Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Misty, Cosmopolitan Charm with Svetlana & the Delancey Five At the Blue Note This Weekend

Since Svetlana & the Delancey Five have made their home at the Lower East Side backyard-tenement hideaway the Back Room on Norfolk Street for the the past four years, you might expect their leader to play the role of mob moll in front of a band playing gangster favorites from the Lucky Luciano era. Instead, watching her is more akin to being at the Deux Magots in Paris ten years down the line, when Sartre and Beauvoir were hanging out til closing time. Svetlana has devastating wit, cosmopolitan sophistication and an amazing band behind her who are every bit as important to the music as she is. This isn’t just a bunch of guys chilling behind a charismatic singer: Svetlana will jump on a trumpet or sax or piano phrase, or a drum riff and go sailing through the stars, rising from misty bittersweetness to uninhibited exhilaration, just as the band will do when she throws a phrase their way. Yet as wild as these cats can get, they’re more subtle than most of the other oldtimey swing acts out there. They’re bringing that act to the Blue Note this Sunday, Nov 27 for brunch, with sets at 11:30 AM and also 2 PM for all you normal, i.e. night people. New Orleans powerhouse trumpeter/crooner James Williams is Svetlana’s special guest, meaning that they’ll probably be minding the Satchmo-and-Ella songbook that the band explores on their most recent album.

It takes awhile to get a handle on what she does. The first time this blog caught her act, the band was cooking and so was she. The second time out, a rainy night at the Back Room, was much more melancholy and misterioso: she didn’t allow a hint of vibrato into her vocals until the closing cadenza of the last song of the set. Most recently, she charmed an all-Manhattanite audience, fronting the Seth Weaver Big Band at Zinc Bar earlier this week. Svetlana polled the crowd to see where everybody was from, and was reassured that there are still diehard jazz people on this island. And as vividly as she channeled the deadpan vindictiveness of Ellington’s Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, and balanced that with an exuberant take of It Had to Be You, it was her original, It’s All Good, that made for the best song of the night. It’s an update on classic 30s swing for the here and now. As she hit the chorus, she suddenly rose from a warmly enveloping calm to an eye-opening leap: “When you hear the BIG NOISE, it’s not thunder or storm.” Then she took the audience groundward again: “It’s just the sound of my heart breaking.” The song ended on a characteristically enigmatic note, a little defeated, a little defiant.

Fun fact: Svetlana is a frequent Wycliffe Gordon collaborator, and makes extensive use of his playful, wit-infused charts for jazz standards. She’ll be his special guest this Friday night, Nov 25 at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center for his 7:30 PM set with his energetic quintet.

Fun fact #2: Svetlana & the Delancey Five often open with the Gerry Mulligan classic Bernie’s Tune. To be fair, they were doing this long before the 2016 Democratic primaries. But it’s still cool.

November 21, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sari Kessler Breathes New Life into Old Songs Uptown

If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.

The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.

Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.

Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.

Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.

Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.

August 14, 2016 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rob Garcia’s Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet Captures the State of the World in Jazz, 2016

Forget for a minute how few drummer composers have as much of a gift for melody as Rob Garcia. Or for that matter what an acerbic, smart lyricist he is. It’s impossible to imagine an album that more accurately captures the state of the world in 2016 better than his new release Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet. Isn’t that the challenge that pretty much everybody, other than the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons of the world, faces right now? Garcia’s critique is crushingly vivid, catchy as hell and just as erudite. He offers a nod back to the fearlessly political Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln civil rights-era collaborations, and has an aptitude for bustling Mingus-esque 50s noir. His first-class band includes Noah Preminger, a frequent collaborator (who has a killer new album of his own just out) on tenor sax, along with Gary Versace on piano and Masa Kamaguchi on bass, with Joe Lovano and Kate McGarry guesting on a couple of tracks each.

A cover of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer opens the album, pulsing on an uneasy triplet beat until Preminger’s crafty lead-in to Versace’s spirals sends it into genunely surreal doublespeed territory, a time-warping nocturne. People Are Everything, a similarly uneasy jazz waltz, has Kate McGarry’s austere, Britfolk-tinged vocals channeling a similar angst and a hope against hope. Time and time again, Garcia’s message is that we’re all in this together, that it’s our choice to either sink or swim isn’t one that future generations will have.

Preminger’s tightly unwinding spirals sax over Versace’s insistent, acerbic piano deliver a vivid update on 50s noir postbop in the almost cruelly catchy Terror, Fear and Media: Garcia’s own artully terse propulsion so tight with the rest of the rhythm section, ramping up a practically punishing, conspiratorial ambience. Those guys are just hell-bent on scaring the bejeezus out of us, aren’t they?

Joe Lovano guests on the languidly aching ballad Precious Lives with a wide-angle vibrato, Versace following with masterfully subtle, blues-infused variations before handing back to the sax. Actor Brendan Burke narrates Garcia’s rapidfire, spot-on critique Mac N Cheese (Bank Fees, Dead Bees, Killing Trees, Shooting Sprees, War Thieves, Mac N Cheese) ) over a broodingly tight Angelo Badalamenti noir beatnik swing groove, a crushingly cynical, spot-on Twin Peaks jazz broadside.. Garcia follows this with the first of two tightly wound solo breaks, Act Local #1

The album’s title track makes plaintively shifting postbop out of a simple, direct Afro-Cuban piano rifff, then takes the whole architecture skyward, a showcase for both Preminger and Versace to sizzle and spin; it has the epic ominousness of a recent Darcy James Argue work, Versace adding a carnivalesque menace. The Journey Is the Destination makes a return to furtively stalking straight-up swing with Lovano again, McGarry rising with a determination that stops short of triumphant: where this will all end up is far from clear.

Guns Make Killing Easy opens as a surrealistically creepy, upper-register piano-bass duet and the swings morosely as Versace leaps with a clenched-teeth, macabre intensity balanced on the low end by Garcia’s coldly inevitable groove, Preminger adding nebulous suspense as the whole thing starts to go haywire and then turns into a requiem.

A tight, enigmatic two-sax chart opens Greenland Is Turning Green, both Lovano and Preminger judiciously prowling around over the hard-charging rumble underneath. The second pastorale here, Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is reinvented as pensive mood piece, while Whatever Gets You By seems to offer a degree of hope with its flashy piano, bittersweet Preminger lines and tropical heat. The album winds up with a second solo Garcia piece, Act Local #2

Throughout the suiite, Garcia’s own impactful, tersely majestic riffs and rolls color the music with an often mutedly brooding thud, as coloristic as it is propulsive. You would hardly expect the best jazz album of 2016 to be written by a drummer, and it’s awfully early in the year to make that kind of choice. On the other hand, nobody’s going to release a more relevant or important – or tuneful – jazz album this year.

And at the album release show at Smalls this past at Smalls, Leo Genovese filled in for Versace, raising the tropical heat, yet with a more lighthanded approach, while Preminger shifted in and out of feral volleys of blues. And Garcia, whose signature sound is both one of the brightest and boomiest around – he uses every inch of the available sonic spectrum – reasserted himself as one of this era’s most colorful and uncompromising players, even taking a detour into a two-handed African talking drum conversation at one point. His next gig as a bandleader is on August 5 at 7:30 PM at Prospect Range, 1226 Prospect Ave. in Ditmas Park; take the F or G to Ft. Hamilton Parkway.

July 5, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Annie Chen Brings Her Fearlessly Eclectic, Soulful, Smart New Jazz Compositions to Midtown

Annie Chen sings with a resolute, purposeful alto voice, often with a sense of suspense. But her greatest strength right now, as she becomes more comfortable with her adopted English language, is as a composer. Singer/composers in jazz are rare; those as ambitious, and fearless, and have as much of a gift for melody as Chen are rarer still. She has no issues with leapfrogging from one influence to another, whether that’s vintage soul, the folk and classical music of her native China, purposeful American postbop or more epic larger-ensemble sounds with intricate and unpredictable charts. There’s a sense of the surreal, even a dream state, that permeates much of what she writes, and it draws the listener in. She’s got an auspicious gig coming up on July 10 at 7 PM at Club Bonafide, leading a septet with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Alex Lore on saxophone and flute, David Smith on trumpet, Marius Duboule on guitar, Desmond White on bass and Jerad Lippi on drums, with special guest violinist Tomoko Omura, who’s collaborated vividly with Chen in the past. Cover is $10.

In the time since Chen’s 2014 sextet album Pisces the Dreamer, she’s grown considerably as both as a singer and as a writer. While it’s worth a spin if imaginative postbop arrangements and tunesemithing are concerned, Chen’s most intriguing material right now is recent, and it’s up at her audio and video pages. Check out her septet gig at Flushing Town Hall earlier this year. There’s Orange Tears Lullaby, with its suspenseful pizzicato violin intro into to a lush, vampy verse and eventually a balmy, crescendoing coda over a determined triplet groove. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning mashes up an Asian folk-tinged theme over a balletesque pulse as Chen scats the blues, alto saxophonis Alex LoRe spiraling optimistically over Jarrett Cherner’s incisive, low-key piano.

Leaving Sonnet is more enigmatic, moody and introspective but with a solid groove as well, trumpeter David Smith slowly and methodically following Chen’s countours as the theme grows more energetic and optimistic, a door closing while another one opens. She also covers Nirvana and a Mongolian folk tune that she turns into a bittersweet tone poem.

And if you have the time, contrast the gritty 2014 Shapeshifter Lab take of another, older original, the latin soul-inspired Things I Know with the much more confident and dynamic version she and the group delivered onstage in Queens earlier this year. Since her arrival from Beijing, Chen has really grabbed the tiger by the tail and hasn’t looked back. Let’s hope she sticks around.

July 2, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eden Lane Bring Their Misty, Haunting, Lynchian Jazz Songs Back to the West Village

Stephanie Layton stood tall and resolute, a tinge of mist in her voice, in front of her jazz combo Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi late last month. “If it was up to me, I’d only sing sad songs,” she told the crowd, concise and to the point – and half of them roared their approval. If there ever was a market for depressed music, New York in 2016 is it.

“But that wouldn’t be well-rounded,” she explained gently. As you would expect from a vocalist who’s in demand as much as she is, Layton is actually very well-rounded. And one suspects that her similarly well-rounded bandmates in the Tickled Pinks – arguably New York’s most irrepressibly fun swing harmony trio, who will be on West Coast tour this August – share her preference for dark material. Karla Moheno leads one of this city’s most mysteriously cinematic, haunting bands, Karla Rose & the Thorns, while Kate Sland sings and plays bass in uneasily swirling rock group Merit Badge. Layton’s other gig is playing piano alongside her singer sister Susanne in honkytonk power trio Dylan Charles & the Layton Sisters. And in a stroke of serendipity, Layton is bringing Eden Lane back to Caffe Vivaldi on July 29 at 9:30 PM.

Last time out at that venue, Layton was in her element. In her auburn bangs, retro red-framed glasses, black top and smart vintage print skirt, she had the David Lynch ingenue persona down cold, a perfect match for her blue velvet vocals. Her purist, inspired backing unit also included Charles on guitar along with bassist Larry Cook, tenor saxophonist Janelle Reichman and pianist.Yan Falmagne. They slowly made their way into My Baby Just Cares For Me, Layton giving it an understated nuance with a nod back to Nina Simone, Reichman’s sax matching Layton’s understatedly pillowy delivery. Then she completely flipped the script with the first of two state-specific songs, a coyly shuffling, wordy rarity from the Blossom Dearie catalog,  Rhode Island Is Famous for You, Charles plinking wryly through a verse when Layton threw one his way.

Then she went back to disarmingly direct, bittersweet mode for Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe, less Peggy Lee ballad than angst-ridden wish song lowlit by wee-hours piano underneath Reichman’s long, moodily spiraling solo. Layton duetted with Charles on a briskly swinging, almost defiantly contented take of Mississippi Mud, then went back to geographical jazz with a rare Erik Frandsen tune, the vividly affecting Unique New York. Eight million hearts just can’t be wrong, and she gave voice to every one, hoping they won’t lose their apartments to speculators looking to make a quick flip before the market crashes.

The band kept the wistful, grey-sky mood going, with a knowingly wounded, mentholated tropical tinge, Falmagne leaping in to keep the volume up when Charles added an aptly stark solo. Layton’s resigned interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s Little Girl Blue was just plain shattering: her “Just sit here and count your fingers,” was enough to get tears from a stone. Likewise, their bittersweetly swaying take of When Sunny Gets Blue echoed the classic Jeanne Lee version, emotionally if not rhythmically. From there they picked up the pace, bouncing their way through No Soap, No Hope on the wings of Reichman’s rapidfire riffage.

Layton matched an anxious, brittle vibrato to her opaquely enveloping low register in an enigmatic take of When the Sun Comes Out, Charles’ rain-off-the-roof solo capping it off. Julie London’s Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast was next, keeping the heartbroken mood front and center over Falmagne’s judicious phrasing. They closed with a tongue-in-cheek, hungover Sunday pancake afternoon version of Give Me the Simple Life. Some laughs, plenty of goosebumps and enough empathy to pull just about anybody out of the abyss. Dare you to go to Caffe Vivaldi on the 29th and find out for yourself.

June 28, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment