Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz Composer Howard Wiley’s Latest Album Looks Deeply Inside the Prison System

Howard Wiley’s 2006 album The Angola Project took its impetus from the saxophonist/composer’s experience with prisoners in the music program – such that there is one – at notorious Angola Prison in Louisiana. Five years later, he’s released a sequel, 12 Gates to the City, somewhat less grim but still unflinchingly aware of the harsh day-to-day conditions behind bars on the site of a former slave plantation – and something of a celebration of the efforts of the inmates there to maintain their sanity. Blending original jazz with rustic, bucolic gospel themes similar to the field recordings of convicts made by Allen Lomax and John Oster, this makes a good companion piece to Marcus Shelby’s Soul of the Movement album (just reviewed here). It’ll resonate with fans of both classic gospel music and retro Americana interpreters like Lavay Smith and Daria Grace. Shelby plays bass here, alongside Wiley on alto and soprano saxophones, Geechi Taylor on trumpet,Yeruda Caesar-Kaptoech and Dina Maccabee on violins, drummer Sly Randolph, trombonist Danny Armstrong and singer Faye Carol.

There’s a lot of vocalese on these songs without words: in a way, Carol is the bad cop, the powerful low end, alongside an uncredited voice whose scatting has a distinctly Asian flavor. There’s considerable irony that an album that more than alludes to a kind of de facto slavery that’s still practiced in this country would evoke China, much of whose export economy is based on it. There are also echoes of the baroque on many of the tracks here which have strings, notably the warily hypnotic Come Forth (To the House of the Lord). The album builds with the rippling gospel boogie Old Highway 66 – which wouldn’t be out of place in Rev. Vince Anderson’s catalog – to the longing and stateliness of Captain Donna DeMoss, a tribute to the prison guard who impressed Wiley with her humanity during his time with the inmates.

Endless Fields, which depicts a cotton plantation ready for picking, adds jazz embellishments to a vintage 20s swing-pop tune. John Taylor, dedicated to a strong-voiced inmate who by all accounts was prohibited by the warden from participating in music, brutally evokes a master-slave relationship, with uneasy scurrying rhythms paired off against suspiciously blase piano. The rest of the album balances a handful of warmly swinging, wordless gospel numbers with a searing big band gospel jam, a gritty hip-hop number about life on the inside, and a diptych of tone poems that serve as the background for a thoughtful spoken-word interlude by former inmate Robert King, who aptly connects the dots between the American prison system and the practice of slavery.

As is commonly known, major multinational corporations rely on prison labor for everything from piecework to customer service. If you manage to get through to a call center at a major telecommunications company, you may well be talking to a prisoner. In one notorious case, California state prison laborers were forced to remove “made in China” tags and replace them with “made in USA” stickers. Such practices are typically justified by corporate executives as a way to maintain “competitiveness.” Interestingly, in economic terms, competitiveness equals hours worked divided by wages: slavery, theoretically if not realistically speaking, is infinitively competitive. One can only imagine the howls of indignation from the corporate elite should there be a public outcry against this shameful system. While there’s no harm in giving inmates a productive way to pass the time, like stamping out license plates or highway signs, displacing workers in the outside world is another matter. Meanwhile, entire rural areas have come to depend on the prison system as a sole source of income. To slow the steady flow of predominantly black and latino convicts from mainly urban areas would severely impact certain segments of the countryside: divide and conquer taken to its logical, ugly extreme.

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February 1, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Left on Red Bring Their Catchy Songs Out of the Underground

While the badge-wearing offspring of suburban wealth flounced from club to club on the east side Wednesday night – it’s Colossal Musical Joke time again – a far more polyglot crowd enjoyed an hourlong set by edgy acoustic harmony band Left on Red at the Bitter End. And while this show was actually a CMJ gig, the audience was as casually diverse as you’d find on the subway. Which is no surprise since that’s where Liah Alonso and Kelly Halloran play most of the time. All those hours in less than sonically ideal surroundings has given their music a captivating chemistry and tightness – having a bassist and drummer behind them was a nice touch, and it filled out the sound, but it was almost as if they didn’t really need the extra rhythm since theirs is so solid.

The set started out pleasantly catchy and got really really good, really really fast. Alonso alternated between acoustic guitar, tenor guitar and Strat; Halloran started out on violin, playing some acerbic, spot-on blues licks before switching to Strat and then acoustic, taking a couple of lead vocals herself at the end of the show. The reaction to the early material was a vivid reminder how much of an audience there is for accessible pop music that’s not stupid. The duo started out with a couple of bouncy, blues-tinged numbers, a train song that took on a funny tinge and then a gorgeously jangly if lyrically perplexing 1960s style psychedelic pop song called Way of the Zebra. Then they ratcheted the intensity up a few notches with the big college radio hit Jack and Jill. “I lost my halo and wings when I escaped from hell,” Alonso sang triumphantly, “This angel never fit me too well.” It spoke for a nation of millions who’ve held back from asserting that themselves.

Another briskly catchy, anthemic number vividly and tersely portrayed the destructive effects of gentrification: musicians and students forced to triple and quadruple up in crumbling, squalid conditions while the yuppies in their suits make it clear that they’re no longer welcome in their own town. “We’re gonna be ok, two cute girls can always find a place to stay,” Alonso sang sardonically, the implication being that those who aren’t so cute might find it somewhat harder.

“Some people thank you for your time – like telemarketers and stuff – but we really mean it,” explained Alonso before doing exactly that, ending the set with an optimistic tune about gaining strength from adversity that wound up with a breakneck, doublespeed violin breakdown. The audience screamed for an encore: several people hollered for Two Drinks Away from Gay, a big crowd-pleaser, which they didn’t play (they’ll do it at their next gig, they said), instead substituting a triumphant escape anthem. “I come from a place where dreams go to die…where hope comes to crawl,” went the lyric, but there was a happy ending, the two women trading a series of music box-tinged, beautifully interlocking, jangly guitar riffs, one after the other. It was the most beautiful moment in a night full of many. In addition to busking (usually in stations on the 1 and the 2 line), Left on Red play frequently for hospitalized veterans and for causes ranging from peace activism to fair trade.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Natacha Atlas’ New Album Mounqaliba Hauntingly Captures the State of the World, 2010

The title of Natacha Atlas’ new album Mounqaliba translates literally from the classical Arabic as “in a state of reversal.” In a societal context, it means decline. It’s her reaction to cultural  decay, spirituality displaced by shallow materialism. In many ways this is a scathing and intense album. It’s also a lushly, otherworldly beautiful one, the high point of Atlas’ career. Musically, it follows in the same vein as her previous cd Ana Hina (ranked in the top ten on our best-of-2008 list), a homage to Fairouz blending traditional Middle Eastern songwriting with a sweeping, orchestral grandeur inspired by western classical music. Atlas has always been a good singer, but on Ana Hina she became a great one; here, her gentle, airily nuanced, minutely ornamented, Fairouz-inspired vocals vividly span the range of human emotions from longing to hope to despair. The originals on this album are sung in classical Arabic, co-written by Atlas and her longtime violinist/collaborator Samy Bishai, along with a couple of surprising covers, backed by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, a 20-piece Turkish ensemble and chamber orchestra.

The album begins with a stark piano instrumental with martial echoes, segueing into the stately sweep of Makaan, Atlas’ vocals both ethereal and eerie over the swell of the orchestra. They follow with the chilly starlit solo piano piece Bada Alfajr and then a carefully enunciated, wary take of the familiar habibi standard Muwashah Ozkourini. In its own towering, expansive way, Atlas’ cover of Nick Drake’s The Riverman maintains the tense, hypnotic, doomed atmosphere of the original but updates it for the 21st century with strings over a repetitive percussion loop. The swaying, atmospheric levantine anthem Batkallim, a scathing denunciation of media and political hypocrisy, opens with a sample of President Obama reminding us that “we live in a time of great tension:” understatement of the century. It’s the high point of the album, pointillistic accordion over funereal strings and a practically trip-hop beat. The understated anguish of Rahman’s piano is viscerally chilling.

The brooding intensity continues with the title track, a Rachmaninovian opening piano taqsim giving way to funeral drums, ney and then a bitter dirge, Atlas’ wounded vocalese contrasting with the somewhat grand guignol atmospherics. Le Cor le Vent is an unselfconsciously anguished blend of vintage French chanson and sweeping 1950s Lebanese art-pop; they follow that with Lazahat Nashwa, an upbeat, percussive levantine dance and then an imaginative, dreamy, orchestrated trip-hop cover of Francoise Hardy’s La Nuit Est Sur la Ville. The album closes with the brief, somberly atmospheric chamber piece Ghoroug, an ominously stampeding dance and then the wistfully orchestrated lullaby Nafourat el Anwar, which ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Count this among the top two or three world music albums of 2010 alongside the forthcoming Roots of Chicha Vol. 2 anthology, and Iraqi expat oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj’s upcoming Little Earth. Natacha Atlas will be on tour a bit later this fall, with a New York appearance at le Poisson Rouge on Nov. 8.

September 23, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Razia – Zebu Nation

Malagasy songwriter/chanteuse Razia Said is on a mission: to raise consciousness worldwide about global warming, specifically the devastation it’s brought to her native land. The zebu of the album title – a member of the horse family – is only one of thousands of species in Madagascar who are in danger of extinction. An extraordinarily successful blend of polemic and music, this is a lush, hypnotic, frequently beautiful album, grounded in reality but at the same time transcending it. Said sings in several dialects, as well as one song in English, with a compellingly world-weary, highly nuanced voice that’s been compared to Sade but gentler and airier. On several of the tracks here, the somewhat more energetic but less subtle singer Abena Koomson handles the vocals, along with the rest of a first-rate band: noted jazz drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Michael Oletuja, Malagasy guitarist Dozzy Njava and accordionist Rabesiaka Jean Medicis. Said’s songwriting mixes traditional tsapiky and salegy music along with elements of American soul and Mediterranean balladry.

Said’s story is something of a triumph: growing up in the Comores Islands with her grandmother, she never knew who her real mother was until she was already in grade school. Her first exposure to music was the salegy songs of the Comores; while still a gradeschooler, she began singing French pop hits and then rock. She moved to Gabon and then France, earned a doctorate in pharmacology and eventually landed in New York where she flirted with several pop styles, unsatisfyingly. This is a return to her roots. The album kicks off with the clip-clop Babonao, a love song (available for free download from Cumbancha), followed by the absolutely gorgeous, wary minor-key ballad Omama, a tribute to motherhood. The band follows that with a lickety-split antiwar song and then the celebratory Salamalama Aby. The best song on the album is the understatedly magnificent epic NY Alantsika (Nature Laments), the first of the numbers sung by Said herself: with its stately 6/8 rhythm and lush atmospherics, it’s a call to action, a gently, compellingly persuasive one.

The hypnotic Slash and Burn takes on a south Indian feel with its circular rhythms and sitar, another gentle but insistent broadside, this one about deforestation: “I heard that the hills were burned away,” muses Said. Koomson and Njava join voices on the distantly melancholy Tsy Tara: “It’s not a malediction, but an urgent call; let’s react now so we won’t regret,” is the translation in the album’s meticulously detailed liner notes. The album winds up with a gentle acoustic guitar ballad, a requiem for an area that once was not a desert; the most Sade-esque number here, Tiaka Ro, a plea to the earth not to unleash disasters on us, and the slinky, West African-inflected wah-guitar anthem Mifohaza (Wake Up). The Clash used to make relevant, topical albums like this: Zebu Nation is considerably quieter but no less timely and important.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment