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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last night at the Met Breuer (formerly known as the Whitney), Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played ECM noir. For those who don’t follow jazz improvisation, ECM is the venerable German label devoted to the spare, classically-influenced kind, and these two have a new album, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, out from them. It doesn’t swing: it marinates. And what a marinade the state-of-the-art pianist and iconic trumpeter came up with in front of a sold-out crowd that rewarded them with a couple of standing ovations.
That marinade had acerbity and spice, and if you buy the metaphor, astringency, but also a persistent unease that often drifted into ominousness and desolation. According to Iyer, they drew significantly on the spare, meticulously miniamlistc work of Nasreen Mohamedi currently on display at the museum, which is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stash their modern collection. The chemistry and cameraderie between the two players was comfortable to the point of joyous restraint. Each musician played with economy, Iyer with a chilly, airconditioned judiciousness, otherworldly Messiaenic harmonies, bell tones and an incessant, stygian pedalpoint that he finally took into the upper registers. For someone so direct, transparent and dedicated to getting the max out of the min, Smith employed a surprising amount of extended technique, from valve-shivering harmonics to ghostly wisps of breath.
This being a duo improvisation, there was all sorts of repartee, but ultimately the conversation wound down to “I’ve got your back.” Each anchored the other when he’d go out on a limb, Smith often providing calm, steady half-notes while Iyer clustered or insistently chiseled out space, Iyer providing moody reflecting pools and upper-register penlight illumination when Smith would fire off a series of flurries. Including the encore, there seemed to be six discrete pieces, most of them following a segue. Each segment followed a steady series of upward and downward arcs, Smith using his mute when the shadows grew longest, Iyer switching back and forth between piano and Rhodes as well as a mini-synth and mixer which he used for distant atmospherics and, finally, a persistent, looping rhythm. In the end, they came full circle, back to Iyer’s high/low, troubled/guardedly optimistic dialectics, Smith hovering with a magisterial warmth overhead.
And as if to say to the crowd, “You’ve earned it,” the encore was more still, and minimalistic, and rapt than anything they’d done to that point – but also prayerful and ultimately hopeful. At the end, Smith went way up high for a fleeting two-note phrase and then immediately looked to Iyer with a we-got-it grin. Iyer sat motionless, holding down the keys: he wasn’t going to give anything away until its time. It made for an unexpectedly amusing ending to broodingly rapt night. Iyer and Smith are embarking on a US tour; dates are here.
What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.
Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.
What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.
The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.
She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.
Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.
Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.
Gato Loco got their start putting a punk-jazz spin on classic old Cuban son and mambo styles, with low-register instruments: baritone and bass sax, tuba, bass and baritone guitar, among others. Snice then, they’ve expanded their sound with a rotating cast of characters: it wasn’t long before they’d added originals to their set. They had long-running residencies at the old Bowery Poetry Club and the late, lamented Zirzamin. Since then, gigs have been somewhat fewer and further between, especially since frontman/multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk is so highly sought after as a sideman. It’s never exactly certain just what Gato Loco lineup is going to show up, but it’s a safe bet that their gig this Saturday night, November 21 at 10 PM at BAM Cafe will be a party.
Their most recent show at another frequent haunt, Barbes, was this past June, where they were joined by a hotshot Strat player along with Tim Vaugn on trombone, Tuba Joe, Ari F-C on bass and the brilliant Kevin Garcia (also of another similarly estimable noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns) on drums. They opened with an agitatedly pulsing chase scene of sorts that rose to a wailing, enveloping forestorm as the rhythm went completely haywire along with the rest of the band, faded down into cinders and then sprang up again in a split second. Zeniuk’s ghostly bass sax mingled with lingering, reverbtoned Lynchian licks from the guitar as the slow, slinky second number got underway, then shifted shape into a warmly moonlit tableau before rising toward macabre Big Lazy territory. From there they segued into a dark clave groove, Vaugn punching holes in the sky, Garcia tumbling elegantly in the background as the horns joined forces, terse and somewhat grim as they went way down low. The careening, axe-murderer sprint to the finish line was one of the most exhilarating moments of any show anywhere this year – and probably one of the loudest ever at little Barbes.
From there the band went epic, making a slow, big-sky highway theme out of a wistful Gulf Coast folk-inspired tune, slowly elevating to a lively, scampering fanfare, then down again, Vaugn pulling the rest of the group along with a long, tightly unwinding staccato solo. The low instruments’ murky noir sonics contrasted with the guitarist’s spare, sunbaked blues and Memphis soul lines as the next number got underway, Zeniuk finally signaling with a snort that it was time to build another funeral pyre on top of the serpentine groove. The best song of the night was a gloomy bolero, played in a dynamically shifting vein as Sergio Mendoza might have done it, featuring a muted trumpet solo, another pyrotechnically noisy interlude and an unexpected, clickety-clack dixieland outro. Name another band with as many flavors as these crazy cats.
It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.
Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.
Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.
Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.
The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.
One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.
Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.