Unmasking Steve Ulrich’s Mysterious, Murderously Fun Barbes Residency This Month
An icy, lingering tritone reverberated from Steve Ulrich’s 1955 Gretsch. “We end everything with this chord,” this era’s most esteemed noir guitarist joked. His long-running trio Big Lazy have been his main vehicle for suspense film themes, uneasy big-sky pastorales and menacing crime jazz narratives, but this month he’s playing a weekly 6 PM Saturday evening residency at Barbes to air out some of his more recent and also more obscure film work from over the years. This past Saturday he was joined by Peter Hess of Balkan Beat Box (who have a characteristically fun new album due out soon) on baritone sax and flute as well as a rhythm section. The final installment of this month’s residency is at 6 on March 25 and will feature Ulrich’s frequent collaborator, guitarist Mamie Minch, who will be playing her own scores to accompany a screening of Russell Scholl’s edgy experimental films.
At this past Saturday’s show, the quartet opened with Dusk, by Sandcatchers, “One of those tunes I’d wished I’d written the moment I heard it,” Ulrich revealed. Lonesome trainwhistle lapsteel bookended a melancholy, aptly saturnine waltz with exchanges of steel and baritone sax. They followed with an enigmatically chromatic, reggaeish new Ulrich original, just guitar, bass and drums. Echoes of 70s Peruvian psychedelic cumbia filtered through the mix, leading to a wry, descending solo by bassist Michael Bates. It was sort of the reverse image of the popular early zeros Big Lazy single Mysteries of the Deep.
From there the rhythm section launched into an altered bolero sway, Ulrich making his way through spikily strolling phrases and elegant descending clusters of jazz chords, down to an exploratory sax solo. Then Hess raised the energy to just short of redline: the dynamic wallop was visceral.
The one Big Lazy tune in the set turned out to have been inspired by Raymond Scott’s madcap Loony Tunes cartoon scores: “It’s pretty crazy,” Ulrich admitted. At its innermost core, it was a creepy bolero, but with a practically hardcore beat and a relentlessly tense interweave of sax and guitar, Ulrich and Hess a pair of snipers dueling at a distance.
Another new number, In the Bones was originally titled Lost Luggage, Ulrich revealed. A slowly unwinding, shapeshifting theme, it followed an emotional trajectory that slowly shifted from stunned shock to mournful acceptance. From there, the four made their way through a creepy cover of the Beatles’ Girl, packed with tongue-in-cheek Ellington quotes, then a murderously slinky instrumental take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me
Awash in a long series of bittersweet Americana riffs, a new ballad, Sister, was dedicated to Minch. Her music is more overtly blues based, but it’s as dark and deep as Ulrich’s: this was an insightful portrait. Ulrich sent the band offstage and then played a solo take of Latin Quarter, from Big Lazy’s 1996 debut ep. He explained that it was originally conceived as a mashup of salsa jazz and ghoulabilly – and that the gorgeous gold Gretsch he was playing it on had been a gift many years ago from a fellow swimmer at the Greenpoint YMCA. The guitarist’s shock at his poolmate’s generosity was mitigated somewhat when he discovered that its serial number had been sanded off.
Hess switched to flute for the title theme from Ulrich’s latest film score, a slyly surreal Asian-flavored 60s psychedelic rock tune, part Morricone, part Dengue Fever and part Ventures spacerock. He wound up the set with a single, droll verse of Sizzle and Pops, the name of the imaginary lounge duo with his wife. “You can guess who’s who,” Ulrich told the crowd. Charming 1930s/40s French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins played after – more about that one a little later. Good news for film music fans from outside the neighborhood who want to catch the final night of Ulrich’s residency: both the F and G trains are running to Park Slope this coming weekend