Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

International Jazz Artists Play a Benefit at Drom For Wrongfully Convicted Poet Keith LaMar

In a creepily prophetic glimpse of what the world would be subjected to in 2020 and onward, the 1993 Lucasville, Ohio prison uprising was triggered when the warden ordered prisoners to be injected with phenol, ostensibly to test them for tuberculosis. Many refused to comply. Violence broke out, a standoff with police ensued and hostages were taken. By the time the prisoners and state negotiated an end to hostilities, several people were dead.

Keith LaMar was one of the inmates. At nineteen, he’d been ambushed and robbed by drug dealers in his native Cleveland. Wounded by gunfire from his assailants, he fired back and killed one of them. After his arrest, he took a guilty murder plea rather than risking a death sentence at trial and was incarcerated at Lucasville. While the uprising was taking place, he was outside the area where the killings occurred, yet was fingered as the ringleader by inmates who received parole and reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.

The judge allowed prosecutor Mark Piepmeier to withhold key exculpatory evidence in LaMar’s 1995 trial, in violation of his Federal rights under the Brady ruling. This was nothing new: the prosecutor has been cited for misconduct many times, and at least one innocent man he sent to death row has subsequently been exonerated and released. As a result, LaMar, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Since his conviction, he has been held in solitary confinement on death row and is scheduled to be executed next year despite the state’s admission that there is no forensic evidence against him, and that their main witness perjured himself on the stand.

In the meantime, LaMar has written a memoir, been the subject of a short film, and has now become the first man on death row to release an album, Freedom First, streaming at youtube. It’s a long-distance collaboration with an inspired cast of allstar jazz talent who have come to his defense. Pianist Albert Marquès assembled different groups for the project in both New York and his native Spain, and he’s leading a band featuring most of the supporting cast at the album release show tonight, March 20 at 6:30 PM at Drom. Cover is $25; there are no restrictions, and it’s likely that the musicians will be donating their share of the proceeds to their long-distance bandmate’s defense.

Under the circumstances, LaMar was forced to record his tracks in fifteen-minute segments from a prison phone. Throughout the record, his spirit is indomitable: it’s amazing how he manages to stay positive, given his situation. Marquès’ resonant, modally drifting compositions are on the somber side, although there’s plenty of conversationality between text and music.

The first number is Calling All Souls, LaMar’s stark contemplation of mortality and existential dread over Marquès’ spare, lingering piano, rising to a distant, oldtime gospel-tinged crescendo. We discover how LaMar credits jazz with literally saving his sanity.

The band deliver two solemn takes of John Coltrane’s Alabama, the first an emphatic quartet recording of Marquès with saxophonist Salim Washington, bassist Scott Colberg and drummer Zack O’Farrill. The second is a stark duet with cellist Gerald Appleman, echoed later on in Resolution, an original.

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill joins his drummer brother, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, tenor saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo and bassist Walter Stinson in Tell Em the Truth, a lively, soaring tune with LaMar sending a shout-out to the resilience of his parents’ generation in his old Cleveland neighborhood, and the conflicting effects of how those adults tried to shield their kids from racism.

The band work a murky, mournful ambience in Unintentional Vignettes, where LaMar reveals that he was offered a reduced sentence if he’d been willing to take a murder plea for the events of the uprising.

They go back to the Coltrane pantheon – LaMar’s great inspiration – for an expansive quartet take of Acknowledgment, Caroline Davis contributing a spare but animated alto solo, Collberg offering a spot-on quote to set the stage.

LaMar reads On Living, Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet’s allusive contemplation of a prisoner’s resilience, joined by the album’s Spanish contingent. Marquès’ pensive modal tune rises with flugelhorn from Milena Casado and vocalese from Erin Corine over Marc Ayza’s soberly emphatic drums.

The full American ensemble provide a restless, fluttering setting for Be Free, LaMar recounting the capital trial events: “After 22,000 pieces of evidence were collected, none of them could be connected,” he reminds. Roy Nathanson contributes Some Sad Shit We Humans Do to Each Other, a soulful, melancholy solo alto sax interlude, then joins Nick Hakim and Marquès for the surreal trip-hop of No Man’s Land: “Being in here is like a lucid dream, except it’s a nightmare,” LaMar relates. “What I really want to say is ‘Go to hell,’ but that would be redundant, wouldn’t it?”

After a brief, pensive solo Samora Pinderhughes piano interlude, the Spanish crew turn in a shamanic, reverential take of Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue. Brian Jackson takes over the piano for the catchy, Steely Dan-tinged midtempo swing of The Only Freedom, Then it’s Arturo O’Farrill’s turn on the album’s concluding number, The Drowned & the Saved, rising from muddled angst to regal gospel variations as LaMar offers a profound, wise, existentially spiritual parable. If you can’t make it to the show, you can literally help save LaMar’s life here.

March 20, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Javon Jackson Reinvents Rare Spirituals with Nikki Giovanni’s Help

For his latest album, which hasn’t hit the web yet, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson asked poet Nikki Giovanni if she could suggest ten spirituals that he ought to record. She gave him a list with only a small handful of standards: otherwise, the tracks on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni are on the rare side. What’s more, the album marks possibly the first time this century that Giovanni has been featured on record as a lead singer.

She picked the ballad Night Song as a salute to her old friend Nina Simone. Since Jackson’s current home state, Connecticut, was locked down, he had to fly to Giovanni’s home in Virginia to cut the vocals. Pianist Jeremy Manasia plays spare, resonant chords beneath Jackson’s balmy lines as bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter provide whispery rhythm; Giovanni’s weathered evocation of being alone in a bustling crowd packs a wallop.

The first of the spirituals is a straightforwardly swinging take of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, a beautiful, stern minor-key tune, Jackson’s cantabile lead giving way to Manasia’s biting chords and elegant rudiments from Hunter.

Of the well-known numbers here, Wade in the Water makes a good segue, Jackson adding some spicy flourishes to his sailing lines, Manasia rising and falling before Christina Greer joins in to speak Giovanni’s scarily prescient words on how it’s up the outcasts and nonconformists among us to keep an otherwise soulless world alive.

The quartet reinvent Swing Low Sweet Chariot as a sly, slinky calypso jazz tune. yeah mon! By contrast, another familiar favorite, Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord draws a straight line back to somber Birmingham-era Coltrane as well as Miles Davis. The group’s take of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is much the same, with a regal, glittering, Mulgrew Miller-esque solo from Manasia.

But it’s the obscurities that everyone is going to want to hear. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is an aptly warm lullaby of a melody, Jackson giving it a calm midtempo swing and a misty-toned solo.

I’ve Been Buked (as in “rebuked”) has special historical resonance since Mahalia Jackson sang it at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech there. Williams bookends it with stark bowing, Jackson letting the clouds drift away before Manasia’s glittering solo

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, a duo arrangement for piano and sax, has an aptly reverent ambience. The group cut loose with a carefree swing in the closing number, I Opened My Mouth to the Lord, only to wind it out with a wary intensity. Gravitas and unselfconscious depth galore on an album which will no doubt be sought out by jazz and gospel fans alike.

February 24, 2022 Posted by | gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Camerata Zurich Reinvent a Haunting Czech Classical Suite

The piece de resistance on Camerata Zurich‘s latest album of string orchesta pieces – streaming at Spotify – is Daniel Rumler’s arrangement of Janacek’s troubled, death-obsessed suite On an Overgrown Path. It’s gorgeously lush yet uncluttered music. Rumler subsumes much of the turbulence of the original piano version, switching out embellishments for emphatic melody. Group leader Igor Karsko opts for elegance and dynamics throughout the suite’s many picturesque interludes, broken down into 25 short segments here.

There’s also a spoken-word component. In her original French, poet Maia Brami reads the broodingly evocative text the orchestra had commissioned in 2017, imagining the composer reflecting on his life in a rather haunted woodland setting. There’s an English translation (but surprisingly, no original) in the album liner notes.

Wistfully lilting strolls rise to a sudden anguish, moody resonance alternating with gently animated phrasing to set the stage. The composer was haunted by the death of his daughter, who succumbed to illness at twenty, and the sense of loss is palpable throughout many twists and turns. Fond memories flicker into and then fade out of the mist. The carefully modulated echo phrasing in the brief ninth segment is especially striking.

The opening work, Josef Suk’s Meditation on St. Wenceslas sounds absolutely nothing like the Christmas carol that’s been repurposed for a million playground rhymes over the years. This piece rises with a steady pulse to a troubled intensity: when Karsko gets the ensemble to dig in just thisclose to a shriek, a little after the midway point, the effect is viscerally breathtaking, especially considering the lushness on the way there. Suk wrote it as a thinly veiled freedom fighter anthem for Czech independence from the Habsburgs; its solemnity and defiance are just as relevant now, in a considerably more global context.

The group bring the album full circle with Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major, giving it a similarly insistent, even anxious pulse in places. Karsko raises the distinctness of the interweave of voices into strikingly sharp focus, a sonic layer cake.

January 11, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic – streaming at Spotify – “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

April 16, 2021 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

March 20, 2021 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Helen Sung Brings Her Picturesque Mix of Poetry and Jazz Back to Curry Hill with Cecile McLorin Salvant on the Mic

The confluence of music and poetry goes back for millennia in cultures around the world, but it’s less common here. In American jazz, spoken word is typically associated with improvisation, which makes the new album Helen Sung with Words – a collaboration with poet Dana Gioia – a rarity. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of blazing jams on the album, streaming at Spotify. It’s a latin jazz song cycle incorporating the poet reading several of his playfully aphoristic rhymes. Sung debuted the project memorably at the Jazz Standard last year; she’s bringing it back there for a show on Dec 13 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30; Sung is also bringing along Cecile McLorin Salvant as a special guest on vocals, which makes sense since Sung plays piano in Salvant’s majestic, menacing Ogresse big band tour de force. And since Salvant will be in the house, the show will probably sell out, so reserving now would be a good idea.

Gioia’s wistful, wry memory of youthful jazz clubbing opens the album’s first track, animated counterpoint between John Ellis’ tenor sax and Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet setting the stage for a scampering swing anchored by Sung’s spacious, incisive attack over Reuben Rogers’ bass and Kendrick Scott’s drums. Ellis, Jensen and then the bandleader follow in turn, climbing the ladder and fueling the blaze.

Jean Baylor sings the bolero-tinged ballad The Stars on 2nd Avenue with an airy, regretful, distantly Sarah Vaughan-ish delivery, lowlit by Sung’s low-key, wee-hours piano and Samuel Torres’ tersely propulsive congas. “Let’s live in the flesh and not in the screen,” Gioia intones as Torres’ flurries kick off Hot Summer Night, Christie Dashiell and Carolyn Leonhart trading off energetically, the rest of the band following suit over a straight-ahead hard-funk beat.

The band shift subtly between swing and clave as Baylor builds a knowing bluesiness in Pity the Beautiful, Sung’s move from loungey comfort to plaintiveness mirroring Gioia’s contemplation of how good looks will only get you so far. Too Bad, a catchy salsa-jazz kiss-off number, features Dashilell and Leonhart out front again along with a triumphantly flurrying Jensen solo, Sung prancing and scurrying up to a horn-driven crescendo.

The album’s strongest track is Lament for Kalief Browder, who killed himself after being thrown into solitary confinement on Rikers Island for two years as an adolescent. Ellis’ muted bass clarinet over airy vocalese and tiptoeing bass introduces a weary, brooding theme reflecting the hopelessness of prison life; from there, the band take it further into the blues before a grim return, Rogers bowing somberly in unison with Ellis.

They pick up the pace again with the catchy syncopation of Into the Unknown, Ellis’ tenor dancing between the raindrops, Sung offering momentary solo pensiveness before leaping back in alongside bright horn harmonies. Her enigmatically chiming piano interchanges with Rogers’ flitting figures and Scott’s mistiness throughout Touch; it brings to mind the work of Spanish composer Federico Mompou.

In the Shadowland has catchy, moody tango inflections; Ellis’ soprano solo may be the album’s most lyrical moment. Dashiell and Leonhart bring understated exasperation to the punchy final track. Mean What You Say. One can only imagine what kind of magic Salvant will bring to this stuff live.

December 8, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

May 24, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

September 9, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le Trio Joubran Salute Their Late Collaborator Mahmoud Darwish With an Unforgettable, Intense Performance at the Lincoln Center Festival

There were innumerable long passages in Palestinian oud-playing brothers Le Trio Joubran’s multimedia performance last night at the Lincoln Center Festival that were absolutely shattering. Time stood still. When did Wish You Were Here, the stark, haunted dirge that the trio began with, end? After five minutes of hushed, bereaved minimalism, or closer to thirty? Realistically, it was on the shorter side, but it left a vast impact.

Yet moments like those were balanced by others that were ridiculously funny. Which ultimately came as no surprise, considering that the show was a homage to the group’’s late collaborator and countryman, poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Darwish saw himself as an exile. His childhood village was one of the hundreds bulldozed to make room for Israeli settlers in the wake of the 1948 war. In a country the size of South Carolina, that makes an awful lot of refugees. He returned as an adult, eventually joining the Palestinian government’s inner circle but then withdrawing, disillusioned: he had no tolerance for the hypocrisy of politics. Widely considered to be the voice of the Palestinian people, his richly ironic, fiercely proud, relentlessly defiant work speaks to anyone estranged from their home, physically or otherwise.

Darwish died in 2008: for the last twelve years of his life, Le Trio Joubran were his backing band and musical sparring partners. To play along with his recorded voice must have been a considerable emotional challenge for them, but this time they didn’t let on. Darwish was ailing when he made those recordings, but his voice was virile, supremely confident and as nuanced as his words, simultaneously projected in Arabic and English translation above the stage.

One of the group’s signature tropes is to play in unison with a flurrying, precise, tremoloing strum, a sepulchrally fluttering low-string section with an ancient resonance deeper than any western orchestra could achieve. They did that a lot, especially in the most somber passages. But the three oudists also lept, and bounded, and exchanged jaunty riffs, sometimes with an Andalucian flair, most notably in response to an innuendo-packed erotic poem ripe with surrealistic, irresistibly hilarious Freudian imagery.

The rest of the music was a dynamically shifting mirror for the poetry: Darwish zings you with a one-liner, then delivers a gutpunch. Fate and luck are fickle, at best, indelibly illustrated via excerpts from his epic The Dice Player. One of his characters misses his flight because he’s not a morning person, a good thing because it would have crashed with him onboard. In Darwish’s world, two things that make life worth living are invaders’ fear of memories, and tyrants’ fear of songs.

Samir Joubran played a slightly larger model than the instruments in the hands of his two younger brothers, Wissam and Adnan, taking the lowest descents of the night. Drummer Youssef Hbeisch began with a somber, boomy beat on daf frame drum and then moved behind a full kit, which he played with hands, maintaining a muted, subtly colored pulse – at least until a solo where the three brothers encircled him and added their own playful beats. They’d revisit that on the encores – after a warmly rousing singalong, Samir and Wissam played basslines on Adnan’s oud in perfect unison with their brother’s briskly chromatic, dancing lines. It’s impossible to imagine a concert by a single band in New York in 2017 any more riveting or thrilling than this.

This year’s Lincoln Center Festival is a wrap, but Lincoln Center Out of Doors – this city’s most consistently surprising and eclectic free concert series – is in full swing. Angelique Kidjo makes an appearance (but not singing her own material) on August 2; on August 3 at7:30 there’s a Bollywood music-and-dance extravaganza out back in Damrosch Park that looks enticing. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

July 30, 2017 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piano Titan Vijay Iyer Scores a Harrowing Multimedia Performance

Last night at National Sawdust, pianist Vijay Iyer joined with bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan to create a somber, stunned, broodingly opaque and occasionally picturesque backdrop for Teju Cole‘s  allusively harrowing spoken word narrative, Blind Spot. Informed by history, portraiture, archaeology and Greek myth, Cole’s vignettes traced decades of humans being inhuman to each other, and how conveniently we forget.

Cole didn’t waste any time making his point. One of the first of the photo projections in his series of vignettes was a snapshot of a simple piece of poster graffiti in a Berlin neighborhood which once housed a gestapo torture complex. The message was simple. In black-and-white English, it said, “Sign here.” Cole related that when he returned a week later, the poster had been replaced by a billboard. “Darkness is lack of information,” he mused later during the performance. Is it ever.

Cole nonchalantly offered that his way of seeing had been radically changed by a blindness scare and then an apparently successful eye operation. The unseen seems to be as central to his work as the visible. An elegaic sensibility wove through his quietly provocative, interconnected narrative. Death – by torture, drowning, car accident, Klansmen and genocide – was a constant and pervasive presence.

The music matched the words and visuals. Iyer set the stage with a simple binary chord, a distant star against an obsidian sky. From time to time, the group improvisation became more programmatic – rushing water imagery and a sudden gust off a Swiss lake, for example. The most harrowing moment was when Cole related visiting the site of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and referenced both McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison’s roles in John Coltrane’s classic elegy for the victims, Alabama. Iyer and then Oh both quoted Coltrane’s pianist and bassist briefly – Oh’s sudden, frantic downward cascade might have been the night’s most stunning moment.

There were many others. Iyer began by working uneasy harmonies against a central tone, raga style, eventually building a Satie-esque menace while Brennan bowed her bells. As the night went on, Oh became more present, whether with an unexpected, circling series of harmonics that evoked Stephan Crump, or spare, emphatic accents moving with a slow but immutable defiance away from the center.

Brennan took the lead when Iyer went into Lynchian soundtrack mode, adding shivery chromatic phrases over macabre piano allusions that Iyer quickly embellished so as to keep the suspense from ever reaching any kind of resolution. The three finally reached toward closure with a concluding requiem, but even there the gloom didn’t lift. Earlier, Cole recalled a medieval painting that depicts Agamemnon offering his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that he could start a war with Troy: the anguished tyrant has his back to the viewer, unable to face what he’s just done. These days it looks more and more like the House of Atreus is us.

Iyer plays Tanglewood on July 13 with violinist Jennifer Koh. The next jazz event at National Sawdust – always a pleasure to visit and revel in the exquisite sonics  there – is on August 30 at 7 PM with perennially unpredictable guitar luminary Mary Halvorson; advance tix are $25.

July 9, 2017 Posted by | Art, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment