Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Piano Titan Vijay Iyer Scores a Harrowing Multimedia Performance

Last night at National Sawdust, pianist Vijay Iyer joined with bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan to create a somber, stunned, broodingly opaque and occasionally picturesque backdrop for Teju Cole‘s  allusively harrowing spoken word narrative, Blind Spot. Informed by history, portraiture, archaeology and Greek myth, Cole’s vignettes traced decades of humans being inhuman to each other, and how conveniently we forget.

Cole didn’t waste any time making his point. One of the first of the photo projections in his series of vignettes was a snapshot of a simple piece of poster graffiti in a Berlin neighborhood which once housed a gestapo torture complex. The message was simple. In black-and-white English, it said, “Sign here.” Cole related that when he returned a week later, the poster had been replaced by a billboard. “Darkness is lack of information,” he mused later during the performance. Is it ever.

Cole nonchalantly offered that his way of seeing had been radically changed by a blindness scare and then an apparently successful eye operation. The unseen seems to be as central to his work as the visible. An elegaic sensibility wove through his quietly provocative, interconnected narrative. Death – by torture, drowning, car accident, Klansmen and genocide – was a constant and pervasive presence.

The music matched the words and visuals. Iyer set the stage with a simple binary chord, a distant star against an obsidian sky. From time to time, the group improvisation became more programmatic – rushing water imagery and a sudden gust off a Swiss lake, for example. The most harrowing moment was when Cole related visiting the site of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and referenced both McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison’s roles in John Coltrane’s classic elegy for the victims, Alabama. Iyer and then Oh both quoted Coltrane’s pianist and bassist briefly – Oh’s sudden, frantic downward cascade might have been the night’s most stunning moment.

There were many others. Iyer began by working uneasy harmonies against a central tone, raga style, eventually building a Satie-esque menace while Brennan bowed her bells. As the night went on, Oh became more present, whether with an unexpected, circling series of harmonics that evoked Stephan Crump, or spare, emphatic accents moving with a slow but immutable defiance away from the center.

Brennan took the lead when Iyer went into Lynchian soundtrack mode, adding shivery chromatic phrases over macabre piano allusions that Iyer quickly embellished so as to keep the suspense from ever reaching any kind of resolution. The three finally reached toward closure with a concluding requiem, but even there the gloom didn’t lift. Earlier, Cole recalled a medieval painting that depicts Agamemnon offering his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that he could start a war with Troy: the anguished tyrant has his back to the viewer, unable to face what he’s just done. These days it looks more and more like the House of Atreus is us.

Iyer plays Tanglewood on July 13 with violinist Jennifer Koh. The next jazz event at National Sawdust – always a pleasure to visit and revel in the exquisite sonics  there – is on August 30 at 7 PM with perennially unpredictable guitar luminary Mary Halvorson; advance tix are $25.

July 9, 2017 Posted by | Art, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic, Haunting Jazz Guitarist Bill Frisell Plays a Rare Duo Show in Brooklyn

Bill Frisell’s first album as a bandleader was just guitar and bass (and lots of overdubs). Who knew that this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist would ever revisit that format? Almost thirty-five years later, the bassist is Thomas Morgan, and the album, Small Town, is a live recording from the Village Vanguard from just a few months ago It’s hard to hear online, but you can catch the two when they make a relatively rare Brooklyn appearance at Roulette on June 30 at 8. Advance tix are just $20, and having seen Frisell in this particular borough, it’s not a safe bet to assume that the show won’t sell out.

The first track is an eleven-minute version of Paul Motian’s Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Resonant, starry, minimalist motives give way to a distantly ominous big-sky theme spiced with wispy harmonics and Morgan’s lurking presence. A wistful waltz develops and is then subsumed by  brooding pedalpoint with stark gospel allusions as Frisell builds a hypnotic web of contrapuntal loops. If this doesn’t end up in a Twin Peaks episode, that would be criminal.

The two make a briskly caravanning stroll out of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, threatening to take it down into the depths but never completely submerging. Morgan hangs back and punches in gingerly throughout most of the spacious, uneasy ballad Song for Andrew No. 1 (an Andrew Cyrille shout-out). Referneces to a famously infirm New Orleans funeral tune flicker amidst Frisell’s lingering single-note lines as he waits til the very end to go for the macabre.

He does Wildwood Flower a lot – this one offers genially blithe, bluegrassy contrast and some neatly understated counterpoint between the two musicians. 

The title track expands on the old Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme, Frisell finally flinging some noir and some wryly muted surf riffs into the purposeful, steady walk as Morgan straddles the same thin grey line. After that, the two pulse their way mutedly through Fats Domino’s What a Party; which sounds a lot more like the old folk song Shortnin’ Bread. Ironically, it’s the most pastoral track here – hearing Morgan toss off a handful of C&W guitar licks on his bass is a trip.

Poet – Pearl is a diptych. Morgan shifts around with a pensive incisiveness in the upper midrange, as he usually does throughout the set while Frisell plays a gently tremoloing lullaby of sorts. then the two follow the night’s most divergent courses, segueing into the lone Morgan composition here, a bittersweetly catchy jazz waltz where the bassist finally gets to carry the melody. The last song of the set is a spare, lowlit, increasingly desolate take of the Goldfinger theme that leaves no doubt that it’s about a spy. At the end, Frisell turns it into the old blues lament Baby Please Don’t Go.

Where does this rank in the Frisell pantheon? Maybe not on the towering, harrowing noir pinnacle with, say, 2007’s History, Mystery but it’s close. You’ll see this on a whole lot of best-of-2017 lists, not just here, at the end of the year.

June 28, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

May 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Iconoclasts Be Iconic?

It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty years since Iconoclast, one of the world’s definitive noir jazz acts, put out their first album. Since then, the duo of saxophonist/violinist Julie Joslyn and drummer/pianist Leo Ciesa have built a distinctive body of work that’s part rainswept nocturnes, part edgy downtown improvisation and part punk jazz. Their brand-new thirtieth anniversary album, aptly titled Driven to Defiance, is due out momentarily, and the duo have an album release show on April 7 at 7 PM at stage 2 at Michiko Studios, 149 W 46 St on the second floor.

The album opens with the title track, rising from Ciesa’s spare, ominously crescendoing, echoey drum intro, then Joslyn’s similarly spare, bittersweet late-night streetcorner sax takes over. It’s been a pretty desolate journey, but not an unrewarding one.

Fueled by Joslyn’s violin, One Hundred Verticals builds from horizontal Americana, through a bracingly microtonal dance to gleefully marauding shred. Too Late to Worry, with its catchy, mantra-like sax hook and artfully shifting polyrhythms, comes across as a mashup of Raya Brass Band and legendary downtown punk-sax band Moisturizer. Likewise, More of Plenty is awash in biting Balkan tonalities, from a tongue-in-cheek, icily dripping Ciesa solo piano intro to Joslyn’s airy sax multitracks.

The two follow Ciesa’s judiciously strolling, Schoenbergian piano piece Thinking Thoughts with You Are So Very Touchable, his muted stalker drums eerily anchoring Joslyn’s gentle, lyrical sax. Spheres of Influence is Iconoclast at their sardonic, epically assaultive best, a cackling, chattering, often hilarious Tower of Babel that would make an apt theme for Donald Trump’s next reality tv show, assuming he’s around to do one.

The Flat Magnetic Girl is a jaunty, honking strut, and the catchiest tune on the album…with a trick ending. Although nine minutes long and awash in moody resonance, the mini-suite Part of the Hour, with its menacing jazz-poetry interlude, is no less tuneful.

Ciesa’s intricately tuned snare and toms develop a countermelody under Joslyn’s somber sax in The Customary Slip. He does the same thing throughout the neat clave-funk-punk of Luck is Relative. There’s also a bonus track, wryly titled Take 18 (Live at Funkadelic), a playfully plucky, shrieky violin-and-drums theme that sounds like it was recorded at the legendary, labarynthine rehearsal space’s old Flower District location. Perennially fresh and always with a dark undercurrent, Iconoclast have more than earned themselves iconic status.

April 4, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare New York Show and a Killer Album from Paris Combo

Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $22 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.

Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.

Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.

Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.

Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,

Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.

February 18, 2017 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

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.

January 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mesmerizing Lynchian Nocturnes from Sara Serpa and Andre Matos

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.

December 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New York’s Best 2016 Halloween Concert? At Barbes Last Month

As far as New York concerts this year go, the most irresistibly yet understatedly macabre Halloween music played on any stage in this city was Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell‘s duo performance of Holmes’ Conqueror Worm Suite at Barbes on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s lurid 1843 poem, it’s a disturbing, grimly picturesque, many-segmented work – just like Poe’s flesh-eating insect.

A catchy, low-key trumpet figure with allusions to oldtime African-American gospel matched by moody, suspenseful low-register accordion opened the suite before Holmes picked up the pace, pensively and optimstically. The trumpeter narrated the first verse as Farrell’s accordion shifted into a morosely staggered waltz rhythm, Holmes’ brooding lines overhead echoing the Balkan music he’s been immersed in over the years, especially at this venue.

The poem follows the same plotline as Poe’s better-known short story The Masque of the Red Death. a high-society party turned into a nightmare – in 2016 political terms, there might be some symbolism here. Holmes put his mute in for a plaintive, rustically bluesy minor-key theme as Farrell held down a brooding, resonant anchoring ambience. From there the duo shifted unexpectedly from a momentary interlude of sheer, rapt horror to a bouncy Balkan dance, the trumpet soaring over Farrell’s rat-a-tat pulse; then the two switched roles and intertwined like..well, a giant worm and its prey.

After a briefly scampering detour, Farrell took centerstage with his big, evil, Messiaeneaque chords as Holmes did a Frankenstein sway several octaves higher. Since we know how the poem ends, it’s probably fair to give away the ending: only here did Holmes let terror flutter through his valves. The duo wound it up with a morose march. According to esteemed photographer and Barbes music room honcho Kate Attardo, this was the second time the work had been performed in its entirety here. Attardo knows a thing or two about good Balkan and brass music, and strongly affirmed that as good as the debut was, this performance was even better. There’ll be a “best concerts of 2016” page here at the end of the year, and this one will be on it. Holmes’ next gig is on Nov 5 at 10 at Barbes with mighty, exhilarating Sionaloa-style ranchera brass orchestra Banda De Los Muertos. Farrell’s next New York show is on Nov 28 at 6 PM with klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals‘ sizzling band outdoors at the triangle at 63rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side.

October 28, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Relatively Rare Appearance by the Darkly Exhilarating Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra

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.

June 30, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment