New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: September, 2020

Irrepressibly Playful, Intuitive, Funny Reinventions of Debussy Classics

Jazz artists have been having fun with classical themes since before jazz existed, per se: Scott Joplin sat down with a Schubert score one day and said to himself, “I’m better than this dude.” The new album Impressions of Debussy, by pianists Lori Sims and Jeremy Siskind along with arranger and soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun – streaming at Spotify – follows in that irrepressible tradition. It’s a concept record. First, Sims will play a solo Debussy piece, with thoughtful expressiveness and often surprising dynamics. Then Siskind and Rathbun follow with a new chart which is often considerably more improvisational but sometimes not, as Rathbun carries the melody line very straightforwardly some of the time. It’s a win-win situation: Debussy’s gamelan-influenced compositions vamp a lot and make good lauching pads, and this crew have an infectious affinity for the material.

Les Sons et les Parfums (for consistency’s sake, English title case is being used here) sets the stage. Rathbun plays the second part over Siskind’s puckish, ragtime-inflected staccato, evincing hints of flamenco until the two strut playfully off the page.

Likewise, Sims spaciously builds La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin up to a rapture – and then you realize that, hey, that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! The duo section follows a more immediately triumphant tangent: in this version, Debussy gets the girl.

Minstrels gets a jaunty, emphatic interpretation from Sims and a hilarious conversation from the other two players: that little medley of other famous tunes is priceless. Sims really brings out the underlying morbidity in Feuilles Mortes (better known to some as Autumn Leaves), while her comrades kick those piles around a little before realizing the gravity of the matter.

The three go deeper into less iconic material as the album goes on. Le Vent dans la Plaine gets an unexpectedly steady, straightforward attack from Sims followed by a duo version that’s actually more of a piano gamelan piece, and more airy than stormy, with some of Rathbun’s most acerbic playing here.

Sims’ muted, careful steps through the snow in Des Pas Sur la Neige create a magically nocturnal ambience; Rathbun’s expertly arpeggiated paraphrases introduce a more understatedly determined approach from piano and sax.

Sims’ take of La Puerta del Vino comes across as a nocturne with echoes of Satie along with the flamenco. Siskind and Rathbun, on the other hand, bring the Spanish tinge front and center: this is a party.

The two versions of Canope are a carefully articulted, enigmatically shimmery one from Sims and then a tongue-in-cheek, tropical reinvention by Siskind and Rathbun. The three close the record with Danseuses des Delphes, more of a Chopin prelude when played solo here, Rathbun’s version making lively ragtime out of it.

Christine Ott Releases the First Ever Solo Album Performed on the Rarest of Instruments

Christine Ott’s album Chimères (pour ondes Martenot) – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first record in history ever written for and performed solo on that rare machine. French inventor Maurice Martenot patented what was arguably the first-ever analog synthesizer in the early 1920s. Long since eclipsed in popular memory by the theremin, the ondes Martenot is easier to control, and as a result can generate more resonant, pitch-perfect, and less quavery sounds because a player’s fingers move across a ribbon on an electronic keyboard, rather than being activated by motion against a force field. Yet the ondes Martenot – also known as the ondea – can also replicate the sound of a theremin to the point where the two instruments are indistinguishable.

Ott is one of very few musicians alive to have mastered the ondes Martenot, and has been sought out by acts ranging from Tindersticks to Yann Tiersen. Her new album transcends the exotic, or any possible kitschy associations: this is catchy, enveloping, fascinatingly ambient music.

Co-producers Paul Régimbeau and Frédéric D. Oberland mix Ott’s live-in-the-studio performance through a series of effects for extra orchestral grandeur. In the opening track, Comma, tremoloing waves beneath keening, quavering highs give way to a calmly enveloping balance from the lower registers. The second track, Darkstar, rises to a catchy, motorik theme anchored by buzzing lows, Ott finally hitting a theremin-like crescendo way up the scale.

She builds a hauntingly nuanced theme, sliding upward into the melancholy riffs of Todeslied and then adding piercing accents. Much of this uneasy, undulating, increasingly turbulent piece is a sort of electronic analogue to Michael Hersch’s macabre work for strings.

Echo effects flutter and dance throughout Mariposas, then slowly shift to echoey drainpipe sonics and deep-space dopplers in Sirius. Then Ott completely flips the script with Pulsar and its droll, woozy lows.

Eclipse is the most ominously ambient and lowest-register track here: it seems patched through a choir effect and then oceans of loops for extra terror, up to a surprise ending. Ott closes the album with Burning, a broodingly catchy Twin Peaks theme that decays to fragmented shots from every corner of the sonic picture. Let’s hope this album reaches enough of an audience to draw other fearless artists to Martenot’s strange invention.

Fearless Singer Reinvents Jazz Luminary’s Compositions in the Here and Now

Allegra Levy’s lyrics have a somewhat cynical, noir-ish take on the world – right up my alley,” says trumpeter John McNeil. That’s an understatement. The New York singer and jazz songwriter is a McNeil protegee, and has most recently written lyrics to a bunch of his compositions dating from the early 80s into the zeros. Then she had the chutzpah to release them as a new album, Lose My Number, with an otherwise all-female band, streaming at Soundcloud.

The intrigue with Levy is that she’s always been a bit of a cipher, someone with a fondness for working allusion and understatement to her advantage. Not nearly so much here. Suddenly Andante Cantabile Levy is, well, the name on the album cover, fearless yet often more misty.

“Another night that I could have been somebody’s someone…fickle fortune would finally be mine,” she intones just short of breathlessly in the album’s opening number, Samba de Beah. But, “Now misfortune is aways by my side.” There’s a gorgeously scrambling Carmen Staaf piano solo over a similarly dramatic backdrop from bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark.

Livin Small turns into an understatedly corrosive reflection on settling for less than we deserve in gentrification-era New York, a determined clave tune with an incisive solo that Staaf refuses to let go of as Rothwell dances over steady washes of cymbals. Remember, New York had a housing crisis long before the lockdown.

The third track, Tiffany is the key to the album. McNeil came up with the song after a gig, walking past Tiffany’s to the train, frustrated that he couldn’t afford the kind of bling he wanted for his fiancee. In this pulsing, rippling nocturne, Levy captures the quiet triumph of walking down Fifh Avenue in the wee hours and realizing that the two didn’t need bling because they had each other.

The composer trades irresisibly amusing, terse phrases with the bandleader in Strictly Ballroom, reinvented as matter-of-fact, metoo-era swing. The even harder-swinging C.J. has irresistible, LOL drum breaks and obvious political subtext. The question is which real-life figure Levy is referring to:

And you’re thinking that you could be what we need
The savior, incomprehensible
And you don’t realize that we look at you
And see zero more than hero

“And in an ocean of despair, a rising tide will leave you stranded,” Levy warns in her interpretation of Dover Beach, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a lifeguard. Clark’s cymbal work, always a treat through the album, really makes a mark here. The cynicism hits redline in the oldtimey Ukulele Tune, Staaf’s judicious Rhodes voicings matched by Levy’s muted strumming and venomous lyrics

Opening with a wryly lyrical McNeil solo, the version of Zephyr here is a spare, gorgeously autumnal reflection, The Peacocks minus the birds, Rothwell adding balletesque grace. The band close with the title track, a redemptively scurrying, increasingly hilarious swing tune reflecting Levy and McNeil’s mutual inability to suffer fools gladly. He obviously fanned a fire under her that had been smoldering for a long time. Stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020. Looks like the polls – the jazz kind as well as the political kind – are going to be a tough call this year.

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Fierce, Fearless Americana to the Next Level

Kelley Swindall is a badass outlaw country songwriter with a 21st century edge. She learned how to work a crowd singing over drunks at one of New York’s most notorious dive bars, the late, lamented Holiday Lounge and then up and down the Americana highway, from New York to New Orleans and pretty much all points in between. She’s got a new album, You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, streaming at Soundcloud.

Pretty much every song on the record has been thoroughly road-tested, and a lot of them are a lot different than you may have heard her play onstage. For example, the opening number, I Ain’t For You You Ain’t For Me, used to be more of a hick-hop number. Here, it’s an unrepentant cheater’s anthem. The girl in this song strayed because she was trapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive POS, and she finally got wise. Swindall sings it with more than a little snarl over a searing minor-key drive spiced with Michael Hesslein’s piano and a tantalizingly evil Teddy Kumpel guitar solo midway through.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal ’cause I’ll jump off it,” she warns in the album’s track, a swaying, vintage 70s-style country-soul ballad with swirly organ. “I just smiled, and said, ‘That’s what drugs will do,’” Swindall tells the guy who wants to hang out, “talking shattered hopes and trashcan dreams, and all the lies in between” in Dear Savannah, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder look at a whirlwind romance.

California is a big crowd-pleaser, a wryly choogling talking blues about a transcontinental weed deal with a surprise ending. Meet Me Halfway is sort of a mashup of lazy Lowell George C&W and hick-hop: if anybody still thinks long-distance relationships have a prayer, Swindall will shatter that illusion.

Swindall follows the careening blues Come On Back My Way with the starry early 60s Nashville nocturne Refuse to Be Blue. My Minglewood Blues picks up where the iconic folk song left off: where the Grateful Dead took it into psychedelia, Swindall finds a lickety-split, feminist party anthem.

She lets her guard down in You Never Really Loved Me Anyway – but the punchline packs a wallop, over a Dylanesque Blood on the Tracks backdrop. She takes a welcome detour toward folk noir in Heartsick, then shifts toward classic honkytonk with He Ain’t You over Hesslein’s ragtimey piano and Don Dilego’s soaring, sinuous bassline.

She closes the record with Spring Street Dive: “You know sometimes the fear of being tied down sometimes holds you back from taking flight, it’s true!” she announces. The vinyl version also has a secret bonus cover track. Dilego’s production also deserves a shout: this has the feel of a big-room analog record, not the kind of sterile digital ambience that plagues so many rock and Americana records these days.

Christopher Houlihan Salutes the 150th Birthday of an Underservedly Obscure Organ Music Icon

In the classical organ music demimonde, Louis Vierne is an iconic presence. The epic grandeur and frequent venom of his organ symphonies have seldom been matched, let alone surpassed. His life was plagued by struggle and tragedy. Born legally blind, he became an awardwinning violinist while still in his teens before switching to the king of the instruments. His wife left him for his best friend. He lost family members in World War I. After the war, he was forced to go on concert tour to raise money to repair the organ at Notre Dame in Paris, where he would remain until his death. And on his final day there, Vierne collapsed in the console and fell onto the low bass pedal. The organ rumbled louder and louder until someone finally went in to check on him and found him there dead.

Yet outside of the insular pipe organ world, Vierne is little-known…and Christopher Houlihan is determined to change that. This blog was unfortunately not there when he played the entire Vierne symphonic cycle in New York back in June of 2012, but fortunately much of that was recorded, and you can catch not only some of the highlights but also a lot of fascinating background when the organist celebrates the 150th anniversary of the troubled French composer’s birth with a series of webcasts starting this October 5.

There’s plenty of material for both general audiences and hardcore organ geeks. On October 5 at 7 PM, Houlihan interviews Phillip Truckenbrod, whose recent memoir Organists and Me covers a half century of managing some of the loudest musicians on the planet.

The next evening, October 6, Houlihan chats with the brilliant Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry about the horrific fire and ongoing reconstruction of the organ there. On October 7, Houlihan offers a demonstration of the famous Trinity College organ in Hartford Connecticut, and on October 8, he plays a deliciously dynamic program there which includes Vierne’s majestic Symphony No. 4 as well as shorter pieces ranging from his celestial Clair de Lune to the sparkling, playfully evocative Naïades. Other webcasts in the works include concert footage from Houlihan’s landmark 2012 Vierne performances as well as an interview with Vierne biographer Rollin Smith, the first American to play the Vierne symphonic cycle.

Dark Rituals and Gritty, Imaginative, Noisy Rock From Dorota

In a year where musicians and the arts are under assault more than at any other time in history, it’s heartwarming to see a group first featured on this page eight years ago still together and still putting out defiant and utterly unique music. Hungarian trio Dorota were characterized as “noisy noir punk surf jazz” here in 2012. Their latest album, Solar the Monk – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as noisy, more tuneful, and more influenced by late 70s no wave and 90s dreampop.

Is the blippy atmosphere at the beginning of the drony miniature that opens the album an allusion to sirens and lockdown-era fear? Actually not – the album predates the lockdown. The band don’t waste any time kicking into the first part of the album’s title track, a pouncing postrock stomp that recalls early Wire. Midway through, guitarist Dávid Somló, bassist Dániel Makkai and drummer Áron Porteleki slam out the same staccato E chord over and over as the overtones slowly rise. They reprise it later on with more syncopation and menacing clang.

The sternly marching third track, Neméreztem sounds like a group of Tibetan monks conjuring up an experimental rock ritual in a dingy Amsterdam club in 1979. Porteleki prowls mysteriously around his drum kit over spare atmospherics as Might Be Him takes shape, then the song morphs into a quasi-gospel groove punctuated by Makkai’s curlicue bass riffs.

Vacsorázin begins as a sputtering, drony dirge, then the monks return and chant their way slowly upward. The increasingly crazed instrumental Patient Religious Boys features flutes over boomy percussion, followed by the diptych The Stone Garden. The first part is just spare lo-fi keys and loops, then Somló switches back to guitar as Makkai’s looming chords rise along with Indian-flavored flutes.

From there we get dissociative ambience, Hare Krishnas on acid maybe, and twisted motorik noiserock. The concluding epic, It’s Gonna Rain slowly coalesces out of fuzzy, tensely wound bass to a wild stampede of guitar shred and huffing organ, and ends as you would expect. May this group survive the lockdown and continue to put out music as blissfully deranged as this.

Intriguingly Original Chinese and American Jazz and Funk Grooves From Song Dynasty

One of the most individualistic albums to come over the transom here in recent months is Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching, streaming at Spotify. The Dallas band (not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese group) play jazz and jazz-adjacent sounds with Chinese lyrics, both covers and originals. The bandname is a pun: the Song Dynasty in China lasted from approximately 960 to 1279 AD. During this period, China was one of the world’s great powers, a leader in scientific innovation. Thanks to invention of gunpowder, the Chinese navy ruled the waves off the coast of Asia for centuries. 

You might not expect such a searing guitar solo as Ben Holt plays in the band’s otherwise understatedly slinky lounge-funk cover of the Chinese pop hit, Fa Su Ha (Under the Blossom Tree), but that’s the band’s strong suit. Their music is very unpredictable. Frontwoman Li Liu sings expressively, airy and misty at the same time in this case. She has a very expressive and dynamic delivery that transcends the limitations of language: you don’t have to speak Chinese to get a good sense of what she’s putting across.

The first Liu original here, Tango Cha has more of a bite, both vocally and musically, Dan Porter’s glittering piano edging toward latin noir over the low-key pulse of bassist Corentin le Hir and drummer Hiroki Kitazawa; Holt and saxophonist Jeff Chang add chill solos.

Liu sings the album’s disquietingly modal title ballad in both English and Chinese; Porter’s spare chords and precise ripples enhance the theme of struggling to find inner calm. Liu adds original lyrics to a bustling samba reinvention of Herlin Riley’s Shake Off the Dust, then remakes the standard I Remember You as a cool, briskly tiptoeing swing tune with her own lyrics as well.

Liu and Holt revert to low-key, twinkling Hollywood Hills funk in Flying, with Porter on Rhodes, trumpeter Kevin Swaim and trombonist Kenny Davis adding bright harmonies. The group open Heart in Sorrow, a setting of a text by Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao, as wide-angle chords by Holt and Porter gently edge into a moody jazz waltz.

Liu brings both her sultriest and most insistent vocals to Ai Ta (Love Him) as the band return to slinky funk, with a sly dubwise bass solo by guest Mike Luzecky and some welcome grit from  Holt. They close with the album’s most trad and chipper tune, Summer Ride, nicking the chords from Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. This is a vocalist and backing band – there’s not a lot of interplay here. But the ideas and the creativity make you want to hear more.

A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.

A Psychedelic New Korean Rock Record From the Colorful, Eclectic Coreyah

Coreyah doesn’t mean “Korea” in Korean. It translates as either “inheritance” or “whale.”  The shapeshifting Korean psychedelic art-folk band consider that mammal their spirit animal. Their 2016 North American debut performance earned a rave review here; their long-awaited new album, Clap and Applause is streaming at youtube.

The band have had some turnover in the time since that rapturous New York show, but they haven’t lost their surreal sense of humor. They open with Baksurori, a mutedly pulsing, shamanic folk melody anchored by guitarist Ko Jaehyeo’s reverb-drenched staccato in tandem with the pulse of percussionist Kim Chorong and drummer Kyungyi. Frontwoman Ham Boyoung sings in her native tongue, warmly and calmly. Na Sunjin plays spare, warpy tones on her geomungo bass lute, Kim Dongkun’s wood flute finally wafting into the mix. They slowly pick up the pace in the long jam afterward, but only hints at the crazy mix of sounds they’ll play later on. The narrative concerns an escape from the political turmoil on the streets outside for the comfort of a big party

For the sake of consistency, the song titles here are English translations, as are the quotes from song lyrics. The second track, How Far You’ve Come is a mashup of chicken-scratch funk and what sounds like Colombian parranda music, with slyly amusing solos from geomungo and flute, and coy vocal exchanges between the women and the guys in the band. It’s a traveler’s tale: “How far have you come?” is the recurrent question.

Dawn is a trippy, slashing rock tune set to a staggered 5/4 beat, a snakecharmer flute solo at the center. When the Sun Rises turns on a dime between Pink Floyd guitar roar, delicately swooping geomungo and fluttering flute. It’s a daily grind scenario:

I’m just minding
Yesterday’s business today
Today’s business tomorrow
And on and on until it’s time
To take a little rest

It seems that pretty much everybody in the band takes a turn on lead vocals in the jauntily strutting Big Things, which has has a suspiciously satirical cheeriness. Competition can be a bitch, whether it’s personal or business! 

The group mash up slinky wah guitar psychedelia, ancient Korean folk themes and a relentless dancefloor thud in Escape. It’s the key to the album: “If I ever come back, cheer for me please, just one more time,” Boyoung insists over a tempestuous hwimori beat.

Tongue-in-cheek chirps from the flute contrast with the muted backdrop of Yellow Flower, a mostly-acoustic spacerock duet, Boyoung determined to revisit a fleeting moment of rapt beauty. It’s the band’s Can’t Get It Out of My Head.

Bygone Days is a wistful vintage Memphis soul-tinged ballad, with delicate accents from geomungo and flute. The album’s final and most epic cut is Good Dreams, an enveloping lullaby spiced with spare geomungo riffage, rising to a big,  Gilmouresque guitar solo. The world needs more bands who are this much fun and willing to take chances.

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.