Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

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August 10, 2017 Posted by | concert, gospel music, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.

Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?

Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.

Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come.  At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.

Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.

What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.

And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sexmob’s Nino Rota Tribute: Best Album of the Year?

Over the years, with his long-running quartet Sexmob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra and elsewhere, trumpeter Steven Bernstein has made a career of reinventing repertoires to suit his distinctive, livewire style, veering from the sunnier side of the street (Sly Stone) into the shadows (John Barry’s James Bond scores). One of Bernstein’s more ambitious and wildly successful efforts with Sexmob, a collection of Nino Rota themes to Fellini films titled Cinema Circus & Spaghetti, is out now. It’s an interesting coincidence that of all the jazz albums that have come out so far in 2013, the two that pack the biggest wallop are both collections of film music from trumpeters: this one, and Ibrahim Maalouf‘s Wind (itself a homage to Miles Davis’ soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.) What makes this one so good? Bernstein takes Rota’s themes and strips them to the bone, pulls out the inner noir menace and then brings it centerstage, dripping and lurid. Although some tracks on the album are considerably brighter than that, a gleeful macabre resonance pervades this album. One can only think that both Rota and Fellini would be proud. Hubristic as this sounds, the album is as good or better than the source material. While Bernstein is about a lot more than just menace and rage against the dying of the light, if there’s anybody who gets what noir is all about, it’s him.

They make the Amarcord theme a dirge, maxing out the original’s underlying angst, opening with drummer Kenny Wollesen’s gongs before Bernstein whispers in with a quavering microtonal Peter Lorre unease, Tony Scherr’s magnificently precise, purposeful bass guitar kicking off a slow processional as Briggan Krauss’ tenor sax joins the harmonies. It finally resolves in a menacing minor-key explosion: one of the most deliciously dark pieces of music to come out this year.

Juliet of the Sprits manages to simultaneously be a creepy shuffle and a lively dance, Krauss and Bernstein switching good cop/bad cop roles – and is there a bassist anywhere in the world who gets as juicy and incisive a tone as Scherr does? They strip the La Strada theme down to the underlying tension, first with a reggae pulse, then with a fluttering bop edge. Volpina (also from Amarcord) counterintuitively has the bass doing the lively introductions, then they take it to church with a New Orleans flair. The papararazzo theme from La Dolce Vita juxtaposes jaggedly rhythmic knife’s-edge intensity with a rather sarcastic interpretation of the original’s jaunty swing, Wollesen leading the charge. Toby Dammit’s Last Act reverts to the dirgey ambience, a long workout in downtown Asian inflections and moody reggae lin lieu of monster psychedelia.

The La Dolce Vita main theme strolls acidically along with a shivery bass pulse, a look back to Bernstein’s Lounge Lizards days. Zamparo (from La Strada) brings back the skin-peeling PiL dub vibe, while Nadia Gray (another La Dolce Vita interlude) and The Grand Hotel (from Amarcord) each get ripped to shreds in a merciless circus-punk frenzy, the latter reverting once again to hazy Asian dub. Scherr does Gelsomina solo, with lots of warmly rubato chords, a prelude to a sarcastically marching remake of I Vitelloni. There’s also an epic, bitingly bittersweet bonus track, Spirits of the Dead, Wollesen’s vibraphone and Krauss’ stately multitracking up against Bernstein’s leaps and bounds. Those who aren’t already aware of it may also be interested in Hal Wilner’s 1981 Amarcord Nino Rota album, which gave Bernstein his initial inspiration for this one. Best jazz album of 2013? One of them, without a doubt.

May 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin Hoffman’s Timeless Images Capture New York’s Oldtime Music Scene

It’s funny how even though millions of bloggers and youtubers have documented live music over the past several years, there hasn’t been one particular photographer with a signature vision to emerge like Henry Diltz in the late 60s/early 70s, or Bob Gruen during the punk era. However, this era is fortunate to have Robin Hoffman, whose new coffee table book Live From the Audience: A Year of Drawing at the Jalopy Theatre vividly captures much of the magical demimonde of New York’s oldtimey and Americana music scenes. Interestingly, Hoffman is not a photographer but a painter, with a singular and instantly identifiable vision. She has an amazing eye for expressions: in a few deft strokes, she portrays banjo player Eli Smith in a characteristically sardonic moment, with a sly jack o’lantern off to the side of the stage. Her perfectly rendered portrait of Mamie Minch brings out every inch of the oldtimey siren’s torchy bluesiness, leaning back with her resonator guitar as she belts out a classic (or one of her originals that sounds like one).

Hoffman is a former ballet dancer and maybe for that reason she also has a finely honed sense of movement. A lot of these performers play sitting down and consequently don’t move around much. One particularly poignant painting shows the late Brooklyn bluesman Bob Guida jovial and comfortably nestled yet full of energy, seated with his hollow-body electric. The single most striking image here marvelously depicts the Jalopy’s Geoff and Lynette Wiley, Lynette behind the bar, warm and beaming triumphantly from the rush of a good crowd and a good show, bushy-bearded Geoff to the side up front, attentive as always, the audience ecstatically lit up in silhouette in the front of the house. Other artists vividly captured in the Jalopy’s magically wood-toned ambience include Ernie Vega, Feral Foster (being particularly Feral), the Maybelles, the Ukuladies and les Chauds Lapins.

These paintings induce synesthesia – you can literally hear the ring and the twang of the voices and the music. Hoffman has also included several equally captivating sketches and sketch collages, in the same vein as the ones she periodically posts on her excellent blog. It’s a wonderful portrayal of one of New York’s most vital music scenes, one frequently overlooked by the corporate media and the blogosphere. It’s also a valuable piece of history – although few of the artists here will ever be famous, the music they make deserves to be. The book is available online, but as Hoffman says, “It’s a lot more fun and a little bit cheaper to get one at Jalopy.”

July 11, 2010 Posted by | blues music, country music, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Amanda Thorpe – Union Square

This could be the ultimate autumnal New York album, perfect for grey days with a chill in the air, winter’s hand tugging impatiently on the curtains. The songs on Union Square are gorgeously wistful and intensely poignant. What Linda Thompson was to the 70s and early 80s, Amanda Thorpe is to this era, another British expat steeped in traditional English folk, possessed of one of the most beautifully haunting voices you will ever hear. Thorpe is somewhat more diverse, however: she will give you eerie austerity and resigned melancholy, but she also has a seductive, torchy side with great nuance. This is the first solo release for Thorpe – who also fronts the supremely catchy Bedsit Poets – since her first album, Mass, in 2002, and it was well worth the wait.

By contrast to Mass, a lushly produced, smokily atmospheric effort, this one is remarkably terse and direct. Every note on this album counts. Thorpe is accompanied here by a choice crew of New York luminaries – co-producer Brad Albetta (also of Mary Lee’s Corvette) on bass, Bill Frisell sideman Tony Scherr on guitar and upright bass, Bob Perry on lapsteel and ex-Psychedelic Fur Joe McGinty on keys. The album kicks off with the sarcastic Life Is Great, a lament directed at a pillhead: “Life is great with a hole inside.” Perry adds layers of bluesy lapsteel over Thorpe’s understatedly frustrated vocals. Track two, Won’t You Let Me (a co-write with Phillip Shelley) is pure seduction set to a sweetly soaring Albetta bassline. The next track, River Song is arguably Thorpe’s finest hour as a songwriter, a vivid account of rejection and despair, here recast with something of a Madder Rose-style 90s trip-hop feel. After that, Next to Me makes a good segue, Thorpe holding up a red flag – albeit from a distance – to a would-be suitor.

Burn This House Down, spiced with juicy blues piano from McGinty, has Thorpe bringing the intensity up to redline as she pulls out all the stops and belts:

Though I still love you
The romance is dead
As you burn this house down

Then Scherr launches into a truly nasty slide guitar solo.

Other standout tracks on this album include the marvelously catchy You and Me in a Doorway (also a co-write with Shelley) with its lush bed of guitars and lapsteel; the hypnotic, pastoral Over the Sea (a Wirebirds soundalike); the beautifully melancholy title track, and the absolutely brilliant Show Me a Place. Thorpe’s voice longs for something transcending the ordinariness that she’s held on to with such a steely grip, until now. “As long as there were cigarettes and another glass of wine,” everything was ok. But now she sees “my own black silhouette reflect against the sky:” high time for a change. Perry’s layers of lapsteel punch at the melody like a string quartet. Few other singers in Thorpe’s league ever get to sing material this good; still fewer songwriters in Thorpe’s league can deliver it with as much passion, intensity and subtlety as she does. This ought to appeal to a very wide listenership encompassing the purist Richard & Linda Thompson contingent as well as fans of the current group of A-list chanteuses (Feist, Erica Smith, Rachelle Garniez et al.) and maybe even some of the less adventurous for whom Norah Jones is simply the greatest thing out there.

February 25, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments