Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gypsy Jazz and Beyond with Ben Powell

Jazz violinist Ben Powell has an impressively diverse new album out, New Street. Pitched as a tribute to Stephane Grappelli, it’s exactly that, not a homage, a mix of originals and gypsy jazz classics. Powell has a distinctive sound, a glistening, pure tone and the precision of a classical player whether he’s spinning off glissandos, bending blue notes or going way up into harmonics and shows off an impressive command of a lot more than just gypsy jazz. The big news is that a handful of tracks feature Gary Burton and Julian Lage: the rest of the band includes Tadataka Unno on piano, Aaron Darrel on bass and Devin Drobka on drums, along with Adrien Moignard guesting with some aptly Django-esque guitar, and Linda Calise singing in fluently nuanced French on an imaginatively reinvented samba version of La Vie En Rose.

The album opens with a rather counterintuitive choice, an expansively reminiscent Powell ballad, Judith, done as a violin/bass/piano trio with a Georgia on My Mind vibe and a glistening piano solo from Unno. The carefree, dancing title track is a two-parter, beginning with a trip to Brazil via Joe Jackson and then morphing into a briskly swinging gypsy tune that ends up looping a phrase out of Grieg. They follow that with Monk for Strings, vividly evoking that composer but with an animated, scurrying rhythm and a playful series of gypsy swoops and dives at the end. Cole Porter’s What Is This Thing Called Love is transformed into gypsy jazz, Moignard adding spiraling, spiky energy on the frets, Powell’s penetrating, intense solo taking the energy up even further. They do the sentimental old ballad Sea Shell as a jazz waltz, Powell’s flights to the uppermost registers so clean and fluid that it’s almost as if he’s playing a saw. The most intense number here is Swinging for Stephane, a Powell original that recalls Grappelli but doesn’t ape him, with a couple of absolutely searing, bluesy violin solos and a neat false ending.

The cuts with Burton and Lage here are also choice. Interesting, Lage seems largely relegated to rhythm, which he keeps simple and elegant. Grappelli’s Gary – a gesture of appreciation from the late violinist to the vibraphonist – has a bucolic, summery sway, silky violin and smartly judicious, warmly bluesy work from Burton. Next is a steady, bittersweet take on La Chanson Des Rues, seemingly a prototype for Just a Gigolo (which Jenifer Jackson once covered and knocked out of the ballpark). Burton’s artful interpolations, peeking from behind the guitar and violin here, are absolutely luscious. The trio wind up the album with a richly sonorous romp through Grappelli’s Piccadilly Stomp, vibes and electric guitar blending into a lush bell choir, Lage showing off an impressive fluency in Django-style spirals: who knew he was also into this kind of music? It’s a treat for anyone who loves gypsy jazz (meaning pretty much everybody).

July 5, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Nova Philharmonic and Paul Joseph Take Third-Stream to the Next Level

Isn’t it amazing how there are so many incredible classical and jazz performances in New York, just a stone’s throw off the beaten path? Last night at Good Shepherd-Faith Church in the Lincoln Center complex was a perfect example, where the Nova Philharmonic teamed up with violinist/composer Gregor Huebner and the Paul Joseph Quartet for a characteristically genre-smashing good time. First on the agenda was Huebner’s own absolutely haunting Ground Zero (from his New York Suite), a tone poem that gave him the opportunity to play while casually circling the audience, conductor Dong-Hyun Kim leading the string orchestra onstage through its chilling, gently keening and then subsiding microtones. The work eventually reached a chilling crescendo with Huebner’s horror-stricken staccato attack against a brooding, dissociative backdrop. As an evocation of the anguish of 9/11, it’s powerfully evocative, more of a look back from a distance than Robert Sirota’s manic-then-bereaved Triptych or Julia Wolfe’s terror-fueled, recently released Big Beautiful Dark & Scary.

The ensemble shifted to warmer, more consonantly enveloping territory with Joel Mandelbaum’s The Past Is Now, a trio of May Sarton poems set to music and delivered with highwire intensity by soprano Kathryn Wieckhorst: in the church’s echoey acoustics, her sheer crystalline power equated to the force of a choir over the lushness of the strings. Mandelbaum’s attention to the rather elegaic lyrical content was both poignant and witty, notably in a furtive, metaphorically-charged passage marking the trail of some nocturnal varmints who’d vanished by daybreak, leaving only their pawprints in the snow. Huebner then rejoined the group for his Concerto con Violin Latino, a bracing, rhythmically-charged suite juxtaposing guajira, bembe and tango themes that began with an anxious, Piazzola-esque sweep and majesty and then romped through the tropics before reverting to a staccato intensity that revisited the angst of the opening piece.

Throughout the performance, Kim’s meticulousness was matched by the ensemble, perhaps most noticeably on the concluding suite, Mozart’s Eine Kliene Nachtmusik. How does one rescue this old standby from the world of credit card commercials and NPR lead-ins? This group’s answer was to dig in and amp it up. And they had to, because this particular performance was billed as a duel of sorts with pianist Paul Joseph and his Quartet – Susan Mitchell on violin, Edgar Mills on bass and Mike Corn on drums – who played their own jazz versions of each of Mozart’s four movements: first the orchestra would play one, then Joseph and crew would come up with a response. Much as it might have been tempting to make hard bop out of it, Joseph did the right thing with a jaunty, ragtime-inflected approach worthy of Dave Brubeck. They swung the opening allegro with gusto, turning the Romanza into bossa nova and the minuet into a jazz waltz. To call what they did eye-opening is an understatement: the strength and irresistible catchiness of Mozart’s melody became even more apparent as they turned a Venetian courtly dance into a blithely bouncy jazz-pop anthem that would be perfectly at home in the Egberto Gismonti songbook. Whenever the glittery attractiveness of the piano threatened to saturate the mix with sugar, Mitchell was there in a split-second with stark, assertive cadenzas and a razor-sharp, slithery legato to add edge and bite. They turned the concluding rondo into a samba, making it as much of a round rhythmically as musically, Mills and Mitchell trading off the tune while Joseph and Corn paired off on an increasingly animated series of percussive jousts that the orchestra finally lept into, completely unexpectedly, and wound out in a joyous crescendo. The audience exploded with a standing ovation. Watch this space for upcoming New York area dates for the Nova Philharmonic and the Paul Joseph Quartet.

March 31, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

More Great Billy Bang Sounds From the Archives

When a great jazz musician leaves us, invariably archival recordings begin to surface: some released in a cynical attempt to capitalize on the player’s legacy, some to further cement that legacy. Happily, the newly released History of Jazz in Reverse by the Fab Trio – bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Barry Altschul and the late, great Billy Bang on violin – falls into the latter category. Each of these players made a name for himself in jazz improvisation, but there’s a purposefulness on this 2005 studio session to rival just about any album of carefully planned compositions. Not everything here is a jam – there’s a bright, Asian-tinged homage to Don Cherry by Bang that could pass for a Cherry piece, the violin’s microtonal pizzicato evoking the sound of a koto. And the three vamp their way through the Afro-Cuban standard Chan Chan, which only gets interesting when Altschul decides to mimic a timbales solo – and pulls it off with a mighty grin.

But the juiciest parts of the album are the improvisations. Altschul manages to be everywhere at once, holding the center while leapfrogging, galloping, cartwheeling and expanding the perimeter: it’s an impactful performance, both literally and figuratively. Fonda is the nucleus of this particular isotope, a terse pulse and omnipresent voice of reason when the violin and the drums go machinegunning their way out of the thicket of sound (that reference is deliberate, Bang’s Vietnam War experiences having been such a defining part of his life). The most stunning creation here is the most terse: the trio learned while in the studio that their friend Sam Rivers’ wife Bea had died, so they made up an elegy on the spot, an anguished yet absolutely regal dirge of sorts that’s equal part blues and oldtime spiritual.

The title track makes an interesting journey backwards from free jazz to swing, and then a boogie that Altschul, counterintuitive as always, uses as a graceful exit. Bang’s alternately shivery staccato flurries and blues-drenched minor-key swirls are characteristically chilling and exhilarating, particularly on the opening jam, Homeward Bound, as Fonda and Altschul tiptoe in tandem around them. There’s also the deliciously chromatic, funky, conversational Implications, and From There to Here, the one track that would have been better left on the cutting-room floor since even Bang can’t keep up with its breakneck pace (Fonda quickly finds out that it makes more sense to hit on the “one” rather than walking it, while Altschul deviously plays halfspeed). But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise intense and often haunting session that reliably challenging Finnish label Tum Records happily saw fit to release.

January 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magic Number’s Album Is Everything You Would Expect

From their name, Magic Number’s album Yeah Yeah Yeah is what you’d think it would be: upbeat and fun. It’s also absolutely unique. Eclectic violinist Zach Brock, jazz bassist Matt Wigton and drummer Fred Kennedy have joined forces to create a new genre: violin funk. Crisp and rhythmic, it’s a lot closer to jazz than James Brown, although it shares the Godfather of Soul’s split-second precision and fondness for simple, memorable hooks. Much of the time, Brock adds to the thicket of beats with spiky pizzicato plucking. Wigton plays as much judicious melody as Brock, and Kennedy’s smart, frequently minimalistic yet attention-grabbing colors and riffs are absolute magic: each instrument is completely equal in this unit.

The title cut kicks it off on a jaunty note: Brock gives it a staccato bounce on the first verse, plays steady eighth notes over a tricky rhythm, then it shifts to more of a dance. The rhythmic trickiness keeps going with Summer Dance, which morphs into what’s essentially a funk waltz, down to a brief cymbal splashfest and then goes halftime. Their version of You Don’t Know What Love Is, by contrast is moody and distantly bluesy, in fact almost trip-hop, finally picking up with vocalese as it winds out.

A bucolic, syncopated theme, Sno’ Peas gets going with brisk bass and matter-of-factly rattling drums, a chugging funk style bass solo and builds to the jazziest interlude here so far, up to a soaring, Jean-Luc Ponty-esque cadenza. The slow, pensive Brooklyn Ballad defines this album: incisive bass and terse, nimble drums trade textures beneath a judiciously sailing violin crescendo, then down and out gracefully. The hook-driven Golden Nuggets gives Wigton a chance to cut loose on the funk until Brock steps on it, gets everybody to chill out and then takes it out with a sly early 70s psychedelic soul feel. The anthemic Man of the Light pairs off Wigton’s prowling bass against Brock’s airy blues allusions, Kennedy bringing the intensity up with his cymbals. The album closes with In the Dark, Kennedy’s greatest shining moment among many where he finally gets to go up all the way and crash around after an eerie interlude with glockenspiel that builds intensity until it finally explodes. It’s a great headphone album. Brock is highly in demand as a live player: his next gig is on May 12 at 6 PM at Temple Israel, 112 E 75th St..

May 7, 2011 Posted by | funk music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christian Howes Puts a Bluesy Spin on Violin Jazz

Calling your new album Out of the Blue, especially if you’re a string player, is pretty much akin to calling it A Love Supreme if you play sax. But no matter: jazz violinist Christian Howes plays it with an admirably purist sensibility, other than the occasions when he really digs in and delivers what sounds like a distorted guitar solo. And he does it with his own signature, melodic style. Jazz violinists inevitably get compared to either Stephane Grappelli or Jean-Luc Ponty, and to his credit Howes seldom sounds much like either one. You have to go back in time for guys like Stuff Smith, a bluesman, a style Howes reaches for more frequently than not here. The band behind him includes Robben Ford on guitars, Bobby Floyd (who wrote Knock on Wood) on organ and piano, Tamir Hendelman taking over on piano on several tracks, bass duties split between Kevin Axt on upright bass and Ric Fierabracci on bass guitar, with Joel Rosenblatt on drums.

The opening track, Fingerprints, is Wayne Shorter’s Footprints (via Chick Corea), moving from propulsive funk to astringently sweeping swing and a rippling Hendelman piano solo, Ford maintaining the vibe marvelously. A swinging version of Fats Domino’s I’m Walking is the one place where Grappelli comes to mind, Floyd going deep into the blues, Ford shifting from incisive to spiraling, with a soaring solo out. And was that a Hank Williams quote? Horace Silver’s Cape Verdean Blues emphasizes sway, syncopation, and straight-up bluesiness, Howes building to a graceful spiral down and deep into the shadows after Hendelman’s graceful cascades. Nicking a phrase from the Sister Sledge kitschfest Tell Me Something Good, Gumbo Klomp works a funk vamp, the Crusaders as done with violin, Ford reminding of his early glory days with Jimmy Witherspoon. The title track, a Jeff Lynne classic (just kidding – it’s an original) is warmly gospel-flavored, a feast of shifting textures, Rosenblatt playfully impatient and bustling underneath.

Sharon Hendrix guests on vocals on the torchy soul/blues Seek and Ye Shall Find. A shuffling, fusiony funk groove, Bobby’s Bad is a vehicle for some colorful Floyd work and a metallic solo out by Howes. Hendelman and then Ford turn a purist version of Sing Me Softly of the Blues over to Howes, who scurries and then shoots it across the bar to Floyd, who’s only too glad to join the fun. They wind up the album with the rhythmically tricky When Will the Blues Leave and a minimalistic, distantly ragtime piano-and-violin duo version of Sweet Lorraine. Blues fans may enjoy this as much as the jazz crowd. It’s out now on Resonance.

September 16, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Minamo – Kuroi Kawa – Black River

Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama,  much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score.  It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.

Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.

The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole.  The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment