Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Radical, Relevant Revival of a Witheringly Insightful, Hilarious Broadway Artifact from the 1930s

If you think a Broadway musical from 1937 couldn’t possibly have much relevance to this century, you haven’t seen Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. In this era, most people haven’t. Created under the New Deal auspices of the Federal Theater Project, the Feds notoriously closed it down on the eve of its initial Broadway premiere for being too radical. One can only imagine what the Trumpies would make of something that FDR’s people found too subversive.

The Classic Stage Company‘s current revival – continuing through May 18 – couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Beyond John Doyle’s masterfully smart direction, getting the absolute max out of a minimalist set and a multi-talented cast, what’s most stunning is how well Blitzstein’s uproariously spot-on piece of agitprop has aged. Quaintness only arises in its many historical ironies – like the once-ubiquitous reality of steel made by American union labor, rather than by Chinese slaves.

This show is all about co-optation, and duplicity, Without spoiling the plot (for those who missed the 1999 Tim Robbins film of the same title), be aware that there’s considerable irony in the costumes. Blitzstein’s relentless satire spares no one, other than protagonist and union organizer Larry Foreman, played by a tireless, ebullient Tony Yazbeck, who, interestingly, appears in only about ten percent of the dialogue. He’s looking forward to what appears to be an across-the-board victory for the workers of Steeltown, USA. Only local steel magnate Mr. Mister (David Garrison, who gives him a glowering Lionel Barrymore menace), stands in the way. But he’s making it really hard for everybody. Before the curtain falls, there will be more than one shooting; at least one hapless employee gets caught in the machinery.

Most of the action takes place in song. That those numbers have held up so well over the years testifies to Blitzstein’s reliance on Kurt Weill-style noir, Cole Porter cleverness,, and tinges of gospel and klezmer rather than Depresssion-era vaudeville schlock. Period references abound: lockouts, sitdown strikes, strikebreaking violence. It’s no wonder the censors were so frightened. Everybody sings and plays multiple roles, including three of the cast showing off better-than-average chops at the piano. Rema Webb gets the big arioso vocal moment and hits it out of the park. Kara Mikula distinguishes herself with her voice, on the keys, and also in a fleeting, completely unexpected acrobatic bit. Lara Pulver has brassy poignancy as a hooker in jail, as well as a completely contrasting, savagely ironic alter ego of sorts.

Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs. Mister with a hilariously relsolute, clueless determination. As her ditzy, heavy-lidded slacker kid, Larry Cooper is even funnier: fauxhemianism goes back a lot further than Bushwick. Benjamin Eakeley is priceless as a mercenary violin virtuoso who gladly lets Mr. Mister buy him off, as pretty much everybody else who might be instrumental in keeping the unions of his mill does. Some have qualms – a doctor, a professor, the publisher of the local newspaper – but eventually pretty much everybody falls in line. Ken Barnett and Ian Lowe impressively negotiate roles on both sides of the divide.

Yet as corrosively cynical as this show is, it’s also a feel-good story. As the protagonist explains, sure, he gets thrown in jail for passing out leaflets – “inciting a riot” was the 1930s equivalent of “terrorism” – but he’s perfectly content to be one of many, standing on the shoulders of giants. Victory really seems inevitable – and in an era that would create union representation for almost thirty percent of American workers, it’s easy to see how contagious that optimism would be. In the meantime, let’s wish the best to the Mexican maquiladora workers in their struggle for something approaching a living wage.

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April 21, 2019 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Visceral, Marathon Performance by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall

There was electricity in the air Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, where a sold-out crowd witnessed conductor Pablo Heras-Casaldo leading the Orchestra of St. Luke’s through a marathon performance of two symphonies, a famous piano concerto and a clever mini-suite that should be more popular than it is.

There’s always a curmudgeon somewhere. “They’re playing the Prokofiev first?” an older guy in the orchestra section scowled to his date, a pretty young brunette in a tight black sweater. “That’s anticlimactic.”

“That’s daring,” she deadpanned. Both turned out to be right.

From the quasi-Haydn of the exchanges in the opening movement of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, it sparkled with distinct voicings, jaunty accents and sotto-voce humor. It’s not Bohemian Rhapsody, but parts of it are close: the composer clearly had a great time toying with short, punchy, late 18th century-style Germanic phrasing. The pseudo-Mozart of the third movement was the most irrestistibly funny part, yet tellingly, Heras-Casaldo and the ensemble glimmered most memorably in the saturnine second movement. That’s where Prokofiev leaves no doubt as to who wrote it – and that bittersweetness will prevail at least for the time being. The coda seemed a little fast; then again, it’s hard to argue with how much fun the group were having, running red lights all the way.

Pianist Hélène Grimaud earned several standing ovations for a breathtakingly visceral take of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. From its gleeful opening glissandos, through plenty of the ravishing bolero and flamenco-tinged phrasing that the composer loved so much, to the sharply polished, steely interweave of the third movement, she matched meticulous precision to mighty joie de vivre.

It was going to be hard to top that. By now, it was all the more impressive how seamlessly the orchestra had negotiated a rugged road, constantly shifting gears between the early classical period, Russian Romanticism, the early modern, and foreshadowing flickers of flamenco jazz. There would be even more new terrain in Stravinsky’s Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra, a whistle-stop tour of tarantella, flamenco and finally Russian folk influences fleshed out with an arrangement that’s carnivalesque if not completely phantasmagorical.

They closed with an old warhorse, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E Flat, from 1795. Once again, Heras-Casaldo and the group seemed to be having a ball with the endless volleys of call-and-response from both individual voices and segments of the orchestra. In the same vein as their rendition of the Prokofiev, this turned out to be more boisterous and beery than – as the curmudgeon groused to his companion – simply banquet music for the landed gentry of Napoleonic Europe.

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s next show is April 25 at 8 PM at New York City Center, joining soprano Victoria Clark in a performance of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark; $30 tix are available.

April 20, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lisa Bielawa Makes a Memorable Conducting Debut at the New School

To what degree is iit a blessing, or a curse, for a conductor to make her debut with three world premieres? On one hand, it could be an overwhelming challenge. Until another orchestra plays those works, yours is the definitive version, for better or worse. On the other, it’s a chance to really shine,. Wednesday night at the New School, Lisa Bielawa did exactly that, leading the Mannes String Orchestra through lively debuts of arrangements of a couple of her own powerfully relevant pieces plus similarly striking contemporary works by Jon Gibson, David T. Little and a joyously swinging, dynamic finale with Philip Glass‘ Symphony No. 3.

Of course, Bielawa is best known as a composer, and a singer. She related how she’d been blown away by that symphony, shortly after joining the Philip Glass Ensemble as a vocalist, more or less straight out of Yale, 24 years ago. So she had the inside track for what was obviously a dream gig, seizing that moment with the same kind of muscular meticulousness that defines so much of her work.

So much of Glass’ music has a rapturously unfolding beauty that orchestras tend to play up the lustre factor, gliding through all those mesmerizing, shapeshifting phrases. This performance was much more bright and emphatic, in about as high definition as an ensemble can play it. Individual voices were strikingly distinct, notably violinists Yeji Pyun and Ann-Frances Rokosa, among the group’s nineteen members.
They danced through the playful, baroque-tinged humor in the first movement, tackled some daunting extended technique, notably glissandos and microtonal haze in the second, and accentuated the frequently shifting contrast between celestial sweep and trouble lurking just around the corner as the counterpoint grew more complex and intertwining.

The opening numbers were just as fascinating to wattch unfold. The ensemble arrived in threes for the opening work, Jon Gibson’s elegantly crescendoing Chorales for Relative Calm, with phrasing and more than one riff that sent a shout-out to Glass. Bielawa seemed at ease in her new role in front of the orchestra with that one, and really worked up a sweat with a pulsing, turbulent take of her own piece, The Trojan Women, pulling individual voices and clusters out of the increasing storm with Nielsen-esque color and aplomb.
The string orchestra arrangement of David T. Little’s 1986 – another world premiere – was even more of a challenge as the music leapfrogged between centuries and idioms, imgued with plenty of sarcasm and allusions to other works, and Bielawa and the ensemble held up to the challenge. 1986 was a pretty horrible year for just about everybody other than the Mets, and this piece doesn’t seem to include them.

Soprano Rowen Sabala emerged from the wings to sing two excerpts from Bielawa’s dystopic sci-fi opera Vireo and dispayed steely intensity as well as breathtaking range and a rare ability to enunciate, lyrically, something a lot of bigtime voices can’t do. Playing the role of a teenage visionary who exists simultaneously in three different centuries, she channeled both cynical contentment at being locked away at Alcatraz, away from her tormentors, along with surreal, hallucinatory angst.

Big up to the New School for getting to the guy who’s arguably the greatest American composer of the late 20th and early 21st century and setting up the Philip Glass Institute. Bielawa being their inaugural Composer-in-Residence, there will likely be more like this happening in the weeks to come.

April 19, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uneasy Atmospheres and a Park Slope Gig by Trumpeter Nate Wooley

Trumpeter Nate Wooley has been on the front lines of the New York avant garde for almost twenty years. His latest album Columbia Icefield – streaming at Bandcamp – includes three tracks, two of them about twenty minutes long, a mix of the hypnoic and confrontational, the subdued and the dynamic. His next gig is an enticingly intimate one, at the Old Stone House in Park Slope tomorrow night, April 18 at 8 PM. Cover is $10

The album’s first number, Lionel Trilling begins with an overlapping series of contrastingly calm and agitated loops, spiced here and there with uneasy close harmonies. Ripsnorting textures intrude and then recede; finally a series of recognizable, spare, resonant, Wadada Leo Smith-like trumpet variations move to the center of the sonic picture. Mary Halvorson’s coldly clanging, loopy guitar, Susan Alcorn’s minutely textured pedal steel and Ryan Sawyer’s drum riffs linger and echo in the distance. From there it’s back to loops and then more rhythmic variations: just when the music seems about to drift off into the ether, something unexpected happens.

Seven in the Woods coalesces quickly into a moody dirge, desolate trumpet over lingering guitar jangle. Once the stringed instruments fade out, it grows more rhythmic and warmer, the second part with a lustrous, ambered brass interlude. Spacy bubbles from the guitar push it away; a momentary return once again is interrupted, this time by wailing, randomly shreddy fretwork as the drums tumble. The band bring it elegaically full circle at the end.

With Condolences is the album’s most spare, spacious, Wadada Leo Smith-inflected number, individual voices loosening and diverging, up to a moodily atmospheric series of tectonic shifts as the bandleader intones a nebulously regretful vocal interlude. The return to lustre and then a sense of mourning is unselfconsciously poignant: we’re in deep trouble when all the polar ice is gone. Wadada Leo Smith fans will love this record.

April 17, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended. 

April 12, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radical, Riveting Reinventions of Old Classics by New Talent: Xavier Foley and Kelly Lin at the Morgan Library

Anyone who might think that the Morgan Library wouldn’t necessarily be home to the most thrilling, cutting-edge music around wasn’t there earlier today for bassist Xavier Foley and pianist Kelly Lin’s exhilarating, genuinely radical performance. The two took all kinds of chances in a daring series of reinventions, in addition to a fascinating mini-suite by the bassist himself – and most of them worked.

To call the show hubristic doesn’t do justice to the pair’s achievement: in some classical circles, some still consider it hubris to play Bach on the piano instead of the harpsichord or the organ. And beyond late Beethoven, classical music that makes strenuous demands of the bass tends to be rare. Foley seems fixated on making his axe as important a solo instrument, as, say, the violin, and it’s about time somebody did.

The two opened with Foley’s reinvention of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E Minor. Transposing the violin part to a range comparable to a cello’s enhanced the almost Russian moodiness in the opening Allegro; one doesn’t usually speak of a bassist as having exceptionally nuanced vibrato, but Foley does, and used it masterfully. Lin, playing background that doesn’t give an artist much opportunity to display much personality, made the most of it with a steady, similarly nuanced attack, seamlessly playing Mozart’s ornamentation as glittering sixteenth notes.

Foley’s vast range, utilizing every bit of the bass’s actually vast sonic capability, came into jaunty focus throughout a playful take of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, D 821. From the sly, faux-Romany dance they opened with, through often deviously fugal counterpoint, it made a very smart pairing with the Mozart. A lot of the exchanges between instruments are very funny, the duo playing their cards close to the vest for the most part…and then Foley accidentally took an extra repeat! Lin knew in a split-second what had happened and stayed perfectly in sync as the two wound it out, with an emphatic burst of a bass chord to cap it off.

Excerpts from Foley’s own Star Sonata, which he wrote in 2016 at age 22, made for even more agile interplay between piano and bass, from sudden, minimalist syncopation, through a jazz-tinged, solo series of bass cascades and climbs that seemed completely improvised, to rapidfire, baroque-tinged bowed phrases from the wispiest highs to pitchblende lows.

The two closed with Gliere’s Intermezzo and Tarantella, a miniature that brought all the previous idioms full circle with some breathtaking phantasmagoria. The crowd went wild. This was it for this spring’s Young Concert Artists series at the Morgan, although the museum has plenty of chamber music continuing into the summer.

April 10, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catchy, Thoughtful, Purposeful Guitar Instrumentals and a Bed-Stuy Gig by Guitarist Ryan Dugre

Do you ever wonder what the few competent musicians who play indie rock actually do on their own time, when they’re not jumping from one hired-gun gig to the next? Guitarist Ryan Dugre’s gently captivating, tersely tuneful new album The Humors – streaming at Bandcamp – is one answer to that question. Dugre plays much of it solo, both electric and acoustic, varying his textures, using a lot of loops. He has a pastoral streak as well as a penchant for rainy-day pensiveness. A lot of this you could call Bil Frisell Junior. Dugre is playing C’Mon Everybody on April 15 at 8 PM; cover is $10.

For a minute – and that’s about it – the album’s opening track, irts Tide, sounds like it’s going to linger in careful, mannered, peevishly unresolved indie territory…then Dugre introduces a disarmingly pretty, wistful theme, and ends up completely flipping the script with it. It’s a song without words worthy of Frisell.

Tasty, watery, tremoloing chorus-box sonics contrast with a spiky, Americana-tinged, fingerpicked melody in Mateo Alone. Dugre picks out a hushed, calmly steady, baroque-tinged tune over orchestral washes in Bali, up to a moody, feathery arrangement for strings. New June is a tantalizing miniature: Dugre could have taken this shift from hints of psychedelic majesty to jazz exploration much further than he does..

He returns to spare, casually strolling, brooding Frisellian territory with Smoke From Above, the strings once again adding wary ambience. The alternately pulsing and resonant Wild Common is assembled around coy echo effects, as is High Cloud, the album’s most hypnotically loopy number.

Tonight is a Lynchian, Britfolk-tinged ballad without words, a clinic in implied melody and arguably the album’s most impactful track. In a lot of ways, the stately title cut is an apt summation of the album, part baroque, part Beatles. The concluding number, In Tall Grass, is aptly titled, a summery, vintage soul-tinged tableau. Whether you call this pastoral jazz, soundtrack music or Americana, it’s a breath of fresh, woodsy air.

April 9, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense, Allusively Political Improvisational Epics from Amirtha Kidambi

Singer/keyboardist Amirtha Kidambi’s work spans the worlds of jazz, Indian music and the avant garde. The relentless angst of her vocals was the icing on the cake throughout Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl album. As she puts it, her latest release, From Untruth – streaming at Bandcamp – contains “Four pieces grappling with issues of power, oppression, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, violence and the shifting nature of truth. This music means to give the listener momentary relief from the anxiety and pain caused by living in our current reality.”

The first track is the hypnotic, almost fourteen-minute dirge Eat the Rich. Kidambi runs a loopy gothic harmonium riff; Matt Nelson plays his tenor sax through a pedalboard for icy, squiggly effects; bassist Nick Dunston pounces and prances. Kidambi scats an insistent carnatic riff in tandem with the sax, then takes over the music as well while drummer Max Jaffe adds minimalist, thumping flourishes in the background. “Eat the rich or die starving,” is her mantra on the way out.

Nelson’s otherworldly, zurla-like atmospherics mingle with Kidambi’s similarly uneasy vocalese and synth as Dance of the Subaltern opens, then the rhythm section kicks into an insistently pulsing 7/8 groove and everyone goes off to squall by themselves. Murky, toxically pooling synth and video gunners in space ensue before Kidambi returns, handling both sides of a simple and emphatic conversation weighing victory versus defeat. 

Tightly wound atonal clusters from the whole ensemble converge in Decolonize the Mind, which shifts to what sounds like ambient bagpipe music before Nelson’s wryly oscillating chromatic riffage signals a blazing bhangra-inflected crescendo. The album’s coda is the epic, fourteen minute-plus title track. The atmospheric intro brings to mind Amina Claudine Myers’ work with the AACM, then vocals and sax intertwine to a sardonic march beat before Kidambi allows a sense of guarded hope to filter in over anthemic, ominously looping synth. Nelson echoes that with the album’s most lyrical, soaring solo; elastically snapping solo bass ushers in an unresolved ending.

Kidambi is just back from Mary Halvorson tour and playing Luisa Muhr’s Women Between Arts series at the glass box theatre at the New School (the new Stone) on April 13 at 4 PM with dancer Leyna Marika Papach and choreographer Lilleth Glimcher. Cover is $20, but the series’ policy is not to turn anyone away for lack of funds,

March 31, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooding Rainswept Minimalism from Michael Attias

Michael Attias’ new album Echos la Nuit – streaming at Bandcamp -evokes an iconic midnight Manhattan of the mind: rain-soaked streets, sax player on the corner alone, desolate phrases echoing into the darkness.

What’s different about the record – Attias’ first solo release – is that he plays both alto sax and piano, often at the same time. But where so many horn players will tickle the ivories a little while soloing, just to show off, Attias pairs the instruments for misterioso moods. It’s amazing how seamlessly he makes it work. A biting bhangra riff and variations are central to the brooding ambience. He’s playing the album release show on April 6 at 7:30 PM, with a solo set and then with his quartet at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $20/$15 stud.

He opens the album with the title track, that catchy, arresting bhangra horn phrase and variations over still, starry, minimalist piano, followed by a pensive solo sax passage which he ices with cautious piano harmonies. The minute deviations in tone and pitch throughout the somewhat hesitant sax/piano harmonies in Trinite add a deliciously uneasy tinge.

Attias sustains his notes further in Grass, a solo sax piece with some acidic duotones and an unexpected return to that opening bhangra hook. Autumn I, the first piece of a triptych, is a synthesis of the album’s earlier tropes, but without the Indian spice. But Attias brings it back, calmly, in Autumn II, juxtaposing flutters and resonance, then winds it up with Fenix III, Satie-esque piano contrasting with melancholy, circling, enigmatically agitated modal sax.

His solo sax in Circles shifts from echoey minimalism to a long, catchy, cantering crescendo. Attias follows the playful, insistent bhangra variations of Rue Oberkampf with Wrong Notes, a coy miniature.

The album’s most epic number, Song for the Middle Pedal, seems to employ that useless thing in between sustain and damper, although it’s mostly carefully spaced, allusive sax phrases. Attias finally decides to work a grim low/high dynamic between piano and sax in Sea in the Dark, the album’s most dynamic and intricate piece. He closes with Echoes II Night, hinting at a bluesy ballad but never quite going there. Although this record doesn’t remotely offer any hint of Attias’ formidable chops, it may be the most vivid album he’s ever made.

March 24, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment