What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.
French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.
Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.
Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.
Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.
The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.
Fun and interesting show this past Thursday night at the Delancey with tantalizingly brief sets from soul singer/bandleader Amana Melome and paradigm-shifting jazz organist Brian Charette and his Mighty Grinders trio with Will Bernard on guitar and Eric Kalb on drums. Melome has Ellington band royalty in her veins – her bassist grandfather Jimmy Woode was a member of the Ellington orchestra and played with many other golden age jazz names as well. The Stockholm-based chanteuse maintained a low-key vibe, drawing the crowd in with her simmering, jazz-inflected downtempo and soul grooves. Backed by an electric pianist who varied his textures from song to song plus a tersely swinging acoustic rhythm section, Melome aired out a mix of tunes from her latest ep Lock and Key. Like her music, her misty mezzo-soprano vocals build a mood and explore its intricacies and secret corners rather than wailing or pleading. Her most intriguing and original number was Icarus, which recast the myth as a tribute to thrill-seeking rather than cautionary tale. Other than emo and grunge, neosoul may be the unsexiest style of music on the planet, but Melome keeps it real and could elevate a lot of people along with her.
Charette is an intrepid player, as influenced by classical music and dub as he is by the icons of jazz organ. And he can be awfully funny – he’s the kind of guy who will get a crowd grinning and shaking their heads and asking each other, did he just play that? Uh huh, he did. As usual, he couldn’t resist throwing in a handful of droll quotes when least expected – and he’ll play anywhere. The Delancey is a rock club, but Charette was clearly amped to take the gig. He opened with the shapeshifting Yue Fei, from his Square One album and then followed with the LOL faux-operatic bombast of the tongue-in-cheek Not a Purist: welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends, step inside, step inside, he seemed to be telling the crowd.
Then he flipped the script with Hungarian Brown, a trickily rhythmic, haunting Romany melody fueled by Bernard’s searing slide work: who knew he had that up his sleeve. Charette and the band wound up the night with an expansively funky take of Jimmy Smith’s 8 Counts for Rita, leaving no doubt that was where James Brown – who got his start as an organist – found his first inspiration.
Charette’s next gig is at 8 PM this Friday, March 27 at Jules Bistro on St. Mark’s Place with Matt Chertkoff on guitar and Jordan Young on drums, his last New York show before heading off to the Czech Republic where he’ll be touring next month as part of powerhouse saxophonist Mike DiRubbo‘s trio.
Idiosyncratic, cutting-edge percussion group Ensemble Et. Al. create catchy compositions with hypnotic grooves that bridge the gap between chillout instrumentals, pastoral jazz and indie classical music. Their previous ep When the Tape Runs Out was a lot of fun, as is their new one Present Point Passed, streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page. The quartet of group leader Ron Tucker, J. Ross Marshall, Jeff Eng and Charles Kessenich plays the album release show at Spectrum at 8 PM on Jan 18.
The opening track, No Matter How Fast You Run Today sets the stage for the rest of the album, a shuffling, mechanical series of cymbal loops underpining a resonant vibraphone melody. The tune’s warm/cold dichotomy reminds of a more minimalistic version of vibraphone-driven jazz sensations Bryan & the Aardvarks.
A Brief Story Without an Ending works a similar contrast through a series of simple, direct, modal vibraphone vamps that rise and fall on waves from the drums and cymbals. An Afterword of an Image balances mechanical marimba phrases against steady bells and resonant vibraphone that ebb and flow with a hypnotic, carillonesque grace. Choose Your Own Adventure takes a rather droll riff that sounds like a doorchime and weaves it amid long, suspenseful crescendos that begin as drones and peak with a restrained, precisely rippling intensity.
Where the Past Goes Once You Forget sets echoes of both carillon and gamelan music to a tricky tempo with insistent countermelodies and a simple, catchy synth bassline. The final track, Clock-Watching Isn’t Waiting weaves a couple of mechanical vibraphone riffs into a lullaby of sorts to which the ensemble adds more jaunty but similarly hypnotic, intertwined variations. If lingering, intricate and understatedly rhythmic tunesmithing is your thing, this music will draw you in and hold you rapt.
One closing thought: because this group uses synth bass here and there, why not put bass on all the arrangements? That isn’t to say that the group’s sound is lacking in any way, only that a harmonic anchor on the low end and yet another intriguing texture where presently there isn’t much of one would make this music even more captivating.
How adorable is Zeena Parkins‘ album The Adorables? Not particularly. But it is very trippy, and often very creepy, and a lot of fun. In addition to her gig as Bjork’s harpist, Parkins has been a denizen of the downtown scene for a long time, beginning well before the Knitting Factory and then moving on to Tonic and the Stone. This album – with Shayna Dunkelman on vibes and percussion, Danny Blume on guitar, Deep Singh and Dave Sharma on percussion and Preshish Moments on electronics, sounds like a live recording from the Stone and is best appreciated as a whole.
A syncopated trip-hop beat with echoey Rhodes, skronky guitar and electronic blips and bleeps sets the scene, creepy and tinkling. Parkins eventually emerges along with what sounds like a mellotron. Signaled by a jaunty percussion break, the ensemble rises to a hypnotically dreamy, twinkling groove. That’s the first number. The second builds along similar lines as textures grow more dense, Parkins’ insistent crashes against woozy synth; the third builds from sardonic vocals to a rattling interlude (is that a cimbalom?!?), to loopy anthemics.
An unease sets in at that point and pretty much never leaves, beginning with Parkins’ tritones conversing with weird, robotic effects (talking with a robot would make anyone uneasy, right?). From there the band takes it into whooshing Bernard Herrmann atmospherics, to skronk, and then back with a mechanical shuffle, Dunkelman’s distantly menacing vibes solo looming in from the great beyond. Parkins’ spiky, noir melody against the lingering resonance of the vibes and the jungle of effects is arguably the album’s high point.
From there, wry early 80s-style synth fuels a Halloweenish take on P-Funk in 6/8. Twinkles and booms rise to an uneasy, dancing doublespeed that eventually loops with a West African rhythm. And then it’s over. The album is out from Cryptogramophone; Parkins’ next New York gig is an especially intriguing one, on Dec 5 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre, where she joins a chamber ensemble playing percussively hypnotic works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – this past evening at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering, It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.
Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.
In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”
Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.
Moist Paula Henderson (whose nickname stems from her longtime leadership of legendary instrumental trio Moisturizer) has been the standout baritone saxophonist in the New York downtown scene for several years. Her own work has an irrepressible joie de vivre and wry humor; her new album with her latest project, Tzar, recorded live at the Stone this past February takes a turn in a considerably different, much darker direction. Here she’s joined by Ithaca, New York musicians Brian “Willie B” Wilson on drums, electronics and bass pedals (who really gets a workout, playing everything simultaneously, it seems) and Michael Stark on keyboards. Their intriguing multi-segmented pieces blend elements of trip-hop, downtempo, noise and the edgy jazz that Henderson has pursued more deeply in recent years. It’s a deliciously mysterious, eclectic ride. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.
The first track, There’s a Prayer for That opens with a raw, bitter piano theme and variations against rumbling drums, Henderson’s stark, biting swirls enhancing the smoky ambience. Funereal organ then replaces the piano and the piece morphs into creepy trip-hop. Begin At Sunset maintains the vibe, sax mingling suspensefully with layers of uneasy synth and squiggly eleectronic EFX, then takes an unexpected turn into dub reggae. The most improvisational-sounding number is Ambient Subtraction, Henderson’s otherworldly, harmonically tingling polytonalities blending into a morass of textures as the storm builds to an ominously insectile rumble. By contrast, the cheery go-go theme Hibachi Sushi Dance sounds like a Moisturizer outtake, but even more minimalist. The album winds up with Knuckles & Milk, juxtaposing surreallistic, mechanical menace a la Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine with noisy, paint-peeling synth squalls over a martial beat, Henderson raising the tension with a marvelously terse, chromatically-charged interlude before turning it over to Wilson. Play this one with the lights out. Recommended equally for fans of jazz, psychedelia and dark rock.
Over a year ago, adventurous percussion group Ensemble Et Al sent a package of files over the transom here. Where they sat, and sat, waiting patiently for their turn on the front page. At last, that time has come: their ep When the Tape Runs Out is a lot of fun. Most of it is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page, along with their ep of group leader Ron Tucker’s arrangements of works by Arvo Part and Goldmund (Keith Kenniff) which is available for free download.
The opening track, A Beautiful Walk Through Industrial Wasteland builds to a groove that closely resembles Bill Withers’ Use Me. If that’s intentional, it’s clever; either way, the intricate, gamelanesque assemblage of lingering vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel tones along with less resonant metal and wood objects played by Tucker, J. Ross Marshall and Charles Kessenich manages to be both hypnotic and catchy. In a Crowded Room with Nothing to Think About works a playfully direct, Steve Reich-ish circular theme into a series of charmingly chiming layers. A disarmingly attractive, rather Lynchian lullaby, Confessions of an Honest Man balances atmospheric lows against tersely ringing highs.
Finding Simple Wonders As the Day Turns the Night develops a wickedly memorable minimalist melody into an eerie music box-like theme over an implied trip-hop groove. The ep closes with a warily spacious take on Arvo Part’s Fur Elina, a secret bonus track. Fans of downtempo and chillout music as well as indie classical types should check this out. Ensemble Et Al are on an intriguing triplebill of percussion ensembles with Concert Black and Iktus Percussion on March 26 at 8 PM at Galapagos, $15 advance tickets are recommended.
Ravish Momin’s Tarana have a very bracing, sometimes haunting, hypnotic new ep out, titled After the Disquiet. On a lot of it, the disquiet is still very much present. It’s a duo project with eclectic violinist Trina Basu (also of diverse south Asian influenced violin/cello duo Karavika). Momin’s signature sound comes from his syndrums: recorded live in the studio, it’s electronically processed beats that swing much of the time – much as the sounds are chilly, the feel is organic rather than canned. Basu shifts allusively between terse pizzicato, plaintive chromatic lead lines and the occasionally aggressive staccato passage, alternately ambient and intensely melodic.
The first track, Disposable, works off a north Indian folk theme, edgily terse variations on what sounds like an Italian tarantella. It sets the tone for the rest of the album with striking warm/cold contrasts between violin and drums, Basu working her way up from minimalist pizzicato to stark melody and back down, and then finally a speedy crescendo where she goes high and eerily airy before both strings and drums meet in the middle. That one’s just short of nine minutes of fun.
The second track, Night Song, a homage to the late jazz bassist Wilber Morris shifts from tabla and electronic efx with a somewhat anxious, repetitive violin hook, to a hypnotic blitz of electronic percussion, to a wary chromatic violin theme, to faster trip-hop with pizzicato that fades out gracefully and sepulchrally. An almost nine-minute jam, Black Teeth of Trees sets stately, chromatic pizzicato against a thicket of straight-up 4/4 efx. The final, rhythmically tricky cut, Hava, was inspired by the intricately air-cooled Hava Mahal palace in Jaipur, India. It’s mostly echoey,minimalist drums with ghostly electronic embellishments til the violin comes in hinting at a major key or some kind of resolution, but not going there until almost three minutes in. After alternating passages of solo drums and violin again, it ends unresolved. Fans of adventurous, tuneful, eclectic string bands from Luminescent Orchestrii to Copal will enjoy this.
See-I is the roots reggae project of two musicians, Arthur and Archie Steele (who go by Rootz and Zeebo, respectively), masterminds of a Washington, DC reggae scene. On their debut album, they’re joined by a diverse cast of musicians from Chuck Brown’s band along with others who’ve toured with them backing Thievery Corporation. Their debut release is a clever, entertaining party mix, a smooth digital production that blends an early 90s Jamaican feel (boomy bass and synthesized brass) with neoretro psychedelic elements: wah-wah, vintage organ patches and every noodly keyboard texture available. Which comes as no surprise, considering that Rob Myers of hilariously entertaining psychedelic chillout instrumentalists Thunderball is involved with the production.
