Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Noir Unease and Cinematic Wit on Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations

A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!

Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.

With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.

The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far

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July 8, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Funky, Entertaining, Eclectic Tunes and Improvisation from Trombonist Reut Regev

Reut Regev is one of the ringleaders in minor-key jam band Hazmat Modine’s wild brass section, and a unique, original voice on the trombone. She’s got an eclectically fun new album, Exploring the Vibe, out with her stoner funk band, R*Time, which blends elements of jazz, no wave, Ethiopian and Balkan music, among other styles. Regev got the inspiration for the project at a festival in Germany where she had the chance to play with guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly and realized that the chemistry for a good album was there. The rhythm section here is Regev’s husband Igal Foni on drums and Mark Peterson on bass, with cameos from Kevin Johnson on drums and Jon Sass on tuba. As you would expect, there’s a hypnotic, psychedelic aspect to this; at the same time, Bourelly and Regev utilize a lot of space, judiciously choosing their moments over an undulating groove. Much as a lot of the music has a restlessness and unease, a wry sense of humor pokes out from time to time. It’s a fun ride.

Bourelly plays mostly with a tinge of dirty, natural distortion when he’s not adding subtle ornamentation with his effects. Regev is a very incisive, rhythmic player, although she also likes ambient, shadowy colors. Peterson’s work here is hook-oriented – there are several passages where the drums drop out, or there’s skeletal percussion rattling around and that’s where the bass carries both melody and rhythm. Foni likes the rumbling lows, but like the rest of this crew, he doesn’t waste beats.

The opening track, Drama Maybe Drama, is a tongue-in-cheek diptych, Bourelly going off on a completely unexpected, early Jimmy Page-tinged open-tuned tangent midway through. They follow that with a buzzing, loopy, unresolved interlude and then Montenegro, which hints at reggae, funk and disco before finally hitting some Balkan riffage and then a Middle Eastern-flavored bass solo. Bluegrass and Ethiopian tinges sit side by side in Ilha Bela, a minimalisti but catchy tune with doppler trombone from Regev. Madeleine Forever, a tribute to Foni’s mom, illustrates someone who could be severe but was also very funny, winding up with biting Big Lazy-style skronky funk.

Blue Llamas makes a good segue, again evoking Big Lazy with its allusive chromatics, stomping, spacious blues, hard-hitting guitar and hypnotic rimshot rhythm. OK OJ coalesces toward a camelwalking East African groove with some neat handoffs between the guitar and trombone and a tongue-in-cheek “let’s go” outro. Raw Way, ostensibly a Junior Kimhrough homage, sounds nothing like him: way down beneath all the rumbling and shrieking and free interplay, it’s a terse blues. New Beginning is a weirdly successful, catchy attempt to merge New Orleans funk and Hendrix. There’s also a wryly bluesy guitar miniature and a bizarre stoner soul song sung by Bourelly. Who is the audience for this? Obviously, jazz fans, although people who gravitate toward the more psychedelic side of funk have an awful lot to sink their ears into.

March 27, 2013 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Natalie Cressman

Natalie Cressman doesn’t waste notes. The up-and-coming trombonist’s new album Unfolding, with her group Secret Garden, has a coolly resonant, springlike quality. Cressman’s compositions are remarkably translucent, her motifs are strong and memorable, yet this isn’t an album of big crescendos or pummeling intensity: you have to wait until her mentor Peter Apfelbaum’s long, intricately constructed tenor solo on the final track for any of that. As you might expect from a trombonist, there are occasional latin tinges, with a handful of wry allusions to classics from decades past. An airily pensive atmosphere dominates here, although some of the songs are lighter and more carefree. She brings out a singleminded performance from a crew of similarly up-and-coming players: trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg, tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, keyboardist Pascal Le Boeuf, Dutch bassist Ruben Samama and drummer Jake Goldbas.

Insistent Lee Morgan-style riffage kicks off the opening cut, Flip, Cressman establishing a terse, contemplative vibe with her initial solo. She also sings, in a clear, unadorned high soprano, contributing vocalese here and then singing her own wistful lyrics on Whistle Song, which artfully maintains a low-key backdrop for more of her cooly soulful trombone. Then the band takes a stab at reinventing Honeysuckle Rose as neo-soul: not necessarily a bad idea, but this one should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

Cressman likes echo motifs, so it’s no surprise she’d use that as the title of the next track, an attractively direct jazz waltz set to subtle rhythmic shifts with a lot of nimble pass-the-baton. She follows that with the funk-tinged, pointillistically dancing Skylight, featuring rather considered and strong solos from Samama and Rosenberg. Her take on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is especially ambitious in that she sings Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. While she doesn’t have Mitchell’s range or nuance – who does? – the band rises to the occasion and outdoes the cast on the Mitchell version, maintaining an elegaic bittersweetness. They follow that with the artfully constructed Waking, with its echo effects and arpeggiated voicings – it has the feel of a catchy Weather Report number but with a more comfortably subdued rhythm section.

Reaching for Home allusively reaches for a 40s jazz-pop ballad feel, with nimbly incisive solos back-to-back from tenor and trumpet. The final track, That Kind, gives Apfelbaum a launching pad for one of his signature raveups: it’s a clinic in how to create something magnificent out of the simplest building blocks, Cressman following it with her most memorable contribution to the album, her trombone shifting in and out of modal shadows.

Not that this should be a big deal, but it’s worth mentioning that Cressman, a member of Apfelbaum’s NY Hieroglyphics, is 20 years old. Her trombonist dad Jeff is a member of Santana; she also has a money gig on the jamband circuit. This album establishes her as someone to keep an eye on.

September 21, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Idea-Packed Big Band Improvisation from Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio has an intriguingly original album, Autobiography of a Pronoun, out now: the concept is improvisational big band jazz. This isn’t the waves of tunefulness followed by controlled chaos that Butch Morris champions, nor is it slowly shifting Greg Tate-style long-tone improvisation. What fuels this is a good sense of humor and artful orchestration: there are times when the whole ten-piece ensemble is cooking, but more often than not it’s a series of subgroups exploring a particular idea, so when the entire band gets in on it, the upward dynamics pack more of a punch. Most of this music is defiantly atonal, alluding to but seldom hitting a catchy hook head-on, the sixth track’s hypnotically syncopated Ethiopiques being the most memorable melody here in the conventional sense of the word. The presence of both Harry Scorzo’s violin and Jonathan Golove’s cello along with Anders Swanson’s frequently bowed bass add sonics that range from austere to occasionally lush and sweeping. It pretty much goes without saying that those who need a catchy tune to sing along to, or a steady beat to follow, will need to look elsewhere. But for jazz fans with an ear for the unconventional, this can be as much fun as it obviously was for the band to record.

Sample song title: Leg Belly Neon Kill Climb Unaware Pride, the ten-minute opening track. Surrealism reigns, from the pensive third-stream string ensemble introduction, a clave theme with vivid murky/airy contrasts between violin and ambience behind it, wry microtonalisms from Vlatkovich and a tasty Twin Peaks-ian interlude with legato piano leading spacious bass accents. It ends on an ominously agitated note.

The second track is more overtly improvisational, like early ELO on acid, anchored by drummer Michael Burdon’s funky shuffle, with tense strings-versus-horns contrasts, a free interlude that weaves from comedic to apprehensive and a lively, dancing bass solo out. Like the first cut, it has a persistent sense of unease. A three-part suite titled JMZ follows: its first section a rather chilling, twilit conversation between the bass and Wayne Peet’s piano, the second a blues ballad in heavy disguise contrasting rumbling, tumbling rhythms with terse piano and trombone motifs and the final an unexpectedly comic, increasingly rhythmic interlude led by William Roper’s tuba.

A jaggedly swinging large-ensemble piece, the wry Explain Why I Can’t Drive Faster Than the Car in Front of Me builds tension right from the big, lush opening chart, through a jarringly dissonant trombone/violin passage, to Peet’s piano going agitatedly off the edge into biting bop. Brian Walsh’s clarinet holds the funky Queen Dynamo together as the violin swirls and dips acidically before passing off to Jeff Kaiser’s muted trumpet and the trombone. The final piece, Memories Hold My Hand, is a sad, stately, Russian-flavored baroque requiem driven by somber tuba/trombone harmonies over flickering percussion. Those are just the highlights: other elements that are no less interesting emerge with repeated listening. Kick back with this if you’re up for getting swept into what can be an intense, inspiring, entertaining ride.

March 12, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Samuel Blaser Pushes the Envelope, As Usual

Jazz trombonist Samuel Blaser has been on a creative tear lately. His absolutely gorgeous third-stream Consort in Motion album with the late, great Paul Motian on drums plus Russ Lossing on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass was one of those records which should have been on our best-of-2011 list but got cut since it had already received so much good press elsewhere. If the idea of otherworldly jazz improvisations on vivid Renaissance themes by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi and Marini strikes you as intriguing, the album is that and much more, minutes of exquisite beauty matched by Lossing’s sepulchral, austerely glimmering, sometimes chillingly apprehensive piano and Motian’s suspenseful clouds of cymbals alongside Blaser’s purist melodicism and occasional good humor.

Blaser also has two other albums out which sound absolutely nothing like that. The first, issued last September (and also available on limited edition vinyl!), is Just Observing, credited to “three-piece brass band” La Fanfare du Porc, an irrepressibly comedic, often wickedly catchy live set on the Moisturizer or Ilhan Ersahin tip with Blaser alongside bass clarinetist Lucien Dubuis and drummer Luigi Galati. Blaser isn’t afraid to go for laughs, and neither is Dubuis, spiraling and skronking over a boogie, several shuffles, dixieland and funk beats, with droll Spokes-like counterpoint and tongue-in-cheek Gypsy Schaeffer-ish diversions, on songs with titles like In the Shower and The Olive with Variable Geometrics. If you ever wondered how well a trombone could mimic hip-hop-style turntable scratching, this is the album for you.

Notwithstanding the beauty and brilliance of Consort in Motion, the most fascinating of all of these albums is last October’s release of Boundless, a 2010 live recording of free improvisations with Blaser accompanied by Marc Ducret on guitar, Banz Oester on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Done as a lavish four-part suite, it’s hard to believe that virtually all of this is an expansive, thoughtfully paced one-chord jam. Cleaver methodically builds six-foot snowbanks with the swirls from his cymbals as Ducret alternates between long sustained tones, skronk and the occasional, savagely understated, distortion-toned attack, Blaser and Oester taking turns holding the center. The quartet calmly navigate their way from warm permutations on a characteristically vivid Blaser riff, through a long (seventeen-minute) suspense interlude with Ducret masterfully shadowing Blaser, through tense, agitated noir atmospherics fueled by Blaser’s chromatics, to a conclusion with murky echoes of dub reggae. The chemistry and interplay has a singleminded focus, and for free jazz, it’s remarkably tuneful. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what Blaser comes up with next – one thing’s for certain, which is that whatever it is, it’ll be fascinating to hear.

January 19, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Soulful Late-Night Grooves from David Gibson

Out in the country, trombonist David Gibson’s new cd End of the Tunnel would be a late-night back porch album. Here in New York, it’s more of a fire-escape record, a gorgeously catchy mix of oldschool Memphis organ grooves along with some more straight-up jazz tracks which are just as tuneful if somewhat more tricky rhythmically. It’s party music, some of it with a slinky wee-hours feel, the rest somewhat more boisterous and adventurous. Along with Gibson, the band here is Julius Tolentino on alto sax, Jared Gold on organ and Quincy Davis on drums.

The opening track, Herbie Hancock’s Blind Man, Blind Man sets the stage with a sultry southern soul feel, Gibson playing it low and sweet, the organ stepping hard on the end of his solo to drive it home. Considerably harder-hitting, the aptly titled Wasabi is a classic Booker T. Jones style groove that makes a launching pad for three different personalities: sax soaring overhead, trombone down and dirty and the organ lighting it up at the end with some blissfully atmospheric layers. The monster hit here is Sunday Morning, a brilliantly simple ensemble piece – it’s the great lost theme to the Hairspray movie. The title track is the first of the jazz numbers, absolutely hypnotic with shapeshifting overlays of sax, organ and trombone, Gold moving methodically through an endless procession of chord changes, Gibson bringing it out of the maze and back to earth. Pensive and unresolved beneath its warmhearted hooks, A Place of Our Own never really finds itself because the drums keep it from setting down roots. Splat, by Gold, works a cool Memphis theme more expansively than any of the classic 60s soul bands did; by contrast, The In-Whim moves toward psychedelia, riding a series of rises and falls over a deceptively simple tune.

They go back to the soul music with Preachin’, Gibson slyly refusing to cede ground to anyone else until he’s almost invisible, Gold taking it up robust and warmly optimistic. The closing cut is Jackie McLean’s Blue Rondo, a good fit with its blend of jazz and soul, bustling sax and drum breaks. It’s one of the great party albums (or post-party albums) of the summer of 2011, out now on Posi-Tone.

June 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Steve Swell’s Nation of We Have a Method to Their Madness

Steve Swell’s Nation of We play free jazz for big band. Last night at Roulette they were as loud as the Ramones and just as funny if understandably somewhat more clever. The trombonist/composer’s modus operandi lately (especially on his dynamite new quintet cd 5000 Poems) has been to take a memorable theme and then deconstruct it piece by piece, often as a suite, a procedure that worked especially well with this group. There was only one brief break in the action and that didn’t seem to be intentional: they seemed gung-ho on running rampant all the way through, something akin to a mass-scale version of the nonstop madness of Jon Irabagon’s latest album but with a thousand more diversions.There was a brief, tersely cinematic overture to kick it off, everyone in the nineteen-piece juggernaut going their separate ways within a couple of minutes which kicked up a considerable racket, especially with the two drummers. Striking almost a boxer’s stance as he conducted the group, Swell punched the air and grabbed the first series of many deviously funny moments, the chosen band members each musically sticking out their tongues as the riff made its way around the room. It quickly grew to a chaotic, bustling urban soundscape, the ghost of Mingus punching the air just like Swell, invisible but vividly present.

Several sections where band members paired off, squared off or simply conversed were especially well-chosen. One passage where tenor player Sabir Mateen and cellist Daniel Levin held it down and served as the voice of reason while the rest of the crew went haywire was effectively suspenseful: were they going to succeed in pulling some melody out of everybody else’s muck? No. A call-and-response between the bass and Bob Stewart’s tuba was welcome comic relief, as was a squirrely argument between tenor and trombone which drew laughs from the exuberant crowd. Other sections pitted stark strings – Jason Hwang and Rosi Hertlein on violin alongside Levin – versus the brass or the rhythm section, sometimes melodically, sometimes rhythmically. The most memorable solo of the night was exactly that, one of the trumpets emerging all by himself out of diminishing chaos with a lithe, lyrical flight, the rest of the group jumping back in, oblivious. Swell took judicious yet joyously noisy solos during the two final, mammoth crescendos. After a long, circular, pizzicato interlude by Hwang, Swell glanced at his watch and, raising his hands as high as he could, pulled every last remaining decibel out of the group until there were no more to be had. With that, he took a leap, the group slammed out a series of deathblows and that finally destroyed what was left of the piece. It would have been nice to have been able to hear Swell’s band intros (and give credit here – from the back of the room, it was hard to see every face in the band and figure out just who all these cats were), but his voice was no match for the crowd’s standing ovation. One can only hope this was recorded (memo to the woman in the front row with the iphone: put your stuff up on youtube!).

Steve Swell’s Nation of We are back at Roulette tonight and tomorrow night at 8:30. He’s with his Serious Trio (Andrew Raffo Dewar and Garrison Fewell) at IBeam in Brooklyn on 9/11 at 10 and on 9/12 at DMG, 113 Monroe St. in Manhattan at 6 PM and then on 9/14 with his International Trio (Joachim Badenhorst and Ziv Ravitz) at the Douglass St. Music Collective in Gowanus at 8. Roulette is moving from their comfortable SoHo digs to Third and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn sometime in 2011, ostensibly to a 600-seat theatre space which they hope to renovate with help from their crowd. If they do there what they do here, they deserve it.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Steve Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite – 5000 Poems

This is definitely a team effort, which is what you always want with a band but particularly with a cast of free jazz luminaries like these guys. The fun of this album is akin to improv theatre: everybody has an assigned role, the choicest moments being when the blend – or clash – of personalities results in something combustible or funny. Most, but not all, of the ideas they expand on here are thematic rather than melodic or even rhythmic – in an odd way, it’s a very conversational album, if the conversation itself gets pretty crazy in places. Bandleader/trombonist Steve Swell is the man in the tower – he tells the train when it’s time to go or to hang in the station for awhile. Drummer Klaus Kugel is the gathering storm, always about to rain thunder down on the listener and getting every ounce of suspense out of it since he virtually never does. Bassist Matthew Heyner does the lighting – he’s the guy down the tunnel with the flashlight, which is usually off since the atmospherics he puts into play here are pretty dark. Pianist John Blum gets less time in the spotlight than anyone else here – ironically, he seems to be having the most fun. Reed player Sabir Mateen, alternating between alto and tenor sax, clarinet and alto clarinet, and flute serves as Swell’s sparring partner when he’s not jumping all over the place to keep himself warm and ready for the next volley of notes.

The most coherent cut here, the third track has the bass running a modified latin groove, trombone creating a suspenseful noir mood over a scurrying rhythm section. Mateen eventually shows up and Swell won’t make room for him so he bashes in the door – and then Blum gets involved. And it’s back to the noir. Every now and then, there will be a lull as the band figures out what they’re going to do next, which can be humorous but also very effective as a suspense device: on the album’s opening track, listening to Blum stumble around in the dark, not having the faintest idea of where he is or what to do there, and then finally join in with the drums with a nonchalant robustness, perfectly illustrates the kind of unexpected magic this crew can deliver.

The second track has Heyner hinting at a pensive Middle Eastern mode, fluttery flute contrasting vividly with intense, percussive piano. Kugel absolutely owns the fourth cut, practically fifteen minutes of ominous rumble beneath the squall of the horns. The last number features what might be the quietest section of a drum solo ever recorded, Mateen’s solo following with similar laid-back warmth. The recording enhances the murky vividness of many of these performances – it sounds like it was recorded with a central room mic or two, the piano sometimes a strikingly disembodied, out-of-leftfield presence. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Samuel Blaser Quartet – Pieces of Old Sky

This is what free jazz ought to sound like. While there’s definitely plenty of composition here, there’s also an extraordinary amount of listening and the smart, thoughtful playing that good musicians do when they’re all tuned into each other. Trombonist Samuel Blaser leads the crew and gets extra props for putting this particular unit together. This is one of those albums that the drummer absolutely owns: Tyshawn Sorey rumbles underneath, methodically like a subway (by turns a steady local train, a work train inching by or an occasional express roaring along) as guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Thomas Morgan add shade and color in a stunning display of minimalist precision. No wasted notes here!

Blaser gets the over seventeen-minute title track to work off a stately, thoughtful five-note riff punctuated by stillness and deftly placed accents by Neufeld and Morgan. As with the rest of the tracks here, there’s more following and echoing than there is actual interplay, the musicians taking turns building off a minute, intricate phrase, almost a contest where the winner is he who can say the most with the least. Which with generally quiet music is an admirable goal. On this song, guitar and then bass maintain suspense two steps behind the beat, which at a lento crawl is a lot harder than it sounds. Blaser’s unexpectedly triumphant windup to the song actually adds an undercurrent of unease (that device will recur later to rousing effect).

The second cut, Red Hook scurries without actually scurrying – Blaser’s trombone runs it alone as the rhythm section stays terse and deliberate with vivid washes of sound from Neufeld’s guitar. They follow it with the pensive, plaintive Choral I (which they return to as a concluding theme), and then the aptly titled Mystical Circle, Blaser remaining defiantly casual, even out-of-focus throughout a series of methodical descending progressions. The dark, murky, minor-key Mandala is nothing short of phantasmagorical; by contrast, Speed Game is tongue-in-cheek, more a series of relays than any kind of sprint. This quiet, deft display of talent is nothing short of a stealth contender for one of the best jazz albums of 2009.

October 28, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment