Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resolve by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

December 14, 2019 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Riveting, Eclectic Creative Music This Fall in an Unexpected Chinatown Space

One of this year’s most fascinating and eclectic ongoing free concert series is happening right now at the James Cohan Gallery at 48 Walker St, west of Broadway, in Chinatown. Through mid-October, a parade of improvisers, from Middle Eastern and Indian music to postbop and the furthest reaches of free jazz, are playing solo shows in the midst of Josiah McElheny’s futuristic, outer space-themed exhibit Observations at Night. There’s not much seating but there is plenty of standing room.

Last week’s performance by pedal steel legend Susan Alcorn was rapturous, and haunting, and revealingly intimate. Although she used plenty of extended technique – plucking out flickers of harmonics up by the bridge, generating smudgy whirs by rubbing the strings and, for a couple of crescendos, getting the whole rig resonating like at the end of A Day in the Life – she didn’t use a lot of effects, just a touch of reverb from her amp.

She opened the show like a sitar player, building subtle shades off a dark blues phrase, finally flitting and pinging across the strings to contrast with the stygian buildup. Throughout the night, she talked to the crowd more than usual. She explained that the first of many epiphanies that drew her from her original style, country music, to more harmonically complex styles was when, on the way to a gig, she heard Messiaen’s requiem for war victims and was so blown away that she had to pull off the road to listen to it. She was late to that gig, and it took her over a year to tackle the mail-ordered sheet music for the piece, but it was a life-changing event.

Then she played her own original, which she’d written as a requiem in a more general sense for victims of fascism. The Messiaen influence was striking, right from the stern, chillingly chromatic series of opening chords, but from there she went from eerie close-harmonied minimalism to sudden, horrified leaps and bounds, back to mournful stillness.

She explained that she’d always tried to keep music and politics separate, but that the current climate has made that impossible. From there, she shared her horror at how the ugliness of past decades has returned, on a global scale, particularly in Trumpie xenophobia and anti-refugee hostility here at home. With that, she segued from an austere, unexpectedly rhythmic take of Victor Jara song made famous by Violeta Parra, to a brief, longing coda of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

On a similarly outside-the-box if less harrowing note, she made her way methodically from the old countrypolitan ballad I’m Your Toy – which Elvis Costello covered on his Almost Blue album – and then couldn’t resist a verse or two of Almost Blue itself. The man himself couldn’t have been more clever. From there she built reflecting-pool Monk echoes, reveling in the lingering tritones. She closed with an austere, guardedly hopeful take of Song  of the Birds, the moody Catalon folk tune that Pablo Casals would close his infrequent concerts with after he’d gone into exile.

The next show at the gallery is on Sept 25 at 6:30 PM with intense free jazz alto saxophonist Makoto Kawashima.

September 23, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camila Meza Brings Her Disarmingly Direct Voice, Guitar and Unflinching Political Sensibility to the West Village

Camila Meza’s lustrous, wondrous, disarmingly clear vocals mirror the way she plays guitar. For that reason, she’s highly sought after. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in trombonist Ryan Keberle’s group, and also plays a central role in Fabian Almazan’s large ensemble. She’s as vivid a lyricist in English as in her native Spanish; when she sings vocalese, she’s more likely to harmonize with a guitar line than to imitate a postbop horn solo.

That often shatteirngly direct sensibility serves her songwriting well. Her work has a fearless political relevance, inspired by decades of populist songwrirting from throughout Latin America. Her most recent album Traces is streaming at Sunnyside Records. She’s playing a characteristically politically-fueled show with pianist Aaron Goldberg on May 10 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15/$10 stud.

The album opens with Para Volar, a bright, gently churning melody underneath her Spanish-language lyrics, an allusively triumphant shout-out to freedom and escape, a common theme in the Chilean-born Meza’s music. Her guitar bubbles and leaps over the lithe rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Shai Maestro kicking into his driving low register as Meza’s solo peaks out. She revisits that optimism a little later in the album’s kinetic title track, where she turns up her guitar and cuts loose, more gritty and lowdown.

Jody Redhage’s spare cello and Maestro’s sparkly Rhodes mingle with Meza’s gentle fingerpicking in Away, a wistful, hypnotic duet with Sachal Vasandani. Meza’s precise, clipped vocals leave no doubt as to the deadly consequences in Djavan’s bitter eco-disaster narrative Amazon Farewell, Maestro adding a richly incisive, darkly rippling solo.

Mar Elastico is an enigmatically hazy, summery reminiscence of Meza’s childhood adventures with her sisters, Maestro’s Rhodes front and center; Scott’s distant-tornado cymbals behind Meza’s delicate jangle is one of the album’s high points. She switches to acoustic for a spare solo take of the Victor Jara classic Luchin. an allusively harrowing tale of resilience amidst crushing childhood poverty. 

The uneasy piano-guitar harmonies in Steven Sondheim’s Greenfinch and Linnet Bird give the selfconsciously fussy ballad a welcome gravitas. Meza returns to the expectantly circling, distant yet optimistic intensity of the early part of the album in Emerald: the mantra is “There’s no need to hide now.”

The album’s most elusive yet arguably strongest track is the lush, sweeping Mangata, a metaphorically-charged refugee’s escape anthem, Meza’s stark, emphatic chords against Maestro’s neoromantic glimmer. The album ends with the self-effacingly modest Little Person – the spare, rather trad closing theme from the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Synecdoche New York-  projecting the hope of “finding another little person,” as Meza puts it. What Meza has found here in the US is a fertile crucible for her many talents, all of which are still in their formative stages. Catch her on the way up.

May 5, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune Does Justice to a Legendary Cult Songwriter

For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.

Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | Film, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment