Like a punk Joni Mitchell, singer/multi-instrumentalist Morgan Heringer’s latest project, Fayaway, evokes a late 70s/early 80s no wave jazz assault, with references to the noisiest side of early indie bands like Sonic Youth, plus some heavily reverbed-out paisley underground guitar thrown in for extra menace. Heringer’s arresting voice swoops and dives unpredictably from a high falsetto to a brooding alto as she delivers the moody/angry/depressed stream-of-consciousness lyrics that characterize much of her solo work as well as her previous duo project, Rayvon Browne, with fellow chanteuse Cal Folger Day. Ben Seretan’s alternately nuanced, atmospheric and deliciously bludgeoning guitar joins and spars with Ethan Meyer’s similarly dynamic drumming. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t say!” is the chorus on the opening track, The Fix, a barely two-minute punk jazz number, veering from rubato to spastic to a waltz. “That’s what I like about you, you’re not like the dumb ones,” Heringer muses on the similarly sardonic Good Credit, which follows the same kind of roller-coaster dynamics, lingering guitar and piano contrasting with flailing, agitated rhythms.
Likewise, I Could Live Without You alternates drones and crashes, tumbling piano and reverb guitar riffage, Heringer running an exasperated verse until she’s literally out of breath. Joylock builds from a sarcastically gentle glockenspiel-and-vocal ballad to a noise-glam anthem and then falls back again, defeated. I Need a BF, a soul-jazz ballad in heavy disguise, sees Heringer insisting that “Everything’s constantly turning to shit, and I wanna be ready if I’m gonna get hit,” as the din subsides to wary and tentative before returning with a pounding, reverb-fueled vengeance…and then decaying to a slow-burning, lo-fi ambience. To say that it ends the album on a high note might be misleading, but sonically speaking, it’s a noisy treat. As is much of the rest of this angry, haphazardly captivating album.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest release on their Hot Cup label, Red Hot, is the great lost Spike Jones instrumental album. It’s the New York band’s most cartoonish, and also most accessible album: punk jazz doesn’t get any better, or more caustically funny than this. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott insists that this is the best thing the group has ever done, and he’s right. Over the past few years, MOPDtK have parodied everything from post-Ornette sounds to 70s and 80s elevator jazz. But with 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give this genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. This is one sick record. This time out, the core of the band, including Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans is bolstered by bass trombone legend David Taylor, pianist Ron Stabinsky and banjo shredder Brandon Seabrook.
Underneath the incessant jokes, there’s a method to the madness. They bedevil each other with the uneven meters common in hot jazz. Seabrook adds an ever-present mosquito buzz as he tremolo-picks his strings, ad nauseum: even if you love the banjo, you will get sick of hearing from him. That’s part of the plan. Taylor, the first bass trombonist to ever play a solo show at Carnegie Hall, is in his eighth decade and has never tired of taking on a challenge, and fits in perfectly: he’s one of the funniest members of the cast.
As usual, most of the song titles refer to Pennsylvania towns. The Shickshinny Shimmy works a vaudevillian swing with droll comedic japes from the banjo and bass trombone, morphing into a vaguely latin vamp and then back; a simplistic three-chord cliche gets in the way. Zelionople opens with a ridiculously long drum solo and then shuffles along with repeated breaks for tomfoolery every time the bass and drums drop out, a trope that repeats throughout the album with surprisingly interesting results. Taylor’s silly downsliding hands off to Evans, who disappears with a clam in his throat, then reappears as Irabagon shadows him with his tongue stuck out.
The title track, a tongue-in-cheek march, goes doublespeed a la Spike Jones, Irabagon having a field day, mealymouthed and psyched to halfheartedly spoof dixieland along with the rest of the band. King of Prussia has a priceless ADD piano intro and solo from Stabinsky, spitball-in-waiting suspense from Seabrook and dorky acents from Evans. Turkey Foot Corner has Elliott imitating a tabla and introducing a barnyard scenario, Taylor aptly quoting a familar Wizard of Oz lick, Evans’ not-quite-there solo over Seabrook’s omnipresent deadpan woodpecker banjo.
Seabrook, Power, Plant explores the Romany influence on hot jazz, working its way down to a Nino Rota-on-acid bolero. Orange Is the Name of the Town jams out a faux sentimental waltz with weepy muted trumpet accents and a long interlude that Stabinsky slowly and hilariously unravels, lefthand and righthand oblivious to each other.
There are two more tracks. Gum Stump makes fun of blues cliches, Shea’s refusal to stay on track one of the album’s best jokes, Seabrook and Taylor muttering their disapproval. The last track, a hi-de-ho Cab Calloway shuffle, is a mess by the time they hit the second turnaround, Irabagon mealymouthing his first solo and practically regurgitating his second one, going out on a deadpan serious note. Don’t count on that next time around. The album comes complete with liner notes by “Leonardo Featheweight,” this time taking the story of a smoldering Pennsylvania ghost town to its logical conclusion.
A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!
Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.
With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.
The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far
Over the years, with his long-running quartet Sexmob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra and elsewhere, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has made a career of reinventing repertoires to suit his distinctive, livewire style, veering from the sunnier side of the street (Sly Stone) into the shadows (John Barry’s James Bond scores). One of Bernstein’s more ambitious and wildly successful efforts with Sexmob, a collection of Nino Rota themes to Fellini films titled Cinema Circus & Spaghetti, is out now. It’s an interesting coincidence that of all the jazz albums that have come out so far in 2013, the two that pack the biggest wallop are both collections of film music from trumpeters: this one, and Ibrahim Maalouf‘s Wind (itself a homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.) What makes this one so good? Bernstein takes Rota’s themes and strips them to the bone, pulls out the inner noir menace and then brings it centerstage, dripping and lurid. Although some tracks on the album are considerably brighter than that, a gleeful macabre resonance pervades this album. One can only think that both Rota and Fellini would be proud. Hubristic as this sounds, the album is as good or better than the source material. While Bernstein is about a lot more than just menace and rage against the dying of the light, if there’s anybody who gets what noir is all about, it’s him.
They make the Amarcord theme a dirge, maxing out the original’s underlying angst, opening with drummer Kenny Wollesen’s gongs before Bernstein whispers in with a quavering microtonal Peter Lorre unease, Tony Scherr’s magnificently precise, purposeful bass guitar kicking off a slow processional as Briggan Krauss’ tenor sax joins the harmonies. It finally resolves in a menacing minor-key explosion: one of the most deliciously dark pieces of music to come out this year.
Juliet of the Sprits manages to simultaneously be a creepy shuffle and a lively dance, Krauss and Bernstein switching good cop/bad cop roles – and is there a bassist anywhere in the world who gets as juicy and incisive a tone as Scherr does? They strip the La Strada theme down to the underlying tension, first with a reggae pulse, then with a fluttering bop edge. Volpina (also from Amarcord) counterintuitively has the bass doing the lively introductions, then they take it to church with a New Orleans flair. The papararazzo theme from La Dolce Vita juxtaposes jaggedly rhythmic knife’s-edge intensity with a rather sarcastic interpretation of the original’s jaunty swing, Wollesen leading the charge. Toby Dammit’s Last Act reverts to the dirgey ambience, a long workout in downtown Asian inflections and moody reggae lin lieu of monster psychedelia.
The La Dolce Vita main theme strolls acidically along with a shivery bass pulse, a look back to Bernstein’s Lounge Lizards days. Zamparo (from La Strada) brings back the skin-peeling PiL dub vibe, while Nadia Gray (another La Dolce Vita interlude) and The Grand Hotel (from Amarcord) each get ripped to shreds in a merciless circus-punk frenzy, the latter reverting once again to hazy Asian dub. Scherr does Gelsomina solo, with lots of warmly rubato chords, a prelude to a sarcastically marching remake of I Vitelloni. There’s also an epic, bitingly bittersweet bonus track, Spirits of the Dead, Wollesen’s vibraphone and Krauss’ stately multitracking up against Bernstein’s leaps and bounds. Those who aren’t already aware of it may also be interested in Hal Wilner’s 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album, which gave Bernstein his initial inspiration for this one. Best jazz album of 2013? One of them, without a doubt.
Guitarist Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord come out of the irreverent Hot Cup Records camp. In their world, nothing is off limits. Humor is always either front and center or lurking around the corner; anger is wholeheartedly embraced; tradition calls for mockery. Punk jazz? Esthetically yes, chopswise no: these guys – bassist Moppa Elliott, saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Bryan Murray and drummer Dan Monaghan – can flat-out play. Lundbom’s previous album Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! mined a savagely satirical vein. His new one, sarcastically titled No New Tunes is considerably subtler. It’s not particularly easy listening. Nothing ends with any kind of resolution. Tonalities lean toward harsh veering on abrasive; structures fall apart on a moment’s notice, but more elegantly than you would expect in this band’s kind of music, considering that the group shares members with Mostly Other People Do the Killing and twisted Merle Haggard cover band Bryan & the Haggards.
A Steve Coleman sample and pummeling, assaultive drums kick off the opening track, The Bad! Thing, leading into a wandering, uneasy guitar solo in 6/4 time, working its way through jagged jousting, rumbling chaos and a sideways, walking swing that ends unresolved. Lundbom plays without effects through what sounds like a vintage Fender Twin amp with plenty of natural reverb and just a tinge of distortion that fits his sometimes offhandedly dismissive lines well. The album’s closing track, an almost shockingly straight-up bop swing tune, is a case in point, its centerpiece being a long, amusing interlude where Lundbom simply will not go off task, holding the center even though nobody else is, refusing to cave to peer pressure until he’s made his point.
Titles are giveaways here. Talent for Surrender is an example of how bandmates can keep just enough distance from each other without completely losing track, shifting through airy convergent harmonies to skronky bop, squiggling Sonny Rollins-influenced sax contrasting with unexpectedly terse rhythm. And Be Made Visible takes at stab at a ballad: not to spoil a good joke, but Murray’s faux romanticisms after an unfulfilled, searching Lundbom solo are…well, what you would expect from this band.
The Other Third One pulses briskly through agitated, spinning bop, sarcastic skronk and a tasty, shivery, casually assaultive Lundbom solo over a rather tongue-in-cheek, too-terse-to-be-true rhythm section. And Follow the Swallow plays unexpectedly low-key, offcenter variations on a bouncy swing ditty, Irabagon refusing to cede centerstage even when Lundbom makes it clear he’s no longer welcome there. That’s the kind of moment that defines this band, and there are lots more of those here: it’s cool to see how these guys have such confidence in what they’re doing that they refuse to take each other seriously. Like many of their scenemates, the band is making this album available on vinyl as well as a download: if you’re looking for a cd, you’ll have to burn one. Although the sound quality of the vinyl (not reviewed here) is bound to be superior to any digital format.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #545:
Cocktail Angst – Our Big Top Parade
Like Richard Cheese, New York band Cocktail Angst made fun of lounge music, but much more subtly. Frontwoman Toby Williams, keyboardist Jon Dryden, vibraphonist Tom Beckham, bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer John Mettam gave their songs period-perfect torchy 1950s latin jazz arrangements, then gently and expertly mocked them. This 2001 release is the better (or at least longer) of their two often pricelessly funny albums, much of it foreshadowing the considerably darker direction Beckham would take as a solo artist. It’s got the title track’s seedy circus milieu; the absolutely silly, over-the-top, Pineapples, a spoof of 50s “exotica;” Samba de Angst, a cynical look through the eyes of a gold-digging stripper; and Mindless, which reminds that the New York City subway was just as bad fifteen years ago as it is now. Last Tango in Vegas is actually a creepy blues lamenting the Disneyfication of the city: “Be wary of the great American dream/The Elk’s Club bids you all a good night.” With its big Henry Mancini-esque crescendos, Kama Sutra is even creepier. There’s also Bates Motel, a twisted noir vacation scenario and the blithe yet bitter Case of Cheap Goodnight along with a John Denver cover which is as hideously awful as the original, probably for a reason. Mysteriously AWOL from the usual sources for free music, it’s still available from cdbaby.
The core crew here are back from vacation and badly need a vacation from that vacation…but there’s no time for that. Lots of new stuff tomorrow. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #574:
The Microscopic Septet – Take the Z Train
Drawing as deeply from punk esthetics as from Monk and Ellington, the Microscopic Septet’s playful, often satirical, always swinging charts have tickled jazz fans since their inception in 1981: in a sense, they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of jazz. This is their debut from two years later. Imagine the Lounge Lizards if they’d showed off their chops and you get some idea of what this sounds like (pianist Joel Forrester, one of the group’s two main writers, would later come up with the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air). Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston is responsible for the spy narrative Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin, the breathless, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary, and the latin swing of I Didn’t Do It. Johnston’s compositions here include Chinese Twilight Zone (the album was recorded in New York’s Chinatown utilizing a piano that had once reputedly belonged to Eubie Blake), as well as the tongue-in-cheek title track, the coy Wishful Thinking and the psychedelic closing cut, A Strange Thought Entered My Head, the band’s four-sax frontline blazing through one devious, tricky chart after another. Here’s a random torrent; repackaged as a twofer on the absolutely dynamite 2006 double-disc Seven Men in Neckties, it’s still available from Cuneiform.
This album is hilarious. The thing to keep in mind about Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord is that they have an alter ego, Bryan and the Haggards, who play twisted covers of Merle Haggard songs. That “other” band’s lone release (so far), Pretend It’s the End of the World was one of the funniest and best albums of the past year. This new album, credited to Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord and titled Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!, follows in the same vein. On one hand, it’s a surprisingly straight-up groove album, but all those grooves, and most of the surprisingly memorable tunes, are ultimately nothing more than fodder for satire and destruction. As you would expect from these guys, it’s cruel and funny and kind of punk although the band has pretty awesome chops for a punk jazz band: Lundbom on electric guitar, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto sax, Moppa Elliott on bass and Danny Fischer on drums along with guest Matt Kanelos (leader of plaintively tuneful Americana soul band the Smooth Maria) on electric piano.
The first track is the most straight-ahead, kicking off with an animated Irabagon/Lundbom conversation over Fischer’s deadpan leaden pulse. The guitar picks up a loop, saxes converge and diverge and then Lundbom plays an absolutely stunning chorus-box solo that finally goes off into skronk at the end. That’s for the adrenaline junkies. Kanelos’ astringent, hypnotic, Herbie Hancock-tinted riffage anchors the second track, The Bravest Little Pilot No. 2. As expected, Irabagon veers quickly from lyrical to satirical; Kanelos echoes that a bit later on, steady and increasingly unsteady as it winds down with unexpected grace. Ears Like a Fox is LOL funny, a R&B satire straight out of the Mostly Other People Do the Killing school of deconstruction. Everybody eventually picks up a cheesy riff and then shoots spitballs at it while Fischer finally hits a tongue-in-cheek groove with cluelessly blustery early Ringo style cymbal work.
Taking its name from a fish delivery service, Meat Without Feet has what sounds like a hip-hop beat chopped and backward masked, except that it’s live. It’s a great song – Elliott’s insistent bass chords join in lockstep with a trudging Fischer as Murray takes a long, completely over-the-top, kazoo-like solo on his “balto” sax, Lundbom coming in gingerly and then somewhat sternly working the edges of the melody, as if to say, c’mon guys, get it together. They segue into the fifth track, New Feats of Horsemanship, a brutal slow ballad satire – the savage joy of Murray’s completely unhinged mockery has to be heard to be appreciated. They close with Faith-Based Initiative – you know from the title that it has to be a joke, and it is, a silly go get ’em horn theme and cruel variations. As Elliott runs a deadpan, percussive staccato riff, Fischer lopes across the toms and eventually decides to start hitting on the “one,” one of the funniest moments here among many, matched by Lundbom’s alternate octaves and crazed tremolo-picking and then Irabagon’s constipated elephantine grunting as the rhythm section staggers away, aghast. On one level, it hurts a little to give away all these punchlines; on the other hand, no words could really do justice to them. The album is out now on Hot Cup Records – you’ll see this here at the end of the year on our best of 2011 list if we get that far. Lundbom and his merry band play the cd release show for this one tonight at nine at Zebulon.