New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

A Harrowing Song Cycle Takes on New Relevance in a Time of Crisis

Ignac Semmelweis was a 19th century medical heretic who discovered the link between bacteria and infection decades before Pasteur codified it. But not only did the Hungarian-born, Vienna-based physician’s paradigm-shifting work go uncredited: he ended up being shunned by a medical establishment hell-bent on avoiding blame for deaths due to unsanitary hospital conditions. Seventeen years after saving countless women from lethal puerperal fever, Semmelweis died, forgotten, in a mental institution.

On September 11, 2017, singer Ray Lustig debuted his song cycle, Semmelweis, to a sold-out crowd at the National Arts Club. Reviewing it at the time, this blog said that “In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.” Considering the events that are still unfolding, Lustig’s salute to an unjustly neglected hero has taken on even greater cultural resonance. Now, you can watch the Hungarian debut of the performance, from the following year, on VOD for free through May 31.

In New York, in the title role, Lustig channeled understated angst and horror: Semmelweis can’t let himself off the hook for failing to save all his patients’ lives. Seamlessly negotiating several difficult shifts between idioms, from neoromantic lustre to acidic modernism, soprano Charlotte Mundy was the musical star of the show. The rest of the cast were impressive as well.

And let’s not forget the lesson that Semmelweis taught us: very often, conventional wisdom gets us in trouble. Just because someone who advocates drinking bleach also endorsed hydroxychloroquine doesn’t invalidate the drug’s promise as part of a treatment for coronavirus for some patients. It could be a grave mistake to assume that since the village idiot fixated on something, that idea is necessarily wrong.

Mara Rosenbloom’s Improvisations Draw Darkly on Avian Inspiration

Growing up on the Wisconsin prairie, pianist Mara Rosenbloom became an astute observer of nature. Her latest trio album Flyways: Murmurations– streaming at Spotify – looks to the migratory patterns of birds not only as a metaphor for jazz improvisation, but also for what humans can learn from them in general. Rosenbloom draws particular inspiration from how starlings interact in flight, operating in subgroups within a flock and changing leaders periodically. Where Rosenbloom’s previous trio album Prairie Burn was absolutely incendiary, this one is much easier to map: the focus is clearer and often rather dark.

Here she’s joined by Rashaan Carter on bass and Anais Maviel on vocals and percussion. They open with a brief jam of a prelude which worked out so well that Rosenbloom kept it for the record. Her fondness for the blues and disquieting modes immediately come to the forefront, echoed by a bubbling bass pulse. A second miniature is anchored by Maviel’s quasi trip-hop beat on her surdo drum, her wordless vocals soaring over her bandmates’ steady, circling clusters.

The album’s epic centerpiece is I Know What I Dreamed. Over almost forty minutes, the trio shift from warm, lingering minimalism to spare, neoromantic phrasing, portentous rumbles on everyone’s low end, jagged rises and dips between uneasily expanding circles and a rhythmic insistence that’s often as hypnotic as it is lyrical. The slow, swaying, Monk-inflected mood midway through is marvelous. Maviel takes poet Adrienne Rich’s text imagining a world free of exploitative relationships and negotiates between calm assurance and troubled melismatics that sometimes reach horror-stricken peaks.

“No one lives in this room without living through some kind of crimes,“ Maviel intones over Rosenbloom’s starkly repetitive vintage soul riffs in Dream of a Common Language, piano and bass drifting into an echoey wash. The album’s final bird takeoff themes revert to gracefully circling variations. Rosenbloom winds up the record with a saturnine solo version of These Foolish Things, dedicated to the late Connie Crothers, obviously an influence as far as improvisation is concerned.