Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.
The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.
The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.
Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!
Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.
It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.
Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.
The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.
The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crescendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.
The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.
Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.
Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.
Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.
The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.
As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.
From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.
The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?
Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums
While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.
It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.
Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work
Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.
The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.
Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.
The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories
The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.
The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.
With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.
The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.
Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.
Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.
Big band jazz composers may be the most pure artists in all of music. These people do what they do strictly out of love. When you’re done paying the band – if in fact there IS anything to pay the band with- there is absolutely no money in writing original big band jazz. Even the universally respected Maria Schneider survives on Chamber Music America grants. So it would be a little misleading to say that the last time this blog caught a show by the Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, it was in late summer 2014 at a now-defunct Park Slope coffee emporium/wifi hotspot. The mighty ensemble might have played a couple of gigs since then. But what a fantastic show this one turned out to be! Considering how much of an individualist the bandleader is – his axe is the alto flugelhorn, sort of a higher-pitched valve trombone – it was no surprise to hear how distinctive his music for large ensemble is, a stormy, brassy blend of old and new, with a nod to the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans records of the late 50s and early 60s. He’s pulling the group together for a 4:30 PM gig on July 10 at Smalls; cover is $20 and includes a drink.
That Brooklyn show – at the old Tea Lounge, which for quite awhile was booked by a similarly estimable big band composer, JC Sanford – opened with deliciously bustling noir 50s crime jazz riffage and quickly hit a latin-infused swing fueled by an indomitable baritone sax solo, the brass punching in like a heavyweight with his nemesis on the ropes. A steady, apprehensively fiery trumpet solo handed off to sparsely dancing bass and eerily modal piano until the band rose again. It was like being at a Gil Evans show half a century ago, albeit surrounded by North Slope kids absorbed in their laptops and tablets.
Reeves kept the latin flavor going through the vampy second number, a brassy blaze finally interrupted by a wryly garrulous bari sax break, the composer taking a judiciously enigmatic, uneasily bubbling solo as the rhythm section crashed and burned. Catchy call-and-response between high reeds and brass dominated the trickily syncopated number after that, lit up by a tantalizingly moody alto sax solo.
A brooding midtempo clave number was next, Reeves soloing resolutely and steadily as the rest of the brass shivered, up to a neat if similarly uneasy round-robin brass chart, The band sank their collective teeth into a blustery early space-age Ellingtonian shuffle after that, And the trumpet solo on the eerily triplet-infused number that followed, wow. If memory serves right, the band also made their way through an Ellington tune late in the set (when you’re multitasking and letting your recorder do the heavy lifting, details like this grow exponentially elusive over time).
Oh yeah – one more thing – Reeves loves false endings as much as he loves noir latin grooves. There’s nothing more fun than getting the crowd to believe that every single one of the eighteen or so people onstage is finished, when in fact they’re not. At this late date, it’s impossible to remember who was in the band – Sanford might have been on trombone, maybe Ben Kono – a fortuitously ubiquitous presence in big band circles in this city these days – on alto sax, possibly Carl Maraghi on bari sax and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, among the group assembled back behind the couches along the space’s northern wall. What’s coolest about the Smalls gig is that whoever’s on piano gets to play the house upright rather than the electric piano the band was forced to make do with in Park Slope.
Thursday night at Symphony Space, Oleg Kireyev and his quintet made their North American debut. playing movies for the ears. Kireyev is a connoisseur of cinematic latin-tinged 70s soundtrack jazz, much in the same vein as Ennio Morricone (the Taxi Driver soundtrack seemed to be a blueprint for much of this set). Perhaps taking a page out of the Kenny Garrett book, saxophonist Kireyev began the show on piano, establishing a catchy, trad late 50s Miles vernacular with his spacious block chords. Then he handed over piano duties to Yuri Pogiba, switching to tenor for a lively, intertwining conversation with trumpeter Rustem Galiullin.
The rest of the concert saw the group building picturesque scenarios, caffeinated urban chase scenes punctuated by the occasional moody electroacoustic tableau, icy longtone sheets of synth enhancing the tense, airconditioned chill. You might not expect a guy playing Paul McCartney’s choice of bass, a vintage Hofner model, to make his most memorable solo an evocation of a soaring horn line, but that’s what Oleg Yangurov did. And you might not expect a Russian to keep the clave going, whether straightforwardly or artfully concealed on the hi-hat amidst a thicket of polyrhythms, but drummer Rustem Kalimov was on it all the way through. Kireyev varied his tone from bell-clear to gruff and throaty, depending on what the music called for. And for all the relentless suspense and gravitas and occasional windswept steppe ambience, Kireyev has a sense of humor. He got the crowd chuckling when he dared them to vocalize along with him – by throat-singing. “It’s easy,” he grinned, something the crowd did not confirm even though they were having a great time trying to mimic his keening overtones.
Trumpeter Brian Carpenter‘s Ghost Train Orchestra has most recently capitalized on the nuevo moldy fig jazz market; their 2011 album Hothouse Stomp was an irresistibly frantic romp through the books of obscure hot jazz bandleaders Charlie Johnson, Tiny Parham and Fess Williams. But Carpenter has roots in noir music, from his days with Boston band Beat Circus in the early 90s, so the Ghost Train Orchestra’s new album Book of Rhapsodies is something of a return to form. When it’s not, it’s a mix of early third-stream compositions, some with a cinematic or cartoonish tinge, from some familiar and more obscure names from the 30s and 40s. There will be some listeners who see the cd sleeve art or the Raymond Scott compositions and assume that this is kitsch, or will misuse the word “ironic” in describing it, both of which would be a mistake
Beyond the frequent noir, there’s a winking, sotto vocce “see if they get it” to many of these compositions, but that’s less musician-insiderness than simply tongue-in-cheek fun. The album opens with Charlie’s Prelude, by Louis Singer (who wrote charts for the pioneering cult favorite John Kirby Sextet in the 30s), turning the immortal Chopin E Minor Prelude into a borrowed Black & Tan Fantasy with a bluesy slink and a broodingly resonant trombone lead from Curtis Hasselbring. Beethoven Riffs On, also by Singer, swings a theme from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with a latin-tinged hi-de-ho bounce. Carpenter and ensemble rescue British composer Reginald Foresythe’s Volcanic (Eruption for Orchestra) from obscurity with a dixieland scamper spiced with the occasional eerie flourish from Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet. And Carpenter’s arrangement of another Foresythe track, Revolt of the Yes Men gives banjoist Brandon Seabrook a chance to buzz and be a tremolo-picking thorn in the side of the orchestra and their intricate exchange of voices; it’s more revolutionary than simply having been ahead of its 1936 era.
Dawn on the Desert, by Kirby Sextet trumpeter Charlie Shavers, does Gershwin’s Summertime as a Hollywood hijaz nocturne, Carpenter’s moody trumpet exchanging with Avi Bortnick’s ominously tremoloing guitar, then morphs into a skronky march reminscent of late 80s John Zorn. The album’s centerpieces, more or less, come from the Alec Wilder catalog: the lushly orchestrated, suspiciously deadpan Dance Man Buys a Farm (an apt juxtaposition with Raymond Scott’s The Happy Farmer); the more moody, tensely pulsing It’s Silk, Feel It; The Children Meet the Train, which is Old Man River thinly disguised at doublespeed; and Her Old Man Was (At Times) Suspicious, which with its sudden jump-cut phrasing is the closest thing here to Scott’s Looney Tunes soundtracks.
There are also a couple additional, absolutely killer tracks from the Scott catalog. At An Arabian House Party works a creepy noir swing fueled by Bortnick’s jagged, Steve Ulrich-esque guitar in place of the original harpsichord part, like Beninghove’s Hangmen playing it very close to the vest. And Celebration on the Planet Mars, with its surreal, atmospheric swells and fades, serves as a magic carpet for the rest of the ensemble to take for an unselfconsciously joyous, vaudevillian ride. The rest of this edition of the band includes Andy Laster on alto sax; Petr Cancura on tenor sax and clarinet; Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola; Mazz Swift on violin and vocals; Brandon Seabrook on banjo; Ron Caswell on tuba, Michael Bates on bass and Rob Garcia on drums. Their previous album spent a long time at the top of the Billboard jazz charts; one suspects this will do the same. They play the album release show at Subculture at 8 PM on Oct 26.