Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Lavish, Ambitiously Orchestrated Twinbill at Symphony Space Last Night

“How many of you have been to a classical concert before?” Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner asked the packed house at Symphony Space last night. From the response, it didn’t appear that many had. Which makes sense if you consider that the average age at the big Manhattan classical halls is 65. But what Wasner’s band were playing, bolstered by the Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wasn’t the kind of classical you’d typically hear at those venues. It was a brand new kind of music: epic post-minimalist sweep matched to rock edge and attack.

Wasner spoke of being humbled in the presence of eighty other musicians of such a high caliber, but she has fearsome chops herself. She began the show on bass and proved herself more than competent, then moved to guitar and gave a clinic in shiny, emphatic, shimmery phrasing. Drummer Andy Stack pushed this mighty beast with a supple drive, shifting constantly between tricky meters. At one point, Wasner suddenly realized that her bass had gone out of tune, then didn’t miss a beat or a note, hitting her tuner pedal and then fixing everything even as the tempo and syncopation changed in a split second behind her. Tuning while playing is a rare art; it’s a whole other thing to tune and sing at the same time!

Throughout the show, whether singing her own material or William Brittelle’s restless new song cycle Spiritual America, there was considerable contrast between Wasner’s cool, concise, understated vocals and the orchestra’s leaps and bubbles. Guitarist Ben Cassorla added flaring cadenzas and carefully modulated sheets of sustain. frequently playing with an ebow. When Wasner was on bass, Metropolis Ensemble bassist Evan Runyon frequently teamed with her for a pulse that wasn’t thunderous, but close to it. Keyboardist Erika Dohi added warpy, new wave-flavored synth, wafting synthesized strings and on a couple of occasions during Brittelle’s suite, wryly blippy, EDM-tinged flutters.

In a context as orchestrated as this was, Wasner’s songs came across as very similar to Brittelle’s, Both songwriters’ lyrics are pensive, direct and don’t follow either a metric or rhyme scheme. Likewise, they both gravitate to simple, frequently circling phrases that went spiraling or bounding from one section of the ensemble to the next. Brittelle’s big crescendos tended to be more flamboyant, and more evocative of 70s art-rock like Genesis or Gentle Giant, with the occasional reference to coldly bacchanalian dancefloor electronics. Wasner’s tended to be more enigmitically reflective if no less kinetic, and more influenced by 80s new wave pop. Are both fans of Carl Nielsen’s playfully leapfrogging symphonic arrangements? It would seem so. 

The night’s coda, Wasner’s cynical I Know the Law, was a study in the utility of self-deception as well as its pitfalls. As with the rest of the material in the night’s second set, the chorus punctuated the music’s many splashes of color with steady, emphatic, massed polyrhythms and occasional moody ambience. Wasner joked that one of Brittelle’s more nostalgic numbers would be something that these kids would understand in about ten years, which could prove true. What they will remember is being on this stage with a hundred other musicians, and getting a huge standing ovation from an audience of their peers.

Metropolis Ensemble don’t have any upcoming New York concerts for awhile, but their violinist – and Mivos Quartet co-founder – Olivia DePrato is playing the album release show for her auspicious solo debut album, Streya, at 1 Rivington Street on March 13 at 7:30 PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud.

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February 17, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

January 28, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mighty, Intense Awakening Orchestra Sound the Alarm in Gowanus

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra blend art-rock and classical music into their mighty big band jazz sound. They sound like no other group around: as the name implies, while they have the standard brass, reeds and rhythm section that you’d find in just about any other large jazz ensemble, Saulnier’s hefty arrangements drift toward the classical side. As a plus, a strong political awareness factors into his music. Economies of scale being what they are – they’re supported by the Midwest Composers Forum and its recording arm, Innova Records, one of the very few labels that still matter – the group rarely plays live. That’s why their upcoming show on July 14 at 7:30 PM at Shapeshifter Lab – where they’ll be continuing Saulnier’s ongoing 2016 election year-themed suite, a work in progress – is the place to be if powerful, enveloping sounds are your thing. As a bonus, eclectically tuneful pianist Fabian Almazan – who has a thing for Shostakovich – plays with his Rhizome ensemble afterward. Cover is $10.

The Awakening Orchestra’s most recent, 2014 debut release, Volume 1: This Is Not the Answer (streaming at Spotify) opens with Saulnier’s vampy, pulsing prelude and muted fanfare of sorts. From there they remind how aptly suited Radiohead songs are to mammoth orchestral interpretaiion, with a mighty version of Myxomatosis that uses the entire sonic spectrum, from towering heights to whispery lows; with a wispily mosterioso tenor sax solo from Samuel Ryder in the middle.

The epic The Words, They Fail to Come builds around the theme from the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, an even mightier, dynamically shifting epic featuring a vividly uneasy, epic solo from baritone saxophonist Michael Gutauskas, handing off to trombonist Michael Buscarino, who finally slam-dunks it. Then the band thunders through an Olympic stadium-sized reinvention of the old jazz standard Alone Together, lit up by Michael McAllister’s searing guitar and Felipe Salles’ surrealistic tenor sax.

Saulnier’s original, Protest rises from horror atmospherics, through an insistent, powerful pulse, to a glittering Mulholland Drive noctural interlude and then a frantic coda where all hell breaks loose. The first cd ends with a bulky chamber-jazz arrangement of You Still Believe in Me, by Wilson and Asher, whoever they are.

The second disc opens with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which Saulnier has arranged very cleverly to seem as if it’s a prototype for Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. It’s not, but Saulner gets props for having the ears and ambiiton to connect the dots as far as they go, and them some. The orchestra follows with Saulnier’s four-part suite, This Is Not The Answer, opening as a suspenseful tone poem and then rising to a circular exchange of sheets of sound over the rhythm section, Rob Mosher’s warily bubbling and then hazy soprano sax at the center as the backdrop descends into the murky, creepy depths. A sardonically swinging march beat and Middle Eastern allusions from David DeJesus’ alto sax offer equal parts relevance and menace.

Then the group completely flips the script with a balmy nocturnal theme lit up by Nadje Noordhuis’ deep-sky flugelhorn. From there the band shifts into the final section, The Hypocrite and the Hope (an assessment of the Obama administration?), an enervatedly bustling neo-70s Morricone-ish crime jazz theme and variations, with funhouse-mirror James Shipp vibraphone and some psychedelically unhinged McAllister shredding, As cinematic, electric crime themes go, it ranks with Bob Belden as well as with the aforementioned Italian guys.

Saulnier has the orchestra follow with a lush take of Murderer, by Low, the dancing twin trumpets of Noordhuis and Philip Dizack  contrasting with its looming atmospherics. Kevin Fruiterman sings the album’s final cut, Hi-Lili, Hi Lo, reinventing a cheesy early 50s Dinah Shore hit as Alan Parsons Project orchestral pop. Considering how much new material the band will be unveiling, it’s uncertain if they’ll be playing any of this live, but if so, that will be a plus.

July 6, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

String Ensemble Sybarite5 Sell Out Subculture

Sybarite5 are a game-changer in the chamber music world. A cynic might say that the chamber music world needs a change: what appeared to be a sold-out, mostly twentysomething crowd Sunday night at Subculture might have agreed. Maybe it’s Sybarite5’s imaginative, genre-defying programming that pulls a younger demographic. Or maybe it’s their obsession with Radiohead: their 2013 album of new arrangements of songs by that band is a landmark in art-rock, a genre they also embrace. Whatever the case, they drew raucous applause and screams for an encore that might not have been out of place in another century when string quintets were more common, but aren’t exactly what you come to expect in the more sedate confines of, say, Carnegie Hall.

The group – violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt – opened with the first of the Radiohead covers, 15 Step, reinventing it as a kinetic, almost funky piece with hints of a canon but also a lively country dance, some of the members beating out a rhythm on the bodies of their instruments. They followed with a contemporary piece, Dan Visconti’s Black Bend, which slowly came together as a blues and then drifted from the center again.

Merdinian’s Armenian-Argentinian heritage came to the forefront with a couple of Armenian folk songs, a plaintive lament and then a bracing dance from the Komitas catalog. They offered a rapturously tender take of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel, but then reveled in another Piazzolla piece, Esqualo, bringing its shark-fishing narrative to life with a sinewy intensity. It was here especially that Levitt’s role made itself clear, driving the music with the power of a rock bassist.

There was also more Radiohead (a surrealistically pulsing take of Weird Fishes and a broodingly anthemic remake of No Surprises); Shawn Conley’s Yann’s Flight, a cinematic depiction of Hawaiian hang gliding; a tensely circular, cinematically crescendoing Jessica Meyer premiere, and a romp through a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany number that was as feral as it was majestic. They encored with an irresistibly droll mashup of the old 80s cheese-pop hit Take on Me with Flight of the Bumblebee. Anyone who thinks that chamber music is strictly for greybeards wasn’t at this show. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tschaikovsky the news.

January 20, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Halloween Makes an Early Appearance at Merkin Concert Hall

Last night at Merkin Concert Hall was a gleefully fun and surprisingly nuanced concert of Halloweenish orchestral works that transcended being pigeonholed as such. Sure, it was impossible not be drawn into the fun as conductor/composer Charles Coleman scrunched his face into a triumphant, “yessssss!” expression as he signaled a series of macabre, pulsing tritones from the violins as the world premiere of his symphonic poem Carmilla for String Orchestra got underway. But there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication that tends to get trampled in this kind of music: while there was an abundance of menace on the program, it never really went over the edge into grand guignol.

Anchored by heavy washes of bass and cello, the piece quickly shifted into more plaintively neoromantic territory before hitting a hypnotic, rhythmically minimalist coda that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Julia Wolfe catalog. The full orchestra followed with William Maselli‘s deliciously fun Visions of Sabbath, a mashup of classic Black Sabbath themes. How familiar the ensemble members were with the source material became obvious in an instant, from who was dealing with it like any other task, and who couldn’t resist a grin. One of the bassists and a violist in particular were having a ball with the artful interweave of motives: the signature chromatic theme that opens the band’s first album; riffs galore from Electric Funeral and War Pigs,and a playfully blustery arrangement of the verse from Iron Man, to name a few. And when they reached the point where one of the clarinets voiced a couple of Ozzy lines from The Wizard, pretty much everybody was cracking up. “This initial effort may well be expanded on in the future,” the program notes hinted. Bring it on!

The final work was Maselli’s two-act opera Draculette. It’s a highly thought out piece of music, and it was well executed. Bloodily surreal as the storyline is, there was less bombast than expected. Maselli’s main themes developed out of a cinematic progression of the utmost simplicity that rose and fell with a Moussorgsky-esque unease, punctuated by several more bittersweet interludes, a couple veering into lively, carefree Italianate operatic territory, others with a vividly anthemic art-song quality that reminded of Elvis Costello at his most ornate. Did Maselli immerse himself in a Prokofiev opera before tackling this? That wouldn’t be a surprise.

Coloratura soprano Olga Zhuravel sang the lead role, holding the center with a fang-baring luridness. High soprano Micaela Oeste got less time in the spotlight but made the most of it: one particular spine-tingling, stratospheric, chromatic phrase of hers was worth the price of admission alone. The guys – baritones Brad Cresswell and Kevin Glavin, and tenor John Bellemer – were given goofier roles and thus less opportunity to explore as much emotional terrain as the women. Which made sense considering the storyline: unsympathetic characters are easier to kill off. In the spaces between, brief solos made their way cleverly and purposefully throughout the orchestra: Tomina Parvanova’s harp, BJ Karpen’s oboe and Allyson Clare’s viola in particular were standouts. Meanwhile, a series of microphones hung overhead: if the engineers soundchecked this right, the orchestra and singers got a dandy live recording out of it.

October 5, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rebecca Lazier and Newspeak Reinvent Rzewski’s Attica with a Bruising Intensity

Midway through the bruising, intense debut of choreographer Rebecca Lazier’s dance version of two iconic Frederic Rzewski avant garde works, Coming Together and Attica, the crowd at the Invisible Dog Art Center last night slowly moved from one side of the second-floor Cobble Hill loft space to the other. “Why are we doing this?” a gradeschool girl protested to her mother. “I don’t want to move.”

The child’s mother beckoned impatiently. “Come!” Lazier had taken pains to explain in the evening’s program that the performance wass meant not to be dogmatic or carry any specific political meaning, but rather to encourage individual interpretation and questioning. If one possible interpretation is that fascism begins not with a bang but with a whimper, in the case of this child, Lazier made a mighty impact. In prison, you move when you’re told to, whether you want to or not. The simple act of dislodging the audience from their comfortable seats watching Lazier’s six dancers perform some very uncomfortable, often harrowingly violent kinetics, reinforced that point simply but profoundly.

That this dance diptych wasn’t upstaged by the mighty punk-classical ensemble Newspeak, who played Rzweski’s score with a ferocity to match their nimble, Bach-like precision, speaks to the intensity of Lazier’s work. The dancers began by pairing off in a remarkable graceful, sometimes slo-mo, sometimes punishing simulation of hand-to-hand combat, a good guys versus bad guys – or prisoners versus guards – scenario. In this case, the good guys end up winning, the opposite of what happened at the 1971 Attica Prison riots – that is, if you take the view that the Attica inmates, many of whom where killed when troops swarmed the prison to crush the uprising, were the good guys. The menace was enhanced by several almost crushing encounters between the dancers and the audience seated around the perimeter of the action.

Newspeak gave Rzewski’s piece a mighty swing and turned it into a turbulent, irresistible current punctuated by simple, sometimes portentous accents from percussionist Peter Wise and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Eileen Mack. One misstep from the bassist or  pianist James Johnston, who were playing in tandem, would have sent the whole thing off the rails: together, they became a two-headed serpent hell-bent on destruction. Taylor Levine’s electric guitar, Patti Kilroy’s violin and cellist Robert Burkhart’s sometimes austere, sometimes atmospheric lines swept above drummer David T. Little’s groove, which grew more and more organic, shifting artfully further and further toward funk as the piece went on. Overhead, Mellissa Hughes added apprehensive drama, narrating the text of a letter written by Attica inmate Sam Melville, one of the materminds of the revolt, who was killed in the invasion.

Dancewise, the second part began still and silent, the dancers – Rashaun Mitchell, Christopher Ralph, Jennifer Lafferty, Pierre Gilbault, Silas Reiner and Asli Bulbul – seated on bleachers wiping their brows, slowly undoing parts of their prison jumpsuits before a costume change while the music resumed. Then it became more traditionally balletesque, Lazier nevertheless adding an element of surprise by constantly changing the combination of dancers  onstage, just as Rzewski shifts the cell-like clusters of his music. This time around, it was proto-Brian Eno, rising from stillness, overtones and distortion ringing from Levine’s guitar, the ensemble slowly joining in an early dawn ambience that offered a bit of a respite from the relentless aggression of the first half but never let go of its underlying unease, Hughes’ resonant, nebulous vocalese adding a sinister edge.

June 14, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, dance, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, NYC Live Music Calendar, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spine-Tingling, Epic Noir Surrealism from Monika Roscher’s Big Band

The new Monika Roscher Big Band album, Failure in Wonderland is a wildly fearless, uncategorizable thrill ride. What is this? Noir cabaret? Psychedelic rock? Big band swing? Horror movie music? All of the above and more. As she tells it, guitarist/singer/composer Roscher spent a year in Illinois as a German exchange student. While her peers were watching tv, she was practicing, soaking up musical scores and learning Frank Zappa licks. Her young band has been together a bit over a year and already has this monstrous masterpiece to show for it. It’s sort of like the missing link between Mucca Pazza and Sexmob (who have a phenomenal new album of Nino Rota film pieces due out soon).Like the latter group’s leader Steve Bernstein, Roscher likes long, crescendoing vamps and seems to be noir to the core. If you like the idea of a Jeff Lynne-esque vocoder trip-hop intro into a creepy noir cabaret piano loop that builds to a stomping, surreal menace with marching Zappaesque guitar line as the brass pulses behind it, that’s just the first half of the first track. From there, the circus rock menace rises with Josef Ressle’s biting piano and squalling, smoky bari sax from Heiko Geiring – and it only gets better from there.

Deadpan, fractured English lyrics move in over another trip-hop intro on the second track, Future3, followed by pillowy reeds, Roscher shredding the scenery with some wild tremolo-picking punctuated by big incisions from the band as the arrangement grows more stately. The catchy yet utterly dissociative Irrlicht works big Gil Evans-ish swells into a carnivalesque pulse, up to a scorching crescendo that hands off to Matthias Lindrmayr’s rapidfire muted trumpet and then a slowly spinning, pitchblende vortical sway.

Wuste works a creepy minor-key come-hither Blonde Redhead-ish intro and then takes on a brooding, low-key gypsy rock feel that grows more and more macabre, spiced by Roscher’s surealistic, processed vocals, Ressle’s sepulcural wee-hours piano and Jan Kiesewetter’s lonesome soprano sax. Die Parade is a twisted funeral march, as plaintive as it is blackly amusing. As with the rest of the tracks here, the voicings are imaginative and often pack a wallop, here with Andreas Unterreiner’s trumpet nonchalantly pairing off with Peter Palmer’s even more morose trombone. The way the procession disintegrates is too clever and amusing to give away here; the trick ending is typical of the sheer unpredictability and gleeful menace of Roscher’s compositional style.

Human Machines establishes a torchy Lynchian atmosphere, a sardonic commentary on the human tendency toward conformity, fueled by Roscher’s noir tremolo lines and torchy vocals – she’s the rare bandleader who’s also a first-class singer – and Ressle’s incisive piano. Unlike the other tracks here, this one ends optimistically: humans win! By contrast, Schnee Aus Venedig is a defiantly macabre, tiptoeing sideshow theme that eventually follows a breathless trajectory up to a wry Beatles allusion. It foreshadows the Montenegrin cabaret gloom of When I Fall in Love, Kiesewetter’s Jon Irabagon-esque japes, Geiring’s baritone squall and Roscher’s wah-infused, funky menace taking it in a vintage P-Funk direction. The album ends, appropriately enough, with Nacht, rising from skeletal tango to a noir flamenco overture, reaching peak altitude on Roscher’s rippling, weirdly processed arpeggios.

Fans of dark ornate acts as diverse as Botanica, Gil Evans, and  Sexmob will eat this up. Best jazz album of the year? Maybe. Best rock record of the year? Probably. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a lot of fun. And in case you’re wondering what the title refers to, here’s Roscher: “The blemished beauty of Alice…the tension between harmony and disharmony that I can only vaguely approach with my lyrics. To me words cannot nail it the way music does.” It’s out now from Enja Records.

April 15, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Night to Remember with Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein

Earlier generations might not be able to handle the concept of of juxtaposing Appalachian and classical music on the same stage. But songwriter/bandleader Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein have their fingers on the pulse of the future. Thursday night at their sold-out duo performance at Merkin Concert Hall, they held the crowd riveted with an intense, intimate performance that put each musician’s strengths under the microscope as they made unexpected connections between traditions from throughout the ages on both sides of the pond, Dinnerstein’s fiery baroque and Romantic interludes juxtaposed against Merritt’s elegantly plaintive chamber pop. Most of the material was drawn from the two’s nocturnal song suite, Night, just released (and reviewed at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily).

The stage set foreshadowed what the concert would be: a pair of comfortable padded chairs at either side of the stage in low light from a couple of floor lamps. Merritt teased the crowd – “We’re not going to talk to you …we’re still not going to talk to you” – as the two made their way from Schumann, through a solo acoustic version of Merritt’s  plaintive Only in Songs, then glimmering themes by Schubert and Purcell. Dinnerstein’s gravitas and flinty irony balances Merritt’s biting wit and mercurial persona: they are very different peas in the same pod and obviously good friends. Merritt has established herself as a southern intellectual in the tradition of Faulkner and Welty; Dinnerstein represents for the old guard. Of the many eye-opening moments at this concert, the most impressive were when the two ventured into jazz, with a take of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that was so sensual it was lurid, and a bit later an expansive, commissioned work from Brad Mehldau, I Shall Weep. Swing is a rare quality in a classical musician, but Dinnerstein has it: both she and Merritt have futures in jazz if they feel like it.

But it’s more likely that they’ll continue to cross-pollinate. Dinnerstein revealed a fondness for George Crumb and played resonant dulcimer lines inside the piano behind Merritt’s finely nuanced, wary mezzo-soprano. Merritt told how Dinnerstein had introduced her to an operatic rendition of the English folk ballad I Will Give My Love an Apple that Merritt instantly recognized from its slightly less antique American folk version – and then they played it as moody, lingering  art-rock. The biggest hit of the night was Dinnerstein’s rapidfire romp through the Allemande and Courante (make that tres courante) from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Although Merritt admitted to being shy about playing the piano in front of her bandmate, she impressed with her own tersely brooding, gospel-fueled take of Small Talk Relations.

Dinnerstein’s subtle dynamic shifts followed a trajectory from bittersweetly neoromantic to bracingly modern throughout Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations, a suite based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. After Merritt sang a rapt, quiet version of Patty Griffin’s Night, the concert reached its peak with the poignant, crescendoing, saturnine anthem Feel of the World, which Merritt had written for her well-traveled grandmother. The duo encored with a very clever mashup of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve with La Vie en Rose, which Merritt sang in flawless French. The two are soon off on US tour; the schedule is here. Dinnerstein is also at the Greene Space for an on-air performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 28 at noon; the performance is free but tickets are required.

March 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, folk music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense Paradigm-Shifting Sounds from Salim Ghazi Saeedi

One important rising composer who’s doing genuinely visionary work in microtonal music, helping to integrate sounds from the Middle East into jazz and rock, is Tehran-based multi-instrumentalist Salim Ghazi Saeedi. His latest album namoWoman is an often otherworldly creation. It’s considerably more raw and roughhewn than, say, recent albums by David Fiuczynski and Hafez Modirzadeh, both artists to which he compares favorably. Aside from the fact that Saeedi plays all the instruments on the album – guitars, keys, basses and drums – what’s most amazing about it is how through-composed it is. Thematic variations recur frequently but always change shape, melodically and dynamically. It’s a dark, bracing, uneasy roller-coaster ride.

Saeedi’s main axe is the guitar, which he multitracks using two basic tones: a ringing, watery timbre that he typically uses to deliver plaintive, judiciously picked microtonal phrases and ringing sustained lines, along with a gritty, crunchy, distorted tone that often takes centerstage with a sneering, occasionally comedic flair. That tone, and its bombastic allusions and head-on assaults, poses the question of whether this is heavy metal, or jazz, or Persian art-rock. Ultimately, the answer is all of the above.

Saeedi’s unorthodox use of both piano and bass is also extremely clever. Saeedi leans heavily on the piano’s lowest keys, whether to anchor the music in a murky, overtone-spiced ambience, or for basslines. By contrast, Saeedi utilizes the bass’s entire sonic spectrum, frequently bowing eerily elegant viola melodies in the upper registers. A few of the tracks have trebly-toned, judiciously played electric bass along with the occasional electronic keyboard motif. All this contrasts with the savage, distorted guitar lines: whether or not that dichotomy is deliberate or not (two sides of the same coin, maybe, one profound and the other profane?), it’s inescapable.

Throughout the nine-part suite, Saeedi establishes individual voices within the arrangements, with all kinds of melodic interweaving and conversations: piano ripples respond to bass bubbles, cello-flavored lines hand off to the guitar, or to the drums. Without knowing it, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that guitar is Saeedi’s primary axe, considering how graceful, dexterous and propulsive his bass work is; his piano lines are terse, imaginative and serve an important part of the musical backbone. If there’s any criticism of this, it’s that Saeedi swings on the guitar and especially the bass but not the drums: a percussionist with a proficiency equal to Saeedi’s on those two instruments could have been useful here. Then again, percussionists capable of playing such eclectic compositions are hard to find anywhere, let alone in traditional Persian music.

Bluesy allusions give way to suspenseful not-quite-minor, not-exactly major Persian intervals; rhythms tend to be straight-up but not always, one interlude bouncing along on a tricky groove that would be perfectly at home in Macedonia or Greece. Pensive, moody guitar echoes until it’s bludgeoned out of the picture as the distorted roar takes over, and then recedes, a constant game of good cop vs. bad cop with an occasional exchange of roles. There’s simple, insistent staccato guitar riffage straight out of the Pantera playbook, and also spacious, distantly anguished David Gilmour-inflected phrasing. The High Romantic, the gothic, the gypsy and the jazz – think Cecil Taylor in extreme deep space mode – mingle and echo and at their most cohesive, haunt the hell out of you. Little flourishes like a jaunty melodica vamp, hints of surf rock and Mediterranean psychedelia lighten the darkness while enhancing the surrealism of it all. Who is the audience for this? Middle Eastern metalheads; fans of Persian music who need a jolt of energy, and any fan of loud, dark sounds laced with fearless humor. There is no one in the world who sounds anything like Salim Ghazi Saeedi: where he takes these ideas in the future promises to be a pretty wild place.

January 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment