Violinist Sarah Bernstein Brings Her Focused, Sometimes Haunting Improvisation to the West Village

by delarue

Violinist Sarah Bernstein plays some of the most thoughtfully compelling music of any New York artist. Blending fearless jazz improvisation, indie classical acerbity and the occasional detour in the direction of performance art, her sound is distinctly her own. She’s the rare musician who can shift in a split-second between standard western harmony and microtonal scales and not sound out of tune, in the same vein as Mat Maneri if somewhat less feral. She’s also got a fantastic new album, Still/Free with her quartet – Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Ches Smith on drums – streaming at Bandcamp, and a show on July 31 at 6 (six) PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. The similarly tuneful Jacob Sacks and somewhat less potentially combustible Tomas Fujiwara step in on piano and drums, respectively, for that gig. Cover is $10 plus a $10 food/drink minimum.

The album’s tempos are on the slow side, the mood pensive and exploratory but tightly focused on mood and purpose. For a listener, it’s music to get lost in. Popejoy’s coy peek-a-boo bass riff opens the album and its title track, Bernstein adding an enigmatic edge at the bottom of her register before spiraling her way skyward as Smith builds a sepulchral mist with his cymbals. Davis’ spacious Satie-esque unease anchors’ the rest of the band from there as they venture out, then Bernstein and Davis trade roles. By the end, it’s 180 degrees from where it started.

Likewise, Davis’s lingering, reflecting-pool phrases ground Bernstein’s similarly judicious, deftly microtonal lines in Paper Eyes, which may have been a slow swing ballad in a past life. The band opens Cede with a sardonically marching theme that brings to mind Zach Brock, Bernstein stairstepping with hints of exasperation as the rhythm section hits a brisk stroll, Davis echoing her uncenteredness.

Similar contrasts play out in Nightmorning: Bernstein’s searchingly rising violin over bass and drums that hint at a steady clave; Popejoy’s minimalism versus Davis’ eerie ripples, Bernstein balancing both sides of a conversation at one point. As it unwinds, it brings to mind Jean-Luc Ponty in a particularly brooding moment.

The album’s fifth track, titled 4=, is its most epic, Bernstein’s playfully ghostly riffs over Davis’ glistening gravitas, the whole band working a push-pull dichotomy against the center, up to a pesky mosquitoey Bernstein solo, After taking a carnivalesque march, they hit a vamp which ironically is the album’s most trad, or at least distinctively 21st century jazz interlude.

The only slightly shorter Jazz Camp feels suspiciously like a parody as its circling central hook goes on, and on, and on, the bandleader adding droll spoken-word passages that do double duty as conduction and get funnier as the track keeps going The album winds up with Wind Chime and its echoey, minimalist atmospherics. As she does with this album, it’s a good bet that Bernstein will get both her smile and her rapture on for the show on the 31st.