New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: January, 2020

Symphonic Lushness and Edgy Intensity from Wildly Eclectic Accordionist Simone Baron

Accordionist Simone Baron‘s debut album The Space Between Disguises, with her group Arco Belo – streaming at Bandcamp – has the lushness and epic sweep of classical music, the edge of the Balkans, the rhythmic complexity of jazz and the vividness of a film score. Just when you think it couldn’t get more eclectic,  she throws in brief interludes with loops and snippets of found sound in between songs. There are thousands of bands across Europe who mash up all these styles, but few here in the US.

The lush string overture introducing the album’s opening cut, Post Edit Delete, alludes to a famously overcast weekend song made famous by Billie Holiday. Then the group tipetoe through a Balkan-tinged violin theme. Baron plays piano on this particular number, dancing through the moody mist.

With its hazy swells and a coy bass/violin conversation, Angle of Incidence is more astringent, Baron’s accordion doubling bassist Mike Pope’s bubbly lines midway through. Who Cares is a gorgeously dark pastoral jazz vignette fueled by banjo player Mark Schatz’s enigmatic frailing. Dramatically incisive low-register piano, biting violin, austerely swirling strings, a bit of funk and warily unsettled accordion percolate throughout the epic mini-suite Passive Puppeteer.

The melancholic, singing quality of the strings and acccordion as the album’s title track gets underway is stunning; then all of a sudden it’s a loopy, marionettish dance that grows more haunting and lush. Baron reinvents Walter Bishop, Jr.’s Those Who Chant with an elegant gallop, then takes her time with the sweepingly plaintive Valsa, by Brazilian accordionist Tibor Fittel. The album’s concluding diptych, Buciumeana/Kadynja juxtaposes a gorgeous, klezmerish Moldovan theme with a Romanian folk dance appropriated by Bartók, complete with creepy music box-like piano and a killer handoff from accordion to violin.

A tour de force from a group that also includes drummer Lucas Ashby and the strings of Aaron Malone on violin and viola, Bill Neri on viola, Peter Kibbe on cello, plus violinists Nelson Moneo, Laura Colgate and Ellen McSweeney.


Purist Guitar Blues and a Ferociously Funny Anti-Trump Broadside From Dave Specter

As the historic events of the Trump impeachment continue to unfold, it’s past time to give props to the many American artists who’ve channeled this nation’s righteous rage at the fratboy-in-chief and his kleptocrat cronies. A standout among those musicians is Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter, who was driven to singing on a record for the first time. The centerpiece of his album Blues From the Inside Out – streaming at Spotify– is How Low Can One Man Go? The lyrics are so spot-on, and the interplay between Specter and guest Jorma Kaukonen so purposeful, that you don’t realize the song’s just a one-chord jam:

Rich daddy dollars on a silver spoon
Telling lie after lie like a hot air buffoon
…Got millions of true believers like a cult on too much blow
Tell me how low can one man go?

March Through the Darkness, a Mavis Staples-inspired retro 60s soul anthem with some gorgeous Muscle Shoals guitar from Specter, is a shout out to everybody who’s heard a “loud wakeup call” to battle bigotry and oppression. And Sarah Marie Young takes the mic on the simmering, Memphis-tinged Wave’s Gonna Come.

The rest of the record isn’t particulary political, but it is a welcome throwback to the days when guys like B.B. King were still with us, playing tight solos and entertaining us with sharp, funny lyrics. And with his gritty voice, Specter acquits himself well on the mic. The album’s first track is the optimistic title cut: as he puts it, just because your Pontiac breaks down doesn’t mean you have to go off on a bender. The rest of the band – Brother John Kattke on piano, Harlan Lee Terson on bass and Marty Binder on drums – keeps a hard-swinging ba-bump groove behind Specter’s biting riffage and wry, aphoristic lyrics.

That’s the template for the rest of the tracks. The band work an understated, slinky New Orleans rhythm in Ponchatoula Way, bolstered by Mars Williams on tenor sax, John Janowiak on trombone and Ron Haynes on trumpet. Kattke switches to organ for the Meters-inspired Sanctifunkious.

The lyrics to Asking for a Friend are as sly as the modulation in the middle: if Albert Collins had been a Chicago guy, he probably would have sounded like this. The album’s big epic is Minor Shout, an expertly layered instrumental set to a tight clave beat, part Santana and part Ronnie Earl. Kaukonen and the horns return for The Blues Ain’t Nothin, a confident bounce with some fierce Airplane-style playing and one of Specter’s most subtly amusing narratives

Opposites Attract is LMAO funny, with tasty interplay between Kattke’s tumbling piano and Specter’s biting riffs. The group go back to a Meters strut with Soul Drop and close the album with String Chillin, Kattke’s gospel piano matched by the bandleader’s expansive, T-Bone Walker-style approach. Noteworthy background: Specter’s dad, Jerry Specter, was a Chicago community organizer who led a successful battle against a 1970s Richard Daley gentrification scheme. The land formerly occupied by an abandoned sanitarium is now a park and low-cost housing for seniors.

Specter’s next gig is Feb 9 at 9:30 PM on his home turf at Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S Wabash St. in Chicago; cover is $10.

Haunting, High-Voltage Balkan and Middle Eastern Sounds from Oud Mastermind Mehmet Polat

One of the most richly dynamic albums of recent months is Mehmet Polat‘s Quantum Leap, with his eclectic band Embracing Colours. The oud virtuoso and composer’s latest releas, a mix of influences from Andalucia to the Balkans and the Middle East is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Expanded Lives, is stunningly intense, a wounded minor-key anthem that builds to a long, flamenco-tinged, flurrying crescendo from the bandleader. Accordionist Bart Lelivelt joins the dance as it reaches a peak, then the rhythm section – bassist Hendrik Müller and drummer Joan Terol Amigo – pull the song back to more elegant drama.

They don’t waste a second to segue into Dancing Statues, a suspenseful accordion-bass conversation setting off a fiery, pulsingly insistent Balkan dance with a deliciously edgy, chromatic accordion solo, with the bandleader adding his own scampering, misterioso lines. Playing the Time Away is more pensive, with a series of carefree oud/accordion exchanges.

The band stay in animated dance mode with the tricky metrics of Falseta Mesopotámica, Polat firing off a percussively incisive solo, singer Ciğdem Okuyucu adding her spacious, ripely melismatic voice to the mix. They follow with Segue – good as that joke is, this bridge is a particularly interesting one, shifting from a kinetic scramble to a wary, brooding bowed bass solo, picking up with renewed intensity and eventually coming full circle.

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans’ airy microtones join with the accordion to introduce the slow, stately, Palestinian-inflected anthem All Connected: with the trumpet moving into stark blues, it could be the album’s most hauntingly gorgeous track.

The aptly titled, saturnine Breathing Again is another stunner, Polat’s allusively chilling, spacious solo giving way to Imamyar Hasanov’s plaintive, imploring kamancheh fiddle. The quote at the end is too good to give away: let’s say it’s a happy ending appropriate for the current political climate.

The band follow Polat’s steady, sternly catchy solo piece Conveyed Emotions with Contemplation, a big, powerful, serpentine, Balkan-spiced showstopper. Then Polat and Müller edge their way into the shapeshifting Entropy – with the exchanges between Polat’s soaring vocals and Michalis Kouloumis’ stark violin, it’s the closest thing to current-day, electric Black Sea jazz here.

Lelivelt’s portentous accordion taqsim kicks off A Deserved Distraction – it seems designed as a welcome, pedal-to-the-metal diversion in the wake of so much haunting intensity. The group close with Aftermath, a grimly beautiful tableau that wouldn’t be out of place in the Mohammed Abdel Wahab catalog: Polat’s insistent, minimalist solo is impossible to turn away from. What a breathtaking record.

Polat’s next concert is on January 31 at the Lutherkirche Sudstat, Martin-Luther-Platz 4 in
Cologne, Germany.

Transcendence and Revelations from Women Composers at Juilliard

Dovetailing with the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 celebration of women composers and women achieving the right to vote in this country, the Juilliard School’s current Focus 2020 series features unprecedented, all-female programming this week. The big basement theatre there was about three-quarters full last night. If brilliant, obscure repertoire is your thing, or if you just like free classical concerts, you ought to be able to get in if you show up by about 7:15. Or you can pick up tickets at the box office during the day. The show tonight, Jan 28 starts at 7:30 PM with mostly piano-centric music by Vivian Fine, Florence Price, Young-ja Lee, Priaulx Rainier and Mary Lou Williams.

Last night’s performance was a revelation. It’s shameful that such sublime and powerful material has been largely ignored for so long, and it was clear from the program notes that a lot of sleuthing was required simply to track down the scores for much of it. Few of these women were fortunate enough to land a composer-in-residence gig, as Liu Zhuang maintained for two decades in her native China. Yet her own publisher was unable to provide the sheet music for her 1999 trio Wind Through Pines. A friend of Juilliard’s Joel Sachs had to be enlisted to supply a copy from his local library.

Rebecca Clarke broke the gender barrier as a hardworking symphony violist, yet was reduced to working as a nanny at one point. And Verdina Shlonsky, an early Israeli composer, had very few performances during her lifetime, dying broke and forgotten in 1990.

The concert was a rollercoaster ride, beginning and ending very darkly. Clarke’s 1941 Dumka, played with inspired, animated counterpoint by violinist Yaegy Park, violist Serena Hsu and pianist Jiahao Han, was a bitterly anthemic, Balkan-tinged theme and variations punctuated by jagged pointillisms and a forlornly lyrical viola solo.

Irish-English composer Elizabeth Maconchy’s 1938 String Quartet No. 3 was a broodingly and often grimly apt choice of concluding number. Cellist Erica Ogihara‘s deep pitchblende drive contrasted with the elegant exchanges between violinists Jeongah Choi and Haokun Liang and violist Leah Glick. Its uninterrupted variations foreshaded what Shostakovich would be doing twenty years later, all the way through to a macabre, slow gallop and flicker of a coda.

The night’s most breaktaking display of interpretive skill was pianist Isabella Ma’s vastly dynamic, sometimes muted and tender, sometimes explosive take of Shlonsky’s 1949 suite Pages From the Diary. The obvious precursor is Pictures at an Exhibition, coyly and fleetingly referenced toward the end. Icy belltones gave way to a marionettish strut that eventually resurfaced as fullscale phantasmagoria, only to flutter away gracefully at the conclusion.

Ruth Schonthal’s 1979 duo Love Letters, played by clarinetist Ashbur Jin and cellist Elisabeth Chang, was a matter-of-fact exchange that began somewhat warily and warmed to a casual stroll, more of a display of camaraderie than red-hot passion. Violist Sergio Munoz Leiva gamely tackled the knotty demands for extended technique throughout the short, sharp phrasing of Barbara Pentland’s solo Variations for Viola. And the trio of pianist Qu Xi, cellist Raphael Boden and flutist Audrey Emata emulated the alternately airy and otherworldly plucked, Asian-tinged pastoral phrasing of the Zhuang piece.

This week’s programming concludes with a big blowout at Alice Tully Hall this Friday, Jan 31 at 7:30 PM featuring works by Betsy Jolas, Grażyna Bacewicz, Ethel Smyth, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina with Raphael Vogl at the organ along with the Juilliard ensemble. Free tickets are currently available at the box office there.

Top-Quality, Sonically Pristine, Previously Unreleased John Coltrane

Here’s a special treat: the new John Coltrane record. That’s kind of a joke: over the years, there have been many “new” John Coltrane records, most of them field recordings of varying quality, some where the iconic saxophonist was little more than a special guest. But Blue World – streaming at Spotify – is the real deal, the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums laying down tracks for a 1964 Canadian film soundtrack that ended up never being used. The sound quality is excellent, heavy on the reverb. Although there’s nothing earth-shattering or new here, the performance is every bit what you would expect.

Trane plays exclusively tenor on this album. As with so many rare archival recordings from jazz’s golden age, there are multiple takes of the same song here. Is it worth sticking with three different versions of Village Blues? The band’s uncanny tightness reveals itself in the fact that each is almost identical in length. The variations in Jones’ deviously counterintuitive offbeats are as delicious as usual, the bandleader taking his time in purist blues mode. The first time around, with Tyner launching into a more majestically relaxed approach, Jones implying rather than shuffling the tune’s 6/8 groove, seems to be the charm. Still, it’s a lot of fun to see how these guys would tweak the material.

There are also two takes of Naima. Both are absolutely gorgeous; the second one’s more dynamic. The exchanges of roles between bandmates, from timekeeper to colorist, are a clinic in teamwork. The album’s tersely modal “title track” is so tight that it ticks; the bandleader is smokier and everybody cuts loose more, maybe because that’s what you have to do to keep what’s more or less a one-chord jam interesting. Jones’ thunderous rolls at the end are the funnest part of the record.

Like Sonny is a bossa-tinged platform for Trane’s playful Sonny Rollins-ish, mordent-like riffage. Garrison’s jaunty, solo second-line bubbles and chords introduce Traneing In, Tyner instantly turning it more circumspect and ambiguous as the band comes in, the bandleader’s uneasy blues and biting intensity reaffirming that almost sixty years later, these guys are still the gold standard.

The Best Dollar Pizza in NYC?

Editor’s note: Because this piece was originally published before the lockdown, it’s way, way out of date – many of these places have closed. Consider this a roadmap of dismal food in New York in early 2020.

This piece was inspired by Jeremiah Moss’ poignant review of the surviving Gray’s Papaya branches, as well as by an email list put out by an Upper East Side music fan which suggests pairing swanky classical concerts with even swankier nearby restaurants. One suspects that even in gentrified 2020, the New Yorkers who can’t afford such swank still outnumber those who can.

How drunk, stoned, broke, desperate, or a combination of the above does a person have to be to ingest more than fifty slices of dollar pizza? There are probably tens of thousands of New Yorkers who do that every month without being the least bit intoxicated. In the roughly eighteen months it took to bite the bullet and wrap up a mission to discover if there was such a thing as an even remotely acceptable dollar slice in this city, four of the places surveyed – including one of the handful of shockingly good ones – went out of business. There’s also something of a Heisenberg Principle in play here. Considering the constant turnover at low-wage jobs, what’s the likelihood that a guy who actually knows how to make a decent pie would still be stuck slinging dollar slices a year later?

As with any kind of budget cuisine, you take your life in your hands to a certain extent with this stuff. Caveats aside, this long, strange trip revealed that there is such a thing as a perfectly respectable dollar slice…and that there’s even a dollar pizza place that serves a slice superior to what’s available at hundreds, maybe thousands, of pricier competitors.

You just can’t buy that slice in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Pizza purists will tell you that dollar pizza is a travesty, the culinary equivalent of a Taylor Swift song. It’s a pathetic imitation of genuine art that’s threatening to displace the real thing in the public imagination. Populist interpretations of the phenomenon vary. Some see nefarious chains displacing neighborhood institutions. Others take a more contrarian view. that it’s about time somebody threw a wrench in the ineluctable upward creep in the price of a slice: once a buck, now around three and sometimes even more across the city.

And isn’t it also a good thing, a market correction, that the dollar places are calling bullshit on so many of their more expensive competitors? At least the dollar places are being honest about using the exact same business model, i.e. skimping on cheese, sauce, crust, even time in the oven, wherever possible.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, let’s establish a baseline. A classic New York slice has cheese and sauce all the way up to the lip of the crust. The sauce is appropriately spiced, not just a thin coating of plain pureed tomatoes. The cheese is melted thoroughly and evenly; likewise, the crust is pliable and thick enough to comfortably support the layers on top without buckling. There’s crunch on the bottom, but not so deep that the lower half of the crust becomes a cracker. If you’re paying full price for a slice and you’re not gettting all this, you’re being shortchanged. That’s where the dollar pizza places are cashing in. Given the choice between a single, substandard full-price slice and multiple dollar slices, neither are really satisfying – but which fills you up the most?

Since Napoli Pizza, just past the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand, closed in 2010, it’s been a challenge to find a New York slice that succeeds on such a high level with every element (Napoli’s was also one of the relatively few places in town where it was never necessary to specify “well cooked” when ordering a pie). A recent favorite of this blog is Vidali Pizza (no website, 718-606-2068), a bare-bones Long Island City spot on 21st St. off 31st Ave. that does a booming takeout business with the adjacent projects. They’re liberal with the cheese, the crust is perfectly proportional and the sauce is among the city’s best: it’s got a peppery bite that almost makes the idea of pizza garlic and pepper flakes obsolete (for the record, both were used, sometimes to ridiculous extreme, on practically all the dollar slices surveyed here). If you’re spending part of a weekend afternoon at Socrates Sculpture Park several blocks to the north, a pie from Vidali’s is the perfect picnic.

As far as pale facsimiles and unexpected discoveries go, let’s start at the soggy bottom and work up. The absolutely worst slice on this list was from the place at the southwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal. It was borderline inedible. It had everything wrong with it: undercooked, undercheesed, undersauced and lacking any hint of spices. Of all the depressing moments throughout this long journey, that was the one where it was most tempting to demand a refund.

The second-floor place about half a block to the north, also on the west side of the street sells the thinnest dollar slice in town. It’s basically a pizza-flavored Dorito, potato-chip crispy and just as filling. It will break and fall on the floor if you’re not careful: others have failed where you might, and the evidence is underfoot.

The Mexican takeout place at the corner of Hester and Allen is also taking a stab at making dollar pizza. Somehow they’ve found a way to burn the crust without sufficiently melting what little cheese is haphazardly sprinkled across the top. It took a lot of generic hot sauce from a plastic squeeze bottle (there was no pizza garlic at the counter) to give that one a little flavor. The slices at the tiny counter on Houston just west of Allen, on the south side of the street, aren’t any more flavorful, although they also aren’t as burnt.

One trend that became consistently clear over the past year and a half is that proximity to both the subway and music venues is inversely proportional to the quality of a dollar slice. Among the local dollar slice chains, the worst is Two Brothers. In terms of sheer awfulness, their location at 125th and Lexington Ave., right at the 6 train, is second only to the Bleecker Street place. It’s a junkie hangout, and the slices there are like prison food, spiceless and barely cooked.

There are several dollar pizza places on the Lower East Side. Below Houston, if you’re absolutely desperate, the best of a sorry bunch is on Stanton just east of Arlene’s: at least the crust is sufficiently cooked. The little counters on both Orchard and Ludlow north of Delancey suffer from lack of one or more basic components; the place on Essex off Rivington that used to sell slices for a dollar during the day now no longer offers that deal. If you want a real slice, the best in the neighborhood by a wide margin is Rosario’s, at Stanton and Orchard, 212-77-9813. Not only are their standard slices consistently excellent, but their nonna slices are also piquantly above average. Their Sicilian sausage slices get high marks, and their spinach rollinis are a sublime contrast in crispy exterior gluten and chewy, subtly tart, garlic-suffused core.

Let’s move on to marginal acceptability. Realistically, a dollar slice that isn’t a pure abomination can only be expected to rise to the level of a real slice by about 75%. A prime example is the place on Second St. just east of Ave. A. There isn’t much spice to the sauce, and that tends to be skimpy, along with the cheese. But it’s well cooked, and there’s as much crust as you’d get with any full-price slice. Of the many places in downtown Brooklyn, the only one that even potentially rates is on the north side of Livingston St. off Jay: avoid the junkie hangout right on the corner of Jay, along with the cheeseless crust-inis at the places on Jay just north of Fulton and around the corner on Lawrence.

In Williamsburg, the corner counter at Broadway and Marcy, past the stairs to the J/M train, offers a tolerable, bare-bones slice for those who might have spent the evening down the block at Duffs.

There’s really nothing to choose from on the west side of Manhattan south of midtown. The places on Broadway at White, and 23rd and 7th Ave. had the nerve to raise their prices for what was never better than borderline-acceptable dollar quality. The West Village is a wash – 99 Cent Fresh Pizza, just outside the subway entrance on 6th Ave.. is a stale joke. The place north of the Waverly, and the spot at 14th and 7th Ave. are just as forgettable. Ditto 18th and 6th Ave.

There are two in midtown which are surprisingly good. The best in all of Manhattan is Times Square Pizza, on 40th west of 7th Ave. on the south side of the street. The crust is on the thin side, but the sauce has genuine spice and there’s an actual layer of cheese beyond the sad patches found on a typical dollar slice. If you’re hungry and planning on catching one of the many free summer concerts at Bryant Park, it’s a quick, cheap fix. One thing to be aware of is that their oregano – yeah, real oregano – can be stalky and a pain to get caught in your teeth. The pizza place has another branch a block and a half to the east, on the north side of the street, which does a much brisker business cranking out one undercooked slice after another.

The other respectable Manhattan dollar slice can be found at the little counter on 6th Ave. just south of 28th. As at the (seemingly unrelated) 40th St. place, the flecks of oregano can also be stalky and an unexpected jab to the gums, although that seems the be the price you pay for flavor here. Otherwise, what’s available north of 34th St. ranges from cut-rate mediocrity (55th and Broadway, and 46th east of Lex, the very first of the places surveyed here) to absurdly lacking in all things (5th Ave. south of 39th). The best of all the midtown spots originally on this list, on 9th Ave. south of 53rd., has unfortunately moved east across the street and left both quality and flavor behind at the old location.

There are also a couple of places in the Bronx that sell dollar pizza. The spot  just south of the triangle at 149th and 3rd Ave is undistinguished. The best slice of all turned out to be from the pizzeria on the Grand Concourse going up the hill from 140th St. The crust was thin and crispy, just perfect for the proportion of cheese and sauce, fully layered from tip to lip. The sauce was distinctively spicy and on the sweet side – not as sweet as the sauce at longtime Williamsburg standby Bella Pizza on Bedford just past North 8th, but close. There are cashless places in Bushwick that would call this exact same slice a Tranchee Mignonne and sell it for $28.95…but you can grab one for a dollar the next time you’re in the South Bronx.

Having spent so much time and money – hey, dollar pizza adds up – on this project, the original game plan was to share notes on each of these locations. To spare you an interminable list of every kind of mediocrity imaginable, consider that if there’s a dollar pizza place in New York in 2020 that’s not in this review, it’s probably no good. Support your local, high-quality independently owned pizzeria instead – and please don’t pay using Seamless or other electronic middlemen. Seamless and Grubhub fees force restaurants to raise their prices, and that hurts everybody.

A Darkly Picturesque Double Album and a Carnegie Hall Debut by Cutting-Edge Bassist Sigurd Hole

Sigurd Hole gets more sound out of his instrument than virtually any other bassist alive. He’s made a name for himself as a purveyor of brooding, envelopingly minimalist themes, but he also uses the entirety of what his instrument can produce. He has a picturesque, vastly dynamic solo album, Lys/Morke, recorded outdoors on a desolate island off the coast of his native Norway. He’s making his Carnegie Hall debut at Weill Hall on Feb 3 at 8 PM, performing many of these pieces. Cover is $25; the record hasn’t hit his Bandcamp page yet.

The first disc begins with the epic Lys. Over sounds of wind and water, Hole employs his bow for harmonics from across the audible spectrum, steady, hypnotic microtonal arpeggios, shivery shards, steady, peacefully minimalist washes and cautious, low-register footfalls.

That template describes much of what Hole does throughout the rest of the record, with frequent, bracing close harmonies, percussive moments and a pensive sketch or two. There’s a breathtaking display of extended technique that would make Charles Mingus proud, where Hole plays what’s essentially a bagpipe dance using high harmonics.

A lively, hypnotically circling theme evokes West African mbira music. In one of the album’s lighter moments, a lumberjack meets considerable resistance in the forest, or so it would seem. The most amusing vignette sounds like a reel of tape winding. Behind Hole, there are moments where the waves or the wind seem to pick up, adding to the general sense of desolation.

That really comes to the forefront as the second record coalesces. Increasingly otherworldly, eerily reverberating, pulsing variations on a stygian drone lead to more discernible, suspenseful melody, beginning with an unexpectedly catchy, gloomy chromatic theme. Hole goes down to his tailpiece for keening, scraping, brushy textures. Hypnotic echoes give way to slowly shifting cloudbanks, low/high contrasts, and a dirge of sorts that morphs into what could be Philip Glass.

Increasingly agitated, sawing phrases grow calmer and more enveloping. The slowly crescendoing vastness of the disc’s title track leads to a spare, spacious conclusion. This isn’t just a showcase for Hole’s fellow bassists to admire: fans of metal, the dark side of psychedelia and jazz improvisation ought to check out these strange and unique creations.

Pianist Yoko Miwa Brings Her Purist Retro Sounds to Birdland

Artists who come from outside an idiom often have some catching up to do. In the process, some of them surpass others who grew up in that style. Yoko Miwa embodies a gritty, purist, 1960s take on jazz: the Japanese-born pianist’s music is a lot more about entertainment and tunes than insider snarkiness – or whatever it is that Snarky Puppy do. Her new trio album Keep Talkin’ is streaming at her music page. She’s playing Birdland on Jan 30 at 7 PM; you can get in for $20.

The album is a mix of originals and inventive covers, with a remarkable freshness and road-tested camaraderie: these expansive tracks really nail what she sounds like live. Miwa opens with the title cut, a vampy latin soul groove where she weaves in some uneasy Monkish harmonies toward the end. She’s a hard hitter, as she reaffirms in a dynamic, leaping take of In Walked Bud, focusing on Monk’s wary passing tones. Bassist Will Slater shifts between dancing melody and walking the changes hard as drummer Scott Goulding swings it toward New Orleans and then back.

Secret Rendezvous, a straightforward, syncopated clave tune is next, Goulding subtly pushing the beat with his tropical rimshots and a purposeful drum solo out. The Bill Evans-influenced, lyrical Sunset Lane manages to be ripplingly kinetic and bittersweet all at once. Miwa reinvents Charles Mingus’ Boogie Stop Shuffle as a stripped-down but no less turbulently bluesy showstopper.

She makes a diptych out of the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money, sticking close to the originals while adding an unexpectedly starry solo, picking up with a rather crushing attack on the second tune. The trio work a spring-loaded pulse in the understatedly brooding, modally-charged, intensely crescendoing Tone Portrait: it’s the album’s darkest track.

Miwa draws on singer Maria Rita’s waltzing version of the Brazilian ballad Casa Pre-Fabricada for a striking, emotionally direct sparkle. The pianist reinvents Joni Mitchell’s Conversation as a dynamically bristling, absolutely exhilarating gospel anthem that brings to mind Fairport Convention as much as, say, Mulgrew Miller. It’s one of the finest things Miwa has ever recorded: if only she could have given it a proper ending instead of a fade out!

If You’re Blue is a cleverly bluesy, straight-up swinging paraphrase of Puttin’ on the Ritz with bracing Monk references. Miwa closes the album with the epic, wistful ballad Sunshine Follows the Rain, guest bassist Brad Barrett adding moody washes and subtly sinuous melody, Miwa drifting into stern gospel territory once again.

Righteous Rage and Smoky Atmospherics with Algiers at Rough Trade

Algiers played a tantalizingly brief, barely half-hour set at Rough Trade on Wednesday night. This blog characterized their 2015 debut album as “revolutionary postrock soul.” These days, industrial gothic gospel is a better description. Their smoky, swirly yet rhythmically pummeling sound is more Sisters of Mercy, less Terminator soundtrack now.

Frontman/keyboardist Franklin James Fisher sings powerfully in the studio; he is amazing live, and even more dynamically diverse. On the band’s opening number, Void – the final cut on their just-released vinyl record, There Is No Year – he had a gleefully brittle Jello Biafra quaver in his voice. That song came across as a Dead Kennedys homage, right down to the ominous chromatics and drummer Matt Tong’s 2/4 hardcore thump. It seems to be the key to the record, with its relentless theme of escape.

Aside from a leaner sound, what was most obvious was how much of the music was in the mixer: guitar, bass, keys, backing vocals…other than Fisher’s electric piano, and his own mixer too, was anything actually being played live? Guitarist Lee Tesche put down his axe for a sax on the second number, but if that was miked at all, it got lost in the grim, grey-sky sonics. Although he did reach for his tremolo bar for Lynchian twang for the intro to a song a little later, and his icily minimalist, Robert Smith-style riffs afterward cut through the mix as well.

Fisher channeled angst-fueled Levi Stubbs passion throughout Unoccupied, a darkly techy update on classic, minor-key Motown: an allusive breakup narrative, it seemed to be the only number in the set that wasn’t political. “Run around, run away from you, America, while it burns in the streets,” Fisher belted as Dispossession, another new track, took shape over his own stark, insistent gospel piano chords. “Here they comes from the ashes of ashes, so immune to defeat,” he cautioned – but there was also defiance and hope in his imploring crescendos and flood metaphors. Which seems to be his ultimate message: with their bankster economy and surveillance, the enemy is always encroaching. But we’ve got the numbers.

Algiers will be back on April 9 at St. Vitus, a great spot for them.

Surreal Mechanical Sounds and a Week at the Stone From Avant Garde Adventurers Yarn/Wire

The artists that John Zorn books into weeklong stands at the Stone are typically bandleaders improvising with various supporting casts. So it’s unusual that a full ensemble like perennially adventurous indie classical piano-and-percussion quartet Yarn/Wire – Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on bangable objects, Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos – would spend a week there, which they’re doing starting this Jan 29 at 8:30 PM; cover each night is $20. The most enticing installment is on the 31st with thoughtful, atmospherically-inclined bassoonist/composer Katie Young.

Yarn/Wire’s latest recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is Alex Mincek‘s sometimes bracingly insistent, occasionally comedic eight-part suite Images of Duration (In Homage to Ellsworth Kelly). Louis Andriessen’s adventures in analog similations of mechanical sounds seem to be an inspiration, along with Kelly’s landscapes.

The introduction, Points on a Spiral 1 begins ambiently, then the piano introduces an elegantly minimalist low-midrange theme against a high pianissimo echo in the far distance. Turn down the volume on your device for the sudden, jarring drumhits of Girls in Black and White and its assaultive industrial sonics.

Inviting low drones with slowly rising harmonic overtones drift through the sonic picture in Oblique, eventually receding for spare, serious piano figures: a pensively minimalist and then acerbically ringing, subtly microtonal conversation develops. Diagonal is a surreal blend of foreboding Asian temple theme, Terry Riley-ish ripples and churning steam piston-like sonics, cuisinarted and playfully reassembled at the end.

Trippily staggered, incisively chiming microtonal phrases grow more oddly mechanical in Vermillion Becomes Cobalt as wavelike gong washes and a growing low drone loom closer. Oxblood Becomes Orchid has anvil-like accents paired with mutedly bassy marimba responses, first as if through a wall, then more discernibly echoey. Way, way back in the distance, there’s a signature Black Sabbath theme, but once again Mincek pushes back the clouds with even more ridiculous comic relief.

Points on a Spiral 2 is a more somber variation on the earlier theme; the suite concludes with the brief, droll Quartz and Feldspar, Casper the Friendly Ghost monkeying around in the concert hall. Indie classical music doesn’t get much more psychedelic than this.