New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Towering, Funky, Innovative Big Band Jazz From Organist Matthias Bublath’s Eight Cylinder Bigband

From the first few spiraling seconds of the intro to the first track on the Eight Cylinder Bigband’s debut album – streaming at Spotify – it’s obvious that this is not your average large jazz ensemble. Other than Dr. Lonnie Smith’s octet, this may be the only big band in the world led by a jazz organist. Matthias Bublath orchestrates his song with innovatively intricate flair, matching that with his attack on the keys. There’s a deep New Orleans funk influence here, but that’s often cached beneath many layers.

The result sometimes requires a lot of rapidfire, meticulous playing from the eighteen-piece group, and they deliver. The first number, Midnight Intro is a starry Hollywood Hills boudoir funk groove beefed up with judicious orchestral swells and an energetically melisamtic solo from lead trumpeter Takuya Kuroda.

Nice Green Bo has some nice call-and-response over funky syncopation, part 70s Crusaders, part darkly blustery, cinematic theme, a lithely dancing alto sax solo at the center as the organ swirls and pulses in the background. Eventually, the bandleader adds a Riders on the Storm electric piano solo.

Bassist Patrick Scales opens Eight Cylinder with a tasty rumble underneath the brightly pouncing horns, the song shifting further into funk, dipping and rising again with tight solos from alto sax and trumpet, to a torrential coda from Bublath. The simply titled Gospel Song has one of the album’s most imaginative charts, a surreal blend of slow, summery bluesiness and orchestral heft, Kuroda contributing bubbly lyricism.

Home Cooking is a Meters-style soul strut with a defiantly allusive baritone sax solo and a wryly hazy, halfspeed psychedelic interlude where all the textures get woozy. Bublath switches to piano, then glittery, reverbtoned Rhodes in the brassy salsa-jazz number Return the Source

Guitarist Ferdinand Kirner’s spare chicken-scratch lines contrast with the orchestral grandeur in Dump the Goose as the horns tease out a New Orleans melody and the bandleader sails around. Sad Belt is moodier but no less funky and majestic as Bublath takes the music into sunnier terrain, with hints of gospel and a series of bracing tradeoffs between the organ and various parts of the ensemble.

The most straight-up funky number here is Mister Scales, spiced with an ebulliently bluesy guitar solo. The album’s biggest New Orleans funk homage is Outro Blow. They close with Bolero, which is a lot closer to Stan Getz’s adventures in Brazilian music than it is anything particularly Spanish.

Pushing beyond both the confines of the organ jazz and big band demimondes, this is a very entertaining project from a group that also includes trumpeters Nemanja Jovanovich, Florian Jechlinger, Reinhard Greiner and Andreas Unterrainer; saxophonists Ulrich Wangenheim, Florian Riedl, Alexander Kuhn, Moritz Stahl and Gregor Burger; trombonists Jürgen Neudert, Hans Heiner Bettinger, Erwin Gregg and Jakob Grimm, and drummer Christian Lettner.

Another Side of a Grimly Prophetic Post-9/11 Masterpiece

Pianist Vijay Iyer offers some eerie context for the new album InWhatStrumentals – streaming at Bandcamp – an instrumental version of his classic 2003 In What Language collaboration with hip-hop artist Mike Ladd. “We were just coming to terms with the facts on the ground, which today seem frighteningly ordinary: mounting intolerance and hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and other nonwhite people; traumatic raids of immigrant communities by the INS (later Homeland Security); the prospect of endless, amoral war waged under false pretenses; the callous neoliberal agendas of globalization and disaster capitalism; and an unprecedented power grab enacted under cover of jingoism and feigned incompetence.”

Plus ça change!

What differentiates this from the original is that there’s no lyric track. This turns out to be the rare hip-hop album whose music is as turbulently cinematic as the lyrics. The original album title was taken from a quote by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who a few months prior to 9/11 was detained while trying to catch a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport and then sent back, rather than being allowed to continue on his way. The gist of Panahi’s question is that reason and common sense are useless when dealing with little Hitlers.

Listening to the music without the voices of a parade of people persecuted during the wave of anti-immigrant paranoia after 9/11 is a bit strange, and removes a whole layer of context. But that music has held up magnificently. The opening number, the first movement of the suite The Color of My Circumference has Iyer’s darkly swarming piano rivulets over anxious, insistent, circular rhythms. Eventually drummer Trevor Holder and bassist Stephan Crump join the pummeling attack, Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax and Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet floating overhead. Everything soon fades out.

Along with Ladd’s coldly techy layers of spy-movie keys, cellist Dana Leong figures heavily into the ominous swirl and staggered pulse of The Density of the 19th Century. Throughout the rest of the album, the disquiet is relentless, whether from guitarist Liberty Ellman’s bordering-on-frantic, circular riffs, Akinmusire’s forlorn, desolate lines, Mahanthappa’s enigmatic bhangra riffage, and Holder’s tense, practically motorik rhythms. Some of these themes are over in little more than two minutes, others take more time to draw you into the vortex. Sometimes the bustle of these airport scenarios masks the sinister forces lurking at the gates, other times that cold suspicion and assumption of criminality is front and center. So when the band pivot toward warm roots reggae in Taking Back the Airplane, or offer calm, enveloping hope in Asylum, the effect is especially striking.

The artists are donating proceeds from sales of the new record to organizations supporting immigrant groups and communities of color imperiled by the lockdown.

Trippy Tropical Sounds From Rising Stars of the Once and Hopefully Future Barbes Scene

When Chicha Libre, the band responsible for introducing so much of the world to psychedelic cumbia, went on ice, their legendary Monday night Barbes residency was turned over to a new generation of slinky, trippy tropical acts. Locobeach were the first of that wave of acts to put out an album; now it’s Los Cumpleaños’ turn. Their debut release, Agua – streaming at Bandcamp – officially comes out today: a year from now, we can say “¡Feliz!

Let’s just hope the band – singer/percussionist Nestor Gomez, keyboardist Eric Lane, trombonist Alex Asher and drummer Lautaro Burgos – are still around so that can happen. Barbes is cold and dark right now, and who knows how much longer musicians in this city can hold out without running out of basic necessities. Of course, there are always underground shows…but that’s something we can’t discuss here.

For now, we have the album. The first track, Camarones has shapeshiftingly loopy beats, blips and swirls from the synth and echoey trombone that echoes another Brooklyn band, deep dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi.

There’s also classic 70s dub inside the the techy swirl and warp of the epic, practically ten-minute title cut. “Ole drinking water, keep on running,” is the message. To bad they had to autotune the vocals: a version without them would be infinitely more fun.

With its Balkan bagpipe loops, cascades, swells and fuzzily pouncing video game textures, Sonrisa will defininitely make you smile. A long, drifting outer-space baroque theme introduces the last song, Baile la Cumbia. Finally, the band stop teasing you and bring in a groove out of all that sticky green dub.

There’s Never Been a More Appropriate Time for a New Phil Ochs Album

Phil Ochs was the best songwriter to come out of the 1960s. Like Bob Dylan, he started out as a folksinger doing protest songs. Where Dylan drifted into electric blues and wove William Burroughs-inspired symbolist webs, Ochs wrote historically rich mini-movies set to contemporary classical music, neoromantic art-song and careening, jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Like Dylan, he hit a dry spell after one of his greatest albums – the harrowingly prophetic 1968 Rehearsals For Retirement. A couple of years after Dylan made his first big comeback with Blood on the Tracks, Ochs killed himself.

While there are entire albums of Dylan covers (the Byrds and Mary Lee’s Corvette at the top of the list), very few artists have covered Ochs – Marianne Dissard‘s chillingly atmospheric recent version of The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns is a rare exception. Fortuitously, there seems to be an abundance of material in the Ochs archive that never made it to digital, as evidenced by the lavish, brand-new twenty-track compilation The Best of the Rest, just out and streaming at Spotify. While this isn’t all prime Ochs, his corrosive broadsides, cynical humor and profound insights into capitalism run amok have never been more relevant than they are now. As a starting point for an Ochs mixtape, this is a decent jumpoff point.

Most of the songs are acoustic outtakes from the sessions for his 1965 album I Ain’t Marching Anymore, signaling the point where he was beginning to stretch out beyond critiquing early Vietnam War-era politics from an aw-shucks, Woody Guthrie-influenced perspective. The first number, the solemly vamping In the Heat of the Summer allusively examines the Watts Riots. it’s more portrait than analysis.

The take of the famous Civil Rights era anti-racist dis Here’s to the State of Mississippi is every bit as stinging as the one that made it onto the album. And the take of the equally popular I’m Gonna Say It Now, a raised middle finger at patriarchal power, has a careening energy missing from the official mix. As a snide chronicle of exploitation and hypocrisy, Canons of Christianity is slightly more subdued but no less impactful.

The limousine-liberal parody Love Me, I’m a Liberal is just as funny as it was close to sixty years ago, especially if you get the historical references. Song of a Soldier is a Vietnam-era parable that carries much more of a wallop in an era where New York nurses on the frontline get a nightly 7 PM cheer…but no raise, and no time off, and minimal protective gear. The solo acoustic version of The War Is Over, from a 1967 radio session, is even more surreal than the album cut, and is even more uncanny, foreshadowing lockdown-era America.

Similarly, Days of Decision is Ochs’ eerily clairvoyant take on Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, right down to the waltz tempo. Hearing Ochs’ intricate Britfolk fingerpicking in I’m Tired, it’s no wonder English folksinger Shawn Phillips chose to cover it. Colored Town is as spot-on a portrait of ghetto life as anything Public Enemy ever recorded. Likewise, the cruel details in the anti death penalty tale The Confession.

That’s What I Want to Hear probably ended up on the cutting-room floor because it’s less than empathetic: some people (like Ochs himself!) are sometimes too depressed to protest. The Men Behind the Guns, a quasi sea chantey, is a shout-out to the navy rank-and-file, a reminder that Ochs was once a military academy-educated rightwinger before college radicalized him for life. But Sailors and Soldiers is as gorgeous and insightful a salute to veterans and draftees as anyone’s ever written.

Take It Out of My Youth could be the most elegant barroom tableau anybody ever set to a Tex-Mex waltz tune, “As the hours escaped to dungeons of wet empty words.” Ochs was a connoisseur of nueva cancion tunesmithing, underscored by an insistent take of the migrant worker tale Bracero. All Quiet on the Western Front, a 1969 rarity, paints a chilling, historically rich portrait of blind obedience to tyranny. The album’s final cut is a rare and fascinating rehearsal take of No More Songs, one of the few recordings featuring Ochs on piano, explaining his ideas for orchestral arrangements to an unheard collaborator in between verses. One can only wonder how the person at the other end of the monitor responded to Ochs’ self-penned obituary.

A Lush, Sweeping Debut Album From the String Orchestra of Brooklyn

Although the String Orchestra of Brooklyn have been championing new composers for more than ten years, their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – only came out late last year. It has two spacious, rather horizontal contemporary pieces alongside a couple of unselfconsciously vigorous Italian Renaissance works, The dynamics and range of the ensemble, as well as the singers, really shine here.

The first piece is Christopher Cerrone‘s High Windows, beginning with shivery sixteenth-notes behind sudden doppler bursts and a low drone. A sudden airy horizontality slowly gains momentum with terse moodiness rising from the low strings, the violins finally descending and joining the lattice. A muted loopiness in the return of the opening theme has icy echoes of electronic music; it ends in a long, somber series of waves.

Jacob Cooper‘s Stabat Mater Dolarosa unfolds at a glacial pace, sheets of sound drifting through the mix, akin to watching cirrus clouds on the horizon on a relatively windless day. Uneasy close harmonies rise and then fade away. The composer’s use of implied melody as the sound rises with an allusive ominousness from the low strings is very clever, especially as a choir enter wordlessly. With the singers sometimes adding harmony, sometimes doubling the violin lines, the atmosphere grows more somber, leading to a long descent into the abyss led by the basses. The rise to density afterward is much more disquieting, with a series of slow, massed glissandos. The effect where the singers have to pause for a breath is, well, breathtaking. Soprano Mellissa Hughes adds stark, plainchant-inspired lines over the waves of the concluding movement

Paganini’s Caprice No. 6 in G minor is actually more of a canon, also built around slowly shifting sustained lines, but with rapidfire, tremoloing violin. The ensemble close the album with a steadfastly marching interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the choir enhancing a gothic undercurrent.

Prime Early Orchestral Duke Ellington From the Jazz at Lincoln Center Ochestra with Wynton Marsalis

What do you do when your big band can’t play any gigs because of the lockdown? You put out an album to keep your fans satisfied until you can get back onstage. More of the large ensembles who play big concert halls around the world should follow the example of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, who’ve just put out a dynamically rich, aptly epic recording of a 2017 live performance of Duke Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, streaming at youtube.

The big difference between this and the 1943 original is the sonics. Stereo and digital clarity are part of the picture. Interestingly, while JALC’s Rose Auditorium is a pretty dry room – for a jazz venue, especially – you can hear some reverb on the brass. And Marsalis is an Ellingtonian to the core: his passion for this music translates to both the orchestra and the listener.

The dips, swells and conversational contrasts between winds and brass are vividly distinct throughout the suite’s first number, Work Song. As early symphonic Ellington, it’s fascinating to see how the composer takes a folksy 19th century-style melody, makes a plush swing tune and then classical music out of it, seamlessly And the bandleader’s wry phrasing with his mute in response to the daily drudgery is spot-on.

Eli Bishop’s wistfully soaring violin solo in Come Sunday is just as impactful, setting up the long, balmy closing tenor sax break: this is a wind-down day, and it’s sad to see the weekend go. Kicking off with Marsalis’ coy reveille, Light is a good example of how far Ellington would go in pushing a swing theme beyond the confines of a 78 RPM record.

Vaudevillian drums anchor the hazy, complex harmonies of West Indian Dance, until the rhythm section push the beat and it’s choo-choo-ch-boogie, yeah mon! Emancipation Celebration serves as a jubilant coda. Then Brianna Thomas joins the band to deliver a broodingly hushed take of Blues Theme Mauve; a stunningly haggard alto sax solo draws a burst of applause from the crowd.

In the series of themes that follow, jungly drums give way to a funereal interlude that finally engages the piano, then a comfortable walz and a triumphant return to swing. The long tenor sax solo at the center of a warmly nocturnal Sugar Hill Penthouse has nonchalantly impressive range. The orchestra bring the suite full circle, conversationally, trumpeter Chris Crenshaw putting the icing on the cake

Playful Baroque Jazz, Among Other Styles, From the Endangered Quartet

If you’ve felt endangered this year, the Endangered Quartet can relate. But their debut album, Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t harrowing or particularly troubled music. It’s actually a lot of fun, and blends a wide variety of styles, as you would expect from a group whose individual members move seamlessly between the worlds of jazz, old and new classical music, and bluegrass. Multi-saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes are part of the core of the legendary, noir-tinged Jazz Passengers. Jesse Mills is a highly sought-after classical violinist, and bassist Tim Kiah is not only a brilliant composer of serious concert music, but also an accomplished bluegrass musician.

The opening track is the strangest version of Bach’s Chorale, BWV 244-44 that you’ll ever hear. Mills and Fowlkes provide statey harmonies as Nathanson adds droll microtones and Kiah sings a warmly homespun lyric.

The Home-Makers is genuinely acid jazz: a loopy, insistent violin riff and surreal vocals interrupt a tiptoeing swing tune. The individual members shift elegantly from a pavane of sorts to very individualistic paths in Same, Same, with the same combination of drollery and utter seriousness as Ron Hay’s work with the Erik Satie Quartet. The Beatles’ Blackbird works surprisingly well in that context here as well.

The quartet pulse gracefully through the second part of Ornette Coleman’s The Circle With a Hole in the Middle, with a rapidfire ascent from Mills. They follow it with the wryly conversational, minimalist Marbles, by Mills and Hugo Dwyer. Con Anima, also by Mills, comes as quite a change afterward, a moody baroque piece with much more somber exchanges of voices and a big shivery coda. Returning to the A-section of the Coleman piece, they diverge but without deviating from a swing beat.

The four go back to baroque jazz with the comfortable pulsing miniature Sweet Intentions and the more acerbic Cry of the Wild, a Dwyer/Kiah co-write with animated solos from Nathanson and Fowlkes. The trombonist’s vocals add a knowing gravitas to Kiah’s eco-disaster cautionary tale Endangered Hearts, a souful 6/8 soul ballad with a spiraling Mills solo.

Edges, a Mills tune, has baroque bursts and trills over a trip-hop bassline; then the rhythm drops out and a rather solemn exchange ensues. Bombardment Reconsidered, by Nathanson and Dwyer, features light-footed exchanges over loopy riffs, Fowlkes in the role of troll, Mills signaling a rise in agitation. Kiah takes over the mic on the album’s closing cut, a spare, nocturnal chamber pop take of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.

Intuitive, Fearlessly Fun Reinventions of Iconic Classical Pieces from Eliane Rodrigues

One of the funniest videos on youtube is a 2016 audience recording of the beginning of pianist Eliane Rodriguesperformance of Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie, Op. 61 at a concert in her hometown of Antwerp. It’s obvious in the first few seconds that something is wrong with the piano. How she deals with it is priceless. Youtube pageview counts are notoriously inflated, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if all six million hits on this video were real: it’s that good.

After watching her in that situation, her solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, on her new album Aeternum – streaming at Spotify – comes as no surprise. It’s the kind of thing you play at a party after everybody’s had a few drinks. Don’t even start with the famous first movement: put the second on and see how many people get the joke. And it doesn’t even start with a joke: Rodrigues reinvents it as a High Romantic tour de force, drenched in as much angst as devious humor.

And it sounds nothing like the comparatively tame, stolidly marching Liszt transcription: this is pure fun. Rodrigues uses a ton of space to ramp up the suspense, holds onto pivotal moments for dear life, employs rubato constantly to underscore as much gothic grimness as sheer buffoonery. This isn’t just punk classical: there’s immense depth and feeling when she’s not going for broke with the jokes. One suspects the composer, a recidivist bon vivant, would have played it much the same way.

Rodrigues also tackles a half-dozen Bach pieces here. Her approach to the Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 is practically breathless, with a stunningly light touch in places, even more so as the famous fugue theme begins. But she doesn’t stay there long, raising the volume with a crushing precision. Her take of the equally iconic Fantaisie and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 is completely the opposite, riding the pedal for an approximation of organ resonance before backing away wistfully, syncopating while walking the bass hard, and conjuring up as much nocturnal glimmer as she can.

There are two other Bach pieces on the album. The Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 is another staple of the organ repertoire: her dusky introduction and angst-fueled insistence are spot-on, as is her steady but slashing, proto-Rachmaninovian interpretation of the fugue. And she teases out every bit of puckish humor, scampering phantasmagoria and grand guignol as anybody could want from the iconic Toccata and Fugue in D.

It’s obvious that Rodrigues really went under the lid with all of this. You may disagree with her dynamics but you can’t fault her for technical flaws or lack of chutzpah. Anyone who might think this music is stuffy (it’s actually anything but) has never heard Rodrigues play it.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

An Unexpectedly Vigorous Yet Characteristically Dark Album of Arvo Part Music

Violinist Viktoria Mullova’s album of Arvo Part works with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Parvo Jaarvi – streaming at Spotify – reads like a single contiguous piece of music. While not all of it is brooding and mystical, in keeping with most of the composer’s work, the overall atmosphere is characteristically somber. It may be a cliche to say that musicians from a composer’s home turf play that repertoire best, but with this album it’s hard to argue with that contention.

In the brief, austerely sober Song of Songs, which opens the album, spare, tolling bell accents linger through the ominous upward drive to Mullova’s first shivery cadenza; then silence. Airy highs draw a brooding response from the orchestra.

Her energetically circling, folk-inspired solo arpeggios, introducing the second piece, Fratres, offer not the slightest hint of the still, vast expanses that will unfold. This time it’s a woodblock and bass drum which signal Mullova’s elegant varations on the opening dance, over a crepuscular drone.. The rest of the strings follow with a much more somber, rhythmically disorienting development of the jaunty opening sequence. Meanwhile, the basses are unrelenting, holding a quietly sustained, enigmatic fifth interval.

Short, elegantly stabbing violin phrases lead to a momentary, strikingly dancing passage (for Part, anyway) in his rather rousingly crescendoing, vividly Bach-tinged Passacaglia. Mullova returns to insistent minimalism over an airy calm and fleeting, Arabic-tinged pizzicato to close it out.

The album’s centerpiece is the triptych Tabula Rasa. Ludus, the opening movement, follows a similar trajectory; this time it’s the piano which punches in as a stern anchor while the bells add sparse, enigmatic close harmonies. Essentially, this is Part’s Symphonic Dances, bristling with increasingly emphatic echo phrases punctuated by morose, reflectively quiet passages. That long, sustained chord at the end of the movement really packs a wallop!

A steady baroque-tinged cavatina theme takes shape in Silentum, the second movement: its seemingly endless wave motion looks back to Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No. 3. Where this ends with a steady descent to the depths, the Song of Songs reprise is delicate and hopeful, Mullova’s solemn resonance over loopy, steady upper-register piano. Slowly and methodically, the music grows more plaintive and more evocative of Pachelbel than any of the 20th century figures Part is associated with. For anyone reflecting on those we’ve lost during the lockdown, this makes an apt soundtrack.