Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rob Garcia’s Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet Captures the State of the World in Jazz, 2016

Forget for a minute how few drummer composers have as much of a gift for melody as Rob Garcia. Or for that matter what an acerbic, smart lyricist he is. It’s impossible to imagine an album that more accurately captures the state of the world in 2016 better than his new release Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet. Isn’t that the challenge that pretty much everybody, other than the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons of the world, faces right now? Garcia’s critique is crushingly vivid, catchy as hell and just as erudite. He offers a nod back to the fearlessly political Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln civil rights-era collaborations, and has an aptitude for bustling Mingus-esque 50s noir. His first-class band includes Noah Preminger, a frequent collaborator (who has a killer new album of his own just out) on tenor sax, along with Gary Versace on piano and Masa Kamaguchi on bass, with Joe Lovano and Kate McGarry guesting on a couple of tracks each.

A cover of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer opens the album, pulsing on an uneasy triplet beat until Preminger’s crafty lead-in to Versace’s spirals sends it into genunely surreal doublespeed territory, a time-warping nocturne. People Are Everything, a similarly uneasy jazz waltz, has Kate McGarry’s austere, Britfolk-tinged vocals channeling a similar angst and a hope against hope. Time and time again, Garcia’s message is that we’re all in this together, that it’s our choice to either sink or swim isn’t one that future generations will have.

Preminger’s tightly unwinding spirals sax over Versace’s insistent, acerbic piano deliver a vivid update on 50s noir postbop in the almost cruelly catchy Terror, Fear and Media: Garcia’s own artully terse propulsion so tight with the rest of the rhythm section, ramping up a practically punishing, conspiratorial ambience. Those guys are just hell-bent on scaring the bejeezus out of us, aren’t they?

Joe Lovano guests on the languidly aching ballad Precious Lives with a wide-angle vibrato, Versace following with masterfully subtle, blues-infused variations before handing back to the sax. Actor Brendan Burke narrates Garcia’s rapidfire, spot-on critique Mac N Cheese (Bank Fees, Dead Bees, Killing Trees, Shooting Sprees, War Thieves, Mac N Cheese) ) over a broodingly tight Angelo Badalamenti noir beatnik swing groove, a crushingly cynical, spot-on Twin Peaks jazz broadside.. Garcia follows this with the first of two tightly wound solo breaks, Act Local #1

The album’s title track makes plaintively shifting postbop out of a simple, direct Afro-Cuban piano rifff, then takes the whole architecture skyward, a showcase for both Preminger and Versace to sizzle and spin; it has the epic ominousness of a recent Darcy James Argue work, Versace adding a carnivalesque menace. The Journey Is the Destination makes a return to furtively stalking straight-up swing with Lovano again, McGarry rising with a determination that stops short of triumphant: where this will all end up is far from clear.

Guns Make Killing Easy opens as a surrealistically creepy, upper-register piano-bass duet and the swings morosely as Versace leaps with a clenched-teeth, macabre intensity balanced on the low end by Garcia’s coldly inevitable groove, Preminger adding nebulous suspense as the whole thing starts to go haywire and then turns into a requiem.

A tight, enigmatic two-sax chart opens Greenland Is Turning Green, both Lovano and Preminger judiciously prowling around over the hard-charging rumble underneath. The second pastorale here, Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is reinvented as pensive mood piece, while Whatever Gets You By seems to offer a degree of hope with its flashy piano, bittersweet Preminger lines and tropical heat. The album winds up with a second solo Garcia piece, Act Local #2

Throughout the suiite, Garcia’s own impactful, tersely majestic riffs and rolls color the music with an often mutedly brooding thud, as coloristic as it is propulsive. You would hardly expect the best jazz album of 2016 to be written by a drummer, and it’s awfully early in the year to make that kind of choice. On the other hand, nobody’s going to release a more relevant or important – or tuneful – jazz album this year.

And at the album release show at Smalls this past at Smalls, Leo Genovese filled in for Versace, raising the tropical heat, yet with a more lighthanded approach, while Preminger shifted in and out of feral volleys of blues. And Garcia, whose signature sound is both one of the brightest and boomiest around – he uses every inch of the available sonic spectrum – reasserted himself as one of this era’s most colorful and uncompromising players, even taking a detour into a two-handed African talking drum conversation at one point. His next gig as a bandleader is on August 5 at 7:30 PM at Prospect Range, 1226 Prospect Ave. in Ditmas Park; take the F or G to Ft. Hamilton Parkway.

July 5, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sympathy for the Devil?

Abdel Hamed Mowhoush fell for a lie, and it cost him his life: being a major general in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein in 2003 didn’t help. According to Human Rights First, Mowhoush’s four sons were taken prisoner by US forces. Assured that he and his children would be released if he turned himself in, Mowhoush did so. But rather than being let go, he was brutally tortured and subsequently murdered by an interrogator, Lewis Welshofer, who was courtmartialed and along with a few of his fellow soldiers, given a slap on the wrist for his role in the events. This killing raises all sorts of questions, from why the murder was committed – or sanctioned – in the first place, to whether or not such acts are ever justifiable. Seattle saxophonist Neil Welch addresses the incident with a chillingly and rather brilliantly orchestrated tone poem of sorts, Sleeper, out now on Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.

Welch’s point of view here is clear. “May the darkest, most difficult moments of our lives be met with love instead of hate, compassion instead of rage,” reads the epigram on the album sleeve. As you would expect, this is a somber and intense piece of music, played sensitively but acerbically by Welch along with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos. It begins ambient and elegaic in the manner of a salute delivered by slowly shifting sheets of sound from which harmonies slowly begin to develop, as if in a flashback. Martial allusions bustle and reach anguished peaks, then recede: much of this has echoes of Stravinsky. Fullscale horror is kept under restraint here, to crushingly powerful effect. A menacing harangue, a possible good cop/bad cop interlude and furtively official-sounding scurrying eventually cede to atmospheric horror bleeding with microtones. When a more cohesive martial theme appears, it quickly takes on a cold blitheness. Figures dart around like extras shuffling around the set of an early black-and-white film. Ending on much the same note as it began, it makes a potent follow-up to Welch’s Bad Luck collaboration with drummer Chris Icasiano. That one rated in the top 25 jazz albums of the year here last year: this could easily do as well.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Album Kills Fascists

These guys just plain get it. The Curtis Brothers barrel into their new album Completion of Proof with both eyes open, fearless and unintimidated. In the spirit of Mingus, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln during the Civil Rights era, and more recent jazz artists like Howard Wiley and Tain Watts, they take a skeptical and often savage look at the structure of society in the post-9/11 age. Forget that the tunes here have a blazing power: pianist/composer Zaccai Curtis’ liner notes are worth the price of the album all by themselves. Most of these songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – take their inspiration from the ongoing struggle against encroaching fascism, one way or another. But the Curtis Brothers aren’t simply critiquing – they’re offering solutions. As melodic jazz goes, this might be the best album of the year: it’s as important as it is catchy. While there’s a crowd who might pigeonhole this as latin jazz, and there’s definitely a delicious tropical slink to a lot of this, it defies such an easy categorization. It’s just good.

The opening track, Protestor, is dedicated to the guy who won the staredown with the army tank at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres. It’s got hard-hitting, insistent piano, imperturbable Brian Lynch trumpet and sailing Donald Harrison alto sax with the powerhouse Ralph Peterson a spot-on choice of drummer for this song, and for that matter, this project. Bright hooks fade out over his tanklike rumble. The edgy, vivid, modally tinged second track is a dedication to Curtis’ niece, Madison, scrambling nimbly with an especially optimistic solo spot for bassist Luques Curtis. Named for the Bay of Bengal islanders whose centuries-old attentiveness to the world around them saved them from the 2008 tsunami, The Onge is a potently cinematic piece, kicking off with pulsing bass and a bustling two-horn attack – and eventually a triumphant if completely hectic run to the hills led by Zaccai Curtis.

The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, the Manifest Destiny Suite. It’s meant to illustrate the psychological and sociological mechanics of fascism: an awfully tall order for an instrumental work, but Zaccai Curtis succeeds with it, brilliantly. Part one, aptly titled The Wrath, underscores how kissing up to tyrants never works: this one’s dedicated to the school hall monitor, but it would work just as well for the Judenrat, or a contestant on the Donald Trump Show. Luques Curtis’ booming bass chords anchor this angry, chromatically-fueled depiction of a bully, Jimmy Greene’s tenor prowling suspiciously, drums and Pedrito Martinez’ percussion pummeling and rattling uneasily as the bandleaders hammer the point home sarcastically, over and over. Part two, Mass Manipulation examines how the corporate media distracts, Balkanizes and disempowers us. Zaccai Curtis works a wickedly sneaky variation on the tyrant theme over a noirish, rolling Afro-Cuban groove, all the way down to a depressing little waltz of sorts and then an absolutely gorgeously interwoven arrangement as the horns carry the tune, the piano ripples and the bass and piano work in tandem, bobbing to the surface. The concluding section is a reminder of the high price of the failure to follow Jefferson’s advice about eternal vigilance, richly illustrated with big, syncopated charts and more intricate but hard-hitting interplay.

The rest of the album balances the upbeat, optimistic son montuno anthem Sol Within against the explosively towering cautionary tale Jazz Conspiracy, a nightmarish portrayal of what happens when the corporations completely take over replete with creepy dissonances, sarcastic faux-martial cadenzas and bleating brass. As a whole, it leaps to the front of the pack of contenders for best jazz album of 2011.

And while it’s nice to see something this edgy and worthwhile getting coverage in a place like the NY Times, it would be an understatement to say that their reviewer didn’t get it. Did he even listen to the album? That seems doubtful.

November 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 5/20/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1 (even when we miss a day, we always catch up). Friday’s album was #620:

Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach – We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite

In 1960, folksingers weren’t the only ones doing socially conscious music: plenty of jazz people were doing it too. This fiery civil rights-era suite is as inspiring and relevant today as it was when it came out that year. The chanteuse and her brilliant, innovative drummer husband are joined by an inspired, eclectic band including Coleman Hawkins on sax and African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. They open with the insistent minor gospel-flavored Driva’man, follow with the irrepressible indomitable Freedom Day and then the album’s epic centerpiece, Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace. It’s possible they inspired a young Gil Scott-Heron with the early anti-apartheid broadside Tears for Johannesburg. There’s also the hypnotic, percussion-driven All Africa. Here’s a random torrent.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Composer Howard Wiley’s Latest Album Looks Deeply Inside the Prison System

Howard Wiley’s 2006 album The Angola Project took its impetus from the saxophonist/composer’s experience with prisoners in the music program – such that there is one – at notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana. Five years later, he’s released a sequel, 12 Gates to the City, somewhat less grim but still unflinchingly aware of the harsh day-to-day conditions behind bars on the site of a former slave plantation – and something of a celebration of the efforts of the inmates there to maintain their sanity. Blending original jazz with rustic, bucolic gospel themes similar to the field recordings of convicts made by Allen Lomax and John Oster, this makes a good companion piece to Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement album (just reviewed here). It’ll resonate with fans of both classic gospel music and retro Americana interpreters like Lavay Smith and Daria Grace. Shelby plays bass here, alongside Wiley on alto and soprano saxophones, Geechi Taylor on trumpet,Yeruda Caesar-Kaptoech and Dina Maccabee on violins, drummer Sly Randolph, trombonist Danny Armstrong and singer Faye Carol.

There’s a lot of vocalese on these songs without words: in a way, Carol is the bad cop, the powerful low end, alongside an uncredited voice whose scatting has a distinctly Asian flavor. There’s considerable irony that an album that more than alludes to a kind of de facto slavery that’s still practiced in this country would evoke China, much of whose export economy is based on it. There are also echoes of the baroque on many of the tracks here which have strings, notably the warily hypnotic Come Forth (To the House of the Lord). The album builds with the rippling gospel boogie Old Highway 66 – which wouldn’t be out of place in Rev. Vince Anderson’s catalog – to the longing and stateliness of Captain Donna DeMoss, a tribute to the prison guard who impressed Wiley with her humanity during his time with the inmates.

Endless Fields, which depicts a cotton plantation ready for picking, adds jazz embellishments to a vintage 20s swing-pop tune. John Taylor, dedicated to a strong-voiced inmate who by all accounts was prohibited by the warden from participating in music, brutally evokes a master-slave relationship, with uneasy scurrying rhythms paired off against suspiciously blase piano. The rest of the album balances a handful of warmly swinging, wordless gospel numbers with a searing big band gospel jam, a gritty hip-hop number about life on the inside, and a diptych of tone poems that serve as the background for a thoughtful spoken-word interlude by former inmate Robert King, who aptly connects the dots between the American prison system and the practice of slavery.

As is commonly known, major multinational corporations rely on prison labor for everything from piecework to customer service. If you manage to get through to a call center at a major telecommunications company, you may well be talking to a prisoner. In one notorious case, California state prison laborers were forced to remove “made in China” tags and replace them with “made in USA” stickers. Such practices are typically justified by corporate executives as a way to maintain “competitiveness.” Interestingly, in economic terms, competitiveness equals hours worked divided by wages: slavery, theoretically if not realistically speaking, is infinitively competitive. One can only imagine the howls of indignation from the corporate elite should there be a public outcry against this shameful system. While there’s no harm in giving inmates a productive way to pass the time, like stamping out license plates or highway signs, displacing workers in the outside world is another matter. Meanwhile, entire rural areas have come to depend on the prison system as a sole source of income. To slow the steady flow of predominantly black and latino convicts from mainly urban areas would severely impact certain segments of the countryside: divide and conquer taken to its logical, ugly extreme.

February 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement: Best Album of the Year So Far?

Majestic, hard-hitting and intense, bassist/composer Marcus Shelby’s new civil rights-era themed big band album Soul of the Movement charges to the front of this year’s crop: it’s neck and neck for top billing with the Roulette Sisters’ new one right now. Shelby calls this a “meditation” on Martin Luther King, which makes sense in that the composer has obviously reflected deeply on King’s impact on his era, and vice versa. Shelby has strongly incorporated a Mingus influence, but also has an individual voice, vividly evoking struggle but also triumphant joy. The orchestra comprises Jeff Marrs on drums; Gabe Eaton and Marcus Stephens on alto sax; Sheldon Brown and Evan Francis on tenor; Fil Lorenz on baritone; Joel Behrman, Rob Ewing and Mike Rinta on trombones; Louis Fasman, Scott Englebright, Mike Olmos, Darren Johnston and Mark Wright on trumpets; Adam Shulman and Sista Kee on piano; Matt Clark on B3 organ and Shelby himself conducting from the bass. Contralto Faye Carol and Kenny Washington deliver passionate gospel vocals on a handful of songs as well.

They turn the gospel standard There Is a Balm in Gilead into a brief, balmy overture with vocalese and then launch into another gospel standard, Amen, ablaze with brass and call-and-response vocals. The first of Shelby’s compositions, Emmett Till, offers unexpected sweltery summer ambience in place of the expected dirge. It’s a feast of strong motifs, a tribute to the man rather than an attempt to evoke his martyrdom, imaginatively propelled and embellished by Marrs’ drums. Black Cab, a boisterous swing blues number sung by Carol, pays tribute to the car pools who drove Montgomery residents around during the 1956-57 Montgomery bus boycott, lit up by a tremendously affecting alto solo from Eaton. A cover of the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus is every bit as defiantly exhilarating as it could be, the band absolutely nailing that dark latin groove that emerges toward the end. Trouble on the Bus continues in a gorgeously brooding vein, building uneasily from Shelby’s ominous series of bass chords and taking flight on the wings of the alto sax.

The epic Birmingham (Project C) potently evokes the 1963 Birmingham marches and clashes with the police: it’s the strongest and most cinematic track here among many strong ones. Shifting from pulse-quickening suspense to frenetic chase scenes, it evokes the same kind of horror that Shostakovich portrayed in his numerous requiems for the victims of Stalin’s terror. The two-part Memphis (I Am a Man) illustrates King’s final act before his murder, in support of striking Memphis sanitation workers. Noirish atmosphere rising over a tense latin beat, Howard Wiley’s soprano sax struggles against its constrictions throughout a long, white-knuckle-intense solo; the second part bustles with ominous Mingus echoes and ends unresolved. The rest of the album includes the rousing organ riffage of the gospel funk song We’re a Winner, an inspired swing jazz version of Go Tell It on the Mountain and a tersely torchy, stripped-down version of Precious Lord, Take My Hand to close on an aptly contemplative note. For maximum impact, you may want to separate out the upbeat gospel-flavored tracks from the stormy big band stuff when uploading to your ipod. It’s out now on Porto Franco Records.

January 27, 2011 Posted by | gospel music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dark Glimmering Majestic Intensity: the Marc Cary Focus Trio Live 2009

Often the greatest albums take the longest to truly appreciate: this is one of them. Majestic, intense and powerful, the Marc Cary Focus Trio’s latest brilliant album, Live 2009 came out a few months ago. More than anything the jazz pianist has done yet, this one solidifies an already well-deserved reputation as a rugged individualist and synthesizer of global sounds. His relentless lefthand attack evokes McCoy Tyner in places, but Cary’s sound is unique, and it’s deep. He’ll hammer out a low-register groove until the piano is literally reverberating and then let it ring out as he judiciously builds a melody over it. Cary’s style is as rooted in classical music – both western and eastern – as it is in jazz, with a strong sense of history, both musically and in the broader sense of the word. Cary created the Focus Trio for the purpose of cross-pollination: this album continues on that path. To call it revolutionary would not be an overstatement.

They begin with a magisterial, saturnine version of Round Midnight, David Ewell’s hypnotic bass pulse hinting at bossa nova, Cary working an octave for the better part of three minutes against the melody. When he switches to echoey Rhodes electric piano for a second as Sameer Gupta’s drums begin to rumble, the effect is stunning. Cary’s glimmering, Middle Eastern-infused solo builds to a characteristically towering intensity…and then segues into what’s essentially another one-chord jam. Attachment, which also appears in a radically rearranged version on Sameer Gupta’s new Namaskar album, was inspired by a rainy season raga from the classical Indian repertoire. Here, Gupta leads the band in a spot-on, cinematic evocation of a summer storm that grows from a drizzle with lights-along-the-pavement piano and cloudbursting drums. Their version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie #1, aptly titled Twilight, is as rubato as Satie would have wanted, working up to hypnotic insistence out of a long, majestically rumbling crescendo to a dark shuffle groove.

Complete with a sample of Malcolm X discussing revolution, Runnin’ Out of Time vividly and ominously alludes to the price of not revolting via a catchy four-chord hook over a triplet bass pulse. Slow Blues for MLK reveals how amazing Dr. King’s rhythm was: the band play along to a sample of him working a crowd (reminding how revolution isn’t just local, it’s global) literally without missing a beat. A co-write with Bismillah Khan hitches a dark soul melody to Indian ambience; Jackie McLean’s Minor March is reinvented as a bitter, bone-crushing anthem, followed on a more plaintive note by a jagged, wounded version of Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You, Cary setting the tone early on by going inside the piano, brushing the strings for an eerie autoharp effect. The rest of the album includes a brisk, scurrying swing cover of the Broadway standard Just in Time, a playful exercise in contrasts between woozy portamento synthesizer and low lefthand piano percussion, and CD Changer, an Abbey Road-style suite featuring an intense, percussive latin vamp, a wary bass solo lowlit by Cary’s glimmering, crushed-glass intensity and finally the playful nudge of an unexpectedly silly synthesizer solo, as if to say, ok, it’s my turn now. Cary’s doing a one-off gig at the Blue Note on 11/22; if jazz is your thing and you’re in New York, you’d be crazy to miss it.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment