Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

January 12, 2020 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

String Jazz Magic at This Year’s Art in Gardens Series

This year’s free outdoor summer concert series are pretty much over at this point, but there’s another going on in three Lower East Side community gardens through the first weekend of October. The organizers call it Art in Gardens. What’s most exciting is that it’s dedicated to jazz improvisation: right now, it’s the only series of its kind anywhere in town. As you’ll see from the schedule, the lineup is a mix of veterans – some of them admittedly on the self-indulgent/Vision Fest side – but there’s plenty of new blood, and new reasons to chill with neighborhood greenery.

The centerpiece of Sunday’s lineup in the garden on 6th Street between Avenues A and B was Sarah Bernstein‘s mesmerizing Veer Quartet with violinist Sana Nagano, violist Leonor Falcón and cellist Nick Jozwiak. While Bernstein never allows herself to be fenced in by the western scale, it seemed that about eighty percent of her compositions on this particular bill were in those familiar tones.

The music was so fresh that it seemed largely improvised, although the group were all reading from scores. The first number featured a series of exchanges of short, punchy, leaping phrases between individual voices. As the show went on, there was considerable contrast between restless, slowly shifting sustained notes and what has become Bernstein’s signature catchy, rhythmic riffage. As evening drew closer, the tonalties drifted further outside: the most recognizable microtonal piece also managed to have the catchiest twelve-tone phrases bouncing around over achingly tense, often rapturously suspenseful washes of harmony.

There wasn’t much soloing until Jozwiak cut loose with a sizzling downward cadenza and then a fleeting rise afterward, an unexpected jolt of very high voltage. Toward the end of the set, there was finally a furious thicket of bowing and a slowly ascending firestorm in its wake. Otherwise, elegance and sheer tunefulness were the order of the day. There were many moments where only one or two individual instruments were playing, and when the whole group were engaged, Jozwiak would often be plucking out a bassline while one or more of the violins offered keening, sepulchral harmonics far overhead.

Pretty much everything seemed through-composed: verses and choruses didn’t come around a second time, except in later numbers: much of the material would have made sense as a suite. Bernstein’s next gig with this crew is Sept 15 at 7 PM at Spectrum; cover is $15. The next Art in Gardens show features poetry and dance in addition to music: the lineup starts at 1:30 this Saturday afternoon, Sept 14 with Rob Brown on alto sax and Juan Pablo Carletti on drums. At 3:30 Val Jeanty plays percussion, backing dancer Patricia Nicholson and at 4:30 drummer Michael Wimberly teams up with trumpeter Waldron Ricks and bassist Larry Roland at the Children’s Magical Garden, 129 Stanton St, just east of Essex. Can’t vouch for the insect factor at this spot, but on an overcast day the bugs were out in full effect on 6th St.; you might want to slather on some Deep Woods Off or the equivalent.

September 13, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finally got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whole group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.

May 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Bernstein Headlines the Vital Vox Festival

Violinist/singer/composer Sarah Bernstein headlined the first night of this year’s Vital Vox Festival at Roulette with a rich understatement that overshadowed the campy ostentation and halfhearted electronic gimmickry that took centerstage earlier in the evening. That her Unearthish duo project with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi  was the bill’s lone highlight speaks to the unfortunate absence of Sabrina Lastman, who was back in Uruguay dealing with a family emergency. While those two artists have considerably different vocal styles, they would have made a good segue. Bernstein doesn’t rely on vocal pyrotechnics because she doesn’t need them: her compositions work subtle contrasts and motivic intrigue rather than theatrics. She describes her work as “minimalist motifs meet avant-jazz formations, integrating sung and spoken poetry with acoustic and electric sound sculpture.” Aptly and modestly put: she is far more interesting than that might seem at face value, a breath of fresh air in a field overpopulated by wannabes and tourists.

In a set that could have gone on for twice as long as it did without losing interest, Bernstein began with calm, nonchalant narration, then sang in a down-to-earth, uncluttered alto, maintaining an often alluring calm even at times when the music grew agitated. Much as she has sizzling violin chops, she doesn’t waste notes: this time out, she limited the occasional blaze of atonalities or frenzied riffage to match her stream of lyrics. Likewise, Takeishi made his beats count, emphatically and minimalistically, lightly enhanced by the occasional echo, reverb or sustain effect via a laptop balanced precariously on his small kit.

Though disquiet and unease were everywhere, Bernstein remained composed. The duo opened with a pensively spacious piece justaposing fragmentary images against atmospherics that grew to a steady, apprehensively swooping interlude. As with the drums, Bernstein limited her use of effects to when they enhanced the music, as with a flange out of ghostly overtones on her second piece, and a looped phrase or two later in the set. Takeishi built to a stately insistence as the trajectory of the set followed an upward arc in contrast to Bernstein’s matter-of-factness. Eerie bell-like tones underscored the brooding crescendos of the third piece; beats that marched and then followed something of a trip-hop groove were introduced as the show went on. A moodily suspenseful, chordally-fueled number reminded of Carla Kihlstedt‘s solo work. A bit later, a couple of other pieces (none of them longer than about four minutes) took a resolutely individualist stance against war and conflict; another followed a theme of escape to a pounding crescendo.

“So much sedation…I don’t know what will happen, I don’t concern myself with the politicians at this point, they don’t have the power…I do desire to make change,” Bernstein asserted quietly over spiky pizzicato and only slightly restrained, tumbling percussion. As resignation gave way to angst, she tackled some tough, register-shifting melismas and made it all look easy: she was working a lot harder than it seemed. The evening’s two most anthemic numbers were bookended around a hypnotic African-flavored vamp that utilized what sounded like mbira (thumb piano) voicings. Throughout it all, Bernstein stayed within herself and drew the listener in. She’s back at Roulette on April 2 at 8 with her jazz quartet which includes pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stuart Popejoy and drummer Ches Smith.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment