Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

August 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, gospel music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.

Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?

Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.

Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come.  At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.

Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.

What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.

And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sexmob’s Nino Rota Tribute: Best Album of the Year?

Over the years, with his long-running quartet Sexmob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra and elsewhere, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has made a career of reinventing repertoires to suit his distinctive, livewire style, veering from the sunnier side of the street (Sly Stone) into the shadows (John Barry’s James Bond scores). One of Bernstein’s more ambitious and wildly successful efforts with Sexmob, a collection of Nino Rota themes to Fellini films titled Cinema Circus & Spaghetti, is out now. It’s an interesting coincidence that of all the jazz albums that have come out so far in 2013, the two that pack the biggest wallop are both collections of film music from trumpeters: this one, and Ibrahim Maalouf‘s Wind (itself a homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.) What makes this one so good? Bernstein takes Rota’s themes and strips them to the bone, pulls out the inner noir menace and then brings it centerstage, dripping and lurid. Although some tracks on the album are considerably brighter than that, a gleeful macabre resonance pervades this album. One can only think that both Rota and Fellini would be proud. Hubristic as this sounds, the album is as good or better than the source material. While Bernstein is about a lot more than just menace and rage against the dying of the light, if there’s anybody who gets what noir is all about, it’s him.

They make the Amarcord theme a dirge, maxing out the original’s underlying angst, opening with drummer Kenny Wollesen’s gongs before Bernstein whispers in with a quavering microtonal Peter Lorre unease, Tony Scherr’s magnificently precise, purposeful bass guitar kicking off a slow processional as Briggan Krauss’ tenor sax joins the harmonies. It finally resolves in a menacing minor-key explosion: one of the most deliciously dark pieces of music to come out this year.

Juliet of the Sprits manages to simultaneously be a creepy shuffle and a lively dance, Krauss and Bernstein switching good cop/bad cop roles – and is there a bassist anywhere in the world who gets as juicy and incisive a tone as Scherr does? They strip the La Strada theme down to the underlying tension, first with a reggae pulse, then with a fluttering bop edge. Volpina (also from Amarcord) counterintuitively has the bass doing the lively introductions, then they take it to church with a New Orleans flair. The papararazzo theme from La Dolce Vita juxtaposes jaggedly rhythmic knife’s-edge intensity with a rather sarcastic interpretation of the original’s jaunty swing, Wollesen leading the charge. Toby Dammit’s Last Act reverts to the dirgey ambience, a long workout in downtown Asian inflections and moody reggae lin lieu of monster psychedelia.

The La Dolce Vita main theme strolls acidically along with a shivery bass pulse, a look back to Bernstein’s Lounge Lizards days. Zamparo (from La Strada) brings back the skin-peeling PiL dub vibe, while Nadia Gray (another La Dolce Vita interlude) and The Grand Hotel (from Amarcord) each get ripped to shreds in a merciless circus-punk frenzy, the latter reverting once again to hazy Asian dub. Scherr does Gelsomina solo, with lots of warmly rubato chords, a prelude to a sarcastically marching remake of I Vitelloni. There’s also an epic, bitingly bittersweet bonus track, Spirits of the Dead, Wollesen’s vibraphone and Krauss’ stately multitracking up against Bernstein’s leaps and bounds. Those who aren’t already aware of it may also be interested in Hal Wilner’s 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album, which gave Bernstein his initial inspiration for this one. Best jazz album of 2013? One of them, without a doubt.

May 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eclecticism Par Excellence at the Bulgarian Consulate

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning the fascinatingly eclectic and intuitive performance that violinist Miroslav Hristov and pianist Vladimir Valjarevic put on at the Bulgarian Consulate this past Wednesday. Conceptually, the program featured composers from the Balkans and adjoining areas, from Italy all the way to Turkey, spanning from the Romantic to the 21st century. The musicians opened with the Petite Suite No. 2 for Violin and Piano by Nikos Skalkottas, shifting from lively astringencies to a quaint, wormwood-tinged surrealism, Hristov’s bracingly, vivid, occasionally searing sostenuto contrasting with Valjarevic’s matter-of-factness, casually swaying rhythm in almost ironic juxtaposition with the melodies’ bright harshness. Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Tre Canti for Violin and Piano took a casually strolling detour into neoromanticism, ending with a big cinematic theme.

Fazil Say’s Sonata for Violin and Piano was next. Part one, Melancholy, is a requiem, the plaintiveness of the violin veering into and back again from outright anguish as Valjarevic anchored it with an only slightly less apprehensive insistence. Part two, Grotesque came across as more of a parody of moody Romantic tropes including a macabre marionette’s dance with some jagged, grisly overtones from Hristov. About midway through, the duo left any thought of parody behind and went straight for the jugular. It was the night’s big, awestruck moment. The next work, Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Il Canto nell’ Infinito, reached for a more muted, dynamically-charged mysticism, followed by the pensive ballad Il Canto della Lontananza.

After a scampering take on Nino Rota’s Improvisso in D Minor for Violin and Piano, “Un Diavolo Sentimental” that managed to be jovial without losing sight of devilishness, Hristov and switched the mood radically for the richly hypnotic, glacially shifting, Messiaenesque tectonics of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Eastern Chapel Meditation. As an evocation of the stillness and mystical ambience of a chapel hidden at the back of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, it hit the mark – except for the electronic backing track, which mingled what may have been plainchant with swooshy atmospherics. But rather than enhancing the mood, it was a distraction, not unlike the crowds of tourists who’d rather yak at each other and eat crunchy snacks as they wander through the church, snapping random photos with their phones. The closing number was George Enescu’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3, Op. 3, bristling with smoldering gypsy melodies, a brooding nocturnal gleam and a coda that gave both piano and violin a chance to spread their wings and go out on a biting, acerbically charged note.

It’s surprising that the most-monthly concert series here hasn’t outgrown the quaint, old-world second-floor space here. Which isn’t to say that the ambience is anything but enjoyable:  these concerts simply deserve to be far better known than they are. The next one is on May 9 at 7:30 PM with the winner (TBD) of their “Music and Earth Competition.”

April 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Emerald Trio Shines at Trinity Church

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of the Emerald Trio’s gem of a show at Trinity Church this past Thursday. Flutist Karen Bogardus, pianist James Matthew Castle and violist/violinist Orlando Wells teamed up for a fascinating and vividly affecting mix of relatively obscure material that gave them the chance to push the envelope and deliver a remarkably robust show that sounded considerably more hefty than one would think just those three instruments could deliver. Even by bigtime concert hall standards, Bogardus’ intonation was a clinic in nuance and subtlety, her attack ranging from crystalline directness to an earthy throatiness with an easy vibrato in lighter moments.

They opened with the comfortable late Romantic cinematics of 20th century composer Seymour Barab’s Suite for Flute, Viola and Piano: bright introduction, a dance theme that shifted from stately to swaying, a crescendoing anthemic Alegretto and carefree closing Giocoso movement. They followed that with the insistent, propulsive Allegro Energico from Castle’s own Sonatina, moving back and forth from an uneasy modernism to more predictably warm, consonant tones; it brought to mind the recent work of Robert Paterson.

Their take on Nino Rota’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Piano had majesty and suspense galore: its opening Allegro with gravelly piano and biting conversational reparteee from Wells, followed by the low-key anthemic Andante and then concluding Allegro, with more low-register piano, harmonies whirling in tandem above Castle’s brooding rumble. Next on the bill was Davide Zannoni’s Le Pressioni del Passato, beginning with an uneasy, steadily marching theme that unwound from plaintiveness to fullscale angst fueled by Wells and Bogardus, then a cosmopolitan bustle on the wings of the piano before Bogardus got to dive deeply into Middle Eastern allusions. As it wound out with vividly intense simplicity, it packed a wallop: it was the showstopper of the afternoon. The trio closed with Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance from the Firebird, in an arrangement by Castle which by force of necessity lacked the bulk of the orchestral version, although it was authentically infernal: pity the listener too close to the business end of Bogardus’ instrument. What a treat it would be to see this fascinating and passionately eclectic group in a smaller room, although realistically they deserve a much larger one.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surfing with Cellos: Quattrocelli in Their New York Debut, 4/17/08

Harsher critics would have called this a pops concert: among the selections in the group’s impressively diverse set at Trinity Church were several movie themes. Just about anything with the slightest bit of melody sounds good if played on the electric guitar, and the same could be said for the cello. But it was  German cello quartet Quattrocelli’s playful, often astonishingly imaginative arrangements that ultimately won over the crowd and earned them a standing ovation. Everybody knows the Godfather theme, but how many have heard it all the way through? Quattrocelli’s cover of that old chestnut brought out every bit of tragedy in Nino Rota’s score. Likewise, they did a full-length version of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible, its middle section revealing itself full of bracing atmospherics worthy of Messiaen. And their cover of Misirlou – yet another composition best known to most audiences as a surf song – started out remarkably authentic, one of the players doing percussion on his cello with his fingers, evoking the dumbek (a hand drum that appears in most Middle Eastern music) which was almost undoubtedly on the original Greek version. But after the bridge, one of the cellists took it straight into Agent Orange territory, wailing furiously on the song’s famous riff while the others played subtly off the melody.

Otherwise, the group proved themselves at home with a wide range of styles. These ranged from baroque (Bach’s famous Air on a G String) to classical (two short, striking Shostakovich pieces, the Balkan dance Ball at the Palace and the hauntingly gorgeous Chitarri, which as one of the group explained became a tv spy show theme), to modernist (a jazz piece by German composer Helmuth Brandt, a Hans Eisler nocturne and a Gershwin medley wherein one of the cellists mimed a trombone while the rest of the group authentically mimicked the horn’s voicings, with hilarious results). Their encore, My Way, was uncharacteristically timid, crying out for a Sid Vicious standin to take over and put some kind of original stamp on it. But it made a point: Quattrocelli sound like no other chamber quartet in the world, and they’re fearless about it. Their next US tour promises to include works by American composers, which should be interesting, to say the least.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment