Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

JD Allen Puts Out His Most Intense, Powerful Album in Close to a Decade

JD Allen is this century’s most powerful, relevant tenor saxophonist. He probably has a more intuitive understanding of both chromatics and the blues than any composer alive. His technique is scary, and unsurpassed when he feels like pulling out all the stops, something he always does when playing his own material. His latest album Toys/Die Dreaming is streaming at youtube. How ironic that he would win a poll for “rising star composer” when his star rose a long time ago, and never went down, even before his landmark I Am I Am album in 2008. It’s time we put this guy in the hall of fame alongside Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Pharaoh Sanders.

Recorded in a marathon one-day session in Queens this past January, this is an expansive and often searing recording with Allen’s current trio, which these days includes bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Until recently, Allen was best known for crystallizing a sharply purposeful style he called “jukebox jazz,” three-minute songs loaded with one slashing hook after another. His last three albums have been more expansive: this one blends the concise, relentless intensity of records like Victory with his more recent, longscale adventures. What’s consistent is is the almost absurdly hummable, singable quality of his tunes.

The trio open with the standard You’re My Thrill, the rhythm section doing a solid impression of a flamenco band with their flurrying beats as Allen’s darkly bracing phrases shift through emphatic, intense riffage, that signature rugged, gritty tone never wavering. Kenselaar has obviously taken a cue from his predecessor in the Allen trio, Gregg August, his solos leaping between slinky melody and stirring chords.

Allen’s first original is The G Thing, a dark, bluesy minor-key song without words, with a tentative swing where August and Allen’s original drummer, Rudy Royston, would have thrashed the shit out of this. Allen’s lusciously Lynchian smokiness right before the end perfectly capsulizes his appeal over the years.

Die Dreaming comes across as a Moisturizer song with tenor sax in place of Paula Henderson’s baritone, along with savagely erudite register shifts and the Arabic modes that  have become Allen’s signature trope when he wants to make a point. You want catchy? Purposeful? A bassist who’ll dig in for a chord if it’s needed?

Red Label, which the rhythm section brought with them after recording it with trombonist Peter Lin, gets elevated above (or maybe those of us on the low end should say below) generic slinky stripper territory into starkly smoky blues. Kenselaar and Allen team up in the F clef before the bandleader expands into what becomes more expansively lurid territory.

Toys, another original, is a classic Allen study in irony: predictably lyrical, bluesy sax, spare who knows what cutting loose from the rhythm. I Should Care, a familiar ballad from other projects, gets stripped to the bone, a stark portrait of white-knuckle, chilling angst. The three close the album with Allen’s blues-infused Elegua (The Trickster), Cacioppo shifting nimbly from a Royston Rumble to suspenseful swing behind Allen’s dark, increasingly sardonic runs, channeling a Yoruba god who won’t sit still. It’s a deliciously haphazard frontrunner for best jazz album of 2020, something Allen has definitely gotten used to over the years.

September 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

July 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Two-Piano Concert By the Lyrical Claire Ritter and the Hauntingly Acerbic Ran Blake

It’s going to be awhile before live music around the world is up and running again at pre-coronavirus levels, but there are innumerable great live albums we can enjoy in the meantime. One of the best of the past year or so is Ran Blake and Claire Ritter‘s Eclipse Orange, streaming at Spotify. Jazz musicians realized the innumerable benefits of making concert recordings just about as soon as the long-play vinyl record came into existence: Blake,  icon of noir jazz piano, has made more than one, while this is the first-ever twin-piano recording by Ritter, one of his protegees. They’re joined by saxophonist Kent O’Doherty for a college gig recorded in the fall of 2017 in North Carolina. It’s a long album, bigger on playful conversationality than the often chilling, highly improvisational tableaux Blake is unsurpassed at.

The show was a Thelonious Monk centenary celebration, and the group reinvent several of his tunes. But it’s the originals, and the improvisations, that are the real draw here. The simply titled Claire Ritter Story is the album’s opening number: there are places where this opaque, rather mysterious tune, with its mighty block chords, hints at going off the rails, but it never does. That will happen later from time to time. Beyond that, the playing is seamless and intuitive, Ritter usually in the good-cop role.

The duo’s devious repartee and rhythmic jousting throughout a thoroughly iced version of Blue Monk (that’s Blake in the right channel) energizes the crowd. Ritter’s title track, a lyrical solar eclipse narrative, doesn’t go thirty seconds without Blake bringing the glittering gremlins in. Backbone is a stride tune played through a funhouse mirror, while his well-known Short Life of Barbara Monk (a somber dedication to Monk’s late daughter) has a gorgeous focus that Ritter doesn’t wait to push into the macabre, only to pull it back.

O’Doherty joins in as the trio return to Monk for a jaunty but aptly phantasmagorical take of I Mean You, lightening later in Ritter’s High Top Sneakers. Blake shadows Ritter persistently in her lingering, Debussy-esque ballad In Between. Blue Grits has a sly, Monkish stroll, while Emerald and the Breeze has a gorgeously verdant closing-credits atmosphere.

Ghosts perambulate for flickering seconds and then stick around in the muted, stygian chords of Blake’s solo version of Summertime, echoed in his Improvisation of Selma, inspired by a Barbara Pennington painting. O’Doherty floats calmly over the gleaming neoromanticism of Ritter’s Karma Waltz, in contrast with the simmering agitation inherent in Waltzing the Splendor. Breakthru becomes a sort-of-wry game of knuckles, then the mood lightens with the Monkish ragtime of Cool Digs.

Blake goes under the hood for the summery soul ballad in Hubert Powell’s There’s Been a Change, then he makes it more of a song for all seasons. And he most likely isn’t the first guy you’d expect to be mining Brazilian repertoire, but he does that reflectively and reflexively here with famous Jobim and lesser known Ary Barroso themes. And if you ever wondered what Somewhere Over the Rainbow would sound like if Ran Blake – and Claire Ritter – did it, the answer is here. The Monkish take of Ritter’s Integrity ends the night on a deviously entertaining note

May 15, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Disquieting, Translucent Noir-Tinged Tunes and a Barbes Gig From Brian Shankar Adler’s Fourth Dimension

Said it before, time to say it again: good drummers have the best address books because everybody wants to play with them. Drummer Brian Shankar Adler‘s latest album Fourth Dimension – streaming at Bandcamp – is the latest to validate that argument, a darkly syncopated collection equally informed by minimalist 20th century music, Indian sounds and noir cinematics. Chances are he’ll be airing out plenty of this material at his gig at Barbes on Feb 20 at 8 PM. The eclectic, funky Sugartone Brass Band play after at around 10.

The album opens with a minimalist indie classical-style variations on a simple 1-5-octave piano riff from Santiago Liebson. Mantra is where vibraphonist Matt Moran and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger come in: it’s a syncopated take on ominous Twin Peaks jazz, guitar in place of the faux Miles trumpet that Angelo Badalementi would undoubtedly use here.

A Goldberger drone offers a backdrop to eerily dripppy vibes and piano as Rudram coalesces, then bassist Rob Jost loops a tasty Indian-tinged chromatic riff followed by blippy exchanges among the band: Rez Abbasi‘s more concise work comes to mind.

In Pulses, Goldberger holds down the lows while Moran balances the top end and the bandleader gets blustery, up to an unexpectedly windswept, sirening outro. Windy Path is less gusty than just oddly and creepily stairstepping: a cut and pasted take on broodingly catchy Britfolk, maybe. Gowanus – for out-of-towners, that’s the stinky Brooklyn canal, reputedly home to many, many corpses – rises from an acidic pool of sounds to a hypnotic, grimly funky groove lit up by the interplay between piano and vibes.

Watertown has a suspiciously bouncy, quasi nursery rhyme theme bookending a careening guitar break. Goldberger busts out his flange for Nuearth, a lingeringly woozy pastoral tune that Adler very cleverly syncopates around an enigmatically Romantic piano interlude. Petulant polyrhythms dominate the staggered mash of ideas in Pendulum, while the similar Rise and Fall leans toward the careeningly bucolic material Tom Csatari was writing a couple of years ago.

Thw band wind up the album with Alternative Facts, another bouncy metric maze that’s too crazy to believe despite hints of calypso and a ridiculous vibraphone solo. Fans of artists as diverse as the aforementioned Mr. Badalamenti, Kneebody and Chris Dingman should check out this strange and individualistic crew.

February 15, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.

December 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating a Halloween Classic and Its Enigmatic Composer

Today’s Halloween month installment revisits an iconic piece from the creepy classical repertoire: French early Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s been recorded to death (ouch, sorry), and strangely, it doesn’t seem to be represented in concert here in New York this month. But there’s a Utah Symphony recording worth hearing, if 19th century phantasmagoria is your thing – and if this album ever makes it to the web. For the moment, here’s a 1951 New York Philharmonic performance with maestro Dmitri Mitropoulos.

Conductor Thierry Fischer leads the Salt Lake City ensemble through a colorful, careening, deliciously inspired take. Madeline Adkins’ solo violin is jagged, almost haphazard, the simmer underneath is mutedly evil and the group are obviously having a great time with the gleeful grimness of this quasi-tarantella.

The rest of the record holds up robustly. The composer’s Symphony No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 55 opens with a series of spot-on, momentary solos from oboe, violin, bassoon and clarinet, introducing a slashing chromatic theme. The riffs are short, sharp, Mozartean, the orchestra pulsing tightly underneath. Saint-Saens was a prickly guy and didn’t do himself any favors for the sake of posterity, but this isn’t shalllow music, and the orchestra completely get that. It’s a clinic in classical composition.

The concise, contrapuntal phrasing of the second movement is more warmly crepuscular and early 19th century, closer to, say, Beethoven’s Sixth. Fischer lets the dogs out to leap and waltz around the wry, momentary solo passages of the third, then the orchestra go racing, lickety-split through the jaunty concentric circles of the finale. Still, conceptually, wouldn’t it have been a whole lot more interesting if Saint-Saens had rolled with the menace inherent in the opening movement? Maybe eschewing that was a commercial move, figuring that there’s only so much macabre an audience can take.

The opening of the other symphony here, No. 2 in F, “Urbs Roma” has been ripped off for plenty of pop songs over the years. It’s surprising that the tumbling pageantry of the second movement and the troubled Mitteleuroepean gothic of the third haven’t been also been plundered. The album’s liner notes witheringly quote Claude Debussy as saying that Saint-Saens – who’d trashed the debut of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn – once showed promise of becoming a great composer. Whatever you think of his music – his endless volleys of orchestral counterpoint, his grandiose, Lisztian piano concertos, his irresistible Organ Symphony and perhaps shockingly poignant solo organ works – you can’t deny his gift for pure entertainment. Once again, Fischer gets that, and so does this orchestra.

October 15, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A West Village Gig and an Dark, Underrated Gem from Guitarist Cameron Mizell

This blog once called Cameron Mizell the best pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. But aside from last names that rhyme, the two musicians’ talents extend far beyond that demimonde. Quietly and efficiently, Mizell has put together a remarkably tuneful, eclectic, understatedly cinematic body of work. In a world overpopulated by guys who play a million notes where one would do, Mizell’s economical, purposeful style stands out even more. He’s got a new duo album with fellow six-stringer Charlie Rauh and a show coming up at Greenwich House Music School at 7:30 PM on Sept 20. Harvey Valdes, who works a more traditional postbop vein, plays the album release show for his new solo record afterward; cover is $15.

Mizell’s arguably best, most Lynchian and most relevant album so far might be Memory/Imagination (streaming at Bandcamp), a brooding, multitracked deep-sky solo record he put out about a year after the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It opens with the distantly uneasy, lingering title cut, a tone poem awash in reverb and backward masking effects: imagine Big Lazy‘s Steve Ulrich making a 1970s style ECM record.

As puckishly picturesque and Pink Floydian as the second cut, Melting is, it’s also a surreal acoustic-electric portrait of global warming. A Toast is meant to evoke a boardroom full of corporate robber barons congratulating themselves: is the loopiness a snide poke at their groupthink, maybe? Interestingly, the song has a visceral, Indian-tinged sense of longing: maybe even those who destroy the world will also miss it when it’s gone.

The Wind Will Never Blow Us Out, a more minimalist take on pensive Jim Hall-style postbop, offers a somewhat more resilient perspective. A haunting, spikily fingerpicked waltz, Vulnerabilities was inspired by a chance meeting with a homeless vet searching in vain for a power outlet to juice his electric wheelchair. Mizell’s inspiration for the hypnotically echoing The View From Above came from a NASA photo of the earth from space, which had been deleted by the time Mizell went back to try to find it again. “Maybe it made America look too small for the new administration,” he relates.

We’ll Find Our Way Out of This Mess begins as a wry study in how to construct a pretty, folksy melody out of backward masking but then takes on epic, ominous proportions. Mizell, a natire Missourian, reflects on the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests in A Turning Point, an echoey, edgy, bluesy number akin to what David Gilmour could have done if he’d played on Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack. The album comes full circle with Decisions, a brighter, more optimistic series of variations on the opening theme. It’s a great late-night listen.

September 16, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.

July 24, 2019 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noir-Tinged Transcendence from Thumbscrew

Thumbscrew‘s show earlier this week at what has become an annual festival at the Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square West was more plaintive and haunting than expected. Guitarist Mary Halvorson left her pitch pedal alone for the most part until the last couple of numbers, where she went crazy with both live loops and warpy Jabba the Hut space lounge sonics. And although she did goose the audience, and maybe her bandmates too, with wry upward swipes at the end of a couple of numbers, she went for noir, and poignancy, and angst throughout most of the rest of the show.

It was almost funny to watch bassist Michael Formanek,, the group’s spokesman this time out, matter-of-factly walking a swing interlude in a tune by drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Otherwise, Formanek punched out miminalist pedalpoint, the occasional looming chord and plenty of somber, bowed phrases, often echoing Halvorson’s lingering, chilly, reverbtoned resonance. His comedic moment was a Sisyphian series of climbs, moving further and further up the scale with a predictable but irresistible tumble at the end.

Fujiwara was his typical counterintuitive self: trios tend to have busy drums, but not this unit. He opened and closed the set with tricky, peek-a-boo polyrhythms, driving the music forward against the beat. Beyond one relatively brief, stampeding cascade toward the end of the set, he kept his cymbals flickering,  with a subtle, lithe attack on the snare and toms.

The trio opened with Snarling Joys, a Halvorson tune, the guitarist foredshadowing the gloom ahead via a pointilllistic series of icepick riffs. Many of the set’s numbers bore a close resemblance to Big Lazy at their most haunting, and exploratory, notably Formanek’s bitterly aching Cruel Heartless Bastards, a take of Jimmy Rowles’ moody classic The Peacocks and Julio De Caro’s Buen Amigo, a tango from the band’s most recent all-covers album, Theirs. The companion album, Ours – all originals, naturally- was also well represented, particularly with a strutting but wounded reinvention of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting which turned out to be a lot more of a lament than a dancefloor hit. Other material was less harrowing: a tricky, serpentine take of Fujiwara’s Saturn Way; an even more rhythmically maddening yet supertight song that sounded like 70s British rock band Wire spun through a cuisinart; and the closing tune, Things That Rhyme with Spangle (that’s a very short version of the official song title), which Halvorson bent and twisted, finally hitting her distortion pedal for some roaring punk chords.

The series of free concerts at the Provincetown Playhouse continues into next week, resuming Monday, July 22 at 7 PM when Rolling Stones multi-saxophonist Tim Ries leads his band. Get there early, i.e. by 6:45 if you want to get in.

July 20, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment