Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Montreal Jazz Festival 2011, Day One

The world’s most unpretentious jazz festival got off to an auspicious start yesterday. As with jazz festivals around the globe, the Montreal Jazz Festival encompasses many other styles of music as well. The local media raved about flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia’s performance last night, while word on the street was that tickets for the singer from that famous 70s metal band, and that has-been 80s funk guy, were hot. But as usual, the real action was in the smaller rooms. New York was well-represented: David Binney, pianist Dan Tepfer playing a duo with Lee Konitz, and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog numbered among the literally hundreds of acts on the festival bill, which continues through July 4. And the habitants‘ groups proved just as interesting as the innumerable acts from out of town.

Our Saturday got off to an early start at one of the many makeshift beer tents with a smoking, genre-busting set by Montreal sextet Hot Pepper Dixieland (a spinoff of Le Dixieband, with a different drummer and clarinetist). Playing a mix of the well-known and the lesser-known, not just blissed-out dancefloor shuffles (although they did some of those too), they mixed in a hot 20s early swing vibe along with elements of ragtime. And they started out as brooding and minor-key as this kind of stuff gets before picking up the pace with a spiky, vividly rustic St. James Infirmary, a balmy My Blue Heaven and finally a surprisingly bracing, ominously minor-key tinged When the Saints Go Marching In.

Later in the afternoon, there was a “battle of the bands” on the esplanade, pairing off two marching units: Swing Tonique Jazz Band on the west side versus Streetnix on the east. Ostensibly a contest to see who could drown out the other, each entertained a separate crowd: volume-wise, the more New Orleans-flavored Swing Tonique had the upper hand versus Streetnix, who mined a more European vibe (including a bouncy, amped-up version of La Vie en Rose). Eventually, Streetnix launched into Caravan and resolutely stomped their way up to the middle of the plaza where Swing Tonique joined them, and then graciously gave their quieter compatriots a chance to cut loose. The entire crew closed with an energetic blues, with solos all around: by then, the crowd had completely encircled them, pretty much everyone sticking around despite the intermittent torrents of rain that would continue into the night.

Our original game plan was to catch jazz pianist John Roney next, but that was derailed by a pitcher of beer and some enormous mounds of fries over on Rue St.-Denis. Having watched Lorraine Muller a.k.a. the Fabulous Lolo – former frontwoman of popular Canadian ska bands the Kingpins and Lo & the Magnetics – play a tantalizing soundcheck earlier in the day, it was great to catch a full set of her band’s totally retro 60s ska and rocksteady. Two of our crew immediately suffered intense drummer envy: this guy had the one-drop down cold, and had a sneaky, rattling fill ready for wherever it was least expected. For that matter, the whole rhythm section, including bass, guitar, organ and piano, was pretty mighty, a solid launching pad for the band’s killer three-piece horn section, which Lolo joined a few times, playing baritone sax. They reinvented Hawaii 5-0 as a syncopated noir rocksteady theme and later on took a stab at the Steven Stills moldie oldie Love the One You’re With (did Ken Boothe or somebody from that era cover it, maybe?). Montreal reggae crooner Danny Rebel, a big hit with the crowd, duetted with Lolo on a straight-up ska tune and a balmy rocksteady ballad lowlit by the guitarist’s reverb-drenched twang. The rest of the set switched cleverly back and forth between bouncy and slinky. A band this good deserves a global following.

Last stop of the night was the Balmoral, a shi-shi bar around the corner where bassist Jean-Felix Mailloux was playing an intriguing set of original compositions in a duo with Guillaume Bourque on clarinet and bass clarinet. Mailloux’ background in gypsy jazz was obvious, but his influences extend to both klezmer and third stream sounds. One of the bass/bass clarinet numbers was a clinic in the kind of interesting things that can be done with a minor mode and a simple three-note descending progression; another paced along with moody tango ambience; another plaintively alluded to Erik Satie. Mailloux alternated between melody, pulse and pure rhythm, tapping out the beat on the body of the bass as Bourque circled with an intensity that ranged from murky to acerbic.

And despite the rain, the festival atmosphere was shockingly convivial (at least from a New Yorker’s perspective). A high school girl working security sheepishly asked one of us to open up a purse (cans, bottles and dogs are verboten) instead of giving us New York Central Park rent-a-pig attitude; beer vendors wandered throughout the crowd, as if at a hockey game. Although there was a tourist element, the occasional gaggle of fratboys or douchettes in tiaras and heels lingering on the fringes, this was overwhelmingly a laid-back, polyglot local crowd, not a lot of English being spoken other than the occasional song lyric. It’s hard to imagine a better way to kick off a vacation than this.

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June 26, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, ska music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plunge Gets Lowdown and Fun

File this under “fun jazz.” A band whose main instruments include trombone, bass and sousaphone leaves a lot of room for comedy, and that’s exactly what New Orleans trio Plunge offer on their psychedelic, entertaining new album Tin Fish Tango. The album title evokes a submarine: the songs manuever deviously more than engaging in any kind of combat. Despite having no drums, the trio of trombonist Mark McGrain, bassist James Singleton and saxophonist Tim Green along with Tom Fitzpatrick on tenor sax and Kirk Joseph on sousaphone maintain a tight groove, and a sensibility that’s often strikingly minimalist. There are a lot of passages here featuring just one instrument, and they’re sort of the opposite of hard bop: each player seems to want to do the most with the least. Since they’re a New Orleans band, the compositions here frequently, but not always, evoke Crescent City style themes. There’s a lot of conversing, some lead-and-pitch, and frequent quotes, from the Skatalites to the Beatles, to raise the amusement factor.

The opening track, a minimalist reggae tune, is a study in divergence and convergence while the bass holds the beat steady, a device that will recur here frequently. The most traditional, and arguably best track here, is Big Bang Theory, which rather than being explosive is a jauntily catchy late 50s Miles Davis style tune: to call this the best song on the album is not to be disrespectful to the cleverness or originality of the other material here, it’s just the most cohesive and memorable cut. The aptly titled Huff-A-Round is a clinic in three-part harmony writing; Pelican Jam, one of several free improvisations here, is done as a sort of suite of miniatures, the band members taking turns introducing themes that sometimes grab hold but just as often disappear from view.

The blithe shuffle Life Lite starts out upbeat and hangs onto the groove even as it drifts off into mellowness after a tastily bright soprano sax solo from Green. He goes off on a Middle Eastern tangent on another reggae-tinged tune, Bright Side and then goes soaring and expansive on The Kroop, over Singleton’s hard-hitting bass chords. There’s also the methodically shifting segments of Love’s Wildest Talent (?!?), the artfully syncopated funk of Jougs and a blues that starts out tense and warms up fast to wind up the album. Their previous album, reviewed last year here, was good: this is even better.

January 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World

Bryan and the Haggards play twisted, jazz-tinged instrumental covers of Merle Haggard songs. Which if you know something about either style of music shouldn’t exactly come as a shock (Willie Nelson, anybody?). But this being New York, the indie stench wafts across the river from Williamsburg when there isn’t much of a breeze. Is this album yet another case of a bunch of spoiled brats thumbing their snotty noses at music they associate with the working classes? Happily, no. Bryan and the Haggards are actually a jazz group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord, a take-no-prisoners combo equally adept at melody and squall. This album might have been jumpstarted when Big Five Chord recorded a satirical cover of the Louvin Bros.’ The Christian Life for their previous album Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz (very favorably reviewed here last year). Considering the name of this project, it would seem that tenor sax player Bryan Murray is the ringleader this time around, his accomplices being guitarist Lundbom, high-profile alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott and drummer Danny Fischer. What does it sound like? At its most coherent, like Uncle Tupelo on mushrooms. Occasionally, it takes on an exuberant New Orleans second line vibe. Beyond that, coherence ceases to be an issue. This may be jazz, but the underlying esthetic is pure punk rock. Which is nothing new for these players – this crew will basically rip anything to shreds, especially their own compositions, so the question of whether or not they have any affinity, or distaste, for Haggard, or for country music in general, is really beside the point. For their shenanigans, any source is sufficient. It’s how they do it that makes it so much fun.

Silver Wings sways stiff and heavyhanded, Fischer pulling away from anything approximating a groove. Eventually, the saxes fall apart and for literally a second so does the rhythm section, and everything is chaos but then they’re back together again like nothing ever happened. A spitball? Me? What spitball? So when they follow that with an actually quite pretty instrumental of Swinging Doors, it’s strictly a diversion: a minute into Workingman’s Blues and Murray is quoting liberally from his fakebook while Elliott runs scales and eventually settles into one of his typical confrontational low-register rumbles, Lundbom eventually lumberjacking his way through some spot-on Sister Ray-style chord-chopping.

The original version of Miss the Mississippi and You has a countrypolitan vibe, so it makes sense that this crew would be able to turn it into as lovely a ballad as they do until the saxes start making little faces at each other, followed by a very, very good joke about intra-band communication. Lonesome Fugitive is a launching pad for some loud, lazy and eventually very funny commentary from Lundbom; All of Me Belongs to You is just plain sick, in a Ween kind of way. The last cut, Trouble in Mind is ironically the most traditional of all the cuts here, a New Orleans style raveup anchored by distorted guitar, sax overtones whistling overhead with the glee of a mosquito who’s figured out how to evade the swatter.

Who is the audience for this album? Stoners, most definitely; also fans of the Ween country album, Uncle Leon & the Alibis, David Allan Coe and the like. Jazz fans ought to like this although most of them won’t. Country fans probably won’t like this much either on account of it being iconoclastic. So, could this maybe be a bunch of working-class musicians making fun of alt-country, a style they associate with the ruling classes? Hmmm…peep the cheesy-beyond-belief, perfectly retro 70s cd cover design and decide for yourself.

June 19, 2010 Posted by | country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Salvatore Bonafede Trio – Sicilian Opening

Italian jazz pianist Salvatore Bonafede blends diverse classic styles and pensive European melodies along with the occasional rustic Sicilian accent into a strikingly memorable, hummable mix on this new cd. In the style of another eminently catchy current composer, JD Allen, pretty much everything here clocks in at under five minutes, sometimes considerably less. Yet as indelible as the compositions are, the playing is impeccably tasteful and understated – if anything, these guys could cut loose a lot more if they felt like it.

The album opens with a jaunty New Orleans theme, quoting Brubeck liberally early on. According to the liner notes, the second cut is ostensibly Arab-influenced, but it’s basically a swaying, moody two-chord vamp into a catchy, bluesy chorus. Track three, Ideal Standard memorably addresses issues of communication or lack thereof via Bonafede’s tensely judicious minor-key phrasing. Bassist Marco Panascia maintains the vibe, voicing a solo that builds intensity as it follows Bonafede’s lines even as it brings the volume down to the lower registers. The trio follow that with a slow, expressive quasi blues, drummer Marcello Pellitteri deftly bouncing accents off the piano’s bass notes.

The warmly cinematic seventh track paints an Americana-inflected tableau evocative of the late Danny Federici’s solo work. Of the two covers here, Blackbird is a song that should be retired – no matter what Bonafede does with it, which isn’t straying particularly far from the original, you are only waiting for the moment to arrive when it’s over. But with his version of She’s Leaving Home, Bonafede really captures the understated exasperation and unspoken rage in the McCartney original. The other tracks include a tribute to Palermo that builds to the closest approximation of a scream that there is here; a hypnotic Dr. John homage, and a casually swaying number that blends gospel with an updated, martial WC Handy vibe. The album creeps up on you if you’re not paying attention – that’s how strong the melodies are.  The liner notes have an earnestness that’s often hilarious, like they’ve been babelfished backwards and forwards. Somebody get these guys a translator that speaks…that is to say, one with a voice that isn’t computer-generated.

March 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

CD Review: Plunge – Dancing on Thin Ice

From New Orleans comes this fun, delightfully smart, somewhat minimalist trio groove jazz project. Plunge doesn’t have a drummer, so bassist James Singleton has to propel the unit by all by himself and does a great job. He swings like crazy and when he cuts loose once in awhile he’s still got a strong grip on the throttle. Composer Mark McGrain uses the full range of his trombone, judiciously, while saxophonist Tim Green adds a wise, knowing, bluesy soulfulness. What hits you right off the bat is what a good time these guys are obviously having – while they’re adding an interesting, original edge to a whole bunch of different styles, this isn’t just art for art’s sake. You can hum along to literally everything here.

The cd’s first track, Friday Night at the Top is a hypnotic groove –  Singleton runs a sinuous bass riff while Green and then McGrain prowl around. The second cut, Life of a Cipher is a slinky spy theme with a rhumba pulse – toward the end Singleton breaks out his bow and delivers some eerie funk while the horns hold down the hook. Yet another groove number, Orion Rising has Singleton walking it with effortless ease while McGrain and then Green offer completely different witness accounts of what’s going on.

On the sludgy Luminata No 257, Singleton holds it down with his bow as the horns take turns peeking up the periscope. The unabashedly silly One Man’s Machine sounds like a P-Funk b-side instrumental, the guys caught unawares messing around with the bass synthesizer. The title track is joyous, bouncy N’Awlins flavor stripped to just the basics, gets woozy and then comes out of it with a bass solo of all things. With a straight-up oldschool southern vibe, the single most striking track here is the gorgeous, pensive jazz waltz Missing Mozambique. The cd’s two concluding cuts maintain that feel, like the nucleus of a second-line band working the subtle underpinnings of what would otherwise be blazing marches. Marketed as a crossover electronic project, the effects on the album are happily limited to the occasional effects-box timbre, like the oscillation quietly swirling beneath the bass on the opening cut. There’s so much melody here that this could become very, very popular.

January 13, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment