New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: December, 2018

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

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Pianist Fred Hersch Brings an Unexpected Album Back to the Vanguard

When pianist Fred Hersch got his first stand as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard – after innumerable gigs there as a sideman – he decided to record the first night. Almost twenty-two years later, he edited three sets worth of material down to a digestible eight numbers, a couple of originals mixed in with some animated standards.

How does The Fred Hersch Trio ’97 @ The Village Vanguard – streaming at Spotify – compare with Hersch’s more recent work?  This is party music. There’s less gravitas and more humor – although Hersch’s wit has hardly dimmed over the years, as his recent duo album with Anat Cohen bears out. The sonics here are a little on the trebly side, although the separation between instruments is good, and the ice machine doesn’t factor in.

Chronologically, this is the first live recording of Hersch leading a band, and the only one with this trio, Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. Hersch is bringing his current trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson back to the Vanguard, which over the years has become his home away from home. The trio are there on New Year’s Day through the third of january, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30; cover is now $35. Then the pianist leads a quartet with the great Miguel Zenon on alto sax through the 6th.

The group work tightly shifting syncopation, latin allusions, a little coy blues and an even more puckish doublespeed crescendo in the album’s kinetic, practically ten-minute first number, Easy to Love. Gress’ amiably tiptoeing solo sets up a chugging one from Rainey. Hersch’s own righthand/lefthand conversation winds it up deviously. 

Hersch’s raindrop intro to an even more expansive My Funny Valentine is similarly choice. Rainey develops a tongue-in-cheek clave; Gress pirouettes, then dips into the shadows, a signal to Hersch to reemerge and quickly toss aside caution: a genuinely amusing valentine.

Three Little Words makes an aptly lighthearted, briskly swinging segue, followed by the dancing, Bill Evans-inspired original Evanescence, Gress leading a cleverly triangulated intro. There’s a subtle fugal quality to this dynamically shifting, Brazilan-tinged song without words.

Andrew John, a Gress ballad, could be a more spacious Donald Fagen, with some richly airy Rainey cymbal work. The take of I Wish I Knew has a loose-limbed swing and glisteningly dancing lines from the bandleader, while Swamp Thang –  the second Hersch tune here – opens with a deadpan strut that gets more evilly cartoonish. To close the album, they shift their way warily but energetically their way through You Don’t Know What Love Is, capped off by a ridiculously funny Rainey solo.

The Best Manhattan Venue of 2018

To echo yesterday’s pick of the Jalopy as Best Brooklyn Venue of 2018, there aren’t many Manhattan commercial venues left which even remotely deserve consideration as the borough’s best spot for music.

Sure, you could pick Carnegie Hall or the Vanguard, but that would be lazy: each is world-famous and hardly needs the press. Since this annual tradition began a little over a decade ago, there isn’t much left to choose from without falling back on a previous pick. Since 2007, four places rated Best Manhattan Venue have closed, and another, Spectrum, moved to Brooklyn. Do the math and you realize this equates to almost fifty percent of Manhattan’s best real estate for music, gone forever.

Every year, the idea of giving a shout out to a different Manhattan destination becomes more and more of a stretch. This blog’s last three picks include a museum; the free concert annex at this nation’s flagship cultural institution; and an Italian restaurant which at the time was booking both jazz and cabaret music. Maybe it’s time to think even further outside the box. How about a park?

There’s plenty to choose from. Damrosch Park, home to the gloriously diverse Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, might seem to be the obvious choice, but that only runs from late June through mid-August. Riverside Park and others on the Hudson have some good shows, but those usually amount to no more than a handful spread out over the course of the entire summer.

Marcus Garvey Park, with its amphitheatre, may be the most comfortable of all city parks to catch a concert, but those only happen once or twice a month. Tompkins Square Park is a shadow of its former self, and the once-excellent Madison Square Park series has gone to hell. Central Park still has the New York Philharmonic at the end of June, and the perennially popular Naumburg Bandshell classical series. But Summerstage has been on a steep downward slide for the past couple of years, focusing on expensive paid shows by top 40 moppets rather than the eclectic slate of artists you could see there twenty years ago, for free. Considering that the Parks Conservancy brass have further cemented their ongoing relationship with the odious Live Nation, that sad decline is bound to continue.

Those are some of the reasons why this year’s pick for Best Manhattan Venue goes to Bryant Park. Another is that there are more performances here than in any other Manhattan public space. Last year’s performance series began in early spring with ragtime piano and ended with country music in October. In between, there was the ravishingly fun Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a vastly entertaining mix of Middle Eastern, Balkan, latin, Indian, Romany, Italian and cabaret sounds, to name just a handful. There was also plenty of music from south of the border, along with classical, a little jazz and some Americana. Texas psychedelic polka band Brave Combo put on a hell of a show here last summer; so did the otherworldly Bukharan Ensemble Shashmaqam.

Although you’d expect that an open space bordering 42nd Street would be plagued by the shrieks from the door alarms on city buses, that hasn’t been a problem here for several years. If you don’t feel like sitting on the lawn, there always seem to be plenty of folding chairs, and you can even borrow a blanket from the blanket booth by the back steps to the library. And since alcohol is sold by a couple of vendors, you can actually drink on the lawn without getting arrested. Fun fact: Bryant Park also has the cleanest restrooms of any New York public space.

The Best Brooklyn Venue of 2018

In a city that’s been hammered by a blitzkrieg of luxury condos and more than a decade of brain drain, desperate times call for desperate measures. From a concertgoer’s perspective, maybe that means that if you want to have a good time, you have to go to all the way to Red Hook.

As everybody knows, we are running out of venues. Not just music venues, but housing, restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, the works. The seemingly unstoppable onslaught that’s transforming perfectly good residential and commercial spaces into speculator property, which will never be inhabited,  continues to reach new levels of absurdity. The fear is that even if we can get the 421A tax exemption repealed – that’s the big incentive to developers that allows new construction to be taxed at the value of what was there before – the real estate bubble will continue unabated. Most stock market transactions are computerized these days, and the robber barons don’t want to go up against the machine. Never mind that it’s still a lot easier to launder drug money or mob money through real estate than it is on Wall Street.

For the second time in three years, this blog’s first pick for Best Brooklyn Venue went out of business before they could get credit for it. Wonders of Nature was a comfortably intimate, well-lit Williamsburg spot which earned comparisons to the late, great Tonic, the Lower East Side venue that was home to the city’s edgiest jazz acts as well as innumerable groups whose improvisational aspirations straddled rock and jazz. Sure, Wonders of Nature’s drinks were pricy, but the sound was decent, the staff were pleasant and ownership seemed committed to the uncategorizable and the musically daring.

Was it the L train shutdown that did them in? The opening of Holo in Ridgewood, which booked many of the same acts and has picked up some of the spillover? We’ll never know. Which is why, for the second year in a row, Plan B means revisiting the familiar Barbes-Jalopy axis, this time to pick the Jalopy as Best Brooklyn Venue of 2018.

Since 2011, this is the third time the Red Hook mini-megaplex – a combination concert hall, bar, restaurant, music school and instrument repair shop – has won the award. Brooklyn’s home to Americana roots music and country blues still has the same dusky, magical ambience in the main Jalopy Theatre, many of the same friendly people working there, and cheap drink prices to rival Sunny’s further toward the water. Folk noir songwriter Feral Foster’s free Wednesday night Roots and Ruckus series is still the city’s most fertile crucible for oldtimey sounds, and pretty much every acoustic touring act still wants to play here.

What’s more recent is the Jalopy Tavern, which also has free music on multiple evenings during the week and decent pub grub. What’s most recent is that the Jalopy has earned nonprofit status, meaning it’s a lot less likely that we’ll have to worry about losing them.

Of course, the knock on the Jalopy over the years has been that it’s hard to get to, which is actually not true at all (you take the F to Carroll, get off at the front on the Brooklyn-bound side or the back if you’re going toward Manhattan, and it’s no more than a ten minute walk). Getting home is more complicated – but that’s the fault of the MTA, not the club.

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.

Heartland Rock Legend Sam Llanas Goes Deeper into the Country

It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without giving a spin to perennially estimable tunesmith Sam Llanas’ 2018 album Return of the Goya Pt. 1, streaming at Spotify. The title refers not to a painting or a can of frijoles but the acoustic guitar that Llanas wrote many of his former band the BoDeans’ biggest hits on. It was stolen decades ago. Recently, a fan found out about it and bought him a new one. The unexpected acquisition jumpstarted what would become Llanas’ most country-flavored record so far.

The opening number, Follow Your Heart is a lighthearted shuffle with Tex-Mex hints and bursts of pedal steel from Sean Williamson (who also produced the album). Matt Turner handles bass; throughout the record, Kevin Dunphy and Ryan Schiedermayer take turns behind the drumkit.

The band keep the good vibes shuffling along with Recipe. All Day, a droll band-in-the van scenario, is one of the album’s catchiest tunes and is the first Llanas recording to feature brass (in this case John Simons’ trombone). Heroes, which alludes to the Bowie classic, is one of the album’s more muted songs, but Llanas’ portrait of the Women’s March on Washington packs a punch.

The blithe doot-doot-doots in Little Song contrast with its thoughtful narrative about a hometown pal who ended in the war in Afghanistan. They follow that with Little Song II, a wry mashup of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash. All Alone Again has the gravitas of a forlorn Merle Haggard honkytonk ballad, while Rio on the Run, an older song, finds new life with a much more upbeat arrangement, a soulful shout-out to a hardworking lifer out on the rock & roll highway.

Long Way Home, with its half-whispered vocals, is one of those late-night road narratives Llanas writes so well: it’s the hardest rocking track here. Down the Line is a brooding, soul-searching, mutedly syncopated ballad from a guy who admittedly “Likes to drink – and I’m kind of a stoner.” The final track is Big Ol Moon, a tellingly poetic reminder that trauma hits everybody the same way, whether uptown or downtown. Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru, with its fiery noir ambience, remains the high point of his post-BoDeans solo work, and his 1999 album A Good Day to Die, with Absinthe, may well be the highlight of a hall-of-fame career. This one is calmer, Llanas’ voice is a bit more flinty, but when it comes to matching lyrics to catchy melodies, he’s undiminished.

A Musical Tribute to America’s Best-Loved Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. The Notorious RBG is not the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, but her contributions to American jurisprudence arguably surpass those of any other female member and most of its men as well. With that in mind, let’s wish an equally long and influential career to Sonia Sotomayor – she and Ginsburg are needed there more than ever. Beyond RBG’s acerbity and ever-increasing value as a rare voice of reason, she’s beloved for her sense of humor. And like many jurists, she’s not averse to the spotlight, whether on or off the bench. For example, she’s performed in an opera, which makes more sense considering that her daughter-in-law is soprano Patrice Michaels.

While best known as an opera singer, Michaels is also a composer. Her suite The Long View:  A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs is the centerpiece of the album Notorious RBG in Song, streaming at Spotify. Backed by eclectic pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, Michaels traces the career of her mother-in-law through music as diverse as the cases RBG has had to hear. All the songs here are distinctly 21st century: the cellular phrasing of Philip Glass seem an obvious influence, along with jazz and the early, quasi-neoromantic Schoenberg. Michaels’ tendency here to shift between a bel canto delivery and sprechstimme also brings to mind Schoenberg’s art-songs as well as the operas of Missy Mazzoli.

Michaels’ song cycle begins with the brief, incisively insistent foreshadowing of Foresight, based on a 1943 letter from Justice William O. Douglas contemplating when the time might come to allow women to serve as clerks on the court – talk about low aspirations! Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949, an uneasily circling, spacious ballad, offers insight into how Ginsburg’s mom encouraged her aspirations while holding fast to tradition.

RBG’s father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, gets a shout in Advice from Morris, balancing the neoromantic with hints of boogie-woogie. Michaels gives voice to RGB’s late husband, Martin D. Ginsburg in the wry lawyers-in-love anecdote On Working Together. Anita’s Story, an 80th birthday present for RBG is a much funnier narrative, colorfully illustrating a political awakening the jurist jumpstarted in one of her clerks.

The brief, Debussy-esque New York, 1961 offers insight into her daughter’s early years as a latchkey kid. The Elevator Thief is a more lighthearted, vividly imagistic picture of innocuous mischief from an era when kids had to come up with ways to entertain themselves instead of relying on their phones.

Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment is a pastiche of quotable RGB statements on affirmative action, women’s and voting rights (the infamous Shelby v. Holder case), and a mouthful for Michaels to sing, but she’s game all the way through. In the suite’s scampering coda The Long View, Questions Answered, Michaels channels RBG’s tirelessness (more or less, anyway), irrepressible wit and gravitas: it’s the album’s most dramatic moment.

The album contains four more songs. Lori Laitman’s miniature Wider than the Sky is a gently pastoral setting of an Emily Dickinson poem. Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à La RBG captures a sardonic, unexpectedly acidic kitchen scenario. Stacy Garrop’s poignant aria My Dearest Ruth employs one of RBG’s husband’s final love letters. The final track is Derrick Wang’s You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from his comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg. Like the other songs here, it’s a challenge to make music out of prose that, while entertaining. was hardly written to be sung. That’s where the comedy comes in; one suspects that the Notorious RBG would approve.

A Bracingly Majestic Double Concerto and a Couple of Classy Museum Mile Gigs From Bandoneon Innovator JP Jofre

JP Jofre may be known as one of the world’s foremost soloists on the bandoneon, the little accordion that Astor Piazzolla catapulted to fame. But Jofre is also a brilliant and pioneering composer whose work transcends nuevo tango to encompass the neoromantic, indie classical and jazz. His latest and most ambitious project yet is the first ever Double Concerto for Bandoneon and Violin – streaming at Spotify – which he performs along with violinist Michael Guttman and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This won’t be on the bill at the Argentine-born composer’s next New York performance; instead, he’ll be leading his Hard Tango Band at the ongoing series of free 5:30 PM shows at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Dec 28 and 29.

Throughout the Double Concerto, there’s a great deal of conversational interplay between the bandoneon and the violin; reduced to lowest terms, Guttman is typically the good cop. Jofre, as usual, gets extraordinary dynamic range out of his instrument, from ominous low drones to chirpy flourishes at the top while the orchestra follows similarly challenging trajectories. Rhythmic shifts are constant and counterintuitive, and the whole unit follows them seamlessly, hardly an easy task.

Jofre opens solo before Guttman sails in overhead, building steely, unresolved intensity to usher in the explosively pulsing allegro movement. The orchestra tackle it with a meticulous but vigorous pulse, its bursts of counterpoint blending such disparate elements as orchestral Piazzolla, Debussy and the baroque. Guttman resolutely answers Jofre’s creepy chromatic loops, then the mighty dance ensues again.

Brooding Jofre atmospherics contrast with wistful Guttman violin, the orchestra and piano adding Tschaikovslan lustre in the adagio. An astringently leaping solo violin cadenza introduces the milonga and its impassioned pulse, rising and falling with Persian-tinged echo effects.

The album’s final three pieces, all duets, have specific titles beyond tempo indicators. Jofre’s rainswept washes and subtle insistence give Guttman a launching pad for his plaintively soaring lines in the elegaic Before the Curtain. Como El Agua maintains the mood with its slow tidal shifts and La Vie En Rose allusions, while Sweet Dreams is a more impassioned lullaby than you might expect. Whether you call this nuevo tango or classical music, it’s characteristic of the ambition and brightly focused melodicism that have defined Jofre’s career up to this point.

A Deep Roots Reggae Hanukkah Record From the Temple Rockers

Tommy Benedetti’s simple one-two nyabinghi drumbeat echoes over sparse jungle bird noise as the new Temple Rockers album Festival of Lights – streaming at Bandcamp – gets underway. Is this a throwback to the golden age of roots reggae and dub, in the spirit of Ras Michael and Lee Scratch Perry?

Kind of. If you’ve ever lit your spliff from the menorah, this is your jam. While the festival of lights and gambling has officially passed, this album of Hanukkah-themed reggae songs, many of them familiar themes reinvented with a one-drop beat, will keep the spirit alive if you’re in the mood.

The production values are spot-on: a wah effect on the organ, chicken-scratch guitar, clouds of grey noise wafting in the distance, ample reverb on pretty much everything except bandleader David Gould’s bass and the spicy brass flourishes that punctuate the high points. All this makes even more sense considering that Gould’s main gig is with perennial tour favorites John Brown’s Body.

While there have been Hanukkah reggae songs over the years, this one of a very small handful of albums celebrating the holiday Which is surprising, considering how well the Jewish diaspora has been represented on the jamband circuit over the years, and that a disproportionate number of white dreads are Jews.

Roots reggae vets Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett and Ansel Meditations share vocals with the group’s regular frontman, Craig Akira Fujita, giving the music immense Jamdown cred. The first track is the brisk, bouncy Days Long Ago, with its tasty organ and tradeoffs between trumpet and trombone. Not to rain on your parade, dudes…but the hora is a wedding dance, not something people typically do after lighting the menorah. But maybe it’s time to revisit that tradition.

The rest of the album touches on the Hanukkah story without belaboring it. Rock of Ages is more rocksteady-tinged, like something the Melodians might have done in the 70s. Do You Know Why, a famous holiday theme, has deliciously bluesy lead guitar and smoky baritone sax. The klezmer reggae fire keeps burning with the instrumental Pour Some Oil, Gould’s bass carrying the tune as the horns get a little crazy

Spin Dem is a slinky reminder of how Rasta and Jewish iconography are so often interchangeable. Festival Song is an irresistibly coy, punchy rocksteady remake of Dreydl, Dreydl, Dreydl. Who Can Retell, with its wobbly vocals, celebrates a global unity theme: it’s practically a dead ringer for a Congos classic. Much the same could be said for Almighty Light, with its brooding horns

About the Miracles, a return to Hebrew reggae, is the album’s catchiest number. The album winds up with its dubbiest track, Lickle Jug and then the glistening rocksteady vamp I Have a Candle, with bracing mutitracked vocals by Gould’s sister Lisa. Not only is this destined to become a classic of Jewish holiday music: there’s also a dub version available.

Sam Broverman Skewers Holiday Overkill

Sam Broverman is the Tom Lehrer of cabaret music. Like Lehrer, he’s a math professor with an insatiable love for parodies. His latest album A Jewish Boy’s Christmas is out just in time for the holidays and streaming at Spotify. The songs first took shape as part of what would become a spoofy annual concert. They’re sardonic, cynical, sometimes schmaltzy, other times absolutely priceless.

True to form, he covers Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica, but adds some lyrics of his own, a litany of holidays too good to give away here. Then he does the first verse again – in what sounds, at least from a former Lower East Sider’s perspective, to be perfectly good Yiddish. If you want a translation of “Every California maid’ll find me playing with my dreydl,” this is where to find it.

What’s a Jew to Do on Christmas is a deadpan, faux-wistful swing ballad about Christmas envy. What if ham could be kosher for a day – and maybe shrimp too? Multi-instrumentalist Drew Jurecka’s clarinet echoes that sentiment over the judicious backdrop of Peter Hill on piano, Ross MacIntyre on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums.

As one of several shout-outs to Jewish artists who’re responsible for famous Christmas songs, Mel Torme is represented twice. The Christmas Waltz is a duet with Broverman’s cabaret partner, chanteuse Whitney Ross-Barris. The other is The Christmas Song, a.k.a. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – it’s not Nat Cole, but Broverman nevertheless characterizes it as one of the album’s more “serious” songs. Oy.

Ross-Barris’ misty take of the British folk staple Coventry Carol is the best of the serious tunes here, a somber jazz waltz. Then Broverman flips the script with You’re Speaking Yiddish, an irresistibly dixieland-flavored litany of chazzerai, shiksas, kvelling shlemiels and such which have insinuated themselves into everyday English.

The First Noel Parody, featuring the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, casts a suspicious eye on members of the tribe who celebrate Christmas – hey, don’t laugh, in the old country the cossacks would leave you alone if you were ho-ho-hoing with everybody else.

Ross-Barris offers a brassy take of the Tom Waits classic Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis. Christmas Carol Parodies might be the album’s best track, a cautionary medley about holiday selfies, overindulgence and the Halloweenish experience of children’s concerts.

Broverman explains Swinging the Chicken as “a comedic look at the traditional Yom Kippur ritual ‘kapores,’ when a live chicken is passed overhead three times with the hope that it will help atone for one’s sins.” Mazel tov. Ken Whiteley plays slide guitar and Jurecka switches to fiddle in this ersatz western swing tale of poultry in motion. To call this one of the alltime great Christmas albums is akin to saying that Shoko Nagai is one of the world’s greatest Japanese klezmer accordionists. Such things do exist; this is one of them.