Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Literally Otherworldly, Entertaining Sounds From Sarah Weaver

OK – you open your new album with an almost nineteen-minute drum solo. Career suicide attempt?

Actually, Gerry Hemingway’s performance of Sarah Weaver’s gamelanesque hailstorm of a composition is vastly more interesting than most drum solos, and in a way it sets the stage for the entertainment to come on her latest, deep-space inspired album Synchrony Series. It hasn’t made it to the usual spots on the web, although there are bits and pieces at Weaver’s youtube channel..

Bombast is happily absent; what we get is a a very subtle upward drive from a steady drizzle on the cymbals and some neat accents on what seem to be extremely detuned tom-toms. People with short attention spans will not be able to handle much of this music, but for those dedicated to what Pauline Oliveros called deep listening, it’s a treat. It’s very psychedelic, by the way.

Long before the lockdown forced musicians to use the web to collaborate, Weaver was patching in people around the world to create ensembles that otherwise never could have existed. There’s some of that here on the record. The second number, Symmetry of Presence features bass trombone legend David Taylor playing a ridiculously funny series of ideas through an increasingly surreal series of Weaver’s effects – although his vaunted extended technique really gets a workout before the electronics kick in. So much of this kind of music is mannered and fearful: this is 180 degrees from that.

An allstar eleven-piece ensemble play the darkly sprawling, practically forty-minute suite Interhere, a soundscape in the AACM tradition. Min Xiao-Fen’s spiky pipa first takes centerstage over Mark Dresser’s keening bass overtones and the massed horns of Taylor, trumpeter James Zollar, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, reedman Ned Rothenberg, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and oboeist Julie Ferrara. Denman Maroney’s piano introduces icy menace; it’s not clear what or who pansori-influenced singer Yoon Sun Choi is addressing, if at all. More than a hint of franticness; squirrelly dissociation; Tower of Babel chatter from all points; quasi-baroque lockstep; ominous swells on the low end; cold spring desolation fried into 5G microwave shriek: does this feel vaguely familiar?

The album’s disorienting fourth number is just the composer on vocals and Joe McPhee’s trumpet, running through a maze of effects, challenging both themselves and the listener to find a calm center. The final, practically hourlong epic was recorded by most of the large ensemble here, bolstered by an online cast utilizing samples from the Kepler space telescope.

These melodies, created by the orbits of stars and planets millions of miles away, have a stately, gamelanesque quality that validates Johannes Kepler’s theories about celestial harmonies, but almost droll oscillations as well. Is humor implicit in the physics of planetary and solar mass? It would seem so. The musicians respond to those motives with a playful aplomb, bringing to mind Gil Evans as his most celestial as well as Anthony Braxton in galactically tectonic mode – as well as the most primitive video games.

The long liftoff sequence midway through is a lot of fun; the outer-space drift elsewhere is just as entertaining, while the increasingly pensive exchange afterward is a sobering reflection on our ultimate place amidst the dust of stars. This magnum opus has a lot to get lost in.

June 5, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Edgy Preview For Bigtime European Creative Music in Deep Brooklyn

Every year, the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland draws European fans from across the continent, along with plenty of American travelers. It’s one of the major European jazz festivals and routinely sells out. For the last few years, there’s been a brief New York edition of the festival as well. It was fun to catch a trio of festival acts last year at Jazz at Lincoln Center – but word on the street has been that the really wild stuff is at the series of house concerts scattered around town over the course of a weekend. Saturday’s show in a comfortable second-floor Lefferts Gardens space – part of the adventurous Soup & Sound series – validated that.  Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get much better than this was.

That the propulsively glimmering trio of guest alto saxophonist Ned Rothenberg with pianist Piotr Orzechowski and drummer Łukasz Żyta weren’t anticlimactic speaks to the levels of spontaneous magic reached by the rest of the acts on this characteristically impromptu bill. The overall theme seemed to be variations on uneasy circular themes: tense close harmonies, taut and then more elastic push-pull against a center that veered in and out of focus, simple repetitive figures growing into double helixes that eventually produced brand-new musical species. 

The mystery guests were a couple of bassists, one of them playing a Fender, building a tersely intertwining lattice of textures that rose from the shadows to let in dapples of light from the upper registers. Rothenberg switched to clarinet for a two-reed frontline with Waclaw Zimpel and a second pianist for a hypnotically pointillistic electroacoustic set that evoked vintage Brian Jones loopmusic before veering back and forth toward a steady, swinging stroll and some jousting between the horns.

Orzechowski then returned to the keys, drummer and host Andrew Drury having all kinds of fun shifting between playfully tricky polyrhythms, allusive swing and extended-technique washes of sound from his kickdrum heads. Alto saxophonist Kuba Wiecek built a muted strobe effect over the thick, murky hammerklavier river underneath. Then the sax and rhythm exchanged roles, a hornets’ nest in both frenetic daytime and ominously nocturnal modes.

The Jazztopad Festival begins on November 16; trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar, among other current-day masters, will be there on the 24th.

October 9, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casually Spectacular Violinist Olivia De Prato Closes Out This Year’s Concert Series at the Miller Theatre

This year’s beguiling series of free early-evening concerts of new and mostly-new concert music at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway comes to a triumphant close this coming June 12 at 6 PM with Olivia De Prato, the unselfconsciously brilliant first violinist of the fearless Mivos Quartet. She’ll be playing solo and duo works as well as leading an all-violin string quartet. That’s a typical move for an artist who doesn’t sit still and doesn’t seem to want to turn down a challenge.

De Prato’s debut solo album, Streya, which came out earlier this year, is as a remarkably accessible as it is daunting to play. Yet De Prato seemed to relish getting the chance to tackle its sharply contrasting nuts and bolts at her album release show this past spring upstairs at the Momenta Quartet’s Rivington Street second-floor hotspot. She told the crowd beforehand that what she enjoyed the most about making the record is that it gave her the opportunity to capture every possible sound that can be coaxed or wrestled from a violin. Then she did exactly that over the course of more than an hour.

This wasn’t the first time she’d played the title track solo. At an earlier Miller Theatre show, she opened a Mivos program with its uneasy, jaggedly dancing mix of resonance, ghostly flitting motives and even more sepulchral harmonics, planting her feet with the determination of a ballplayer intent on launching a long drive deep into the stands. While the classical tradition calls for playing a piece in perfect sync with a composer’s intentions every time out, the reality is that the best classical players will feel a room and adjust accordingly, just as a smart jazz or rock musician will. In this intimate Lower East Side space, it was fascinating to watch De Prato back away from that tenacity and let the spectres of her husband Victor Lowrie’s work waft with considerably more whispery mystery.

Beyond daunting displays of extended technique – insistent percussive accents, endlessly shifting deep-snowstorm washes and acidically shivery overtones – she let the sheer tunefulness of the material speak for itself. A Ned Rothenberg pastorale circled and circled, tensely, before De Prato pushed up the roof and let in the sun – metaphorically speaking, anyway. She danced through the distantly baroque and then Asian inflections in a Reiko Fueting number before closing the show by inviting up the great Missy Mazzoli to join her on keyboards for a rare duo performance of Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin.

Based on her darkly meticulous, moodily clustering Vespers For a New Dark Age, this seemed more kinetically starry than the artfully overdubbed album version. For anyone who remembered Mazzoli’s magically articulate performances with her swirling chamber-rock band Victoire back in the late zeros, this was a fond look back at a time and place gone forever. Mazzoli’s chops are just as sharp now as then, and the push-pull between the instruments, its contrasts between austerity and more hopeful, cascading phrases were brought into stark focus. It’s unlikely that Mazzoli will be part of the concert at the Miller on the 12th, but there will definitely be special guests, including Rothenberg on clarinet.

June 9, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sanda Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree is Intensely Psychedelic

Sanda Weigl’s new album Gypsy in a Tree puts a dark, dramatically shapeshifting, psychedelic spin on old gypsy songs. The title refers to where gypsies went to hide when racist rednecks rode into town. Weigl’s affinity for these songs draws on her own experiences as a freedom fighter: Romanian-born, driven into exile in East Germany of all places (where her family connected with her aunt, Bertold Brecht’s widow), jailed and then exiled after the Prague Spring in 1968, she landed in West Berlin where was able to pursue a successful theatre career. Later she moved to New York, which proved fortuitous when she met pianist Anthony Coleman, with whom she recorded the 2002 collaboration Gypsy Killer. As befits someone with her theatrical background, Weigl sings in an expressive contralto, in Romanian (with English translations in the cd booklet), impressively nuanced here: in concert she typically doesn’t hold back. Her backing band is sensational. Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano, Stomu Takeishi on fretless five-string bass, Doug Wieselman on clarinet and guitar and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion update these songs with jazz inventiveness and rock energy.

The opening track is a brisk, darkly swinging kiss-off anthem told from a deadpan observer’s perspective – like many of the tracks here, it has an understatedly cruel humor. The second cut, a bizarre tale of an abused wife whose fling with a rich guy restores the balance in her home (!?) is more amorphous, Nagai’s horror-movie piano trading with the swooping chords of the bass. The popular Saraman (frequently spelled “Shalaiman”) gets a stripped-down, staccato arrangement, bass swooping sweetly again here. The most striking song here is an old man’s lament for his lost youth done noir cabaret style with some stunningly precise yet intense piano.

Nagai’s piano cascades also shine on a defiant, metaphorical solidarity anthem. Todorel, another grim tale of old age, contrasts macabre piano and percussion with an oompah bounce. A pair of songs – one a homage to the joys of tobacco, the other a pulsing, galloping exile’s tale, are more hypnotic and atmospheric. The album ends with its catchiest track, Alomalo, a sort of gypsy cumbia pop tune with electric guitar. Fans of dark dramatic chanteuses from Rachelle Garniez to Amanda Palmer will enjoy this album; it’s just out on Barbes Records. Weigl plays the cd release show on 4/22 at the 92YTribeca with two sets: one with the band here, another with a gypsy band including luminary jazz reedman Ned Rothenberg and star violist Ljova Zhurbin.

March 3, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment