Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Entertainment and Formidable Piano Chops at an Unexpectedly Contemplative Spot with Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton brings a rare blend of daunting piano and vocal chops to the final nights of her indian summer Radegast Hall residency this Sept 18 at 8 PM. She’s also here on the 25th. Either way, it’s Monday, and it’s professional night, and while you might not expect people to come to listen, they do. Remember, every bar on a Monday could be the best bar in town.

Fulton’s latest album is The Things We Did Last Summer, a collaboration with suave tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton recorded live onstage in Spain last year and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers, and despite the fact that it’s mostly standards, it’s arguably the high point of Fulton’s career so far. She makes solid studio albums – her all-instrumental collection, Speechless, is a party in a box – but both co-leaders do their best work onstage. More artists – particularly players who can improvise at the level the band reaches here – should be making live records.

Fulton’s subtle, tantalizingly melismatic vocals and entertaining stage presence are what she’s best known for, but she’s also a hell of a pianist. To open the album, she brings a moody been-there, done-that, know-your-pain feel to When Your Lover Has Gone, contrasting with a spacious, playfully jaunty, ragtime-tinged piano solo. Hamilton brings in the mist from there; Fulton really works the blue notes at the end.

The ten-plus minute take of Basie’s Black Velvet is a classic example of the kind of extended excursion Fulton excels at when the night is winding down, but she’s not ready to call it quits. Bassist Ignasi Gonzalez and drummer Esteve Pi settle into a comfortable midtempo stroll as Fulton winds her way up from gimlet-eye glimmer toward jubilation, Hamilton echoing her as he takes the long way in through the fog.

Fulton gets back on the mic with a barely restrained vengefulness for I Cried for You, which the band takes scampering, Gonzalez’ wry, brisk bass ballet contrasting with Fulton’s clenched-teeth attack on the keys. There’s a Sarah Vaughan-ish told-your-so quality to the vocals, but it’s not derivative.

The album’s instrumental title track brings back the wee-hours serenity, Hamilton plush and balmy over Fulton’s lingering phrases. Then the two offer contrast, floating sax against Fulton’s lowdown bluesy vocals and joyous staccato piano in Too Marvelous For Words.

Allusive, understated bluesy angst pervades an expansive vocal take of My Future Just Passed, this one closer to the Shirley Horn version. Then the band picks up the pace with the hot jazz standard Running Wild before going back to the “Great American Songbook” for a lush excursion through The Very Thought of You, Fulton ending the night with misty suspense that Hamilton works for all it’s worth before her fingers finally bust it through the clouds. It’s a good bet she’ll do something a lot like this during the Williamsburg stand.

For those in Jersey, she’s also at the Gruin Center for the Arts on College Drive on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River on Sept 19 at 8; tix are $24/$20 srs.

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

Vocal Sensation Camille Bertault Brings Her Wit and Eclectic Chops to the Jazz Standard

Conservatory-trained as a pianist, Camille Bertault became a social media sensation a couple of years ago for her vocal versions of classic jazz solos. It turns out that she’s not only an inventive singer but a clever, playful songwriter as well. The title of her debut album En Vie – streaming at her music page – is a pun which translates essentially as ‘lust for life.” Although she can do all sorts of things with her voice, Bertault sing with restraint and a sharp sense of irony here: she doesn’t overemote and lets the lyrics speak for themselves. She and her combo are bringing that French charm to the Jazz Standard tomorrow night, Sept 14, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album’s cynical opening track, Quoi de Plus Anodin (Nothing More Harmless: we’re sticking to English title style here for consistency’s sake, ok?) is fueled by pianist Olivier Hutman’s terse, insistent phrasing over the briskly shuffling drive of bassist Gildas Boclé and drummer Antoine Paganotti. The cheery tune contrasts with Bertault’s lyrics for an age of austerité:

Pas de dimanche
Pour les paluches qui s’épanchent
Plutôt crever que d’ faire la manche
Meme si y’a pas de fric en avalanche

[No day off for these poor sods; better to kick the bucket than put your hand out, even if there isn’t exactly an avalanche of dough on the way…]

Gritty, bustling bass, scrambling piano and bracing doubletracked vocalese harmonies percolate through the second cut, Course. Then Bertault hints at a cornet in the distance, then offers a bittersweet look at seeing through a child’s eyes in her lustrous, resonant soul-jazz reinterpretation of the Wayne Shorter ballad Enfant Eyes.

The album’s title track, another vocalese number, shifts between a balletesque grace, clenched-teeth intensity and syncopated swing behind Hutman’s crushing chordal attack. Cette Nuit, Bertault’s version of the Jimmy Rowles epic The Peacocks, offers contrasting, starry ambience, a lingering tone poem that springs into action when the bass and drums kick in and Bertault takes a purposefully scatting solo. Hutman’s cascades and  Paganotti’s elegant tumbles top it off expertly.

The steady, expansively moody ballad A la Mer Tume (an oceanic pun on “bitterness”) provides a launching pad for a balletesque bass solo. The band reaches toward a scamper but then pulls back throughout the catchy, vamping, latin-tinged Double Face, the last of the vocalese numbers

Bertault kicks off Tatie Cardie with a coy spoken word and drum duet and then relates a hilarious, Spike Jones-style account of unexpected events at a prim and proper aunt’s tea party, the whole band getting in on the joke. She opens her take of Prelude to A Kiss a-cappella, then the band take their moody time with it, Boclé adding a melancholy bowed solo. The final cut is Satiesque, a title that should have been taken long ago. It’s a syncopated, lyrical salute to the great surrealist composer:

Satie, est-ce que les fous ne sont pas
Plus sages qu’ils n’en ont l’air?
L’endroit est peut-être l’envers?

[Satie, are crazy people smarter than the ones who don’t let it show? Or is it the other way around?]

Lots of flavors here, all of them worth savoring. Few other artists can make phrases like “ba da da” as consistently surprising and interesting as Bertault.

September 13, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics. El Galivan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlike what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Galivan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

September 12, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rare Brooklyn Residency By the Best Singing Pianist in Jazz

Lately there’s been a lot of top-drawer jazz popping up in some unexpected places. When Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy booked the Jazz Passengers for a weekly residency, that sent a signal. Likewise, the cavernous Williamsburg beer garden Radegast Hall books many of this city’s best swing bands, but it’s not known as a listening room – and if you’ve witnessed the din there on the weekend, you know why. But that’s not always the case.

This September, the venue has booked pianist/singer/composer Champian Fulton for a Monday night, 8 PM weekly residency that resumes September 18. If you’re a serious jazz fan and you’re on a budget – the venue doesn’t charge a cover – you’d be crazy to miss this. If Manhattan is easier for you, she’s also at Smoke on Sept 7 with sets at 7:30, 9 and 10:30. 

Watching her figure out where she was going to go, in a spit-second, pensive smile on her face a couple of weeks ago at her first night at the Brooklyn venue was great fun – and a revelation. Fulton is known as a singer. Dinah Washington is the obvious influence – Fulton’s 2016 album After Dark got a big thumbs-up here, as did her 2017 all-instrumental release, Speechless. The former is a subtle reinterpretation of songs that other chanteuses tend to mimic rather than putting their own stamp on. But while nuance is what distinguishes Fulton’s vocals, she’s got fire in her fingers. Not to disrespect Diana Krall’s piano chops, and Karrin Allyson is a much better pianist than she typically lets on, but there’s no other singer in jazz with chops as fast and fluid as Fulton’s  Nor is there a pianist with her speed and prowess who’s equally gifted on the mic.

Through almost a full two sets, she only played one instrumental, a percolating postbop shuffle to open the night – understandable considering that most of the acts here have vocalists. The rest of the set was mostly standards, which also makes sense considering where she was. It was what Fulton did with them that separates her from thousands and thousands of loungey acts around the world. For example, was she going to follow that snarkly little curlicue with another devious glissando? Yessssssss. Maybe one more time? Nope. She’d already moved on to a big hammering series of downward chords.

“Every gig is a good gig,” she mused between sets. Confident words – or just the daily routine for one of the great wits in jazz, who makes no secret how much fun she’s having onstage. Her rhythm section shuffled and swung tersely and tightly behind her as she made her way through one eclectic intro after another: hard blues into Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone, plaintive classical balladry into April in Paris. Then she’d take flight over the entire span of the keyboard, trickly highs to looming lows, slowly building to a crescendo and then back at times. Like her vocals, the musical jokes were subtle, but there were a lot of them, quotes from other tunes as well as unexpected peek-a-boo phrases and more. See for yourself next month.

August 29, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coolly Enigmatic, Purist Jazz Chanteuse Dorian Devins Brings Her Reinventions to Her Usual West Village Haunt

Singer Dorian Devins works the cool side of jazz. Subtlety is her thing: if you detest over-the-top things in general, you will love her style. Her uncluttered, often disarmingly direct mezzo-soprano delivery brings to mind misty torch singers like June Christy and Julie London (Devins once conceived of a multi-artist tribute night that would be called I Am Not Julie London). Which speaks to Devins’ deadpan, often devastating sense of humor, something that sometimes makes it into her performances depending on how sedate the venue is. Some of her latest full-length album, sardonically titled Imaginary Release  is streaming at her music page. She’s at Cornelia Street Cafe on August 31 at 6 PM leading a quintet; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

The album is a mix of standards, the classic instrumental joints that Devins loves to pen her own lyrics to, and a handful of choice originals. She and her group open with Benny Goodman’s Lullaby in Rhythm, Devins’ artful climb from guarded hope to quiet triumph contrasting with Tom Christensen’s jaunty tenor sax and Paul Gill’s dancing bowed bass over the low-key swing of pianist Lou Rainone and drummer Taro Okamoto. Her first lyrical reinvention here is Wayne Shorter’s Conundrum, an aptly enigmatic ballad with Rainone’s glittering piano and Christensen’s terse flute over Okamoto’s bossa-tinged groove.

The lustre of Richie Vitale’s flugelhorn in tandem with the flute introduce a balmy, matter-of-factly optimistic take of Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time, Gill’s fluttering bass solo handing off to Rainone’s gleaming neoromanticisms. Then they pick up the pace, remaking Duke Ellington’s I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ as a brisk, understatedly biting jazz watlz with soaring solos from Vitale on trumpet and Christensen on tenor to match Devins’ leaps and bounds.

The album’s best and most deviously entertaining track is Satie-ated – damn, there goes another good title! It’s a distantly bolero-esque remake of Erik Satie’s Gymnopede No. 1. “Here and there the distant glare that burns me/I hope there’ll be a time my mind returns me,” Devins broods, echoed by Christensen’s moody oboe. Resolution, a Devins/Rainone co-write, opens with a similarly modal gravitas and rises to a shuffling entreaty to come down from the clouds and have some fun, Christensen’s tenor spirals handing off to Rainone’s terse flourishes.

Devin’s coy vocals contrast with the nocturnal groove of Jobim’s So Tinha de Ser Com Voce: it’s closer to straight-up clave jazz than dreamy bossa, Rainone adding a welcome bluesy tint. Devins’ final original is the pensive jazz waltz Lament for the Moon, Christensen’s mournful oboe and Rainone’s expressive piano echoing the metaphorically-charged tale of a satellite who’s completely lost in daylight hours.

They do Hidden Treasure, by jazz-inflected 70s British rock band Traffic, as an uneasy clave tune and stay in tropicalia mood for a bossa take of 60s folksinger Tim Harden’s Misty Roses, Tom Hubbard’s pinpoint bass contrasting with swooping flute. The album winds up with a genially swinging, bittersweet take of Billie Holiday’s The Moon Looks Down and Laughs. This is Devins’ most eclectic and strongest release to date – and she’s got another ep, City Stories, just out and up on Spotify, too.

August 27, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cutting-Edge Vocal Jazz Tunesmithing with Singer/Composer Annie Chen at Cornelia Street Cafe

Annie Chen’s music is as individualistic as it is ambitious –  and it is very ambitious. Being one of the few Chinese-American jazz singer/bandleader/composers out there might have something to do with it. Her show last week leading a first-rate quintet at Cornelia Street Cafe was a revealing and often riveting glimpse at how much she’s grown both as a writer and singer in the last couple of years.

Chen loves contrasts, and cinematic narratives, and bright, translucent themes that she takes to a lot of unexpected places. She has a soul-infused voice with a little vibrato trailing off for effect in places. English is still relatively new to her, but she sings as an instrumentalist and doesn’t let linguistic challenges get in the way. There’s a persistent if distant angst in a lot of her work, counterbalanced by her friendly, charismatic presence and sardonic sense of humor out in front of the band.

Chen vocalized enigmatically against a spiky, circling Marius Duboule guitar figure as the opening diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning got underway, then introduced an understatedly triumphant crescendo over a swaying, subtly samba-tinged groove that eventually launched a sailing Nathaniel Gao alto sax solo with a terseness to match Chen’s own bobbing melody. Polyrhythmic pairings between drummer Deric Dickens and Duboule’s jagged clang over bassist Michael Bates’ increasingly dark, dancing drive brought the song home.

Chen slowly launched into Orange Tears Lullaby with a low, moody resonance over another circular guitar intro, Gao adding peppery phrases against the beat, then mirroring Chen’s brooding atmosphere as the rhythm section kicked in with an incisive, propulsive vamp.

Next was Chen’s own arrangement of the big 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree), a bittersweet peasant-in-the-big-city tale, toyed with the rhythm, her nuanced mezzo-soprano delivery ripe with anticipation but sobered by reality. Her own composition Leaving Sonnet also channeled mixed emotions: longing for home but hope for the future in new surroundings. A harried, stairstepping vocal theme gave way to a calmer pulse colored by the sax, rising and falling in and out of an uneasy waltz.

The one standard on the bill was a moody, languid but emphatic interpretation of the ballad You’ve Changed, Chen underscoring how much of a kiss-off anthem it is. Duboule is a big fan of Chinese tea, and the author of a tea-inspired suite. His composition Tie Guan Yin turned out to be a clinic in lavish chords and pastoral splashes over a simple blues pattern steamed up by Dickens’ cymbals. Chen, a tea drinker herself, endorsed how aptly the song conveys the experience of drinking deep and savoring the flavor.

The group closed with the best song of the night, Ozledim Seni, Chen’s flurrying vocal riffage over Duboule’s broodingly kinetic, Balikan-infused guitar echoed by Gao’s eerie modalities as the rhythm expanded. Jazz anthems don’t usually get this catchy or intense. Chen is somebody to keep your eye on; watch this space for upcoming shows.

July 14, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hot Swing Jazz on a Cool Spring Night at Drom

A big ‘ooooh” went through the crowd when arranger/conductor David Berger announced Juan Tizol’s Casablanca, the noir cha-cha classic that turned out to be the high point of a dynamic opening set by his blazing Sultans of Swing Big Band at Drom last night. Berger is a founding member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: this gig, staged by the New York Hot Jazz Festival folks, gave him a chance to air out this stormy, allusively chromatic showstopper along with his other purist but inventive arrangements of swing tunes both popular and obscure.

Emcee Will Friedwald explained that everybody was there to celebrate the birthday of the “godfather of lindy hop,” Frankie Manning, the dance leader widely credited with springboarding the 90s swing revival here in Manhattan and around the world as well. Swing jazz was and will always be for dancers, but this was a concert for the listener too. There were at least as many people chlilling on the sidelines as there were on the floor, maybe more.

All evening, solos percolated throughout the band, individual members pairing off song by song until pretty much everybody got a few bars apiece. They kicked things off with a Mack the Knife-ish original that started out balmy, got brassy and then featured some neat syncopation between brass and reeds. A midtempo swing version of Happy Days Are Here Again, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s theme song, was next. “Maybe not,” Berger admitted. “Maybe later,” one of the sax section clarified.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Someday, Sweetheart had a jaunty Dan Block clarinet solo that gave way to suave trombone, and then Mark Hynes’ bubbling tenor sax. One of the clarinetists sang an opiated take of  Louis Jordan’s Knock Me a Kiss, lit up with another bustling Hynes tenor solo.

Berger explained away his stab at making swing jazz out the old early 1900s standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon as sarcastic: if a little tongue-in-cheek, it turned out to be fetching despite itself, with some pretty hip harmonies in the high reeds and brass, exchanges of bars throughout the band and a genial trombone solo. A little later they made a gorgeously lowlit, lush wee-hours swing ballad out of the old Scottish folk song Mighty Like a Rose, with a deliciously moody low brass arrangement: it turned into a dynamic feature for baritone sax.

Zoot Sims’ The Red Door got a lush snowstorm of drums, a brightly purposeful tenor sax solo and a bit of a bubbly one from bassist Jennifer Vincent – it was good to hear her amply amped in the mix, something that you can’t necessarily expect from the four string at a big band gig.

A breathtaking, uneasily carnivalesque take of Al Cohn’s Take Four was packed with brief, out-of-breath conversational phrases. A Neal Hefti number – “the swinginest chart ever,” Berger enthused – turned into a hopped-up vehicle for more baritone sax as well as the drums’ rolling, tumbling attack.

Then guest singer Hetty Kate, fresh off the plane from Australia, joined the band and launched into a coy, slinky take of Them There Eyes. She’s the real deal: she sings in character, every number different from the last one (you’d be surprised how many singers don’t do that), can bend a blue note any which way and make you smile or smirk or furrow your brow along with her.

You’re Too Marvelous for Words, with its simmering sophistication and surprisingly stark, bluesy trombone solo, contrasted with the bitingly brassy, sarcastic kissoff anthem A Fine Romance. And then channeled brittle hope and expectation in Louis Armstrong’s A Kiss to Build a Dream On. The band closed with an irrepressible dixieland flair.

The New York Hot Jazz Festival’s next big production is at Central Park Summerstage on July 1 starting at 5 PM with chanteuse Aurora Nealand, charming, female-fronted cosmopolitan swing crew Avalon Jazz Band and NYC’s arguably finest oldtime swing band Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks,

May 27, 2017 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

May 22, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jazz Songwriter/Vocalist Allegra Levy Adds to the Canon with Her Haunting Breakthrough Album

Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.

She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.

Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.

Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore  -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.

Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…

Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.

Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.

Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”

The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.

Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.

The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.

The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:

Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…

If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.

April 8, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mesmerizing Lynchian Nocturnes from Sara Serpa and Andre Matos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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