Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Alicia Svigals and Marilyn Lerner Steal the Show at Lincoln Center

Last night violinist/composer Alicia Svigals debuted her new score to the 1918 German silent film The Yellow Ticket to a sold-out house at Lincoln Center,  accompanying a screening in tandem with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner. The movie isn’t much. A screwball tragi-comedy starring nineteen-year-old future Hollywood siren Pola Negri, it casts Polish Jews as the unlikely protagonists in a family drama concerning a question of parentage. The pro-Jewish angle was undoubtedly less of a decisively progressive move than an excuse to paint the WWI enemy Russians as cruel and discriminatory (which they were, actually). The film, newly restored, has historical value for including rare footage of Warsaw’s Jewish district – and little else. But Svigals’ score is exquisite.

In practically an hour of music, the former Klezmatic and Itzhak Perlman collaborator  blended somber klezmer themes with vivid, plaintive neoromantic melodies that echoed Tschaikovsky and Ravel, particularly in one of the soundtrack’s most chilling passages, piano joining the violin in adding ominous close harmonies to a variation on the steady, pensive, minor-key title theme. The score’s dynamics turned out to be pretty straightforward, other than a brief, furtive suspense interlude and a couple of shivery, overtone-generating solo violin cadenzas that only hinted at the raw firepower that Svigals can generate in concert.

Svigals’ themes unfolded and shifted shape cleverly and memorably. A moody, apprehensive hora early on, introduced during a broad sequence where Negri’s character fends off a would-be suitor, romped back in later as a joyous freilach. The soaring blue-sky interlude illustrating Negri’s train passage to what would ostensibly be a new life as a student in St. Petersburg turned ominous and chilling in a split second, to match a jump cut. Lerner’s understatedly haunting, resonant block chords and elegant arpeggios made a poignant and intuitive backdrop for Svigals’ highly ornamented phrasing, sometimes tense and nuanced, occasionally channeling fullscale horror. Svigals has a forthcoming album of Osvaldo Golijov works recorded with clarinet powerhouse David Krakauer due out this year; this deserves to be immortalized every bit as much.

Svigals and Lerner will be touring the score along with the film, with screenings and live performances on February 17 in Vancouver, March 3 in Miami and April 29 in Boston, among others.

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January 11, 2013 Posted by | concert, Film, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thin Air Tango – Spacious and Sometimes Spooky

Thin Air Tango is Jeff Covell on piano and Ed Fiorenza on saxophones, playing compositions and improvisations on outer space themes. Their new album is out now on Original Copy Records. Covell’s graceful short works lean toward third-stream minimalism: Fiorenza’s crystalline tone memorably enhances Covell’s steady but distant, intriguingly off-center walks and chordal clusters. The opening Nebula Suite is aptly titled, a suite of nocturnes that move from spacious, simple, matter-of-fact solo piano, embellish it rhythmically and then finally bring in soprano sax, casually coalescing a couple of intriguing verse/chorus patterns before bringing it to an end. This could have gone longer and still maintained interest – and maybe it does, when the two play it live.

The Sakura Suite begins with Elegy for Joe Viola, mostly just vividly wistful soprano sax, Covell adding a somewhat ominous, murky chordal undercurrent as the piece winds out. Tango di Callisto is sort of a tango in outer space, avoiding resolution, the casual chill of Fiorenza’s nebulously acidic lines vivid against Covell’s increasingly insistent, magnetic piano. Sakura, Sakura begins absolutely inaudibly, to the point where the question of whether the cd is still playing arises. But then stately piano and Fiorenza’s elegaic lines join together in an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive rendition of the Japanese folk song with a handful of clever quotes that work marvelously.

Named after one of the moons of Jupiter, the Europa Suite, a free improvisation, picks up the pace. It’s long, almost forty minutes, and as intense as it gets, the warm camaraderie between the two musicians remains strong. Covell intimates danger with his solo intro, then the two exploring a dark, Ran Blake-esque gospel-tinged theme that Covell expands with a furtive intensity as Fiorenza’s tenor sax holds the center while matter-of-factly reaching for higher velocity and tonal contrasts. The sax takes over the eerie chromatics for awhile, Covell leapfrogging them judiciously before taking it into viscerally icy terrain with a macabre, David Lynchian edge. All in all, this makes for great late-night listening: kill the lights and set your sonic sights on Jupiter.

November 24, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Float Away to Third River Rangoon

The original “exotica” music from the 1950s was designed to evoke a cartoonish never-neverland of tiki torches, bikini-clad geishas sipping mai tais at night on the beach, innocuous insectile noises emanating from an utterly benign jungle just a few feet away. Vibraphonist/bandleader Brian O’Neill AKA Mr. Ho’s new album Third River Rangoon, by his shapeshifting ensemble Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica may have been inspired by that subgenre, but it’s considerably more magical. It leaves far more to the imagination, a lushly nocturnal collection whose most impressive feat of sorcery is getting a simple lineup of vibraphone, bass flute, bass and percussion to create the sweep of a hundred-piece orchestra. The production is genius: Phil Spector couldn’t have done any better than this. Playful and surreal, with an unselfconscious majesty, it’s music to get lost in, just as O’Neill intended. Here he’s joined by Geni Skendo on bass flute and C-flute, Noriko Terada on percussion (and vibes and marimba as well) and Jason Davis on acoustic bass. The tongue-in-cheek title alludes to the third-stream nature of the music, a little jazz, a little classical and more than a little cinematic ambience, like Henry Mancini in a particularly atmospheric moment.

While it’s true that the title track is a deceptively simple, catchy tune with interlocking bass flute and vibes over a bossa-flavored bass pulse, that’s an awfully clinical way to put it: it’s a raft ride under the stars in the subtropical paradise of your dreams. Thor’s Arrival plays an anthemic overture theme gently over a similar staggered bossa beat: it sounds nothing like Grieg or Metallica. Milt Raskin’s Maika plays up an underlying suspense angle, contrasting with restrained yet joyous layers of reverberating vibraphone tones over stately bass; Cal Tjader’s Colorado Waltz downplays the waltz beat (good move) with some memorably offcenter leapfrogging from the flute.

How do you give the Arab Dance from Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite real Middle Eastern cred? Add an oud, of course. That’s Tev Stevig (of Macedonian group Jeni Jol and many other great bands) doubling the flute lines and then kicking in a terse solo that’s Arab, not just Arabesque. O’Neill opens Phoenix, Goodbye, a bright theme that quickly grows duskier, with some distantly tense knocks on a boomy tapan drum. The most direct and surprisingly hard-hitting number here is the noirish Terre Exotique, again bouncing gently on a bossa-ish beat. The jazziest one is Autumn Digging Dance, oud and vibes together, comfortably afloat on the soft, round tones of the bass flute, Sevig contributing a confounding and somehow perfect solo that’s half blues and half levantine. The catchy, slowly swaying, distantly martial Moai Thief nicks a familiar classical theme, while Lonesome Aku of Alewife turns from shadowy allusiveness to a catchy, poppier tune, the bass soloing fat yet incisive over the verse. The album closes with a brief vignette, Lyman ’59, a late 50s noir pop melody done as a lullaby – a funeral for a south Asian dictator’s mistress, maybe. Tune in, turn on, get lost. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica plays Otto’s Shrunken Head on June 18 – the classiest band by far to ever play that joint.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nicholas Urie’s Big Band Album Explores the Brilliance of Bukowski

Charles Bukowski liked Beethoven, maybe because he recognized a fellow drunken genius, maybe because Beethoven is great drinking music. Would Bukowski have appreciated Nicholas Urie’s new Bukowski-themed big band album, My Garden? Maybe. Urie’s intent here is to honor Bukowski’s legacy by elevating him above his popular image as the poet laureate of fratboy excess. A good guess is that the frequently astringent third-stream atmospherics would have grabbed him, not to mention that all but one of the tracks here illustrates a poem or a Bukowski quote. And the one that doesn’t is ironically right up his alley, booze-wise: “Drinking beer doesn’t make you fat. It makes you lean: against bars, tables, chairs and poles.” Its main character aside, this is a fascinating modern big band album with some delicious charts, clever and even psychedelic production and an A-list of jazz talent, most of them from the New York area.

If you can get past – or don’t mind, or even enjoy – Bukowski’s gimlet-eyed perspective, he was an amazing observer. It’s hard to find someone who can distill an idea to its essence like he could, and usually did. Urie knows this, and takes his cues from there. As much as the arrangements here are lush and rich, there are no wasted notes: the band’s focus is intense. The brief opening track, Winter: 44th Year sees Bukowski feeling suicidal, knife in hand, drunk-dialing some woman and getting her answering service (this was in the days before voicemail), brought to life with moody, swirling atmospherics. Round and Round – the simple phrase “you have my soul and I have your money” – makes an uncharacteristically roundabout way to explain away a dayjob, and the music perfectly captures this, the band’s circular chromatics leading to a careful, soberly disdainful Rhodes solo from Frank Carlberg, up to impatiently circling Kenny Pexton tenor sax and then a labyrinth of vocal overdubs from Christine Correa. John Carlson’s ominous solo trumpet kicks off the title track – “pain is flowers blooming all the time,” vivid rainy day ambience walking steadily with the trumpet and then Alan Ferber’s trombone lifting the downcast atmosphere a bit with wryly bluesy tints as the band swells behind him.

A very cleverly disguised ballad, Weeping Women illustrates Bukowski’s claim that he would have offered women more solace if they hadn’t been so high-maintenance. Awash in shifting segments, Carlson, Douglas Yates on alto and Jeremy Udden on soprano sax alternate voices in a conversation, less weepy than brooding and somewhat conspiratorial. A predictably shrill crescendo is followed by a laugh-out-loud disappointed ending: Bukowski would have liked this! Another circular number, Lioness – “There’s a lioness in the hallway: put on your lion’s mask and wait” is vigorous fun, driven by Carlberg’s unbridled, staccato piano. The arguably strongest track here is Slaughterhouse – “I live in the slaughterhouse and am ill with thriving” –  a feast of tectonic shifts and high/low contrasts, Udden’s soprano sax against Max Siegel’s bass trombone, with a bit of a round and a neat soprano/alto conversation over just the rhythm section. The last track, Finality, illustrates a rather nihilistic portrayal of a crazy Ezra Pound repudiating his life’s work, a moment that ostensibly comes to all of us. Pexton’s tenor rises gravely against Carlberg’s judicious, acidic chords, then Carlson’s trumpet blazes while Rome burns in the distance. The one bit of a letdown here is the number about beer not making you fat, which Correa sings like a wine drinker – or your mother – against the rhythmically tricky playfulness of the chart which then goes completely off the charts when the booze kicks in. Sober, it’s a great album – how does it sound after a few drinks? That’s a question that deserves an answer!

March 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fred Hersch: Good to Be Alive at the Vanguard

This is one of those rare albums that will appeal to casual listeners just as much as headphone wearers seeking something more cerebral or emotionally impactful. In a lot of ways, it’s a good-to-be-alive album. A couple of years ago, no one knew whether or not iconic pianist Fred Hersch would be around to make this, considering how few people have survived a two-month coma, much less returned to their old selves afterward. But that’s what Hersch did, even after having had to relearn his instrument. His new album, Alone at the Vanguard is oldschool, being the entire final set of the final night, December 5, 2010 of his solo stand at that jazz mecca. Surprisingly, it was Hersch, not Ellington or McCoy Tyner or even Brad Mehldau who was the first pianist to get a solo weeklong gig there. Hersch brags that he was “in the zone” for this set, which is an understatement, and after all he’s been through, he deserves to blow his own horn a little. Hersch can do many things well: here he features a richly chordal, third-stream attack, late Romantic emotional intelligence through the randomizing prism of jazz.

In the Wee Small Hours of Morning, which opens the album, ripples with that chordal attack and a long, fascinating series of lefthand/righthand tradeoffs, starlit ambience shifting to a relaxed, wee-hours vibe. The jaunty Down Home, dedicated to Bill Frisell, has a sly Donald Fagen feel and includes a devious Wizard of Oz quote (no, it’s not Somewhere over the Rainbow). The most memorable track here, Echoes, builds from a hypnotic kaleidoscope of noirisms to expressive cascades and a vividly vigorous overture of sorts: of all the songs here (and they are songs in the purest sense of the word), this is the most solidly upbeat, less defiant than simply enjoying the moment. Likewise, Pastorale (a Schumann homage) crescendos with an almost baroque, fugal architecture – the conversation goes back and forth between the hands and never gets tiresome.

Lee’s Dream has a surprisingly sprightly, ragtime-ish elegance, something of a surprise for a song dedicated to Lee Konitz, legend of cool jazz. Jacob de Bandolim’s Doce de Coco slowly and fascinatingly evinces a bossa bounce and hints of the blues from the Brazilian composer’s matter-of-factly fluid lines. Eubie Blake’s Memories of You gets a steely, often clenched-teeth intensity that winds down with a bitter grace; Hersch closes on a balmy, bluesy note with Sonny Rollins’ Doxy (to appreciate the warmth of this take on it, you ought to hear Jon Irabagon’s relentlessly assaultive version on his Foxy album). Fred Hersch will be at the Jazz Standard March 2-6 with a typically first-class cast of characters including guitarist Julian Lage and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger,who’s rightfully riding a big wave of buzz at the moment.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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