arrangements have never been more impactful than they are here. There’s no other composer in jazz who’s ahead of this guy right now.

#3 goes to a group you may have never heard of, the self-titled debut by Beninghove’s Hangmen, who take Marc Ribot-style noir themes to all sorts of genuinely menacing places. Noir can become a cliche, but not with this band – veering from Mingus bustle to noisy, macabre surf rock, they breathe fresh air into every dark cinematic style you’ve ever heard. With Bryan Beninghove, Rick Parker, Eyal Maoz, Dane Johnson, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor.

4. Ran Blake and Dominique Eade – Whirlpool. To put the definitive noir pianist of our time anywhere other than #1 is hubris: at 76, he’s never been more counterintuitive or moodily interesting. Eade brings her equally restless chops to a mix of vocal standards, all of which they radically reinvent – and the best song here might be Eade’s original.

5. Ralph Bowen – Power Play. The tenor saxophonist is just as much about precision as he is power, but where he excels most is as a composer. Leading a quartet with Orrin Evans, Kenny Davis and Donald Edwards, his fiery, vividly uneasy melodicism was unsurpassed by anyone else this year.

6. Billy Bang Bill Cole. A 2009 concert performance with the late, great violinist/improviser – whom we sadly lost this year – inventing new elements with the noted multi-reedman. It’s essentially a series of tone poems, some rising with an astringent airiness, sometimes uncoiling with an unrestrained ferocity. There are some scary albums on this list: this is probably the scariest.

7. Delfeayo Marsalis – Suite Thunder. As with the Mingus Orchestra’s Live at Jazz Standard album last year, it probably isn’t even fair to include this album, which has the trombonist leading a big band that revisits the legendary Ellington suite with an A-list of players including but not limited to Branford Marsalis, Red Atkins, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Mark Gross, Tiger Okoshi and Mulgrew Miller.

8. Sara Serpa – Mobile. Serpa’s claim to fame is vocalese – imagine the purest, most crystalline soprano sax that could possibly exist, then add mega-amounts of soul, determination, originality and frequent existential angst along with moody, intense, counterintuitively crescendoing, sometimes third-stream themes inspired by writing about travel and migration. With Kris Davis, Andre Matos, Ben Street and Ted Poor.

9. The Captain Black Big Band. This was ticket that everybody wanted, and nobody could get this year, pianist Orrin Evans’ mighty, swinging steamroller. Evans is a cerebral guy, but this group is a pure raw adrenaline rush. With a huge cast frequently including Rob Landham, Gianluca Renzi, Todd Marcus, Ralph Bowen, Jim Holton, Anwar Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Mark Allen, Jaleel Shaw and Neil Podgurski.

10. Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp. The trumpeter resurrects blazing, barely three-minute gems from Harlem and Chicago in the 20s by Tiny Parham, Charles Johnson and Fess Williams. With Dennis Lichtman, Andy Laster, Matt Bauder, Curtis Hasselbring, Jordan Voelker, Mazz Swift, Brandon Seabrook and Rob Garcia.

11. Iconoclast – Dirty Jazz. Technically, this came out at the very tail end of 2010, but who’s counting? Julie Joslyn’s liquid mercury alto sax (and snarling violin) and Leo Ciesa’s slasher drums (and icily melodic piano) are in full noir effect on this uncompromising, smartly aware, assaultively lurid effort.

12. Brian Landrus – Traverse. Much like Gerry Mulligan fifty years ago, the baritone saxophonist pushes the limits of where his instrument can go, with a warm melodicism to match, over grooves that range from latin to reggae to a jazz waltz to hypnotic ambience. With Michael Cain, Lonnie Plaxico and Billy Hart.

13. Rich Halley – Requiem for a Viper. A raw, powerhouse, sometimes explosive, sometimes deviously witty improvisationally-driven collection of intense originals, more of a party than a funeral, the saxophonist backed by a mighty rhythm section of bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley along with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich.

14. Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser – Synastry. Just bass and vocals have never sounded more interesting than they do here on these two improvisers’ stunningly diverse, sometimes unexpectedly amusing and tuneful duos.

15. Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live. Where the preeminent Jamaican pianist of our era lyrically, genially and triumphantly explores both his jazz and reggae roots: it’s only a tad less exhilarating than his 1995 Yard Movement effort. With Hassan Shakur, Obed Calvaire,Yotam Silberstein, Andy Bassford, Hoova Simpson, Karl Wright and Robert Thomas.

16. Bad Luck – Two. Like Iconoclast, this is basically sax and percussion, with electronic effects that add a creepy edge to the compositions and improvisations on this white-knuckle-intense double-disc set from drummer/percussionist Christopher Icasiano and saxophonist Neil Welch.

17. Michel Camilo – Mano a Mano. Where the Dominican pianist teams up with his longtime bassist Charles Flores and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo for an intimate but often exhilarating blend of third-stream and Afro-Cuban themes.

18. Patrick Cornelius – Maybe Steps. The alto saxophonist’s artful, shapeshifting compositions mine rich veins of modalities, murky noir themes and nocturnal melody: although this is a studio recording, it has the unleashed energy of a stage show. With Gerald Clayton, Peter Slavov, Kendrick Scott, Miles Okazaki and Assen Doykin.

19. The Phil Dwyer Orchestra – Changing Seasons. The Canadian saxophonist/bandleader’s take on a four-seasons suite is lushly tuneful and sweepingly orchestrated, and ends on a surprisingly effective, upbeat note. With a huge cast of characters including a full string section as well as contributions from Mark Fewer, Chris Gestrin, Jon Wikan and Ingrid Jensen.

20. Benjamin Drazen – Inner Flights. The saxophonist has speed and power, and even more impressively, a restless intensity when it comes to songwriting. Alternating between pensive, edgy modes and big swing anthems, he leads a first-class band featuring Jon Davis in particularly scorching mode on piano along with Carlo De Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

21. Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble – Inana. This time out, the innovative Iraqi-American quartertone trumpeter brings Middle Eastern themes into American jazz rather than the other way around in this bracing, fascinating suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. With Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen, Carlo DeRosa and Nasheet Waits.

22. David Gibson – End of the Tunnel. The trombonist’s late-night Memphis style 60s soul groove album that imaginatively adds rhythmic complexity to Booker T. and Stax/Volt B3 organ vamps. With Julius Tolentino, Jared Gold and Quincy Davis.

23. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – Third River Rangoon. It’s amazing how lush and hypnotic Brian O’Neill a.k.a. Mr. Ho gets a flute, marimba, bass and percussion to sound on this utterly narcotic collection of nocturnes, many of which playfully pilfer well-known classical themes. It’s by far the most psychedelic album on this list.

24. Carlo Costa – Crepuscular Activity. The drummer’s sepulchral duo improvisations with bass flutist Yukari make an excellent segue with #23 above, 27 whispery, creepy minutes of shadowy furtiveness and sometimes pure chill.

25. Dave Juarez – Round Red Light. Juarez is a guitarist who doesn’t play like one, favoring terseness and melody every time over flash and ostentation; this album’s nocturnes, boleros, waltzes and a couple of barn-burners have a vivid, sometimes wary European flavor. With Seamus Blake, John Escreet, Lauren Falls and Bastian Weinhold.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Float Away to Third River Rangoon

The original “exotica” music from the 1950s was designed to evoke a cartoonish never-neverland of tiki torches, bikini-clad geishas sipping mai tais at night on the beach, innocuous insectile noises emanating from an utterly benign jungle just a few feet away. Vibraphonist/bandleader Brian O’Neill AKA Mr. Ho’s new album Third River Rangoon, by his shapeshifting ensemble Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica may have been inspired by that subgenre, but it’s considerably more magical. It leaves far more to the imagination, a lushly nocturnal collection whose most impressive feat of sorcery is getting a simple lineup of vibraphone, bass flute, bass and percussion to create the sweep of a hundred-piece orchestra. The production is genius: Phil Spector couldn’t have done any better than this. Playful and surreal, with an unselfconscious majesty, it’s music to get lost in, just as O’Neill intended. Here he’s joined by Geni Skendo on bass flute and C-flute, Noriko Terada on percussion (and vibes and marimba as well) and Jason Davis on acoustic bass. The tongue-in-cheek title alludes to the third-stream nature of the music, a little jazz, a little classical and more than a little cinematic ambience, like Henry Mancini in a particularly atmospheric moment.

While it’s true that the title track is a deceptively simple, catchy tune with interlocking bass flute and vibes over a bossa-flavored bass pulse, that’s an awfully clinical way to put it: it’s a raft ride under the stars in the subtropical paradise of your dreams. Thor’s Arrival plays an anthemic overture theme gently over a similar staggered bossa beat: it sounds nothing like Grieg or Metallica. Milt Raskin’s Maika plays up an underlying suspense angle, contrasting with restrained yet joyous layers of reverberating vibraphone tones over stately bass; Cal Tjader’s Colorado Waltz downplays the waltz beat (good move) with some memorably offcenter leapfrogging from the flute.

How do you give the Arab Dance from Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite real Middle Eastern cred? Add an oud, of course. That’s Tev Stevig (of Macedonian group Jeni Jol and many other great bands) doubling the flute lines and then kicking in a terse solo that’s Arab, not just Arabesque. O’Neill opens Phoenix, Goodbye, a bright theme that quickly grows duskier, with some distantly tense knocks on a boomy tapan drum. The most direct and surprisingly hard-hitting number here is the noirish Terre Exotique, again bouncing gently on a bossa-ish beat. The jazziest one is Autumn Digging Dance, oud and vibes together, comfortably afloat on the soft, round tones of the bass flute, Sevig contributing a confounding and somehow perfect solo that’s half blues and half levantine. The catchy, slowly swaying, distantly martial Moai Thief nicks a familiar classical theme, while Lonesome Aku of Alewife turns from shadowy allusiveness to a catchy, poppier tune, the bass soloing fat yet incisive over the verse. The album closes with a brief vignette, Lyman ’59, a late 50s noir pop melody done as a lullaby – a funeral for a south Asian dictator’s mistress, maybe. Tune in, turn on, get lost. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica plays Otto’s Shrunken Head on June 18 – the classiest band by far to ever play that joint.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boston Band Unearths Long-Lost Esquivel Big Band Charts: Why?

Now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back in Mexico in the 1950s, Juan Garcia Esquivel must have been smoking some seriously generalissimo-grade pot. Like him or not, there’s no denying the psychedelic aspect of his music. The question is, was it any good? Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – an Either/Orchestra spinoff – offers one possible answer. On their new, period-perfect The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, a collection of newly rediscovered big-band arrangements by the crazed, vaudevillian Mad Men era bandleader, they’re obviously having a great time. Which on one level is understandable: from a musician’s point of view, any time you get to use a bass marimba, or punctuate a big band chart with a pedal steel cadenza, it’s nothing if not a jolt to the senses. But some of this is so cheesy that it calls into question whether or not Esquivel actually liked these songs – or if he even liked jazz, or music, at all.

It’s important not to confuse an artist or their work with their fan base. It makes no more sense to associate Esquivel with the first-wave trendoids who fueled his blip of a resurgence in the early 90s than it does to blame Radiohead for the pitchfork/stereogum contingent who worship them. Yet it makes sense that trendoids would fall in love with Esquivel’s “bachelor pad” stylings. Much as Esquivel’s production was cutting-edge, with all those crazy sound effects, all too often it’s style over substance, something that dovetails perfectly with a trendoid esthetic (if you buy the argument that the words “trendoid” and “esthetic” belong in the same sentence). There are moments here that are painfully kitschy – again, the hallmark of a trendoid being an embrace of all things shallow and stupid. But lurking beneath these songs’ whizbang, Keystone Kops vibe is a snotty cynicism that borders on punk. Esquivel’s arrangements are such complete bastardizations that they’re practically hostile. Would Esquivel have preferred ranchera ballads, or norteno accordion music? Or anything other than popular 50s jazz themes? At times, it would seem so. Taken as satire, much of this is irresistibly funny.

Andalucia barrels along at a breakneck pace with snarky little piano glissandos and a kettledrum roll out. Night and Day features a brief fugue between blazing brass and the steel guitar of Tim Obetz, with random bits of lyrics that predate Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub by twenty years. The barely two-minute version of Take the A Train, like much else here, owes a debt to Spike Jones with its tribal percussion and barking horns that winds down into jungly ambience fueled by Rusty Scott’s organ. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is reinvented as a cartoonish cha-cha, slinking along with the scrape of a guacharaca, doot-doot-doot vocals and finally an exuberant Yaure Muniz trumpet solo followed by a surprisingly subdued one on piano by Mr. Ho himself. With its absurdly garish horn chart, Music Makers has gruff baritone sax trading riffs impishly with the steel. And the girlie chorus on Frenesi are clearly unable to keep a straight face as they doot-doot-doot amidst the crazed doublestops of the high brass.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Sentimental Journey is simply unlistenable, and Mini Skirt, a familiar theme for surf music fans, hasn’t aged well – in the Cee-Lo Green era, those wolf-whistles are annoyingly cutesy. The three remaining tracks, Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Dark and the surprisingly straight-up, genially bluesy Street Scene are more good-naturedly amusing: lose the steel guitar, the funeral parlor organ and those ridiculous, blaring brass crescendos and what you’d be left with is just plain good big band jazz. Whether the rest of this is jazz, or what it is, is up to you to figure out. Maybe it’s best not to: like Sartre said, once you name something, you kill it.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment