Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Magical, Cinematic Jazz Nocturnes From Aakash Mittal at Lincoln Center

“Tonight’s show is going to be very meditative and very beautiful – you’re going to want to soak in the piece, in one full bite,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused before Aakash Mittal took the stage with his trio this past evening. She was on to something. “My mind was blown by the variety of artists here,” Mittal agreed, being a regular at the atrium space where Dugal brings in talent from around the world (the Asian American Arts Alliance and India Center Foundation  partnered with Lincoln Center to make this happen). Then the group launched into the world premiere of a piece Mittal had just finished at 11 PM the night before

It’s a shout-out to three artists Mittal has worked with in recent years: avant garde soul singer Imani Uzuri, paradigm-shifting microtonal saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh and similarly legendary drummer/cardiac medicine guru Milford Graves. That eclecticism perfectly capsulized what Mittal is all about: a rugged individualist with sax (and clarinet, and flute) building on some of the catchiest tunes in a five thousand year tradition for something completely new and different.

He began the show on his usual axe, alto sax with a characteristically simple, crystallized, resonant series of phrases as guitarist Miles Okazaki jangled and plinked, Rajna Swaminathan nimbly firing out boomy syncopation on her double-barreled mridangam drum. As this enigmatic tone poem built up steam, it made an apt introduction for the series of nocturnes, each inspired by an individual Indian raga, which followed on the bill.

Swaminathan was energized right from the beginning, so Mittal and Okazaki chilled out before leaping back in and taking the introductory theme skyward, high-voltage bhangra melismatics balanced by punchy pedal phrases from the guitar. Rudresh Mahanthappa at his moodiest and most concise came to mind.

As the trio gently launched into the first nocturne, Mittal’s brooding blue-light curlicues contrasted with Swaminathan’s knock-knock beats, Okazaki again holding the center but pulling hard against it with his acidic chords. Mittal ceded the foreground, hanging on a long, mysterious drone, then picked up the pace with a coyly furtive, noir-tinged melody and variations that methodically drifted toward a tight bhangra pulse.

Okazaki sputtered out basslines and a little muted skronk; Mittal alluded to the slashing chromatics of Arabic modes, finally leiving the mist behind with a couple of wildfire flurries and some otherworldly duotones. Deviously dancing phrases occupied moody ambience; Mittal’s insistence paired off with Okazaki’s resilient chordal steadiness and cheery bubbles, occasionally hinting at Cuban riffage. With the boom from the mridangam, the absence of bass wasn’t a big deal. Ironically, the final nocturne was the sparest yet most hypnotically anthemic.

They pared the sound down to the bone for a plaintive rainy-day duo soundscape, Swaminathan eventually providing some distant thunder beyond the gloom. The funky number after that was closer to straight-ahead postbop jazz, but still Okazaki’s tense modal attack didn’t stray far from the center while the dance grew more agitated.

A flute duo between Mittal and guest Pawan Benjamin drew on Anthony Braxton’s modular writing but even as the notes rose higher up the scale, Mittal’s circular, nocturnal phrasing remained consistent,up to a shadowy ambient interlude where he switched to clarinet. The full quartet closed with a rivetingly microtonal, slashingly melismatic take of Street Music, Mittal’s evocation of late-night jamming in Kolkata, where he studied classical Indian music on a scholarship.

Mittal’s next gig is part of the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon starting at 5 PM on Oct 5 and going all night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. And the free, mostly-weekly series of shows at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues this Oct 4 at 7:30 PM with firebrand Egyptian accordionist/songwriter Youssra El Hawary, best known for her hilarious Arab Spring youtube hit Piss on the Wall.

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September 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aakash Mittal at Nationa Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

March 15, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

February 11, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment