Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Marta Topferova – Trova

Czech-born, New York-based chanteuse/songwriter Marta Topferova has carved herself out a niche as a first-class avatar of latin music. Her new cd Trova (a Cuban style, though she explores considerably more terrain here) is quite a change from the pensive melancholy that runs throughout much of her previous work. It’s a mix of oldschool latin styles with a Caribbean tinge, like something out of San Juan, 1955, recorded with her band at an old farmhouse outside Prague fresh off a European tour. The album features Topferova on guitar and cuatro along with big band leader Pedro Giraudo on bass, Aaron Halva on tres and accordion, Roland Satterwhite on violin and Neil Ochoa on percussion. It’s got a quiet joy that simmers and bubbles over once in awhile for extra flavor. Frequently, the star of the show here is Satterwhite (formerly with Jenifer Jackson and also Howard Fishman), whose imaginative, casually intense phrasing adds an unexpectedly biting edge to some of the quieter material. As is typical throughout the cd, its unexpected moments are subtle but compelling, as in the case of the infectious opening bomba, Juligan, a nocturnal street scene whose central character, a bum, turns out to be something completely different. And yet the same.

She follows that with an effervescent, percussion-driven dance tune, a stately, delicately pensive tango and a symbolically charged midtempo number rich with chordal jangle and gorgeous acoustic textures. Largo el Camino (The Long Road) winds along on a catchy, swaying four-bar hook and a couple of nice introspective tres solos, the latter closing the song on an optimistic note.

Descarga de la Esperanza (The Hope Jam) is hypnotic, like the Dead gone latin and acoustic. Madrugada (Dawn) is a pretty, sad waltz with a buoyant Satterwhite solo, one of those kind of songs that, thirty years ago, would have had record executives scheming over the prospect of a crossover international hit. Topferova saves her grittiest vocal for the tricky Argentinean changes of Entre a Mi Pago Sin Golpear (Come On Over and Don’t Knock), Satterwhite’s jovial fiddle adding contrast.

The cd winds up with the vividly lyrical La Amapola, inspired by a poppy native to Czech Republic, showcasing Topferova’s seemingly effortless ability to shift between styles; the dusky las Luciernagas (Fireflies) and an old bolero cover usually sung by a male vocalist. Topferova puts her own spin on it, a woman in an arranged marriage displaying quiet defiance. This album has the same kind of rustic quality that spurred the Bachata Roja Legends’ surprise crossover success and could just as easily resonate with anglo as well as latin audiences. Not bad for Czech expat for whom Spanish was a second language. She’s at Barbes on Jan 22 at 10.

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January 3, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Roland Satterwhite – Ptolemy’s Guitar

New York expat (and now Berlin resident) multi-instrumentalist Roland Satterwhite has an enviable resume, perhaps best known for his violin work with Jenifer Jackson and Howard Fishman. An imaginative, melodic player with a terrific improvisational sense, he’s also a songwriter and something of a crooner. This low-key cd – available for free download here – is a rare glimpse of what he does when he’s not playing sideman. Here, he doubles on acoustic guitar and violin, with Matt Kanelos supplying characteristically thoughtful, imaginatively textured keyboard work. Satterwhite’s vocals are casual and quiet as befits a bedroom recording (which this is, although the sound quality is excellent). The tunes are typically pensive, major-key and somewhat minimalist, with an Americana feel always somewhere in the background.  

 

The opening cut Sixty Five sets the tone with an attractive, repetitive fingerpicked guitar figure. Room By Room is a beautiful pop song: “I can’t deny it, I’m better without you, but part of me keeps fighting the truth,” Kanelos’ organ chords sneaking in, methodically warming the room. Pensive piano mingling with guitar arpeggios, George Washington Bridge is darkly inscrutable, drawing the listener in for the story: is this a suicide song or not?

 

After an improvisation with ambient violin and guitar set to an insistent, hypnotic rhythm, the cd’s most overtly Americana song, Louisa follows, just vocals and guitar. The version of Pennies From Heaven here is nothing if not tasteful with its understated optimism and whimsically bluesy violin solo, followed by an all too brief, second improv with a wistful, minimalist, Asian-inflected feel.

 

Indian Ocean is another casually beautiful pop song, a woman matter-of-factly setting off for a new life faraway. The cd wraps up with the tongue-in-cheek, jazz-inflected Angelina, with an obvious Jenifer Jackson influence, and then a third quiet, gently sparkly improv instrumental. Put this on the ipod or the boombox late at night and let your mind wander.

February 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapt, Wrenching Beauty: Jenifer Jackson at Joe’s Pub, NYC 3/28/08

In case you haven’t been paying attention, there’s been a recent crop of songwriters who seem to have decided to write in every single worthwhile style of pop music ever invented – with great success. For one reason or another, maybe having to do with vocals, most of these songwriters are women: Neko Case, Rachelle Garniez and Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, to name a few. New York expat Jenifer Jackson is another.

“Now I know how to get people to come to my shows,” she knowingly told the crowd at Joe’s Pub Friday night. “Leave New York. I’ve figured it out!” Jackson wasn’t exactly a little fish in the pond here, either. Respected by her peers and revered by a fan base for whom she seemingly can do no wrong (if she made an album of Monkees covers, they’d probably buy it), she nonetheless ran into the same brick wall affecting seemingly every New York artist, no matter how well-regarded they might be. Building a following here is tough, with literally scores of live shows competing against each other every night, a hometown media that’s essentially oblivious to hometown acts, and an ongoing process of suburbanization where artistically-inclined New Yorkers are being priced out of their neighborhoods and being replaced by corporate executives and their children from the suburbs. In other words, not exactly the kind of crowd you’d expect to come out to see anything more sophisticated than, say, Justin Timberlake. So Jackson packed up and moved to Austin.

Even more than her show at the Rockwood late last year, this was the emotional homecoming she eventually had to make, and she gave the standing-room-only crowd what they wanted. Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by just violinist Roland Satterwhite, she ran through a mix of mostly more recent material, including several songs from her most recent (and best) cd The Outskirts of a Giant Town. She also debuted three excellent new songs: a hopeful, midtempo country tune, Spring, that wouldn’t have been out of place on her 2001 album Birds; a pensively catchy, upbeat number possibly titled Tired; and the best of the bunch, a gorgeous, sad country waltz called The Beauty of the Emptying, with one of Jackson’s signature imagistic lyrics. Jackson gets accolades for her songwriting, but tonight was a vivid reminder of what a brilliant song stylist she is, alternating between a nuanced lower register and the soaring, airy delivery that has been her trademark throughout her career. There’s great passion and intensity in her songs and in her voice, but it’s generally very subtle, tonight’s stripped-down arrangements giving her vocals the perfect opportunity to cut through.

“This is a song that earned me two thousand dollars,” she told the crowd with considerable irony before launching into a boisterous version of one of her earliest songs, Mercury, the Sun and Moon, a somewhat eerie tribute to the joys and pleasure of being a bon vivant. When she and Satterwhite reached the bridge, she slammed out the song’s tango rhythm as he went into a frenzied gypsy-inflected solo. They encored with a fetching duet on the standard Every Time We Say Goodbye, Satterwhite switching to guitar. He’s an excellent singer, with a smooth, Chet Baker style delivery, making a good foil for Jackson’s warm, wistful vocals. She ended the song with gentle vocalese, going down the scale with a jazzy seventh chord. More than anything, tonight’s show was a reminder of everything we stand to lose if this city continues the decline that the Bloomberg administration and its developer cronies are dead set on bringing to its logical conclusion.

March 31, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Dwight & Nicole and Howard Fishman at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/11/08

Dwight & Nicole took the night from shithouse to penthouse (a putrid, suburban Lite FM act had preceded them) in the span of seconds. A cynic might consider them a lounge act, but a closer listen reveals them to be the real thing, a completely authentic, 1960s style soul act. Dwight Ritcher was battling a nasty cold, but he still managed to nail his harmonies and play his Flying V guitar with a virtuosic, purist touch, very reminiscent of Steve Cropper. Nicole Nelson is the real deal, a genuine soul singer with a subtle, jazzy touch, stylistically evocative of Sharon Jones at her gentlest, or Dinah Washington in straight-ahead mode. Tonight she didn’t use any melisma, and hardly any vibrato, and held back from belting until she really needed to go to the well. When she did, it was spine-tingling. Ritcher and Nelson have the kind of intuitive chemistry that comes with toiling night after night in dives of all kinds, and it was clear that she was making up a lot of her lyrics on the spot. Yet she sang them as if she’d been living in them her whole life. Exuberance, joy, sadness, heartbreak: every emotion she tackled, she nailed them all.

The duo also have a deep feel for the blues. They recast Slim Harpo’s Hip Shake as a slinky, seductive soul number, and did a spot-on version of the Muddy Waters classic Honeybee. The most delightful thing about the original is the counterintuitive, staccato way Waters used his low E string to punctuate the phrases. Ritcher obviously knows the song well: his playful, purist take would have made Muddy proud. At the end of the night (the duo played between the other bands’ sets and then again after pretty much everybody had left), Ritcher moved to piano and, after some urging, Nelson picked up his guitar. She ought to play more: with her impeccable sense of melody and good taste, one can only imagine how good she’d sound if she could work up a few songs, or a few vamps.

Blues guitarist Howard Fishman got his start in New York busking on the Bedford Avenue L train platform. He was the first artist to have a weekly residency at Pete’s Candy Store, and released two excellent albums of original songs (the second of which actually made our top 20 list a few years ago, in a former incarnation). He built up quite a following, and then, completely without warning, he turned into Dave Matthews. And immediately fell off the face of the earth. He’s back, if not exactly humbled, tonight accompanied by a first-rate crew including Roland Satterwhite on violin, Ian Riggs on upright bass and a superb trombone player who stole the show with his soaring, crescendoing solos. Fishman mixed older material with a few covers, including a subtle and soulful version of the brilliant Willard Robison obscurity Where Are You. Having left the rock and the jam-band stuff behind, he’s taken on a little bit of a gypsy edge in his chordal attack, giving his material considerable added bite. Each of the supporting cast took a turn on vocals, Satterwhite impressing the most with a Chet Baker-style take on Pennies from Heaven to close the set.

Fishman’s stage persona is indifferent, sometimes abrasive, qualities which can be admirable for a punk performer (John Lydon made a thirty-year career out of acting that way), but that could make it more difficult for someone more reliant on audience rapport. Which might explain why Fishman was at Banjo Jim’s tonight instead of headlining the Gershwin Hotel as he triumphantly did in his first incarnation as a bluesman. He still sings like your older uncle who only shows up for birthdays and seders, but the lyrical wit and understated, purist musical sensibility that were part and parcel of his earlier work are back and in full effect. As good as it is to be able to reinvent yourself, it’s just as useful to be able to return to a previous incarnation, especially as captivating as Fishman used to be and has become again.

January 11, 2008 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Jenifer Jackson at Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 11/18/07

A triumphant homecoming of sorts. Jenifer Jackson was an East Village denizen and made a name for herself here before relocating to Austin this past spring. It was obviously the right move. She’s never looked more at ease onstage or sung better than she did tonight. Like Erica Smith and Rachelle Garniez, Jackson is another one of those multistylistic songwriting machines, someone who can appropriate literally any style of music and make it work, with fluency, poise and passion. Likewise, Jackson has been known to tweak her vocal style from time to time. On her earlier material, she sang with a gentle, tender delivery, then she went through a brief but spectacularly successful phase as a big belter. Tonight it was obvious that she’s gotten more in touch with her lower register, giving her vocals a new warmth and confidence. It suits her well.

When her latest cd The Outskirts of a Giant Town came out last spring, we said it was the best album to come out so far in 2007 and that claim still looks to be valid. Playing a sparse, trio show backed by Roland Satterwhite, who played layers of ambience on violin, and Elysian Fields axeman Oren Bloedow, whose virtuosic, jazzy guitar was spot-on all night, she mixed tracks from the new cd along with a couple of brand-new gems and some older material. On the 70s soul-inflected Power of Love, Bloedow grinned as he went into generic Wes Montgomery mode, playing a solo made up solely of octaves. Was there room on the fretboard for the last note of the verse? Yes! Moments like these are typical at Jenifer Jackson shows.

One of the best things about small-group performances like this is that the songs get stripped down to just the moving parts, which can be fascinating to watch. The title track to Jackson’s new album actually turned out to be built on a totally generic indie rock progression that pretty much anybody can learn how to play in a few minutes’ time. Yet Jackson pulled it off with her airy, jazzy vocal melody, combined with Bloedow’s artful passing tones. I Want to Start Something, with its stratospherically high vocal melody – which Jackson absolutely nailed – was particularly captivating, all impatience and longing for something secure. Their absolutely gorgeous, minor-key, bluegrass-inflected take of Dreamland, arguably the best cut on the new cd, got a welcome boost of energy. Of the new songs, the best new one was a jazz-pop number called Words, seemingly about miscommunication. Jackson’s songs, and especially her lyrics, are remarkably terse and crystallized, so it’s understandable how not being able to precisely express something would really bother her.

They encored with an audience request from her second album, Mercury the Sun and Moon, a tune Jackson wrote back in the 90s while still in her teens. Stripped down to its eerie tango roots, this version saw Bloedow playing a bassline on the guitar with his thumb as he did on several of the other songs. The crowd wanted more, but Jackson hadn’t rehearsed anything else with these longtime cohorts of hers. Always leave the audience wanting more, the saying goes. Tonight Jackson and her band did just that.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment