Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Swift Years Mash Up Eclectic Sounds from Montreal and Around the Globe

Here’s how it works in the blogosphere:we’ve got every PR agent on the planet hammering on our virtual door, pleading for some attention, but we like it best when we do a writeup on the Montreal Jazz Festival, a Quebecois band we’ve never heard of finds it, and then sends us a link to their stuff. And it turns out, they’re great! Canadian trio Swift Years’ most recent album goes back to 2005, and it’s a ton of fun. They’re sort of a north-of-the-border counterpart to Tribecastan. What guitarist Patrick Hutchinson, mandolinist Bob Cussen and bassist Suzanne Ungar have assembled here is an endlessly surprising, eclectic, genuinely amusing mix of cross-pollinated global sounds. They don’t have drums on the album, but it’s so tight that you don’t notice unless you listen closely.

Musically, the two real killer tracks here are The Exile and The Sand, both tricky, bitter, bracing, psychedelic Smyrnika rock instrumentals much in the style of Annabouboula, with layers of mandolin, guitar and soaring bass. The real classic here is Old Man Santo. See, Old Man Santo – think about that title for a minute – had a Farm, E-I-G-M-O. On the farm he had some pot, and some pigs, and some cows, really bloody pissed-off mad cows everywhere. We won’t spoil the plot because it’s as funny as it is unfortunately true.

A lot of the other tracks here add reggae to enhance the comedic factor. Beside Me’s protagonist doesn’t let his lack of money stop him from trying to pick up the girl: “After supper we could split a beer,” he tells her. He’s strictly oldschool: “I’m a rotary phone, I’m the last bus home…at home I drink out of glasses that I take home from bars, an old piggybank is my retirement plan, the clothes from my back are from the Sally Ann.” Rasta Puszta blends reggae, bluegrass and a happy Eastern European dance in there somewhere. And I Dreamed I Stopped Smoking is an amusing faux-country song, like a zeros update on what the Stones did with Dear Doctor.

They do a tongue-in-cheek speed-up and then do it all over again on the gypsy-flavored Hanko Hanko, and merge Quebecois with bluegrass on the equally sardonic Mon Vieux François. The title track, which sounds like the Boomtown Rats doing a creepy reggae tune, offers a view of the afterlife where everything is pretty much the same for these guys, everybody playing everyone else’s culture’s music in one big mashup, with a politically aware edge. In this particular world, right-wing politicians are reincarnated as single mothers. The album also includes a gorgeous, plaintive Belgian barroom waltz, a medley of the Eddystone Light and three jigs, and a lickety-split string band version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The whole thing is streaming at Swift Years’ bandcamp site – thanks for finding us, guys! Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to discover this entertaining band.

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July 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, gypsy music, irish music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bastille Day, Georges Brassens Style

To celebrate Bastille Day, last night at Barbes the Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande and his Bad Reputation project played a richly lyrical, amusing yet often intense tribute to a dead French songwriter who is iconic on his home turf but little-known here. De Gaillande has been coming up with English translations and edgy chamber-pop arrangements of Georges Brassens songs for a couple of years now, many of them available on Bad Reputation’s album (which received a rave review here last year). Last night’s show included several of those numbers as well as new versions that hold up mightly alongside what de Gaillande has already reworked. Behind him, clarinetist David Spinley’s lines smoldered and gleamed with an often eerie gypsy tinge against the accordion swirls of Chicha Libre keyboardist Josh Camp and the jaunty pulse from Christian Bongers’ upright bass and the group’s new drummer, who was clearly psyched to be playing this gig. De Gaillande is also a much better guitarist than Brassens (a brilliant wordsmith but limited musician who actually wrote most of his songs on piano before transposing them to guitar).

Brassens’ songs are a goldmine of irony and black humor. He eulogizes people while they’re still alive, kvetches that the only people who won’t gleefully witness his execution will be the blind, and goes to bat for young lovers engaged in overt displays of PDA, only to remind them to enjoy their moment of bliss before it goes straight to hell. The band played each of those songs (including a stoic, nonchalantly intense version of Brassens’ signature song, Mauvaise Reputation, in the original French) along with sly versions of Penelope – which recasts the tragic Greek heroine as seduction object – as well as the Princess and the Troubadour, where a busy singer somewhat disingenuously resists the temptation to hook up with jailbait, and the absolutely hilarious Don Juan, a ribald yet subtle satire of wannabe-macho ladykillers. And the newer arrangements were just as fascinating. The original version of La Complainte des Filles de Joie is a coyly sympathetic look at the daily life of a hooker. De Gaillande’s translation cast the “filles de joie” as “ladies of leisure,” adding yet another, unexpectedly spot-on satirical element, right down to the “sons of vapid women” who frequent them: yuppies and whores, one and the same. He also led the group through swinging versions of a wry number about a guy who succeeds in seducing the wife of his neighbor, a lightning rod salesman, as well as the uneasy tale of an accordionist who’s gone off to the afterlife, lit up by a long, nicely ironic musette solo from Camp. By the time they got to The Pornographer – Brassens’ defiantly X-rated response to being banned from French radio – it was past midnight and nobody had left the room. Nice to see the songs of “the perverted son of the singalong” getting discovered by an audience he assuredly never would have expected to reach.

July 16, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gorgeous Rainy Day Music from Pickpocket Ensemble

Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know: that’s our excuse for sitting on this one as long as we have (it came out last fall). Bay Area instrumentalists Pickpocket Ensemble’s latest album Memory is one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful ones to come over the transom in recent months. Their dark, austere, gypsy-tinged acoustic melodies linger over tricky rhythms that sometimes shift shape to the point where it’s impossible not to get lost. Plaintive but not sentimental, wistful without being hokey, this is tremendously captivating rainy-day music.

The opening cut, Home, blends elements of Belgian barroom musette with tricky gypsy rhythms, bandleader/accordionist Rick Corrigan layering one track over another like a piece of baklava, guitarist Yates Brown and violinist Marguerite Ostro’s lines mingling with the wary ambience over the shifting pulse of bassist Kurt Ribak and percussionist Michaelle Goerlitz. The aptly titled 3 AM veers closer to gypsy jazz with staccato piano and memorably spiky solos from both piano and guitar. The third track, If (not to be confused with the cheeseball 70s hit by Bread…or the Pink Floyd tune, come to think of it) is another brooding minor key number, violin taking the lead over incisive, thoughtful fingerpicked guitar. Brown’s gorgeously spiraling solo over shuffling acoustic guitar and bright piano on the fourth track, Sometimes Never, is one of the album’s high points.

Baroque meets jazz on the wistful ballad Bird in a Web, featuring another beautiful Brown solo. They follow that with the bittersweet, elegaic waltz For Those Who’ve Left and then Seriously, which blends gypsy jazz with a cosmopolitan, Astor Piazzolla-ish elegance. The title track adds banjo and brass – and a sizzling muted trumpet solo – over a bracing minor-key gospel melody; after a brief Arab-flavored spot for solo cello, they close the album with a characteristically pensive, rhythmically dizzying number titled Nowhere Else. Fans of eclectic pan-global bands from Beirut to Kotorino will enjoy this: count it among the best we’ve heard lately.

February 20, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Musette Explosion Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/13/08

Just for the record, this is not the same band formerly known as the Jon Spencer Musette Explosion. Instead, it’s accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri (half of Munisteri’s superb vocal jazz outfit Brock Mumford), along with some kind of rhythm, usually tuba player Marcus Rojas, but tonight they had a killer upright bassist instead, playing all kinds of gorgeous broken chords, slides and even mimicking a Munisteri solo at one point.

Musette Explosion and the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre, each play a style of indigenous accordion music which was revolutionized when blended with the American pop music of its era. In the case of Chicha Libre, the essential liquor was Peruvian cumbia (pronounced KOOM-bee-a, not kumbaya) dance music, mixed with 60s American surf and psychedelia and played on electronic instruments. Musette Explosion play blue-collar French and Belgian barroom music from the 30s and 40s; its catalyzing element was swing jazz. It’s richly melodic, intensely emotional music, requiring not only great chops but also an intense emotional sensibility to play it as it was meant to be done. The trio onstage tonight alternated between two types of musette: bouncy, upbeat dance numbers and wrenchingly beautiful laments in waltz time. Not to flog a dead horse, but it never ceases to amaze how good the shows are in the tiny back room at this club – and though there’s always a good turnout, it’s not hard to fill the space. There should have been a line around the block for this one, it was that spectacular, especially considering how popular gypsy music has become.

Holshouser got the enviable job of playing the lead instrument on a mix of vintage tunes by accordionists Gus Viseur, Jo Privat and Tony Murena, in addition to at least one original, with the tongue-in-cheek title Chanson Pop. “We have no idea why it has that title,” he deadpanned, echoing a joke which had been bouncing around between the band all night long – this band makes no secret of how much fun they have playing this stuff. It began like a gentle janglerock song from the early 90s – echoes of Lloyd Cole, perhaps? – with a warm series of major-key hooks, before branching out into an unexpected series of permutations, and then time shifts, toward the end.

Munisteri is the rare guitarist with an instantly recognizable, signature sound. He’s something of a contradiction, a traditionalist whose playing is far more imaginative than any tradition could possibly contain. Blending styles ranging from pretty trad Wes Montgomery octaves, Django Reinhardt percussiveness, soulful, swaying country lines and macabre gypsy runs, he parked his usual understated wit off to the side and went straight for the jugular. The best solo of the night was played on neither accordion, bass, nor guitar: it was Munisteri wailing on his banjo on the Jo Privat composition La Sorciere (The Witch). This particular witch is a seductress, a fair beckoning one who spins around the room, mesmerizing every unlucky suitor with her deadly gaze. Munisteri brought out every ounce of macabre in the song, his fret hand a blur, tremolo-picking wildly as if playing a balalaika, then slamming out the rapid series of chords that wind up the turnaround at the end of the verse.

In another gorgeously lyrical number toward the end of the set, he surprised everyone with a fetching, bent-note, somewhat Chet Atkins country melody. Holshouser whirled and fired off notes at lightning speed, frequently using a rapidfire, machine-gun staccato on a single key. While playing, he’ll often fix an ominous, almost John Lydon-style thousand-yard stare on the back wall of the room, but tonight there was no glare, only the trace of a smile. He let the music tell the rest of the story, and the band did the same.

Holshouser is off to Europe for the next couple of weeks; meanwhile, when not playing big, fancy jazz joints, Munisteri rejoins his Brock Mumford cohort, trumpeter Jon Kellso for their weekly 7:30 PM Sunday session at the Ear Inn. He’s also doing the next couple of Mondays solo at Banjo Jim’s at around 7 PM.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford at Pier One, NYC 7/22/07

Nothing was going to ruin this evening. Not the horrible train ride that unexpectedly lasted almost as long as the band’s first set. Not the small committee of yuppie protozoa in training pants, running around screaming while the band played. Not the yuppie woman (or guy) upwind, drenched in asphyxiating cardamom cologne. Not the gay couple with the six-inch mutt or marsupial or whatever it was that wouldn’t stop yapping. Not the loud woman and her even louder foreign friend seated to the rear, discussing the minutiae of the new mortgage she hoped to qualify for (at that price, honey, you’re being screwed). It was 70 degrees with a steady breeze and no humidity, the sky grey, streaked with radiant pink as dusk slowly settled in. If anyone is alive to read this 20 years from now, let it be known there was such an unthinkably beautiful late afternoon in Manhattan in the dead of July, 2007. And Matt Munisteri’s Brock Mumford was playing.

Munisteri is an A-list jazz guitarist with a list of A-list credits a mile long. This unit, which criminally only gets together a couple of times a year these days, is his chance to show off his songwriting chops. Munisteri is the wickedly literate jazzcat auteur that Elvis Costello’s always wanted to be, as witty and subtle a wordsmith as a tunesmith. And Will Friedwald, author of the pretty definitive book Jazz Singing is in Munisteri’s corner as well: in his world, wit and subtlety extend to vocals as well. Tonight the supporting cast included his usual sparring partners, the amazingly inventive Will Holshouser (who took most of the solos) on accordion, and Jon Kellso on trumpet, plus excellent upright bassist Tim Luntzel.

They ended their first set with the smoothly evocative When We’re Alone: “This song was meant to be played outdoors, the kind of thing I can usually only do at a cheeseball wedding,” Munisteri told the crowd, and in this upper Westside Woody Allen world of penthouse sophistication, real or imagined, it was an apt choice.

After a short break, they began their second set with the old standard Lazybones, Munisteri solo on guitar, then rejoined by the band on Honey on the Moon, featuring a sweet, bluesy Holshouser solo. Munisteri dedicated the next song to those who’d been displaced by luxury highrises, and anyone building luxury highrises as well. He looked out at the crowd, and the apartment complex at 68th St. towering overhead: “I see Trump,” and then pointing at the rusting hulk of an elevator at the adjacent pier, “And I see dump. I don’t know which I like more…actually as a sixth-generation Brooklynite I do know which I like more and I’m not telling you…since Trump may be part of the reason we’re here tonight.” Then they launched into his original composition This Funny World: “This funny world is making fun of you,” which as Munisteri pointed out could cut any number of ways.

Next, they did the playful, amusing Picciaridu, a track from Brock Mumford’s album, about a young Italian girl on the Lower East Side just about to hit puberty and discover what hellraising is all about. On the following tune, How Can You Face Me Now Munisteri and Kellso carried on a jaunty guitar/trumpet conversation for what sounded like a whole verse before the band kicked in. Let’s Do Something Bad, which is as close to a signature song as Munisteri has, was perfect: it’s a wickedly literate, tongue-in-cheek number about cheating. Playing with a mute, Kellso took an aptly understated, smoothly seductive solo to match the lyrics.

Finally, on the next-to-last song of the night, Munisteri took an all-too-brief, soulful guitar solo: it’s ironic that his own project gives him less of a chance to show off his monster chops than the other units he plays with (notably Rachelle Garniez’ brilliant band). But this one’s all about the songwriting, which is a treat in itself. They closed with the obscure Bing Crosby song T’ain’t So: Holshouser took a long solo and built to a darkly bluesy crescendo while Munisteri shadowed him, ominously voicing the chorus chord changes low on the fretboard. It says something about this band that they could find such rich, troubling complexity in an otherwise long-forgotten old pop song.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what the band name may mean, Brock Mumford is the man widely credited for being the first jazz guitarist.

July 23, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments