New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: March, 2020

Psychedelic Rock Icon With Inspired Band Picks Up Gloriously Where He Left Off

What can a person do at night in a place that suddenly became the City That Always Sleeps?

You could pick up your instrument, or sit down at it, and write something.

If you gravitate toward big, ornate sounds, you could tune in to the New York Philharmonic’s live webcast.

Or you could watch James Tonkin‘s new concert film Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets: Live at the Roadhouse. It hasn’t hit VOD yet, but the audio is streaming at Spotify. This isn’t just your ordinary Pink Floyd cover band: “There’s so many thousands, all playing the same four albums,” guitarist Gary Kemp smirks. “The first thing that will be really telling will be to see how they change their setlists as a result of us doing this!”

What differentiates these guys from the wannabes is that they play exclusively pre-Dark Side material from the Syd Barrett and early David Gilmour eras. They also managed to convince Floyd’s iconic drummer to join them. After a few well-received shows, they had this frequently glorious concert immortalized, at a venue where the Barrett edition of the band were the first group to play.

To open the show, Telecaster player Kemp picks hard on his low E string, second Tele player Lee Harris launches into the evil, chromatic descending riff of the instrumental Interstellar Overdrive, then bassist Guy Pratt – playing a snappy Rickenbacker – joins the song along with organist Dom Beken and the bandleader…and they’re off. In general, throughout the concert, the music has a tighter, somewhat lighter-fingered pulse than the reckless abandon of the Syd Barrett era. The songs also tend to be more ornate, but in a lot of ways the additional layers raise the psychedelic factor. Who wants to hear a band play something exactly as it was recorded, anyway?

Jim Parsons’ classic rock-doc production is purist: lots of fretboard close-ups, panning the stage and then back. The sound mix is tastefully oldschool as well. To his infinite credit, the bandleader is toward the back, just as he was throughout Pink Floyd’s tenure: he’s always been a guy to let the sound out of his kit instead of trying to bang something into it. And what a big kit it is. One of his bandmates remarks that even in his seventies, Mason’s vigor is “terrifying.” Maybe his subtlety has something to do with that.

Tellingly, it takes two guitarists to replicate what both Barrett and Gilmour did, with plenty of noise and echo, closer to the former’s style than the latter’s anguished, Hendrix-inspired existential screams. Likewise, Beken has a Rick Wright-sized array of textures at his disposal, orchestrating the music with more of an overtly trippy ripple and twinkle than just the vast deep-space textures the late, great Pink Floyd keyboardist constructed so expertly.

The group segue into Astronomy Domine after the night’s opening jagged surrealism: this song is a little more bluesy than the original, but practically just as crazed in places, the bass obviously higher than that instrument typically was recorded in 1967 when Roger Waters played it. Lucifer Sam and Arnold Layne seem a little fast. and rotely digital; yet that same approach improves Fearless, underscoring that otherwise gentle pastoral pop tune’s druggy narrative.

The woozy instrumentals Obscured by Clouds and When You’re In seem odd choices, little more than a platform for Kemp’s simple slide work. As does Vegetable Man, considering what happened to Barrett. In that context, the “why can’t we reach the sun” refrain in Remember a Day has special poignancy, a cautionary tale to the extreme.

While Kemp stays on key more than Waters did singing If, the gloomily sunbaked madness anthem, Waters’ acid-damaged vocals are stil missed. As are the horns and orchestra of Atom Heart Mother – at least we get about seven minutes of the majestic main theme, emphasis on the macabre.

The proto-metal of The Nile Song holds up well (and foreshadows a famous Johnny Rotten lyric). The alien-encounter anthem Let There Be More Light has an almost gleefully grim intensity; likewise, the bulked-up version of the rarely played Gilmour narrative Childhood’s End is more richly dark.

The show’s centerpiece, the menacingly raga-influenced Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun, has a literally breathtaking vastness, Mason having a wryly good time with his huge gongs and then his mallets on the toms. The band pick up the pace with the hauntingly bittersweet See Emily Play, romp through Barrett’s mid 60s Carnaby Street pop tune Bike, then hammer their way through One of These Days, Waters’ strobe-lit repeaterbox instrumental from the Meddle album.

Fueled by Beken’s funereal chromatics and enveloping, smoky echoes, the band go way down the rabbit hole with A Saucerful of Secrets and end the show triumphantly with Point Me At the Sky. The film also contains a few snippets of live footage from the Barrett years plus a bit of context from individual band members. Who would have thought that in 2020, anyone would attempt, let alone succeed in revisiting these classic sounds?

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

Transcending a Grim Era in New York with Pedro Giraudo’s Tango Quartet at Barbes

Saturday night at Barbes, Pedro Giraudo thanked a small but raptly attentive audience for their bravery in coming out for his show there with his brilliant tango quartet. Pretty much everybody sitting at the bar drifted into the music room when the band started; not a single person in the crowd showed any sign of ill health.

Inevitably, everyone who writes nuevo tango gets compared to Astor Piazzolla, but Giraudo is the rare composer who’s earned that distinction. Over the past few years, his monthly Saturday night Barbes residency has grown to the point that this was an unlikely opportunity to actually be able to get in to see him at the moment the show began.

As intricately intertwining as his songs are, he’s a very terse bass player who’s more interested in melody and texture than flash, fingerpicking as well as bowing a handful of the more darkly luxuriant numbers. Violinist Nick Danielson swooped and dove, plucking out sparks of pizzicato along with stiletto minor-key riffs and contrastingly silky atmosphere in the quieter tunes. Bandoneonist Rodolfo Zanetti exchanged similarly dynamic, sometimes slashing, sometimes gently resonant washes of sound alongside Ahmed Alom, the group’s spectacular pianist, whose rapidfire cascades and nimbly crushing chordal attack were understatedly spectacular to watch. Players who have that kind of raw power and precision to match are hard to find.

There was a lot of Piazzolla in the set, from the vivid, relentlessly leaping shark-fishing scenario Escualo, to a rapturous, moodily drifting take of Milonga Del Angel, to a considerably more biting, kinetic tune. But it was Giraudo’s originals that everybody had come out for. The high point of the night was Impetuoso,a relentlessly suspenseful, turbulently crescendoing depiction that Alom finally brought to a searing, icepicked, percussive peak.

Cicada, complete with wry insectile calls from bandoneon and violin, was a lot more carefree and playful. Alom’s pointillisms glittered most brightly in a newer, more serpentine minor-key tune; a bit later, Giraudo reminded how waltzes are a big part of the tango tradition, with both a strikingly spare, almost minimally elegant one of his own, along with a brief detour back to the early days of tango in Argentina. From there they picked up the pace to close the show with a couple of characteristically rising and falling originals.

Grim conjecture prevailed afterward at the bar. Giraudo spoke of hopefully resuming his residency next month. What’s the situation with the bar now? “Chaos,” as one insider somberly put it. Barbes has been booked so smartly over the years that nights which are slow at other venues are moneymakers here. The official response to the coronavirus scare forced the club to go dark, at least for the foreseeable future. How long can any other venue in town survive? How are all the people who work in any kind of service industry – living from paycheck to paycheck, piecing together shifts, dogwalking gigs and such – going to be able to make rent next month, let alone now? In hushed, serious tones, old friends weighed the odds of every possible dire scenario.

Barbes successfully got through a hard patch when hit with unanticipated building-related costs in 2017: more than eight hundred people contributed to their fundraiser and a benefit concert at Drom in June of that year. Saturday night, several customers enthusiastically considered another one. Others simply wondered how long they could stay here. “I think I’ve got about another month left in New York,” a famous immigrant novelist mused. Another patron contemplated making a new start, away from this climate of fear, with relatives who have a house further north. That we should all be so lucky.

A Small Gathering for Haunting Turkish Music at Barbes

Last Thursday night at Barbes, the bar was pretty deserted. There were two people in the audience for Dolunay‘s practically ninety-minute set of haunting, slinky Turkish songs. One of the two used to book music at a now-defunct Williamsburg venue. The other was darkly distinctive photographer Galina Kurlat, who started working at that same venue when she was still in college, having her first gallery shows, and refining the broodingly rustic tintype technique that would eventually earn her acclaim.

Kurlat’s significant other is Adam Good, who plays oud in Dolunay, as well as with many other electrifying New York Balkan and Middle Eastern acts. Dolunay’s set began slowly and elegantly, frontwoman Jenny Luna holding down a steady, boomy clip-clop beat on her dumbek goblet drum as Good and violinist Eylem Basaldi ornamented the songs’ plaintive, minor modes with bracing, often ominous microtonal accents. Sometimes they’d exchange riffs; other times, on the simpler, more Macedonian or Greek-tinged songs, they’d play twin leads while Luna’s voice soared from suspenseful lows to a poignant, similarly melismatic intensity.

Luna typically likes to play sets of three songs; this time, tunes appeared in pairs. Good switched to the tinny, jangly tambura lute for one Bulgarian-flavored number where Luna and Basaldi harmonized eerily – who knew that Basaldi had such a fantastic, similarly poignant voice?

When the show hit a more suspenseful lull, Luna switched to the more muted frame drum, then the group brought the relentless, haunting intensity back. When not singing in Turkish, the trio joked grimly about the future, to the point of speculating that this could be their last gig – or last Barbes gig, anyway. At this point in time, we can still be optimistic and expect them to be back at this recently shuttered treasure of a venue, at their next scheduled gig there this coming summer. At the moment, there’s beeen some scuttlebutt about temporarily repurposing the club as a rehearsal space.

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

Rapturous, Innovative String Music All Over Midtown

When she first formed the Momenta Quartet, violist Stephanie Griffin probably had no idea of how many hundreds of premieres the group would play, a list that continues to blossom. That same fascination with brilliant obscurities and new ideas has informed her work outside the classical world, as one of the few conservatory-trained players who’s just as comfortable and acerbic in jazz improvisation (some would call that “creative music,” but all good music is creative). Her next scheduled New York gig was scheduled for March 20 on a killer triplebill that starts at 7:30 PM at Metro Baptist Church at 410 W 40th St. past 9th Ave.) but is now cancelled. Jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco, who lately has been exploring klezmer infuences, was slated to open the night with her trio, followed by flutist Cheryl Pyle‘s Musique Libre trio, and then Griffin with a chamber jazz quartet, along with pianist Gordon Beeferman playing the world premiere of her first-ever work for solo piano.

One of Griffin’s most interesting recent New York performances was last month, as a member of the Argento Ensemble, on a characteristically diverse, edgy program featuring works by Schoenberg and Erin Gee. It was more than a little embarrassing to get to the show almost an hour late, but the friendly folks at the Austrian Cultural Forum had saved a seat, even though the show was sold out: thanks, guys! And fortuitously, there was still time to catch the group playing a deliciously dynamic, sometimes velvety, occasionally chilling version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht as well as the world premiere of Gee’s Mouthpiece 29b.

Throughout the former, the sense of the composer aching to break free of late 19th century conventions was visceral. Contrasts between starkness and lushness, Debussyesque bittersweetness and the strange new world that Schoenberg would open the floodgates for were consistently striking. The sting of Mari Lee’s violin was a standout, from the work’s almost frantically volleying crescendos, to the somber lullaby at the end. The rest of the group, which along with Griffin also included violinist Doori Na, violist Jocelin Pan, cellists Michael Katz and Serafim Smigelsky and bassist Tristen Kasten-Krause, dug in just as deeply.

Gee explained to the crowd that she’d written her playful, dauntingly innovative piece in the International Phonetic Alphabet rather than in any extant language. Just witnessing her command of flittingly crisp, almost backward-masked syllables as the ensemble echoed her with sepulchral wisps and glissandos was breathtaking. It’s a very entertaining piece of music, just as challenging for the strings as for Gee, involving both singing and occasional whistling from what seemed to be most of the group. Gee’s surreal, individualistic sound world is like no other on this planet because there isn’t one, other than maybe Meredith Monk’s, as a point of comparison.

Argento’s next scheduled performance is April 18 at the Tenri Institute, with works by Bethany Younge, Yotam Haber and Alma Mahler; cover is $tba.

Twin Peaks Pop and a Bushwick Gig From Nicole Mercedes

Riding home from Barbes the other night, there was a girl on the train who’d gone to extremes to tell the world that she was the saddest person alive. She was about fifteen: ragged blonde bangs, raccoon eyeliner carefully streaked down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes drifted in and out of focus: she was definitely on something, probably Oxycontin. She wore badly distressed turquoise jeans over matching polkadot tights, plus an altered turquoise sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Boys don’t cry.” To which she or her seamstress had stiched in the word “BROKEN,” running vertically down from the letter “B.”

She was with a thin-faced boy sporting a sloppy, day-glo yellow hair dyejob. He was on coke, couldn’t stop wiping his nose or running his mouth. Hell-bent on trying to get her to change her gloomy ways, he pitched group therapy, he pitched drugs. She tried pushing him away – as vigorously as a petite woman who’s zonked on Oxy can push away an obsessive cokehead, at least. It was hard to resist the temptation to go across the aisle, give her a pat on the arm and encourage her to go home and listen to Joy Division. That would have made her feel better.

In reality, she probably didn’t have Joy Division on her headset at that moment: Nicole Mercedes might have been a better guess. The former Debbie Downer frontwoman sings Twin Peaks pop: disembodied, distantly melancholy vocals over a coldly twinkling, techy, atmospheric backdrop where the guitars tend to blend into the keys. She’s a lot more energetic than Julee Cruise, infinitely more interesting than Lana Del Rey. She’s got a new solo album, Look Out Where You’re Going, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She had a gig on March 19 at 8 PM at the Sultan Room; which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

The opening track, At Ease, sets the stage: catchy four-chord changes, distinct guitars and then a starry synth riff at the end. The song title seems to be sarcastic to the extreme. The second cut, Filters comes across as a mashup of Casket Girls, Michael Gordon and late-period ELO, an unexpectedly tasty blend.

Just when Last Hike seems to be a wistful vacation reminiscence, there’s a grim plot twist: no spoilers! Nicole Mercedes is a dead ringer for early Linda Draper in Mediterranean, the next track, right down to the watery acoustic guitar. Motel has a slowly waltzing resignation that shifts in a more anthemic direction.

Haphazardly minimal, echoey guitar rings through the string synth ambience of Stoop. Thumbalina is album’s most icily orchestral, anthemic number. The closing cut, Watering is a steady, drifting spacerock gem. Beyond a general sadness and sense of abandonment, it’s never clear what Nicole Mercedes is singing about. But this is all about ambience, and she really nails it.

A Killer Heavy Psych Quadruplebill on the Lower East on the 18th

EDITOR’S NOTE – THIS SHOW IS NOW CANCELLED

The doomy heavy psychedelic quadruplebill at Arlene’s on March 18 starting at 8 PM might be the best lineup to ever play that venue – and that includes the club’s glory days in the late 90s as the place where bands built a following, then moved up to the Mercury and the Knitting Factory. Sleeping Village, Grass, Grandpa Jack and finally Shadow Witch all work the same creepy, bludgeoning, gloomy turf, with more or less psychedelic results: it’s a lot of music, but it’s all worth hearing. Cover is ten bucks.

The smartest one of these acts, businesswise anyway, is Grass, the 9 PM band. Their debut album Fresh Grass is up at Bandcamp as a free download. Those downloads don’t last, so if you like heavy music, snag it now. This Brooklyn trio are closer to heavy blues than straight-up doom metal; they like hooks and don’t waste notes.

The album’s opening two-parter, Amnesia/My Wall starts out as a ponderous, loopy heavy blues tune, then the band pick it up with more of a stoner boogie feel. About three and a half minutes in, we get a jugular-slicing pickslide, then a fragmentary guitar solo. The guitarist (uncredited on the Bandcamp page) throws in some paint-peeling wah-wah a little later on.

The second track, Black Clouds is a variation on the opening theme: flangy bass intro, catchy hard-hitting riffage, refreshingly unpretentious vocals and totally 80s goth lyrics. After that, Fire comes across as Sabbath in midtempo heavy blues mode – especially with that classic quote toward the end.

The heavy funereal drums come up in the mix in Runaway; finally we get a tantalizingly screechy wah guitar solo before the band bring it way down to the bass and drums. The last track, Easy Rider could be a Syd Barrett proto-metal tune, at least in the beginning before the bass starts bubbling like a tarpit and another hazy, hallucinatory wah guitar solo appears. There are probably a million bands out there who sounds like this – and that’s a good thing. What a great time to be alive.

Charming, Deceptively Sophisticated New York Songs From Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna

To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.

Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up.  Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.

Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.

They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.

Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.

The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.

A Familiar NYC Jazz Presence Keeps Cranking Out Catchy Albums

Since the mid-zeros, tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser has methodically if not exactly quietly built an increasingly vast body of catchy, hard-swinging jukebox jazz. Brisk tempos and hooks that a talented group can take out on plenty of tangents are his thing: most of the tunes in his ever-expanding book are done in less than five minutes. Lately he’s been playing a mostly-Friday night residency at the Django, where he’ll be tomorow night, March 13 at 7 PM; it’s $15 at the bar.

For those interested in checking out the show, there are many albums to choose from. The most recent one that made it to the hard drive here (there have been others released since – Fowser works fast) is Don’t Look Down, a 2018 release and one of his best, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. It kicks off with Maker’s Marc, a fast, tiptoeing swing tune that may be a shout-out to producer and Posi-Tone honcho Marc Free, working a familiar golden-age trope. The bandleader and  trumpeter Josh Bruneau hit the big riff head-on but then don’t really revisit it until the second verse, pianist Rick Germanson working increasingly gorgeous chordal clusters and a marionettish solo alongside bassist Paul Gill and drummer Joe Strasser.

Coming Up Shorter – a Wayne Shorter salute – shifts between broodingly syncopated modalities and a steady swing, Fowser adding shivery microtones and terse curlicues, Germanson taking a more majestic direction. The band completely shift gears with the Rhodes-driven bossa You’re Better Than That, a vehicle for lyricism from Bruneau. Then they go back to hard-hitting, gritty mode with the darkly bluesy Fall Back, and more shadowy understatement from Fowser.

The album’s title track is a moodily muted, latin-tinged gem, followed by the more balmy Divided State. Gemanson’s beautifully glittery opening solo kicks off I’ll Take It From Here, with its Ellingtonian gravitas, misty midrange Fowser work. stately muted Bruneu solo and a more wryly romping one from Gill.

Queens is a brightly bustling swing tune, possibly a portrait of the New York borough that superseded Brooklyn in coolness a long time ago. Top To Bottom is Monk taking a side trip to New Orleans, while Inversions is a weird blend of almost-frantically uneasy, racewalking postbop with a Rhodes echoing through the mix. The band wind up the record with From Six To Midnight, a sage wee-hours waltz and a strong example of the new depths Fowser’s compositions have reached in the recent past.