Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Deliciously Fun Live Duo Album From Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch

Musicians have had it worse than just about anybody during the lockdown, but listeners have been on the other side of that equation, at least as far as albums are concerned. Since studio space hasn’t been legally available because of the ongoing paranoia, many artists have been raiding their archives for their juiciest live recordings. One of the juiciest of all of them so far is the duo album by Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch, Live at the Village Vanguard, streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s a rare opportunity to hear Spalding on vocals alone. Hersch – who’s put out more great live albums in the past couple of years than pretty much any other artist – loves playing with singers. Bottom line: lyrical jazz heaven. You have to grab this album now – it’s going offline for good at the end of this month.

These are long songs, some of them more than ten minutes. Hersch’s puckish teasing contrasts with Spalding’s wistful but streetwise gravitas in the Gershwin standard But Not For Me: it’s like what Rachelle Garniez might do with it. Hersch’s jaunty, erudite tempo shifts perfectly capture the ambience of the original while competely flipping the script with it. That last slash: wow!

It’s hard to think of a more intuitive interpreter of Monk than Hersch, and he is completely in his element in the album’s second track, his homage Dream of Monk. “We never really knew where his mind was,” Spalding muses about Thelonious Sphere. It’s a coy piano-and-vocalese duel, a challenge to figure out who knows more weird accidentals, and yet, more purist blues.

They have ridiculous fun with a blippy, bluesy jam based on the 50s Neal Hefti hit Girl Talk. Spalding finds double meanings inspired by Mission Impossible and….hmmm….masculine imbalances. “Don’t get it twisted,” she warns. “What’s mundane on the surface is not.”

The two work the standard Some Other Time from skeletal to brassy and close with a lighthearted, comedic take of Egberto Gismonti’s Loro, with some coy inside jokes from the frontwoman (does a duo have a frontwoman?) For experienced listeners who like the most playful side of these two artists, this is nirvana.

June 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mesmerizingly Eclectic Debut Album From Singer Aubrey Johnson

Singer Aubrey Johnson has been a rivetingly individualistic part of the fabric of the New York jazz scene, with both large and small ensembles for the better part of a decade. So it’s hard to believe that she’s only now releasing her debut album as a bandleader. That record, Unraveled, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a chance to hear her arrestingly clear, crystalline voice delivering her own material as well as a few vastly multistylistic covers: it was worth the wait. Johnson has newfound gravitas in her lower registers as well as a little Americana rusticity further up the scale, bolstering an already formidable stylistic arsenal.

Herer she’s joined by by pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller and bassist Matt Aronoff, along with austere violin from  Tomoko Omura. The band launch into a straight-up trip-hop groove to kick off the album with the understatedly angst-ridden twists and turns of No More I Love Yous, written by obscore 80s new wave duoThe Lover Speaks: “I used to have demons in my room at night,” Johnson confides.

She switches to Portuguese for an expansively spare take of the Jobim standard Dindi, Michael Sachs adding graceful clarinet. The duet between Johnson and Aronoff is tantalizingly brief; her spiraling vocalese before she sings the final verse in English wil give you goosebumps.

She leaps around, over fluttery bass clarinet, Ziemba’s insistent minimalism and Noller’s altered trip-hop beat in Happy to Stay, a souped-up chamber pop tune that sounds like Gretchen Parlato on steroids. Karate is a coyly funny, blippily wordless remake of a famous Egberto Gismonti theme that echoes Johnson’s Mycale bandmate Sofia Rei‘s most playful work.

“The dawn is calling your name,” Johnson intones soberly in the moodily syncopated ballad Lie in Wait, “Are we just hanging on to prove everybody wrong?” Sachs and Omura add judiciously energetic solos as the band go scampering. Ripples from Ziemba and the bass clarinet permeate Love Again, Johnson’s voice rising and dipping from daunting heights as the beat grows funkier.

Her take of Jimmy Rowles’ noir jazz classic The Peacocks, with a bracing solo from Sachs,, is especially spare and cinematic: the rapport with Ziemba’s icy backdrop brings to mind Sara Serpa‘s similarly chilling work with Ran Blake. These Days is not the Joy Division postpunk classic but a poignantly energetic, rainy-day original, Johnson working her entire range as the violin sails, Ziemba’s piano rages and then backs away.

The album’s title track is a song for our time, a portrait of dissociation and alienation: over a shifting modal groove, Johnson asks for anything that would generate some kind of emotional response. Alice Lee‘s most adventurous jazz work comes to mind. And Johnson reaches back to the tropics again with the jauntily lilting, matter-of-fact Voice Is Magic, through a stunningly phantasmagorical midsection. Admittedly, there haven’t been many albums released in the last few weeks, but this is still the frontrunner for best vocal jazz release of 2020.

April 28, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.

December 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Radical Change of Pace and a Park Slope Gig From a Future Vocal Jazz Icon

Svetlana & the Delancey 5 have had a memorable run as one of New York’s most colorful swing bands. But their charismatic Moscow-born frontwoman is much more eclectic than most of the other oldtimey hot jazz chicks in town – and you can hear it in her voice. Her latest album Night at the Movies – streaming at her music page – is a total change of pace for her, yet in a way it’s a logical step forward for someone who was always too sophisticated to be fenced in by just one style. It’s a collection of movie music. Peggy Lee and Mel Torme – iconic voices, but worthy comparisons – made lavishly escapist records like this, although neither of them had to escape Soviet ugliness as so many other Russians did before the Chernobyl disaster bankrupted the regime. You can get a sense of that at her quartet gig Nov 21, with sets at 7 and 9 PM at the newly opened, ambitious Made in New York Jazz Cafe & Bar at 155 5th Ave off Degraw in Park Slope. You can get in for free; it’s ten bucks for a table. Take the R to Union St., walk uphill and back toward Atlantic.

Svetlana is at her balmiest throughout the album’s opening track, a lushly orchestrated bossa-nova take of In the Moonlight, from the 1995 flick Sabrina – it’s a good showcase for her impeccable nuance and remarkably vigorous low register, considering that the song is essentially a simple two-chord vamp. Sullivan Fornter’s terse piano cuts through the orchestration in the torch song Sooner or Later – not the Skatalites classic but a Sondheim track sung by Madonna in the 1990 Dick Tracy film.

Svetlana pairs off with her bud, trombonist/crooner Wycliffe Gordon – whose deviously entertaining charts she’s used for years – in the swing standard Cheek to Cheek, a throwback to the classic Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duets. Their remake of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, from 2010’s Despicable Me, is even more of a revelation: who knew what a great blues tune this could be?

Svetlana makes an elegant ballad out of Pure Imagination, a devious stoner theme from the Willy Wonka movie, with a sly take of a lyric that works as well for experienced older people as well as for the kids. Her disarmingly intimate duet intro with guitarist Chico Pinheiro on Moon River is the coolest interpretation of that song since the days when REM used to surprise audiences with a janglerock version.

Fortner’s celestial gravitas matches the bandleader’s knowing, wistful take of the standard When You Wish Upon a Star. Michel Legrand’s Watch What Happens, from the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an unexpected match of jaunty, New Orleans-tinged swing and bruised hope against hope, with a jaunty Jon-Erik Kellso trumpet solo.

John Chin’s crushingly crescendoing piano in a sambafied take of Remember Me, from the 2017 film Coco, contrasts with Svetlana’s lushly bittersweet delivery. She sings Boris Pasternak’s ominous lyric from No One’s In This House – from the 1975 Russian drama Irony of Fate – as latin noir, spiced with Sam Sadigursky’s moody clarinet. The band reinvent the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile as a gentle latin swing tune, then make a chugging New Orleans romp out of Randy Newman’s Almost There, from the 2009 Princess & the Frog film. Has anybody ever done so many unexpected things with so many movie songs?

The epic cast of characters here also includes but is not limited to Rob Garcia and Matt Wilson on drums, Elias Bailey on bass, Rogerio Boccatto on percussion, Michael Davis on trombone, Antoine Silverman and Entcho Todorov on violin and Emily Brausa on cello.

November 19, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Intimate Live Album and a Birdland Gig From Jazz Piano and Vocal Siren Champian Fulton

At this point in jazz history,  Champian Fulton is the best piano-playing jazz singer, and the best pianist who happens to be a singer. With her blend of precision and flair on the keys and her nuanced approach to the mic, she’s been unstoppable lately. Her career validates the old proverb that you get good at what you do: somehow, in between gigs, she manages to find the time to make albums. And she likes to flip the script: she’s done everything from reinventing Dinah Washington – a major influence – to a devious all-instrumental piano trio record, and now her latest release, Dream a Little, an intimate but often fiery live set with saxophonist Cory Weeds. The new record, a mix of standards, a couple of rarities and an original is streaming at Bandcamp. Fulton’s next New York gig is a two-night stand at Birdland on Oct 30-31, with sets at 7 and 10 PM; you can get in for $20.

Weeds opens the first track, Dream a Little Dream, with a balmy solo before Fulton’s piano brings in some James P. Johnson gravitas, a contrast that lingers through an unexpectedly restrained, even suspenseful take of a song that Mama Cass Elliott made epic drama out of.

Weeds does the flying – gently – in Fly Me to the Moon, the two folllowing the same dynamic, both Fulton’s piano and voice infused with calm take-charge attitude. Strap on that seat belt, buster!

By contrast, Lullaby For Art  is a starkly pulsing, latin-tinged instrumental theme with bitingly bluesy solos from both musicians. Fulton’s clenched-teeth intensity before the third verse is one of the album’s most stunning moments.

The duo’s take of Darn That Dream has a wistful, expansive solo first verse from Fulton, Weeds fluttering among the clouds, a dynamic they mirror with a steady, subtly stride-influenced version of Pennies From Heaven. Then they pick up the pace with Once I Had a Secret Love, Weeds’ precise chromatic volleys setting the tone.

Fulton’s slowly swaying interpretation of I Thought About You leaves no doubt that it’s about being haunted by a memory. As he does throughout the record, Weeds plays tersely, developing melodic themes rather than blowing endless, too-cool-for-school practice patterns like too many other reed players do.

The two make low-key, striding swing out of Tangerine: Fulton likes to use her low lefthand a lot, and that device works particularly well here, grounding Weeds’ cheery lines. I’d Give a Dollar For a Dime – Joe Williams’ 1930 shout-out to what seemed already had become jukebox nostalgia – dips and weaves with a dreamy charm. They close the record with a coy jump blues take based on Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ version of Save Your Love For Me

While this is first and foremost a collection of bittersweet love ballads, it’s also uproariously funny when least expected: Fulton has a subtle and often sly sense of humor, particularly on the keys. As if we need yet more proof that more artists should be making live records, this is it.

October 24, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Allegra Levy Brings Her Nocturnal Reinventions to Birdland

Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.

The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.

Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady,  roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.

Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.

A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.

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

Extrovert Organist Brian Charette Keeps Pushing the Envelope

Organist Brian Charette is this era’s Larry Young, expanding the terrain an organist can cover. And he’s one of the funniest guys in jazz: onstage, his sardonic wit infuses the music as much as the between-song banter. After years of toiling as the main organ jazz attraction at Smalls, and touring relentlessly, he’s finally been getting the critical recognition he deserves. His  next gig is with his Sextette at Dizzy’s Club on Feb 13, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30. With six guys in the band, this is a prime opportunity to catch Charette at his devious best.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Charette’s shows, it was last fall and he was playing an intimate trio set with his mesmerising singer wife Melanie Scholtz at Rue B in the East Village. In terms of unselfconsciously spectacular talent, it wouldn’t be overhype to call these two the newest power couple in jazz. While this gig was completely different from what Charette does in a straight-ahead jazz context, he was still just as much of a shark on the prowl, chilling out between the rocks, waiting for a choice morsel of melody to sink his teeth into.

Scholtz sings in several languages including Xosa, a distinctive and particularly difficult vernacular from her native South Africa that includes clicks along with vowels and consonants. Playing percussion and syndrums, she looped her vocals on several numbers, constructing wildly spiraling, kaleidescopic melodies on a couple of them as Charette shifted from Afrobeat to dub to gospel to vintage soul to a little funk, sometimes all of that in the same serpentine number.

Much as Charette’s erudite textures and idiomatic shifts were entertaining, Scholtz was a force of nature, rising from shamanic, unearthly lows to soaring highs, coyly fluttering intimacy and a gale-force wail. Spun through the mixer, those tones took on all sorts of unexpected, surreal shapes. Yet as psychedelically enveloping as all that turned out to be, it was when she went straight through the PA without any effects that she delivered her most spine-tingling moments of the night. She and Charette are off on European tour next month.

February 11, 2019 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Catherine Russell Brings Her Edgy Retro Swing and Blues Reinventions to Birdland

Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.

They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.

When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.

Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.

The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.

They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.

February 8, 2019 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Feast of Catchy Tunesmithing, Big Ideas and Picturesque Themes on Annie Chen’s New Album

Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.

Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.

It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.

Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.

Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.

The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.

The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.

Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.

Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.

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

Svetlana & the Delancey Five: New York’s Most Deliciously Unpredictably Vocal Jazz Band

There were some delicious ironies at Svetlana & the Delancey Five’s Birdland show last week. With most vocal jazz acts these days, the situation is frontperson – more often than not a woman – plus backing unit. Although they got their start as a swing dance band, this crew share much more interplay and push-and-pull than most bands in the field. Which makes them vastly more unpredictable: you literally never know what they’re going to throw at you.

Their most recent Blue Note show was all about jaunty improvisation, a game of street ball with everybody throwing elbows and getting dirty. So this Birdland gig was something of an anomaly – because it was the song set. Watching this band, it’s never completely clear how much of what they’re doing is actually composed, and how much improvisation is going on. Frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian is a connoisseur of clever charts – Wycliffe Gordon is a favorite source – and obviously revels in keeping the audience guessing.

Which might explain why, in between songs, she was in rare form as snarky comedienne: sticking more closely to the page might not have been everything she needed to really blow off steam. There were many levels of meta: she never came right out and said, “You people are just a bunch of tourists from the sticks,” but for the hometown contingent, she was redemptive.

To paraphrase Mae West, this time out the quintet were a band what takes its time, parsing the arrangements’ innumerable twists and turns. They made bossa nova out of the Ella Fitzgerald version of A Tisket, a Tasket, with a fleeting, surreallistically triumphant klezmer interlude when least expected. By contrast, their take of I’m Just a Lucky So and So had a slow, lustrous sway lowlit by the harmonies of trumpeter Charlie Caranicas and tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride, pianist Willerm Delisfort ramping up the starry ambience. It was the ”Midnight in a tropical forest,“ that Shmulyian had promised to deliver.

Dynamics and subtle tempo shifts were front and center throughout Cheek to Cheek and then What a Little Moonlight Can Do, ramping down In the Wee Small Hours over the tersely tuneful pulse of bassist Endea Owens in tandem with similarly purposeful drummer Rob Garcia and his counterintuitive snare work. Then the group took it up again with a soaring, practically vengeful take of a Shmulyian original, You Turned the Tables on Me.

Much of this material is slated for release on the group’s forthcoming 2019 album A Night at the Movies, including a mamboish reinvention of an 80s ballad dating “From when hair like mine was popular,” as Shmulyian put it (she’s got one of the most seriously leonine manes in jazz).

The upbeat, bouncy Baby I’m Back, a triumphant return-from-the-tour tableau, contrasted with Garcia’s glimmering, harrowing, New Orleans funeral remake of the Beatles’ Because. They took it out with what has become Shmulyian’s signature closer lately, Blue Skies, just Delisfort and the bandleader slowly pushing the clouds away before the whole band brought the big light up. Shmulyian’s next show is this Jan 12 at 8 PM with the NY Swing Collective at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea; cover is $15.

October 3, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment