New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: December, 2018

Another Haunting, Relevant, Gorgeous Blend of Middle Eastern Styles by the Great Oudist Mehmet Polat

Mehmet Polat is one of this era’s greatest composers and performers in Middle Eastern music. He plays a custom-made oud with extra low bass strings, which add both gravitas and lushness to an instrument which for thousands of years has channeled resonantly moody sounds. His latest album Ageless Garden, streaming at Spotify, is a characteristically eclectic, often haunting mix that draws not only on the bracing, chromatic Turkish maqam tradition but also on Iranian, Malian and flamenco sounds. It’s one of 2018’s best releases in any stye of music.

The opening track, Hasret is essentially a one-chord jam, a tense, broodingly percussive theme dedicated to Hasret Gultekin, a promising Turkish musician maimed in a 1993 attack by extremists. Likewise, Aylan is an elegy for a Syrian refugee child who perished during an attempt to escape by boat. The starkness of the low strings give the intro to this steady, moody stroll the feel of a jazz bass solo over Alper Kekec’s flurrying percussion. Polat slowly and emphatically builds an upward drive, his incisive chords contrasting with darkly elegant cascades and hypnotic, circular phrasing. It ends unresolved.

Polat opens the even more epic Hasbihal – which means “intense conversation” in both Turkish and Persian – with a spare, hauntingly improvisation built deftly around echo effects, a common device in classical Iranian music. From there Polat develops a theme that’s as catchy as it is somber, anchored by Pasha Karami’s slow, muted dumbek groove. The bass solo at the end is one of the album’s most luscious moments.

Polat keeps the theme going, picking up the pace with his spiky phrasing and incisive strumming in Aftab, meaning “sun” in Persian. My Urfa is a shout-out to the musical cross-pollination that Polat’s Turkish hometown – a place he hasn’t been to for two decades – is known for. Over Kekec’s spare groove, Polat begins with a hypnotic, Iranian-flavored intro, then takes the music into darker, more chromatically edgy Arabic territory before a slight return.

Polat explores his fascination with Indian music with the playfully upbeat, catchy Something Is Moving, Yama Sarchar’s tabla providing an unexpected 2/4 dancefloor stomp alongside the oud’s dancing microtones. Embrace It, with Shaho Andalibi on ney flute and Zoumana Diarra on kora, is a hypnotic, practically twelve-minute mashup of Iranian dastgahs and African beats, the ney’s breathy harmonics contrasting with the sparkle of the kora.

Polat builds a slinky, funky groove in A Wise Touch, overdubbing a catchy, insistent tune over a muted series of bass riffs. In Solitude, another solo piece, is more spare, a series of variations on an enigmatically anthemic, downwardly stairstepping riff. The album’s final cut, An Anatolian Bulerias, sets flamencoish flurries from the oud over a flickering 7/8 drumbeat. On one hand, this album is an immersion in traditions that run deep, back through many centuries. On the other, Polat’s music is completely in the here and now and unlike anything else coming out of Turkey and the Middle East.

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World-Class Symphonic Grandeur From an Unlikely Spot

Playing devil’s advocate, here’s how Roger Nichols introduces the liner notes for the Utah Symphony’s sumptuous new recording of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: ”Igor Stravinsky remembered Saint-Saëns as ‘a sharp little man’, demonstrably unimpressed by the sounds emanating from the orchestra in The Rite of Spring. Succeeding generations have perpetuated this view of Saint-Saëns as a carping pedant, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who excelled in providing music that was all surface and little content.”

#gutpunch.

Nichols quickly goes on to explain how that perception is only part of the picture. In the days when it was even more customary (and often necessary) for composers to rely on commissions from the entitled classes to pay the rent, guys like Saint-Saëns would churn out one predictably cheery, cliched score after another. After all, the landed gentry of 1880s France had no more interest in anything challenging or cutting edge than the tattooed newcomers to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy do now. But as anybody who’s heard Carnival of the Animals or Danse Macabre – each written for Saint-Saëns’ family – will agree, there’s a whole different side to his work.

This is a rare recording – streaming at Spotify – where the shorter pieces on the program actually upstage the centerpiece. Conductor Thierry Fischer and the ensemble give Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 every bit of opulent ostentatiousness it deserves, a fullscale orchestral work supercharged with both organ and piano, the icing on a many-layered sonic cake. As classical party music goes, this is about as good as it gets. Recorded live in concert just over a year ago on the group’s home turf, the sound quality is magnificent. Solos throughout the orchestra, from James Hall’s oboe to Louise Vickerman’s harp, are precise and emphatic. Exchanges between various sections of the group are seamless, and the dynamics cover as much ground as a symphonic ensemble possibly can. And the hooks come at you, over and over again: just when you’re humming one, another will jump in and displace it.

The performance of the composer’s only slightly less lavish 1909 suite Trois Tableaux Symphoniques d’Après La Foi is even more of a thrill. If less ambitiously than Bartok, Saint-Saëns by then had fallen under the spell of North African music. While this is limited to what fans of Middle Eastern sounds cynically call “Hollywood hijaz,” the French Romantic was obviously feeding off a big jolt of inspiration and that translates to the orchestra here. Its cinematic vistas may be comfortable and predictably catchy, but they’re hardly shallow. And the wistful finale has poignancy to rival anything Samuel Barber ever wrote. The orchestra follow by stampeding through the chromatics of the famous Bacchanale from the opera Samson & Delilah, every single click of the castanets fired off with relish.

Over the years, the people of the state of Utah haven’t done themselves any favors by pulling stunts like withdrawing from the Boy Scouts of America since girls are allowed to join Scout troops now (you’d think that it would be the other way around, that all the boys would want to join the Girl Scouts for the sake of the enormous profits in selling cookies, but that’s a topic for another time). Rather than reinforcing any regional preconceptions, this album reminds how great art sometimes flourishes in unlikely places. Put this on your playlist along with the best-ever recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra…if you can find it.

New York’s Most Purposeful Psychedelic Band at the Top of Their Game Last Night

If there’s any psychedelic band in New York who deserve a Saturday night gig at a good Manhattan venue, it’s the Academy Blues Project. They got one at Joe’s Pub last night, celebrating the release of their characteristically protean new album Let’s Brunch, Vol. 1 and made the most of it.

For a band who can go on as epically as these guys do, they don’t play a lot of notes: they’re the world’s least noodly jamband. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy took a bunch of solos, from pensive jangle to ferocious volleys of purist blues to some southern-fried boogie to buffoonish bluegrass and menacing chromatics, and no matter how fast he was firing off notes, he was always going somewhere. Keyboardist Ben Easton’s expansive, punchy piano chords, marionettishly echoing Fender Rhodes riffs and swirly organ gave the music an orchestral expanse while bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom added subtlety and color, especially when the music got quiet.

The highlight of the night might have been a new instrumental, 1001, from the new album, a mashup of psychedelic cumbia and soul as the Meters might have done it, Levy’s sharp-fanged chromatics echoing Easton’s phantasmagorically icy keyboard intro. Another standout, which underscores how amazingly diverse this band can be, was another new song, possibly titled Christmas in the City. It came across as the great lost tune from Born to Run, right down to Easton’s spot-on, glimmering evocation of Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan. Levy subtly evoked the tension between fearlessness and conformity in an economically imperiled metropolis where no matter how much this time of year might be a reprieve from global warming-era swelter, it’s not hard to imagine being “homeless shaking hands with the unemployed.”

In the wake of that one, a practically punk take of the Kinks’ Father Christmas packed a punch. They revisited that powerpop stomp later in the set with an anthem that could have been Blondie with a male soul singer out front.

Another unselfconsciously poignant moment was The Wrong Thing, a towering oldschool soul ballad in 6/8 time capped off by a long, searing Levy solo. By contrast, Little Birdie, a surreal account of Levy encountering a peacenik feathered friend with a cautionary tale for all us humans, was more playful, even if the music masked a sinister undercurrent. Levy saved his most calmly breathtaking intensity for the bracing chromatics and whole-tone scales in the night’s most unpredictable number, constantly shifting between doublespeed and back. There was an awful lot more going on, but it would take a small book to include it all. Watch this space for upcoming shows by a this astonishingly un-self-indulgent band.

Slinky, Eclectic, Unpredictable Psychedelic Grooves from International Orange

International Orange are one of the most distinctive, unpredictable instrumental jambands out there. In a single, expansive tune, they can shift between Afrobeat, oldschool soul, psychedelic funk, gutbucket organ grooves and Bahian-flavored beats. Pretty much everybody in the band writes.Their latest album A Man and His Dog (For Gaku)  is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing at 11 PM on Dec 30 at Offside Tavern at 137 W 14th St,

While their music is hardly melancholy, there is a sad backstory. The group lost their bassist, Gaku Takanashi, who appears on half the tracks here: this would be his final recording. Guitarist David Phelps’ tune Keep the Blue Side Up opens it with an upbeat, catchy soukous guitar flair, then Dan Stein’s organ solo takes the music toward gutbucket organ groove before Phelps returns to with a metal attack. Meanwhile, the rhythm section – Takanashi’s bass and Todd Isler’s drums – follow a carefree tropical shuffle. 

Olinda – by Isler and Fender Rhodes player Adam Morrison – is a starry boudoir soul jam with more than a hint of roots reggae, Phelps’ slide guitar adding unexpected Hawaiian flavor as Leo Traversa’s hammer-on bass riffs weave through the mix. How I learned Not To Worry, another Phelps tune, is a syncopated oldschool soul song without words, with more of that keening slide guitar and Takanashi’s bass percolating over the organ.

The lively Strut Orange brings to mind steel guitarist Raphael McGregor’s adventures in instrumental southern rock. Freight Liner, also by Phelps, is a more tipetoeing, New Orleans-flavored strut, Phelps’ exchanges with Morrison’s organ bringing to mind vintage 60s Mulatu Astatke Ethiopian funk before the guitar goes in a shreddier direction.

Maracuja, an Isler tune, has a catchy oldschool soul melody over an animatedly shuffling maracatu groove, Phelps’ hard funk lines and detours toward metal flaring overhead. Sookie’s Rhumba, by Traversa, keeps the soul ambience simmering as Isler flits along on his rims, Phelps adding warm, Smokey Robinson-esque lines until the bass signals a shift into bubbling West African territory. 

Their take of Pat Metheny’s Sirabhorn is part twinkling Hawaiian seascape, part Carnaval them, another showcase for Phelps’ sunbaked slide work. His original The Penguin comes across as Peter Gabriel-era Genesis motoring through an oldschool soul groove with unexpected, tongue-in-cheek success: imagine a more original, focused Dopapod.

First Principle, by Stein is a dub reggae jam as organist Brian Charette might do it, with a little Beatlesque psychedelia thrown into the mix. Phelps’ solo guitar tribute to his bassist friend Gaku, A Man And His Dog closes the album on a steady, warmly reflective, pastoral note.

Catchy Riffs, Ambitious Stylistic Leaps and Irrepressible Fun from David Dominique

People who play off-the-wall instruments tend to write off-the-wall music. David Dominique’s axe is the flugabone, a higher-pitched valve trombone usually limited to marching-band music. As you might expect from someone from that milieu, his new octet album Mask – streaming at Bandcamp – is irrepressibly fun, and rhythmic, and sounds like absolutely nothing else out there. It seems as if he’s been listening to a lot of Ligeti and other minimalist composers, although imputing influences to musicians is never a safe bet.  Reduced to lowest terms, this album combines the hypnotic, cyclical quality of a lot of indie classical music with the exuberance of a brass band. Other reference points are the snark of Mostly Other People Do the Killing (and possibly some other snarky critters), along with the surreal live techno of German dancefloor nuts the Jazzrausch Bigband.

The bright opening track, The Wee of Us has jaunty New Orleans flavor, chattering dixieland voicings and tricky, staggered syncopation. If the Microscopic Septet were just getting started right now, they might sound like this, Alexander Noice’s flickering guitar mingling with  Brian Walsh’s tenor sax and the altos of Joe Santa Maria and Sam Robles while violist Lauren Baba and bassist Michael Alvidrez hold down an insistent beat in tandem with drummer Andrew Lessman.

Grief at first seems to be a very sardonically titled jazz waltz, Santa Maria’s flute at the center paired against the flugabone and Robles’ baritone, the bandleader overdubbing a da-da chorus of vocals. The music gets serious at the end over Noice’s uneasy jangle.

Beetle, a coyly nocturnal swing number, brings to mind creepy cinephiles Beninghove’s Hangmen in a lighter moment…or Tredici Bacci. To Dave Treut – a shout-out to the ruggedly individualistic Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist – shifts surrealistically from balmy swing to a riffy mashup of Terry Riley and Dopapod, with a tingly viola solo on the way out. Then the band negotiate the odd syncopation of Invisibles, a sliced-and-diced march which is just as much about space as melody.

The band follow Five Locations, a series of brief sketches, with The Yawpee, an exuberant racewalk through a series of catchy, loopy hooks strung together, with a cynically sinister oldtimey outro. Separation Strategies, with its motorik bassline and tight counterpoint, is the one track that most vividly evokes the Jazzrausch guys. The album ends with Gotta Fumble, tense low-register pedalpoint anchoring a lively flute hook, variations from individual voices spiraling up to puncture the playful, carefree ambience. Throughout the album, the jokes – some completely over the top, some much more subtle – are as entertaining as the band’s tightness and Dominique’s completely unpredictable seismic shifts.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Darkly Eclectic Psychedelia and Americana From the Reliably Captivating Raquel Bell

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Raquel Bell has built a wildly eclectic career that spans from her work with legendary/obscure psychedelic art-rockers Norden Bombsight, her aptly tilted Dark Tips duo with violist Jessica Pavone and her solo writing, which ranges from post-Exene punk-flavored Americana to the furthest fringes of the avant garde. Bell’s debut album as a bandleader, Swandala is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the most keyboard-oriented project she’s been involved with. Her next gig is at the Grand Star Jazz Club, 943 N. Broadway in Los Angeles on Jan 17.

The album’s opening track, Stones, was originally written for a Klaus Nomi tribute show. This lush, jauntily bubbling, swinging number is a cross between My Brightest Diamond and Explosions in the Sky. Bell describes Vibration Carnation as “seducing over-compression to capture a dream quality;” her outer space witch vocals loom over sweeping, starry keys, Jonathan Horne’s big dramatic stadium guitar chords, Lisa Cameron’s low-key bass and Adam Jones’ drums. “Maybe she wants to cross over to the dark side with me and all my friends,” Bell intones.

With its catchy, watery guitar multitracks rising to a slashing peak, A Solo to Mars looks back to early New Order before they went all synthy. Bell’s rainswept, wounded vocals glisten throughout the album’s best track, the melancholy country ballad Who Gets to Name the Name, Bob Hoffnar’s pedal steel soaring in the background against spiky reverb guitar accents.

The epic Wizard Liar is a growling psychedelic soul groove as the Dream Syndicate would do it – but with hints of dub reggae and a woman out front. The final two tracks – both the spare, acoustic It’s Growing In Your Mouth and the achingly bucolic Swan, with violin by Justin Scheibel, piano from Zac Traeger, theremin by Blair Bovbjerg, and Thor Harris on vibraphone – reflect the breakup of Bell’s “love affair with her trailer,” moving back from the boondocks to Austin. It’s both a good capsule history of Bell’s wide-ranging vision and a great late-night immersive listen.

Cartoons and Monsters From Satoko Fujii’s Thermos

File this under be careful what you wish for: a dozen albums, one every month, from perennially intense, captivating pianist Satoko Fujii? To celebrate her sixtieth birthday, she’s done exactly that. Much as the nuts and bolts of officially putting out each record must have been tiresome, the music has been characteristically fresh and outside-the-box. And the project has been a lot easier for her than it would be for most artists. Like most jazz musicians these days, she pretty much lives on the road, and at this point in her career everybody from Wadada Leo Smith on down wants to work with her, so she has pretty much unlimited access to global talent. And she’s figured out that the way to make albums in this era is simply to record her shows and release the best ones.

Album number ten in her twelve-album cycle is the debut of a group she calls Mahobin. In Japanese, it means “thermos,’ but the literal meaning is “magic bottle.” To what extent did she manage to bottle the magic at this 2018 set in Kobe, Japan with her husband and longtime collaborator, Natsuki Tamura, along with tenor saxophonist Lotte Anker and Ikue Mori on laptop? The results are both hilarious and macabre. This is an amazing record, even if the electronics are too loud.

There’s a set and an encore here – ot so it seems. The humor is relentless at the beginning  of the 42-minute first piece, Rainbow Elephant. Everybody is in on it; Star Trek command center bubbles and blips, black noise like at the end of A Day in the Life, a fishtank on steroids, cuisinarted minor-key piano blues riffage, mulish snorts, a ridiculously funny trumpet fanfare and cartoon mice on a treadmill inside the piano tinkling away are just a few things the music might remind you of.

Then Fujii suddenly flips the script with a stern, syncopated low lefthand pedal note and works uneasy Messiaenic permutations, moving slowly upward as Mori oscillates wildly. Anker’s role here is mostly quavery, uneasy sustained lines; Tamura sticks mostly to more sepulchral extended technique, although when he goes in with his chromatics, he goes for the jugular.

Meanwhile, it seems like Mori is sampling her bandmates and then spinning everybody back on themselves, sometimes using a backward making pedal for extra surrealism. Fujii’s ability to make up a theme on the spot and embellish it later on is unsurpassed in all of music, and the enigmatic way she ends this very long, very strange trip goes against all conventional thinking in order to drive it home, dark and hard.

The relatively short encore, Yellow Sky is seven minutes ten seconds of Frankenstein building a fire – that’s Fujii – with the rest of the band as seagulls circling overhead. Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get any better, or more captivatingly weird, than this. Fujii and Mahobin are at the Stone – which is now located at the first-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St. – at 8:30 PM on Dec 13. Cover is $20; get there early, because Fujii’s New York shows have been selling out regularly.

The best overview of Fujii’s yearlong project is not at this blog, sadly. The New York City Jazz Record put her on the cover of their September issue and included an exhaustive and enthusiastic review of her 2018 output. But not to worry: there will be much more Fujii on this page in the weeks and months ahead.

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

A Rare NYC Performance of a Centuries-Old French Epic

Music Before 1800’s monthly concerts give ambitious concertgoers a chance to hear rare works that sometimes haven’t been performed here for centuries..or maybe ever, in the hundreds of years since they were written. Most of these shows are at Corpus Christi Church at 529 W 121St St., just up the hil from the 125th St. stop on the 1 train. You can get in for as little as $10.

Has Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Christmas Pastorale, dating from around 1686, ever been performed in New York? If so, Music Before 1800 may have staged it. For serious verisimilitude, they’re bringing in French vocal and instrumental group Ensemble Correspondances to the church play it this Dec 16 at 4 PM. The ensemble – whose name means “connections” – recorded it a couple of years ago, and have a new album of Charpentier’s La Descent d’Orphee aux Enfers streaming at Spotify. It’s a good way to become acquainted with how they tackle Charpentier’s alternately lavish and spare dynamics, as well as his similarly diverse themes.

If you can get used to a Gallic group who roll their R’s, Spanish style, this album will immerse you in elegant, sometimes unexpected counterpoint, with striking yet comfortably balanced contrasts between the men’s and women’s voices. While this was not written in contemporary French, if you speak the language, the dialogue is remarkably easy to understand. While the suite’s theme may be on the hellish side, the music is anything but, with sinuous flute harmonies woven into lushly lilting strings and a thicket of viola da gamba, all imbued with the ambered, slightly astringent tone that period instruments deliver. As is the custom with digital recordings these days, the album is divided up into 26 separate tracks, many of them less than a minute long.

Soprano Caroline Weynants displays a stately but fetching, almost imploring delivery at times. As the protagonist’s journey becomes more perilous, the music grows more stark and austere, then tilts toward an epic grandeur. Breathlessly scampering nymphs, desperate shepherds, cowardly lovers, all sorts of torments and ghosts pass through the sonic frame. The way the group motor along in places, it becomes very clear that our hero and his entourage can’t wait to get the hell out. Lively operatic drama gives way to a brightly flurrying fanfare and then a moodily waltzing downward trajectory: Euridyce, show your face so this poor guy can go home! “Stay with us forever,” is the choir’s solemn response. The end is every bit as somber as the intro is buoyant.