Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Watch the Walls Instead – Get the Picture Yet?

Ghosts may come and go, but haunting music is the antithesis of evanescent: it lingers. As does bassist Giacomo Merega’s new album Watch the Walls Instead. It’s a suite, an overture and a coda played with a generally quiet but riveting intensity by two generations of improvisers. Merega gets credit as bandleader for the second time on album, alongside his bandmate, saxophonist Noah Kaplan – from equally eerie art-song warpers Dollshot – plus Italian veterans Marco Cappelli on guitar and Mauro Pagani on violin, and the perennially vital, transformative Anthony Coleman on piano. It opens with a five-part piece for quartet, minus the violin, then five shorter pieces for trios, concluding with the full quintet.

The titles of the quartet pieces refer to colors, although aside from the literally ghostly, spacious Absence of Color, they’re shades of grey, dark against light and every other possible permutation. The group’s singlemindness in maintaining that mood is striking to the extreme, to the point of minimalism. Each piece segues into the next, musicians remaining in their assigned roles. Merega plays electric bass, either muted and murky, or supplying low drones that hover below Coleman’s icy atonalities, moodily terse accents and macabre chordlets. Cappelli supplies pensive single-note lines and often handles the forward motion while Merega’s down in an atmospheric swamp; Kaplan, a master of microtonalities, gets the coveted role of raising the ambience from apprehension to fullblown terror. Whispery, abbreviated conversations between voices, a wary tone poem with Cappelli’s eerie guitar pushing Coleman’s waterdrop piano to new levels of menace lead through a practically silent interlude to an elegaic passage where Kaplan finally gets to introduce an element of pure terror, straining microtonally against the center as Coleman provides bell-like tones.

They segue into the trio section seamlessly, Kaplan and Cappelli working toward a deathly, echoing space-rock scene, following with variations on brooding, simple riffs which turn out to be the suite’s most vividly melodic motifs: they’re reaching for clarity amidst the fog and far from optimistic that they’ll achieve it. The suite ends with Things We Used to Know, a coldly noirish conversation – or argument – between Kaplan and Cappelli.

After the trio finally comes to a full stop, Pagani leads the quintet up with an energetic, biting series of eight-note runs, the rest of the ensemble establising a mood of longing and tension, Kaplan and Pagani circling each other and then joining the rest of the group as they pull hard against an invisible but inescapable center that won’t let them escape. That’s the overture: the coda has Kaplan out in the cold mist playing a mournful, allusively bluesy tune against a muffled parade of voices. Ostensibly this has a sci-fi angle (the cd package has a tongue-in-cheek short story, to be continued with some future project), but it just as easily can be interpreted as a reflection on our own difficult and often menacing times. It’s best enjoyed as a whole: you can get absolutely lost in this. While this isn’t catchy music by a long shot, it’s inescapably gripping, simply one of this year’s best jazz albums. It’s a must-own for fans of free jazz, and for anyone who plays improvised music, it’s packed with inspiration.

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June 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dollshot Has Creepy Fun with Classical Art-Song

This is a Halloween album. New York ensemble Dollshot’s M.O. is to take hundred-year-old classical “art songs,” do a verse or a chorus absolutely straight-up and then matter-of-factly and methodically mangle them – which might explain the “shot” in “Dollshot.” Usually the effect is menacing, sometimes downright macabre, but just as often they’re very funny: this group has a great sense of humor. Pigeonholing them as “punk classical” works in a sense because that’s what they’re doing to the songs, but they also venture into free jazz. And all this works as stunningly well as it does because they’re so good at doing the songs as written before they get all sarcastic. Frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan’s otherworldly beautiful, crystalline high soprano, which she colors with a rapidfire vibrato in places, makes a perfectly deadpan vehicle for this material. Pianist Wes Matthews circles and stabs with a coroner’s precision in the upper registers for a chilly, frequently chilling moonlit ambience. In the band’s most punk moments, tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan is the ringleader: when he goes off key and starts mocking the melodies, it’s LOL funny. Bassist Giacomo Merega alternates between precise accents and booming atmospherics that rise apprehensively from the depths below.

The three strongest tracks are all originals. The Trees, written by Matthews, sets nonchalantly ominous, quiet vocals over a hypnotic, circular melody with bass and off-kilter prepared piano that hints at a resolution before finally turning into a catchy rock song at the end. “The trees are falling…the trees are choking…the pail is falling…” Surreal, and strange, and also possibly funny – it perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band. Noah Kaplan’s Fear of Clouds is the most stunningly eerie piece here, ghost girl vocalese over starlit piano and then an agitated crescendo with bass pairing off against quavery saxophone terror – it would make a great horror movie theme. And the closing cut, Postlude, layers sepulchral sax overtones over a damaged yet catchy hook that refuses to die.

The covers are more lighthearted. Woozy sax pokes holes in an otherwise dead-serious and absolutely spot-on version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Galathea and his twisted little waltz, Der Genugsame Liebhaber, which by itself already seems something of a parody. Poulenc gets off a little easier: the band adds add murky apprehension to La Reine de Coeur and leaves the gorgeously ominous Lune d’Avril pretty much alone other than adding some sepulchral atmospherics at the end. Bouncing gently on some completely off-center, synthy prepared piano tones, Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here Comes That Rainy Day is reinvented as art-song with a comic wink, yet while bringing the lyrics into sharper focus than most jazz acts do. And a Charles Ives medley of The Cage, Maple Leaves and Evening makes a launching pad for the unexpected power in Rosalie Kaplan’s stratospheric upper registers, as well as Matthews’ mountains-of-the-moon piano and an unexpected minimalist, ambient interlude that only enhances the nocturnal vibe. You’ll see this high on our list of the best albums of 2011 at the end of the year.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Loki Ensemble at Music Mondays, NYC 4/26/10

It could have been billed as Schoenberg and His Descendents, a beautifully uneasy, otherworldly upper westside evening of art-songs and some austerely compelling instrumentals that more than did justice to the composer’s legacy. The Loki Ensemble’s mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer has developed not only a great affinity but also a strikingly resonant aptitude for Schoenberg’s paradigm-shifting Book of Hanging Gardens, Op. 18, an otherworldly suite based on a series of heartbroken, imagistic poems by Stefan George. The group played four of those songs: on number two and eleven , pianists Jacob Greenberg and then Wes Matthews wrenched every brooding, moody atonality from the score as Fischer brought a remarkably visceral unease, longing and intensity to the vocals. In the stylized world of classical legit voice, individuality is not an easy quality to channel, but Fischer put her own steely, forcefully indelible stamp on everything she touched. To liven things up further, the group added their own instrumental improvisations, notably tenor saxophonist Noah Kaplan (of marvelously creepy art-song practitioners Dollshot), whose precise yet breathy, baritone-like timbres matched the murk perfectly. Greenberg hinted at an McCoy Tyner bluesiness in his solo on song fourteen, number fifteen dramatically juxtaposing Fischer’s pyrotechnics against Matthews’ plaintive minimalism.

A very recent work for piano trio and vocals (based on an Octavio Paz text), Reinaldo Moya’s La Rima, with the JACK Quartet’s Christopher Otto on violin and Kevin McFarland on cello made a solid segue, strings swooping over a pensive piano rumble, building to a contrast between terse, incisive piano methodically punching against sostenuto atmospherics. A world premiere, William Cooper’s An Den Wassern Zu Babel was an intense and poignant interpretation of Psalm 137 (you may know it from Bach or the Melodians’ By the Rivers of Babylon). Cooper explained how affecting he found the end of the passage, which concludes with “Blessed are those who bash the bones of their children against the rocks,” and while the music, with considerable echoes of Bartok, never reached that level of violence, there was considerable anger and even more frustration. Over the course of seven movements, pianist Liza Stepanova worked the variations of a simple ascending progression lyrically and dynamically, through a sad, angry march, a hypnotically chilling, late Rachmaninovian-style passage and then the methodical, wounded sway of the final movement which ended sudden and cold.

The final piece, Nathan Shields’ Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking set text by Hart Crane and Walt Whitman to severe, sometimes acidic, evocatively wavelike piano played by Ed Neeman, Fischer speaking the final stanzas with a dramatic flair. The counterpoint between vocals and piano was both striking and hypnotic, the unease of the strings adding to the menace (the theme ponders the role of the ocean as both nurturer and destroyer), but as assured and engaged as the performers were, ultimately this was Horse Latitudes: awkward instant, and the first horse of many was jettisoned. What a treat it would be to hear this without the poetry – or with vocalese instead!

The popular, reliably adventurous Music Mondays at Advent Lutheran Church at 93rd and Broadway continues on May 31 with the Brentano Quartet.

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

Concert Review: Dollshot at Caffe Vivaldi, NYC 2/3/10

Creepy fun in the West Village. Dollshot’s shtick is that they take art songs from the classical and 20th century canon, jam out the intros and outros and a lot of times in between. The effect is inevitably some shade of macabre. Dollshot’s chosen genre may be classical but their vibe is pure punk rock, fearless and iconoclastic. When she wasn’t projecting with a seemingly effortless, obviously classically trained clarity, frontwoman Rosalie Kaplan stood motionless and deadpan in front of the band like a recently undead girl from the Twilight movies. Tenor saxophonist/bandleader Noah Kaplan alternated between slightly restrained bop – this was a small room show, after all – and long, somewhat sinister overtone passages. Pianist Wes Matthews’ precise articulation enhanced the horror-movie music box feel, as did electric bassist Giacomo Merega, supplying slithery cascades when he wasn’t providing a funereal pulse.

Galatea by Arnold Schoenberg was the first recipent of a macabre sax and piano interlude. A couple of Poulenc songs contrasted pretty, impressionistic, almost pop piano with menace from all sides. A Wes Matthews original, The Trees began as a twisted pop song with bass rumbles that the sax would cleverly echo later. The mantra “The trees are falling” gave way to “I can’t reach you with the burning of a thousand hearts,” Merega adding gently elegiac, staccato bass chords on the outro. After a mini-set of Charles Ives songs, they played an instrumental that vividly paired off Rosalie Kaplan’s warm, soaring vocalese with sax that started out grumpy and got angrier quickly. They closed with another Poulenc composition, the overtones of the sax oscillating hypnotically over bell-like, martial bass.

Watch this space for upcoming gigs; like most Brooklyn jazz guys, Noah Kaplan gets around: his next gig is a trio show with Benjy Fox-Rosen (of Luminescent Orchestrii) on bass and Matt Rousseau on drums at Unnameable Books in Ft. Greene on Feb 6.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment