Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Hot Jazz on a Hot Summer’s Day

The party at Saturday’s slate of hot jazz bands at Central Park Summerstage was out back, on the lawn behind the arena. The picknickers and snuggling couples who’d made that spot their destination were on to something. There are no sightlines back there, unless you sit on somebody’s shoulders, maybe, but the grass has grown in since the hurricane, making a comfortable return to a time that for awhile seemed gone for good.

Inside, a mostly white, monied, youngish crowd slowly grew, milling around aimlessly, lethargic as the sun beat down oppressively on the astroturf. The bleachers to the left and right were packed, especially in the shade of the trees. The tented spaces directly behind the sound booth – which these days is situated at the back of a wide, fenced-off path to the stage – are paid seats reserved for ticketholders who fork over thousands of dollars to sit there, according to one of the many, many ushers working the show. But those seats remained empty for the duration of a concert that went on for over four hours. Then again, hedge funders are not known for their fondness for dancing, or their taste in music, or for any kind of fun in general. What would have been fun would have been to organize a posse to occupy those seats since all that space was going to waste. Needless to say, plenty of people would have jumped at a chance to do that in, say, 1988, when the arena was funded by taxpayer money rather than hedge funders trying to dodge the IRS. Then again, that was also before antidepressants and post-9/11 security paranoia.

On one hand, this concert was a bunch of familiar faces playing familiar material. Then again, that’s a spoiled New Yorker’s view. Many of the creme de la creme of the New York oldtimey swing jazz scene made their way up to the bandstand as the sun made its way slowly across the sky. Trumpter Bria Skonberg served as emcee for the New York Hot Jazz All-Stars, an aptly named pickup band featuring – in no particular order – Anat Cohen on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon (who’d just played a raptly fun set with Svetlana and the Delancey Five the previous night) on trombone and vocals, Jerron “Blnd Boy” Paxton on banjo, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Vince Giordano on bass, vocals and bass sax and Joe Saylor on drums. With dixieland flair and expertly bluesy chops, they made their way through a New Orleans-heavy set, Gordon channeling Louis Jordan with similar erudite, unselfconscious verve.

Hot Sardines frontwoman Elizabeth Bougerol, decked out in a dazzling orange pantssuit, sang the most apt song of the afternoon. The wistfully swinging title track to the band’s new album French Fries and Champagne may speak to those on a beer budget with a taste for bubbly, but it’s as much of a guardedly hopeful anthem for those who’ve weathered the past several years’ blitzkrieg of gentrification. Bougerol didn’t mention the UK’s secession from the European Union – Svetlana did that the previous night, with relish – but that’s the first domino. The real estate bubble can’t last much longer. Meanwhile, the band – musical director Evan Palazzo on piano, Jason Prover on trombone, Mike Sailor on trumpet, plus sax, rhythm section and a full string quartet – partied like it was 1929. Bougerol toyed with the beat in a brassy, sometimes languid, sometimes come-hither mezzo-soprano, through a set composed mostly of original, period-perfect continental 1930s style swing numbers. The best of the standards was Bougerol’s insightful bilingual rendition of an old chestnut, titled Comes Love in English, but whose French chorus translates loosely as “Love Is Fucked Up.” They also took a rather farfetched stab at horn-driven countrypolitan along with a misguided remake of a wretched 1980s cheeseball pop hit. Then again, that song was huge in France, and that’s where Bougerol hails from.

Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 headlined. By then, the turf had really soaked up the heat and was throwing it back up, and the band onstage reflected that. This is basically trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s return to his roots playing the lively New Orleans-centric swing and pre-swing repertoire he cut his teeth on in Berkeley and then New York before making his own indelible mark as an avatar of noir, and film music, and Jewish jazz. So it was no surprise to hear him leap and snort and fire off one explosive burst after another as pianist Henry Butler boogied and rumbled and barrelhoused, guitarist Matt Munisteri jangling and clanging through every hip voicing in the book as the horns and strings wove an endlessly joyous lattice of southern-fried revelry. Inside, the crowd’s energy level had picked up to the point where it was hard to find a space out of the sun that wasn’t forbidden. Out back on the lawn, there was plenty of space, and relaxation, a good place for starting over when the time comes. And it will. Bring it on.

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June 27, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charming, Erudite Swing Sophistication from Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies

Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies distinguish themselves from the rest of the hot jazz pack by hanging out on the pillowy side of the street. Their sophisticatedly charming new album, Get Out Under the Moon is snuggle music. It’s best experienced with someone near and dear to you, or thoughts of someone near and dear to you. It can be danced to; much of it was written for that. Speaking from experience, let’s say that if you are a single person in New York, you will be missing out if you don’t own this album. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet someone with something similar in mind at the release show on January 17 at 7 PM at the Slipper Room, that’s not out of the question either. Cover is $12.

Grace is one of New York’s most distinctive and elegant singers. Her voice is plush, clear and unadorned; often she’ll add just the subtlest hint of vibrato at the end of a phrase. She sings in character, but with warmth and restraint: even the most over-the-top personas from both the rare and well-known swing numbers in her repertoire get the benefit of her sophistication and wit. The new album opens with a bit of a red herring, an opiated take of a noir cha-cha, Amapola, a shout-out to a pretty little poppy, spiced gingerly with solos from irrepressible multi-instrumentalist J. Walter Hawkes’ trombone and Tom Beckham’s simmering vibraphone.

Grace lends a wary, understatedly brooding edge to Say It Isn’t So, Hawkes matching the vocals with his foghorn resonance. She takes a more cajoling approach on the album’s swinging title track, infused with aptly wry, early-evening roller-rink organ from Hawkes. Cole Porter’s Find Me a Primitive Man digs deeper into the song’s cabana-jazz roots than its composer probably ever dreamed, anchored with a muted oomph by Tom Pietrycha’s bass and Russ Meissner’s drums, with latin jazz great Willie Martinez on percussion and Hawkes having the time of his caveman life with the mute on his trombone.

Grace picks up the coy charm, but just a little, with the gentle innuendos of the boudoir swing tune What Do We Do on a Dew Dew Dewy Day, Hawkes switching to uke for a good-natured solo. Then Grace puts a little brittle, wounded brass into her voice for a plaintive take of Irving Berlin’s heartbroken waltz, You Forgot to Remember, M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson adding sad, sepulchral ambience with her singing saw behind Hawkes’ twinkling glockenspiel. I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, popularized by Bing Crosby, makes an apt segue.

Grace’s gracefully defiant understatement in Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me Now underscores the lyrics’ bitterness, set to a purposeful stroll punctuated by vibes and trombone. Then she moves to a sweetly lilting cajolement in the risqe 1934 hit Pettin’ in the Park and keeps the balmy, upbeat trajectory climbing through the Johnny Mercer novelty swing tune Pardon My Southern Accent, guitarist Mike Neer contributing a spiky Wes Montgomery-flavored solo.The album’s most disarming moment – arguably the most upbeat suicide song ever written – is Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River, Thompson serving as rustic one-woman string section.

The only place on the album where Grace reaches toward vaudevillian territory is So Is Your Old Lady, which, by contrast, makes the longing of Take My Heart all the more poignant, lowlit by Beckham’s lingering vibes. The album winds up on a lively Hawaiian-flavored note with I Love a Ukulele, harking back to Grace’s days as a founding member of pioneering New York oldtimey band the Moonlighters. The album’s not officially out yet and therefore not at the usual spots, but there are a couple of tracks up at the band’s music page and also Hawkes’ youtube channel.

January 6, 2016 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Hot Jazz Jumpers Revisit and Reinvent the Wildly Syncretic Spirit of the 1920s

True to their name, the Hot Jazz Jumpers‘s sound springboards off of oldtimey 20s and 30s swing. And in the spirit of those mostly unsung, regional combos who ripped up dancefloors back in the day, the Hot Jazz Jumpers mash up styles from all over the map. The seventeen tracks on their new album The Very Next Thing and live concert dvd comprise swing, delta blues, southern rock, C&W, Carolina Coast folk music, free improvisation and more. So their sound is totally retro – yet completely in the here and now, another case where the old is new again. they’re playing the album release show on Friday, November 6 at 11 PM in the cozy confines at Pete’s, which should be party in a box – literally. As a bonus, guitarist/bandleader Nick Russo does double duty, opening the night at 10 with a set with his ambitious large-ensemble jazz project Nick Russo +11, who’re celebrating their ninth year in business.

The new album opens with a scampering take of Back Home Again in Indiana, sung by banjoist/guitarist/dancer Betina Hershey. Lots of period-perfect, quirky touches here, from the twin banjos, to Walter Stinson’s sotto vocce bass solo, even a dinner bell. They follow that with Freight Train, a dobro-driven oldtime C&W tune, Hershey’s honeyed vocals evoking Laura Cantrell. The take of Caravan here is a long, loose, otherworldly-tinged shuffle with vocalist Miles Griffith’s rustic, impassioned gullah-inspired vocals, Russo’s spiraling solo echoing Gordon Au’s jaunty trumpet lines.

Griffith’s gruffly animated scatting contrasts with Hershey’s summery warmth on You Are My Sunshine, reinvented as a sprawling soukous jam. Nobody But My Baby Is Getting My Love gets an oldtimey banjo swing treatment livened with Josh Holcomb’s wry, amiable trombone.  Russo and Griffith do both In a Mellow Tone and Manha de Carnaval as a duo, the ancient paired against the brand-new.

Driven by Russo’s slide guitar, Jock-a-Mo looks back to the Grateful Dead, if with considerably more focus. Dirty 40 slowly builds from stark delta blues to a Stonesy ba-bump Beggars Banquet groove. Fueled by the banjos and Hershey’s sassy delivery, Sweet Georgia Brown mashes up 40s swing, bucolic string band ambience and an Aiko Aiko Crescent City bounce. They keep the Aiko Aiko thing going through the spirited Jam for Lenny.

Hershey’s nuanced sense of angst breathes new life into a slowly swinging, bristling, banjo-propelled take of Ain’t Misbehavin. By contrast, they do Got My Mojo Working as a loose Mississippi juke joint jam, Russo’s slide guitar front and center. The upbeat dance vibe continues through the oldtimey swing of When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along, then the band mashes up gospel, gullah folk and bluegrass in This Little Light of Mine. There’s also a second take of Jock-a-Mo and a lively jam on the way out. The album hasn’t officially hit the street just yet, but copies are available at shows and the opening track is up at soundcloud.

November 5, 2015 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghost Train Orchestra Bring the Roaring 20s and the Not-So-Roaring 20s to the Jalopy

The Ghost Train Orchestra differentiate themselves from most of the oldtime swing bands out there in that they don’t play standards. They specialize in rescuing lost treasures from the 20s and 30s, songs that were typically unknown outside of small, regional scenes. Part living archive, part tight, explosive dance band, it’s no wonder that their albums routinely top the jazz charts. They’re playing the cd release show for their latest one Hot Town this May 22 at 10 PM at the Jalopy. Because the venue is expecting a sellout, they’re selling advance tix for $10. Opening the show at 9, GTO clarinetist Dennis Lichtman does double duty and switches to his fiddle and maybe his mandolin out in front of his western swing band Brain Cloud.

The new album is a mix of songs that didn’t make it onto the orchestra’s 2011 breakthrough album Hothouse Stomp, along some even more obscure rediscoveries and a couple that might be slightly better known – go figure! The title track is actually a reinvention rather than a straight-up cover -and it was actually a big hit for Harlem’s Fess Williams and his orchestra in 1929 as a vamping novelty tune. This version has guest bass saxophonist Colin Stetson providing eerie diesel-train overtones before the clickety-clack groove gets underway. A second track originally done by Williams, You Can’t Go Wrong has more of a 19th century plantation-folk feel than the rest of the material here.

This album marks the debut release of Mo’Lasses, the second track, recorded by Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, also in 1929, but never released. As rapidfire doom blues (is that a genre?) go, it’s got a striking early Ellingtonian sophistication; bandleader Brian Carpenter’s trumpet, Petr Cancura’s clarinet and Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone all get brisk solos.

Hot jazz cult bandleader Charlie Johnson is represented by You Ain’t the One, with its jaunty, staccato brass and low-key but determined Mazz Swift vocals – and Charleston Is the Best Dance After All, which winds up the album. Benny Waters’ Harlem Drag strongly suggests that the Rolling Stones nicked it, hook and all, for Spider & the Fly. There are two numbers from the catalog of late 20s Harlem composer/bandleader Cecil Scott & His Bright Boys: Bright Boy Blues, with its slowly swaying, luminously morose chart, and the more upbeat but similarly indigo-toned Springfield Stomp.

Fats Waller’s Alligator Crawl alternates droll mmm-hmmm backing vocals with spritely dixieland clarinet and vaudevillian muted trombone. Chicago bandleader Tiny Parham – celebrated along with Williams on Hothouse Stomp -has three numbers here. Skag-a-Lag sets a rapidfire series of cameos against an oldtimey levee camp hook; Down Yonder features a call-and-response chart and sudden, klezmer-tinged minor-key detours; the lickety-split stroll Friction calls on Hasselbring’s trombone, Swift’s violin and the rest of the band to be on tiptoe all the way through, and they are.

This one will get both the Gatsby wannabes and the rest of us out on the floor – or at least wishing we could afford to be there. This may be dance music, but it’s also rooted, sometimes front and center, sometimes less distinctly, in the blues, and the blues isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff. Times weren’t easy, before or after the Crash of 1929 and the persistent undercurrent that runs throughout much of this material reflects that. The album’s not out yet, therefore no streaming link, but you can get a sense of the kind of fun this band generates at their Soundcloud page. And they always bring merch to shows.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catherine Russell Brings Back the Blues and Jazz Roots of Classic Soul

[republished, more or less, from Lucid Culture’s more rock-oriented sister blog New York Music Daily]

Catherine Russell is the kind of jazz luminary you might discover at three in the morning,  belting her heart out with an obscure funk band who later change their name and style and become a huge draw on the indie rock circuit. In the fourteen years since that initial sighting – true story -she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way.Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.

The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.

The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.

The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).

Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.

The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:

Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette

The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.

May 14, 2014 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seth Kessel Puts a Swinging New Spin on an Old Sound

[Editor’s note – this blog’s sister publication/online place New York Music Daily appropriated all the rock, blues, and occasionally some of the jazz – including this one, which they’re sharing with us]

Jazz guitar legend Peter Leitch once joked grimly that in order to get steady work, maybe he should don a straw hat and play nothing written after, say, 1930. Seth Kessel and the Two Cent Band embody that esthetic, with their own original tunesmithing – and get a lot of work in the process. Their latest album is the aptly titled In the Golden Days, streaming at their Bandcamp page. Kessel plays energetically and eclectically on a hollowbody electric, straight through his amp without effects, alongside Gabriel Yonkler on soprano and tenor sax, Jackson Hardaker on trombone and tuba, Jason Bertone on bass and either Yaeir Heber or Hironori Momoi behind the drums. Kessel is also an excellent singer with an unaffectedly wry delivery and writes clever, funny lyrics in the spirit if not exactly the vernacular of the hot jazz he obviously loves so much.

The title track hints that it’s going to go in a noir direction but instead becomes a sardonic, lickety-split circus rock shuffle: the golden days when “we sat in the street, drank malt liquor and didn’t eat” had their ups and downs. The kiss-off swing anthem Don’t Contact Me is a lot of fun: “You know what, I take back that apology, you never bothered putting money down at Milk and Honey after getting paid for helping a friend, and all the while expecting to get laid,” Kessel relates. Southern Fried splices a twistedly noisy rock guitar solo onto a period-perfect Louis Jordan-style jump blues. They give the old standard Some of These Days a droll circus intro, a rapidfire, mandolin-like Kessel solo and then speed it up at the end – it sounds like a big concert favorite.

The strongest tune here might be Theme Song for Gregory Sallust, a moody, Romany-tinged waltz with biting soprano sax and a trombone solo that goes from blippy to brooding at the drop of a dime. The Chuck Berry-ish Let That Train Roll By looks back on one of the ones that got away – this one was definitely somebody to avoid, Yonkler’s smoky tenor sax handing off to Kessel’s noisy gutbucket solo. “I was hardly sober when you screwed me over,“ Kessel muses in the wry but understatedly vengeful Goodbye July, lit up by jaunty soprano sax, a guitar solo that mixes C&W and the blues, and a low, somewhat tongue-in-cheek one from the trombone.

They reinvent the old blues ballad After You’ve Gone as lickety-split swing, sly lowdown tombone grounding it in reality. In the Early Night is an amusingly telling look at one aspect of a Brooklyn musician’s life in 2014, getting hit on by rich gentrifier girls and not minding the influx of cash with mysterious origins. The conspiratorially cinematic instrumental Kestrel’s Revolution works a hi-de-ho theme with Balkan tinges. Turn the Heavens, a steady, shuffling ode to nocturnal entertainment of the adult variety, reminds that while this band may not do dixieland as tightly as some others do, they definitely have the spirit. The album winds up with an apprehensively scurrying oldtimey folk number. Kessel plays in a lot of projects; this band currrently doesn’t have anything on the calendar, but you can catch his duo show with Pete Matthiesen every Tuesday at 9 at Arcane, 111 Ave. C between 9th and 10th Sts.

January 23, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Low-Key Soulful Swing from Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires

From their name, you’d think that Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires’ ambitions would be modest, and in a sense you’d be right: they’re there to serenade you casually rather than indulge in anything decadent. Frontman/tenor saxophonist Hefko sings with a deadpan, laconic, sometimes hangdog drawl over a generally laid-back, soulful backdrop provided by trumpeter Satoru Ohashi, guitarist Luca Benedetti, bassist Scott Ritchie and drummer Moses Patrou. Stylistically, they walk the line between blues, vintage 60s soul, country and jazz, often all at once, Hefko working the same kind of wryly clever, subtext-fueled lyrical vibe as Dan Hicks, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers in a mellow moment. Their album If I Walked on Water makes a welcome break from the legions of hot jazz combos blasting their way through one upbeat number after another: it draws you in rather than hitting you over the head.

They open as jaunty as they get, but with a wary minor-key cha-cha groove lit up by a stinging Benedetti guitar solo and a similarly apprehensive clarinet solo from Hefko. The second track, It’s Cold In Here is a jump blues, but a midtempo one, slinking along on Patron’s warmly tuneful piano. “The idea of lonely is getting lost in the crowd,” Hefko intones on the oldschool soul/funk number You’ve Gotta Take Steps. An electrified country blues done early 50s style with a clanging, period-perfect Benedetti solo, Color Me Blue has Hefko punning his way through; “Purple heart for bravery, red badge of courage makes you green with envy.”

The standout track here is Greyhound Coach, a gorgeously bittersweet countrypolitan swing tune, Hefko adding an absolutely morose solo over guest Neil Thomas’ accordion. But it ends well: “Picking up the pieces when this winter ceases,” Hefko insists, going out with a flourish from the sax. Likewise, Trust My Gut – a long life-on-the-road narrative – blends vintage soul with a sophisticated Willie Nelson-ish country vibe. This Song Won’t Sound the Same shuffles along with a downcast matter-of-factness, picking up with a soulful muted solo from Ohashi and then Hefko taking it out with a crescendo. The last song here, Get on the Train and Ride is typical of the songs here in that Hefko chooses his spots and makes them count: there’s the LIRR, and the Harlem line, and the Path…and the dreaded 3 AM trash train crawling through the subway. “You wanna get on and ride,” Hefko adds: no snarl, no sneer, just the basic facts, and he lets them speak for themselves. The album winds up with a pensive instrumental, You Took Away the Best Part, featuring some clever allusions to a couple of standards and a memorably misty Hefko tenor solo. Ted Hefko and the Thousandaires play a lot of gigs around town: this Sunday the 19th they play the jazz brunch at half past noon at the Antique Garage at 41 Mercer St.; on the 29th they’re at LIC Bar at 10.

August 16, 2012 Posted by | blues music, country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Max Raabe Charms the Crowd at the Met

Last night German crooner Max Raabe and his meticulously inspired 15-piece Palast Orchester put on a characteristically devious, slyly entertaining show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fluent English, with a clipped, deadpan accent that he might have played up for added effect, Raabe led the group through an endlessly playful mix of Weimar and American hot jazz numbers from about 1926 through 1938. While they blended a few slapstick theatre songs into the set, they’re a jazz band first and foremost, and to the immense credit of the Met’s sound crew, the balance of the instruments in the auditorium was perfect, from guitar and banjo to brass to Cecilia Crisafulli’s graceful, understated violin to percussionist Vincent Riewe, whose sly implementation of cymbal and bells was timed to a split second. Raabe maintained his signature deadpan facade throughout the group’s roughly 90 minutes onstage: he didn’t smile once, nor did it look like he broke a sweat either. His M.O. is that he lets the songs, and the tunes, speak for themselves: and in period-perfect vaudeville style, he dished out clever cameo after cameo to the orchestra members, who lept in and out, sometimes in less than a single bar of music, with considerable relish. The four saxophonists came out from behind their matching black-and-white podiums (this is a German band after all) for a faux-Ink Spots interlude where Raabe eventually joined them on high harmonies, and didn’t have to go into head voice (pretty impressive, ja?). Alto saxophonist Johannes Ernst got to deliver a lusciously spiraling outro; baritone saxophonist Rainer Fox took charge of a couple of comedically gruff intros; and guitarist Ulrich Hoffmeier doubled ably on violin along with one of the trombonists on a theatrical number about a girl who goes off to China with a guy who can’t stay faithful. “But that doesn’t matter,” Raabe explained beforehand: it turned out that the girl was just using the guy for his money.

Raabe’s operatic background makes itself evident in his round, precisely modulated tone: that he stops just thisclose to overdoing it is what makes him so amusing – and sometimes genuinely plaintive as well, especially on a wary, knowing version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The way he swooped effortlessly upward to the root note as the band kicked into the old Cuban standard Siboney was spot-on (and so was the conga solo that Riewe managed to pull off while somehow holding the center with his woodblock). They redeemed Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by showing its klezmer roots – that the orchestra could risk a potential Pink Martini moment and instead give it a big grin testifies to their subtlety and originality. In between songs, Raabe amused the audience with deadpan repartee. The evening’s brisk opening number, one of the handful of German-language songs in the set, was about moviegoers wishing their lives could be as glamorous as the movies. “The last time I left a movie theatre, I was glad my life wasn’t so horrible,” Raabe explained. He riffed on American anti-smoking laws and how those who haven’t kicked the habit have to contend with being made into a zoo-like spectacle in airports and outside office buildings. He even sang an original, One Cannot Kiss Alone (the title track to his forthcoming album), nimbly negotiating its torrents of puns over an unexpectedly doo-wop flavored melody.

Raabe told the crowd that a staggered German waltz would not be “elegant like they have in Vienna – but louder.” They closed the set with a German dancehall number about a clumsy dancing girl, the band interpolating a handbell choir into the arrangement to max out the vaudevillian factor. But for all the nonstop good cheer, this group is all too aware that what they play is escapist music: beneath the lushness of the arrangements, there’s an inescapable unease that  they occasionally cede centerstage to, most strikingly on the encore, an anxiously brisk Dream a Little Dream of Me. Rather than evoking the jaunty Mama Cass ragtime version, it was a hasty lullaby for someone who’s not about to fall asleep afterward (and a not-so-subtle hint to come see the band the next time they pass through town). Considering the standing ovation the crowd gave them, no doubt many of those people will.

March 4, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 8/21/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1.

Sunday’s album was #527:

Curtis Eller – Wirewalkers and Assassins

2009 was a particularly good year for music – if you’ve been following this space, you’ll see we’ve been mining it quite a bit lately. This is Curtis Eller’s latest and best album – he plays banjo and happens to be one of the finest lyrical songwriters of our time. His specialty is fiery, minor-key, bluesy songs full of historical references and punk energy. This one has his very best one, the apocalyptic After the Soil Fails; the New York-centric Sugar for the Horses; the grim party anthem Sweatshop Fire; the chillingly summery, hallucinatory Hartford Circus Fire; the sardonic Firing Squad; the gentle, blackly humorous country sway of the Plea of the Aerialist’s Wife, and the wrenchingly haunting, whispery Save Me Joe Louis, its title taken from what were reputedly the last words of the first man (who was probably wrongfully convicted) to be executed in the gas chamber. It hasn’t made it to the filesharing sites yet but it’s still available from Eller’s bandcamp, where you can hear the whole thing.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ebony Hillbillies: Historically Aware Fun at Lincoln Center

To say that the Ebony Hillbillies played a fun set at Lincoln Center out of Doors last night might be a little bit obvious: by definition, bluegrass is fun. The Ebony Hillbillies’ version is a little more raw, and rustic, and when you think about it, authentic than a lot of bands playing that style of music. That’s because New York’s only black bluegrass band draws on a tradition that started before Emancipation, when part of a slave’s job was also to entertain the slavemasters. The band doesn’t belabor that point, but they also know their history: “There was a lot of music to learn,” violinist Henrique Prince explained to the crowd, elaborating on how slave musicians suddenly found themselves immersed in German or Irish music. One thing he didn’t say is that it’s more than a little ironic that bluegrass, commonly known as music played by caucasians, is performed entirely on instruments which originated in Africa.

Prince is the lead player in this band, with a briskly exuberant, fluid style, backed by the steady, clanking chords of clawhammer style banjo player Norris Bennett. Bassist Bill Salter (co-author of Grover Washington Jr.’s biggest hit, Just the Two of Us) slipped and slid gracefully, adding a little funk to the last song, a singalong/clapalong dance number called the Broke Leg Chicken. A rattling dance beat was delivered by Newman Taylor Baker, who played washboard with metal strikers on his fingers rather than with a metal brush, along with singer Gloria Thomas Gassaway, who added to her “reputation of working the audience [as the band’s website states]”  while playing bones and then leading the crowd in a couple of singalongs. In that crowd was jazz piano legend Barry Harris, who interrupted Gassaway briefly during the funny blues tune Big Fat Daddy to remind that skinny guys (who happen to like big women) have also got it going on.

And the crowd ate it up. A woman with a video camera began trailing a little redheaded girl (who appeared to be her granddaughter) and then persisted in filming individual members of the band in close-up for almost the entire duration of the show. But they didn’t let it phase them. Everyone listened attentively as Prince sang a desperate but ultimately triumphant tune told from the point of view of a slave running off to Georgia to get away from a speculator who planned to auction him off; then they danced and swayed as Prince led the group through an Irish reel and more traditional, Appalachian-flavored stuff. At the end, after the Broke Leg Chicken, they wanted an encore, and the band would clearly have played it if the promoters had let them.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | concert, country music, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment