Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Sun Ra Arkestra Make a Welcome Return to a Laid-Back Outdoor Williamsburg Space

As far back as the 90s, the Sun Ra Arkestra had become a fixture on the New York summer outdoor festival circuit. A Central Park twinbill with Sonic Youth earned the sprawlingly cinematic jazz ensemble a brand new audience with the indie rock crowd. In the years immediately leading up to the 2020 lockdown, they’d been scheduled to play a more intimate space than usual, the courtyard at Union Pool. As it turned out, it took a few cancellations and some rescheduling to get them there. That’s where they’ll be this August 28 at around 3 PM. Under ordinary circumstances, it would make sense to get there early. But the circumstances we face today are anything but ordinary, and in a city that by some estimates has lost a quarter of its population, there probably won’t be an overflow crowd (and if there is, you’ll be able to hear the missing link between P-Funk and the Art Ensemble of Chicago just fine from the sidewalk around the corner).

The Arkestra were DIY pioneers, releasing much of their legendarily voluminous output themselves. Today, most of those original recordings, along with limited-edition pressings on long-defunct European free jazz microlabels, command auction-level prices on the collector market. Serendipitously, the group have been digitizing and re-releasing select albums from throughout their career. The latest one to hit their regularly updated Bandcamp page is the 1983 recording The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab In Egypt, a collaboration with the Cairo Jazz Band. It’s noteworthy for being a slinky, sometimes haphazard, utterly psychedelic collection of compositions by pioneering Egyptian jazz composer, percussionist and bandleader Salah Ragab.

The first track is Egypt Strut, a surreal mashup of a New Orleans second-line groove, a chromatic Middle Eastern-tinged theme and the blues. In Dawn, the second track, the groups combine to balance a blithe flute tune against galloping percussion, followed by a cantering, hypnotically circling theme echoing sounds from the southern end of the Sahara.

Ramadan begins with a muezzin-like call-and-response, then the ensemble flesh it out with darkly dramatic vocals, horns and tumbling drums followed by a biting solo from the bandleader – who went back to Saturn to stay in 1993 – and a spirited flute outro with a nod to Take Five.

Oriental Mood is the catchiest and hardest-hitting track here, with jajouka-like brass, animated sax solos and piano. The ten-minute Farewell Theme is a more robustly orchestral series of variations on that theme, and considering the length, about twice the fun. Throughout the album, Sun Ra switches between glimmering, echoey Fender Rhodes and organ, backed by punchy massed horns, and sailing and spiraling solos. How does all this sound compared to the group’s sound now? Much the same, if you leave out the distinctive Middle Eastern and North African references.

The last time this blog was in the house at a show by the Arkestra, it was at the Union Pool courtyard, over the Labor Day weekend in 2018. The crew onstage were a mix of veterans, some of whose time in the group went back to around the time of this album or before, along with some more recent additions. The yard was crowded but wasn’t completely sold out, and the group’s long, slowly crescendoing trajectories kept everyone on their feet.

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August 24, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bang on a Can Marathon 2011: A Marathon Account

Bang on a Can is a good place to go for weird music that doesn’t fit into any category…that falls through the cracks,” explained co-founder/composer David Lang between a couple of acts late Sunday afternoon at the World Financial Center. This year’s annual Bang on a Can Marathon there was typical in that sense. The scope of the music and parade of performers was less global than in recent years, although Italy and Denmark represented themselves strongly. Consequence of the depression? Maybe. But what was most impressive about this year’s marathon was the extremely high ratio of good music versus bullshit, and the enduring strength of the founding composers themselves. Even as the genre-busting music that Bang on a Can has championed since 1987 has achieved broader recognition, the core crew – Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe – have never sold out. In fact, two of the trio’s works – Gordon’s Exalted and Wolfe’s Cruel Sister – were arguably the marathon’s biggest hits.

Gordon’s piece, performed by the Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City with the Jack Quartet, came first. It was the first piece he wrote in the wake of his father’s death, and it was as intense as you can possibly imagine. The choir interpolated the first four words of the Kaddish, in Aramaic, sort of a clinic in minimalism with a max ensemble. A repetitive sliding cello note against a staccato pedal motif from the rest of the quartet was mimicked by the choir, a desperation move that made its way through the voices (if you’re sitting Shiva, everybody eventually shows up whether you like it or not). A wild violin metal solo against hypnotic insistence gave wings to an anguished, hopeful prayer. The crowd, stunned, exploded afterward.

The high point of the marathon was Wolfe’s Cruel Sister (available as a dynamite Cantaloupe recording by Ensemble Resonanz), performed here by the strings of Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman. It follows the arc of a surreal medieval murder ballad Wolfe discovered via a recording by 70s British folk-rockers Pentangle. A riveting series of suspenseful crescendos and ebbs, the opening tone poem grows frantic and then back down, a brutally tough job of maintaining the rhythm for cellist Kevin McFarland, but his iron right hand wouldn’t let up. Polyrhythms, a ghastly murder scene and a body floating on the water led to a forest of pizzicato, violin coming in plaintively and finally a chilling, possibly karmically fulfilling drone spotlighting the cruel sister who didn’t get to enjoy what her big sister did.

Lang’s contribution was more playful, Philip Glass-style, a subtly shifting mathrock theme for two guitars played with deadpan insouciance by Dither Quartet’s Taylor Levine and James Moore. The fun factor went up another notch later in the night with the Sun Ra Arkestra, 87-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen leading the massive surrealistic swing band through a diverse and tantalizingly short set that moved from hot post-Basie swing to in-your-face hot calypso to a long walk-off where Allen put down the hybrid theremin/melodica he’d been playing in exchange for his alto sax, stunning the crowd with a single mighty wail in front of the stage as the band paraded its way to the middle of the atrium and entertained the crowd there.

Another stunner that deserves special mention was the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s version of Roshanne Etezady’s Keen. A marvelously dark, cinematic horror/suspense film score of sorts, the composer explained that she wrote it on a theme of mourning or grief, “a bereft affect.” Wary explorations against a central tone, an apprehensively tense, Robert Paterson-esque fanfare and relentless unease made it hard to forget.

As much as the marathon is free and easy to get in and out of, there were strikingly few moments where anyone would want to do that, considering the quality of the music. A little before noon, early arrivals got to witness two segments from innovative bagpiper Matthew Welch’s The Self and Other Mirrors, played by the Queens College Percussion Ensemble with Amanda Accardi’s quietly composed intensity on piano and Michael Lipsey on the podium: a stately, pleasant, catchy and smartly textured first movement followed by blithe, hypnotic ripples. Flutist Alejandro Escuer followed, playing Gabriela Ortiz’ Codigos Secretos, not particularly secretive if warmly atmospheric and consonant.

Anthony Gatto’s Portrait of American painter Eva Hesse, done jointly by the Queens Percussion Ensemble in the middle of the space, trading off with the Itkus Ensemble onstage, rumbled eerily close to the World Trade Center site, raising the volume close to painfully loud. Hesse must have been a hell of a presence. The Jack Quartet followed with three US premieres of Richard Ayres’ 3 Small Pieces for String Quartet: small is not the word. They were magnificent. The first featured the cello in percussive, catchy, terse, seemingly Kayhan Kalhor-influenced mode; the second raised the menace, the third shifting to a vigorous dance. The Prism Saxophone Quartet took over the stage after that with Kati Ogocs’ Hymn, warm atmospherics building up with a shriek.

Former Ethel violin powerhouse Todd Reynolds did his hypnotic yet lively Transamerica, a memorably energetic theme whose power was sapped by useless electronics. The Prism Quartet then returned with a tight, energetic, overtone-packed, limit-pushing version of Iannis Xenakis’ Xas – from 1987, the first year of Bang on a Can – a blippy, warped canon juxtaposed with tensely free passages featuring shifting combinations of the ensemble.

Italian group Sentieri Selvaggi got a total of five pieces: a gleeful, circular excerpt from Michael Nyman’s opera Love Always Counts; Michael Daugherty’s coy Sinatra Shag, a ripoff of These Boots Were Made for Walking with some cool oscillating textures toward the end; Filippo Del Corno’s Risvegliatevi (Italian for Wake Up!), replete with Pink Floyd-esque mechanical/industrial sonics (literally Bang on a Can!); Mauro Montalbetti’s Brightness, Emily Dickinson-inspired, hypnotically bubbling color alternating with stillness; and finally their conductor Carlo Boccadoro’s Zingiber (Ginger in Italian), rusticity giving way memorably to an abrasive low-versus-high battle.

Bang on a Can’s latest gimmick, the Asphalt Orchestra marching band, energized the crowd with several numbers: Annie Clark and David Byrne’s Balkan/Afrobeat hybrid Two Ships, a swirling, imaginative arrangement of Bjork’s Hyper Ballad and a thunderous Goran Bregovic dancefloor hit done as a fiery overture, being the best of the bunch.

As the cruel sun moved slowly out of view, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ Song and Rhapsodies were performed by the Athelas Wind Quintet with Frode Andersen on accordion. It’s a tremendously captivating suite: an austere overtone-laden tone poem, a creepy twisted waltz, a baroque rondo, a weird, blithe accordion solo, swelling adventurous cinematic theme a la Gil Evans, ending with a weird, bubbly tone poem.

The big draw of the night – at least from this point of view – was Philip Glass, playing a deliciously precise, impromptu version of his hypnotic, neoromantic Impromptu #4 solo on piano to kick off his mini-set with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Glass’ potency as a pianist gets overshadowed by the applause for his compositions: there’s no doubt that he can play even his most demanding, persistently rhythmic works easily, as he did in an almost shockingly straight-up rendition of Music in Circular Motion, a relatively early work that typically allows for a certain amount of DIY, at least rhythmically, on the part of the players. Their closing piece featured Glass and pianist Vicky Chow in eerily perfect sync with each other against the band’s dizzying yet perfectly cantabile ambience.

By nine in the evening, for those who had stuck around since the early hours and had been awoken from brain coma by the Sun Ra folks, a payoff was in order, and Evan Ziporyn delivered, playing bass clarinet alongside Michael Lowenstern, with Joshua Rubin and Carol McGonnell on clarinets, through his richly vivid, cleverly entertaining Hive. McGonnell got all the queen bee licks and made the most of them, whether sizzling glissandos or mournful lead lines. Fluttering, creating a droll stereo effect and moving through utterly psychedelic passages where it was impossible to figure out who was playing what, it was the perfect mind melt for the moment.

There were other performances not worth mentioning – bullshit factor being as low as it was, there were a few moments when a trip to the spicy Pakistani steam-table place on Church St. made more sense than watching what was onstage. A Yoko Ono piece opened; Glenn Branca headlined. Idolized by many, known by everyone who was around for the first Bangs on the Can, it made sense that he’d top this oldschool bill. But the prospect of bad trains (more on that later – getting to the Gowanus Saturday night was sheer hell) was enough to make the choice of an early exit outweight anything blasting from the Marshall stacks onstage. Does taking the field midway through the first inning and sticking around til the eighteenth quality as a complete game? The Bang on a Can people aren’t counting. It was nice to hear debate emerging in random conversations throughout the space: new jacks grousing about seeing the same old faces; the oldschool contingent bitching about the trendy shallowness of the newbies’ electroacoustic stuff. Whatever your preference, a word to the wise: show up early for BOAC 2012.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment