An Auspicious Mashup of Art-Rock and Big Band Jazz and a Lincoln Center Show by the NYChillharmonic
Rare as it is for a woman to lead a large jazz ensemble, it’s rarer still for a big band to be led by the singer. Sara McDonald, composer and leader of the NYChillharmonic, blurs the line between art-rock, chamber pop and big band jazz. She sings in a tersely modulated alto and writes lustrous, slowly shapeshifting, moodily lyric-driven songs. The group’s debut album, credited to McDonald herself, is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the Lincoln Center Atrium this Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 PM. The echoey space ought to be hospitable to this group’s methodically rising, often epic swells, slow tempos and cinematic sweep. As always, getting there early is a good idea if you want a seat, or for that matter, if you want to get in at all since management never lets the place fill to capacity.
Based around looping Darcy James Argue-esque phrases, the album’s opening track, Dead the Trees is a gently lush, lavishly orchestrated, global warming-era apocalyptic waltz. “No one was thinking, no one intervened…smitten with greed,” McDonald intones understatedly, letting the message speak for itself. Guitarist Martin Wessalowski’s lingering, brooding phrases mingle with the increasingly majestic tectonics of the orchestra as the second track, Plans – also a waltz – rises toward peak elevation. Grounded by Lukas Voith’s elegant piano, another gracefully grandiose waltz, Isobel, has a soaring catchiness and enigmatic mix of tense drama and wistfulness that brings to mind Greta Gertler’s similarly lush art-rock band the Universal Thump. It isn’t til the final cut, the evocatively balmy, clave-fueled Sand Castles, that McDonald airs out her torchy side, vocally or otherwise, and it’s worth waiting for, in fact all the way through an amped-up but ultimately misguided cover of a pointless Grizzly Bear bossa ripoff. It’ll be fun to find out what else McDonald has come up with in the roughly year-and-a-half since this album came out.