Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ran Blake Headlines a Transcendent NEC Jazz Bill at Symphony Space

The New England Conservatory’s New York celebration of forty years of their contemporary improvisation program wound up Saturday night at Symphony Space with Ran Blake alone at the piano. It seemed that the stage lights had gone cobalt blue by then – or maybe that was just synesthesia. The concert’s concluding number was Memphis, a somber Martin Luther King elegy on which Blake intermingled gospel allusions and otherworldly close harmonies, both foreshadowed and then cruelly cut short by a gunshot staccato. It was the essence of noir, both a celebration of life and a grim reminder of everything that threatens what we hold dear. It made a fitting ending for an often exhilaratingly eclectic, emotionally vivid bill featuring NEC alumni and their bandmates from across the generations.

Frank Carlberg and his vocalist wife Christine Correa got the night started with a downtown take on Abbey Lincoln. The Claudia Quintet – drummer John Hollenbeck with bassist Chris Tordini, saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman slowly coalesced into a brightly sweeping, occasionally carnivalesque groove. Their set, the night’s longest, moved from a loping Ethiopian rhythm through lowlit Twin Peaks vibraphone/accordion interludes, niftily polyrhythmic shuffles and finally an animatedly squonking crescendo from Speed.  Fiddler Eden MacAdam-Somer romped solo through an Appalachian flatfoot dance as well as more eclectic, technically dazzling original settings of Rumi poems that sometimes reminded of Carla Kihlstedt’s work.

Pianist Anthony Coleman led a quartet with Ashley Paul on sax and clarinet, Sean Conly on bass and Brian Chase on drums through a partita that alternated between brooding, cantorially-tinged stillness a la Sexmob, and variations on a persistent, uneasily rhythmic circular vamp. Clawhammer banjoist Sarah Jarosz followed with an aptly austere version of a Gillian Welch tune and then teamed up Blake for some playfully biting push-pull on an absolutely lurid version of Abbey Lincoln’s Tender As a Rose, leaving absolutely no doubt that this was a murder ballad.

In what could easily have been a cruel stroke of programming, John Medeski was handed the impossible task of following Blake solo on piano: that he managed not only to not be anticlimactic but to keep the intensity at such a towering peak speaks to how much he’s grown in the past ten years, beginning with an icily otherworldly salute to Blake’s misterioso style and then charging through an expansive, defiantly individualistic, hard-hitting, sometimes wryly messy blend of purist blues, hypnotic eastern resonance, gospel and stride piano. It seemed to sum up everywhere Medeski has been other than with his wildly popular early zeros jamband: he’s at the high point of a career that probably hasn’t reached its summit yet.

Dominique Eade then took the stage solo and swung fearlessly through a number that lept from a torchy nuance to wryly animated, scatting leaps and bounds before being joined by Blake, in a second taking the energy to redline with a mini-set highlighted by a gleaming, rain-drenched, hauntingly cinematic take of The Thrill Is Gone (from their transcendent duo album from a couple of years ago). Christelle Durandy then made the most of her cameo on an unexpectedly verdant, breathily dynamic duo with the iconic pianist who never met a song or a a singer he couldn’t elevate to new levels of white-knuckle intensity. That he ran the NEC improvation program for so long – and still takes part in it – speaks for itself and for the institution.

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March 25, 2013 Posted by | concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

JC Sanford Leads the Brooklyn Big Band Renaissance

Tea Lounge, a cavernous former delivery truck garage in Park Slope, is a somewhat unlikely location to have become Big Band Central in New York, with a series of weekly shows to rival anything that’s playing at the Vanguard or Birdland. JC Sanford – lyrical trombonist, innovative composer, popular big band conductor, and now an impresario – created the Monday series, and recently took some time away from rehearsals and logistics to give us the lowdown:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: People in the know all know that Monday night is the new Saturday – and has been for a long time in New York. Maybe ever since the days of the week were invented. But why don’t you do this, say, on a Saturday?

JC Sanford: Monday night in NYC has historically been “big band night.” Thad Jones and Mel Lewis – now the Vanguard band – Gil Evans at Sweet Basil; Maria Schneider at Visiones; Toshiko Akiyoshi at Birdland, and Howard Williams at the Garage….Obviously most of those situations don’t exist anymore for various reasons, but I wanted to carry on that Monday night big band tradition, but this time in Brooklyn. It does create some conflicts, but it doesn’t look like anybody’s not managed to field a complete band as of yet.

LCC: This month you have the Jeff Fairbanks Jazz Orchestra on September 6, then on the 13th the Javier Arau Jazz Orchestra, your own JC Sanford Orchestra on the 20th, and the Jamie Begian Big Band – whose new cd Big Fat Grin is great fun – on the 27th. Can you give us an insider view of what they sound like, and why it’s worth the shlep out to the Slope if you don’t live there?

JCS: Well, one thing that’s so great about this series is the variety you’ll see and hear from week to week. This month is no different. Jeff Fairbanks’ repertoire is a mix of modern jazz and Asian music, including a suite he wrote about Chinatown. Javier, a Bob Brookmeyer protégé like myself, has a great sense of form and color. I like to think of his works as thematically cinematic. My vibe has long been to push the limits of what is “expected” in a specific musical setting without totally abandoning the essence of the genre, sounding adventurous while remaining “accessible.” I combine a lot of elements of traditional jazz, classical, and pop music. And yes, Jamie’s music is FUN. He can be truly dedicated to an idea or mood or bust out a quirky groove at any point.

LCC: Why the sudden popularity of new jazz for large ensembles? Can we credit Darcy James Argue for springboarding it – or at least being a magnet for it, or is this a scene that’s always been bubbling under the radar?

JCS: I think the existence of so many groups comes from a few different places, actually. Years ago, Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam started the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop where burgeoning composers were able to bring in their large ensemble music to be critiqued by master composers and eventually read down by a group of professional players. These days Jim McNeely leads the workshop, and so many writers have been through there. I would say a majority of the bandleaders that have been a part of this series at least spent a few minutes in that program at some point. Also Brookmeyer obviously influenced so many composers through the years, but he also did it tangibly as a teacher at New England Conservatory for several years. So many of his students have graduated, moved to New York, joined the BMI workshop, and their started their own bands. I think Maria Schneider’s popularity and distinctive voice really inspired a lot of folks, too. Luckily some folks like myself, and even more so Darcy, have been lucky enough to have a healthy dose of all three.

But to answer your question directly, I think Darcy is more a representative of the possible future of big bands rather than the present. At this point, his dramatic rise to success has happened too quickly for us to see its effects on other bands yet, as a majority of the bands on this series have been around for several years already. He has figured out a way to generate interest in his product in a way I didn’t think was possible anymore, though. I think we all, as large ensemble leaders, should be inspired by his meteoric rise. It’s encouraging to me, and makes me think that there is hope for us all on some level. Hopefully this series can be an avenue for that kind of exposure.

LCC: This is music you have to absolutely love, to play it live: if you’ve got twenty people in the ensemble, even with a gig at a swanky club, nobody walks away rich afterward. Back in the 30s and 40s, bands would sustain themselves by doing long stands at hotel bars or places like Minton’s. How does a big band sustain itself these days?

JCS: Well, I think you’re seeing that these days it’s pretty rare for any large band to do many long stands at all, even the super-established ones. I mean, that’s a great tradition they’ve established of having Maria Schneider playing all week at the Jazz Standard during Thanksgiving, but even that is only once a year. So, generally big bands sustain themselves by not playing very often and having a leader who’s willing to take a hit to their wallet. Folks like John Hollenbeck have a successful performing career, so he can, from time to time, drop a few dollars on a great gig at le Poisson Rouge or something. Most of the players in these bands know the deal: you’re not going to make much on a big band gig, generally. But they do it because they want to play great music, and there seems to be plenty of opportunities to do that these days.

LCC: Your Sound Assembly album, from 2008, is a real favorite of mine. You’ve got some gems on there: a convolutedly fun tribute to a man and his cat, a crazed, Mingus-esque subway rush hour tableau and an astringent, ambient number influenced by Charles Ives. Any chance you’ll be playing any of them on the 20th?

JCS: Thanks. I’m still sussing out the exact program for the gig, but we will definitely play a few tunes from that record, including the feline foray and the MTA tribute, which will be, unlike the current organization, fast and efficient.

LCC: I get the feeling that if Tea Lounge keeps up doing this, it’ll become a sort of CBGB for the new wave of big bands. What do you think?

JCS: I’m really hoping so – as long as being the CBGBs of anything doesn’t include it sadly closing down, to the severe consternation of its audience. What I am noticing is that in addition to the regular clientele, a lot of musicians are hanging there. They want to check out what other folks are writing and support their fellow strugglers. The Tea Lounge is a really great vibe. Good grub and good drinks – including full bar – and since there’s no cover – just a $5 suggested donation – it’s really easy to just drop in and hang. People bring their kids. It’s mellow and fun. And the sound of the room is pretty good, too, which is more than I can say about a lot of the places big bands are forced to play in this city.

LCC: Can I ask a really obvious question, as far as the venue is concerned: will the September shows start on time? Sometimes what’s advertised as a 9 PM show at this place turns into 11 PM in reality…

JCS: That’s actually a very practical question. I think these folks are pretty prompt. The latest you’ll see anything start there is 9:15. This might be because these are composer/arranger-led bands, they want to get through all the charts they have programmed.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, interview, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The New England Conservatory Jazz All Star Concert at B.B. King’s, NYC 3/27/10

The New England Conservatory is celebrating its jazz program’s fortieth year – if memory serves right, they were the first established conservatory in the United States to give jazz their official imprimatur, so it would only make sense that by now their alumni list would boast some of the world’s greatest players. Their faculty got to show off their chops (and welcome sense of humor) at the Jazz Standard on the 24th (reviewed here); this particular celebration was a counterintuitively eclectic bill that literally had something for everyone, a series of nonchronological flashbacks between present and various moments from the past, both in terms of the history of jazz as well as that of the conservatory. Ironically, the youngest act on the bill was also the most rustic. Lake Street Dive hark back to the early swing era, a style more vogue in the steampunk scene than mainstream jazz (which is also considerably ironic since their style would have fit in perfectly alongside hitmakers of that era). Rachael Price’s warmhearted, somewhat chirpy vocals blended in perfectly with bandleader/bassist Bridget Kearney’s charmingly aphoristic, period-perfect songs, Mike Olson’s balmy trumpet and Mike Calabrese’s deftly terse drums. Another recent alum, singer Sarah Jarosz (who also proved to be a fine mandolinist) benefited from Kearney and Calabrese’s supple rhythm on a similar original of hers. And Dominique Eade, whose own style runs closer to pop than anyone else on the bill, impressed with a torchy a-capella number.

The piano jazz of the early part of the evening was equally captivating. Jason Moran – who’d joined the faculty just minutes previously – served up an expansive, appropriately lyrical tribute to Jaki Byard, followed by Ran Blake’s purist takes of Abbey Lincoln and Gershwin and a rapturously melodic, hypnotically nocturnal improvisation by Matthew Shipp and guitarist Joe Morris.

And it sure would have been nice to have been able to stick around for Bernie Worrell, one of the NEC’s best-known alums – but we were needed elsewhere (a special shout-out to the young quartet – rhythm section, electric piano and guitar – who played tasteful fusion throughout the press party beforehand at the adjacent Lucille’s Bar).

March 28, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The NEC Jazz Faculty All-Stars at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/24/10

To steal a line out of the Jim Macnie fakebook (he gets a shout-out because he’s on the side of the angels), this was the coolest faculty meeting you could imagine. The New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty distinguish themselves in a lot of ways but most of all because they maintain fulltime live performance schedules. As trumpeter John McNeil, the group’s class clown, sardonically told the sold-out house at the Jazz Standard last night, a NEC gig assures that you always have the means to pursue others! Which might explain why this gig was a clinic, if hardly an academic one. The camaraderie between McNeil – whose compositions dominated the set list – alongside tenor titan George Garzone, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist Cecil McBee and sub drummer Richie Barshay (Billy Hart couldn’t make it) is comfortable and intiutive, facilitating a clinic in effective listening, trusting one’s bandmates and seeing that trust richly rewarded. It’s not likely that anyone shopping music conservatories was in the crowd, but if they had been, they were either sold or holding out for a bargain that doesn’t exist.

They opened with segueing McNeil numbers, Nanotechnology into Alone Together, mysterioso modal into catchy hook into swing featuring the first of several fast, fluid Garzone solos, McBee going in the opposite direction with lots of space. McNeil got a lot of laughs telling the crowd how he’d named another tune, CJ, after a woman he was pursuing. In retrospect, he should have known that you have to try a little harder than just a blues if you want to impress a woman. Something else that McNeil didn’t know when he wrote it thirty-one years ago, almost to the day: you don’t write the blues before the woman, you write the blues after. But it gave Carlberg the first of many foundations to enigmatically warp the time as he would all night, McBee taking it out quietly, tersely and eerily.

A homage to Piaf, whom McNeil had a crush on as a kid, built from plaintive, insistent piano to gently pulsing, Ray Brown-esque bass, Garzone eventually going major on minor to enhance the somber intensity. Frank Carlberg’s composition Consternation (after the Bird tune A Confirmation) driven by some utterly marvelous Barshay cymbal work, saw the band playfully interjecting themselves into the drum solo. The night’s last number was the best, a Dave Liebman composition that nobody could remember the title to, but they played the hell out of it – a murky modal masterpiece with scurrying rhythm section, icy Carlberg minimalism and more rapidfire Garzone sharpshooting, McNeil avoiding the murk at first but eventually plunging right in as the rhythm section took it all the way up with a stomp that built thisclose to complete ferocity, McBee again leading it out on a quietly moody note. This show was part of NEC Jazz Week in NYC, an allstar series of concerts continuing tomorrow through the big blowout at B.B. King’s on the 27th – the complete schedule is here.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Art-I-Facts: Great Performances from 40 Years of Jazz at NEC

One can only imagine how many treasures might be kicking around in the New England Conservatory’s archive, especially if this new compilation album is any indication. It’s a collection of concert recordings from the forty years since jazz became a standard part of their curriculum. The artists here, all either NEC faculty or alumni, make a formidable allstar cast.

There are two tracks here that stand out as absolutely extraordinary. The first, from 1976, is the hypnotic, otherworldly beautiful Zeibekiko, a confluence of two traditional Greek dance tunes with Rebekah Zak’s piano moving methodically out of just-over-the-horizon starlight into blazing midnight sky, Joe Maneri’s clarinet streaking out of it, then descending with a casual grace. The other is an exquisitely indomitable take of India by Coltrane with George Garzone on tenor, John Lockwood on bass and Bob Moses on drums. Moses’ own composition Reverence is included here, a dizzying, towering 2006 performance by the NEC Jazz Orchestra. From behind the valves of his trombone, Bob Brookmeyer leads the the Jazz Orchestra through a warmly soulful 2005 version of his nocturne, Cameo. That group is also featured on a joyously expansive 2003 version of Jaki Byard’s big, anthemic Aluminum Baby, counterintuitively showcasing the rhythm section.

A 1990 recording of George Russell’s All About Rosie suite by the NEC Big Band opens in a swirling blaze of circularity, followed by a triumphant slow swing blues and a ferocious final movement with a long, suspenseful solo from the bass and an all-too-short, reverb-drenched one by the guitarist (soloists on this one are unfortunately not cited in the liner notes). Guitarist Jimmy Guiffre alternates Bill Frisell-ish tinges of delta blues, funk and country in a trio performance of his composition The Train and the River. Also included here are solo versions of Monk tunes by Byard, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist Ran Blake. The only miss is an easy-listening FM pop ditty stuck right in the middle of the cd which really has no business being here or anywhere else.

Another quibble, and perhaps an unavoidable one – most likely because so much of this material had to be remastered from the original analog tapes – is that the recording levels vary from track to track, a problem that disappears if you adjust the sequence. Fittingly, the NEC is releasing this album to coincide with their 40th anniversary series of concerts around New York from March 20 through 27 (the complete list of shows is here). Now it’s time for Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to open up their vaults and follow suit.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NEC Jazz Week in NYC 3/20-27/10

March 20-27 it’s the 40th anniversary of jazz at the New England Conservatory (Boston’s equivalent of Juilliard), with a series of first-rate, relatively inexpensive (or free) New York concerts plus a lecture. The weeks winds up with a jazz summit at BB King’s on the 27th featuring Cecil Taylor, Bernie Worrell, John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood and others. Proceeds from the events go to support jazz scholarships at NEC. The full calendar is below: click here for updates.

Saturday, March 20 saxophonists Matana Roberts solo at 8:30 followed by composer Jeremy Udden and his group at 10 PM at the Cornelia St. Cafe, $10.

Sunday, March 21, 2-6 PM, free, at the Studio at the Irene Diamond Education Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Time Warner Building, 33 West 60th Street, a panel discussion: “Living Time”: George Russell’s Musical Life and Legacy

Panel 1: George Russell as composer, bandleader, and influential figure

Panel 2: George Russell as music theorist and educator

Panelists include: Gunther Schuller, Ken Schaphorst, Ingrid Monson, Cameron Brown, Stanton Davis, Ben Schwendener, with an introduction by Jerome Harris.

Sunday, March 21 Andre Matos featuring Noah Preminger & Sara Serpa along with bassist Thomas Morgan, pianist Leo Genevese and drummer Ted Poor, 8:30/10 PM at the Cornelia St. Cafe, $10.

Monday, March 22, PM at 55 Bar the Public Option: trumpeter Jason Palmer, saxophonist Michael Thomas, guitarist Greg Duncan, bassist Lim Yang and drummer Lee Fish, free, followed at 9:30 by the Noah Preminger Quartet ($10 cover): saxophonist Noah Preminger, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Matt Wilson.

Tuesday, March 23 Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, 7:30/9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard, $25

Wednesday, March 24 the NEC Faculty Jazz All Stars: George Garzone, John McNeil, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart and Frank Carlberg, 7:30 PM plus at 9:30 Marty Ehrlich’s Quartet at the Jazz Standard, $25

Thursday, March 25 the New Mellow Edwards feat. Curtis Hasselbring, trombone; Chris Speed, tenor saxophone, Trevor Dunn, bass; John Hollenbeck, drums. The post-show jam session features Jeremy Udden, alto saxophone; Frank Carlberg, piano; Joe Fitzgerald, bass; George Schuller, drums at the Douglass Street Music Collective, 295 Douglass Street (3rd/4th Aves), Gowanus, Brooklyn, $10

Friday, March 26 the NEC Jazz Vocal Summit feat. Dominique Eade, Sara Serpa, David Devoe, Amy Cervini, Jo Lawry and Sofia Koutsovitis, 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, $15

Also Friday, March 26 the John McNeilBill McHenry Quartet at the Cornelia Street Café 9/10:30 PM, $10

Saturday, March 27 NEC Jazz 40th Anniversary Summit concert feat. Cecil Taylor, Bernie Worrell, Anton Fig, John Medeski, Ran Blake, John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood; Sarah Jarosz, Dominiquie Eade, comedic country cabaret crew Lake Street Dive (Rachael Price, Michael Calabrese, Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson), others TBA. At BB King’s, 8 PM, $25 adv tix highly rec.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Borromeo String Quartet at Jordan Hall, Boston MA 11/30/09

The Borromeo String Quartet hardly need the press, but it was awfully nice to be able to catch them in concert. As expected, they brought an element of transcendence to what was, at least from this particular vantage point, a crazy weekend. And it was encouraging to see a good crowd come out for what was a characteristically adventurous bill, cold drizzle and all, a program as captivating as it was elegantly nightmarish. They opened with Mohammed Fairouz’  ambient, aptly titled Lamentation and Satire, the first part a tone poem whose tensely acidic counterpoint moved between restrained mournfulness and full-out grief, the second featuring cellist Yeesun Kim expertly walking a tightrope between the swirling violins of Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong up to a couple of devious false endings, and a bell-like staccato device on the cello that despite itself reverted to the anguish and loss of the preceding segment.

The ensemble has been recording the complete Gunther Schuller quartets. Monday’s choice was the Second, hypnotic, ambient and off-kilter with a Messiaenesque defiance of any kind of consonant harmony, particularly the abrasive, aggressive second movement with its brief, jazzlike solos around the horn. The anxiety never let up, all the way through to the final lento passage where each soloist got to leave the stage in turn, cello ending it with a pizzicato funeral bell.

They ended the night with Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. It’s a snidely provocative piece, opening with the same kind of savagery and wrath as Bartok’s First, but it’s also full of fun and the group accentuated that.  Several of its passages – a series of faux Romantic codas, a furtively swirling “dance” and the chase scene that sets off the final movement – would make a very effective biography of a really annoying, blustery individual. But there’s also the remarkable third movement that comes in as a complete surprise on the heels of an offhandedly vicious cello solo, cantabile yet upbeat. And then the Nutcracker-esque pizzicato fourth movement, as caustic and dismissive as it was bouncy and amusing. And the long, disembodied crescendo of the final movement, building to the flourishes of a false ending slapped aside by the menacing growl of the cello.

The Borromeo String Quartet remain ensconsed in Boston (at the New England Conservatory and the Gardner Museum) after a long run at Lincoln Center; their next performance is a selection of Haydn quartets on December 13 at 2 PM at the Forsyth Chapel in Jamaica Plain, MA.

December 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment