Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,” violinist and singer Skye Steele intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn, David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Steele’s stately angst in Heartbreak. Vilnai layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

 

May 27, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nation Beat Plays Every Fun Style of Music Ever Invented

Nation Beat’s new album Growing Stone is a potent reminder why New York has, despite all attempts to whitewash it, remained such a great cauldron for new music. This band is absolutely impossible to categorize – there is no other group who sound remotely like Nation Beat. Willie Nelson is a fan (he booked them at Farm Aid). With the improvisational flair of a jam band, the danceable vibe of a Brazilian maracatu drumline and the soul of a country band, what they play is first and foremost dance music. If you took Poi Dog Pondering – a good jam band from another generation – subtracted the bluegrass and replaced it with Brazilian flavor, you’d have a fair if not completely accurate approximation of what Nation Beat sound like. They’re sunny and upbeat but also pretty intense.

With its hip-hop beat and Mark Marshall’s wah guitar harmonizing with the violin, the opening track sets the stage for the rest of this incredibly eclectic record. The second track, Bicu de Lambu sets sunbaked slide guitar over Rob Curto’s accordion for a zydeco/country feel with blippy bass and bandleader Scott Kettner’s rolling surf drums. Meu Girassol is the Duke Ellington classic Caravan redone as eerily off-kilter, guitar-driven Afrobeat bubbling over guest Cyro Baptista’s percussion, followed by a briskly cheery horn-driven forro-ska number.

With its soaring fiddles and Memphis soul guitar, the bouncy, swaying title track is a showcase for frontwoman Liliana Araujo’s laid-back but raw, down-to-earth vocals – and is that a Dixie quote? Forro for Salu has a rustic Brazilian string band vibe with the twin fiddles of Skye Steele and Dennis Lichtman over Kettner’s rumbling, hypnotic percussion. They follow that with a summery soca-flavored tune and then a reggae song that goes sprinting into ska. The rest of the album blends bouncy forro, ecstatic New Orleans second-line sounds, retro 20s blues, rocksteady, vintage 60s funk and swaying oldschool C&W and and makes it all seem effortless. It’s out now on similarly eclectic Brooklyn label Barbes Records.

September 29, 2011 Posted by | country music, funk music, latin music, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews, ska music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Smart, Eclectic Themes and Tunes from Steve Hudson

We usually don’t do pleasant and pretty. That’s not to imply that pleasant, attractive music is necessarily any less entertaining or intelligent than the troubled, melancholic stuff we gravitate toward, both as a matter of personal taste and because of this site’s ultimate agenda. Since it’s a lot easier to get exposure for pleasant, accessible music than for darker material that tends to scare people off, that’s where we come in. But once in awhile something comes over the transom here that’s so disarmingly fun that it’s impossible to resist: the Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble’s new Galactic Diamonds album is a prime example. It’s a good-naturedly eclectic mix of third-stream jazz with a catchy, quirky pop edge, similar to the more western side of Skye Steele’s adventurous solo work. Hudson plays piano, joined by fellow multistylists Zach Brock on violin, Jody Redhage on cello and vocals and Martin Urbach on drums and percussion.

The opening track sets the tone for the rest of the album, a playful hybrid tango/jazz waltz with inspired, conversational interplay between the instruments, the highlight being a jaunty, ragtimey, Stuff Smith-style violin solo. Redhage is basically the bass player here, delivering an undulating groove most notable on the circular Afrobeat-tinged Speak Out and the vivacious, Jean Luc Ponty-esque title track, where she supplies soulful vocalese as well. Often the piano and violin join on rustic, wistful Americana themes, whether the aptly titled Keep It Simple, the gently expansive ballad PG which eventually morphs into a tricky, moody Brubeck-style theme, or Wanderin’, a memorable, nocturnal waltz. Hudson intersperses clever allusions and quotes from the Fab Four on the lyrical Song for John Lennon, joined by a soaring Brock toward the end. He also plays melodica on the tricky bolero Para, and Wurlitzer on the self-explanatory, Herbie Hancock-ish Funky Hobbit. The album winds up with its most ambitious piece, Mingus Moon, a long, shapeshifting, latin-inflected piece with a rich web of intermingled contributions from all the instruments. Hudson gets around: he’ll be at Chamber Music America in New York next month, then in Alaska where in May, with saxophonist Claire Daly, he’ll be premiering a work dedicated to explorer Mary Joyce.

December 26, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rupa & the April Fishes at the Bell House, Brooklyn NY 11/13/09

Bay area band Rupa & the April Fishes had just played a couple of other New York City gigs in the previous week, yet nevertheless managed to bring an impressively energized crowd out to pack the Bell House in remote Gowanus, Brooklyn. In a cold drizzle, even. Rupa Marya, the band’s frontwoman goes for breathy, sensual atmospherics on the band’s new album Este Mundo (very favorably reviewed here on November 9) but in concert she showed off a bright effervescence to go along with it and the band roared along. These folks really pulled out all the stops – they know that people don’t just want to hear the album note for note, they want a party, a jolt of energy and they got every bit they could have hoped for. And Rupa Marya is all too aware of her charisma and makes the most of it. The upright bassist didn’t get to step out a lot – it’s usually a good thing when the band keeps the bass locked up tight with the drums – but when he got a solo, he made it a soaring, terse jazz horn line. Drummer Aaron Kierbel was a dynamo full of surprises, completely schooling opening act Nation Beat (a hard thing to do, by the way) when it came to soloing, blasting through a cheery yet ominous surf passage, otherwise maneuvering expertly through the ska and gypsy-rock numbers bringing the beat down to reggae as the songs went halfspeed, then leaping into doubletime again with unabashed relish.

Accordionist Isabel Douglass alternated between lush ambience and a whirlwind attack that showed off her blistering chops while the cellist would frequently carry the songs’ hooks, getting a surprising warmth out of his characteristically austere instrument. Marcus Cohen on trumpet contributed soulful blues, sly ska and full-throttle Balkan riffs over his frontwoman’s incisive rhythm (she started on acoustic before moving to a beautiful hollowbody electric).

Most of the songs were from the new cd, notably the shapeshifting Elephant, part stomping Parisian waltz, part Balkan reel steaming along on the pulse of the bass (well up in the mix, a pleasant change for a bull fiddle in a loud band). The gypsy inflections took center stage, but the band put their own indelible spin on them, twisting them into just about every dance beat you can find south of the border (including cumbia on one particularly soulful, swaying number, and their portentous tango they used to open the show on a note that was as mysterious as it was sensual). But the single best song of the night might have been a track from their first album, its ridiculously catchy, upbeat chorus pulling in several in the audience, then bursting into flame on the sparks flying from Cohen’s trumpet. As many other amazing concerts as New York has seen this year, this had to be one of the best: you’ll see it on our 20 Best Shows of the Year list when we put it up in December.

Nation Beat may have realized that they were never going to beat the headliner at the minor-key game, so they stuck to their happiest, most blissfully upbeat Brazilian songs along with a break for several innovatively rearranged covers of classic country numbers delivered with a cool yet heartfelt understatement by crooner Jesse Lenat. It wasn’t a bad set. Violinist Skye Steele – whose own stylistically uncategorizable quintet is 180 degrees from what he plays in this band, and is sensationally good – led the charge with a barrage of lightning-fast climbs and charges. But they didn’t deliver the transcendence they’re capable of (see our review of their show last summer on Roosevelt Island, featuring Brazilian singer Liliana Araujo – absent from this gig – leading the band through a much more stylistically diverse mix of ska, reggae and even a New Orleans-style march along with the Brazilian stuff). This wound up with a long, well-intentioned but ultimately pointless percussion jam where the band went down into the crowd in front of the stage – fun if you felt like joining in, but for those who didn’t it was more Tompkins Square than Rio.

November 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

CD Review: The Skye Steele Quintet – Late Bloomer

A strange, sometimes unearthly and utterly beautiful album by innovative violinist/composer Skye Steele and his superb backing unit, guitar, reeds and rhythm section. Like a lot of the current New York vanguard, Steele’s compositions blur the line between jazz, world music and classical. Call it Barbes music – cutting-edge New York listeners will get the reference. Much of it is atmospheric, often stark and rustic but imbued equally with a playful, surrealist wit. Clarinetist Harel Shachal (who also leads also the excellent Orientalist ensemble Anistar) kicks off the cd’s opening cut, a plaintive version of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Color with a gentle, cool breeze, the rest of the band entering leisurely. Drummer Satoshi Takeishi adds the subtlest of shades with his cymbals beneath Steele’s rainy-afternoon washes. They follow that with the funky Monkey See, a hypnotic riff for Steele that serves as a chassis for Steele’s contrasting ambience.  Evelynn, a big ballad, builds to a powerful, whirling crescendo of strings. Shine begins stark and choppy before lighting up with a warm, soulful Shachal solo where Steele joins him and then they pass the baton back and forth; Echo Park continues in the same vein, but more upbeat.

 

The title of the bizarrely named Pepperoni Pizza is a simple rhythic reference: it shares the number of beats in the song’s opening riff, and it’s definitely a party til the middle section, guitar carrying the rhythm as it gets all quiet. And then everybody’s off and running again, popping funk bass and sheets of violin leading the charge. Similarly, Rubber Ducky riffs on a playground rhyme, hints at a syncopated Irish reel and then goes straight for the jugular before winding up with a bizarre singalong.

 

Freedom Impressionism is, appropriately enough, an inspired free improvisation riffing on Coltrane and one of the Satie Gymnopedies. The cover of Scarborough Fair takes the stately old tune on the thrill ride of its life, highlighted by a big foghorn Shachal solo.There’s also the circular Afropop-inflected Years Later with its wistful ending, the pensive The Fall and the cd’s fiery, late 70s Jean-Luc Ponty-esque concluding cut, Pretty Girls. Taken as a whole, the album makes for great late-night ipod listening. The group are very captivating, often haunting live. Skye Steele has LA, Mexico and London dates coming up, watch this space for NYC shows.

March 26, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Skye Steele at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 1/27/09

“I write too many slow songs,” violinist Skye Steele said with a wry grin. Wrong. What this guy absolutely excels at is slow songs. Slow, thoughtful, meditative instrumentals, full of beautiful little intricacies, often absolutely mesmerizing: you can get completely lost in this stuff. Last night at Barbes Steele was backed by an excellent band featuring upright bass, electric guitar and reed player Harel Shachal alternating between clarinet and sax. Most of what Steele writes has a dark, plaintive, hypnotic edge: he goes for atmosphere over ostentation every time, and absolutely nails it. You could call what he writes jazz, although it also embodies elements of classical and Balkan music, with glimpses of rock and even Afro-pop peeking in and showing their faces from time to time.

 

The material they played early in the set had a bracing, big-sky Americana feel in the same vein as Jenny Scheinman’s collaborations with Bill Frisell. A little later in the set, on a far eerier number, Shachal’s clarinet went deep into the lower registers for an ominously fluttery Balkan feel. A handful of their songs were suites, one of them facing off fluid, swoopingly legato bass against the noisy duel of the violin and clarinet; another featured a languidly thoughtful yet tensely wary solo from the guitar. Steele was clearly throwing songs at these guys that at least one of them had never played before, but the group was game and rose to the occasion, taking the old Scottish folksong Black is the Color off into the Great Plains with a wintry, windswept ambience. On their last number, another suite, Steele wound up a tightly compelling passage by playing major over minor for a few bars, adding an especially macabre edge. Steele’s next performance is a quintet show on Feb 5 at le Poisson Rouge on a bill with with Shachal’s excellent, haunting Middle Eastern/Balkan group Anistar.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment