Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

A Corrosively Hilarious New Spoken-Word Album from Anthony Haden-Guest

Back in the early 80s, legendary journalist and gadfly Anthony Haden-Guest ran into Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell at a party in Cannes. Haden-Guest asserted that the hip-hop fad, as he called it, had run its course. That opinion might have been colored by having missed the opportunity to run up to the South Bronx with his buddy Malcolm McLaren to witness the birth of what McLaren called “scratch.”

Whatever the case, Blackwell’s response was, “Anthony, you are absolutely mad.” Thirty-five years later, Haden-Guest has released his debut hip-hop song,.“I always assumed you had to be in a studio up to your neck in hi-tech to do this,” he explains, over a wry faux Wu-Tang synth backdrop assembled by film composer Keith Patchel. “If this won’t kill hip-hop, nothing will.”

That number appears on Haden-Guest’s hilarious new spoken-word album The Further Chronicles of Now, streaming at Bandcamp. When he’s at the top of his game, his relentless, spot-on skewering of the ruling classes ranks with Michael M. Thomas’ Midas Watch, in its glory days in the pre-Jared Kushner era New York Observer. With a total of 24 tracks, a handful of them set to spare, surreal, quietly carnivalesque 80s synthesized organ or piano, Haden-Guest’s commentary is as grim as it is funny.

The apocalypse is a recurrent theme, as is art-world skullduggery. Haden-Guest doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has a bullshit detector set to stun. “So I’m siting in a Starbucks, listening to the blues, sound peculiar enough for you?” he poses early on, in his proper blueblood London accent.

A handful of tracks here were released earlier on Rudely Interrupted, Haden-Guest’s 2012 collaboration with darkly eclectic songwriter Lorraine Leckie. The Everywhere Man revisits the “strangely nihilistic bunch” who made it their job to get past the “clipboard Nazis from outer space” to crash Manhattan parties in the 1970s. Happy City, as Haden-Guest puts it, is his requisite drug song, a step out of character for a guy who “got a bit tipsy at age seven as a kilted pageboy at a wedding, which…unfortunately prefigured much of what was to come.” And Bliss,. the most plainspoken but possibly most harrowing piece here, is as poignant as Leckie’s glimmering remake.

The art world is where Haden-Guest really gets on a roll. The Secret History of Modern Art begins with Gustave Courbet,  “A slap in the face with a fat girl’s bush.” Haden-Guest saves his most venomous critique for Picasso:

Pablo switched styles like a man possessed
As if in some eerie way he’d guessed
The needs and the greed
The hunger he’d feed
Of collectors to come, a predator breed
From Picasso we got the shopping cart
And create a supermarket of art

A Song for Andy, a Seven Days of Christmas rewrite, is just as funny. Even the critics get what’s coming to them here, although “Viveros-Faune cannot be counted on and Roberta Smith should not be tangled with.” The rest are available at the right price – and Haden-Guest names names. And The New Avant-Garde are “the shock troops for developers now.”

The best of the apocalypse scenarios, Yesterday’s Snow is an update on Francois Villon’s famous, elegiac poem:

This may take a little while!
J. Edgar Hoover’s curdled bile
Lee Harvey Oswald’s bulging file
Jayne Mansfield in a speeding motor
Vic Morrow underneath a rotor
Mark Chapman outside the Dakota
Robert Maxwell got a floater…
The way that Enron made that pile
Bernie Madoff’s tiny smile

Frenemies, ex-girlfriends and old colleagues each get what’s coming to them here as well. The Tame Frontier draws its inspiration from a drive back to Manhattan from “an extremely aggressive Hamptons weekend”  where “nobody walks, they cross the street by car, where the city’s a bridge too faraway.” There’s also An Ordinary Day, whose implication is how endless terrorism alerts cry wolf to the point where they’re useless, and A Hymn to Intellectual Property Rights, with its wry allusions to a jazz standard. Now eighty, Haden-Guest shows no sign of slowing down. If there’s anybody who deserves to stay in the game long enough to chronicle the end of the world as it happens, it’s this guy.

Haden-Guest and Leckie celebrate the release of the album tonight, June 8 at around 7 at Anderson Contemporary Art at 180 Maiden Lane in the financial district.

June 8, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, interview, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic New York Jazz Cats Take Lots of Chances; One of Them Risks a Bed-Stuy Gig

Saxophonist Roy Nathanson and pianist Arturo O’Farrill are part and parcel of New York. O’Farrill is one of the world’s great big band leaders, composers and pianists, has shifted plenty of paradigms in latin jazz and has never backed away from a fearlessly populist political stance. Nathanson was a pillar of the downtown jazz world before John Zorn’s ascendancy and eventual embrace by the mainstream, served as a crucial piece of punk jazz – and then noir jazz – pioneers the Lounge Lizards and since then has done the same with the Jazz Passengers, who’ve had a long association with Deborah Harry. That band makes a very rare Brooklyn appearance this Dec 22 at 8 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy. If you can figure out how to get there (it’s about fifteen minutes away from the C train, if the C is running at all), you can see an iconic New York act in one of the few remaining shadowy neighborhoods they evoke, for the price of one of the bar’s pricy crostinis and something in the tip bucket. The people who run the place are very pleasant – it’s sort of a mashup of Pete’s Candy Store and the Jazz Standard – and the sound is excellent.

Nathanson played a killer duo set with O’Farrill at Barbes back in July. While neither have much of an association with free jazz, they’re both great improvisers, so it was a treat to see them fly completely without a net, spar, banter and pull away from each other, only to reconverge as if nothing wild or crazy had just happened. The two opened with a brooding jazz poetry number contemplating what home means in an age in New York when even the right wing media admits that two thirds of the population are either homeless or a paycheck away. The two traced an austere, chromatically charged minor-key blues direction, Nathanson intoning wordlessly and ominously when his sax wasn’t veering away from the center into flurries of hard bop. O’Farrill echoed him with his own spirals at the end, up to a frenetic, jackhammer coda where Nathanson went bounding through O’Farrill’s hailstones. Then they made uneasy fun out of stairstepping polyrhythms, again picking up the pace with an icepick intensity.

The pair edged their way slowly toward swinging barrelhouse blues, but without the striding lefthand, hit a pantingly rhythmic interlude, then Nathanson blew smoky, moody phrases as O’Farrill backed into the shadows, elegant and melancholic. The next number found the two pairing off wry, leaping staccato accents as O’Farrill built stygian, resonant ambience, pedaling way down at the bottom of the keys with his left as Nathanson drew him further and further into a duel, eventually hitting his octave pedal for an almost Balkan accordion effect. They edged back toward the original gritty, bluesy theme from there, O’Farrill finally hitting a semblance of a stroll with the rhythm.

As the stroll became a brisk stomp, Nathanson rose to O’Farrill’s intensity, finally signaling the relentless pianist onto a siding and then a long, slow, decline that picked up when Nathanson went to the mic again. “All hands on deck are going down,” he explained coldly. Then he flipped the script with a cozy wee-hours melody as O’Farrill gave the vehicle a more-or-less steady, enigmatic chassis.

From there, Nathanson went for the saxophone equivalent of bluesmetal as O’Farrill rippled and sprinted through cluster after cluster in the upper registers before hitting a dancing, insistent pasage. By now, it was clear that they weren’t about to follow much of any straight-ahead rhythm and were teasing both each other as well as the crowd, no matter how much New Orleans congeniality Nathanson might send wafting through the room.

The duo’s next sparring match paired off wavering, airy sax phrasing with clenched-teeth piano rhythm punctuated by the occasional detour toward blues. O’Farrill opened one of the later numbers with a frantic, Carla Bley-ish lefthand attack. There was at least another 45 minutes to go in the performance, a cuisinart version of a standard and then another hard-hitting new theme and endlessly uneasy variations if memory serves right, but by then the recorder was out of memory. See what kind of magic you can be witness to when you go a little off the beaten path in Brooklyn?

December 15, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.

October 14, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Incendiary, Articulate Jazz and Poetry on Bobby Watson’s Latest Project

Saxophonist Bobby Watson‘s “I Have a Dream” Project commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic address to the crowd of protesters gathered at the Washington Mall. The band’s album Check Cashing Time pairs many of Watson’s most politically-fueled compositions with incendiary, spot-on, Gil Scott-Heron influenced spoken-word lyrics by Glenn North. The rest of the band includes Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Richard Johnson on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, Eric Kennedy on drums, Pamela Baskin-Watson on vocals and Horace Washington on flute. Its theme is that it’s payback time for 200-plus years of slavery.

Sweet Dreams, a wickedly catchy, bitingly bluesy, Frank Foster-ish swing tune with concise solos from trumpet, alto and gently ringing piano opens the album. The title track is a variation on that theme and a launching pad for North’s searing commentary, which elegantly connects the dots between the murders of MLK and Trayvon Martin, and doesn’t neglect to address the prison-industrial comples. As North puts it, “The new Jim Crow has enormous wings.”

The lively At the Crossroads follows a more optimistic tangent, steadily pulsing with a purposeful, determined Mohari solo. North juxtaposes a series of alternately celebratory and grisly images over a more-or-less rubato piano-and-cymbal backdrop on Black Is Back. The band follows that with the bristling, modally-charged A Blues of Hope, with its lush horns, dancing piano and a similarly dynamic, rising and falling solo from Watson.

They go back to jazz poetry with 40 Acres & a Mule, a rather petulant new take on a bitter old African-American mantra: the nonchalant defiance of Mohari’s shivery solo is one of the album’s high points. The slow, brooding Dark Days makes a good segue, guest Karita Carter’s ominously looming trombone paired off against bluesy, pensive upper-register piano, North quoting both Dr. King and Bob Marley. Baskin-Watson sings her Seekers of the Sun, a syncopated, blues and gospel-tinted shout-out to keep hope alive, the band maintaining that mood on the briskly swinging Progress, with its stilletto-precise solo by Johnson.

After a brief, Marc Cary-esque solo piano reprise of the fourth track, the band cuts loose on Triad (Martin, Malcom, Ghandi), Watson’s sailing sax holding it together as individual voices diverge: it’s the most ambitious number here. The band works a brisk Taxi Driver-style clave on My Song, a clever update on the dozens: “I was born in the briar patch behind the old woodshed, held a klansmen by the throat until he was dead,” North intones. Lundy’s brief MLK on Jazz – quoting the King speech that opened the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival – and then his pensive ballad Revival (Ovedia) follow. Baskin-Watson ends the album with Ellington’s  Come Sunday, vividly underscoring its gospel roots. This album succeeds  as food for thought, eloquent expression of righteous anger and just plain good jazz. If Sonny Stitt desesrves to be in a certain jazz hall of fame, so does Bobby Watson.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Baer Soul

Oliver Baer has been a steady, august presence in the New York underground poetry and music scenes for some time: the Trouble Dolls recently set a series of his poems to music on their most recent album. Baer’s poetry is also juxtaposed with Alexander Berenbeim’s elegantly intriguing black-and-white photography in the book Baer Soul, recently published by Western Indie and available at the usual online sources as well as select independent bookstores and from the author himself.

While the poems don’t follow a chronological path, there are recurrent themes that follow thematic threads, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes suspensefully: the tension between desire and reason; an alienated individualist at odds with the herd mentality; order versus chaos, freedom versus security. There’s a discernible stylistic arc: the earliest poems are the most overtly personal and expressive, and often follow a rhyme scheme, while the later works have a broader worldview, innumerable layers of meaning, and a frequently withering cynicism. Simply put, this is a deep book.

It takes awhile to get going. An obsession with a Juno archetype runs its course, the “boy with the goblin glass shard in his heart” trudging through a not-funhouse of mythological imagery and ending up…well, where you would expect someone in this position to end up, “reaction” and “traction” finding a rhyme that is as unexpected as it is wryly spot-on. And just when it seems that there’s nowhere else to go but Maudlinville, Baer quotes Shakespeare at his most blithe and tosses off the funniest poem in the book.

About two-thirds of the way through, an uneasy urban milieu (which could easily be the Lower East Side of New York circa 2001) becomes the backdrop against which angst rises and occasionally falls. Young people form family bonds, only to watch in horror as “the trouble dolls move in” and by the next page the city is enveloped in the ugly, smoldering shadow of Ground Zero a day after 9/11. At this point, the images become more lurid, the Bloombergian future less and less appealing:

Lightning cracked skies and thunderous mad laughs fill my nights.
The echoing orders of the mad tyrant ringing through my days.
As we tromp through the city enforcing his Singaporean law,
The sitcom mentalities proclaim the wonders of order…

An elegaic weariness pervades many of the book’s final poems. The sarcasm in a contemplation of how even Satan must have been born with a clean slate is crushing. Mirrors disappear so as not to be shattered. A mythical castle in the clouds crumbles. The downward trajectory eventually reaches a vividly photorealistic, metaphorically-loaded lakeside milieu and then moves further into wintry terrain. The final poem faces a headshot of Baer flashing a gleefully toothy grin against the somber, Mahmoud Darwish-esque text:

The chair is empty now
A cavity silence eating my background noise
Drilling quiet framed by the dark teething on a dying sun’s rays
Tendrils outlining the presence of absence

Berenbeim’s shadowy, noirish photo tableaux follow a considerably more direct path to a more violent ending, Anthony Rocco playing a raffish role against Kindall Almond’s haunted, black-eyeliner blonde femme fatale.

Baer Soul: Poetry by Oliver Baer; Photography by Alexander Berenbeim; Presented by Anthony Rocco Featuring Kindall Almond, ISBN 9-781935-995005

September 17, 2012 Posted by | Literature, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cross-Pollination at the Gershwin with Inna Faliks

Virtuoso pianist Inna Faliks’ latest installment of her innovative Music/Words series last night was a throwback to the Paris salons of the late 1800s, in the aptly lowlit atmosphere of the back room at the Gershwin Hotel. As she describes it, the concept of the series is to match music with poetry that shares a mood or evokes similar emotions, rather than referring to specific ideas or events. As an attempt to link two worlds that otherwise don’t usually intersect, it’s an admirable idea. Musically, this program was extremely diverse, spanning from classical to late Romantic, with Faliks pulling one of the obscurities she’s so fond of out of the woodwork as well. Lyrically, it was surreal, impactful, and relevant. Poet Tom Thompson doesn’t waste words: he finds the logic in cruel irony, assembles scenes vividly yet economically, and makes connections – like the commonalities in the desires of a child at play and a hungry spider – that might seem farfetched at face value but make perfect sense as he describes them (spiders got a lot of time this time out). “The lake is tired of being a mirror…it closes its one historical eye before we ever get to use it,” he observed bleakly. In an understatedly moving account of his son’s experience with seizures, Thompson coldly acknowledged how in one culture, people who suffer from them get killed, while in another they’re worshipped. A New York water tower became a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the dead leaves that get under the screws that hold it together; people and insects in Central Park shared a fate brought on by their inability to escape their desires. If insightfully ominous, loaded imagery is your thing, Thompson has a couple of collections out from alicejamesbooks that you should investigate.

The music was good too. In between trios of poems, Faliks alternated with pianist Dimitri Dover, who warmed up the performance with the Haydn’s uncharacteristically pensive Sonata in C Minor., Hob. 16:20. A bit later, he played three selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the best being the anxiously stately “Montagues and Capulets” scene followed by Mercutio’s scampering cinematics. He joined Faliks for a perfectly synchronized four-handed take of another uncharacteristic piece, Liszt’s reflective, remarkably terse Symphonic Poem #4: Orpheus, eventually ending the show with three intuitive, energetic Debussy preludes and then a rather stern take on Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31.

Although the program put her on the bill lower than Dover and Thompson, Faliks was still the star of this show, playing with her signature blend of lithe grace and raw power, particularly as she made her way through the nocturnal scenes of Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir, and then the composer’s transcription of Paganini’s La Campanella, which she imbued with playful charm and then maintained it all the way through the dance’s knotty, rapidfire thicket of staccato. Her obscurity du jour turned out to be 20th century Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato, a fascinatingly biting, expansively acidic prelude that built from a walking bassline to echoes of Alban Berg and Vincent Persichetti. Faliks’ next program in the Music/Words series, on April 22 at 7:30 PM at the Cornelia Street Cafe with Brazilian pianist Clarice Assad and poet Irina Mashinski promises to be equally intriguing.

February 11, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Barbez Brings Paul Celan to Life in Midtown

Stark, often haunting, eclectic Brooklyn band Barbez have explored several different styles: Tom Waits-ish cabaret, Big Lazy-style noir soundtracks and most recently gypsy rock. The incarnation that played the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Thursday night is the most interesting yet. Along with the encores, the show brought to life the band’s the most recent Tzadik album Force of Light, a musical companion to a series of poems by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Celan wrote in German – his original language – and met with considerable criticism for it. His earlier work is graceful, meticulously constructed and haunted; his later poems are considerably gnomic. He asserted that language was a sanctuary of sorts for him, the only way to make sense of the horrors he’d witnessed, including the murder of his parents in a death camp. Celan committed suicide in 1970. This version of the band – leader Dan Kaufman on guitar and lapsteel, Peter Hess on clarinet and bass clarinet, Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba, Peter Lettre on bass, John Bollinger on drums, the Quavers‘ Catherine McRae on violin – played in mostly minor keys alongside Cassie Tunick’s matter-of-fact narration.

The first song, Shibboleth set the stage for what was to follow, a succinct, distantly klezmer-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic guitar theme that expanded with subtle variations: it made an apt soundtrack for the accompanying poem, an imagistic cautionary tale. Kaufman switched to Strat for the album’s title track – the accompanying poem is cynical, Sysyphian and death-obsessed, the instrumental slow, swaying and austere with a violin lead track in place of Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin on the studio version, Tunick’s vibes signaling a desperate stampede down to a troubled, repetitive outro. Aspen Trees, based on Celan’s dedication to his mother, was an understated dirge driven by clarinet and another strikingly terse, melodic central hook by Kaufman. Based on two late poems, Corner of Time maintained the plaintive atmosphere with a stately sway, everyone in the band adding off-kilter accents in turn.

Count the Almonds, an allusion to a popular ghetto snack, was the most overtly klezmer-inflected composition of the night, utilizing intricately tremoloing vibraphone passages to build crescendos to one final swell with the drums going full tilt, then down and out with surprising gentleness. Their take on The Black Forest was funky and enlivened with all kinds of dynamic shifts; Conversation in the Mountains – based on Celan’s only known prose piece, was a long, doomed cruise to nowhere. The last of the Celan pieces, Sky Beetle gave Hess a long runway to launch a gliding, hypnotic bass clarinet passage evocative of hypnotic avant-chamber ensemble Redhooker. They encored with a brightly apprehensive chase scene of sorts based on an ancient Roman Jewish melody, and a surfy, creepily phantasmagorical take on an Alfred Schnittke piece. The polyglot crowd in the auditorium wanted more despite the fact that after about an hour and a half onstage, the band had literally heated up the room.

May 18, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment