Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Feral Tunefulness From Cellist Tomeka Reid and Her Quartet

The Tomeka Reid Quartet’s new album Old New – streaming at Cuneiform Records – is the rare jazz album you can play for people who hate jazz, and they’ll end up transfixed. It’s also the rare studio recording that burns, and seethes, and threatens to go off the rails just like a live show. It’s catchy, and ferocious, and bursting with tunes. What an amazing time it seems this band had making it.

In this era where jazz artists leap from one project to the next with barely enough time for it to coalesce, there’s a rare chemistry here, reflecting the group’s longtime associations. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson play together in Halvorson’s Code Girl band,, while cellist Reid and bassist Jason Roebke share early roots in the Chicago scene.

The band scamper and swing hard over Roebke’s chugging bass on the increasingly jagged, noisy title track, Halvorson and Reid trading scrapes, wry trainwhistle lines, eerie jangle and stark, emphatic riffage. Reid says it’s a hymn at the core, but it also seems to draw on early 80s proto-hip-hop like Midnight Starr. Gotta love that Fujiwara rumble on the way out!

Wabash Blues is a Romany swing tune with Reid’s careening cello in the Stephane Grappelli role, at least until it switches to 12/8 time for a bracing, acidic verse, an allusively grim Halvorson pitch-pedal solo and some adenalizing tumbles from Fujiwara.

Niki’s Bop is a shuffling shout-out to Reid mentor Nicole Mitchell, with echoes of both New Orleans and Stevie Wonder, cello and guitar pogoing joyously in their respective channels until Halvorson goes off in a trail of whippit bubbles. Reid and Roebke bubble around a joyously circling Afrobeat riff as Aug 6 gets underway, Halvorson kicking sharp-fanged chords until the group take it out together as a catchy anthem.

The simply titled Ballad is the group’s White Rabbit, a relentlessly uneasy shuffle, Reid’s ominous low-register flutters and shards contrasting with Halvorson’s steady incisions over an increasingly agitated, murky groove. Sadie, a swing tune dedicated to Reid’s grandmother, is the most trad number here, Reid alternating between a second bassline and wryly muted horn voicings, with an unexpectedly hypnotic bounce out.

The album’s most epic and adrenalizing track is Edelin, opening as a misterioso tone poem with flickers and washes from the strings and suspenseful cymbals, eventually coming together as a twisted road theme to rival anything Big Lazy ever put out, all the strings taking turns fanning the flames as the pyre explodes into a conflagration. Peripatetic makes a good segue, a series of increasingly savage climbs that eventually go completely haywire: Halvorson brings in a little funk, but this beast can’t be controlled. The album winds up with RN, which is Reid’s Watching the Detectives, a steadily swaying, broodingly plucked modal theme and variations that unexectedly drift toward sunnier, more psychedelic terrain. It’s one of the best albums of the year in any style of music.

Fun fact: according to the record’s press release, Reid was voted “Violinist/Violist/Cellist of the Year for the second consecutive time by the Jazz Journalists Association.” Does this mean we can vote for JD Allen as trumpeter/clarinetist/saxophonist of the year? Maybe Brian Charette can be pianist/harpsichordist/organist of the year too! Googling for jazz harpsichordists doesn’t get you much, but Brian would no doubt be amped to contend for the award. Or maybe the JJA is just trying to save paper…or precious hard disc space on that old Commodore from the 80s.

December 18, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Noir-Tinged Transcendence from Thumbscrew

Thumbscrew‘s show earlier this week at what has become an annual festival at the Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square West was more plaintive and haunting than expected. Guitarist Mary Halvorson left her pitch pedal alone for the most part until the last couple of numbers, where she went crazy with both live loops and warpy Jabba the Hut space lounge sonics. And although she did goose the audience, and maybe her bandmates too, with wry upward swipes at the end of a couple of numbers, she went for noir, and poignancy, and angst throughout most of the rest of the show.

It was almost funny to watch bassist Michael Formanek,, the group’s spokesman this time out, matter-of-factly walking a swing interlude in a tune by drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Otherwise, Formanek punched out miminalist pedalpoint, the occasional looming chord and plenty of somber, bowed phrases, often echoing Halvorson’s lingering, chilly, reverbtoned resonance. His comedic moment was a Sisyphian series of climbs, moving further and further up the scale with a predictable but irresistible tumble at the end.

Fujiwara was his typical counterintuitive self: trios tend to have busy drums, but not this unit. He opened and closed the set with tricky, peek-a-boo polyrhythms, driving the music forward against the beat. Beyond one relatively brief, stampeding cascade toward the end of the set, he kept his cymbals flickering,  with a subtle, lithe attack on the snare and toms.

The trio opened with Snarling Joys, a Halvorson tune, the guitarist foredshadowing the gloom ahead via a pointilllistic series of icepick riffs. Many of the set’s numbers bore a close resemblance to Big Lazy at their most haunting, and exploratory, notably Formanek’s bitterly aching Cruel Heartless Bastards, a take of Jimmy Rowles’ moody classic The Peacocks and Julio De Caro’s Buen Amigo, a tango from the band’s most recent all-covers album, Theirs. The companion album, Ours – all originals, naturally- was also well represented, particularly with a strutting but wounded reinvention of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting which turned out to be a lot more of a lament than a dancefloor hit. Other material was less harrowing: a tricky, serpentine take of Fujiwara’s Saturn Way; an even more rhythmically maddening yet supertight song that sounded like 70s British rock band Wire spun through a cuisinart; and the closing tune, Things That Rhyme with Spangle (that’s a very short version of the official song title), which Halvorson bent and twisted, finally hitting her distortion pedal for some roaring punk chords.

The series of free concerts at the Provincetown Playhouse continues into next week, resuming Monday, July 22 at 7 PM when Rolling Stones multi-saxophonist Tim Ries leads his band. Get there early, i.e. by 6:45 if you want to get in.

July 20, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stark, Almost Shockingly Catchy String Tunes and Improvisations From Allstar Trio Hear in Now

Violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi all have busy careers as bandleaders, but they also occasionally play in an edgy, often stunningly catchy trio they call Hear in Now. The project is bracingly and deliciously uncategorizable: ostensibly the music is string jazz, and there’s a lot of improvisation, but also more than a hint of Italian folk, the blues and even string metal. Their latest album Not Living in Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. Reid may be airing out any material from it in two sets at the Jazz Gallery on April 26, the first a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the second with her quartet including Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jason Roebke. Cover is $25.

The trio open the album with a jam, rising from hints of a stately march to shivery squall…and then Frankenstein looks in the window but keeps going. Leaving Livorno is every bit the lament the title suggests, Bolognesi’s stark bowed lines taking centerstage over a whispery backdrop.

Transiti has a staggered staccato pulse, errie close harmonies and a sharp, acidically emphatic cello solo. Requiem for Charlie Haden is unexpectedly catchy, despite the astringency of the circling strings. The aptly titled Circle is even bouncier, bordering on parlor pop in the same vein as groups like the Real Vocal String Quartet: it’s neat how the group shift from punchy to a balletesque strut.

Bolognesi’s steady bowing anchors the sailing melody overhead in the miniature Billions and Billions, another strikingly direct, catchy number. Swift sings the album’s title cut, its message of indomitability set to keening high string harmonies and plucky chords over growly bass.

The album’s second improvisation, interestingly, is just as memorable, waltzing intricately around a circling, blues-tinged hook. Terrortoma is the most darkly bluesy track, with its tight, bracing haronies. The longing in Prayer for Wadud – a diptych – is visceral, Swift’s spare, resonant riffs, Reid and Bolognesi joining underneath with a brooding, bowed riff.

They open Cantiere Orlando with neo-baroque elegance, then hit a spiky interlude and artfully bring the main theme back. They close with the liltingly anthemic waltz Last Night’s Vacation and then the showstopper Cultural Differences, shifting gears hard through minimalism, some atmospherics and then shivery, metal-tinged phrasing. There’s really nothing like this out there.

April 24, 2019 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

July 9, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting, Serpentine Majesty with the Tomeka Reid Quartet at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, the Tomeka Reid Quartet limited their savagery to when they really needed to drive a point home. But when they unleashed their inner beasts, the results were sublime.

On one hand, the music swung like crazy, driven by the relentless pulse of bassist Jason Roebke and ever-more-ubiquitous drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who was in as trad mode as he ever gets). On the other, Reid’s compositions can be as dark, and frequently haunting, as they are kinetic and rooted in decades of swing tradition.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson brought her big hollowbody Guild. Was this going to be showcase of too-cool-for-school hardbop voicings? No way. She was a little more restrained than usual, but it wasn’t long before she worked up a murderous thicket of machete tremolo-picking. It would be several songs into the set before she hit her pedalboard and took the tonalities into Jabba the Hut’s outer space lounge. Otherwise, she anchored the songs with expansive series of chords, sparred with Reid, or let her enigmatic phrases linger during the set’s more brooding moments.

Reid also chose her spots. Conventional wisdom is that low-register instrumentalists have no fear of the dark side, and that’s certainly true of Reid, although most of  this set was pretty upbeat. She saved her menacing upward swipes, stark stygian chords and ghostly glissandos – as well as some droll theremin-like harmonics – for when she really needed them. Otherwise, her melody, whether bowed or plucked, swung close to the ground.

The night’s darkest number was a sort of a terse Big Lazy noir cinematic theme with pedaled bass, a cello melody, martial beat and a harried crescendo that more that hinted at cello metal. Another ominous tune embodied resonant, uneasy Wadada Leo Smith blues and starkly modal Amir ElSaffar tonalities, the trio of Reid, Halvorson and Roebke following a tense rubato path.

They opened with a spiky, New Orleans-flavored shuffle and closed with a wary, serpentine piece spiced with the bandleader’s ominous, modal cello trading against Halvorson’s judicious rises and falls, which was a frequent dynamic throughout the show. In between, other highlights included a tune that came across as loopy, dark soukous, along with a staggeredly enigmatic saloon-swing mini-epic, in addition to unexpected detours toward roots reggae, dub and early 80s Pat Metheny. Notwithstanding all the gravitas, everybody in the band seemed comfortable with throwing in an occasional rhythmic swipe for levity’s sake.

Reid’s next New York show is on May 23 at 8:30 PM at the new Stone as part of guitarist Joe Morris‘ quartet. The Bang on a Can organization, who booked this show as this month’s installment of their monthly series at the Jewish Museum, are putting on their annual ten-plus-hour marathon this May 13 starting at noon at NYU’s Skirball Center at LaGuardia and Washington Square South. Admission is free, but get there early if you’re going.

April 28, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Mesmerizingly Provocative New Suite From Matana Roberts at the Park Avenue Armory

“Barcoding existence,” spoken word artist Geng pronounced, calmly and stoically, standing motionless in a monklike outfit on a balcony inside the Park Avenue Armory last night. Below him, bandleader and alto saxophonist Matana Roberts was flanked by a sextet of drummers, three on each side. She was fixated on her laptop. Several times throughout her sold-out show in the opulently renovated Officers Room here, she’d record the ensemble and then play it back, or loop a segment, as if strategizing her next move.

“Watch them triangulate on your tv dinner,” Geng intoned. He could have been referring to a microwave…or something more sinister. That was the least opaque moment in a night of music that was as provocative as it was allusive. Roberts’ catalog is fearlessly political, and richly lyrical, spanning from lushly enveloping AACM jazz, to poignant small-group and solo compositions, to heavy rock and multimedia. You can check out her similarly thought-inducing collages at the closing reception tonight at 6 at the Fridman Gallery, 287 Spring St. west of Varick in SoHo.

She opened this new suite, Blood.Blues (A Remembrance) with a couple of deliciously microtonal sax swoops and ended with a long “ommmmmm” mantra, encouraging the audience to join her. In between, she led the group – which also comprised drummers Kate Gentile, Tomas Fujiwara, Qasim Ali Naqvi, Mike Pride, Ryan Sawyer and Justin Veloso – through a series of highly improvised variations on two main themes. One of them employed a series of gongs to create waves of ringing, pointillistic, gamelanesque melody. The other was a series of sardonic, martially-inflected snare drum rhythms. There are always innumerable levels of meaning in Roberts’ work, so to reduce it to the dilemma of how to keep the struggle going while Big Brother tries to lull you into complacency wouldn’t do justice to it. That seemed to be the main theme.

Roberts held the center calmly, both with airy, warmly resonant sax phrases and with a looming string synth riff emanating at odd intervals from the laptop. Meanwhile, Geng spoke obliquely of resistance against repression and the daily struggle to keep it together during historically dark times. Much as the roughly hourlong suite had plenty of crushing sarcasm and defiance, Roberts chose to wrap it up on a prayerful note, a guarded voice of hope.

Roberts is off on UK tour next month with sound artist Kelly Jayne Jones; dates are here.

April 25, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gravitas and Great Fun at Tomas Fujiwara’s Stone Residency This Week

Tomas Fujiwara isn’t just one of the most sought-after drummers in jazz; he’s also one of the most concisely tuneful drummer-composers out there. Among his fellow percussionists, the only one whose work ranks with his over the past few years is John Hollenbeck, although Fujiwara’s compositions are a lot less byzantine and more improvisationally oriented. He’s doing a stand this week at the Stone, with shows nightly at 8:30 PM through this Sunday; cover is $20. The one that everybody’s going to want to go to – and get to early – is Saturday night, April 14, with his two-guitar Triple Double sextet, which includes both Mary Halvorson and Ava Mendoza on guitars. The “Double Double” show tomorrow night – Halvorson and Bill Frisell on guitars, Fujiwara and Kendrick Scott on drums – will also obviously sell out.

Last night’s performance was a rapturous trio set with Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and Ole Mathisen on tenor sax, reflecting the musicians’ long association and camaraderie. On one hand, it was something of a reprise of their transcendent set in January of last year at the Fridman Gallery, except that ElSaffar was at the helm that time. This time out they played two numbers, the second a practically fifty-minute suite punctuated by numerous pregnant pauses. Both works gave the group plenty of space to expand on somberly terse, translucent phrases with brooding harmonies, crescendoing  judiciously through a long series of variations.

The opening tune had more of Fujiwara’s signature wit, in this case popping up in “wait-for-it” moments that weren’t quite vaudevillian, and droll flourishes leaping out of a series of altered press rolls. ElSaffar, who’s usually a cipher onstage, couldn’t keep himself from grinning. And the trumpeter’s influenced seemed to permeate the whole set, at least as far as gravitas is concerned – although his role here was to simmer and percolate when he wasn’t exchanging long tectonic phrases with Mathisen. Fujiwara built suspense with mallets on the toms, developing a slowly rising series of waves punctuated by lots of space and some wry doppler and echo effects.

His persistent, protean presence permeated the long suite, whether with muted mallet murmurs, brushy mist or finally a sober sway when he broke out his sticks. Mathisen, charged with the darker role here, lingered in the shadows or moved forward with a moody melodicism, sometimes trading off with ElSaffar or anchoring the trumpet’s increasingly complex, cellular spontaneity.

The crowd was intimate; it was akin to sharing a backstage moment with some of this era’s greatest jazz minds. “Come back tomorrow,” Fujiwara grinned; it’s a good bet some of them will. As a reminder to those who haven’t been to the Stone recently, the old Avenue C space is gone for good; the shows are now held in the comfortable ground-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St.

April 12, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

December 30, 2017 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Darkness and Revelry in Equal Measure in Tomas Fujiwara’s Brilliant New Triple Double Album

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s music is all about creating a mood, and narratives, and destinations, and all the fun a band can have with interplay and conversations and occasional jousting on the way there. For all of those reasons, he’s one of the busiest guys in jazz. The musicianship on his new album Triple Double – soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – is as deep as his address book. Just the fact that he’s got two of the most ferocious guitarists on the planet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook sparring with each other makes this a must-own for fans of dark, gritty, occasionally hilarious music.

It’s pretty high concept: in addition to the guitars, there are two horns – Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet – and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair. It’s akin to a  more improvisational, less assaultive take on percussive British guitar band Action Beat, . In an interesting stroke of fate, Seabrook also put out a ferociously good new double-drum album, wryly titled Die Trommel Fatale, earlier this year. Fujiwara and the band are playing the album release show on Sept 22 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $22.

The fun starts right ffom the first few bars of the squirrelly two-guitar conversation that opens the first track, Diving For Quarters. For the listener, it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who, especially as a long, rather grim crescendo slowly builds. Looming brass contrasts with a squall or two as Fujiwara swings with his work boots on, Alessi taking a long latin noir-infused solo up to a gleeful thunderstorm of drums and guitar swipes.

Likewise, Alessi chooses his moments in a long solo that bisects the leering storm and skronk of the two guitars and drumkits in Blueberry Eyes, Halvorson in the left channel, Seabrook in the right throwing blast after distorted blast at each other. Suddenly the sky clears and they’re following a circular, allusively New Orleans-tinged shuffle as Bynum comes to the front. Even as some sweet brass harmonies take over at the end, Halvorson can’t wait to let it trail out with a down-the-drain rattle.

A gloomy rainy-day ambience, astringent guitars over spare drums and cymbals, pervades Hurry Home, a psychedelic tone poem of sorts. Pocket Pass makes a flailing contrast, packed with blazing trumpet spirals, snarky kiss-off guitars, Halvorson’s bad cop against Seabrook’s deadpan good cop. All of a sudden it straightens out (as much as anything straightens out on this album) in a dark latin direction.

For Alan opens with a droll spoken-word sample of a ten-year-old Fujiwara in conversation with his mentor Alan Dawson, who encourages him to have a good time within the parameters. “If a cymbal falls in, if the pedal breaks, whatever.” This matter-of-factly rising Cleaver-Fujiwara duel stays on the rails even as flurries in each channel diverge: the chase is on! Eight-minute pieces for drums alone are rarely this entertaining.

An elegaic, mournful horn melody rises over the drums’ tumble and crush as Love and Protest coalesces, bolstered by Seabrook’s eerie, reverberating belltones and echo effects as the menacing cloud darkens. It’s finally punctured by Alessi, but even he’s eventually subsumed in the vortex. Halvorson artfully takes over the slasher role as the dirge returns.

Notwithstanding all the uneasy close harmonies, Decisive Shadow is awfully catchy, especially when the horns kick in, up to a trickily shifting, insistent vamp with a contrastingly ebullient Alessi solo. Halvorson’s shears and sputters signal the drums, and everybody else, to tunnel down into the darkness.

The group returns to the Hurry Home theme with gingerly tremoloing guitars amid the sleet of the percussion: it’s the album’s creepiest number. Sarcastic cornet opens Toasting the Mart, a twisted march, Halvfrson thinking about horror surf, the horns peeping in through respective windows. Seabrook flickers and then the whole thing dissolves in a toxic heap only to reemerge unexpectedly.

To Hours (a pun?) makes an apt concluding statement, from a loosely congealing free-improv interlude to an uneasily cantering vamp, Alessi battling the murky backdrop. This isn’t just one of the most gripping jazz albums of the year: it’s on the level of anything any of the cast here have released as leaders recently. One of the ten best, maybe five best albums of the year, to be more precise. Press play, hit repeat, you’ll get used to it.

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

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

December 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment