A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park
It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.
It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.
Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?
Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.
“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.
When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.
Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.
Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?