New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Two Masters of Menacing Piano Jazz at the Peak of Their Powers

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque.  Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.

Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.

The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.

They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.

Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.

The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.

Best Short Album of 2020: Karla Rose’s Mysterious New EP The Living End

Karla Rose is best known among her musical colleagues in New York as a formidable and incredibly mutable singer. She can channel any emotion a person could possibly feel, from the subtlest to the most desperate. Just listen to her negotiate the tricky phrasing of My Hero – Sean Lennon’s doo-wop noir theme from the film Alter Egos – with a little cadenza at the end that will give you goosebumps.

But Rose is just as formidable a tunesmith and lyricist, with a distinctly sinister side. She is not one of the would-be femmes fatales who sprung up in the wake of Lana Del Rey – she is the real deal. Her latest release, the three-song ep The Living End is streaming at Spotify.

The title alone speaks to Rose’s fondness for wordplay and multiple levels of meaning: it wouldn’t be hubris to compare her to Elvis Costello, Ward White or Hannah Fairchild.  The first song on the record is Battery Park. Partly inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, it’s a haunting, bolero-tinged anthem that subtly speaks truth to the grisly power of Wall Street entitlement. Over the terse pulse of drummer Kevin Garcia and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, Rose’s Telecaster jangles and clangs with the reverb full on, lead player Dylan Charles building to chainsaw volleys of tremolo-picking at the end. This version is a lot quieter than the absolutely feral attack she and the band gave the song at places like the Mercury Lounge around the time she wrote it. It’s a frontrunner for the best song of the year.

The two other songs are even more enigmatic. Moon and I is part classic 70s soul and part dreampop, Rose’s guitar building starrier, more atmospheric textures as Scott Hollingsworth’s organ hangs in the background over the low-key groove of Lorenzo Wolff’s bass and Andrew Zehnal’s drums.

The title track is a dead ringer for Lou Reed, but Rose plays the verse in a devious 12/8 rhythm to shake things up. Her message is hopeful: stay on plan and we’ll get through this. In the year of the lockdown and the muzzle, that inspiration couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

Unmasking Mirna Lekic’s Lithe, Energetic, Brilliantly Thematic Solo Album

In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.

She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.

Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).

The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.

A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.

Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music.  She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.