Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Do It Again

This album is hilarious. The thing to keep in mind about Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord is that they have an alter ego, Bryan and the Haggards, who play twisted covers of Merle Haggard songs. That “other” band’s lone release (so far), Pretend It’s the End of the World was one of the funniest and best albums of the past year. This new album, credited to Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord and titled Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!, follows in the same vein. On one hand, it’s a surprisingly straight-up groove album, but all those grooves, and most of the surprisingly memorable tunes, are ultimately nothing more than fodder for satire and destruction. As you would expect from these guys, it’s cruel and funny and kind of punk although the band has pretty awesome chops for a punk jazz band: Lundbom on electric guitar, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto sax, Moppa Elliott on bass and Danny Fischer on drums along with guest Matt Kanelos (leader of plaintively tuneful Americana soul band the Smooth Maria) on electric piano.

The first track is the most straight-ahead, kicking off with an animated Irabagon/Lundbom conversation over Fischer’s deadpan leaden pulse. The guitar picks up a loop, saxes converge and diverge and then Lundbom plays an absolutely stunning chorus-box solo that finally goes off into skronk at the end. That’s for the adrenaline junkies. Kanelos’ astringent, hypnotic, Herbie Hancock-tinted riffage anchors the second track, The Bravest Little Pilot No. 2. As expected, Irabagon veers quickly from lyrical to satirical; Kanelos echoes that a bit later on, steady and increasingly unsteady as it winds down with unexpected grace. Ears Like a Fox is LOL funny, a R&B satire straight out of the Mostly Other People Do the Killing school of deconstruction. Everybody eventually picks up a cheesy riff and then shoots spitballs at it while Fischer finally hits a tongue-in-cheek groove with cluelessly blustery early Ringo style cymbal work.

Taking its name from a fish delivery service, Meat Without Feet has what sounds like a hip-hop beat chopped and backward masked, except that it’s live. It’s a great song – Elliott’s insistent bass chords join in lockstep with a trudging Fischer as Murray takes a long, completely over-the-top, kazoo-like solo on his “balto” sax, Lundbom coming in gingerly and then somewhat sternly working the edges of the melody, as if to say, c’mon guys, get it together. They segue into the fifth track, New Feats of Horsemanship, a brutal slow ballad satire – the savage joy of Murray’s completely unhinged mockery has to be heard to be appreciated. They close with Faith-Based Initiative – you know from the title that it has to be a joke, and it is, a silly go get ’em horn theme and cruel variations. As Elliott runs a deadpan, percussive staccato riff, Fischer lopes across the toms and eventually decides to start hitting on the “one,” one of the funniest moments here among many, matched by Lundbom’s alternate octaves and crazed tremolo-picking and then Irabagon’s constipated elephantine grunting as the rhythm section staggers away, aghast. On one level, it hurts a little to give away all these punchlines; on the other hand, no words could really do justice to them. The album is out now on Hot Cup Records – you’ll see this here at the end of the year on our best of 2011 list if we get that far. Lundbom and his merry band play the cd release show for this one tonight at nine at Zebulon.

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April 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boston Band Unearths Long-Lost Esquivel Big Band Charts: Why?

Now we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Back in Mexico in the 1950s, Juan Garcia Esquivel must have been smoking some seriously generalissimo-grade pot. Like him or not, there’s no denying the psychedelic aspect of his music. The question is, was it any good? Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – an Either/Orchestra spinoff – offers one possible answer. On their new, period-perfect The Unforgettable Sounds of Esquivel, a collection of newly rediscovered big-band arrangements by the crazed, vaudevillian Mad Men era bandleader, they’re obviously having a great time. Which on one level is understandable: from a musician’s point of view, any time you get to use a bass marimba, or punctuate a big band chart with a pedal steel cadenza, it’s nothing if not a jolt to the senses. But some of this is so cheesy that it calls into question whether or not Esquivel actually liked these songs – or if he even liked jazz, or music, at all.

It’s important not to confuse an artist or their work with their fan base. It makes no more sense to associate Esquivel with the first-wave trendoids who fueled his blip of a resurgence in the early 90s than it does to blame Radiohead for the pitchfork/stereogum contingent who worship them. Yet it makes sense that trendoids would fall in love with Esquivel’s “bachelor pad” stylings. Much as Esquivel’s production was cutting-edge, with all those crazy sound effects, all too often it’s style over substance, something that dovetails perfectly with a trendoid esthetic (if you buy the argument that the words “trendoid” and “esthetic” belong in the same sentence). There are moments here that are painfully kitschy – again, the hallmark of a trendoid being an embrace of all things shallow and stupid. But lurking beneath these songs’ whizbang, Keystone Kops vibe is a snotty cynicism that borders on punk. Esquivel’s arrangements are such complete bastardizations that they’re practically hostile. Would Esquivel have preferred ranchera ballads, or norteno accordion music? Or anything other than popular 50s jazz themes? At times, it would seem so. Taken as satire, much of this is irresistibly funny.

Andalucia barrels along at a breakneck pace with snarky little piano glissandos and a kettledrum roll out. Night and Day features a brief fugue between blazing brass and the steel guitar of Tim Obetz, with random bits of lyrics that predate Lee “Scratch” Perry and dub by twenty years. The barely two-minute version of Take the A Train, like much else here, owes a debt to Spike Jones with its tribal percussion and barking horns that winds down into jungly ambience fueled by Rusty Scott’s organ. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is reinvented as a cartoonish cha-cha, slinking along with the scrape of a guacharaca, doot-doot-doot vocals and finally an exuberant Yaure Muniz trumpet solo followed by a surprisingly subdued one on piano by Mr. Ho himself. With its absurdly garish horn chart, Music Makers has gruff baritone sax trading riffs impishly with the steel. And the girlie chorus on Frenesi are clearly unable to keep a straight face as they doot-doot-doot amidst the crazed doublestops of the high brass.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. Sentimental Journey is simply unlistenable, and Mini Skirt, a familiar theme for surf music fans, hasn’t aged well – in the Cee-Lo Green era, those wolf-whistles are annoyingly cutesy. The three remaining tracks, Let’s Dance, Dancing in the Dark and the surprisingly straight-up, genially bluesy Street Scene are more good-naturedly amusing: lose the steel guitar, the funeral parlor organ and those ridiculous, blaring brass crescendos and what you’d be left with is just plain good big band jazz. Whether the rest of this is jazz, or what it is, is up to you to figure out. Maybe it’s best not to: like Sartre said, once you name something, you kill it.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bryan and the Haggards – Pretend It’s the End of the World

Bryan and the Haggards play twisted, jazz-tinged instrumental covers of Merle Haggard songs. Which if you know something about either style of music shouldn’t exactly come as a shock (Willie Nelson, anybody?). But this being New York, the indie stench wafts across the river from Williamsburg when there isn’t much of a breeze. Is this album yet another case of a bunch of spoiled brats thumbing their snotty noses at music they associate with the working classes? Happily, no. Bryan and the Haggards are actually a jazz group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord, a take-no-prisoners combo equally adept at melody and squall. This album might have been jumpstarted when Big Five Chord recorded a satirical cover of the Louvin Bros.’ The Christian Life for their previous album Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord Accomplish Jazz (very favorably reviewed here last year). Considering the name of this project, it would seem that tenor sax player Bryan Murray is the ringleader this time around, his accomplices being guitarist Lundbom, high-profile alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott and drummer Danny Fischer. What does it sound like? At its most coherent, like Uncle Tupelo on mushrooms. Occasionally, it takes on an exuberant New Orleans second line vibe. Beyond that, coherence ceases to be an issue. This may be jazz, but the underlying esthetic is pure punk rock. Which is nothing new for these players – this crew will basically rip anything to shreds, especially their own compositions, so the question of whether or not they have any affinity, or distaste, for Haggard, or for country music in general, is really beside the point. For their shenanigans, any source is sufficient. It’s how they do it that makes it so much fun.

Silver Wings sways stiff and heavyhanded, Fischer pulling away from anything approximating a groove. Eventually, the saxes fall apart and for literally a second so does the rhythm section, and everything is chaos but then they’re back together again like nothing ever happened. A spitball? Me? What spitball? So when they follow that with an actually quite pretty instrumental of Swinging Doors, it’s strictly a diversion: a minute into Workingman’s Blues and Murray is quoting liberally from his fakebook while Elliott runs scales and eventually settles into one of his typical confrontational low-register rumbles, Lundbom eventually lumberjacking his way through some spot-on Sister Ray-style chord-chopping.

The original version of Miss the Mississippi and You has a countrypolitan vibe, so it makes sense that this crew would be able to turn it into as lovely a ballad as they do until the saxes start making little faces at each other, followed by a very, very good joke about intra-band communication. Lonesome Fugitive is a launching pad for some loud, lazy and eventually very funny commentary from Lundbom; All of Me Belongs to You is just plain sick, in a Ween kind of way. The last cut, Trouble in Mind is ironically the most traditional of all the cuts here, a New Orleans style raveup anchored by distorted guitar, sax overtones whistling overhead with the glee of a mosquito who’s figured out how to evade the swatter.

Who is the audience for this album? Stoners, most definitely; also fans of the Ween country album, Uncle Leon & the Alibis, David Allan Coe and the like. Jazz fans ought to like this although most of them won’t. Country fans probably won’t like this much either on account of it being iconoclastic. So, could this maybe be a bunch of working-class musicians making fun of alt-country, a style they associate with the ruling classes? Hmmm…peep the cheesy-beyond-belief, perfectly retro 70s cd cover design and decide for yourself.

June 19, 2010 Posted by | country music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Very Devious News: The Microscopic Septet Is Back in Print!

There has never been a more devious band than the Microscopic Septet. You may consider yourself a bon vivant, but until you have danced – or at least wiggled in your chair – to the Micros at 2 in the morning, you are only a pretender. These two double cds comprise their complete recorded work through 2007: reportedly, there is also an album of all-new material on the way. You may know these guys from the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air, which their pianist Joel Forrester wrote in the early 90s. As purveyors of good times, exuberant wit and extremely subtle satire, their only real competition is genre-blending baritone sax-driven instrumentalists Moisturizer. Like that band, many of the Micros’ songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – have a narrative feel. They could have been the Spinal Tap of jazz – and in a sense they are – but they’re so much more. A typical number could start out as a slow blues, go doublespeed with a swing beat, morph into dixieland for a minute or two, build to a latin breakdown and then go out on a suspense film motif. When they first appeared on the New York scene in 1980, audiences didn’t know what to make of them. Were they fake jazz? A spoof? A straight-up swing band that couldn’t resist a good joke? All of the above is more like it. By comparison, the early Lounge Lizards were conservative.

In a terrific stroke of good fortune, Cuneiform Records has reissued the Micros’ complete recorded works on two double cd’s, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing. The first comprises their first album, 1983’s Take the Z Train, along with their lone ep, Let’s Flip! from 1986, in addition to with several outtakes from that session. The second includes their 1986 album Offbeat Glory and their lone cd, 1988’s Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) plus several bonus tracks.

Take the Z Train was recorded live in analog to two-track tape in a Chinatown studio chosen because it housed a piano that reputedly once belonged to Eubie Blake. The digital remastering here is brilliant: it sounds pretty much like the collectible album that the original has become. It’s the band’s defining statement. Influenced by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson’s ornate arrangements, founder and sax player Phillip Johnston added megadoses of his signature wit, and the band followed along, Forrester (who also writes a lot of their material) on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, Richard Dworkin on drums (both of whom served as Rachelle Garniez’ rhythm section back in 90s), Dave Sewelson (later of the Sewelsonics) on baritone sax, Don Davis on alto and John Hagen on tenor. The album has what’s possibly their prototypical song, Chinese Twilight Zone; the spy theme Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin; the fast, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary; the latin swing number Kelly Grows Up and the absolutely brilliant True, a previously unreleased outtake that sounds something akin to Sun Ra covering a horror movie theme.

Let’s Flip! and the outtakes that follow it were recorded in concert in Europe. It’s the Micros at their most serious, although their energy is undiminished. In addition to Offbeat Glory, Surrealistic Swing includes two bonus tracks featuring John Zorn, who was their original alto player. Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) was originally released on Stash Records, who also did the Reefer Madness album; noted jazz critic Will Friedwald hooked them up with the label. Forrester’s latin and tango inflections come to the forefront here, particularly on the delightful Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys, Dill Pickle Tango and Fool’s Errand. Over the course of these four cds, the band steals licks from the Mission Impossible, Peter Gunn and Summer Place themes, rearranges the Ellington classic Harlem Nocturne as a tango, and quotes from everyone from Louis Jordan to the Skatalites to George Michael. In all seriousness, as amusing as all this is, it’s also virtuosic and absolutely brilliant. Although the Micros didn’t go unnoticed by the mainstream jazz world during their 80s heyday, these two rediscoveries ought to vault them to the prominence they so richly deserve.

February 2, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment