Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Todd Marcus Releases a Vivid, Bittersweet, Fearlessly Relevant Celebration of Freddie Gray-Era Baltimore

Todd Marcus’ hard-hitting new suite On These Streets: A Baltimore Story – streaming at Bandcamp, more or less – was released this past April 27 to commemorate the anniversary of the killing of Freddie Gray. Gray was thrown in a Baltimore police van just a few blocks from Marcus’ dayjob at the nonprofit Intersection of Change, where he works as a community organizer. Over the past two years, the world’s only bass clarinetist big band leader found himself at ground zero, immersed in the furor over the killing. This quintet recording is a sometimes grim, bittersweet reflection on the events that brought Baltimore to its knees in April of 2015, and afterward.

And it’s as relevant as any protest jazz from the Civil Rights era, right up there with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Although Marcus’ music is profoundly lyrical, spoken-word passages by community members provide additional context in between a handful of the album’s individual tracks. It’s not only one of the year’s best jazz records –  it’s one of the most potently catchy albums of 2018 in any style of music.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, so it’s no surprise that his music often draws as much on the Middle East as it does on African-American traditions. Marcus’ long, darkly magisterial solo in the album’s opening cut, On the Corner, finally brightens as a latin noir groove picks up, George Colligan’s piano spiraling through Marcus’ chromatics.

A local pastor introduces Marcus’ hometown shout-out An Intersection of Change, underscoring community efforts to combat crushing poverty and a persistent scourge of heavy drugs by reclaiming real estate, creating arts programs and providing rehab for addicts  – in other words, everything a reasonable government should be doing with taxpayer money. The song itself begins as a brightly propulsive, bustling shuffle, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone and Colligan’s piano rippling over drummer Eric Kennedy’s restless rustle until an ominous march foreshadows what’s to come.

Ground Zero (At Penn and North) is a real Shostakovian showstopper, drenched in sarcasm: a big splash for an intro, more of that march theme, a wickedly hard-charging Marcus solo contrasting with Paul Bollenback’s guitar, endless unison head-bobbing and then frantic scampering from Colligan up to a hard charge out. A Baltimore city councilman comments bitterly that “This is bigger than Freddie Gray, this is about social economics…lack of opportunities…this isn’t about West Baltimore, this could occur anywhere.”

Marcus’ brooding, spare low-register solos and Davis’ incisive drive propel Fear of the Known, centered by Kris Funn’s emphatic bass. Bollenback flares acidcally, then hands off to the bandleader’s biting Arabic chromatics.

PTSD in the Hood brings back the brooding clave of the album’s opening cut but more insistently – bad memories come back to haunt you with a vengeance. This time Marcus is both more somber and more frantic, and the march is more of a sotto-voce strut.

Fueled by Wolf’s carillon-like cascades and the rhythm section’s frenetic swing, Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle is Marcus’ salute to Baltimore’s former jazz mecca Pennsylvania Avenue, at one time a counterpart to New York’s 52nd St. and New Orleans’ Bourbon District.

The carefree wee-hour tableau It Still Gets Still is Marcus’ Harlem Nocturne, if a lot more expansive, lit up by Wolf’s twinkling solo: troubled as inner cities may be, all hope is not lost there. Marcus bookends Colligan and Wolf’s comfortable late-night cascades in Covered in Snow with a somberly anthemic theme 

The album closes with NJ ’88 (Ode to the 80s), a steady, catchy, workmanlike salute to Marcus’ New Jersey upbringing, with a dancing bass solo at the center: obviously he had cooler parents than most. Talk to somebody who spent time there as a kid. Most of them couldn’t wait to escape to the East Village…which they’d be priced out  of less than a decade later. 

Lucky Baltimoreans can catch Marcus leading a quartet at a rare, free daytime show on May 20 at 3:30 PM at Second Presbyterian Church at 4200 St. Paul St.

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May 14, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camila Meza Brings Her Disarmingly Direct Voice, Guitar and Unflinching Political Sensibility to the West Village

Camila Meza’s lustrous, wondrous, disarmingly clear vocals mirror the way she plays guitar. For that reason, she’s highly sought after. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in trombonist Ryan Keberle’s group, and also plays a central role in Fabian Almazan’s large ensemble. She’s as vivid a lyricist in English as in her native Spanish; when she sings vocalese, she’s more likely to harmonize with a guitar line than to imitate a postbop horn solo.

That often shatteirngly direct sensibility serves her songwriting well. Her work has a fearless political relevance, inspired by decades of populist songwrirting from throughout Latin America. Her most recent album Traces is streaming at Sunnyside Records. She’s playing a characteristically politically-fueled show with pianist Aaron Goldberg on May 10 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15/$10 stud.

The album opens with Para Volar, a bright, gently churning melody underneath her Spanish-language lyrics, an allusively triumphant shout-out to freedom and escape, a common theme in the Chilean-born Meza’s music. Her guitar bubbles and leaps over the lithe rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Shai Maestro kicking into his driving low register as Meza’s solo peaks out. She revisits that optimism a little later in the album’s kinetic title track, where she turns up her guitar and cuts loose, more gritty and lowdown.

Jody Redhage’s spare cello and Maestro’s sparkly Rhodes mingle with Meza’s gentle fingerpicking in Away, a wistful, hypnotic duet with Sachal Vasandani. Meza’s precise, clipped vocals leave no doubt as to the deadly consequences in Djavan’s bitter eco-disaster narrative Amazon Farewell, Maestro adding a richly incisive, darkly rippling solo.

Mar Elastico is an enigmatically hazy, summery reminiscence of Meza’s childhood adventures with her sisters, Maestro’s Rhodes front and center; Scott’s distant-tornado cymbals behind Meza’s delicate jangle is one of the album’s high points. She switches to acoustic for a spare solo take of the Victor Jara classic Luchin. an allusively harrowing tale of resilience amidst crushing childhood poverty. 

The uneasy piano-guitar harmonies in Steven Sondheim’s Greenfinch and Linnet Bird give the selfconsciously fussy ballad a welcome gravitas. Meza returns to the expectantly circling, distant yet optimistic intensity of the early part of the album in Emerald: the mantra is “There’s no need to hide now.”

The album’s most elusive yet arguably strongest track is the lush, sweeping Mangata, a metaphorically-charged refugee’s escape anthem, Meza’s stark, emphatic chords against Maestro’s neoromantic glimmer. The album ends with the self-effacingly modest Little Person – the spare, rather trad closing theme from the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Synecdoche New York-  projecting the hope of “finding another little person,” as Meza puts it. What Meza has found here in the US is a fertile crucible for her many talents, all of which are still in their formative stages. Catch her on the way up.

May 5, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

August 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Keberle Releases His Potent, Relevant New Protest Jazz Album at the Jazz Standard

A moody Fender Rhodes melody echoes as the title track to trombonist/keyboardist Ryan Keberle’s new protest jazz album, Find the Common Shine a Light – streaming at Bandcamp – begins. Guitarist Camila Meza sings poet Mantsa Miro’s lyrics.with an understated, insistent clarity:

Our weakest link is fear of losing races
Get home before the curtain falls…
We are here to elevate the greater
Find the common, shine a light
Become the water
Put up a fight

Trumpet and trombone spar as Meza’s one-woman choir soars in the background, all the way down to a stadium-worthy singalong at the end. In times like these we need more music like this. Keberle and his band are playing the album release show on July 5 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $20.

As one of the world’s electrifying jazz trombonists (longstanding member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Mingus bands, yadda yadda yadda), Keberle has few peers. This album is his quantum leap, a fearless, eclectic, politically charged collection that ought to go a long way in reaffirming his status as an elite bandleader as well. The theme connecting this mix of vocal and instrumental numbers is that struggle has been a constant through American history, and throughout the world: the Trump era may have its own unique and twisted challenges, but ultimately, we’ve triumphed over worse.

The album’s second track is Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler’s Al Otro Lado del Rio (On the Other Side of the River), Meza’s voice and spare, lingering guitar channeling a poignant unease, a bittersweet and troubled immigrant’s narrative set to similarly moody trumpet/trombone harmonies over drummer Eric Doob’s elegant, low-key pulse. A trick ending drives the point home, hard.

That same distant angst echoes through the pensive trumpet-trombone conversation that opens Empathy, a tone poem of sorts, Meza’s gentle vocalese adding lustre; its steady, tectonic sheets slowly winding out. The rhythmic riffage and matter-of-fact stairstepping of Ancient Theory draws a straight line back to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time period, all the way through the bass solo, Keberle’s melodica airy overhead. Michael Rodriguez’s judicious trumpet sets up Keberle’s towering crescendo.

Their cover of Fool on the Hill outdoes the Beatles: credit to Meza for getting McCartney’s cynicism, and props to the bandleader for grounding the song in enigmatic trumpet/trombone exchanges instead of taking it off into flurries of bop like so many others would do. The group follows a triumphant trajectory as Mindfulness rises from hopeful trumpet over a murky backdrop, segueing into a portentously atmospheric cover of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, Meza playing funereal guitar belltones behind her vocals. The Nobel laureate’s lyrics have aged well:

Senators, Congressmen, please head the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he that gets stalled
There’s a battle outside raging
Who’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls…

The way Keberle triangulates trumpet, trombone and Meza’s voice, a common trope throughout the record, is especially impactful here.

The miniature Strength is the album’s scruffiest interlude, trombone and trumpet brothers in arms over the bass/drums rumble. Bassist Jorge Roeder’s stark bowing opens the concluding cut, I Am a Stranger, Meza’s wary vocals set to similarly, tensely energized exchanges between Keberle and Rodriguez. “What I desire I can’t obtain from what I hate,” Meza laments. More artists across all genres, not just jazz, should be making music this relevant.

July 2, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Uncompromising Tenor Saxophonist Noah Preminger Releases the First Protest Jazz Album of 2017 at Smalls This Weekend

Noah Preminger started writing his new album Meditations on Freedom the night of the 2016 Presidential Election. A collection of originals and four judiciously chosen covers, it’s the first protest jazz album in a year that will no doubt be full of them. History will probably judge this among the best.

Preminger works fast and likes to record live in the studio as well as onstage. His expansive but purposeful previous concert album Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, with his long-running quartet, reinvented famous Skip James blues tunes. The songs on this one are shorter and even more impactful. Preminger and the quartet are playing a weekend album release stand at 10:30 PM at Smalls this Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8.

Preminger and trumpeter Jason Palmer open the band’s take of Bob Dylan’s Only a Pawn in Their Game as a cynical, spot-on faux-fanfare. Preminger’s introduction of a couple of Middle Eastern phrases over Ian Froman’s misterioso drums is somewhat subtler; the group ends it unresolved. Likewise, there are hints of Mexican folk in Preminger’s intro to The Way It Is, a top 40 radio hit for Bruce Hornsby before his days with the Grateful Dead. Froman rumbles and prowls, Preminger spirals and squalls a bit, then bassist Kim Cass walks it briskly and they hit a blithe swing shuffle. Is this sarcasm, once again? Either way, the band, especially Palmer and Froman, have an awful lot of fun with it.

Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come has been done to the point where the most desirable change is almost always after the end of the song. Grounded by Cass’ low-key pulse, lowlit by Froman’s flurries, this one’s a welcome change for the better. It sets the stage for the first of Preminger’s originals, We Have a Dream, Cass’ bubbly bass introducing a resolute horn theme that sends Palmer confidently skyward. The message seems to be, stay strong, we’ll get through this.

Froman’s mutedly relentless drums – a rapturously recurrent trope throughout the album – propel the balmy Mother Earth. Women’s March is another sturdy theme that the band eventually rises to swing the hell out of, Preminger picking his spots, Palmer showing up to build a long crescendo of hazily tuneful harmonies.

Froman’s slow build beneath Preminger’s understatedly majestic, Wadada Leo Smith-like twin-horn theme as The 99 Percent gets going is masterful to the extreme. Clearly, we have the numbers, we just all have to add up together. The last of the covers, George Harrison’s Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth has a laid-back New Orleans second line flavor, a smartly contextual choice. The final cut, Broken Treaties, also brings to mind Wadada Leo Smith’s most vivid, politically-inspired work, whether with Froman’s perimeter-prowling, Cass’ elegant bass incisions or the tight, sober harmonies and interplay between Preminger and Palmer. If you think it’s hard to write political music that isn’t strident or mawkish, try writing political instrumentals. Preminger has a monumental achievement on his hands here. May it be heard widely and inspire us all to get our ducks lined up for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

April 5, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment