New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: February, 2020

Imani Uzuri Brings Her Gospel-Inspired Gravitas and Historical Insight to Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, singer Imani Uzuri put on a mesmerizing show that was part joyous gospel revival and part hushed, rapt classical concert, with a little Showtime at the Apollo during the early part. Uzuri stands with Fanon in asserting that the damned of the earth keep things running, and someday will inherit it. She wasted no time in dedicating the performance to the marginalized, the oppressed and those trapped in the prison-industrial complex.

That set the tone for what she had in store: the way she expressed those ideas was much more poetic and succinct. Her most recent show here was a stark, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on old African-American spiritual themes. This show was much more lavish, Uzuri flanked by a trio of singers – Joshuah B. Campbell, Ann McCormack and Carami Hilaire in addition to Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Kaoru Watanabe on flute, and Dana Lyn and Trina Basu on strings. And yet, Uzuri’s themes were just as hypnotic, emphatically grounded in dark, wounded, ancient-sounding minor-key blues riffs.

She took special care to send a shout-out to Vera Hall, one of the songwriters she covered, since her song, Troubles So Hard, had been sampled from a rare Smithsonian recording by a corporate radio meme – and apparently had been left uncredited. That long, allusively tormented number finally took an unexpected turn into a final verse with a message of hope against hope even in the most troubled times. As she did in several other numbers, Uzuri gave the other singers onstage plenty of room to add soaring, achingly melismatic solos. She also tried engaging the audience, with mixed results. Much as there were some very inspired, gospelly-informed voices in the house, the general afterwork lethargy absolutely bedeviled her. But that’s to be expected; Uzuri is used to energizing late-night crowds.

Another musical pioneer Uzuri covered was Elizabeth Cotten, who in her sixties worked as a maid for Pete Seeger until he found out that she was a songwriter, and the rest is history. Since then, her signature three-finger guitar technique has become a popular device throughout the worlds of folk music and acoustic blues. Uzuri and the group delivered that particular number with somewhat more of an upbeat vibe than they did with Hall’s resolute, relentless epic.

Throughout the show, Uzuri’s powerful voice ranged from looming, defiantly resonant lows to a stratospheric falsetto that sent microtones bleeding from the atrium’s bare walls. Ikawa rose from minimalist atmospherics, to nonchalantly loungey phrasing, to a sudden, white-knuckle intensity with a series of achingly gorgeous gospel-infused, chromatic solos. Sewell’s stamina in running the same leaping acoustic blues phrase over and over during one of the later numbers was impressive, not to mention the erudite, intricate Chicago blues, and little later the plaintive, elegaic slide work he he played on Telecaster.

Watanabe gave the opening and closing numbers a charanga-like brightness, balanced by a broodingly slashing blues solo from Lyn along with Basu, whose glimmering, nocturnal solo early on literally sent shivers through the PA system. And with  Dunston holding close to the ground with his terse, propulsive, woody lines, who said a band has to have a drummer?

Uzuri closed with a world premiere commissioned by Chamber Music America, who spent their money well. In this pensively immersive suite, questioning where the human spirit has disappeared to, the group opened with a suspensefully circling string interlude and then went deeper in a gospel direction, winding down to a whisper. The ensemble brought the show full circle with a summery, vamping, latin-tinged psychedelic soul tableau.

The Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. has arguably the best and most eclectic mostly-weekly series of free concerts anywhere in New York. You can get your classical on this coming week when the Argus Quartet play there on March 5 at 7:30 PM. Then on March 12 there’s a shamanistic Korean dance-and-percussion performance.

A Chilling, Furious Musical Response to Trump-Era Fascism by Elsa Nilsson

Elsa Nilsson isn’t the only artist who was so pissed off by the 2016 Presidential election and the encroaching fascism afterward that she wrote a whole album about it. But that release, Hindsight – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is one of the most hauntingly illustrative of all the protest jazz records released over the past four years. The flutist participated in the first Women’s March on Washington: she draws the rhythms of each of the album’s tracks from chants of the protestors there, as well as from demonstrators across the country in the months and years afterward. Nilsson’s wary, often raging melodies and relentless gallows humor pack a mighty wallop, speaking truth to power run amok.

The opening track, Changed in Mid Air reflects on Trump’s infamous travel ban, Nilsson’s sudden, shocked downward cascade contrasting with Alex Minier’s grimly distorted, fat bass, guitarist Jeff McLaughlin’s icy chords and drummer Cody Rahn’s increasingly emphatic drive depicting the institutionalized terror faced by immigrants.

The diptych Worth the Risk/Maria references both a refugee’s leap of faith as well as Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. Nilsson shifts between eerie airiness and tortured phrasing through an envelope pedal, over a spacious, brooding backdrop. McLaughlin’s steely, clanging solo is one of the album’s high points; a frantic guitar/flute exchange follows as the hurricane hits.

The forlornly strolling Will Help Come vividly reflects Puerto Ricans’ diminishing hopes for aid from the Trumpies in the aftermath of the storm, with a crushingly allusive concluding solo from the bandleader. Enough Is Enough begins with an austere, chantlike, looped phrase and rises with an increasingly horrified crescendo, Nilsson’s flute fluttering and leaping all over the place over McLaughlin’s stately, lingering chords. It goes on for six minutes twenty seconds, the time it took for the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to complete his hateful mission.

The quartet open the album’s title track with a fiery, allusively Balkan-tinged intensity and careen anthemically from there, Rahn hitting a hardcore pulse at one point. What Can I Do, based on the rhythm of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” is the most enigmatic track on the album, a study in eleven-tone scales and an acknowledgment of how people of color are so often denied subjectivity (that’s an academic way of saying the only time you see black people on tv is when they’re dead or in handcuffs).

Trickle Down, a portrait of relentless struggle, has snarky opening cascades and snarling, skronky guitar over a loopy, funky groove. I Believe You – Nilsson’s reaction to Christine Blasey Ford’s shocking testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings – has an austere gravitas and vivid air of disbelief at the circus that ensued.

Fill The Courts, a reflection on the sinister effects of the past three decades’ drive to pack the courts with Republicans, brings back the relentlessness and ominous contrasts of the opening track. Nilsson closes this chilling cycle with We Show Up, a moodily lingering shout-out to the millions raising our voices and getting out in the streets: McLaughln’s Keith Levene-esque lines are among the most memorable ones here. Count this as one of the best albums of the past several months in any style of music. Nilsson and band play the album release show on April 10 at 9:30 PM at the Cutting Room; cover is $15.

Twin Peaks Chorales and a Mysterious Ritual From Mary Prescott at Roulette

A jubilant howl emanated from the dressing room last night at Roulette seconds before the nine members of Mary Prescott’s ensemble took the stage for her hauntingly immersive performance piece Loup Lunaire. It began rather coyly but quickly took a much darker turn. Part choral suite, part dance performance, the choreography was every bit as compelling yet as enigmatic as the music, to the point where it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot. Inspired by the wolf mother archetype – depicted here as responsible yet more or less alone – along with behavioral cycles in nature, the piece is a precursor to another work, Mother Me, which Prescott and Cara Search will perform on May 6 as part of a semi-monthly Roulette residency.

Luisa Muhr was the first to let loose a howl onstage, but it wasn’t long before the responding round of wolven voices from the rest of the group – Prescott herself stage left, joined by Search, Noa Fort, Ariadne Greif, Joy Havens, Nina Dante and the lone man in the cast, Chanan Ben Simon – had reached a peak and then scattered downward.

Prescott’s strikingly translucent, distamtly disquieting themes gave the singers plenty of room to join in increasingly intricate webs of counterpoint, and sometimes back from there. The compositions evoked styles as diverse as rapturous Hildegard hymns, wistful Appalachian folk, Caroline Shaw’s maze-like work with Roomful of Teeth, Angelo Badelamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtracks, and Indian canatic music. What was consistent was a pervasive unease, amplified by how surealistically one segment would overlap into another.

Meanwhile, onstage behind the dancers, guitarist David Torn added extra levels of angst, or menace, or outright dread, with airy washes of sound as well as several long, majestically mournful Pink Floyd interludes. Nobody does David Gilmour in lingering cumulo-nimbus mode better than this guy.

The series of narratives among the dancers were similarly somber, much of the action in elegant slo-mo. Their buoyantly simple, flowing costumes were sometimes augmented by a little onstage dressup – Prescott’s expression as she was tidied and prepared for the next stage was priceless, and too good to give away. Purification, or at least forgiveness for some unnamed (or unnamable) sin seems to be part of the picture – no spoilers. It’s impossible to find fault with this piece. The dancers are all strong singers, individual role-playing was sharp, choreography briskly executed, lighting a thoughtful enhancement, and the guitar was as vivid as the vocals. Roulette hit a bullseye in commissioning this.

A Picturesque, Symphonic Instrumental Suite From Marty Willson-Piper’s Atlantaeum Flood

Marty Willson-Piper is best known as this era’s preeminent twelve-string guitar player, and also as a witheringly brilliant songwriter. He’s also a composer. His latest album, One Day, credited to his Atlantaeum Flood project is streaming at Spotify. It’s his first all-instrumental suite, a day in the life of the planet from before sunrise to the wee hours of the next day. Willson-Piper’s bandmates here are Dare Mason and Steve Knott on guitars, Olivia Willson-Piper on violin and Lynne Knott on cello, rising together to an often titanic grandeur.

From a simple, fingerpicked four-chord acoustic guitar theme, Willson-Piper slowly builds a gentle predawn scenario into a blazing sunrise, adding layer after layer of guitar. It brings to mind a previous, epically brilliant Willson-Piper production, the lusciously jangly My Little Problem, from the 1994 Sometime Anywhere Album by his long-running, previous band the Church.

Mid-morning takes shape with another four-chord theme, ascending to an eagerly pulsing peak before the group bring it full circle, verdant and concise at the end. Then Willson-Piper completely flips the script with the pre-noon theme, his resonant David Gilmouresque electric leads and his wife’s airily soaring violin over an industrial percussion loop and an artfully rising and falling backdrop.

This particular afternoon is a simmering one, an elegant acoustic twelve-string theme anchoring rather wry backward masked and then wah-wah leads that finally give way to a lush violin break. The ensemble follow the fiery, flamenco-tinged sunset scenario with delicate dusk ambience balanced by spiky mandolin and horn-like electric guitar swells.

Before midnight is where Willson-Piper most closely evokes the Church’s densely echoey spacerock. This day doesn’t go out quietly til the very end, although the closing theme has a wistful, distantly elegaic quality,

New Wave-Era Legends Wire Play Their Most Intimate NYC Shows in Decades

On one hand, it’s a shock that new wave-era legends Wire are still together and making excellent albums. Considering how vast their influence has been, from the dreampop bands of the late 80s through indie rock, it’s also a shock to see that their next New York shows are at the smallest venue they’ve played here in decades. Their March 11-12, 8 PM two-night stand is not at, say, Bowery Ballroom, but the Music Hall of Williamsburg, for $30 general admission.

The biggest shock of all is that the shows aren’t sold out yet, although they probably will be soon. Since the club is no longer part of the Bowery Ballroom chain, you can try your luck with getting tickets at the box office, which is open on show nights. This being midweek, it’s also a good bet that the L train will still be running by the time the band are done; if not, the G at Lorimer isn’t so faraway. You could even walk down Bedford to the south side and catch the J or M at Marcy.

Wire have yet another album, Mind Hive – streaming at Spotify – to add to their immense back catalog. The production is on the big-room side, as it has been since the group reformed back in the mid-80s, guitars dense and icy with reverb as usual. It’s amazing how the band work their signature tropes – sometimes an insistent, downstroke guitar pulse, other times those deliciously creepy, Syd Barrett-ish minor-to-major changes – without repeating themselves. And for a band who made a name for themselves as Modernists, they’re pure Romantics at heart. They’re not the least bit optimistic about the future: this is their most dystopic album yet, often drifting into psychedelia.

The sarcastic opening track, Be Like Them blends that downstroke beat and those ominous changes, setting the tone for the rest of the record. Track two, Cactused is classic Wire: sardonically wide-eyed spoken-word lyrics on the perils of the datamining age, that steady pulse, a big crunchy chorus and spacious, reggae-tinged bass from Graham Lewis. Primed and Ready is only slightly less sardonic: it could be a three-quarterspeed, backbeat-driven version of a standout track from the band’s iconic 1977 debut, Pink Flag.

Off the Beach has a watery theme that looks back to the Cure’s first album, when those guys were a scruffy janglerock band. Unrepentant is an unexpectedly successful detour into trancey, Indian-tinged psychedelia, in a Black Angels vein. From there the band segue into Shadows, the album’s grimmest, most Orwellian scenario and best song,

Awash in creepy keyboards, the ominously galloping Oklahoma continues the macabre, futuristic narrative. The album’s big epic, Hung has a smoky, grey haze over a slow, pounding sway; “In a moment of doubt the damage was done” is the mantra. The group close the record with the elegaic, atmospheric Humming. Who would have thought that a band who debuted almost forty-five years ago would still be going so strong.

Singer Imani Uzuri Reprises a Haunting Evening and More at Lincoln Center

“You all are in for a treat,” impresario Meera Dugal told the Lincoln Center crowd, introducing singer Imani Uzuri’s most recent show there. “Please keep your minds open, free, relaxed – this is a ritual space that we are creating”

Backed only by drummer/vocalist Kassa Overall that night in the winter of 2018, Uzuri sang her uninterrupted, otherworldly, often absolutely chilling “improvisational ritual concept” triptych Wild Cotton, meant to explore “the undocumented soundscape of our enslaved black American ancestors who still haunt us today,” as she put it. Dugal has moved on since then, but Uzuri is bringing a set drawing on many of her latest projects, ranging from soul music to the far fringes of the avant garde, to the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on Feb 27 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the space tends to fill up quickly, so the earlier you get there, the better.

Throughout that winter night, Uzuri moved around the space, maximizing its natural reverb and rather trebly sonics. She began just by breathing, then vocalizing, wordlessly and mournfully, rising from looming lows to anguished highs. Sometimes she evoked a trumpet, other times even a piccolo – along with innumerable forms of human distress. Overall’s spare, spacious accents were as ghostly as the music, maybe more.

As she shifted between themes, Uzuri interspersed slow, spacious snippets of old spirituals, most of them in minor keys: Steal Away Home; Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name; Soon I Will Be Done with the Troubles in the World; Wade in the Water; Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Allusions to escape, lost and murdered children, and a break that began seemingly as madness, gave way to an unexpected triumph. You may see something like this if you show up for Uzuri’s show on the 27th.

Melody Fader Channels the Deepest Side of Chopin and More in Manhattan and Brooklyn

Pianist Melody Fader’s favorite composer is Chopin. And it shows. The audience at her intimate, solo Soho Silk Series show last month gave her a standing ovation that went on and on, after she’d ended the program with a characteristically intuitive take of the composer’s famous Fantasie-Impromptu op. 66. Maybe that’s because she didn’t play it as if it was the Minute Waltz, as certain hotshot players tend to do.

Instead, revealingly, she took her time, letting the gritty Romany chromatics of those daunting cascades gleam, rather than just leaving momentary flickers behind in a race to the finish line. That was just one of the concert’s innumerable gorgeous details. On one hand, that’s to be expected on a program of music by a classical icon or two; still, Fader seems especially dedicated to finding those delicious bits and spotlighting them. She’s a pioneer of the house concert circuit (not to be confused with the evil and intrusive Groupmuse); her next Soho loft show is Feb 25 in a duo set with Momenta Quartet violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron playing  music of Ravel, Brahms and Schumann. You can rsvp for location and deets; for the Brooklyn posse, they’re repeating the program (from their forthcoming album) the following night, Feb 26 at 7 PM at Spectrum for a modest $15 cover.

The rest of the January bill was just as much of a revelation. It’s impossible to remember anyone playing more emotionally attuned versions of the E Minor and B Minor preludes. They’re standard repertoire, they don’t require virtuoso technique, but what a difference Fader’s subtle rubato and resoluteness in the face of sheer devastation meant to the former. Same with her crisp but muted arpeggios, bringing out all the longing in the latter. The dynamics in the rest of the first eight of Chopin’s preludes were just as vivid, from the warm cantabile she brought to the C major prelude, to the catacomb phantasmagoria of the one in A minor and a welcome suspense in A major later on.

From there, there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of depth, and gravitas, but also in many places unselfconscious joy. Fader averred that as a kid, she didn’t like Bach: she found his music mechanical. These days, she’s done a 180, validating that with a dazzling, harpsichord-like precision but also fierce ornamentation throughout a rousing take of his French Suite in E, no. 6.

Kaija Saariaho is also a big Bach fan, so following with her Ballade was a great segue, even if the rhythms tended toward the tango Fader had found lurking inside the early part. The stygian boogie and jaunty cascades afterward were just as intense.

The wary, muted melancholy as she launched into the Chopin Ballade no. 2 in F major was a feature that sometimes gets lost in more ostentatious hands. By contrast, she pulled out an almost grand guignol attack for the Andante Spianato op. 22, yet pulled back with a guardedly hopeful understatement afterward. Amd the glittery tumbles of the Etude op. 25 no. 1 got the same kind of articulacy she’d given the Bach. By the time this was all over, pretty much everybody was out of breath.

New York’s Most Ubiquitous Cello Rockers Play a Favorite Williamsburg Haunt

The Icebergs are New York’s hardest-working cello rock band. They’re at Pete’s Candy Store just about every month – where they’ll be on Feb 25 at 8:30 – and they play a lot of random places in Bushwick as well. There’s no other band around who sound like them. Cellist Tom Abbs plays with his axe slung over his shoulder like a guitar. Mixing catchy basslines, slithery single-note riffs and boomy low-register chords, he’s sort of the Lemmy of the cello – on steroids.

Frontwoman Jane LeCroy comes out of the punk poetry scene and has been published all over the place, so her lyrics have a sharp focus that’s sometimes playful, sometimes witheringly cynical, with a fierce political undercurrent. Most of the time she sings, sometimes she speaks: either way, the drama is usually understated.

In hindsight, drummer Dave Treut was the obvious choice to fill the big shoes left behind when David Rogers-Berry left the band, and the switch turned out to be a fair trade. Treut is more chill in this band than in other projects including his own, but he still brings the psychedelic textures and ghostly flickers.

This blog was in the house for the better part of two shows at the trio’s usual Williamsburg haunt, in the spring of last year, and about a year before then as well. What was most obvious was how much more material the band have beyond what’s available on their catchy, clever 2017 debut album, Eldorado. It’s a cynical title. In case you’re wondering, there are no ELO covers on it (it’s impossible to imagine that a cello rock band would be unaware of the magnum opus by the group who paved the way). Assuming the Pete’s show starts on time, there’s still a window to get home on the L train before the nightly L-pocalypse begins.

Haunting, Surreal Korean Shamanistic Magic with SaaWee at Flushing Town Hall

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, violinist Sita Chay stood inches from the crowd, firing off smoldering variations on a witchy, Middle Eastern-tinged phrase. To her left, percussionist Jihye Kim sat on the floor, grounding Chay’s increasingly feral attack with a terse, subtly syncopated pulse on her doublebarreled Korean janggu drum. Dressed in matching rainforest-print jumpsuits, their faces made up with identical aqua lipstick and eyeliner, the two were an elegantly surreal, otherworldly presence throughout a night of often haunting, shamanistic music and movement.

The duo call themselves SaaWee; this program, New Ritual, blends ancient Korean spirit-summoning with improvisation and an elegaic dance component. The two performers entered from separate sides of the stage and ended with a slow, hypnotic march back to the wings, together. In between, they built an atmosphere bristling with suspense but also tinged with persistent plaintiveness. Acknowledging the wounds of history and then healing them seems to be a big part of the work’s largely unspoken narrative.

The music was a ride on a haunted roller coaster. Chay didn’t play as much readily discernible Korean melody as she alluded to it, whether via the blues, or several increasingly slashing intervals where her jagged shards and short, sharp, biting phrases brought to mind legendary violin improviser Billy Bang. Kim saved her fireworks for a couple of brief, thundering cadenzas, working both boomy ends of the janggu as well as a set of contrastingly delicate, small metal gongs and a single cymbal. Otherwise, she drifted between a forlorn, funereal pulse, spacious resonance from the gongs and thoughtful outward trajectories from both.

There were several raptly brooding processionals, a couple where the two slowly made a circle at the front of the theatre. Chay worked her way from airy acerbity to more insistent intensity as an interlude illustrating current-day societal troubles unfolded. Kim put on a veil, then put one on Chay; they didn’t take them off until it was time to wrap them in a bright red burial shroud (which Chay had picked up and trailed eerily behind herself at one point). The music came full circle at the end, offering hope even as the simple stage props (the masks and a couple of plants that Kim had somberly fixed her stare on) were taken away, Chay trailing Kim with a hypnotic mist that faded slowly to total silence.

Flushing Town Hall isn’t just one of the few big stages in New York where you can see Korean avant garde music; they also have an ongoing series of dance parties they call “global mashups.” The premise is to book two bands from completely different traditions, often with absolutely nothing in common other than energy. At the end of the show, everybody jams together. The concept seems ludicrous but it works shockingly well, and these concerts routinely sell out. The next one is Feb 29 at 8 PM with pyrotechnic klezmer clarinetist and composer Michael Winograd‘s wild, cinematic band along with percussive Afro-Venezuelan trance-dance group Betsayda Machado y El Parranda El Clavo. It’s not clear who’s playing first, but it really doesn’t matter. Tix are $18, $12 for students and if you’re 19 and under, you get in for free with your NYC school ID.

Be aware that this one is strictly for the local Flushing crowd since there is no 7 train running this weekend.

The Ocean Blue Prove That There’s Life After Goth

“Suddenly, I feel that the world could end in a flash,” frontman David Schelzel muses early on in the opening track on the Ocean Blue‘s latest album Kings and Queens, Knaves and Thieves, streaming at Bandcamp. It could be the Smiths without the camp – hard to imagine, but just try. The point of the song echoes an old Roger Waters theme, that if we blow up the world, everybody’s equal in the end. If anything, the new record is more eclectic, more energetic and possibly even better than these veterans’ more overtly gothic, vintage 4AD-style back catalog. The Ocean Blue had an avid cult fanbase back at their late 80s/90s peak, who will no doubt come out in full force for their show at the Bell House on Feb 28 at 8:30 PM; general admission is $20.

The album’s bouncy second track, It Takes So Long could be Happy Mondays without the ditziness – how’s that for being iconoclastic with your contemporaries’ signature sounds? Love Doesn’t Make It Easy on Us has the band’s usual, watery, Cure-style guitars and contrasting synth textures, and just as much of a bounce.

Icy synths and tinkly guitar sonics echo over a steady new wave beat in All the Way Blue. Bobby Mittan’s rubberband bassline anchors Paraguay My Love, a bizarre mashup of 80s British goth and American bluegrass. F Major 7 – hey, back when this band was big, you had to actually know how to play your instrument – is a nifty, characteristically vamping little acoustic/electric instrumental, followed by the pouncingly catchy kiss-off anthem The Limit, with Scott Stouffer’s coy ska drums.

The resolutely swaying midtempo ballad Therein Lies the Problem (with My Life) could be Morrissey…or American powerpop legends Skooshny in a low-key moment. The steady, brooding nocturnal tableau 9 PM Direction is the album’s most vivid and strongest track, bringing to mind an even more legendary band, the Room.

Step into the Night blends the catchiness of the Cure at their most new-wavey and the Smiths at their most optimistic. The album ends with Frozen, a throwback to the group’s 4AD heyday. Some people will hear this and say here we go again, the damn 80s, can’t we just say goodbye for good to that awful decade, its pervasive Reagan/Thatcher fascism, cliched subcultures, beyond-ridiculous haircuts and lame synthesizers? On the other hand, for the Ocean Blue, old goths don’t die: they just find something to live for.