What’s karmic payback for walking out of a Vijay Iyer show? Losing a recording of the most awestruck, rivetingly beautiful concert of the year, for starters – that, and missing out on most of a performance by this era’s most distinctive and arguably most influential pianist. Vijay, if you’re reading this, don’t take it personally. This blog’s proprietor once walked out on Pauline Oliveros too.
Not that she wasn’t great. It’s just that sometimes the demands of running a blog don’t always coincide with having a life. Saturday night at Merkin Concert Hall, it was at least good to get to see a rapturous, often mesmerizing performance by Pakistani singer and composer Arooj Aftab leading a quartet including pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Jorn Bielfeldt and synth player Yusuke Yamamoto through what seemed to be a largely improvisational suite.
Singing mostly vocalese in a cool, hushed, nuanced mezzo-soprano, Aftab ran her vocals through a series of effects for additional subtlety, adding reverb or looping her phrasing, mostly for the sake of rhythmic shifts. Genovese played the show of his life. Since Aftab’s ghazal-inspired tone poems don’t often shift key and typically eschew western harmony, the pianist assembled an eerily glittering architecture out of passing tones, first bringing to mind Bill Mays playing Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks themes, then raising the ante to white-knuckle terror in places. Although there was one interlude where Genovese took a long, energetic solo, he held back from going against the current and trying to make postbop out of Aftab’s pensive atmospherics…or taking the easy route and hanging back with open fifths and octaves.
Bielfeldt also played with remarkable and intuitive restraint. Toward the end, he and Genovese exchanged coyly conversational riffs as the music swelled, but otherwise he was all about the lustre. Under these circumstances, having a synth in the band usually spells disaster, but Yamamoto turned out to be a magic ingredient with his deep-space washes of chords and the occasional elegant synth bass riff.
After a roughly forty-minute set, Aftab brought out Iyer for a duo as the encore. It seemed at this point that for a pianist, following Genovese would be just plain cruel, considering how he’d just mined every macabre tonality in the keys and the overtone system. But Iyer went in a more optimistic direction, opting for an approach that was both more hypnotically rhythmic and minimalist, while airing out similar resonance from the overtones. Watching him think on his feet with a much more limited choice of options than usual was rewarding; sticking around for his own set would no doubt have been twice as fun. Iyer is currently on tour; he’ll be back in New York on May 9 leading a sextet through a week at the Vanguard.
Last night at the Met Breuer (formerly known as the Whitney), Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played ECM noir. For those who don’t follow jazz improvisation, ECM is the venerable German label devoted to the spare, classically-influenced kind, and these two have a new album, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, out from them. It doesn’t swing: it marinates. And what a marinade the state-of-the-art pianist and iconic trumpeter came up with in front of a sold-out crowd that rewarded them with a couple of standing ovations.
That marinade had acerbity and spice, and if you buy the metaphor, astringency, but also a persistent unease that often drifted into ominousness and desolation. According to Iyer, they drew significantly on the spare, meticulously miniamlistc work of Nasreen Mohamedi currently on display at the museum, which is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stash their modern collection. The chemistry and cameraderie between the two players was comfortable to the point of joyous restraint. Each musician played with economy, Iyer with a chilly, airconditioned judiciousness, otherworldly Messiaenic harmonies, bell tones and an incessant, stygian pedalpoint that he finally took into the upper registers. For someone so direct, transparent and dedicated to getting the max out of the min, Smith employed a surprising amount of extended technique, from valve-shivering harmonics to ghostly wisps of breath.
This being a duo improvisation, there was all sorts of repartee, but ultimately the conversation wound down to “I’ve got your back.” Each anchored the other when he’d go out on a limb, Smith often providing calm, steady half-notes while Iyer clustered or insistently chiseled out space, Iyer providing moody reflecting pools and upper-register penlight illumination when Smith would fire off a series of flurries. Including the encore, there seemed to be six discrete pieces, most of them following a segue. Each segment followed a steady series of upward and downward arcs, Smith using his mute when the shadows grew longest, Iyer switching back and forth between piano and Rhodes as well as a mini-synth and mixer which he used for distant atmospherics and, finally, a persistent, looping rhythm. In the end, they came full circle, back to Iyer’s high/low, troubled/guardedly optimistic dialectics, Smith hovering with a magisterial warmth overhead.
And as if to say to the crowd, “You’ve earned it,” the encore was more still, and minimalistic, and rapt than anything they’d done to that point – but also prayerful and ultimately hopeful. At the end, Smith went way up high for a fleeting two-note phrase and then immediately looked to Iyer with a we-got-it grin. Iyer sat motionless, holding down the keys: he wasn’t going to give anything away until its time. It made for an unexpectedly amusing ending to broodingly rapt night. Iyer and Smith are embarking on a US tour; dates are here.
For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.
It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.
Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.
The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.
There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.
Pianist John Funkhouser’s previous album, Time, was a rhythmically challenging but tunefully Brubeckian trio effort. His new one, Still, puts more of an emphasis on the tunesmithing, with potently dynamic results: it’s one of this year’s best piano jazz albums. Two of the top players in the Boston scene, Greg Loughman and Mike Connors, play bass and drums, respectively, along with guest appearances from guitarist Phil Sargent and chanteuse Aubrey Johnson.
The opening narrative, Indigo Montoya’s Great Escape sounds like Marc Cary’s Focus Trio burning through a Kenny Garrett tune, rippling its way quickly to a percussive latin vamp, its back-and-forth variations from murky and minimal tracing a memorably moody upward trajectory. The band practically segues out of it with a dirgey version of House of the Rising Sun, a feature for Loughman’s tersely mournful bowed lines juxtaposed with the bandleader’s similarly terse piano and an expansive gravel-pit of a drum solo that makes an understatedly potent coda. One of Funkhouser’s standout compositions here, The Deep contrasts his stygian, judiciously spaced block chords and Sargent’s atmospherics with Loughman and Connors’ increasingly funky polyrhythms, psychedelic funk up against warmly Frisellian pastoral colors…..and then a boogie?!?
Funkhouser and Loughman reinvent Rodgers and Hart’s My Romance as a duet with a lyrical third-stream glimmer, Connors finally roaming in from the perimeter and introducing some unexpected metric shifts. By contrast, Monk’s Little Rootie Tootie is a dancing, wryly syncopated feature for Sargent’s reverb-drenched, methodical, crescendoingly insistent lines. Leda coalesces from a gothically catchy neoromantic theme to a dark waltz, Johnson working the eerie/calm atmosphere with her icily opaque, literally bone-chilling upper-register vocalese, Loughman’s balletesque solo echoing her later on. Then they pick up the pace with Shakedown, a witty, richly nuanced noir stroll that’s essentially a Monk homage. The concluding, title track is Funkhouser’s Middle Eastern noir piece de resistance, echoing both Vijay Iyer as well as Cary’s take on the Erik Satie book with its resonant, hauntingly allusive midrange piano, Loughman and Connors in turn working the mysterioso depths and then rising in tandem with Funkhouser as the other solos. It’s too slow and haunting to be dizzying; Krysztof Komeda (whose darker themes Funkhouser sometimes evokes here) might well have called it astigmatic.
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new album Gamak, out from ACT, hits the street today. The jazz media genuflects to the alto saxophonist’s virtuosic, boundary-stretching technique, range and imaginative compositions: is this all it’s cracked up to be? Pretty much. It’s a major album, not just because it’s pushing the envelope further and further into microtonal territory, but because it’s exciting, hard-edged music. This is what happens when the core of Jack DeJohnettte’s band is left to their own inventive devices. Much has been made of how Rudresh (nice to be instantly recognizable in jazz by your first name alone, isn’t it) has drawn on his Indian background, but this isn’t “Indian jazz” – he has a singular vernacular As you would expect, the microtones keening and bending from Dave Fiuczynski’s guitar strings are more strikingly otherworldly than the single-note lines of the sax, but both musicians are often hanging in scales that don’t exist in western music – and so much the better. Bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss hit hard and keep it terse behind them.
The opening track slams along on a rapidfire bhangra riff from the sax, then they swing it down to a memorably wall-bending, creepily microtonal Fiuczynski solo and eventually crunch their way out. A long, memorably disorienting interlude from Fiuczynski leads to a spiraling exchange with the sax on the raga-inspired second cut, Weiss driving it purposefully as the bandleader evokes the eerie timbres of a Turkish ney flute. After a disarmingly lyrical, syncopated shuffle tune, they bring back the eerie tonalities with We’ll Make More, a more radical, pummeling yet funky revisitation of the raga melody that opened Rudresh’s pioneering 2003 album Black Water.
A track from that album, Are There Clouds in India is as balmy as the original but more surreal and uneasy, both guitar and sax building to bustling tension and then moving back toward a semblance of calm comfort, exchanging airy volleys in a mysterious new language. Lots of Interest makes all this look easy – it’s actually anything but – indulging Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torso side before reverting to staggered funk.
They follow a practically minimalist bass solo with Copernicus and its machinegun sax over nervous changes, then Wrathful Wisdom with its breath-stopping swoops, wry Fiuczynski humor and Middle Eastern allusions. That part of the world is referenced more directly on Ballad for Troubled Times, Rudresh driving it with a liquid legato, Moutin artfully choosing his spots to illuminate. The album ends with a miniature, Majesty of the Blues which is more of a math-jazz piece. What may be this album’s strongest suit is that it softpedals the strange scales: melody is so front and center that it’s sometimes beside the point that so much of this is blue notes. Which, ultimately, is what defined the roots of jazz and will define its future branches.
The narrative for Winter Jazzfest 2013 wrote itself. “The festival began and ended with two extraordinary trumpeters from Middle Eastern backgrounds, Ibrahim Maalouf early on Friday evening and then Amir ElSaffar in the wee hours of Sunday morning.” Except that it didn’t happen like that. Maalouf – whose new album Wind is a chillingly spot-on homage to Miles Davis’ noir soundtrack to the film Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud – was conspicuously absent, with visa issues. And by quarter to one Sunday morning, the line of hopefuls outside Zinc Bar, where ElSaffar was scheduled, made a mockery of any hope of getting in to see him play. But a bitingly bluesy, full-bore cadenza earlier in the evening from another trumpeter – Hazmat Modine’s Pam Fleming – had already redeemed the night many times over. In more than fourteen hours of jazz spread across the West Village (and into the East) over two nights, moments of transcendence like that outnumbered disappointments a thousand to one.
A spinoff of the annual APAP booking agents’ convention, the festival has caught on with tourists (the French and Japanese were especially well-represented) along with a young, scruffy, overwhelmingly white crowd like what you might see at Brooklyn spots like Shapeshifter Lab or I-Beam. Those crowds came to listen. Another tourist crowd, this one from New Jersey and Long Island, ponied up the $35 cover for an all-night pass and then did their best to drink like this was any old night on the Bleecker Street strip, oblivious to the music. It was amusing to see them out of their element and clearly nervous about it.
That contingent was largely absent on Friday – and probably because of the rain, attendance was strong but not as overwhelming as it would be the following night. Over at Bowery Electric, drummer Bobby Previte led a trio with baritone saxophonist Fabian Rucker and guitarist Mike Gamble to open the festival on a richly murky, noir note, raising the bar to an impossibly high level that few other acts would be able to match, at least from this perspective (wth scores of groups on the bill, triage is necessary, often a cruel choice between several artists). Watching Rucker build his way matter-of-factly from a minimalistically smoky stripper vamp to fire-and-brimstone clusters of hard bop was like being teleported to the jazz club scene from David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Over at le Poisson Rouge, chanteuse Catherine Russell delivered a mix of alternately jaunty, devious and poignant swing tunes, none of them from later than 1953, the most recent one a lively drinking song from the Wynonie Harris book. Guitarist and music director Matt Munisteri added his signature purist wit and an expectedly offhand intensity on both guitar and six-stirng banjo as the group – with Ehud Asherie on piano, Lee Hudson on bass and Mark McLean on drums – swung through the early Ella Fitzgerald catalog as well as on blues by Lil Green and Bessie Smith, riding an arc that finally hit an unselfconsciously joyous note as they wound it up.
Jamaican jazz piano legend Monty Alexander followed, leading his Harlem-Kingston Express as they turned on a dime from pristine swing to a deep and dark roots reggae pulse. Alexander has been having fun with this project – utilizing what are essentially two discrete groups on a single stage, one an acoustic foursome, the other a fullscale reggae band with electric bass, keys and guitar – for a few years now. This was as entertaining as usual, mashing up Uptown and Jamdown and ending with a singalong on Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. In between, Alexander romped through jump blues and then added biting minor-key riffage to Marley classics like Slave Driver and The Heathen. Alexander was at the top of his game as master of ceremonies – he even sang a little, making it up as he went along. It’s hard to think of a more likeable ambassador for the Irie Island.
Across the street at the Bitter End, Nels Cline and Julian Lage teamed up for a duo guitar show that was intimate to the extent that you had to watch their fingers to figure out who was playing what. Both guitarists played with clean tones and no effects, meticulous harmonies intertwining over seamless dynamic shifts as the two negotiated blue-sky themes with a distant nod to Bill Friselll…and also to Jerry Garcia, whose goodnaturedly expansive style Lage evoked throughout a handful of bluegrass-tinged explorations. On a couple of tunes, Cline switched to twelve-string and played pointillistic rhythm behind Lage, who was rather graciously given the lion’s share of lead lines and handled them with a refreshing directness – no wasted notes here. The two beefed up a Jim Hall tune and closed with a trickily rhythmic, energetic Chris Potter number.
The Culture Project Theatre, just off Lafayette Street, is where the most improvisationally-inclined, adventurous acts were hidden away – and by the time Boston free jazz legends the Fringe took the stage for a rare New York gig, the place was packed. The trio of tenor saxophonist George Garzone, drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood gave a clinic in friendly interplay, leaving plenty of space for the others’ contributions, each giving the other a long launching pad for adding individual ideas. Gullotti was in a shuffle mood, Lockwood a chordal one, Garzone flirting playfully with familiar themes that he’d take into the bop-osophere in a split second, the rhythm section leaving him to figure out what was happening way out there until he’d give the signal that he was coming back to earth.
Nasheet Waits’ Equality was next on the bill there and was one example of a band that could have used more than the barely forty minutes they got onstage. It wasn’t that they rushed the songs, it was simply that this band is obviously used to stretching out more than they got the oppportunity to do, shifting shape rhythmically as much as melodically, through compositions by both the drummer/bandleader and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson. Warmly lyrical sax found a murky anchor in Vijay Iyer’s insistently hypnotic pedalpoint and block chords, Mark Helias propelling their third tune with careful permutations on a tireless bass loop. They danced out on a biting, latin-tinged vibe.
Seabrook Power Plant, somewhat less lethal and toxic than their name implies, closed out Friday night with a pummelling yet often surprisingly melodic set for the diehards who’d stuck around. Brandon Seabrook – the Dick Dale of the banjo – teamed up with bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Jared Seabrook for a hard-hitting, heavily syncopated, mathrock-tinged couple of tunes, the bandleader’s right hand a blur as he tremolopicked lightning flurries of chords that were more dreampop than full frontal attack. Then he picked up the guitar, started tapping and suddenly the shadow of Yngwie Malmsteen began to materialize, signaling that it was time to get some rest and get ready for day two.
Word on the street has been that the best strategy for the Saturday portion of the festival is to pick a single venue out of the total of six and camp out there, as one of the organizers sheepishly alluded as the evening got underway. This year that turned out to be gospel truth, validating the decision to become possibly the only person not employed by the Bitter End to spend six consecutive hours there. That choice wasn’t just an easy way out. Right through the witching hour, there were no lulls: the bill was that strong.
Percussionist Pedrito Martinez opened with his group: the sensational, charismatic Araicne Trujillo on piano and vocals, Jhair Sala on cowbell and Alvaro Benavides on five-string bass. Playing congas, Martinez took on the rare role of groovemeister with a subtle sense of dynamics, through a swaying set that was as electrically suspenseful as it was fever-pitched and diverse, slinking through Cuban rhythms from across the waves and the ages. Trujillo was a force of nature, showing off a wistful, bittersweet mezzo-soprano voice in quieter moments and adding fiery harmonies as the music rose. Given a long piano solo, she quoted vigorously and meticulously from Beethoven, Chopin and West Side Story without losing the slinky beat, matching rapidfire precision to an occasionally wild, noisy edge, notably on a long, call-and-response-driven take of Que Palo.
Chilean-American chanteuse Claudia Acuna was next, leading her six-piece band through a raputurous, hypnotic set that drew equally on folk music and classic American soul as well as jazz. Her voice radiates resilience and awareness: one early number broodingly contemplated ecological disaster and other global concerns. Chords and ripples rang from the electric piano, ornamented elegantly by guitarist Mike Moreno over grooves that rose and fell. After sultry tango inflections, a moody departure anthem and a surprisingly succesful shot at jazzing up You Are My Sunshine, they closed with an understated take on Victor Jara’s Adios Mundo Indino.
Of all of these acts, saxophonist Colin Stetson was the most spectacular. Playing solo is the hardest gig of all, notwithstanding that Stetson has made a career out of being a one-man band, one that sounds like he’s using a million effects and loops even though what he’s playing is 100% live. Tapping out a groove on the keys of his bass sax, sustaining a stunning mix of lows and keening overtones via circular breathing, some of what he played might be termed live techno. Holding fast to a rhythm that managed to be motorik and swinging at once, he evoked the angst of screaming in the wilderness – metaphorically speaking. Or being the last (or first) in a line of whales whose pitch is just a hair off from being understandable to others of the species, explaining how he felt a kinship with the “Cryptowhale” recently discovered on US Navy underwater recordings. Switching to alto sax, he delivered his most haunting number, spiked with sometimes menacing, sometimes plaintive chromatics and closed with a slowly and methodically crescendoing piece that built from dusky, otherworldly ambience to a firestorm of overtones and insistent, raw explosiveness. Of all the acts witnessed at this year’s festival, he drew the most applause.
In a smart bit of programming, trumpeter Brian Carpenter’s nine-peice Ghost Train Orchestra was next on the bill. Carpenter’s previous album collected jaunty, pioneering, surprisingly modern-sounding hot 20s proto-swing from the catalogs of bandleaders like Fess Williams and Charlie Johnson, and the band played some of those tunes, adding an unexpected anachronistic edge via biting, aggressive solos from tenor saxophonist Andy Laster and Brandon Seabrook, wailing away on banjo again. As the set went on, a positively noir Cab Calloway hi-de-ho energy set in, apprehensive chromatics pushing bouncy blues to the side, Mazz Swift’s gracefully edgy violin contrasting with Curtis Hasselbring’s terse but forceful trombone lines.
In addition to innumerable jazz flavors, this year’s festival featured a trio of acts who don’t really play jazz at all and the most tantalizing of them, Hazmat Modine, happened to be next on the bill. Frontman Wade Schuman played his chromatic harmonica through a series of effects that made him sound like a hurdy-gurdy on acid…or helium, depending on the song. Lively handoffs and conversations, notably between tuba player Joseph Daly and trombonist Reut Regev but also guitarists Pete Smith and Michael Gomez, Rachelle Garniez on claviola and accordion, Steve Elson on tenor sax, Pam Fleming on trumpet, and Rich Huntley on drums burst out of everywhere. Huntley took an antique field holler rhythm and made a hypnotic mid-70s disco-soul vamp out of it, as well as romping through samba swing, Diddleybeat, calypso or reggae, as on the minor-key but ecstatic opening tune, So Glad. The French have anointed the Hazmats as a blues band (their album Bahamut was the #1 blues album of the year there) even though they interpolate so many different styles into the genre and then jam them into unrecognizability. It was just as well that this set proved to be the final one of the festival – at least from this point of view – because after they’d vamped through a wryly surreal but ecstatic take of the carnivalesque tropicalia of the album’s title track, there was nowhere to go but down.
Hafez Modirzadeh’s latest album Post-Chromodal Out!, out now from Pi Records, is every bit as radical as it’s been billed, a paradigm-shifting work. It is important to the point of simply saying, go out and get it and let it take you away to a magical place where nobody’s ever really gone before.
In many ways, this is a continuation of the path Modirzadeh began on his equally groundbreaking 2010 Radif Suite. For the piano here, the Persian-American saxophonist has devised a scale of his very own, interpolating microtones within standard tuning to free the musicians from the limitations of western intonation. Vijay Iyer plays it – it might be the best thing Iyer’s ever done, which says a lot. It’s certainly the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Modirzadeh plays tenor and soprano sax alongside fellow paradigm-shifter Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, with Ken Filiano on bass and Royal Hartigan on drums, plus contributions from Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. The album itself comprises two heavily improvised suites, Modirzadeh’s seventeen-part Weft Facets and Jim Norton’s eleven-part Wolf and Warp.
This is hardly the first time a musician has devised his own harmonic language. While Modirzadeh’s work has obviously been inspired by both Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, it doesn’t sound much like either of them: his voice as both a composer and a sax player is unique and distinctive. Given the piano’s use of three-quarter tones – which in the western scale sound either a little flat or a little on the sharp side, depending on the interval – fans of Iranian music might think at first that Iyer is playing a santoor. By the same token, the piano doesn’t sound the least bit out of tune since a truly out-of-tune piano is randomly pitched and, unless it’s a total mess, is usually just far enough off key to sound jarring. Ironically, Iyer’s signature chromatics when applied to this scale have the opposite effect of the horror-movie cadences they create in western tuning: here, the effect reaches toward a resolution that’s actually quite consonant, even soothing.
What’s most striking about this album is how articulate the band is. This isn’t some tentative adventure in exoticism: their comfort level is as if this was their native tongue. Modirzadeh plays with a richly tuneful precision, eschewing the usual reliance on effects like blue notes, squalling and wailing as means of introducing microtones. ElSaffar is an extraordinary musician – anyone who’s seen him play santoor might tell you that trumpet isn’t even his best instrument. His approach is similar to Modirzadeh’s if a little more rapidfire and energetic. The only noticeable difference between Iyer’s work in this context and elsewhere is that here he employs fewer chords. Filiano swings the beat, walks and embellishes the melody with a rewarding matter-of-factness, Hartigan adding equal amounts propulsion and counterintuitive color.
At its most upbeat, parts of Modirzadeh’s suite evoke an evocatively surreal hybrid of New Orleans and Moroccan sounds. The santoor is employed during the most recognizable Middle Eastern interludes; likewise, the kulintang for most of the hypnotically enveloping, gamelanesque segments. Conversations between santoor and piano, sax and trumpet abound; the composer’s use of echo phrases enhances the otherworldliness of much of this. Iyer’s triumphant cascades, flourishes and judiciously emphatic accents provide the icing on the cake. Lusciously strange as the tonalities here are, much of the architecture is straight-up postbop: there’s plenty of brisk swing with bright hooks to open followed by thematic variations, cleverly orchestrated rhythmic shifts and an unselfconscious joy in the interplay. The electric guitar doesn’t make an appearance until the suite is almost done but adds a terse suspense and then grandeur that sets up the final, lush swell.
Norton’s composition is a quartet piece for tenor, trumpet, bass and drums that draws heavily on more modern jazz tropes: a head followed by variations and free improvisation with divergent voices, beginning slower and less rhythmic but eventually taking the energy up a notch higher than in Modirzadeh’s work. Terse, often minimalist exchanges build to wry shuffles, with solo spots for piano, drums and bass. Filiano is much more present here than in the first suite, digging into the melody with a memorably growly tone, sometimes employing a bow. Melodically, this also hews closer to the west than the east: the more cohesive and upbeat segments seem almost as if they’ve simply been transposed to this scale rather than having been written for it. Here it’s ElSaffar who finally seizes the chance to raise the ante with moody microtones and bring the atmosphere full circle to where it originated. Iyer’s phantasmagorically funky lines as it builds toward a final crescendo wouldn’t be out of place in the Frank Carlberg songbook. It ends with an unexpectedly macabre, rain-drenched, funereally hypnotic reprise of one of the initial themes.
On one hand, this is one of those rare moments in jazz history that will change the way a lot of people hear music – and the way they play it. On the other, there’s a sizeable contingent, most of them on one side of the globe, who will be saying, “Big deal, so you’re playing Middle Eastern jazz now. What took you guys so long to catch up?”
In the simpering, twee world of indie rock, technology is a crutch to be employed whenever possible: after all, what could be more lame than using a crutch whether it’s needed or not? Wednesday night at the World Financial Center, WNYC New Sounds Live host John Schaefer asked Victoire bandleader Missy Mazzoli if electronics were now an essential part of a composer’s arsenal. Not at all, Mazzoli replied, explaining that she simply chose to use them because they were well-suited to her swirling, atmospheric compositional style. And the way she works them into her music, they are, adding subtle colors and textures to her signature gossamer sheen. Yet as much as Mazzoli’s music, especially with this band, is in the here-and-now, the intricacy of her counterpoint and harmonies draws a straight line back to the baroque. Scarlatti would have been mesmerized by what he heard from this group.
They opened with the title track to their 2010 album Cathedral City, Olivia De Prato’s swirling, plaintive violin contrasting with the echoey wishing pool below, mingling with vocals from Caroline Shaw and Mellissa Hughes and Eleonore Oppenheim’s tersely sustained bass. The second song built from nebulously pulsing atmospherics, rising with Eileen Mack’s clarinet, then elegantly handing off to the violin, the exchange of textures pulling tensely away from the center. Meanwhile, keyboardist Lorna Krier got to sink her fingers into some of the night’s juiciest textures: a warped tone not unlike a Hawaiian steel guitar, ominously oscillating organ and reverb-toned electric piano. She also switched back and forth between her keyboard and a mixer, with split-second timing, and made it look easy. Meanwhile, Mazzoli held to stately, terse counterrythms at the keys of her Nord Electro. They closed their short set with A Song for Mick Kelly, imagining how the heroine of Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter might have written as a woman in 1930s Georgia. It wasn’t what you’d expect, echoey violin over an atmospheric drone, eventually building to understatedly apprehensive swirls and flurries made all the more dramatic in the absence of the screaming electric guitar part on the album. The contrast between Hughes’ soaring resonance and Shaw’s plaintive timbre enhanced the song’s distant longing.
You have to hand it to Schaefer. As wide a net as he’s cast over the decades, his coverage can be erratic, compounded by the fact that most of the trust-funded dilettantes who would have set up shop in the lofts of experimental music thirty years ago now make indie rock their luxury condo. But few people other than Schaefer would make the connection between Victoire and the evening’s headline act, Vijay Iyer – it was a segue worthy of Bill Graham. Iyer wrapped up the night – scheduled to air sometime in the near future on WNYC – with an epic, menacing version of Accelerando, the title track from his latest album with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
You could call it the Halloween remix – and that’s how it started, the staggered ipod beat that opens the version on the album (which famously won all those awards earlier this year) high in the mix to the point where in the early going it drowned out Gilmore’s judicious accents. And Gilmore soon fell out of sync with it – whether this was intentional, as if to say, we don’t need this garbage, or simply because he couldn’t hear it onstage, it was a case where technology was very much the enemy. But it was gone quickly. The rest of the song was an eerie, glimmering feast of ominous chromatics and rich sustain. Iyer is extraordinarily perceptive of his surroundings, and within fifteen seconds of the song’s opening, he’d begun hitting the high notes hard to get the piano resonating and echoing in the atrium’s boomy sonics. Crump danced and somersaulted, trading off pushing the rhythm with Iyer as Gilmore added subtle color with his cymbals – he, too, was feeling the room. Rising and falling, they finally went up to the point where Iyer blasted a macabre seven-note riff over and over and then finally wound it down gracefully at the end. And then the show was over. Which might explain why the performance hadn’t drawn every jazz fan in town: knowing that this would be rebroadcast, they made what ultimately might have been the smart move and decided to wait to hear it in the comfort of home.
Winter Jazzfest, the annual festival where some of the cheesy Bleecker Street clubs turn into an astonishingly eclectic jazz mecca for a couple of nights, has come to dovetail with the annual booking agents’ convention otherwise known as APAP. That’s a great thing for the artists, who get a chance to turn their shows into auditions for at least potentially lucrative gigs; it’s a less auspicious development for the general public. More on that later. Friday’s lineup actually looked at first glance to be more enticing than Saturday’s, but Friday night there was an even better concert at Alwan for the Arts.
Once Jazzfest day two began, it was clear that the night had the potential to be an embarrassment of riches. From this particular perspective, the evening began and ended with familiar sounds – the pleasantly melodic, creatively orchestrated, occasionally modal postbop of pianist Laurence Hobgood and his sextet at le Poisson Rouge to kick things off – and ended with the high-energy, solo-centric psychedelic funk-bop of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his group at Sullivan Hall. In between, there were seemingly unlimited choices, many of them Hobson’s Choices: the best way to approach this festival is to bring a friend, see a completely different series of shows, record everything and then exchange recordings afterward. There’s literally something for every taste here, from the most mainstream to the most exciting.
As Hobgood’s set was winding down, bassist Jason Ajemian’s Highlife were launching into their possibly satirical, assaultive no wave funk at Kenny’s Castaways. Down the block at the Bitter End, bassist Stephan Crump led his Rosetta Trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman on acoustic and Jamie Fox on electric, through a series of jazzed-up Grateful Dead-style vamps and big-sky themes. Then, back at Kenny’s Castaways, the pyrotechnics began with Herculaneum: what a great find that Chicago band is. With a blazing four-horn frontline, hypnotically catchy, repetitive bass and a remarkably terse, creative drummer in Dylan Ryan, they groove with a ferocity seldom seen in this part of town. Where in New York do they typically play? For starters, Zebulon and Cake Shop. They opened with their best number, the horns agitatedly but smoothly trading off in lushly interwoven counterpoint, tenor saxophonist Nate Lepine – who seems to be one of the ringleaders of this crew – sailing intensely yet tunefully through a couple of long solos before handing it over to trombonist Nick Broste, who brought in an unexpectedly suspenseful noir vibe before the towering, vivid chart that ended it on a high note. Wow! The rest of the set included syncopated, Ethiopian-tinged funk that wouldn’t be out of place in the recent Either/Orchestra catalog; a wryly catchy, swaying midtempo number that reminded a little of Moisturizer, with Lepine wandering warily into noir territory before David McDonnell’s alto sax swirled in to save everything; an Indian-inflected flute tune; a delicious 11/4 clave piece with some tricky, microtonal playing by Lepine; and a memorably psychedelic shuffle that sounded like a beefed-up version of Moon Hooch. Fans of more traditional jazz might be wondering who the hell those bands are, but to a younger generation of New Yorkers, they’re very popular, even iconic. It was good to see Herculaneum get the chance to represent the future of jazz so auspiciously here.
And it was an unexpected treat to be able to get a seat to see their set; by ten PM, that was no longer in the cards. For that matter, neither was seeing Vijay Iyer and his trio, or for that matter Matt Wilson with his quartet and a string section, unless you were already in the club, because both le Poisson Rouge and the Bitter End were sold out, lines reaching halfway down the block. It was nice to see a young, scruffy crowd that doesn’t usually spend much time in the pricier jazz clubs come out and testify to the fact that Matt Wilson is worth standing in line for; it would have been nicer to have actually seen him play.
But there was still space over at Sullivan Hall to see pianist Fabian Almazan and his rhythm section, with bassist Linda Oh playing terrifically vivid, horn-inflected lines as he showed off his dazzling technique. Then he brought up an all-star string section of violinists Megan Gould (who’d just stunned the crowd the night before at Maqamfest with Maeandros) and Jenny Scheinman, the Roulette Sisters’ Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld (who has a great new album of Jewish music with pianist Lee Feldman) playing his cello with a vibrato you could drive a truck through, tackling a jazz arrangement of a Shostakovich string quartet and making it look easy without losing any of the original’s haunting quality. Which was especially good for Almazan, because it made him slow down, focus and make his notes count: it’s a no-brainer that he can do it, but it’s good to see that he actually enjoys doing it. Then they followed with an equally captivating, brooding third-stream arrangement of a Cuban folk ballad.
Back at Kenny’s Castaways again, “bebop terrorists” Mostly Other People Do the Killing had just wrapped up their set (this club seems to be where the festival hid all the edgiest acts). Bassist Shahzad Ismaily was next, leading a trio with Mat Maneri on violin and Ches Smith on drums. This was the most radically improvisational set of the night and was every bit as fun as Herculaneum had been. Ismaily quickly became a human loop machine, running hypnotic riff after hypnotic riff for minutes on end as Smith colored them with every timbre he could coax from the kit, whether rubbing the drum heads til they hummed or expertly flicking at every piece of metal within reach while Maneri alternated between hammering staccato, ghostly atmospherics and bluesy wails much in the same vein as the late, great Billy Bang. As deliciously atonal and often abrasive as much of the music was, the warm camaraderie between the musicians was obvious, violin and bass at one point involved in an animated conversation fueled by the sheets of feedback screaming from Ismaily’s amp, after which point they kept going at each other but as if from behind a wall, jabbing playfully at each others’ phrases.
By midnight, Sullivan Hall was about to reach critical mass, crowdwise if not exactly musically. Would it make sense to stick around for the 2 AM grooves of Soul Cycle followed by Marc Cary, or to see if there might be any room at the festival’s smallest venue, Zinc Bar, to check out Sharel Cassity’s set with Xavier Davis on piano at one in the morning? After more than five hours worth of music, and not having gotten home until four the previous morning, it was time to call it a night – and then get up and do it all over again one final time at Globalfest on Sunday evening.
And while it’s heartwarming to see such a good turnout of passionate jazz fans, not everyone who was packing the clubs was there for the music. What quickly became obvious as the night wore on is that many of the people there, most noticeably the drunks bellowing at each other over the music, were tourists from the suburbs who make this part of “Green Witch Village” their home on Saturday nights. Initially baffled when they discovered that they couldn’t get inside their usual haunts without a pass, they simply went around the corner to the ticket window at the Theatre for the New City space, pulled out their moms’ credit cards, and you know the rest. A word to the wise for next year: if you really must see one of the ten PM acts, get where they’re playing by nine or risk missing them. And you might want to hang there for the rest of the night as well.