Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

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December 17, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Satoko Fujii Debuts Her Harrowingly Relevant Fukushima Suite in Brooklyn Last Night

Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.

The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.

The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”

May 18, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piano Luminary Myra Melford Returns to Her Old LES Stomping Ground

Is it fair to call pianist Myra Melford a cult artist? Her music is so full of life, and tunes, and ideas and color that spans the emotional spectrum. In the NYC downtown jazz scene, she’s iconic, a status she earned in the 90s before she hightailed it for a UC/Berkeley professorship. She’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone starting this Tuesday, March 24 with sets at 8 and 10 PM and continuing through the 29th; cover is $15. There are too many enticing sets to list here: the 8 PM duo shows with whirlwind drummer Allison Miller on the 24th and then with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on the 25th ought to be especially good for completely different reasons. There’s also a reunion of her playful Be Bread sextet on the 26th at 10 and a quintet show with trumpet luminary Dave Douglas the following night, also at 10 – and that’s just for starters.

Melford’s latest album, due out on the 24th, is Snowy Egret with the band of the same name: Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. For a taste of the album – since it’s not out yet – give a listen to the final cut, The Strawberry, which hints that it’s going to be a boogie-woogie number before Melford takes it to Havana – and Sorey’s drumming is funny beyond words in places. Ellman’s biting circularities kickstart a series of divergences before Melford pulls everybody back on the rails.

As for the rest? There’s humor and irony, and a frequently dancing pulse. A handful of numbers seem to allude to the first age of imperialism in the Americas and the centuries of havoc in its wake. The first track, Language, pulses along as shuffling variations on a fanfare riff bookending a typically soulful, clear-as-the-Denver-sky Miles solo. An expansively spiky, spare Ellman solo opens Night of Sorrow, the band plaintively filling in around Melford’s spaciously elegaic, bluesy motives. Promised Land delivers some wry shout-and-response and divergent tangents within its syncopated staccato bounce.

Ching Ching For Love of Fruit – a slot machine reference, it seems – moves from a mournful muted trumpet/melodica duet between Miles and Melford to an unexpectedly carnivalesque theme, Takeishi mimicking a tuba and Sorey rattling his hardware. Likewise, The Kitchen opens with picturesque pots-and-pans drollery from Sorey, Miles and Ellman having lots of fun spinning plates and such before Takeishi makes it funky, then Melford takes it on a clenched-teeth, uh-oh trajectory.

Takeishi’s growling attack and Ellman’s fluttery unease pair with Melford’s lingering foreshadowing and Miles’ resonance throughout Times of Sleep and Fate, a tone poem of sorts that builds to a brooding, AACM-inflected majesty. Little Pockets – Everybody Pays Taxes sees the band taking some aptly squirrelly cinematics in a considerably more ominous, insistent direction: whatever you do, don’t answer the door!

First Protest works a rhythmically dizzying marionette theme, Sorey and Ellman leading the charge along a twisted second line parade route. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the album’s most expansive and moodiest track, pairs Miles’ funereal lines with Melford’s understatedly plaintive neoromantic precision, building toward a bitter bolero. Of all the cuts here, it comes closest to being the definitive one, spacious and pensive and quietly packing a wallop.

March 23, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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