New York Music Daily

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A Rare, Explosively Dynamic, Cutting-Edge New York Show by Hungary’s Modern Art Orchestra

One of the most exhilarating and cutting-edge jazz shows of the year happened Wednesday night at Symphony Space, where the Modern Art Orchestra became the latest group passing through town to pay homage to Bela Bartok in the 70th anniversary year of the composer’s death. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In roughly an hour onstage, the Hungarian large ensemble swung and slunk their way through bristling tonalities, goosebump-inducing crime jazz cadenzas and a mighty orchestral grandeur that was as richly tuneful as it was forward-looking.

Led by conductor/trumpeter Kornel Fekete-Kovacs, the group opened with a lickety-split, firestorming Gabor Subic arrangement of one of Bartok’s best-loved neoromantic early works, the Allegro Barbaro. The original version, for piano, looks back to Liszt; this version drew more heavily on the acidic close harmony that would come to define Bartok’s iconic, mature oeuvre.

Kristóf Bacsó’s strutting, irony-rich march The Visitor radiated suspiciously dramatic, staccato accents and eerily airy harmonies lingering overhead, like smoke from a battle that nobody wanted to admit ever happened. László Melis’ Tales of Uncle Pepin From the Great Patriotic War began with an enigmatically dancing solo bass intro and rose to lush Gil Evans-like lustre. Likewise, trumpeter Gábor Cseke’s On My Own swung with a brooding, instrospective intensity, with a woundedly expressive Fekete-Kovacs flugelhorn solo echoed by the composer’s own lingering, slowly crescendoing piano solo that drew the song upward toward anguishd tango territory. Playing a custom-made dual trombone through a thicket of otherworldly electronic effects, László Gõz opened Pèter Eötvös’ Paris-Dakar on a surreal, deep-space note before the brass lept in with a joyous pulse that eventually took over the entire sonic spectrum, from top to bottom, as the piece careened down the rails, taking a moody detour toward free jazz territory with some sinister cascades from the trombones..

Guest Dave Liebman first contributed pensive kaval to Kristóf Bacsó’s Variations on a Folksong and then switched to soprano sax as the group’s rustic, ambered ambience rose behind him in an elegaic tone poem of sorts that built to a fullscale, clave-driven blaze. The final three works on the bill drew from the Fekete-Kovacs catalog. The first, Full Moon, turned out to be an uneasily bustling, intricately voiced, noir-spiced vehicle for Liebman’s rapidfire hardbop flight. He fueled another long crescendo in the trickily syncopated Mr Hyde and again took centerstage on the frantically shuffling Traffic Choral. The group swung their way out on the most trad number of the night, which perhaps ironically was more or less a fullscale improvisation, the orchestra creating a 40s bop dance party out of thin air. It was as challenging and downright fun as anything Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society or the Maria Schneider Orchestra have done lately – big band jazz doesn’t get any more acerbic or interesting than this.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.


Pascal Blondeau Performs an Inspired Homage to Legendary Artist Ultra Violet at the French Institute

Pascal Blondeau paid a bittersweet, inspired tribute to his mentor, legendary multimedia artist Ultra Violet with the world premiere of his musical homage Only You Could Have a Face Like That (Avec ta gueule pas comme les autres) at the French Institute last night. The title refers to how Ultra Violet – a muse to both Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, a woman who truly did have a face like hers and nobody else’s – referred to Blondeau. He, in turn, became a younger muse to her. A better if slangier translation of that title might be, “With that grill of yours.” As he told it, the two were peas in a pod several generations removed, irrepressible hellraisers, party people, cynical to the extreme in the New York art milieu they could not escape, even if neither ever really wanted to anyway.

Pianist/songwriter Benjamin Swax opened the show playing spacious neoromantic ambience against a voiceover from Blondeau, recalling good times with his beloved, stingingly witty, barbed-tongued mentor. Née Isabelle Dufresne into a religious, aristocratic French family in 1935, she absconded for good to New York in 1951 where she became jailbait to Dali. By the time she and Blondeau crossed paths close to a half-century later, she’d built a vast and playful body of visual art. In the meantime, she’d been in and out of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, one that, as Blondeau told it, she held in contempt. The art world is a bitch.

With his “cheriii” pal, Blondeau recounted staging impromptu performance art on Brooklyn sidewalks, sharing songs and devastating wit and last-minute pre-performance sparring. The most telling of all his anecdotes might have been where Ultra Violet, having decided to collaborate with Blondeau for his Brooklyn debut, also decided at the eleventh hour to upstage him, just to leave the audience without any question as to who was in charge at the opening of a potentially harrowing, 9/11-themed exhibit. Blondeau’s frantic response was one of the night’s funnier moments.

Swax’s songs ran the gamut from elegant, elegaic art-rock, to jaunty neo-cabaret, to sly glamrock, which Blondeau sang with wistful panache. Performed and sung in French, the English supertitles, projected high above the stage so as not to interfere with the performance, were closely attuned to the the original text (although some of the snarkier commentary mysteriously didn’t make it into English). One cynic in the crowd described the stage set as “a piano in a bathtub,” referring to the vast waves of white plastic packing peanuts that Blondeau had to traverse (and occasionally toss at Swax) while crooning to the crowd. At the center was Smile, the ballad from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, enigmatically and opaquely delivered in homage to the irrepressible woman who left such a mark on this work’s creator. It made sense, considering that Ultra Violet was responsible for designing the muted, Roman numeral logo for the 9/11 Museum downtown. Perhaps ironically, her motto, as he recounted, was “What’s art? It’s freedom.”

The French Institute at 55 E 59th Street has taken a turn into live music, dance and all sorts of other performances in recent years, but it’s been one of New York’s best places to see French and foreign films for decades. The end of the year film series here pays homage to French actor and director Mathieu Amalric. The next screening in the series is Arnaud Desplechin’s erudite 1996 comedy How I Got Into an Argument (My Sex Live), at 4 and 8 PM on November 17.