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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

October 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

August 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bright and Dark Shades of Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz in Gowanus

Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.

Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.

Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.

After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly

Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.

Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.

Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Irwin and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.

Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.

Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.

March 21, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz and a Shapeshifter Show by John Yao’s 17-Piece Instrument

John Yao is one of New York’s elite trombonists, and a frequent performer with both Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.Yao is also a first-class, ambitious and witty composer and leader of his own all-star large ensemble, John Yao’s 17-Piece Instrument. They have a new album, Flip-Flop, and a release show at 7 PM on June 17 at Brooklyn’s home for big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab, with sets at 7 and 8:15 PM and an enticingly low $10 cover.

As you might imagine from a trombonist, the album is a big, bright, brassy extravaganza. But it’s also full of unexpected dynamics, dips and rises, imaginative voicings and occasional sardonic humor. The title track bookends punchy brass exchanges around a couple of long sax-and-rhythm-section vectors upward, John O’Gallagher on alto and Rich Perry on tenor, the two engaging in a genial conversation midway through. New Guy is Yao at his sardonic best: a moody, syncopated vamp with fluttery brass gives way to punchy swing with cleverly echoing voices, Andy Gravish’s stairstepping trumpet leading into to more serioso trombone from Yao and then a pugilistic exchange that builds to a hopeful crescendo and then a memorable punchline.

Slow Children at Play follows a bright, balmy clave stroll, echoing Yao’s work with the O’Farrill band, with a warmly considered Rich Perry tenor sax solo that builds to a lively exchange with the brass, followed by a summery trombone-and-rhythm-section interlude. It’s very New York. For that matter, the same could be said for the two “soundscapes” here, group improvisation in a Butch Morris vein, the first a luminously suspenseful intro of sorts with shivery violin at its center, the second with a similarly apprehensive, cinematic sweep.

With a blazing brass kickoff, impressively terse yet punchy David Smith trumpet solo and bustling Jon Irabagon tenor sax solo, the gritty swing tune Hellgate is the most trad and also the catchiest number here. Opening with Yao’s own moody trombone, Reflection shifts toward noir, its resonant, shifting sheets building a tensely expectant ambience with a lull for pianist Jesse Stacken’s brooding excursion and then a rewardingly brass-fueled crescendo. Yao’s sense of humor and aptitude for relating a good yarn take centerstage on Ode to the Last Twinkie, its playful echo effects and Jon Irabagon’s droll, eye-rolling tenor sax offering a nod to Arnold Schoenberg.

Illumination also features those echoes that Yao likes so much, a much more serious piece with Alejandro Aviles’ spiraling flute and Frank Basile’s energetic baritone sax over a tensely hypnotic piano riff, the brass falling into place with a mighty domino effect, Stacken adding a cascading, neoromantically-tinged break. The album winds up with the hard-swinging Out of Socket. Taken as a whole, it’s a tight, adrenalizing performance by a collection of first-call NYC jazz talent that also includes trumpeters John Walsh and Jason Wiseman; Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald, Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton; Tim Armacost on tenor sax;  Robert Sabin on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. As the album’s just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but Yao has lots of good stuff on his music page including several of these tracks.

June 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cutting-Edge Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Play a Rare Weeklong Stand At Their Usual Spot

This year the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra celebrates 49 years as a New York institution. They were a lot different when trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis founded the group in 1966 as a way to blow off steam and have some fun playing swing tunes as a break from the schlock they had to contend with at their dayjobs in Broadway pit bands. Jones left the group in the late 70s; a couple of years later, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer took the project in a rather radically different direction by introducing his own ambitious, more classically-influenced and sometimes strikingly noir compositions. Since then the group has become a vehicle for one of Brookmeyer’s many proteges, pianist Jim McNeely, who continues to serve as the band’s guiding force. Their weekly Monday residency at the Vanguard is the stuff of legend, and starting tomorrow, Monday the 26th and continuing through Feb 2 they’ll be playing a rare weeklong stand on their home turf. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is $30 which includes a drink ticket. Early arrival is always advised at this place, no matter who’s playing. Update – there is no show Monday night because of the weather – check the club for what’s up with Tuesday’s show.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s latest album, Over Time – streaming at Spotify – is a collection of Brookmeyer pieces, five of them previously unreleased, the others dating from his early years with the band. Brookmeyer was a very distinctive writer, and his influence is still widely felt in jazz circles. His time in Gerry Mulligan’s big band is obvious in these numbers’ many West Coast noir moments. Brookmeyer liked building to lots of sudden, explosive crescendos, usually getting there by pairing instruments or sections of the band against each other, and the band really pull out the stops paying tribute to a guy who did more than anyone to put them on the map.

The older material here is also the darkest. Sad Song, a dirge and the album’s most overtly classical piece, featuring for the most part just McNeely’s piano and Dick Oatts’ flute, brings to mind Gil Evans going off onto an Indian tangent. The Big Time – a previously unreleased early 80s number – works every cinematic trick in the book: breathlessly bustling swing, suspenseful cymbals against eerie tinkling piano, uneasily chattering trumpets, the works. The enigmatically titled XYZ, a partita, is the showstopper here, from its creepy conga opening, through broodingly starlit piano, sarcastic blues caricatures and eventually a poignantly restrained Terrell Stafford muted trumpet solo that sounds like it’s wafting from around the corner. By contrast, Brookmeyer’s well-known arrangement of the well-known standard Skylark comes together brassily, with lots of tersely carefree alto sax from the veteran Oatts.

The more recent stuff – delivered to the orchestra right before Brookmeyer’s unexpected death in 2011 – is somewhat more boisterous. A triptych, Suite for Three begins with a modally astringent pulse with Oatts’ brightly acidic alto over ominously lustrous brass (and some bizarrely avant garde piano). Part two, featuring vivid work by lead trumpeter Scott Wendholt on flugelhorn, is a gorgeous mood piece that draws a line straight back to 50s Miles Davis. Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry features prominently on the concluding section, a wickedly catchy, blues-infused cha-cha in disguise. And At the Corner of Ralph and Gary provides a long, hard-swinging launching pad for intertwining lines from tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama and his baritone counterpart Gary Smulyan. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to Brookmeyer, who was clearly on top of his game until the end.

January 25, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Transcendent Night with the Maria Schneider Orchestra

You might not expect a club to be packed on the eve of Thanksgiving, but the Jazz Standard was sold out and there was good reason for that: the Maria Schneider Orchestra were playing the second night of their annual weeklong stand here, and word had obviously gotten around. If jazz is your thing and you haven’t seen this band in awhile, now’s the time. The Jazz Standard is closed Thanksgiving day but they’ll be open tomorrow the 23rd, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; Schneider will be here through Nov 25.

At the risk of inciting jealousy among other composers, Schneider is the gold standard as far as writing for big band is concerned these days – and has been for some time. Her music is an instance where the melodies mirror the artist herself, lithe and beautiful. Her work is defined by an economy of notes, vivid emotional attunement, lyrical transparency, ability to surprise and even stun and evince every breath worth of talent from the formidable cast behind her. For the mighty beast that they are, this orchestra can be exceptionally quiet: last night’s early set seemingly had as many solo, duo, trio and quartet passages as it did fullscale, all-stops-out crescendos. The result is plenty of suspense as well as a dynamic that sets up those big, sweepingly majestic swells so they can revel in their lustrous glory.

Even by Schneider’s standards, this particular set was transcendent, loaded with rich payoffs like that. Casually but energetically, she led the band through her well-loved Concert in the Garden, its bright, triumphant anthemics and lively Brazilian rhythms contrasting with terse guitar solos and an unexpectedly chilling, chromatically-fueled Frank Kimbrough piano solo out. The cinematic Journey Home wound its way methodically through its brass-heavy introductory theme, a series of rises and ebbs over a dancing tropical groove, Dave Pietro’s alto sax solo handing off nimbly to trombonist Ryan Keberle, who took his time as the chart wound down to just him and the rhythm section before bringing it up with a lushly energetic pulse.

Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, a standout track from Schneider’s 1992 debut, vividly drove home its taunting, tantalizing themes inspired by a Paul Klee painting in the Guggenheim. It’s an ambitious work full of ominous slides and tricky metrics, punctuated this time out by a wailing, upper-register bari sax solo from Scott Robinson and an agitatedly heated hard-bop conversation between soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

A brand-new song dedicated to George Wein, an early champion of Schneider’s music, made its New York premiere, dancing its way to a warm, balmy series of shifting sheets of sound, lit up by an expansively lyrical Rich Perry alto sax solo and Kimbrough’s glimmering nocturnal piano. Big band jazz simply doesn’t get any better or more memorable than this. The ensemble wrapped up the set with a towering, stormy take on El Viento, a showstopper if there ever was one, working an Arabic-tinged mode with venomously powerful, succinct solos from Chris Potter on tenor sax and Mike Shapiro on trombone. As it hit the final series of seemingly endless false endings, it was easy to hope that the band simply wouldn’t end it and would keep going as long as the club would let them. In sum: this is why big band jazz is so much fun, a monster performance from a group which also included Tony Kadleck, Laurie Frink and Garrett Schmidt on trumpets, Jay Anderson on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn on trombones.

November 22, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment