Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

So, Nu, You Wanna See a Movie?

With the current gypsy music craze, interest in klezmer – which had become something of a cult subgenre again since its big resurgence in the late 80s – has picked up, which is a good thing. It could be said that klezmer is Jewish gypsy music, the two styles sharing a lot of the same eerie Middle Eastern inflected tonalities and bouncy dance rhythms. Tonight at the famous, recently reopened synagogue at the base of Eldridge Street, Metropolitan Klezmer reminded why they’re one of the foremost groups in the current wave of klezmer revivalists. But they didn’t do it with the party music. Instead, bandleader/drummer Eve Sicular – who’s also a film historian – assembled a program of incidental and theme music from Yiddish film from the 1930s and 40s, from both the US and the Soviet Union (hard to believe, in the land of so many massacres, but as Sicular explained it there was actually an official Soviet Yiddish theatre company in the years before World War II!). The band interpolated their songs – a mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers – between movie clips which played on a screen on the left side of the gorgeously renovated synagogue.

They opened with two wedding tunes, both with slow, strikingly mournful introductions before the drums kicked in and they picked up the pace. To Sicular’s immense credit, even though she’d brought a full kit, she felt the space and played with a light touch that resonated throughout the synagogue’s beautiful acoustics while letting the rest of the band cut through. The way the musicians were set up created an intriguing if completely unintentional stereo effect, the wind instruments (clarinet, trumpet and trombone) with the drums front and center, with violin, bass and accordion (the lightning-fast Ismail Butera, from the exhilarating retro East African group Sounds of Taraab) panned right. Trumpeter Pam Fleming, as usual, stole the night with one of her signature solos, pulling a crescendo out of thin air. The crowd burst into applause before she was done.

Since the synagogue has been reopened under the auspices of Orthodox Judaism, lead vocalist Debby Karpel was replaced for this show by three male singers who took turns fronting the band: two baritones and then a tenor who was responsible for the Molly Picon songs (from her legendary roles in Yiddle Mitn Fiddle and Mamale). Ironically, this was a better fit than one would imagine, as the role the pioneering comedienne/actress/athlete (she swung on the trapeze) played in Yiddle Mitn Fiddle was that of a girl violinist who dresses as a man so she can tour with a band and be a star.

They closed with an original, a song that ought to be covered by Chicha Libre. Written by their usual trombonist Rick Faulkner, it had a bouncy, Peruvian cumbia rhythm. But Sicular picked it up by the tail and swung it around, punching it along on a 50s jazz beat – four-and-ONE, two-and-THREE – with a steady barrage of rimshots. It was a well-chosen way to end a night of otherwise rather haunting, ominously captivating material. Metropolitan Klezmer play the sixth night of Passover at Drom at 7:30 PM on April 24, opening for the highly regarded New York Gypsy Allstars. If the headliner is anything like the opening act, it should be a spectacularly good double bill.

And the space – now known as the Museum at Eldridge Street – has been brought back from the dead, spectacularly. Ten years ago, it looked like a crack house both inside and out, with holes in the roof, rodents everywhere, the aisles littered with debris. Now, the magnificent front window with all its many stars has been restored, the walls gleam and the beautiful, late 1800s woodwork is all renovated: for the many thousand descendants of those who passed through this neighborhood eighty or a hundred years ago, a tour could be a spiritual experience.

Advertisements

April 10, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Flail – Never Fear

It’s always nice to have a scoop, but every once in awhile something comes over the transom that’s so good that it merits a writeup even if it’s not exactly news. The Flail’s debut cd was recorded a few years ago and slipped under our radar, but it’s good to report that the band is still together and playing regularly. These passionately intelligent jazz purists did a show last year at Small’s, which is how the album came to our attention. A quintet with piano, trumpet, tenor or soprano sax and rhythm section, they play vivid songs without words with an uncommon chemistry. A lot of jazz albums take their cue from putting players together to see what they can brew up on the spot, and more often than not the result is a showcase for the individuals rather than an ensemble effort. This, auspiciously, is the latter: every band member gets to solo, but it’s not the usual ostentatious parade of solos around the horn, ad infinitum. Everybody’s working within the songs.

Because this is an album of songs. Like Pamela Fleming or Kenny Garrett, the Flail like using big, memorable hooks as a jumpoff point. The opening track on the album, As You Like, has pianist Brian Marsella’s big, broad chords building a sturdy ladder for saxist Stephan Moutot to take off and climb. The following track, composed by trumpeter/bandleader Dan Blankinship has the piano and drums pairing off against each other as the sax and then trumpet go into exploratory mode, alternately boisterous and buoyant.

The next cut, Life Before the Rerun gets off to a flying start with a drum solo and then trumpet over a fast, loping bassline, venturing closer to bop than the rest of the album. Track four, Once, another Blankinship composition has the trumpeter building tensely and insistently to a crescendo and then passing the baton to Moutot, who ably steers the tune through high seas and brings it to comfortably to land. The gorgeously catchy Just About to Be layers coloristic piano and horns over a staccato bass pulse, building to an attractively precise Marsella solo. And then Moutot goes out exploring on soprano: it’s not the discovery that matters here, just the thrill of the chase. Bassist Reid Taylor’s Butterscotch is an idiomatic, torchy wee-hours ballad that would make a great addition to a slow-grooves mix.

Fraggle’s Car Got Toad begins with a relaxed Marsella piano solo and then picks up the pace in a split-second when Taylor comes in, building to a swinging, perhaps predictably jarring crescendo as the title would imply. After drummer Matt Zebroski’s soulful, gorgeously Middle Eastern-inflected 6/8 piano ballad We Travel, the cd closes with Blankinship’s title track, a magnificent, extended tour de force building from a haunting bass solo to where all guns are blazing, again with Middle Eastern tinges. It’s not every day that something this consistently gripping and exciting arrives in the mail. Fans of great melodic jazz: Brad Melhdau’s Art of the Trio Series, the aforementioned Pam Fleming and Ellington at his catchiest should definitely seek this out. The Flail plays the Fat Cat, 75 Christopher St. at 8:30 PM on Feb 27.

January 15, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pamela Fleming & Fearless Dreamer at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, NYC 9/18/07

Two long, exhilarating sets of jazz from the highly sought-after horn player/bandleader and her seemingly favorite cast of characters. Pam Fleming has played with everybody. She spent a few years in reggae legend Burning Spear’s band as one of the all-female trio the Burning Brass, toured with Natalie Merchant and has lately been the not-so-secret weapon in Hazmat Modine. Her trademark is the instant crescendo. Whether playing trumpet or flugelhorn, she can pull one out of thin air in a split-second and make it seem perfectly natural, a trick that only a few musicians (Robert Cray and Mary Lee Kortes come to mind) can pull off. As breathtaking a soloist as she is, it’s ironic that in her own band, she doesn’t get to do that much. Most of her compositions seem to be written through, in other words, meant to be played note for note without much if any opportunity for soloing or extemporization.

Fleming typically writes in three disparate styles: vividly evocative, richly melodic songs without words; long, sprawling, psychedelic one-chord jams that sound like early 70s gangster movie soundtracks, and jazzed-up reggae tunes that wouldn’t be out of place in the Monty Alexander songbook (imagine if Alexander was a horn player instead of a pianist). Many of the compositions she played tonight had a narrative, cinematic feel: Hollywood would do well to seek her out.

Tonight she had almost all of the unit from her latest album: the always surprising, brilliantly musical Todd Isler on drums and percussion, the fast, stylistically diverse Peter Calo on electric guitar, Leo Traversa holding down the bass, Jim West on keys, and new group member Erik Lawrence on tenor and alto sax and flute. They opened with the reggae tune Slimy Business (guess which business that is), Fleming and Lawrence conversing through their instruments and trading off on sections of the melody, a sonically textural treat. They followed that with the gorgeous, major-key Because of Anthony from their first album. The brand-new, defiant, bluesy I’ve Had Enough gave both Fleming and Lawrence their first chance to stretch out. The haunting, achingly beautiful More Than Anything began with West playing the song’s central hook and built from there; from what Fleming told the audience, it seems to be a love song, but it’s very, very dark: West’s tasteful, traditional approach to his part worked wonders. After that, they did Intrigue in the Night Market, a rousing gypsy dance she wrote for Metropolitan Klezmer (another band she plays in regularly), featuring a boisterous, imaginative hand drum solo from Isler.

The highlight of the first set was Say Goodbye, which actually isn’t nearly as mournful as the title might imply: it’s a comfortable, familiar-sounding theme (perhaps this is a personal interpretation: maybe I’m so used to saying goodbye that it feels comfortably familiar). With its nostalgic, homey central hook, it sounds like it ought to be playing over the opening credits of a popular tv drama (any HBO people out there?).

The evening’s most mesmerizing piece was Fleming’s ominous 9/11 theme, Climb, the title track from her most recent album. From the song’s tersely harrowing opening hook, it’s obvious what’s going to happen, yet the foreshadowing is white-knuckle intense, right up to inevitable crash – and the band missed the crescendo when they hit it. To their credit, they turned on a dime and then brought out every bit of the macabre, disastrous feel of the following succession of chords as the song literally fell apart. Live, watching the melody break down and disintegrate was absolutely riveting. It’s a credit to this band that they can absolutely nail Fleming’s sometimes completely unexpected thematic and mood changes.

The night finally came to a close with Ba-Bo-De, a world-music inflected, two-chord vamp that unsurprisingly evoked a Burning Spear jam, which Fleming opened by playing a conch shell for a few bars. Fleming had had a devious look on her face the entire night, and took this as her opportunity to finally leave the stage and circulate amongst the audience, getting seemingly everyone to sing part of the melody. The crowd loved the personal attention, and the band jumped on the opportunity to get mischievous while she was out mingling with the audience.

This show was part of an ongoing series here called Women Take the Bandstand, featuring a new female-fronted act on the third Tuesday of every month. Given the venue, it seems to be mostly jazz and world music. Kudos to the reliably friendly, sonically superb Nuyorican for creating the series: it’s an admirable concept.

September 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments