Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

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May 24, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

January 22, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myra Melford’s Village Vanguard Debut: A Clinic in Good Ideas and Good Times

It’s hard to believe that last night marked pianist Myra Melford‘s debut as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard. She’s won so many awards and fellowships and such that it was easy to assume that she’d already done that…until a persuasive publicist prompted a serious twist-my-arm moment. On a raw, nippy, pleasantly mostly tourist-free night, with probably as much jazz talent there watching as there was onstage, this show was a no-brainer. Beyond pure unleashed fun, the early set last night made a case for how the music Tonic was booking fifteen years ago has become…well…the vanguard.

Melford and her group Snowy Egret delivered pretty much everything you could possibly want from an improvising ensemble. There were all manner of pairings, and duels, and conversations between instruments. Acoustic bassist Satoshi Takeishi’s devious leaps and bounds against drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s whispery poltergeist cymbals; guitarist Liberty Ellman’s good purist postbop cop vs. Melford’s deadpan minimalist recidivist; and cornetist Ron Miles’ tug-of-war with the piano, employing all sorts of elephantine extended technique versus Melford’s resolutely glistening undercurrent, were just a few examples.

It’s one thing to listen to the group’s album while multitasking. Immersed in those songs live, Melford’s multifaceted erudition was stunning. For one, the Afro-Cuban influence is everywhere, particularly in the rhythm, if frequently implied.. Sorey and Takeishi would typically build to a rumbling, floating swing as the songs’ long crescendos rose to the point where Melford and her merry band would take things thisclose to haywire but hanging back from complete pandemonium, then typically following a graceful downward arc, typically punctuated by a friendly bit of jousting or repartee between soloists.

Many of Melford’s compositions have an ornate, multi-segmented architecture, and this group is a propulsive vehicle for that. The most stunning moment of the set was a plaintively rippling, minor-key neoromantic piano theme over a stygian swirl about midway through the third number, The Virgin of Guadalupe, one of a handful of tunes from the group’s 2015 album. Other moments gave Melford a chance to air our her signature blend of vivid lyricism, knottily looping phrases and cleverly deconstructed swing And later, for about twenty seconds, she finally took the night’s single downward spiral through bluesy cocktail jazz – the kind that Dave Brubeck insisted that every pianist would eventually devolve to – as if to say, “I can do this in my sleep, bu I don’t, and that’s why we’re all here.”

Melford and Snowy Egret are back at the Vanguard with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 tonight and through March 6. Cover is $30.

March 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Marvin Sewell Group Plays an Intense Lincoln Center Show

Last night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the Marvin Sewell Group played an edgily dynamic set, characteristically blending jazz and blues with the occasional, steadily funky interlude in a mix of guitarist Sewell’s originals and a couple of vividly reworked standards. They opened with Polar Shift, Sewell’s spikily looping African-tinged solo guitar riffage developing to a catchy but uneasily airy circular theme, Joe Barbato’s accordion in tandem with Sam Newsome’s soprano sax over the counterintuitively rhythmic sway of acoustic bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Satoshi Takeishi.

Insomnia rose from Sewell’s allusions to otherworldly early 20s open-tuned guitar blues to a creepy vamp that crept along with a loose-limbed skeleton bounce from Takeishi, Newsome alternating between warmer colors and spiraling menace. A warmly lyrical, waltzing take of Charles Lloyd’s Song for My Lady featured Newsome in both balmy and dancing modes against Barbato’s judicious piano chords and misty wee-hours phrasing. They picked up the pace just a little with a jauntily scampering take of Monk’s Brake’s Sake, Sewell with a steady, Jim Hall-like focus, Barbato and then Newsome adding a rustic, ragtime edge.

The darkest, most intense moments of the night came during another Sewell waltz, Worker’s Dance, his biting acoustic phrasing punctuating Newsome and Barbato’s cumulo-nimbus ambience. A tribute to Sewell’s late pal, Philadelphia guitarist Jeffrey Johnson, was the night’s most adrenalizing number As Sewell recounted, Johnson was the kind of player who’d push his bandmates to take their game to the next level, so it wasn’t long before the tune became a springboard for Sewell’s rapidfire yet restrained, sinewy legato Stratocaster solos. They wrapped up the show on a high note with Big Joe, a shout-out to ten-string blues guitar legend Big Joe Williams, Sewell building a biting, roughhewn intensity on acoustic before a long climb upward where Newsome finally cut loose with a series of aching, postbop bursts and yelps. The series of free concerts at the atrium continues through the year, including a show by upbeat, shapeshifting Brazilian-inspired C&W/funk band Nation Beat on July 10 at 7:30 PM; early arrival is advised.

July 4, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ljova and Fireworks Ensemble Revisit and Reinvent the Rite of Spring

Saturday afternoon on Governors Island offered a wide variety of sounds: the incessant, ominous rumble of helicopters, indignant seagulls, squealing children all around, cicadas in stereo, and the occasional gunshot. There was also music, which was excellent. On the lawn along the island’s middle promenade, pianists Blair McMillen and Pam Goldberg pulled together a deliciously intriguing program to celebrate the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that began with reimagiing its origins in ancient traditional themes and ended by taking it into the here and now.

Leading an eclectic nonet with fadolin, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, hammered dulcimer, acccordion, bass and percussion, violist/composer Ljova explained that it had long been theorized that the Rite of Spring was based on folk themes, which turned out to be correct. Invoking the old composer’s adage that if a motif is too good, its source must be folk music, he explained how he’d reviewed the scholarship, and from there and his own research was able to locate several tunes from northwest Lithuania which, if Stravinsky didn’t nick them outright, closely resemble themes and tonalities in the Rites. Except that those folk tunes’ jarringly modern dissonances are actually hundreds if not thousands of years old.

The concert began with about half the ensemble gathered in a circle in front of the stage, unamplified. A slowly sirening theme with eerie close harmonies almost impreceptibly morphed into a hypnotic march followed by a handful of slowly dizzying rondos, a couple featuring Ben Holmes’ lively trumpet, another Shoko Nagai’s stately, unwavering accordion. Things got more jaunty as they went along.

When the band took the stage, a big shot from Satoshi Takeishi’s drums signaled a return to where they’d started earlier, that apprehensively oscillating, sirening motif given more heft and rhythm. It was Ljova at the top of his characteristically cinematic game  – a group creation, actually, deftly pulled together in rehearsal over the previous couple of days. They turned their ur-Stravinsky into a jazzy romp punctated by a Zappa-esque fanfare, an atmospheric crescendo, screaming stadium-rock riffage from guitarist Jay Vilnai and then a segue down to singer Inna Barmash’s otherworldly vocalese which she delivered with a brittle, minutely jeweled, microtonal vibrato. Finally coming full circle with the ominously nebulous opening theme, they gave the outro to Barmash, who sang it in the original Russian, stately and emphatic but with a chilling sense of longing: it made an austere but inescapably powerful conclusion. They encored with a lively Romany dance with hints of Bollywod, which seemed pretty much improvised on the spot, but the band was game.

The equally eclectic indie classical octet Fireworks Ensemble followed, first playing a couple of brief works by bandleader/bassist Brian Coughlin: a lively, bouncy number originally written for trio and beatboxer, with a lively blend of latin and hip-hop influences and then a pair of more moody, brief  Wallace Stevens-inspired works, the second setting pensive flute over a broodingly Reichian, circular piano motif, They wound up the afternoon with an impeccably crafted performance of their own chamber-rock version of the Rite of Spring.  It’s remarkable how close to the original this version was, yet how revealing it also was, more of a moody pas de deux than a fullscale ballet. Stripping it to its chassis, they offered a look at where Gil Evans got his lustre and where Bernard Herrmann got his creepy cadenzas – and maybe where Juan Tizol got Caravan.

Coughlin’s arrangement also underscored the incessant foreshadowing that gives this piece its lingering menace. Jessica Schmitz’ flute and Alex Hamlin’s alto sax lept and dove with a graceful apprehension; Coughlin’s bass,  Pauline Kim Harris’ violin and Leigh Stuart’s cello dug into the bracing close harmonies of those sirening motives, Red Wierenga’s piano carrying much of the melody. They saved the big cadenzas in the next-to-last movement for Kevin Gallagher’s gritty guitar and David Mancuso’s drums, ending with a puckish flourish. It was surprising not to see more of a crowd turn out for the whole thing; Governors Island is a free five-minute ferry ride from the Battery and on this particular afternoon, the cool canopy of trees made it easy to lean up against one of the trunks and get lost in the music – with interruptions from the cicadas and the Civil War reenactment behind the hill. McMillen and Goldberg have another concert scheduled here for September 1 featuring music from Brahms to Kate Bush performed by the organizers, Classical Jam, Tigue Percusssion, Theo Bleckmann, Wendy Sutter and many others.

August 11, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Pablo Ziegler and Maya Beiser Tango Through Le Poisson Rouge

While it’s hardly necessary for a musician to be immersed in a particular style since childhood in order to play it well, growing up with a genre doesn’t hurt. Last night at le Poisson Rouge pianist Pablo Ziegler and cellist Maya Beiser celebrated their Argentinian heritage with a mix of Piazzolla classics and Ziegler originals, Satoshi Takeishi propelling the trio with a master class in restraint and subtle intensity behind the drum kit. Ziegler was a Piazzolla collaborator through the end of the composer’s life, and has been a major force in tango nuevo in his own right. Beiser is well known as a powerful and eclectic presence in the new-music scene: how does she approach playing Piazzolla and Ziegler? Like she’d grown up with them, dancing in her chair at one point as the trio kicked off the show with a bustling, noirish, Mingus-esque take of Piazzolla’s Michaelangelo 17. Ziegler’s arrangements and also his originals gave Beiser a launching pad for tracking down every bit of restless unease in the genre-spanning compositions: his part’s in his blood, meticulous yet forceful, whether driving the rhythm, adding jazzy flourishes or the occasional joyous glissando.

Ziegler recounted that Piazzolla enjoyed fishing for sharks, then led the group through the cinematic fish tale Escualo, Beiser reeling the line out with a perfectly timed microtonal swoop, kicking off its leaping, jaunty ballet-esque imagery all the way through to the big, slashing crescendo at the end. By contrast, the insistent longing in Piazzolla’s A Year of Solitude lingered vividly, as did a brooding, plaintive Ziegler piece that Beiser approached with a suspenseful vibrato, and a terse arrangement of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s Agua Y Vinho.

Introducing Piazzzolla’s Fuga Y Misterioso, Ziegler reminded the crowd how much of a fan of Bach Piazzolla was, and then reminded them again as Beiser played lively rapidfire riffage over Ziegler’s matter-of-factly precise baroqueisms. Beiser got a brief solo turn, playing Mariel, an aching, envelopingly atmospheric Osvaldo Golijov requiem originally written for cello and vibraphone, against her own recording of slow sustained notes and minimalist accents. As affecting as this was, it would have been even more interesting to have seen three cellists play it: there’s no telling how much more magic they might have been able to conjure up.

After a 1970s-era lullaby by Ziegler, the ensemble wowed what looked like a sold-out crowd with a plaintive version of Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino, then a swinging, somewhat satirical portrait of a macho doofus written by Ziegler and then closed with an impressively understated version of the iconic Libertango, its restrained, tense revelry a perfect resolution of the tension between Piazzola the pop tunesmith and Piazzolla the modernist composer. The crowd wanted an encore; they got an unselfconsciously beautiful rendition of Ziegler’s Muchacha de Boedo. Considering how much fun everyone onstage was having, let’s hope they keep this richly enjoyable project going.

February 2, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sanda Weigl’s Gypsy in a Tree is Intensely Psychedelic

Sanda Weigl’s new album Gypsy in a Tree puts a dark, dramatically shapeshifting, psychedelic spin on old gypsy songs. The title refers to where gypsies went to hide when racist rednecks rode into town. Weigl’s affinity for these songs draws on her own experiences as a freedom fighter: Romanian-born, driven into exile in East Germany of all places (where her family connected with her aunt, Bertold Brecht’s widow), jailed and then exiled after the Prague Spring in 1968, she landed in West Berlin where was able to pursue a successful theatre career. Later she moved to New York, which proved fortuitous when she met pianist Anthony Coleman, with whom she recorded the 2002 collaboration Gypsy Killer. As befits someone with her theatrical background, Weigl sings in an expressive contralto, in Romanian (with English translations in the cd booklet), impressively nuanced here: in concert she typically doesn’t hold back. Her backing band is sensational. Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano, Stomu Takeishi on fretless five-string bass, Doug Wieselman on clarinet and guitar and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion update these songs with jazz inventiveness and rock energy.

The opening track is a brisk, darkly swinging kiss-off anthem told from a deadpan observer’s perspective – like many of the tracks here, it has an understatedly cruel humor. The second cut, a bizarre tale of an abused wife whose fling with a rich guy restores the balance in her home (!?) is more amorphous, Nagai’s horror-movie piano trading with the swooping chords of the bass. The popular Saraman (frequently spelled “Shalaiman”) gets a stripped-down, staccato arrangement, bass swooping sweetly again here. The most striking song here is an old man’s lament for his lost youth done noir cabaret style with some stunningly precise yet intense piano.

Nagai’s piano cascades also shine on a defiant, metaphorical solidarity anthem. Todorel, another grim tale of old age, contrasts macabre piano and percussion with an oompah bounce. A pair of songs – one a homage to the joys of tobacco, the other a pulsing, galloping exile’s tale, are more hypnotic and atmospheric. The album ends with its catchiest track, Alomalo, a sort of gypsy cumbia pop tune with electric guitar. Fans of dark dramatic chanteuses from Rachelle Garniez to Amanda Palmer will enjoy this album; it’s just out on Barbes Records. Weigl plays the cd release show on 4/22 at the 92YTribeca with two sets: one with the band here, another with a gypsy band including luminary jazz reedman Ned Rothenberg and star violist Ljova Zhurbin.

March 3, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trouble in Tribeca, 2011 Style: Sanda Weigl, Razia and Very Be Careful in Concert

It’s about fifteen minutes on foot from Tribeca to the West Village. After the first few times, those fifteen minutes turn into twenty. At which point it’s probably time to call it a night. We made the hike between the 92YTribeca and Bleecker Street more than a few times Friday night and still managed to catch a lot of the first night of Winter Jazzfest as well as the high points of booking agency Trouble Worldwide’s annual showcase further downtown. This marks our third consecutive year at their annual shindig. Why? Because their acts are so consistently good. The most entertaining one of the night, surprisingly, turned out to be the first. Seeing Romanian gypsy singer Sanda Weigl backed by an all-Japanese band might seem incongruous, but until the last artists and musicians here are displaced by hedge fund traders and their “luxury” condos, sights like that will still resonate as New York moments. Weigl is tiny, Edith Piaf-sized, with a similar contralto that if anything is just as subtle: she worked the corners of the songs, holding back until she really needed to hammer a point home, and then she’d cut loose. Her band was phenomenal. Whether prowling the upper registers of the piano with a menacing gleam, hammering out perfect, lightning-fast Balkan horn lines on the keys or supplying eerie washes of accordion, Shoko Nagai stole the show. Five-string acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi played fluid, melodic lines in the style of a great lead guitarist when he wasn’t gently but forcefully hammering out a rhythm of his own, while percussionist Satoshi Takeishi pulled a surprising amount of rattle and whoosh out of the woodblocks and single, big crash cymbal he’d set up on the floor.

With a wink in her eye, Weigl would begin each song with a brief explanation of what the Romanian lyrics meant. “You liked me when I was young, but now I’m old, I’m a pain in the neck,” she explained over Nagai’s horror-movie cascades. The madness of the music made a delicious contrast with the steely, often stoic intensity of Weigl’s vocals. One of the early numbers in the set sounded like a cocek dance; a lost-love lament (one of several, it seems) had more of a Weimar blues/noir cabaret feel. The rest of the set included another Balkan dance, the tale of a woman who loves her children so much that she leaves her Prince Charming and returns to an abusive husband, and a song whose protagonist thinks that the ideal death would be during sex. After less than forty minutes, the band was yanked offstage: the crowd wanted more but didn’t get it.

Malagasy-American chanteuse Razia was as subtle as Weigl and her band were dramatic, and was every bit as compelling. Backed by an incisive, terse acoustic guitarist and a tight rhythm section, drawing deeply from her excellent new album Zebu Nation (just out on Cumbancha), she ran through a similarly abbreviated set. Her voice has a gentle, reassuring resilience, perhaps unsurprising coming from a woman whose musical journey led her from her native Madagascar, to Paris, and ultimately to New York where she assembled this band. A couple of the songs circled with trancelike polyrhythms that lent an Afrobeat feel. Another built to surprising intensity, anchored by a series of increasingly busy bass riffs. An attempt to start an audience clapalong with those polyrhythms met with mixed results: her own crowd was game, but the rest of the room was rhythmically challenged. They wound up the set with an undulating dance tune based on a hypnotic two-chord vamp.

After a break for jazz a few blocks north and then back, it was time for Very Be Careful, who are sort of the Colombian Gogol Bordello. When they were based in Brooklyn, they were notorious for raucous rooftop parties, so seeing them in such genteel surroundings was a bit of a shock, albeit a sort of heartwarming one, especially for a band whose crazed live album is titled Horrible Club. This set featured a lot of material from their latest one Escape Room, among them a couple of hypnotic classics from the 1960s along with the bouncy cumbia La Abeja (The Bee) and the acidically swirling La Alergia (Allergies, a song written by the band along with Deicy Guzman, mom to accordionist Ricardo Guzman and his brother Arturo, who got a tastily booming, slinky pulse out of his shortscale Danelectro reissue bass all night long). It would be nice to be able to say that they got the whole crowd swaying, but the truth is that they basically separated the kids from the oldsters. The younger people, for whom cumbia is what reggae was to the generation before them, moved toward the stage; the older crowd hung back, seemingly oblivious.

Sharply dressed bell player Dante Ruiz took a couple of stabs at seeing how much energy he could wring out of a room which by now had been on their feet for several hours and seemed to be feeling it, then backed away and concentrated on the band’s hypnotic sway and clatter. In a sense, it was as surreal as watching the Pogues on the BBC: if there was any time to be randomly making out with someone, this was it, but nobody went for it.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | concert, folk music, gypsy music, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment