New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: April, 2020

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

A Rare Live Recording of Louis Armstrong at the Top of His Game in Europe

Today we celebrate 4/20 with the stoner king of jazz trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Satchmo was by all accounts a Snoop Dogg-class smoker who always carried the finest mezz. How stoned does he sound on the recently discovered Armstrong in Europe – streaming at Spotify – a live set recorded at the 1948 Nice International Jazz Festival,, leading a quintet with pianist Earl Hines, trombonist Jack Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Sid Catlett and clarinetist Barney Bigard?

Not at all, actually. If anybody seems high, it’s the other guys in the band. After the intros – Hines noodling away behind them – the group racewalk through a brief couple of verses of the dixieland-flavored Muskrat Ramble. Armstrong and Teagarden then share sly vocals on the slow blues Rocking Chair, the trombonist’s blip of a solo followed by a flare of a trumpet coda from Satchmo.

The rest of the record is a lot like that. This is a boisterously entertaining party album in rustic mono sound that varies from track to track, up and down volumewise: audience applause is kept to a minimum for the most part. On the mic, Armstrong teases the rhythm but he is all business when he picks up his horn.

They follow with Rose Room, a briskly tiptoeing platform for spiraling, crystalline, drolly ostentatious clarinet accented by the bandleader. Royal Garden Blues has some neatly triangulated conversations between the horns, Hines adding vaudevillian flourishes.

Hines imbues Panama with ragtime sparkle alongside the animatedly intertwined horns. Armstrong’s strutting take of On the Sunny Side of the Street gets more winkingly genial as it goes along: the audience loves that. His ambered, straightforward playing on the gospel-infused Mahogany Hall is one of the high points of the show; the band mess with the audience via a series of false endings as they careen their way out.

The midtempo drag Black and Blue has a similar, circumspect soulfulness: “My only sin is in my skin” packs a nonchalant wallop. From there the band scamper through Them There Eyes and back away for a more wrly somber take of This Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.

They keep the Big Easy vibe going tightly with Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, then offer a nod to the crowd with Coquette, Hines and Teagarden taking centerstage. Guest chanteuse Velma Middleton takes over on a slightly more low-key Lover Come Back to Me; then, on Can Anyone Explain she has to summon the bandleader to the mic for a dirty joke that these Francophones completely miss.

Tin Roof Blues, the quietest song of the set, is ironically a lauching pad for the most compelling solos of the night. The group close counterintuitively with the slow, lushly nocturnal A Kiss to Build a Dream On. At the time this recording was made, jazz was the western world’s default dance and party music, to a large extent because of these guys onstage.

A Breathtaking, Hall of Fame Jazz Summit with Kenny Barron, Dave Holland and Johnathan Blake

The album cover image says “The Kenny Barron-Dave Holland Trio Featuring Johnathan Blake.” The new record, Without Deception – streaming at youtube – is going to draw innumerable obvious comparisons to the classic Barron trio of the 90s with Ron Carter on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, but this is a completely different animal. That group’s brilliance notwithstanding, it’s rare that you encounter a meeting of the minds this smart, or downright exciting, a real cross-generational summit.

This is the kind of record that you hear and ask yourself, why did I take so damn long to listen to this? Barron tends to be more about simmer than blaze here, but that’s where his bandmates step in.

That’s obvious right off the bat with Porto Alegri, a bossa. Blake is more of an extrovert than Nash and does his best work in a trio setting, whether his own or others. Case in point: his wry cymbal flashes to open the song, not to mention that rolling-thunder soundscape over Barron’s eerily muted vamp afterward. The pianist also doesn’t waste any time ceding the spotlight to Holland’s dancing solo.

The band veer in and out of a casual stroll in the aptly titled, wary Second Thoughts. Blake is exceptional on this – a single muted tom hit for shock, a press roll to surprise, and a pervasive cymbal mist are just part of his game. So is Holland, voicing an airy midrange horn line and then chugging back into the lows.

Barron establishes a similarly regal, modal disquiet and then goes shuffling toward wry Mose Allison territory in the album’s title track. The three revert to rather majestic bossa territory with Until Then, Blake never breaking the clave despite all the elegant boom and crash. They scamper through Speed Trap, Barron’s Monkish disquiet matched by Holland’s bobbing bass, Blake bringing the storm.

The jazz waltz Secret Places is far more pervasively dark and bluesily anthemic: in a surprisingly understated way, it’s the album’s high point. Blake begins Pass It On with a resolute centercourt solo, waiting for his bandmates to get in the paint and take it to deep, bluesy New Orleans. Then Barron brings a raptly lingering, spacious soulfulness to the Ellington nocturne Warm Valley,

The group balance gravitas with a tropical lilt in the album’s most expansive number, I Remember When, lit up with edgy cascades from Barron, a brooding bounce from Holland and all sorts of fleet-fingered touches from Blake. The trio end the album with the tropicalized yet enigmatic Worry Later. A clinic in tunesmithing and teamwork from three of this era’s best.

Randy Holden’s Rare 1970 Heavy Psychedelic Album Rescued From Obscurity

In 1970, fresh off about a year playing with proto-metallers Blue Cheer, guitarist Randy Holden rented a theatre, stood in front of a wall of Sunn amps and recorded an album, Population II, whose few remaining original copies command absurd prices on the collector market. It’s just Holden and Chris Lockheed, a dynamic psychedelic rock drummer who turned out to be the perfect choice for this duo project (hence the album name). Holden would overdub similarly purposeful, imaginative bass and guitar afterward.

It’s a characteristically individualistic moment in the history of stoner music: sometimes drugs inspire people to great heights, ha. For all his love of sheer volume, Holden is not a showoff: texture, tone and tunes are his thing. Some of this you could call minimalist Hendrix. There’s some proto-doom that raises the question of whether Black Sabbath’s debut album had hit the stores by the time Holden made this, or if he was simultaneously inventing the style. Whatever the case, Riding Easy Records has done us all a favor and reissued the record – on vinyl, of course, and streaming at their album site.

The opening track, simply titled Guitar Song, is what might have doomed it to obscurity: lyrics are not Holden’s thing, although his Hendrix-at-quarterspeed heavy blues style is inspired, in a WTF, acid-baked, how-did-this-riff-just-fall-into-my-hand kind of way. On one hand, the second track, Fruit Icebergs is total Sabbath – on the other, Holden’s fat, thick, yet spare bent-note chromatics are completely different from Tony Iommi’s blistering volleys of multitracks.

Between Time is another track that would be better off as an instrumental, Holden picking an odd moment to go back to the doom of Fruit Icebergs to wind it up with a shriek. Then again, odd moments are what we love about this kind of music.

Blue My Mind, a return to leaden Hendrix, finally gets the kind of multitracks everybody’s been waiting for, Holden’s raging blues panned hard in each channel. The final song is Keeper of My Flame. The lyrics are pure Spinal Tap, but the duo build a tightly burning attack, with flaring leads that echo Hendrix and foreshadow Ron Asheton, over some bizarrely amusing, faux-Indian drumming. It’s medical marijuana in a cardboard gatefold sleeve.

Thoughtful, Lyrical Songs Without Words From Pianist Lara Driscoll

Pianist Lara Driscoll isn’t out to blow people away with explosive chops, or perplex listeners with gnomic, too-cool-for-school harmonizations for all the the jazz bean-counters. Instead, she takes a painterly approach to her music. Bill Evans is an obvious comparison, but Fred Hersch‘s mature work is a better one. Her vivid new album Woven Dreams is streaming at Bandcamp.

She and her trio ease their way into the album with a cautiously exploratory, rather wary take of Autumn in New York, skirting the melody as bassist Paul Rushka and drummer Dave Laing supply a lithe, gentle bounce, through an outro full of disquiet. There’s relief in this particular fall, but there’s also peril: this is New York, after all.

Terse high-low contrasts and lyricism ripple over a similarly supple, tropical groove in Siblings, with a smart, tightly clustering drum solo for a coda. Airport Limbo begins with an expected tension, hits a genial bossa-tinted swing and returns to a Monkish intensity: looks like this plane made it off the runway after all.

Forgiving – Black Dog Skirts Away, a triptych, begins with a brooding, troubled tableau, Laing rumbling underneath unti Driscoll finally introduces some closure. The centerpiece shifts from a moody, Ellingtonian, darkly blues-infused sway to a reflectively contented shuffle. A fleeting conclusion reminds that these memories still haunt.

O Morro Nao Tern Vez (Favela) gets a precise interpretation in the same vein as the album’s first track. Driscoll builds an even more pensive atmosphere in Mamy Adieu, a wistful, elegantly elegaic piece, shifting in and out of waltz time. Bass and drums figure more playfully in the jaunty interweave of Trespassers.

Driscoll’s spacious, regal understatement in her solo version of Ellington’s Isfahan is breathtaking: she really likes those flickering upper-register flourishes that Marc Cary uses a lot. Then she and the band make a motoring rumba out of Just One of Those Things before swinging it briskly.

After a moody intro, Driscoll brings disquieitng Monk echoes out in ECMT: with its balletesque, allusively chromatic bass solo, it could be the album’s darkest number. She closes with the title track and its expansive, wee-hours feel, a pervasive restlessness beneath all the lustre. You will be seeing this album on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.

A New Psychedelic Cult Classic by the Greek Theatre

If Swedish band the Greek Theatre’s 2017 album Broken Circle – streaming at Bandcamp – had come out in 1975, it would be considered a cult classic. It’s 70s psychedelia at its most colorful and outside-the-box. There are moments that look back to Pink Floyd, Nektar, the Strawbs, even the Grateful Dead, but there’s no other band on earth who sound like this. Layers and layers of guitars and less expected instruments artfully arranged throughout the sonic picture, tersely atmospheric keys, and a spring-loaded rhythm section deliver smartly orchestrated, stylistically puddlejumping, relentlessly uneasy trippiness. Who said they don’t make music like this anymore?

Take the first track, Fat Apple. The opening quickly winds down to a delicate, starry theme with what seems to be a bagpipe wafting through the glimmer – Pink Floyd with Celtic tinges. “Castrate all your fears,” frontman Sven Froberg advises as a cautionary tale of a Dylanesque ballad, sparkling with pedal steel, suddenly appears. “See what you became, what a shame you turned out this way.” They take this seven-minute epic out with a swaying twin-guitar duel. Are we having fun yet?

Spiky, gleaming guitars and airy keys introduce Paper Moon, rising to a restrained gallop, a brooding tale of hiding out from trouble capped off with an elegant mandolin solo. Still Lost Out at Sea follows a drifting 6/8 pulse, lilting soprano sax carrying a wistful sea chantey tune over a low-key acoustic web. “Go back through the years, see how it feels, find out what’s real,” Froberg gently suggests.

“They’re selling drugs down at the mall, and though we know, we don’t tell a single soul,” he quietly announces over a similar, mutedly triumphant folk-rock backdrop in Stray Dog Blues, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. They follow with the pensive instrumental 1920, its deft echo phrasing and balance of subtly dynamic acoustic guitars and distantly omious kickdrum.

The album’s unexpectedly optimistic, increasingly anthemic title track fades up into a rumbling sway, its icy, echoey, resonant guitar multitracks recalling Pink Floyd’s Animals as well as Nektar’s Journey to the Center of the Eye. From there the band go back to instrumental territory with the delicate, bluegrass-tinged Ruby-khon.

Likewise, Kings of Old has a rustic Strawbs-like intro, then the band leaps into an early Genesis-style vamp with more of that delicious, watery chorus-box guitar they like so much. The deftly fingerpicked final cut, Now Is the Time makes a benedictory, warmly hypnotic coda, complete with a calmly shamanic outro.

Wickedly Catchy, Ferocious, Funny Powerpop From Wes Hollywood

Powerpop is one of the few niche genres left where if you make an album, you can sell a lot of vinyl without touring if word gets out that it’s good. That’s because the cult that lives and dies for Cheap Trick, the Go-Go’s and the Move never got rid of theirs. Wes Hollywood‘s 2019 album Dynamite – streaming at Bandcamp – deserves to be one of those. This band’s level of craft is astonishing, a real throwback without being a complete ripoff. If this was 1980, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment to the frontman/guitarist, lead player Pete Javier, bassist Spencer Matern and drummer Tom Shove

With a fond nod over the shoulder to a famous Buzzcocks hit, the opening track, Four Pound Twenty is a really funny story about a totally broke guy trying to hook up with a girl after missing his train home from a forgettable concert. Other than the reference to a lost phone, it could be a BBC hit from 1979.

When Sunday Rolls Around is a wryly simmering, blues-infused midtempo number, akin to LJ Murphy with beefier production. “You’ll never want to wind her up, she’ll never stop,” the bandleader sneers in Small Talk, a lickety-split pub rock tune. Nothing to See Here is a gorgeously jangly, cynically raging kiss-off anthem: there’s Orbison, and Ray Davies, and the Jigsaw Seen all wrapped up in overdriven guitar and soaring bass.

“You said some things that were not worth mentioniong/Just like the rings on the hand of a pensioner,’ Wes observes in Evelyn, a scampering, pummeling, tantalizingly brief burst of catchiness. The story seems to continue in the equally anthemic, riff-driven I’ll Take You Back: this broke ass dude just refuses to quit.

The blend of roaring, clanging, searing guitars over the breathless pulse of Get It Right is as tasty as the lyrics are sly. The calmly defiant, Kinks-inspired individualist’s anthem Fall Up a Ladder has a cynical vaudevillian strut. Kill Me With Your Smile is a mashup of riffy T-Rex and early Elvis Costello.

Dandelion is not a cover of the the Rolling Stones monstrosity but the closest thing to Cheap Trick here. The album closes with its finest, most slashingly majestic cut, No One Loves You, with echoes of both the Church and the Act. How rare that any group could evoke those two (semi) obscure, pantheonic bands in the span of about three minutes.

Unpredictable, Deliciously Psychedelic Venezuelan Sounds From Insolito UniVerso

Digging through the crates to find another treat for you today! Paris-based Venezuelan expats Insólito UniVerso’s deliciously unpredictable, psychedelic album La Candela Del Río – streaming at Bandcamp – landed on the hard drive here in 2018. With their adopted city under an even more severe lockdown than New York, we can only hope the band are surviving.

Looking back, maybe the reason why the album sat around as long as it did without getting any attention here is that the opening track, Transmutada takes so long to get going. When it does, it’s a perfectly pleasant bossa-tinged waltz with surreal touches like keyboardist Edgar Bonilla Jiménez’s electric harpsichord and what sounds like a mellotron, plus, Raúl Monsalve’s dancing bass solo midway through.

The band really put the rubber to the road with the wryly circling Vuelve, with its joropo llanero triplet rhythm, rapidfire lyrics about doing things over and over again, and keening psychedelic organ. It’s like Brooklyn’s Las Rubias Del Norte at their trippiest.

Frontwoman Maria Fernanda Ruette’s multitracked cuatro mingles with the organ in the slowly swaying, bittersweetly gorgeous Machurucuto, a shout-out to a Venezuelan seaside town. The smoky, dubby breakdown comes as a surprise: imagine Country Joe & the Fish with a woman out front. After that, the group pick up the pace with the jauntily rippling Pájaro, which could be a rhythmically trickier Os Mutantes.

Lloviendo en Guatire, which opens on side 2 of the record, blends a hypnotic, Indian-influenced theme with dreampop, surf guitar and bass over drummer Andres Sequera’s mutedly suspenseful beats. He gets a lot busier behind the eerily acidic keys and fuzztone bass in Yo Soy Mi Río. Scampering along with the minor-key rivulets from the band’s arsenal of keyboards, their instrumental cover of harpist José Gregorio López’s El Vuelo del Gabán is the album’s catchiest track and closest thing to psychedelic cumbia here. They close it with Tonada del Guante, a slowly swaying, dubwise, bass-fueled update on an old Venezuelan work song. It’s like nothing you’ve heard this year. If psychedelic sounds are your thing, you’re in for a treat.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmly lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.