The slinky, midtempo opening cut Dangerous sets the stage for what’s to come, with plenty of dub tinges. They follow that with Haterz 24/7, vintage Buju Banton-style dancehall patois over a fluid roots groove. Dub Revolution is driven by a catchy minor-key bass hook as squiggly synth and creepy, upper register electric piano textures filter in and out of the mix. They segue out of it into Soul Hit Man, transforming the groove into a jaunty bounce with a retro 70s soul vibe. Talking About the Peace shifts back to an oldschool 90s dancehall flavor, while Homegrown 2011 is funk/reggae with some unexpected bluesmetal guitar. Blow Up is the most hypnotic, dubwise track here, with some creepily bizarre electric sitar.
The most upbeat cut here, How We Do, features a ton of wah textures beneath the deadpan dancehall chatter. It deserves its own dub version – and it segues into one, yeah mon! Soul Universe is a sleepy stoner soul vamp with a George Clinton-esque rap; they close the album with a couple of woozy trip-hop vamps and what seems like an obligatory nod to hip-hop. To fully appreciate this album, something better than an ipod is required, preferably a system that can handle all the bass here. Mi a seh it a good ting!
In their New York debut at Bowery Poetry Club last night, Vespertina took the stage late. Was there an equipment malfunction? No, their string quartet were busy putting on their masks: evil, feline, woodland sprite faces. Frontwoman Lorrie Doriza went without one, as did her collaborator, a producer who goes by the name of Stoupe (from brilliant, socially aware hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks), standing to her left running ominous, lushly orchestrated backing tracks that sounded like something off a Wu-tang record circa 1996. There is no band in the world who sound anything like them, nor was there any respite from the intensity in their 45 minutes onstage. Doriza has one of those voices that comes along every ten years or so: from the point of view of someone who saw Neko Case in 1999 and Amanda Palmer a year later, she’s in the same league. There are other singers who have an equally impressive range, or an upper register just as powerful, but the most impressive thing about what she did is that she didn’t lapse into a single cliche all night. As the strings and the loops blended into a horror-film backdrop, the gleeful menace, and wounded angst, and rage, and sultriness in Doriza’s voice was so real it was scary. If those are characters she plays, she owns them.
Those girls are tortured. They want one thing, and that’s escape, beginning with the Girl in the Basement, the twisted waltz (and first single off the band’s new album The Waiting Wolf) that opened the show. That set the stage for the rest of the set. The only respite from the macabre was the closing number, a lushly arranged goodnight song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Abby Travis catalog, which relented just a little. Otherwise, the minor-key menace would not let up, and they managed to maintain the suspense because Doriza wouldn’t go completely over the top. When finally, finally, she let out a scream, it was a little one. Of course the laptop guy looped it and sent it back into the mix, echoing over and over – but in the distance, which made it all the more disturbing. One of the early songs in the set began like an aria, but quickly backed off. “Take me out,” Doriza implored – not on a date, one assumes. “She’ll be knocking down your door, burning down your home…nothing like a woman scorned,” she sang coldbloodedly on a tango-tinged song a bit later on.
The next number – like most of them, set to a prerecorded trip-hop beat – began with “You’ve been having trouble sleeping” and by the second verse it was “You’re having trouble breathing.” After that, the band got all atmospheric and trippy, slowly emerging from the abyss into a stately 6/8 anthem: “I’m not stupid – I just don’t care,” Doriza sang, desperate yet nonchalant. “You can’t escape me,” was the next song’s mantra, followed by “I’m running out of patience.” During the early part of the show, the string arrangements were too low in the mix; when they came up about a third of the way into the show, it was obvious how they’d been assembled to provide an artful lead track of sorts over the stuff that was in the can, which the ensemble delivered seamlessly yet emphatically beneath Doriza’s wounded wail. Count this as one of the best concerts of 2011, hands down – if the album is anything like this, it must be amazing. They’re playing the one town on Long Island that suits them best – Amityville – on May 29 at a place called Ollie’s Point.