Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Dianne Nola’s Queen Bee: Gorgeous Purist Blues

Blues pianist/chanteuse Dianne Nola has a gorgeously purist album out titled Queen Bee, after the Slim Harpo song, which she imaginatively covers. Nola is oldschool: her playing is judicious. It’s clear that she knows Otis Spann and James P. Johnson, and she’s got a jackhammer left hand – we’re talking McCoy Tyner power here – and a sense of melody that likes the occasional wry flourish to drive a phrase home, but stays within the song. You won’t hear any endless volleys of Professor Longhair licks here, or for that matter, any cliches. Nola has a message to get out and that message is soul. Vocally, she’s a jazz singer at heart, but she doesn’t clutter the songs: her approach to the lyrics mirrors how she plays the piano, tersely and purposefully, as informed by gospel as it is the blues.

Most of the songs here are solo piano and vocals; multi-reedman Ralph Carney serves as a one-man dixieland band on the slow, torchy opening track, Down in the Dumps, and the closing cut, a tongue-in-cheek original, Garbage Man, which adds bluesy double meaning to the exasperated story of a woman trying to get some rest during the usual morning rattle and clatter. And blues harpist Jimmy Sweetwater adds some thoughtfully crescendoing work, notably on the sultry, swinging Do Your Duty, which hitches a restrained gospel joy to a New Orleans groove.

The covers here get an imaginative reworking: See See Rider is reinvented as languid boudoir ragtime, while a hard-hitting version of Leadbelly’s Grasshoppers in My Pillow plays up the lyric’s bizarrely surreal angst. Sippie Wallace’s Mighty Tight Woman is the most straight-up, matter-of-fact number, punctuated by a washboard solo. The title track hits with a resolute force, while Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me gets a twinkling, suspenseful approach, appropriate for a blueswoman who refuses to settle. But the originals here are the best. Free showcases Nola’s soaring upper register: this carpe diem anthem wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez songbook. By contrast, Pocketful of Blue comes together slowly, like Nina Simone would do in concert, and then works a dangerous, darkly sensual soul groove. It’s the most overtly jazzy track here and a quietly moody showcase for Nola’s ability to mine a subtly brooding phrase.

At her New York gig last week with the reliably charismatic LJ Murphy, Nola proved to be every bit the match for the noir bluesman, scatting her way cleverly through an a-cappella number and then joining him for a memorably careening duet. Watch this space for future shows.

May 30, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 9/4/11

Every day, pretty much that is, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #513:

Nina Simone in Concert

How do you choose one Nina Simone album over another? You don’t. You could point, blindfolded, and still hit a bullseye most of the time with the iconic, fearless, badass soul siren. We picked this one because it’s from when she was young and embittered but not worn down by that bitterness: she still had an awful lot of fight left in her. This one’s got her fronting a solid jazz quartet – with her playing piano of course – doing a few tracks from her popular debut album like I Loves You Porgy and a towering, theatrical version of Kurt Weill’s Pirate Jenny along with a coy take of Willard Robison’s Don’t Smoke in Bed, her own sultry Go Limp and Plain Gold Ring. But the real stunners here are the civil rights anthems Old Jim Crow and the totally punk rock Mississippi Goddamn – you can hear the mostly-white audience laughing nervously, especially after she introduces it as a showtune for a musical “that hasn’t been written yet.” In 1964, it hadn’t. Here’s a random torrent.

September 4, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meklit Hadero Enchants the Crowd at the Skirball Center

In her interview here a couple of weeks ago, eclectic chanteuse Meklit Hadero affirmed her interest in cross-pollination, not only musically, but across cultural boundaries. At her show last Sunday at the Skirball Center at NYU (where she’s currently artist-in-residence), she reaffirmed her dedication to both goals. It takes nerve to open a show a-cappella, but Hadero pulled it off without breaking a sweat. There are plenty of women with beautiful voices out there, few who deserve comparison to Nina Simone and Hadero is one of them. Part oldschool soul, part jazz, part Ethiopian folk, her music defies category because it’s so different from anything else out there. Occasionally singing in Amharic, she charmed the audience with a jaunty proto-Afrobeat theme that translated loosely as “I like your Afro;” another, like a vocal counterpart to Hamza Al Din’s Water Wheel, celebrated bucolic Ethiopian farm life, in many ways unchanged from how it’s been for millennia.

Much of Hadero’s music is quiet, but it’s also unusually earthy and rhythm-oriented. She likes low tonalities, and it showed, with four incisive, sometimes sly bass solos from Keith Witty. Hadero also plays acoustic guitar more as a rhythm instrument, like her vocals, quiet and determined and steady. It’s always a treat to hear trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who contributed characteristically spacious yet almost minimalistically jewelled lines, both with and without a mute. As she frequently does, Hadero put down her guitar and backed by just trumpet, bass and drums, ran through a mix of pensive yet warm material from her most recent album On a Day Like This…, including a jazzy, swinging version of the popular title track, the vividly sunny, funky Soleil Soleil – written after “forty days of rain,” Hadero told the crowd – as well as some unreleased material, including the unselfconsciously wry yet torchy Mixed Message Men that she used to close the show on a high note.

Other material took on a lush atmospheric vibe – “Like sleeping in the sun on a feather bed,” Hadero smiled – enhanced by some luscious arrangements for two-cello string quartet featuring both Analissa Martinez and Jennifer de Vore along with Tarrah Reynolds on violin and Eva Gerard on viola. It was the perfect vehicle for Hadero’s unselfconsciously warm delivery. Some singers work hard to engage the audience: with a jaunty blue note springing out of a velvety, hushed phrase, Hadero lets them come to her. She’s got an ongoing residency on Wednesdays at 4 PM this month at the Lincoln Center Atrium, where she’s engaging some eclectic artists (including members of ecstatically fun Ethiopian groove unit Debo Band on the 27th) in both music and conversation along with Q&A from the audience.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, soul music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Susan McKeown’s Darkly Inspiring New Album

Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.

Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.

The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Christine Correa Create New Elements

Here’s one for the nonconformists’ club. As has been the case in recent years, the perennially individualistic Ran Blake doesn’t go so much for the noir sound for which he’s best known: instead, the pianist mines a terse, often minimalist third-stream sensibility – Toru Takamitsu’s more recent work comes to mind. Christine Correa works a constant series of unexpected shifts with her low soprano/alto. It’s an interesting voice with an original delivery. She dips down to the bottom of her range where the real soul is, a la Nina Simone, unafraid to let a blue note slide a little further than most jazz stylists; seconds later, she might surprise you with a chirpy swoop like Anita O’Day in her prime. Although these two have done it before, Blake isn’t the first pianist you might think would collaborate with a singer (although his work with Jeanne Lee is pretty extraordinary). In fact, Blake and Correa’s new album Out of the Shadows isn’t so much a matter of chemistry as it is that each complements the other in welcome and unexpected ways. Although she’ll bend a melody to suit her needs, Correa is often the anchor here, Blake the colorist and essentially the lead on a lot of the songs. And the cd is aptly titled: menace often takes a back seat and even disappears.

The title track is a rarity, originally recorded in an orchestral version by June Christy, done here with masterfully terse suspense (and inspired, Blake takes care to mention, by the Richard Siodmak film The Spiral Staircase). Their version of The Thrill Is Gone isn’t the B.B. King classic but a song from an early talkie circa 1931, redone with icy sostenuto chords that only hint at ragtime. Deep Song – a Billie Holiday tune dating from one of her early troubled periods has voice and piano holding a rubato conversation, vividly and poignantly, a device they use to equally potent effect on the segue between The Band Played On and Goodbye Yellow Bird. Fine and Dandy and When Malindy Says are swing number deconstructed and playfully reassembled as Dave Brubeck might do. And Goodbye (which Blake learned from Jimmy Guiffre, and plays solo here) is a brightly terse reminiscence that, as is the case so much on this album, only alludes to being a requiem.

Correa uses Una Matica de Ruda as a showcase for unbridled, imploring, Middle Eastern-tinged a-cappella intensity. By contrast, she delivers Max Roach’s Mendacity – a favorite of Blake’s – with a bitter cynicism rather than trying to match the abrasiveness of the original political broadside. And she does Jon Hendricks’ Social Call with an off-guard woundedness that does justice to the version popularized by Betty Carter. Intense and cerebral yet unselfconsciously raw and soulful, this album – and this collaboration – will resonate with anyone who appreciates those qualities, beyond the jazz idiom where these two artists are typically pigeonholed, for better or worse.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 9/14/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Monday’s song is #317:

Katie Elevitch – Kindling For the Fire

If she keeps doing what she’s doing right now, someday the powerhouse New York rock siren will rank up there with Nina Simone and Patti Smith. The version on Elevitch’s live-in-the-studio 2008 cd is excellent as it is – and as its bassline menacingly rolls out, she and the band jam this out live into a witches’ sabbath. “Slaves stillborn gather round the hearse – kindling for the fire!”

September 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment