Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

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