New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: January, 2019

A Gorgeously Kinetic, Restless New Album by Haunting, Dynamic Violinist Layale Chaker

It may be early in the year, but the leading contender for best album of 2019 so far is Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker’s hauntingly kinetic Inner Rhyme, which hasn’t hit her music page yet but is due out momentarily. Chaker is equally at home in the worlds of Middle Eastern and western classical music. A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late, great pianist Edward Said – she’s also the only composer ever commissioned by the Bayreuther Philharmonike Orchestra, who premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 last year. Bayreuth: Beirut – makes sense right? She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Jan 22 at 8 PM at the Stone (now located in the Glass Box Theatre on the first floor at the New School at 55 W 13th St). Cover is $20.

The album’s premise is ambitious: to create a purely musical suite encompassing the rhythmic cycles of classical Arabic poetry, in the process developing a new instrumental style incorporating the lyrical accents of the words which have been part and parcel of classical Middle Eastern music for the better part of the past thousand years.

Return to Jaykur, the album’s opening track, has a brooding sway, pianist Phillip Golub and bassist Nick Dunston building a tersely dancing interchange beneath Chaker’s imploring upward circles as cellist Jake Charkey scorches the lows. After the fire, the music recedes to a resonant but propulsive elegance in the same vein as Marcel Khalife’s orchestral works.

Ushaq is a stark, intense, chromatically haunting number set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone. Relentless, true to its title, gets a stabbing, insistently catchy,  minor-key pulse, its restlessness as much a function of percussionist Adam Maalouf’s rhythm, which hints at bolero but never quite goes there. Dunston’s pitchblende melismas signal a spare, plaintive Chaker solo.

A bracing, suspenseful early-morning miniature for violin, bass and percussion sets the stage for the Mikhammas Suite, rising from a strikingly minimalist, emphatic syncopation to an energetic dance. The second part follows the same path, fueled by Charkey’s slashing low-register riffs. The conclusion is much slower, just short of a dirge, opening with Golub’s gleaming chords, then gaining momentum as Chaker develops moody variations on a biting chromatic melody.

The picturesque Alight Here has wry humor – why can’t this bird make up its mind? – before a flamenco-ish drive kicks in, Golub’s spare piano contrasting with persistent staccato from the bass. The album’s most epic number, On the Trunk of an Olive Tree is the one place where the band expand into jazz: the lush yet highly rhythmic work of Tarek Yamani comes to mind. The group conclude with a brief, hazy postlude.

Chaker explains her mission with characteristic eloquence: “Much like our free-spirited Bedouins, our music does not know of the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into several little states, nor of the dividing of land and history. It does not know anything either about the birth of crisis and striving for existence, identity and domination in between those freshly pencil-drawn frontiers. It testifies of the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil and water, every soul living in the different lines of that newly-decided map. From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”

Advertisements

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

A Wild Dance Party to Kick Off Golden Fest 2019

“What else are you doing tonight?” the bartender at Barbes asked his friend early yesterday evening.

Golden Fest. I’m going both nights.”

“Tonight’s quiet night,” the bartender mused.

When there’s so much natural reverb in the room that Dimitrios Stefanides’ raw, leaping pontic lyra sounds like an entire Greek gangster orchestra from the 1930s, quiet is a relative concept. Quiet, maybe, by comparison to the rat-a-tat bursts from the trumpets and trubas and the rest of the brass in the mighty Zlatne Uste, New York’s original Balkan brass band, who created Golden Fest more than three decades ago and have kept it growing stronger throughout an era where the arts and live music scenes are contracting and vanishing at a record pace.

In fact, last night seemed to have a greater percentage of dancers on the floor, in proportion to viewers on the sideline, than at any time in the past ten years. While tonight’s big blowout has about seventy bands playing music from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and pretty much all points in between, spread throughout several rooms at Grand Prospect Hall, the south Park Slope mansion, last night was confined to the ballroom, the balcony and the kitchen.

Again, small by comparison. The night began with about an hour and a half worth of short sets of whirling, constantly shifting, upbeat material, the majority of it from Greece, while a couple of dance instructors led a concentric series of circles around the dancefloor. And these people were good! For most of them, it looked more like a refresher course or a warmup – although by the time the night really got cooking, there were plenty of newbies out there too.

Last year, the bands came out swinging right from the opening bell. This time, it felt more like past years when the dance lessons were just as much of a warmup for the musicians. But when Zlatne Uste hit, they came to slay. They may be American, but their original tunes could just as well be Serbian. Sharp staccato bursts from the horns matched the meticulous rattle and thwack of the tupan barrel drums, the seventeen-piece band situated smack in the middle of the floor as the dancers slowly undulated their way around. Minor keys subtly shifted to major, and back and forth; long, sinewy trumpet solos contrasted with momentary dips to just the volleys of beats. Zlatne Uste’s lineup may have shifted a bit over the course of three decades, but it’s hard to think of another band who can conjure up this much passion more than a quarter century after they started.

Drummer Jerry Kisslinger must own some sort of ironman record for number of sets played at Golden Fest: last night, he was in six all of them. How does this guy keep his chops sharp? He never stops playing! After a turn with Zlatne Uste, he joined Stefanides up on the big stage for the night’s longest set. Not only is Stefanides an incisive and often breathtaking string player; he’s also a powerful baritone crooner. In between long, sometimes achingly intense solos, his vocals would add an extra level of low lushness. In moments like that, it feels vicarious to the extreme to be drawn in by the music despite having absolutely no idea of what the lyrics are about. Then again, most of the audience probably weren’t Greek or Macedonian speakers either.

The shortest set of the night was by the trio Zurli Drustvo, who played bracingly trance-inducing Macedonian dances with zurla oboes and drum. In this case, the two zurla players alternated between playing unearthly drones and hauntingly keening melodies overhead, via visibly strenuous circular breathing, akin to a giant human bagpipe. The zurla is one of the most distinctively eerie – and loudest – reed instruments in the world, and these guys, holding fort in the middle of the floor, were as loud as the rest of the bands despite the lack of amplification.

Kavala – a slightly smaller spinoff of Zlatne Uste – ended the night at around half past midnight with a set loaded with greatest hits from the Aegean. A lot of people sang along. It was amazing to watch Catherine Foster switch effortlessly from trumpet, to clarinet, to flugelhorn and back, adding microtonal shiver over the fleet rivulets of Morgan Clark’s accordion as the songs bounced along. Amid the rhythmic complexity, hits by both the Skatalites and 80s new wavers the Boomtown Rats came to mind. Were Tommy McCook or Bob Geldof influenced by Balkan music? Borders may have been a lot more porous back then than conventional wisdom says they were.

See you tonight in the big ballroom at 6 for rising star brass band Cocek Nation!

Towering, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Korean Postrock Majesty from Black String at Lincoln Center

Korean postrock band Black String’s show at Lincoln Center last night seemed much more terse and minimalist than their feral set last year at Flushing Town Hall. Yet while the songs this time out seemed more focused and stripped-down, the music was no less psychedelic. There, bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo was all over the place on her geomungo bass zither, delivering every texture and timbre that can possibly be plucked – with a stick! – from that magical instrument. Here, she was more percussive, and in that sense, hypnotic, and the band followed suit.

At that Queens gig, guitarist Jean Oh let loose majestic, David Gilmour-esque flares and got lowdown with some gritty Marc Ribot skronk. Here, he played mostly big, icy, resonant block chords, adding contrasting delicate flavor via flickering electronics. Last night, it seemed more than ever that multi-reedman Aram Lee has become the group’s lead instrumentalist, switching between wood flutes of various sizes, running endless variations on simple pentatonic riffs, often with a bluesy majesty. Drummer Min Wang Hwang made the tricky time signatures and metric shifts look easy, whether adding marionettish cymbal accents, fullscale stomp on a couple of floor toms, or with the thump of his janggu barrel drum.

The enveloping, persistent unease brought to mind the insistent, grey grimness of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor at their most focused…or Jethro Tull playing a Glenn Branca symphony (that’s where the flute comes in). To max out the psychedelic factor, the band rode the sonic rollercoaster, often bringing the music down to a simple pairing of instruments: there seemed to be fewer moments when everyone was charging along in unison.

At one point, Heo marvelled that the ancient Korean folk themes which the group use as a stepping-off point seem absolutely avant garde today. She could just as easily have said no wave. Black String’s most hammeringly emphatic instrumentals would have been perfectly at home in the early 80s downtown scene.

The most poignant moment of the night was a gently imploring prayer of sorts wafting up from Lee’s flute: here as elsewhere, the electronics (when they were working) added subtle echo or sustain effects. The most explosive interlude was a ferocious geomungo-drum duel: it was astonishing to witness Heo snapping off so many volleys of notes against a single, pulsing low pedal tone.

They closed the set on an insistent, triumphant note with Song of the Sea, a mini-suite of ancient fishermen’s songs that Hwang delivered in his powerful pansori baritone, modulated with a wide-angle, Little Jimmy Scott-style vibrato.

What’s become most clear after seeing this band in two very different spaces – each with an excellent sound system – is that they need better gear. The guitar rig Oh was using delivered a cold, trebly, flat, transistor amp sound that died away too soon. And Heo needs some custom pickups for her geomungo. She was out of breath at the end of several numbers, yet there were too many places where her riffs got lost in the mix. A performer so mesmerizing to watch deserves to be heard.

The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is their more-or-less monthly salsa dance party. This time the featured band is oldschool Cuban-flavored charanga Son Sublime. Showtime is 7:30; the earlier you get there, the better the chances of getting in.

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

Luscious Noir Atmosphere in Alphabet City Last Night

An icy, distantly lurid, reverbtoned mist of sound began wafting through the PA moments after keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s haunting House of Echo quartet took the stage last night at Nublu 151. Slowly and methodically, guitarist Marc-Antoine Perrio added thicker washes to darken the fog, finally introducing a few portentous, lingering chords from his Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Simon Tailleu added subtle pitchblende textures, then Carniel’s Fender Rhodes finally entered the picture with a brooding, echoey minor-key riff. There hasn’t been music this profoundly noir made anywhere in New York this year.

Which makes sense; Carniel and his group hail from the part of the world that invented noir. The rest of their set was every bit as Lynchian as their opening Twin Peaks tone poem. It would be at least ten minutes before drummer Ariel Tessier made an entrance, trailing the music as it unspooled slowly on its path of no return. As the set went on, it was somewhat akin to Sun Ra playing Bill Frisell…or Anthony Braxton disassembling Angelo Badalamenti film themes at a glacial pace.

Carniel stuck mostly to blue-neon arpeggios and rippling riffs, often making live loops out of them: there were places where minimalist 20th century composers like Ligeti came to mind. Tailleu could easily have put much of what he played into a loop pedal, but instead he ran those slowly circling motives and greyscale shades over and over without tiring. And when he finally went up the scale for a tersely bowed solo, Carniel took over and ran the riff.

Perrio’s role grew more and more demanding as the hour grew later and the temperature fell outside, shifting with split-second precision between stompboxes, resonantly pulsing Fender licks and echoey phrases looped via a mini-synth. A guest tenor saxophonist joined them for a few numbers, adding wary, astringently enveloping phrases, at one point becoming the trailer in an intricate five-piece rondo. Tessier’s spaciously echoing work on the toms gave the music additional grim inevitability.

Perrio’s emphatic, enigmatic series of minimalist chords around a central tone in the last number echoed 90s shoegaze acts like Slowdive as well as cinematic indie soundscapers like the Quavers and Aaron Blount. It was a real surprise, and practically funny how they made a resolutely triumphant anthem out of it at the end, hardly the coda you’d expect after such a rapturously dark buildup.

After House of Echo, tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart completely flipped the script, leading a spirited quartet – Aaron Goldberg on the Rhodes plus bassist Or Bareket and drummer Ari Hoenig – through a series of jazz variations on well-known Shabbat themes. Goldberg really made that Rhodes sing with his robust neoromantic chords and cascades in the opening number, which Schwarz-Bart had obviously written for acoustic piano.

The saxophonist’s duet with Hoenig on Adon Olam was as poignant as it was propulsive; it was also the only other moment in the set where Schwarz-Bart’s reinventions of these old Jewish themes took on a particularly solemn tinge. Where John Zorn and his posse, or Uri Gurvich will take ancient cantorial melodies to similarly otherworldly places, Schwarz-Bart’s shtick is to make catchy, toe-tapping, early 60s Prestige Records-style postbop out of them.

Oseh Shalom was almost unrecognizable until he backed away from a sizzling, perfectly articulated, Coltrane-esque series of arpeggios to reveal the theme. He prefaced his version of the foundational Passover litany Ma Nishtana with similarly apt commentary on migrations, forced and otherwise, happening around the world in this era. Much as there was plenty of relentless good cheer in the rest of the set, it would have helped if Schwarz-Bart had stayed away from the pedalboard and the cheesy octave and pitch-shifting patches that only ramped up the schmaltz factor.

The show was staged by Paris Jazz Club, the indispensable website which maintains an exhaustive concert calendar for Paris and the surrounding area: it’s absolutely essential if you want to find out what’s happening, especially off the beaten path. House of Echo continue on tour tomorrow night, Jan 17 at 8 PM, opening for pianist Florian Pelissier’s quintet and then psychedelic Afropop bassist Bibi Tanga & the Selenites at L’Astral, 305 rue St.-Catherine Ouest in Montreal. Cover is $28.

Reinventing Indian Music at a Well-Loved Red Hook Institution

Pretty much every Thursday, the Brooklyn Raga Massive take over the Jalopy. While many members of the vast Indian music collective play traditional repertoire on Indian instruments, the organization dedicates itself not only to preserving those traditions but also taking them to new places. The eclectic series of special guests, who play at 8:30 PM followed by a jam session, bring jazz, Americana, Middle Eastern and Balkan sounds to the music, and vice versa. Cover is $15, but if you’re a competent musician, bring your axe: admission to the jam is free after 10 PM. Just be aware that while some of this hemisphere’s foremost Indian musicians often join in, this is neither a cutting contest nor an open mic. Rather, if you have some familiarity with Indian music, or you’re at least comfortable being directed to play in a given scale or mode, it can be like getting a free master class from some of the best in the business.

This week’s installment on Jan 17 features cellist George Crotty, whose eclectic career spans Celtic and traditional Jewish music as well. If you were one of the dedicated crowd who made it out even deeper into Red Hook last October for the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon, you have some idea of what to expect.

In 2017, this blog was in the house for the marathon’s overnight segment, from about half past two to nine in the morning on a Sunday after a memorial service for a friend. This may sound cliched, but the often haunting modes of those morning ragas – played by a succession of string and wind instrument players and percussionists – had a viscerally healing effect.

Last October, the game plan was to catch the beginning of the marathon, staged at Pioneer Works. The show began with the Pradhana Dance and Music Company (sounds like an all-purpose Kolkata entertainment conglomerate, right)? This group actually hails from these parts. Kathak dancer Jin Won spun with an airy effortlessness, bringing to life the kind of classic mythological poses that decorate ancient sacred sites throughout parts of the Hindustani subcontinent. Percussionists Michael Lukshis and Kaumil Shah gave her a groove; they were later joined with a similar terse elegance by sitarist Indro Roy Chowdhury.

The next ensemble, Raman Kalyan, played one of the traditional early-evening ragas, characterized by an uneasy quality meant to depict the tension in the shift between night and day. Flutist V. K. Raman was joined by violinist Arun Ramamurthy, making the first of his many appearances in a 24-hour span, playing subtle flickers and wide swaths of melody over the rhythmic rises and falls of Akshay Anantapadmanabhan’s mridangam.

Riveting, magical singer Mitali Bhawmik held the crowd rapt for the next hour, backed by Anirban Chakravarty on harmonium and Dibyarka Chaterjee on tabla, finally building to a meticulously modulated, shivery crescendo of microtones. After a set of more American soul-flavored originals by singer Ganavya and her backing unit, slinky allstar string band Karavika took the stage.

“I haven’t seen these guys in ages,” a raven-haired beauty in the crowd remarked to her neighbor in the crowd, an oldtimer wearing a hat with a minor-league Mets logo and nursing a 24-ounce beer. He admitted to not having heard them in ages either: both were visibly psyched to see them play (much as it seemed that he was going to be there for the duration, she outlasted him).

Frontwoman/violinist Trina Basu led the quartet through mesmerizing thickets of counterpoint and intertwining melody, cellist Amali Premawardhana adding some striking, unexpected cadenzas, bassist Perry Wortman keeping the hypnotic pulse going in tandem with mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan. Most of the themes, from lowlit nocturnes to a cinematic storm suite, were originals; they ended with a couple of expansive, dynamically shifting variations on ancient carnatic melodies. 

An Enigmatically Dancing Album and a Chelsea Show by Individualistic Vibraphonist Yuhan Su

Vibraphonist Yuhan Su plays with a terse, riff-driven sensibility, a persistent restlessness and a frequently wry sense of humor. Her latest album, City Animals – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a study in contrasts: urban vs. rural, action vs. stillness, agitation vs. contentment. Su has done a lot of work with dance companies in recent years, so it’s no surprise that there’s an especially lithe quality to a lot of the tunes here. Unlike a lot of vibraphonists, she likes to hang out in the midrange rather than working a bell-like attack way up the scale. She’s playing the Cell Theatre on Jan 19 at 8 PM with her quintet; cover is $15.

The album’s first track, El Coche Se Murio, was inspired by an untimely breakdown on a Spanish highway, four hours from a gig. There’s a coy solo vibraphone intro where the vehicle loses it, an insistent I-can’t-believe-this-happened passage, bustling Alex LoRe alto sax against balmy Matt Holman trumpet, a scampering Su solo and then what seems to be disaster averted.

Sax and trumpet flutter uneasily against each other in Viaje, as Su leads the rhythm section – bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – with a lingering unease as the segments coalesce in turn, yet never fully resolve. Immigration and similar big journeys are like that.

The surreallistically titled Feet Dance has a steady, almost stalking pulse underpinning bright unison playing and sax-trumpet harmonies. As is frequently the case in Su’s music, those harmonies remain a tantalizing hair away from any kind of traditional chromatic scale, raising the unease factor.

Poncho Song, a jazz waltz, is similar but more wistful, with an expansively stairstepping vibraphone solo at the center and a tasty, nebulous outro that’s over too soon. The album’s title track contrasts fluttery urban bustle with lustrous, lingering phrases, Holman and LoRe bobbing and weaving.

Kuafu, the album’s centerpiece, is a triptych inspired by a Chinese myth about a titan of sorts hell-bent on running down and catching the sun. The first section has Su’s restless resonance paired against LoRe’s animated sax, the rhythm section entering with the hint of a second-line shuffle. Then it’s Su’s turn to go in a carefree direction as the horns converge.

The second part, Starry, Starry Night is the high point of the record, and also its most vividly melodic moment, a bittersweet anthem that diverges to a starry/dancing vibes-sax dichotomy and then a moody rondo. The metrically tricky coda has some irresistibly funny, over-the-top moments from Ellman-Bell and jaunty Indian allusions from LoRe.

The languid ballad Tutu & D – inspired by The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – has cleverly spacious counterpoint between all the instruments and an expansive, lyrical Holman solo. The album’s final number, Party 2AM is more genteel and conversational than the title would imply. Refreshingly distinctive, purposeful stuff from someone who’s really found a sound of her own. 

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.