Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Back at Mona’s For a Hot, Moody Evening of Swing Jazz

Last night Mona’s was pretty crowded by the time the rotating cast from the house band gathered in the corner at the end of the bar. Which from an audience perspective was actually a good thing. Drinks at Mona’s are expensive: invisibility in a crowd has its advantages.

It wasn’t always that pricy fifteen years ago when Mona’s Hot Four played their first gig here. Little did they know that after a break for a plandemic, they and the bar would still be here keeping a well-loved New York oldtimey swing tradition alive.

This time out they were a quintet. An interesting opening number that shifted between minor and major proved to be a great launching pad for solos from bandleader and clarinetist Dennis Lichtman, pianist Jon Thomas and bassist Jen Hodge, who mined that uneasy terrain for all the edgy passing tones they could find. Sax player Jay Rattman bolstered the phantasmagorical hi-de-ho harmonies as they wound it out.

Rattman switched to clarinet for a dusky, Ellingtonian frontline on the moodily shuffling second number of the night, I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues, Thomas supplying starry curlicues in the upper registers: his sense of irony and counterintuitive phrasing were rich throughout the evening’s first set. An unidentified guitarist who is still stuck in 2020 hygiene theatre played spiky Django riffs and clustering minor-sixth chords, and took a turn on the mic to sing a couple of verses through a thick black muzzle. You’d think that members of an ostensibly sophisticated New York artistic community would be awake by now…but, pseudoscience.

Ultimately, what this group does is dance music. Early in the evening, people typically dance in their chairs, although it gets a lot wilder as the night goes on, both musically and audience-wise. Admittedly, that perception dates from a previous decade before fear had been fully weaponized in this city.

They did I Ain’t Got Nobody as a brisk, staccato shuffle next and went back toward moody terrain with the next number: having the two clarinets out front enhanced that vibe. Lichtman’s signature, liquid-crystal arpeggios and cascades were as distinctive and spine-tingling as always.

The group expanded to a sextet with the addition of Mike Davis on trumpet for the last couple of tunes. The first, High Society, had a martial, W.C. Handy flair, which Rattman brought down to earth with a silky sax solo. Davis put his mute in for the final, coyly shuffling number.

Mona’s Hot Four, or Five, or Six – as they were a week ago – play the Avenue B bar just south of 14th St. every Tuesday night starting at nine sharp.

August 24, 2022 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Well-Loved New York Oldtimey Swing Tradition Resumes in the East Village

Last night at their Avenue B home base, Mona’s Hot Six delivered a typically animated evening of hot 20s swing and dixieland as part of their ongoing weekly Tuesday night residency there, which they’d begun as a quartet in the late zeros and had continued until they were interrupted by the global totalitarian takeover in March of 2020. Their lineup of usual suspects from the traditionalist party animal contingent in the New York jazz scene fluctuates depending on who’s in town and who’s not. Clarinetist and ringleader Dennis Lichtman was gone last week but he was back this time around alongside Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Jerron Paxton on banjo, plus guest trombonist Charlie Halloran and an unidentified bass player tucked into the corner.

They opened with a romp through a midtempo take of what sounded like Sweet Sue, kicking off with a little jaunty trumpet/trombone conversation and a spiraling Lichtman solo. Ridenhour’s ragtime-flavored piano solo (in what might be charitably be called saloon tuning) gave way to some feathery tremolo-picking from Paxton, and eventually a couple of modulations to a lively dixieland interweave. That set the stage for the rest of the night’s first set.

Lichtman, who until the lockdown led a fantastic and almost as long-running western swing outfit, the Brain Cloud, has been a good clarinetist for a long time but obviously spent the dead months of 2020 and 2021 practicing. There were some moments where his liquid-crystal spirals were nothing short of breathtaking. Halloran was in town from New Orleans and got a lot of time in the spotlight (as well as a turn on the mic in an upbeat take of Dreaming the Hours Away). For him, sometimes that meant balmy and soulful; other times that meant chewing the scenery, as music like this eventually makes you do if you’re a trombonist.

Ridenhour anchored the songs with a steady, imperturbable stride and a few devious excursions to the upper registers while Paxton drew on the deep well of antique guitar voicings that inform his status as one of the world’s great acoustic blues guitarists. The bar wasn’t very full when the band first assembled in the back, but by the end of their opening set a crowd had grown around them and the vibe was contagious. Mona’s Hot Four (or whatever the weekly number is) play there every Tuesday night starting pretty much at the stroke of 9.

August 17, 2022 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legendary Oldtimey Band the Squirrel Nut Zippers Play a Rare Outdoor New York Show this Friday

The world’s best-loved and arguably most influential oldtimey band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers are playing Friday night, July 15 at 7 PM at Bryant Park. Much as there’s been a lot of furnover in the group over the years, this is a bucket-list show for people who were too young to see them during their heyday back in the 90s. So if you want to get close to the stage, you might want to show up early.

The crew on their most recent album The Lost Songs Of Doc Souchon – streaming at Bandcamp – is not the one that busted out of Chapel Hill in the mid-80s. But founding member Jimbo Mathus – who became part of New York music history for his turn onstage on closing night at legendary East Village institution Lakeside Lounge – still fronts the band. And much as they spearheaded the oldtime swing revival, that was hardly the only style they played: their first big hit, Hell, was a calypso song.

The opening track on the album is a cover of Jelly Roll Morton’s Animule Ball that starts out like a Cab Calloway hi-de-ho tune, then the band go straight into New Orleans, Mathus goes into sarcastic crooner mode as the band reinvent the odious Frankie Valli hit Can’t Take My Eyes Off You as a noir bolero, complete with Boulevard of Broken Dreams strings and creepy tinkling piano.

Cella Blue takes over the mic on the blues She’s Ballin’ as Mathus’ guitar scrambles and slashes, saxophonist Henry Westmoreland’s solo followed by some snazzy Jerry Lee playing from pianist Leslie Martin over the brassy backdrop from trumpeter Dave Boswell and trombonist Eddie Lehwald.

Mathus switches to banjo, joining forces with Dr. Sick’s mysterious fiddle and Martin’s funeral organ for the Appalachian gothic tune Train on Fire. Sarcasm reaches a slow burn as Mathus sings a deadpan version of the piano ballad Mr. Wonderful.

The band follow the twisted Louis Jordan-style narrative of I Talk To My Haircut with the album’s longest song, Purim Nigrum, a strutting klezmer jam with a blistering dixieland brass raveup. It’s the best song on the record.

Drummer Neilson Bernard and bassist John Kveen give a fat swinging bottom to Cookie, a sly hokum blues where Mathus can’t resist cracking a smile. The band’s ska-flavored cover of Happy Days Are Here Again comes across as the most sarcastic song on the record – although it seems they recorded it before the 2020 totalitarian takeover. They close the with Cella Blue taking over vocals on the elegant string band tune Summer Longings.

July 13, 2022 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare, Distinctive Male Jazz Vocal Record From Michael Stephenson

Michael Stephenson is a rarity: an individualist male jazz singer. In a world that’s probably about 95 percent women at this point, he distinguishes himself with his no-nonsense baritone and devious sense of humor. You would think that more dudes with his talents would have gone into the field, but at the moment Stephenson pretty much has the floor to himself. And he’s a competent tenor saxophonist as well. His latest album Michael Stephenson Meets the Alexander Claffy Trio is streaming at Bandcamp.

This is jazz as entertainment. He and the group – Claffy on bass, Julius Rodriguez on piano and Itay Morchi on drums, with special guest Benny Benack III on trumpet – are often a party in a box. They open the record with a mostly bass-and-vocal duo version of Sweet Lorraine: Stephenson shows off that he can cut loose on the mic in a split second, and that’s about it. Then things get really amusing with a slyly swinging take of Ray Charles’ Greenbacks, which as Stephenson sings it, are coated in chlorophyll…or maybe something else. No spoilers. Stephenson and Benack’s solos give it a muscular midsection.

Rodriguez and Morchi spiral around, building symphonic intensity to introduce a tightly pulsing version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Happening Brother?, giving voice to indomitability in the face of unrest. How times change, huh?

The group reinvent When a Man Loves a Woman as a straightforward midtempo swing tune: Rodriguez adds judicious gospel touches, with an exuberant solo from Benack. Stephenson and Claffy build intensity with a rubato-ish intro to On the Street Where You Live. then they swing it with a low-key simmer, Rodriguez’s hard-hitting solo giving way to Claffy’s balletesque break.

Stephenson resists reaching for the rafters in a slowly crescendoing take of the Tennessee Waltz, Rodriguez reinventing it with a neoromantic gleam. Stephenson’s smoky, purposeful tenor solo gives Benack a springboard to go for broke with his mute in Ain’t That Love, then he moves to the mic for an emphatic last chorus.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams is probably the last number you would expect a guy to sing: the band give it a lush nocturnal atmosphere, but this is a tough sell, and it’s out of place on what’s otherwise a good party record. On the other hand, the group’s cascading cover of Dionne Warwick’s Can’t Hide Love is a smashing success, Rodriguez fueling the inferno.

The group have fun with Ben Webster’s Did You Call Her Today?, keeping it stealthy until Benack’s trumpet pierces the surface like a missile from a submarine. Stephenson saves his most emotive vocal for his closing duo take of For All We Know with Rodriguez. It’s anybody’s guess where Stephenson is playing next – he’s quite the mystery man on the web – but Benack is leading a quintet at Smalls at 10:30 PM and then hosting the midnight jam session afterward on April 27. Cover is $25 cash at the door.

April 25, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retro Swing Charm and Surprises From Singer Sarah King

It was a freezing Monday night in the Meatpacking District in the winter of 2016. But at the penthouse bar in a brand-new, shi-shi new hotel, chanteuse Sarah King & the Smoke Rings were keeping the room warm with their elegant, low-key swing tunes. Not what you might expect from someone who was in the cast of Sleep No More (the gothic Macbeth), or fronted Hungry March Band when that group was still in its street-punk phase.

Fast forward to 2021: if the hotel bar still has jazz, no doubt there are all kinds of ugly restrictions. But King has soldiered on and has a characteristically urbane new album, Tulip or Turnip, streaming at youtube. If your goal is to turn your place into a cozy hotel bar ripe for romance, this is your jam.

This is a playlist of old songs, some well known and others considerably less so. Clarinetist Jon DeLucia and pianist Stefan Vasnier set the scene right off the bat with a coy intro to the album’s title track, King in chirpy Blossom Dearie mode over the steady, low-key swing of bassist Aidan O’Donnell and drummer Ben Cliness.

King takes her time, unleashing an occasional brittle vibrato, in a slow balmy take of Azaleas, lit up with a mellifluous clarinet solo. The band leave the Ellington catalog behind for an unexpectedly understated version of the Kern/Hammerstein vaudeville chestnut Life Upon the Wicked Stage.

Vasnier pushes I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key) with a terse ragtime pulse: King’s cooing delivery brings to mind another once-ubiquitous New York presence, Tamar Korn. King’s wistful interpretation of Empty Pocket Waltz has new resonance in an era of mass firings and Nuremberg Convention violations.

She stays in pensive mode, through the wry contradictions in You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart over O’Donnell’s lithe pulse. Let’s Pretend That There’s a Moon is a platform for a much more pillowy approach. A suave take of the Gershwin tune There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York serves as a springboard for the band to tickle the audience, beginning with DeLucia’s deadpan opening quote.

King and O’Donnell do a spring-loaded, impressively energetic duo version of Everything’s Made for Love, then the band close the record with a fondly detailed, glisteningly chorded take of I Remember; King’s hazy final lines drive the punchline home hard. Purist fans of the 30s sounds King favors here will find plenty more detail than this to appreciate here.

November 13, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sizzling Noir Swing in the Black Hills on the First of the Month

Back in 2018, Minneapolis band Miss Myra & the Moonshiners put out one of the most darkly electrifying oldtime swing albums of the century. The band’s lineup has shifted a bit since then, but they’re still ripping up stages across the northern United States. That record, Sunday Sinning, is still streaming at their music page, and the band have a gig on Oct 1 at 7 PM at the Monument, 444 Mt Rushmore Rd. in Rapid City, South Dakota. Cover is $27.50, but students get in for ten bucks less.

If the creepy, hi-de-ho side of swing is your thing, don’t blink on this record like this blog did the first time around. The group have the chutzpah to start it with their own theme song, Miss Myra leading the sinister romp with her voice and Django-inspired, briskly percussive guitar attack, lead guitarist Zane Fitzgerald Palmer and clarinetist Sam Skavnak spicing the the doomy ambience from trumpeter Bobby J Marks and trombonist Nathan Berry. Tuba player Isaac Heath provides a fat pulse with nimble color from drummer Angie Frisk.

They play Sheik of Araby with a hint of noir bolero on the intro, then they go scrambling with a hearty jump blues-style call-and-response between Myra and the guys. The Kaiser, an ominously steady klezmer swing tune, has bowed bass and a sinister bass clarinet solo from Skavnak before Palmer goes spiraling up into the clouds.

Likewise, Miss Myra’s creepy downward chromatics in Egyptian Ella, Skavnak’s clarinet front and center. Everybody Loves My Baby is brassier – five songs in, and we’re still in a minor key. Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar) features a sizzling tradeoff from the clarinet to Palmer’s guitar solo. They close the record with the stomping, brisk Red Hot & Blue Rhythm – the only major-key song on the record – the ending screams out for audience participation. South Dakotans are obviously in for a treat on the first of the month.

September 24, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Familiar Favorite on the Oldtime Swing Scene Return For an East Village Dance Party

Until the lockdown last year, Baby Soda were one of the busiest bands on the New York oldtimey swing circuit. They’re also one of the most original. Where Svetlana & the Delancey Five began to bring in repertoire from the 40s on forward, along with more outside-the-box arrangements, Baby Soda distinguished themselves as improvisers. What made their shows so much fun is that they didn’t just try to replicate those old 78s: they’d keep the dancers going, with all kinds of wild interplay and solos, for minutes on end. They’re back to their old tricks, with an outdoor show this Sept 24 at about 7 PM to kick off this year’s LUNGS Festival in the East Village at La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, Ave C and 9th St.

They recorded their live album – streaming at Bandcamp – at their main haunt, Radegast Hall, back in 2011 (sadly, the venue doesn’t have music anymore). There’s been a rotating cast of players filtering through the band over the years. The record has the original core unit of Emily Asher on trombone and vocals, Adrian Cunningham on clarinet and tenor sax, Jared Engel on banjo and Kevin Dorn on drums. Peter Ford plays box bass and Kevin V Louis plays cornet; both sing.

The sound quality is vastly better than you would expect from an outdoor show on a Saturday at a crowded Williamsburg beer garden. The opening number, a boisterous take of the old hokum blues revenge tune You Rascal You, is a red herring: don’t be fooled by the relative brevity of this song because the other numbers here go on for much longer. Ford sings it; guest clarinetist William Reardon Anderson bubbles within a cheery web of dixieland counterpoint.

The rest of the album is more solo-centric. The instrumental Weary Blues is anything but tired: Louis’ moment where he spirals out of the sky draws a roar from the drinkers. The band follow with a New Orleans mardi gras shuffle, a dixieland remake of a hymn, then When You Wore a Tulip with its energetic guy/girl vocals.

Cunningham’s modulated clarinet solo on the midtempo drag Whinnin Boy is another highlight. A deliciously klezmerized take of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho is the best song of the afternoon, with an ecstatic cornet/drums duel.

After a booty-shaking Palm Court Strut, Asher moves to the mic for an undulating take of Sugar and then shows off her signature, devious sense of humor with her horn. Ford must like the mean songs because he takes over on vocals again on Nobody’s Sweetheart Now. They go out in a blaze of Glory Glory. A good choice to open the festival on the 24th.

September 18, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Party Like It’s 1929, or 2019, With Megg Farrell and Ricky Alexander

For the last few years before the lockdown, Sweet Megg & the Wayfarers were one of New York’s top hot 20s-style swing dance bands. They held down a regular Radegast Hall residency and if memory serves right were also one of the main attractions at the now-discontinued Porchstomp festival on Governors Island. Radegast Hall may no longer have music, and these days Governors Island visitors are subject to a clusterfuck of the World Economic Forum’s New Abnormal restrictions. But the core of the band, frontwoman Megg Farrell and multi-reedman Ricky Alexander are still partying like it’s 2019 and have a high-voltage new album, I’m in Love Again, streaming at Spotify. It’s a lot of fun figuring out which are the originals and which are the covers here. Sometimes it’s hard to tell: the band really know their hot jazz inside out.

The opening track, My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms has a jaunty, brassy dixieland interweave contrasting with Farrell’s mentholated purr. We get a red-flame forward drive from Mike Davis’ trumpet and Rob Edwards’ trombone, plus a bouncy solo from Alexander’s clarinet over Dalton Ridenhour’s saloon jazz piano and the steady bass and drums of Rob Adkins and Kevin Dorn. It sets the stage for the rest of the party.

Alexander switches to balmy tenor sax for the shuffling ballad Foolin’ Myself, Farrell calm and cool overhead. That’s none other than the great Jerron Paxton on the acoustic blues guitar.

Edwards and Davis square off for a playful duel in Right or Wrong, setting up a slyly amusing clarinet break, Farrell unexpectedly dropping the composed facade and reaching for the rafters. She gets even more diversely seductive after that in Squeeze Me, as the band keep a tightly matching beat going, Davis and Alexander trading solos.

Farrell and Paxton (on banjo here) duet on the coyly innuendo-fueled Last Night on the Back Porch. The horns duel and then make way for a wry Paxton banjo break in Angry, then the group slow everything down for I Got It Bad, with a lusciously lustrous, Ellingtonian arrangement and Alexander’s most affecting sax solo here.

Ragged But Right has a rustic hokum blues vibe and a deviously perfect early 30s vernacular. The band take the vibe about twenty years further into the future on album’s title track, with its western swing tinges and Ridenhour’s scrambling piano.

I’d Love to Take Orders From You – yikes, that’s a scary title for 2021 – has the album’s most sophisticated rhythms. The band close it out with A Blues Serenade, awash in lush nocturnal sonics behind Farrell’s expressive, dynamic vocals. Won’t it be fun when we get rid of Cuomo and all the restrictions and bands like this can get the party started at any venue that will have them.

June 13, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifth Element Breathe New Life into a Bunch of Familiar Standards

The tracklist for swing band Fifth Element’s new album – streaming at Soundcloud- is pretty generic. A gazillion lounge acts have mined these escapist standards, mostly from the 40s and 50s, for decades. What sets Fifth Element apart from the legions of torchy hotel bar happy hour groups is singer Nina Richmond’s dynamic, subtly electrifying, insightful interpretations and tenor sax player Dave Coules’ outside-the-box, economical arrangements. Moldy oldies have seldom been reinvented with this kind of flair and zest.

The group set the stage for the rest of the record with the opening number, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me. Richmond’s delivery has vintage 60s soul-infused edge and bite; pianist Dale Scaife’s terse solo sets up Coules’ balmy solo, bassist Ron Johnston and drummer Glenn Anderson maintaining a similarly purposeful shuffle groove.

Johnston’s coyly swooping bass solo kicks off A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; again, Richmond’s mezzo-soprano channels an undercurrent of unease. The band do It Might As Well Be Spring as a lively cha-cha – and vivid portrait of cabin fever. I Love Being Here With You has some good jokes – let’s say that Johnston seems to be the cutup in the band.

Anderson has fun introducing a passing shower in The Gentle Rain, reinvented it as a bossa tune. The band romp through There Will Never Be Another You, then completely flip the script with the brooding first verse of More Than You Know, anchored by Scaife’s plaintive chords before shifting to a slow, simmering 12/8 swing,

They follow a subtly Monk-inflected September in the Rain with a blue-flame take of The Look of Love: sticking with a backbeat on the turnaround in lieu of Burt Bacharach’s flurrying syncopation really seals the deal. Richmond isn’t out on the ledge again in Days of Wine and Roses, but she does give it a silky poignancy.

The quintet slow down again for a bit but pick up with tropical cheer in My Romance, Richmond cutting loose with her vibrato. They close the album with My Shining Hour, shifting from gospel-inflected rapture to a briskly triumphant pulse. If you’re outside the free world right now and you have a speakeasy nearby – as everybody seems to these days – this makes a good soundtrack. Just don’t play it too loud: you don’t want snitches!

April 28, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting Kimberly Hawkey’s Swing Jazz Reinventions

Kimberly Hawkey is best known as the irrepressible, erudite frontwoman of the deviously entertaining Swingaroos, who reinvent old jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s. But back in 2016, she made an equally irreverent and captivating album of her own with a considerably larger cast including a string quartet. That record, Elvanelle & the Escape Act, is still streaming at Bandcamp, and it has an interesting backstory.

Hawkey crowdsourced the record, and one of the perks she was giving out to supporters was a collection of old sheet music she’d picked up on Ebay. Going through the scores, she noticed that she’d just acquired the personal archive of a woman named Elvanell Ellison, who was born in New Mexico in 1917. Not much is known about her other than her passion for jazz. She married a guy named John Horton, moved to California and eventually died there in the 1990s. Clearly, she and Hawkey are kindred spirits.

Hawkey opens the record with the lush, playfuly orchestrated, Gershwinesque Music That Makes the Wind Blow, the first of a couple of co-writes with Swingaroos pianist Assaf Gleizner. She and the band give a cosmopolitan 30s feel to the first of the standards, It’s You or No One, with a triumphant trumpet solo from Björn Ingelstam.

Hawkey recasts Johnny Mercer’s Dream as latin noir, driven by the snaky rhythm of bassist Ray Cetta and drummer Mark McLean, saxophonist Morgan Price’s smoky spirals completing the picture. She gets brassy in an unexpectedly carnivalesque take of Crazy Rhythm and then makes an elegantly artsy piano ballad out of the first of a couple of old folk tunes, Shall We Gather at the River. Gleizner channels McCoy Tyner at his tersest and darkest in a Coltrane-esque remake of the other, Shady Grove. 

Hawkey and the band make a diptych out of How Little We Know and I’ll See You Again, shifting from a strikingly poignant waltz to a crooner cameo by Ingelstam and then a little duet. Hawkey’s lyrics to the album’s second original, I Love a Ballad are hilarious, matched by the music: without giving away too much, tempos are part of the joke.

She veers even closer to Spike Jones territory, picking up her tenor banjo as Ingelstam switches to trombone for a goofy version of I’m in the Mood for Love. Then she gets sly and lowdown in a New Orleans-flavored reinvention of Ev’rything I’ve Got. Hawkey closes the album with a wistful, fond version of I’ll Be Seeing You. A triumph of outside-the-box ideas from a cast that also includes violinists Brendan Speltz and Lavinia Pavlish, violist Milena Pajaro van der Stadt, cellist Andrew Janss and trombonist Christopher Bill.

January 16, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment