Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

May 31, 2017 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Lila Downs y la Misteriosa En Paris – Live a FIP

If you get one Lila Downs album, this is it. This isn’t safe, emasculated faux-exotica for curious yuppies: it’s a fiesta, and not always a happy one. Downs’ commitment to and passionate advocacy for a whole slew of Mexican folk styles – and the immigrants whose ancestors created them – has made her impossible to pigeonhole, with a defiantly individualistic streak. Recorded live on French radio last year, Downs sings with raw brass, grit and soul, backed by a terrific band with edge, bite and some stunningly imaginative arrangements – the most prominent instrument here is Celso Duarte’s concert harp. The sprawling group also includes Downs’ husband and longtime musical director Paul Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet, fiery forro specialist Rob Curto on accordion, the incisive Juancho Herrera (also of Claudia Acuña’s band) on guitars, Carlos Henderson on bass, Dana Leong on trombone, Yayo Serka on drums and Samuel Torres on percussion. And while there are plenty of folklorico numbers – the swaying accordion-driven song that opens the concert; a plaintive, mournful update of a Zapotec song, and a stunningly poignant, beautifully sung version of the traditional ballad La Llorona, the strongest songs here are the originals.

The stinging, Gil Scott-Heron inflected blues shuffle Minimum Wage – sung in English – makes a vivid tribute to the illegal immigrants that American businesses are only too happy to hire at a cut rate. The metaphorically loaded singalong anthem Justicia goes looking for justice everywhere, but there are places where it simply cannot be found:

[translated from the original Spanish]

I don’t see you in the High Command
I can’t find you in offices
Or in men in uniform
Or the fence at the border

And the understatedly scathing, ghostly, reggae-flavored anti-NAFTA broadside La Linea (The Line) imagines a medicine woman treating a child whose “skin has grown feathers” courtesy of untreated industrial waste from American border sweatshops. But once Downs has you in touch with reality, she gets the party started. There’s a festive, minor-key cumbia salute to the joy of getting stoned and eating good mole, a largely improvised party number from Veracruz with the harp and percussion rattling and plinking at full volume, and a long jam on Hava Nagila during the band intros before the encores. And the version of La Cucaracha here leaves no doubt as to what that song’s about, right down to a briefly woozy dub-flavored interlude. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 30, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment