Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Vijay Iyer Brings His Dark, Breathtaking, Richly Tuneful Power to Downtown Brooklyn Friday Night

Vijay Iyer’s work with small groups over the past year or so has been transcendent. This era’s cognoscenti’s pick as the world’s best jazz pianist put out one of the most rapturously soulful, understatedly intense albums of 2016, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Iyer’s riveting, haunting trio score to a Teju Cole video program with  bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan at National Sawdust this past summer is just one more example of the kind of intimate lyricism he’s been fixated on lately. His latest album. Far From Over, with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is expanded to a sextet with Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. It’s a typically translucent, often wickedly catchy and very dark in places, a vivid reflection of troubled times. Some but not all of it has made it to youtube.

Iyer and the group are playing night two of this year’s Bric Jazz Festival on Oct 20 at around 11:30 PM at Bric Arts, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in downtown Brooklyn. The night is a mixed bag of allstars and duds: the allstars, in reverse order, include headlining violinist Regina Carter reinventing Ella Fitzgerald tunes, trumpeter Dave Douglas “Meets the Westerlies,” latin jazz trombonist Papo Vazquez‘s Mighty Pirate Troubadours, haunting Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and Sylvia Rexach interpreters Miramar, and drummer LaFrae Sci + the Groove. $25 advance tix are still available as of today. The auditorium is about equidistant from the 2/3 at Hoyt St. and the G at Fulton St., otherwise, it’s a short walk from the Atlantic Ave. station.

The first track is full of surprises. Iyer gives it a moodily crystalline intro, followed by a vampy, funky Steve Coleman-ish strut that recedes for meandering microtonalisms from Lehman and then a poignant flugelhorn statement from Haynes. By that point, Iyer has switched to Rhodes; the broodingly intertwining coda brings it full circle.

The title track opens with deliciously bustling, noir-tinged, Mingus-esque drama and low, burnished horns, whose round-robin of solos quickly introduces an unstoppable detective squad as Iyer glistens and churns with the bass and drums below before dancing on a wire with some moodily rich modalitiies. Sorey’s offhandedly savage cymbal splash at the end kills it perfectly.

Nope is a punchy, funky Rhodes tune with chattering, New Orleans-tinged horns and a droll Iyer solo on piano at the center. Hayes’ psychedelic, electronically warped oscillations mingle with Iyer’s eerily starry Rhodes in End of the Tunnel, a miniature that recalls Bob Belden’s creepily futuristic late work. Iyer builds out of leapfrogging, uneasily altered minor-key blues as Down to the Wire picks up steam, Shim adding a purposefully scampering solo over the rhythm section’s long, aching upward drive, Sorey’s solo a panther across the parade grounds before the final bristling coda.

For Amiri Baraka, a piano trio piece, opens as a spare, wistful dirge and then moves toward outright wrath: if there’s any Halloweenish track here, it’s this one – although the funky, driving  Into Action has a similarly ominous, modal intensity that backs away a bit for an unexpectedly balmy turn by Haynes. Iyer’s subtle shift from blithe music-box twinkle to Bill Mays Twin Peaks menace is the album’s most artful moment. Then Iyer moves back and forth between piano and Rhodes in Wake, a grimly atmospheric piece of Beldenesque cinematics.

Clenched-teeth piano chromatics and gritty low horns propel Good on the Ground up to a fleeting bhangra riff. Shim and Iyer punch at the shadows together up to an Iyer solo that’s vintage Keith Jarrett on steroids, then they bring back the bhangra. As the closing cut, Threnody gets underway, Iyer shifts sagely from calm reflection to a stern, elegaic, Messiaenic belltone pulse. A lot of people are going to call this this best jazz album of 2017 – check back here in December to see where it lands on the best-of lists.

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October 16, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mesmerizing Lynchian Nocturnes from Sara Serpa and Andre Matos

Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums

While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.

It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.

Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work

Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.

The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.

Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.

December 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myra Melford’s Village Vanguard Debut: A Clinic in Good Ideas and Good Times

It’s hard to believe that last night marked pianist Myra Melford‘s debut as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard. She’s won so many awards and fellowships and such that it was easy to assume that she’d already done that…until a persuasive publicist prompted a serious twist-my-arm moment. On a raw, nippy, pleasantly mostly tourist-free night, with probably as much jazz talent there watching as there was onstage, this show was a no-brainer. Beyond pure unleashed fun, the early set last night made a case for how the music Tonic was booking fifteen years ago has become…well…the vanguard.

Melford and her group Snowy Egret delivered pretty much everything you could possibly want from an improvising ensemble. There were all manner of pairings, and duels, and conversations between instruments. Acoustic bassist Satoshi Takeishi’s devious leaps and bounds against drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s whispery poltergeist cymbals; guitarist Liberty Ellman’s good purist postbop cop vs. Melford’s deadpan minimalist recidivist; and cornetist Ron Miles’ tug-of-war with the piano, employing all sorts of elephantine extended technique versus Melford’s resolutely glistening undercurrent, were just a few examples.

It’s one thing to listen to the group’s album while multitasking. Immersed in those songs live, Melford’s multifaceted erudition was stunning. For one, the Afro-Cuban influence is everywhere, particularly in the rhythm, if frequently implied.. Sorey and Takeishi would typically build to a rumbling, floating swing as the songs’ long crescendos rose to the point where Melford and her merry band would take things thisclose to haywire but hanging back from complete pandemonium, then typically following a graceful downward arc, typically punctuated by a friendly bit of jousting or repartee between soloists.

Many of Melford’s compositions have an ornate, multi-segmented architecture, and this group is a propulsive vehicle for that. The most stunning moment of the set was a plaintively rippling, minor-key neoromantic piano theme over a stygian swirl about midway through the third number, The Virgin of Guadalupe, one of a handful of tunes from the group’s 2015 album. Other moments gave Melford a chance to air our her signature blend of vivid lyricism, knottily looping phrases and cleverly deconstructed swing And later, for about twenty seconds, she finally took the night’s single downward spiral through bluesy cocktail jazz – the kind that Dave Brubeck insisted that every pianist would eventually devolve to – as if to say, “I can do this in my sleep, bu I don’t, and that’s why we’re all here.”

Melford and Snowy Egret are back at the Vanguard with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 tonight and through March 6. Cover is $30.

March 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mycale’s Sara Serpa Enchants the Stone

If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.

Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.

And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.

Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.

September 16, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piano Luminary Myra Melford Returns to Her Old LES Stomping Ground

Is it fair to call pianist Myra Melford a cult artist? Her music is so full of life, and tunes, and ideas and color that spans the emotional spectrum. In the NYC downtown jazz scene, she’s iconic, a status she earned in the 90s before she hightailed it for a UC/Berkeley professorship. She’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone starting this Tuesday, March 24 with sets at 8 and 10 PM and continuing through the 29th; cover is $15. There are too many enticing sets to list here: the 8 PM duo shows with whirlwind drummer Allison Miller on the 24th and then with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on the 25th ought to be especially good for completely different reasons. There’s also a reunion of her playful Be Bread sextet on the 26th at 10 and a quintet show with trumpet luminary Dave Douglas the following night, also at 10 – and that’s just for starters.

Melford’s latest album, due out on the 24th, is Snowy Egret with the band of the same name: Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. For a taste of the album – since it’s not out yet – give a listen to the final cut, The Strawberry, which hints that it’s going to be a boogie-woogie number before Melford takes it to Havana – and Sorey’s drumming is funny beyond words in places. Ellman’s biting circularities kickstart a series of divergences before Melford pulls everybody back on the rails.

As for the rest? There’s humor and irony, and a frequently dancing pulse. A handful of numbers seem to allude to the first age of imperialism in the Americas and the centuries of havoc in its wake. The first track, Language, pulses along as shuffling variations on a fanfare riff bookending a typically soulful, clear-as-the-Denver-sky Miles solo. An expansively spiky, spare Ellman solo opens Night of Sorrow, the band plaintively filling in around Melford’s spaciously elegaic, bluesy motives. Promised Land delivers some wry shout-and-response and divergent tangents within its syncopated staccato bounce.

Ching Ching For Love of Fruit – a slot machine reference, it seems – moves from a mournful muted trumpet/melodica duet between Miles and Melford to an unexpectedly carnivalesque theme, Takeishi mimicking a tuba and Sorey rattling his hardware. Likewise, The Kitchen opens with picturesque pots-and-pans drollery from Sorey, Miles and Ellman having lots of fun spinning plates and such before Takeishi makes it funky, then Melford takes it on a clenched-teeth, uh-oh trajectory.

Takeishi’s growling attack and Ellman’s fluttery unease pair with Melford’s lingering foreshadowing and Miles’ resonance throughout Times of Sleep and Fate, a tone poem of sorts that builds to a brooding, AACM-inflected majesty. Little Pockets – Everybody Pays Taxes sees the band taking some aptly squirrelly cinematics in a considerably more ominous, insistent direction: whatever you do, don’t answer the door!

First Protest works a rhythmically dizzying marionette theme, Sorey and Ellman leading the charge along a twisted second line parade route. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the album’s most expansive and moodiest track, pairs Miles’ funereal lines with Melford’s understatedly plaintive neoromantic precision, building toward a bitter bolero. Of all the cuts here, it comes closest to being the definitive one, spacious and pensive and quietly packing a wallop.

March 23, 2015 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

CD Review: Jacam Manricks – Labyrinth

As has been observed here before, the newly renascent trend of augmenting a jazz group with a string section is a particularly welcome development – let’s hope more artists discover what Miles and Gil Evans knew decades ago. On this new album, saxophonist/composer/educator Jacam Manricks is the latest to utilize the approach, very innovatively and successfully. His inspirations come from all over – it’s obvious that he’s listened widely. With a forty-piece chamber orchestra featured on several of the tracks along with an inspired quintet including Manricks on saxes and flute, Jacob Sacks (of the excellent White Rocket) on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Thomas Morgan on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, the melodies here are strong, taking on an even greater intensity with the lushness of the arrangements.

On the cd’s opening cut, Portal, Sacks improvises upper-register rivulets as Manricks’ sax builds to a buoyant crescendo, the melody a variation on a Debussy theme. Microgravity begins gently, then the strings build over a martial beat evocative of Sketches of Spain (a motif that will recur even more evocatively later on). The orchestra swirls around behind a brightly reverberating Monder solo…and then a four-note pizzicato string motif echoes an earlier Manricks riff. Eerily ambient strings and sax end it on a suspenseful note. The title track builds on stately, sparse low-register piano intervals (fourths and seconds), much in the style of what Herbie Hancock and his contemporaries were doing in the late 60s, drums following and playing off the piano beat as Manricks adds balmy color.

The fourth track, Move has a pensive, tropical feel with acoustic guitar and soprano sax, down to an expressive, somewhat tense piano solo, Manricks maintaining the downcast intensity as the rhythm grows more complex.  Cloisters, a somewhat epic number inspired by the popular uptown New York pre-Renaissance art museum/date spot and its lush, green surroundings, works around a bright, joyful theme – the bus has finally reached the end of the line, yay! With Aeronautics, the piano feels around as Manricks establishes the mood, glimmering quietly, through a Monder solo and then some of Manricks’ most poignant work here. March and Combat begins as an overt Sketches of Spain homage, its second half a pulsing Ravel Bolero-inspired chart. Aptly titled, the album’s concluding cut, Rothko is a hypnotic, static tone poem. This album is both cutting-edge and memorably tuneful – these are songs that will run through your head as you walk down the street. Watch this space for upcoming live dates.

July 14, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment