Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

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August 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The NY Phil’s Contact Series Hits a Couple of Bullseyes

It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.

The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.

Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse,  blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.

Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.

The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.

December 24, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toca Loca’s Shed Offers Some Crazy Crashes

Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.

The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.

Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.

February 26, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

This Year’s Vital Vox Festival Takes Vocals to New Levels

This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.

Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.

Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Electric Junkyard Gamelan at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/20/10

If there’s a more original band in New York than Electric Junkyard Gamelan, we need to know about them. Their shtick is to take found objects and turn them into percussion instruments, all of them their own creations (they should patent them if they haven’t already). Among their creations tonight: the barp (a drying rack for clothing used as low-register percussion, strung with what looked like rubber bands); the terraphone (a clarinet with a regular reed mouthpiece fastened to a handmade body made from copper tubing); the clayrimba (a perfectly tuned marimba made from clay pots of various sizes) and the cachoptar, sort of a mbira (thumb piano) strung over a section of an old futon frame. The drum kit has kitchen pots in place of cymbals, a plastic pickle drum for a snare, a 20-gallon plastic trashcan for the kick, what looks like the bottoms of several aluminum Chinese takeout pans on a stand for a hi-hat…and a small cast iron skillet on a kick pedal for a cowbell. A discarded circular saw blade became a small gong; half of a school bell became another. Considering that the kit was originally assembled for and required two players, drummer Lee Frisari did a mind-bogglingly impressive job flailing around, half of what she was hitting completely out of her field of vision.

What did their show sound like? Psychedelic, hypnotic, impossible to sit still to. The back room at Barbes was packed but surprisingly, nobody was dancing, considering what a groove they laid down. True to their name, they’re gamelanesque: pointillistic, gently and incisively clattering but also crashing and bashing or slinking and swaying. Several of their songs were basically acoustic trip-hop instrumentals, almost parodies, except that in place of a cold, mechanical drum machine there were four warm bodies rotating betwen instruments. Considering that in Indonesia, gamelans are community organizations where everybody plays pretty much anything (New York’s own gamelan, Gamelan Dharma Swara, of which Electric Junkyard Gamelan’s frontwoman Terry Dame is a member, works the same way), they held true to tradition. Julian Hintz alternated between the aforementioned instruments and another with multicolored rubberbands strung between two wire hangers and rapped on their hip-hop flavored numbers, and didn’t embarrass himself – if he’s the one writing the lyrics, his worldview is smartly aware and his flow is effortlessly smooth, hardcore Brooklyn circa the here and now. One of their later numbers centered around a couple of pairs of Balinese cymbals striking up a ferocious clatter like New Years Day in Chinatown, which was borderline painful considering Barbes’ cozy confines; by contrast, the slinky Space Kitty worked permutations of a woozy bent-note melody on the cachoptar while Life on Mars (an original, not the Bowie song) was mesmerizing and impossible not to get lost in. They also did a funny, fun tribute to their touring van, Fred Beans. Even before the hip-hop lyric and the audience-response part came in, the pans and the gongs were playing off his name – another band’s vehicle should be so proud. They closed with their most Indonesian-sounding number of the night, complete with a big crashing crescendo followed by an impossible series of trick endings. The packed house screamed for an encore and got one, a fiery, conscious hip-hop tune. By now they’d been onstage for over an hour and a half and it was time for the next band – smartly, the waitress had turned on the AC, because considering how hard the four percussionists had been working, they needed it. Electric Junkyard Gamelan do a lot of live shows: watch this space for the next one.

March 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Inbreeds at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 12/9/07

The evening started an hour earlier across the street at Esperanto, where a forro band was playing unamplified in the window. Forro is Brazilian rainforest dance music, under ideal circumstances with acoustic stringed instruments like cuatro and guitar, and accordion. At its best, forro is the South American equivalent of Balkan gypsy music, as haunting as it is rousing. “What’s this band’s name? Mike’s band,” their leader, percussionist Nanny Assis joked. He’s been playing SOB’s for a long time: this is his weekly Sunday early-evening project, just two percussionists and accordion. They sound best at the bar where you can hear them over the yuppies chowing down on overpriced Spanish food. It was nice to be able to get out of the rain and hear this for an hour before splashing across the street. And it’s always fun to go out on a rainy night: you can always get a seat.

The Inbreeds played an absolutely hilarious set of country song parodies. It’s as if somebody in the band heard Tammy Faye Starlite’s Used Country Female album and said, hey, we can do this too. This show was that good. They’re very theatrical, and their act is very visual: imagine the best thing you’ve ever seen at Fringe Festival, only better. It wouldn’t be fair to give away their jokes, but over the course of an hour, they did spot-on spoofs of the country eulogy song, the American Idol ditzy country girl song, the dead dog song, the religious song, the Charlie Daniels clan-versus-clan epic, the sentimental those-were-the-days ballad, the one-night-stand song, the faux-country stadium rock song and finally the right-wing political song that closed the set, in which it was revealed at the end that the continued health of the American consumer economy is completely dependent on the availability of Chinese slave labor. Topics covered in the process include masturbation, teenage homosexuality, abortion, masturbation again, sexism, racist bigotry, religious intolerance and musicians’ inability to resist the urge to ham it up (one song featured banjo played with a bow like Jimmy Page used to play guitar). The material may frequently be sophomoric but the songs are very thoughtfully composed – whoever writes them obviously has the source material down cold. The humor extends to the music as well: even when nobody’s singing, the band is still trying to pull laughs and for the most part succeeded, even if the sound was as awful as it usually is here. Why the club can’t make it work in such a cozy, comfortable space is hard to understand.

The musicians in the Inbreeds are excellent. Haunting accordionist Annette Kudrak predictably steals the show, even if just she’s sitting in the back playing and contributing the occasional vocal harmony. There are two frontmen, one alternating between guitar and banjo, the other playing a standup drum kit. Both are a little stagy and very funny. The unit also has bass, violin (which was pretty inaudible throughout the show) and a woman on backup vocals who took a couple of breathtakingly good, twangy turns on lead vocals.

Where this really ought to be is Broadway: not off-Broadway, but in one of the big Broadway theatres, where wide-eyed tourists from the heartland can pay a hundred bucks a head so this talented crew can earn union scale and maybe teach the out-of-town crowd a thing or two. The ultimate irony here, of course, is that most country musicians go into music for the same reason that nonconformists in the Middle Ages did: to find a safe haven within an oppressive society. Just like five hundred years ago, most musicians, wherever they are, still swing hard to the left. Nashville included. The Inbreeds play Hank’s in Brooklyn on January 17 at 9 PM.

December 10, 2007 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment