Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz Connect the Unexpected

If you listen to NPR or watch PBS, this is old news, so here’s to all of you who’ve made the switch from the small screen to an even smaller one and might not have noticed that pianist Christopher O’Riley and adventurous cello virtuoso Matt Haimovitz have a new album out. It’s titled Shuffle. Play. Listen., and they’ll be touring it next year, with a stop at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom on Jan 22. Pianist O’Riley, host of the NPR/PBS program From the Top, is no stranger to making neoromantic instrumental albums out of rock and pop songs: this double cd makes three in a row. It’s a lively and often exquisitely good duo performance, simply the best thing O’Riley’s ever put his hands on.

To succeed with a music show, you ought to know something about connections, which is what the first cd is all about. Who knew how much Bernard Herrmann’s classic soundtrack to the equally classic Hitchcock film Vertigo had in common with works by Stravinsky, Janacek or Martinu? This guy, obviously. To make those commonalities crystal-clear, imaginatively potent new arrangements of parts of the Herrmann score are interwoven between the other pieces, a concept that might seem preposterous but works brilliantly. Haimovitz gets most if not all of the juiciest parts, perhaps logically since Herrmann’s score was heavy on the strings, and also because O’Riley has the good sense to stay within himself. His playing is distinguished by smartly thought-out dynamics, pacing and elegantly terse embellishments rather than pyrotechnics.

The first cd opens on a deliciously macabre note with Prelude from the Vertigo Suite, done here as a creepy waltz with artful, unexpected cello/piano overlays. The duo follow that with Leos Janacek’s Fairy Tale, which follows a similar trajectory: after the minimalistic first movement (with some striking, Kayhan Kalhor-style echo effects from Haimovitz), it grows more wary and winds up with an understated menace. The nightmare scene from Vertigo follows, impressively understated with its agitated cello flurries. Martinu’s Variations on a Slavic Folk Song makes an unexpected but rock-solid segue, growing from stark to forceful, with a suspenseful edge very similar to Herrmann’s.

They segue back to the Vertigo Suite for the hypnotic Carlotta’s Portrait, then take a detour for a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, its highlights being the sad waltz that precedes the dynamically-charged, surprisingly quiet Aria and then the Tarantella, which pushes the limits of how far and how fast O’Riley can go. The Scotty Tracks Madeline scene from the film gorgeously juxtaposes longing with blitheness and a rapt upper-register duo between Haimovitz – who can get tones out of his cello that no one else can – and O’Riley. From there, a spirited take on Piazzolla’s Grand Tango – with each instrumentalist assigned to cover a little of the ground that Piazzolla’s bandoneon did on the original – is spot-on. The disc concludes with the thinly disguised, mournful minuet that serves as the film’s love theme.

The second cd reverts to the random vibe of O’Riley’s two other classical-rock piano albums, with generally good results. There’s a marvelously successful instrumental version of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, right down to the cello winkingly spinning off a fade or a psychedelic riff straight off the record as O’Reilly rubatos the piano with just the right touch of suspenseful anticipation. And that band’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi gets a graceful, circular indie classical treatment, focusing on its subtle counterpoint, as does the almost unrecognizable version of A Perfect Circle’s Three Libras. A couple of Cocteau Twins tunes reach for a slightly less hypnotic atmosphere than the originals, while two Blonde Redhead tunes – Misery Is a Butterfly and Melody – run richly memorable hooks over and over for an approach that builds toward grand guignol. There are also two John McLaughlin compositions here – Dance of Maya, whose austere acidicism doesn’t stop it from matching up well with Herrmann as it morphs into a bitterly bluesy minor-key romp, and A Lotus in the Back Seat, done as Ravel might have orchestrated it.

Another Cocteau Twins track, the lightweight Heaven or Las Vegas, isn’t as well-suited to this kind of serioso treatment as the other tracks are, and the derivative faux-baroquisms of the first movement of the Stravinsky make for two minutes of what-are-we-doing-here. And as far as the two Arcade Fire covers here are concerned, the two players take an energetic stab at elevating them to Herrmann-ish grandeur, but ultimately, garbage in, garbage out: Arcade Fire is a boring band. But those are only small complaints about an otherwise mammothly successful effort. O’Riley also has a very cool, gospel-flavored free download available, Time of My Time inspired by Kris Saknussemm’s recent novel Reverend America.

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December 15, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Threeds’ Oboes Make You Laugh and Give You Chills Too

The idea of a band with three oboes and not much of anything else is pretty awesome in itself. Add an irrepressible sense of humor, a penchant for rearranging familiar tunes in unfamiliar ways, and three players with chops as soulful as they are technically impressive, and you get the Threeds oboe trio. Their new album Unraveled is pure joy – except when it’s bittersweet, or sad, or even haunting, as it is much of the time. Much as Kathy Halvorson, Mark Snyder and Katie Scheele have a great time rearranging Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bjork and others, this is as about as far from a joke record as you can get. Can you say cutting-edge with a smirk?

On the opening track, Joga, they find Bjork’s plaintive inner baroque soul. Their cover of Billie Jean has Pavel Vinnitsky’s bass clarinet playing the bassline perfectly deadpan and mechanical, with the trio in perfect alignment. In the beginning, the arrangement really nails the cold, heartless precision of the original; as it goes on, it’s impossible to escape the context, and becomes just plain hilarious, especially when two of the oboes do those staccato backing vocal lines. Best yet, you can download it for free. While the version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition also has the bass clarinet playing the bassline, it swings, and so do the oboes – it’s blissfully funky. In a pretty stark contrast, Paranoid Android gives Radiohead’s crazy cyborg some real humanity – when it segues into a restless march, it’s one of the most unaffectedly intense moments on the album.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat begins as a duo, with Scott Anderson on acoustic guitar and Halvorson playing Mingus’ sad, bitter lead lines. It’s a potent reminder that Mingus wrote the song as an elegy for Lester Young, the bass clarinet’s sustained lines underscoring Halvorson’s understatedly wounded, blues-infused phrasing. Light My Fire has drums, percussion, and tambourine along with bass clarinet – it works as well as it does because Manzarek nicked a Chopin riff for it! The spiraling bop oboe at the point where the organ solo kicks in is pretty hilarious, and absolutely spot-on. The most intriguingly complex arrangement here is the series of lushly intricate, shifting segments in the suspenseful, nocturnal Spanish Stairs.

Dospatsko Horo is the Balkans done as baroque – it doesn’t quite turn the party into a wake but it’s definitely a radical reinvention. Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark also gets a radical reinvention, in this case as riff-driven 21st century circular music.The other tracks include the classic tango El Choclo done as a brooding yet sprightly baroque round; Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a bolero-flavored pop ballad; Little Feat’s Roll Um Easy, which surprisingly hits a mellow early 70s Allman Brothers vibe, soaring oboes enhancing the blue-sky ambience. The only track here that’s not worth uploading is not the band’s fault. This works on so many levels – as party music, as a monster ipod mix and as sophisticated 21st century stuff. Look for this one on our best-of-2011 list at the end of the year.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, James Ross and Joe Benzola, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble and Elisa Flynn at the Delancey, NYC 6/29/09

Small Beast has taken to Mondays like a vulture on a carcass. The beef carcasses, i.e. hamburgers and hotdogs at the upstairs barbecue now carry a $5 pricetag, although it’s a fill-your-plate type deal (and the totally El Lay crowd up there looks like they can afford it). Botanica pianist Paul Wallfisch, opened the night in the cool, darkened ground-level space as he always does, solo on piano. Since Small Beast is his event, he’s gotten a ton of ink here. Suffice it to say that if dark, virtuosic, unaffectedly intense piano with a gypsy tinge is something you might like, run don’t walk to this Monday night extravaganza. Although last night it wasn’t, it’s usually over before Rev. Vince Anderson gets going across the river, so if you’re really adventurous you can hit both shows. This time out Wallfisch ran through a rather touching Paul Bowles song about a fugitive, in French; a lickety-split version of a noir cabaret tune by his longtime collaborator, chanteuse/personality Little Annie; a Crystal Gayle cover done very noir, and Shira and Sofia, a Botanica tune about the original Joy Division, a couple of WWII era whores. Make love, not war is what the two are encouraging in their own completely over-the-top way, and a few in the audience did a doubletake when Wallfisch got to the chorus.

Multi-instrumentalist James Ross and percussionist Joe Benzola were next, playing hypnotic instrumentals that sounded something akin to the Dead jamming Space with Electric Junkyard Gamelan, with Benzola using a multitude of instruments including wooden flute, recorder, kazoo, and a small series of gongs in addition to his drum kit and then layering one loop on top of another for a Silk Road feel. They took awhile to get going, Ross playing a zhongruan, a Chinese lute with a biting tone like a higher-pitched oud. This was an improvisation, and when they hit their stride the crowd was very into it – avante garde though it was, there was a repetitive catchiness to it too. Ross eventually switched to electric guitar, winding up their brief set with a trancelike, drony number where he built a small wall of feedback as if to hold off the relentless procession of beats.

Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble then grabbed the crowd by the back of the neck and spun them in the opposite direction with a ferocity that was even more striking in contrast to the previous act’s quiet psychedelica. To find a worthy comparison to Beren, the former Die Hausfrauen frontwoman, you have to go into the icon section: Iggy Pop, Aretha, Umm Kalthum or Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello are a few who can match the raven-haired contralto siren’s unleashed, menacing intensity. Backed by two lead guitarists, a trombonist who doubled on keys and a pummeling rhythm section, Beren opened the set with anguished vocalese, part scream and part very reluctant acquiescence. There was no turning back after that. The band name is apt in that their grand guignol attack can be bluesily hypnotic, tinged with classical motifs (Beren played macabre piano on a couple of numbers) and if you take it to its extreme (this is very extreme music), there’s nobody more goth than this crew. But these goths don’t put on batwings and hug the wall, they come to pillage and avenge. A couple of their heavier, stomping numbers bore a little resemblance to Blue Oyster Cult, but Beren’s writing is more complex and cerebral, expertly switching between tempos, building inexorably to a roar of horror. Their last song grew ominously with a whoosh of cymbals and some beautifully boomy chord work on the intro by bassist Greg Garing into a careening, crashing gallop that ended with a noise jam, Garing throwing off a nasty blast of feedback.

That Elisa Flynn wasn’t anticlimactic playing in the wake of Hurricane Vera speaks for itself. In her own moody, pensive and equally dark way, she proved a match for Beren, in subtlety if not sheer volume. Flynn’s new cd Songs About Birds and Ghosts is one of the year’s best, and that comprised most of what she sang, playing solo on guitar, expertly working the corners of a compelling, wounded delivery that she’d occasionally turn up to a fullscale wail when she needed to drive a point home. Her guitar playing proved as smartly matched to the songs’ emotion as her vocals, alternating between hammering chords and stark fingerpicking, sometimes building an eerie undercurrent of overtones using her open strings. Her songs have considerable bitterness but also a wry wit, as well as a frequently majestic, anthemic feel that comes to the forefront when she uses 6/8 time (which is a lot). I’m Afraid of the Way I Go Off Sometimes, she said, took its title from an email she’d received from a friend a week before he went into rehab. She warned that a cover of The Pyramid Song by Radiohead might be awkward, but it was anything but, in fact even more haunting than the original with something of a Syd Barrett feel. A brand-new one called Shiver was potently angry, building to a tastily macabre chorus. She followed that with an understated version of the opening cut on the new album, Timber, a towering anthem (with a cool Blair Witch video up on youtube). She closed with No Diamond, something of a lullaby “to send you off to sleep,” she said, another pensive number in 6/8. By now, it was approaching one in the morning; had she kept playing, no doubt the crowd would have kept listening.

Small Beast continues next Monday, July 6 with Wallfisch, Spottiswoode and Pete Galub; Beren plays goth night at the Slipper Room on September 20; Flynn is at Sidewalk on July 14 at 8.

June 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment