Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pianist Noa Fort’s Darkly Pensive, Catchy Tunes Transcend Category

Over the past few years, pianist/singer Noa Fort has been concretizing a remarkably terse, succinct, purposefully pensive sound that draws on her jazz background as well as western classical music and her own Israeli heritage. Her debut album No World Between Us is just out and therefore not yet at any of the usual places. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 23 at 7 PM a the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

Fort sings in a bright, clear, expressive voice, backed by Zack Lober on bass and Ronen Itzik on drums. The opening track, Now Is Our Time is a trip-hop song built around a central, mantra-like chorus, the point being that all we have is the present moment. As Itzik builds momentum, Fort expands into the darkly lyrical, neoromantically glittering terrain that’s become her signature sound over the past few years.

“Will I become what I should be, or will I just be?” she ponders in Traveling (In Time and Space), again building intensity with a catchy, rising three-chord pattern. Over a swinging One For My Baby-style bass riff, Fort considers “a kiss that never came, the touch without the shame” in the similarly crescendoing Variations on Longing.

A tone poem of sorts awash in swooshy cymbals and tumbling tom-toms, Mirrors is more or less rubato. “Don’t let the mirrors haunt you…don’t be a stranger,” Fort cautions, over lingering and then slowly cascading piano phrases. With its menacing chromatics, tricky metrics and torrential lyrics, the album’s most striking track is Unwritten Signs – it could be a standout anthem by unpredictable art-rockers Changing Modes.

With its eerie, Satie-esque harmonies and brooding Hebrew lyrics, Empty Space (Halal Paur) is just as dark. Fort maintains that ambience as Winter Requiem opens, but rising from a dirge to a resolute drive, to weather the emotional wasteland til spring.

“Shut your mouth and tell me what you feel, I don’t need ears to hear,” Fort instructs as the album’s playfully surreal, tango-inflected title track opens, building through a darkly lustrous series of ripples with Josh Deutsch’s steady trumpet riffs at the center.

The message of The Guest House, a English translation of a Rumi poem, is carpe diem, set to jaunty, dancing variations on a hypnotic, emphatic piano riff, with more trumpet and a spring-loaded bass solo. The album winds up on a similarly upbeat note with its longest track, the oldschool soul-inspired Just Wait. Whatever you call this, don’t call it jazz-pop: there’s nothing whatsoever cheesy about Fort’s translucent tunes and lyricism.

Fun fact: Fort is the younger sister of another eclectic, lyrical pianist, Anat Fort.

January 21, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment