New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: August, 2019

Daniel Bennett and Mark Cocheo Play the Funniest Weekly Jazz Residency in Town

The wryly entertaining, irrepressibly catchy new album We Are the Orchestra, credited to the Daniel Bennett Group and streaming at Bandcamp, is actually the work of just two guys in the studio. Bandleader Bennett, who plays a small orchestra’s worth of reeds along with piano and percussion, admits that the idea was pretty crazy. But he and guitarist/banjo player Mark Cocheo pulled this eclectic, pastoral theme and variations together with boundless energy and an unstoppable sense of humor.

Bennett came up with the idea after arranging several Verdi opera themes for small ensemble for a Whitney Museum exhibition. The record is a mix of some of those numbers mingled with Bennett’s witty originalsf you have to pin a label on it, you might call it it film music: it’s rooted in jazz, but bustles with catchy rock hooks and is more than a little cartoonish in places. He and Cocheo have an ongoing weekly Tuesday night 7:30 PM residency at an unexpected and easy-to-get-to spot, the hideaway third-floor Residence Inn bar at 1033 6th Ave., a block south of Bryant Park on the west side of the street. Until word gets out about how much fun Bennett and Cocheo are having with it, you may have the place to yourself.

The new album’s first track is Loose Fitting Spare Tire, a briskly strolling highway theme assembled from crisp Cocheo guitar multitracks and some breezy alto sax from Bennett. It comes across as a more tightly wound take on Bill Frisell. Cocheo breaks out his banjo for a long, spiky solo over the changes in I’m Not Nancy, Bennett switching to flute.

Gold Star Mufflers is a twistedly surreal, uneasily psychedelic detour, banjo mingling with the piano. The first of the Verdi variations, Theme From Ernani is recast as a bittersweet, bossa-tinged tune with a warm, Memphis-flavored soul solo from Cocheo. Refinancing for Elephants – which wasn’t written by Verdi – brings in unexpected Irish flavor via Bennett’s tricky flute work.

Inside Our Pizza Oven, a real showstopper live, presumably could have been written by Verdi but also wasn’t. It’s got some absolutely gorgeous, Balkan-flavored microtonal, melismatic work from Bennett over a hypnotically strummy backdrop. Theme from Il Trovatore – which wasn’t written by Bennett – works much better as waltzing spaghetti western jazz than you might imagine. Carl Finds His Way – which was – brings the album full circle, Cocheo hitting his distortion pedal for extra edge and bite as Bennett swirls overhead.

Fearlessly Funny, Political Punk Rock at Arlene’s Next Week

In times like these, we need bands like Jack and the Me Offs. True to the spirit of classic punk, the New Brunswick, New Jersey band are funny and not afraid to piss people off. Their recording output so far is limited to a three-song, name-your-price live Bandcamp “demo” recorded at Rutgers in 2017. They’re playing Arlene’s on Sept 5 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

The first song on the ep, Designer Fascist, is the best. It’s a catchy, trebly singalong: you can feel those distorted guitar chords bouncing off those basement walls. The title refers to how fascists these days have traded in their KKK hoods and Nazi uniforms for fancy  officewear:

It’s sad but it’s true
They’re not like me and you
They hate the gays they hate the Jews
They’re all coming after you
It’s sad but it’s true
They’re not like me or you
Their lawns sport Trump signs their eyes scream dollar signs
This is the new regime

The other two songs are comic relief and designed to make you squirm a little. Skin Suit is a garage-punk tune about an Ed Gein-type character. Please Be Neat, Clean the Seat is a Ramonesy number about um, splashback from being careless. The band are tight and play a lot better than any of the phony punk bands out there left over from the Warped Tour days. More people should make live albums: these guys are obviously a lot of fun onstage.

Catchy, Deceptively Deep Americana Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Show From Amy LaVere

Amy LaVere is a rarity, a bassist-frontwoman out on the Americana rock highway. She’s got a misty voice and writes moody, catchy songs with tinges of noir. She’s also Will Sexton’s wife. Her new album Painting Blue is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood tonight, August 29 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

Sexton’s ominous baritone guitar twang lingers over Tim Regan’s spare, plaintve, jazz-tinged piano and brushy drums (that’s either George Sluppick, Shawn Zorn or longago Iggy Pop sideman Hunt Sales behind the kit) in the opening track, I Don’t Wanna Know. LaVere’s wounded, breathy vocals channel a distant, apocalyptic angst.

No Battle Hymn has brisk, arid 80s production:and a backbeat: if Neko Case had been making records back then, she might have sounded like this. Girlfriends – as in, “Don’t let your girlfriends tell you what you need” – is a catchy, Tex Mex-tinged admonition to a friend who might have actually found a good guy after all.

Veteran soul man Al Gamble’s organ percolates through the bouncy soul song You’re Not In Memphis, while Love I’ve Missed is more of a soul-pop tune. The album’s most haunting track is No Room For Baby, a starkly orchestrated portrait of dead-end blue-collar despair

Stick Horse is a lot more optimistic and quietly defiant, Rick Steff supplying a lilting accordion solo. Shipbuilding is a rare Elvis Costello cover that’s as good or even better than the original, a gentle and subtly scathing interpretation of the Falklands War-era ballad. The album’s title track makes a good segue, a Costello-ish take on early 60s pop beefed up with soaring strings:

Do you have the courage but not the fight
Smoke could be in the air
Flames around you everywhere
You wouldn’t care

Blissing Out With Fabian Almazan at the Jazz Standard

This past evening at the Jazz Standard, pianist Fabian Almazan and his trio played a lustrous, glimmering set of nocturnes with the same epic gravitas as his larger-ensemble work. It was a show to get lost in.

Almazan’s lefthand attack can have every bit as much intricacy and nimble glisten as his whirlwind righthand, but the material in this set – comprising much of his latest, lavishly gorgeous, ecologically-themed album The World Abounds with Life – was typically anchored by sometimes fiery, sometimes broodingly resonant pools of chords or hypnotically circling, trickily percussive lefthand riffs.

More often than not, bassist Linda May Han Oh – Almazan’s significant other – would double those riffs, or at least the rhythm, although she took one of the night’s most unselfconsciously plaintive solos, bowing up to an angst-fueled peak in what could have been the show’s most emblenatic number, Drummer Henry Cole opened that one solo with a steady, elegantly tumbling stroll, finally hinting at a famously canine Led Zep groove. Were the band going to go there? As it turns out, no, Almazan following what would become a familiar pattern, circling staccato phrases lightly enhanced by an echo effect, bookending expansive, lush cascades and long, neoromantic chordal brescendos over a shapeshifting beat.

They opened the night with Benjamin – named after the cynical donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm – following a similar pattern. The fluttery electronics, which Almazan would typically set a quarter note behind the beat, added textures that during the sparest passages were surreal, and when the notes flying from Almazan’s fingers grew torrential, created a parallel storm. Sometimes this echoed Ikue Mori’s live sampling with artists like Satoko Fujii. The challenge to the rhythm section to stay undistracted must have been considerable but Oh and Cole didn’t waver.

The highlight of the night was The Everglades, an epic salute to Almazan’s refuge as an angst-ridden Cuban immigrant growing up in Florida. Building an increasingly stormy upward drive out of the murk, then going fullscale orchestral with the electronics, Almazan finally brought it down to a long, hushed, tender calm, a moody salute to an imperiled old haunt. The rest of the set was more kinetic, but the rapturous effect lingered: after awhile, it seemed like one long symphony, warmly enveloping passages alternating with frenetically circling interludes.

Almazan’s going to be on the road, in both the US and Europe, for awhile; his next gig is with trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Art Blakey project at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Sept 1.

A Wild, Ferociously Lyrical Take on the History of Jazz Uptown

The Manhattan debut of the multimedia spectacle The Spirit of Harlem at Harlem School of the Arts this past evening was everything the final night of the Charlie Parker Festival wasn’t: cutting-edge, fearlessly political and often very funny. And trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s lavish ensemble didn’t even venture beyond the classics, tunewise. On one hand, songs like Strange Fruit are eternal for a reason. On the other, it’s seldom that a band is able to reinvent them in a way that does justice either to the spirit or the quality of the original.

After Farinacci introduced that haunting number solo, setting a mood more pitchblende than indigo, Shenel Johns sang Abel Meeropol’s chronicle of a lynching with a Nina Simone-like steeliness, in a stark duet with bassist Jonathan Michel. Dapperly dressed rapper Orlando Watson – whose slashing metaphors and intricate flow unearthed innumerable connections between the history of jazz, the New Jim Crow, Black Lives Matter and other historical moments – would reference that song later on, a hybrid kind of fruit still hanging from the poplar trees.

The Spirit of Harlem, which Farinacci put together at the annual upstate Catskill Jazz Factory festival, debuted in Italy just last week, The symphonic part of the evening – with tight, inspired student ensemble the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra – turned out to be a world premiere, the entire cast pulling it together in rehearsal about three hours before showtime.

The show’s premise is to bring jazz history out of world of pedants and snobs, with unexpected new interpretations and a focus on legendary Harlem jazz shrines. Tapdancer Michela Marino Lerman dueled it out with pianist Mathias Picard, through an increasingly complicated series of stride tunes that ended with a feral take of Tiger Rag. She clearly won the early part of this cutting contest, but Picard really gave her a run for the money with a diabolically fast coda that would have made Art Tatum proud.

Not everything was a total reinvention, but even the more standard interpretations were a lot of fun. The group – which also included vibraphonist Christian Tamburr, tenor saxophonist Patrick Bartley Jr., and drummer Kyle Poole – romped through a phantasmagorical version of Minnie the Moocher that left no doubt what Minnie was smoking. Likewise, Bartley’s eerie duotones and Middle Eastern-tinged wails in tandem with Poole’s shamanistic attack in A Night in Tunisia – which then segued into Dizzy Atmosphere – conjured up the spirit of the early bebop sessions several blocks to the south at Minton’s.

Bartley and Picard got bittersweet and lyrical with a Monk medley beginning with a fleeting excerpt from Pannonica followed by a somewhat furtive take of Round Midnight. After a lavishly orchestrated, rather sentimental new salute to impresario Norman Granz, the entire cast made a quick coda out of Sing Sing Sing. If jazz is your thing, even if you find this material moldy and figgy, Watson’s lyrical firepower and the irrepressible fun of the rest of the show will win you over.

Epic Bustle and Thump and Entertainment From the Uncategorizably Fun NYChillharmonic at Joe’s Pub

Was it worth leaving this year’s Charlie Parker Festival early to catch the NYChillharmonic last night at Joe’s Pub? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe someday singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s lavish eighteen-piece big band will play the festival – although the lineup that day will have to be a lot more forward-looking than it was yesterday evening.

McDonald’s music is easy to trace back to the wildly syncopated early 70s art-rock of bands like Genesis, although her compositions also draw on classical music, big band jazz, Radiohead and lately, classic soul music and even disco. Huddled together on the cabaret-sized stage, the mighty group were tight as a drum throughout a pummeling, nonstop performance heavy on the beat.

The staggered, staccato pulse of the opening number set the tone and was the most evocative of 70s psychedelia. Like the rest of the songs on the bill, it was pretty much through-composed, reaching a white-knuckle intensity with a series of rhythmic shrieks toward the end. McDonald typically finds more surprising places to take an audience – and her bandmates – than simply coming back to land on a verse or a chorus. Often but not always, the band would bring starkly moody intros full circle to close a tune, whether voice and keys, voice and guitar, or even voice and tuba.

With a vocal delivery that came across as more chirpy and biting than it’s been in recent months, McDonald sang resonantly while spiraling through tightly wound arpeggios on a mini-synth. Then she’d spin and conduct the ensemble, then return to the mic and keys, and made it look easy.

She explained that she’d written the night’s second number, Living Room, after quitting her shitty dayjob. Maybe some organization like Chamber Music America can step in and help her stay away from shitty dayjobs so she can concentrate on what she does best.

That particular number began as a restlessly propulsive soul anthem bulked up to orchestral proportions, with unexpectedly hushed, halfspeed interludes and a similarly sepulcutral outro, flitting out on the wings of the group’s string section. With the next tune, Ambedo, the band mashed up classic 70s disco and 50s Mingus urban noir bustle, punctuated by a series of almost vexing interruptions and a wry, woozy, Bernie Worrell-style bass synth solo.

The night’s darkest and most bracing song, Wicker – which McDonald dedicated to “Ugly patio furniture everywhere” – had looming, ominous chromatics and 21st century Balkan jazz allusions, along with a deliciously jagged guitar solo and more P-Funk keyboard buffoonery. Zephyr has been considerably beefed up since the last time the group played the piece here, its chattering, uneasy intro more of a contrast with its relentlessly syncopated upward drive. It was the closest thing to orchestral Radiohead on the bill.

Easy Comes the Ghost began with circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold. The group closed the show with another mashup of Radiohead, dancefloor thud and Darcy James Argue-style big band minimalism. Like Missy Mazzoli, McDonald manages to write torrential melodies without cluttering them.

Time was short, so there were no band intros. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for brass quartet the Westerlies with crooner Theo Bleckmann, but sometimes life takes you elsewhere…humming riffs from this shapeshifting crew which this time included Alden Helmuth on alto sax, Jasper Dutz and Jared Yee on tenor, Drew Vanderwinckel on baritone, Ben Seacrist and Michael Sarian on trumpets, Nick Grinder and Nathan Wood on trombones, Jennifer Wharton on tuba, Kiho Yutaka and Dorothy Kim on violin, Will Marshall on viola, Sasha Ono on cello, Eitan Kenner on electric piano, Steven Rogers on guitar, Adam Neely on bass and Dani Danor on drums.

A Curmudgeonly View of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

Why did the final day of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival at Tompkins Square Park feel so tired? For one, because the order of bands was ass-backwards. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who opened, should have headlined: she and her quartet built an energy that, for many reasons, none of the other acts matched.

The relatively small size of the crowd was also a factor. Sure, there were a lot of people gathered down front, but there was never a problem finding space on the lawn, and the perimeter was deserted. To the west, a homeless guy with wireless speakers was blasting the Carpenters. To the east, a strolling brass band had conveniently picked the afternoon of the festival to compete with Benjamin’s all-Coltrane set during the quietest moments. If Kenny G had been onstage, that interference would have been welcome. But he wasn’t. How classless and uncool!

And as a rock musician would say, other than pianist Fred Hersch, everybody else was playing covers.

Drummer Carl Allen can bring the highest echelon talent wherever he wants, considering the size of his address book.. But the potential fireworks between trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist JD Allen never materialized, each reading charts throughout a wide-ranging set of material associated with Art Blakey. Allen was more chill behind the kit than Blakey ever was, and the horns (and spring-loaded bassist Peter Washington, and pianist Eric Reed) went for cruise-control rather than friendly sparring – or otherwise. It was lovely – and it sounded as old as it was.

Ageless tenor saxophonist George Coleman thrilled the crowd with a viscerally breathtaking display of circular breathing throughout one persistently uneasy modal interlude, leading an organ jazz quartet. In another moment, he and his alto player conjured up the aching microtonal acidity of Turkish zurlas. Organist Brian Charette was having a great time bubbling and cascading while the bandleader’s son shuffled and swung and shimmered on his cymbals. But as much veteran talent was on display here, it was mostly Charlie Parker covers.

Benjamin has a bright, brassy, Jackie McLean-esque tone on her horn and a killer band. Pianist Sharp Radway is both sharp and way rad: with his crushing low-register chords, endlessly vortical pools of sound and modal mastery, he was the highlight of the festival. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico walked briskly and pedaled and eventually went to the deepest part of the pocket and stayed there while drummer Darrell Green played much more chill than Elvin Jones ever did with Trane’s band. Benjamin’s decision to work her way up from brooding chromatics and modes all the way to a hypnotically swaying A Love Supreme – with guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn – was also smart programming. Spiraling and bobbing and weaving, her homage to every saxophonist’s big influence (and sometimes bête noire) was heartfelt and affecting. It also would have been fun to have heard some of her own material: she’s a very eclectic writer and a good singer too.

Maybe the sound guy expected Hersch to savage the keys like Radway did, but he didn’t, and for that reason a lot of his signature subtlety got lost in the mix. Bassist John Hebert’s mutedly terse pulse was often considerably higher, and drummer Eric McPherson – one of the great kings of subtlety – was sometimes almost inaudible. Attack aside, Hersch’s signature mix of neoromantic glimmer, wry humor and gravitas is actually a lot closer to Radway’s style than might seem apparent. Hersch deserved more attention, so that we could have given it back to him more than it seems we did.

The Ghost Funk Orchestra Materialize at Bryant Park

The Ghost Funk Orchestra was originally a one-man band studio project. Then word started getting out about how incredibly fun – and psychedelically creepy – Seth Applebaum’s oldschool soul instrumentals were. All of a sudden there was a band, and then songs with vocals, and now there’s an album, A Song for Paul, featuring the whole crew. This past evening they played the album release show to a huge crowd spread across the lawn at Bryant Park.

Applebaum turns out to be a beast of a lead guitarist, switching from evilly feathery tremolo-picking, to enigmatically sunbaked, scorchingly resonant lines, incisive funk and even some icily revertoned, surf-tinged riffs. The horn section – Rich Siebert on trumpet, James Kelly on trombone and Stephen Chen baritone sax, the latter being the most prominent in the mix – were as tight as the harmonies of the three women fronting the band with an unselfconscious, down-to-earth passion and intenstiy. Lo Gwynn, Romi Hanoch and Megan Mancini twirled and kept the groove going on tambourine as they sang, while second guitarist Josh Park played purposeful chords and oldschool soul licks on his Gibson SG, often trading off or intertwining with the bandleader and his Strat. Bassist Julian Applebaum and drummer Kyle Beach handled the tricky rhythmic shifts seamlessly.

The best of the songs was the darkest one, possibly titled Evil Mind. There were a handful with a galloping Afrobeat rhythm, another with a qawalli-inflected, circling pace and plenty with a swinging straight-up psychedelic funk groove. With all the textures simmering onstage, they didn’t need a keyboardist. Not much chatter with the crowd, no band intros – for all we know, the lineup could still be in flux – just one hypnotic, undulating, sometimes cinematically shifting tune after another. Their next gig is this Halloween at 9 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $12.

 

A Killer New Album From Midwestern Soul Legends the Diplomats of Solid Sound

A few years back, a friend of this blog moved back to his hometown Iowa City. Asked what the music scene there was like, he had two words: “Sarah Cram!”

She’s one of the three phenomenal lead singers for the Diplomats of Solid Sound, who were every bit as important in the Midwest for keeping the flame of classic 60s soul burning as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were here. Happily, the Diplomats are still together. Even though their band members have dispersed, they still make great vinyl records chock full of catchy songs that would have been hits fifty years ago. And they still tour occasionally. Their new vinyl record A Higher Place is streaming at Spotify. Pretty much everything here is three minutes or less: no wasted notes, uncluttered purist playing, a real clinic in retro beats and riffs.

The snap of bassist Ben Soltau and drummer Forrest Heusinkveld kicks off the opening track, Common Ground, a Marvelettes-style, go-go flavored number, the band’s formidable vocal frontline – Cram, Katherine Ruestow and Abbie Sawyer – harmonizing over Nate “Count” Basinger’s punchy organ and Douglas Roberson’s spare guitar. Saxophonist Eddie MacKinley’s bright riffage is the icing on this sonic cake.

The strings behind Cram’s warm, comforting vocals and playful jump-rope melody combine for Supremes ambience in Crazy About You, Basinger’s organ fueling an unexpectedly edgy bridge. Good to Do is a punchy, serious wake-up call to a girl who’s gettting played: it brings to mind New Jersey’s excellent One and Nines.

Sometimes starts off as a guitar-driven swamp-rock tune, then the band take it back even further in timewith an early 60s vibe. Gotta Find That Man is a sly, bittersweet, hungover post-hookup scenario set to a snaky Booker T groove. Move On could be a Bill Withers tune with horns and a sultry trio of voices out front. Then the band pick up the pace even further with Already Gone, a pulsing roller-rink bubblegum soul tune with a cool garage-rock bridge.

Fool – as in “You’re a fool to let her go” – shows what else the group can do with that same Girl From New York City riff, in this case making an early 70s-style soul strut out of it. The lushly orchestrated Brave New World is a cynical, spot-on look at how social media and online dating are killing romance.

Hole in Your Soul has a mid-60s Memphis bounce and some nifty stairstepping piano, then the band slink their way into dramatic soul-blues with Take Some Pity on Me Baby. They wind up the album with a toweringly gorgeous Muscle Shoals-style ballad in 6/8 time, Dry Land, the women’s vocals rising from matter-of-fact angst to a defiant wail. The group claim to have twenty million Spotify hits (for which they might have earned a few dimes or quarters). Although online numbers can’t be trusted, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that count. Sharon Jones has sadly gone off to the great stage in the sky, but the Diplomats of Solid Sound are still going strong: nobody does oldschool soul better than this crew.

The Diplomats’ next gig is a hometown show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon, 4919 Walleye Drive in Iowa City; cover is $15.

Star Colombian Accordionist El Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica Shreds at Lincoln Center

Alberto Jamaica Larrota a.k.a. El Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica really is a king: he won top honors at the Leyenda Vallenato Festival in his native Colombia. He was also reputedly the big attraction at the final night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a big event that this blog unfortunately had to miss. Trying to come up with words to describe his slinky, slashing, virtuoso performance this past evening at Lincoln Center wasn’t easy: this guy puts on a party. An all-ages Colombian massive filled the dancefloor and packed the seats at the Broadway atrium space to watch the accordionist/bandleader and an unusually small five-piece lineup – bass, guiro, tambor and vocals – run through a set of hits that even got the people in the press seats up on their feet. Good luck trying to write, or text, or do much of anything other than dancing, in the middle of that.

The former construction foreman, who sold off his wardrobe and prized cassettes to buy his first accordion, is a pretty shy guy: he doesn’t even front his own band. But he shreds, building his way to a fullscale vallenato inferno. He and the group opened with a merengue-flavored tune, the bassist puncing his way up the scale to an enveloping solo. The clever shift from a circling 6/8 beat to a pretty much straight-up clave wasn’t lost on the dancers.

Tthe percussive attack of the second number more than counterbalanced the blithe tune ,Ironically, it was on the third song of the night, a slowly swaying cumbia anthem, where El Rey got shreddier. The one after that belonged to the bass player, slamming out booming chords and swooping octaves over the bandleader’s staccato attack.

A thundering cumbia hit by the late, great Celso Pina was lit up with hypnoticlly circling upper-register accordion riffage, as the rhythm shifted again to a straight-ahead dancefloor thud. Then they went lickety-split through a vampy two-chord number where it seemed like Beto Jamaica’x axe might burst a button or three. As these guy proved earlier during the show, they can slow the show down, just as they did at this point, and still drove the energy higher, this time around with sizzling minor-key accordion riffs, bass all over the place, haunting vocal harmonies and a thorny thicket of percussion.

From there the rhythms followed a roller coaster of dynamic shifts, El Rey paying his respects to his big Mexican influences as well as several squeezebox favorites from his home turf. Anyone in the house who was hearing vallenato for the first time got as solid an introducion as anybody could want.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. – New Yorks best place for discovering new sounds from around the or world, or just revisiting them  is next Thursday, August 29 at 7:30 PM with the Haitian funk band that started it all, Boukman Eksperyans. If you’re going, get there early.