New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: November, 2020

A Long Overdue New Live Album From Tom Csatari’s Drifting, Haunting, Maddening, Defiantly Individualistic Uncivilized Big Band

Back in 2016, this blog characterized guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized as a “tectonically shifting ten-piece ‘drone-jazz orchestra.’“ They earned a glowing New York Times review for a show at a short-lived Bushwick strip club. That gig also earned them a listing here on what was then a monthly concert calendar. Nobody from this blog ended up going.

The prolific bandleader’s compositions fall into a netherworld of film noir themes, bittersweet Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, the Grateful Dead at their dark early 80s peak and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. During the band’s long, mostly-monthly Barbes residency, they played several cover nights. Chico Hamilton night was shockingly trad and tight. It would have been fun to see what they did with John Fahey. The best of them all was Twin Peaks night in October 2017, where they played Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film scores. The group’s transcendently haphazard take on that iconic noir repertoire was captured on the live album Uncivilized Plays Peaks.

They also released another, considerably shorter record as a salute to five separate music venues which were shuttered during the pandemic of gentrification that devastated this city right up until the lockdown. Their latest live album, Garden, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The title seems to stem (sorry, awful pun) from the fact that the tracklist matches the setlist they played at another killer show, outdoors at Pioneer Works in late summer 2018 with guest Jaimie Branch being her usual extrovert self on trumpet. There’s some of that show here along with material captured at various venues, including the Barbes residency.

Csatari’s arrangements span the sonic spectrum in a vast Gil Evans vein, Tristan Cooley’s upwardsly fluttering flute often engaged on the low end by Nick Jozwiak’s slinky bass and Casey Berman’s solid bass clarinet. A series of fleeting modal interludes separate the individual themes here, many of which are barely a minute long: fades and splices are usually subtle but inevitably obvious. Colorful, imperturbable drummer Rachel Housle is the Casey Jones who manages to keep this ramshackle train on the rails – barely.

Levon Henry’s alto sax bubbles and sails alongside Luther Wong’s trumpet, Dominick Mekky’s transistor organ ranging from spacy ambience to ripples and washes. Csatari tends to fling low-key but persistently uneasy chordlets and jangly riffs into the ether, Julian Cubillos typically carrying the harder-edged guitar lines, although the two sometimes switch roles.

Henry provides shivery ambience in a brief portion of Pink Room, from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. They segue into a starry, pulsing take of Csatari’s Melted Candy and soon edge their way to a slowly coalescing, genuinely joyous crescendo in the Twin Peaks title theme. You might think that joy would be completely out of place in that context but it isn’t.

Csatari’s Rowlings – in several parts – makes an optimistic, soul-infused segue. Likewise, the take of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock rises from a brief, broodingly sway to a triumphant country-soul anthem. The coda is Evil, deviously quoting at length from Paul McCartney: if we ever get out of here!

If this is the last album the band ever release – and it could be, since the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying music and the arts – they went out with a bang. On the other hand, if we destroy the lockdowners, music like this will flourish. It’s a no-brainer: Microsoft, or Tom Csatari’s Unciviiized. At this point in history, we can’t have both.

Be aware that you need to make a playlist out of this to enjoy it as a full-length album. Otherwise, constantly having to reach for the play button in between these often very short tracks is like driving a loaded tractor-trailer along a steep mountain road, distracted by the need to double-clutch and downshift.

Randall Harlow Puts Out a Wild, Epic Triple Album of Spine-Tingling Recent Concert Organ Music

With his epic new triple album Organon Novus – streaming at SpotifyRandall Harlow seeks to restore the king of the instruments to its rightful place in concert music. Current generations may not realize how prominent a role the organ has played in American history. A hundred years ago, pretty much every major concert hall – not to mention city hall, baseball stadium, movie theatre, skating rink, funeral parlor, wedding venue, even the occasional department store – had its own organ. Harlow’s criteria in selecting the material here is to focus on American composers who are not organists themselves.

He explains that rationale in the liner notes: “As a performer I am particularly attracted to works by non-organist composers, as they tend to refreshingly avoid the well-worn gestures and techniques oft overused by incorrigible organists. This is not to say there aren’t compelling and original works composed by organists, particularly by those whose professional compositional activities extend beyond the organ and choral worlds, but works by non-organists such as these here often present novel and challenging figurations and elicit compelling new sounds from the instrument.” That’s something of an understatement. Harlow plays them on the titanically colorful E.M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the the University of Chicago.

The music here runs the gamut as eclectically as any other instrumental album released over the last several years. If you want an in-depth survey of some of the most interestingly diverse works for organ since 1990, you can’t do any better than this. The majority of them are on the short side as organ works go, generally under ten minutes, many of them under five. The dynamic and timbral ranges are as vast as any fan of the demimonde could want, from whispery nebulosity to all-stops-out pandemonium. The quietest pieces are the most minimalist.

Harlow opens with an alternately showy and calmly enveloping Libby Larsen study in bell-like tones which he calls an “all-limbs-on-deck work for the performer.” He closes with Aaron Travers‘ Exodus, an oceanic partita once considered unplayable for its complexity, wildly churning menace, leaps and whirling vortices. It will take your breath away.

In between we get Matt Darriau‘s crescendoing, anthemically circling Diapason Fall, which sounds nothing like his adventures in klezmer or Balkan music. Harlow follows Michael Daugherty‘s stormy, pulsing An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance with Roberto Sierra‘s Fantasia Cromática and its dervish dance of an outro.

He turns a Christian Wolff piece for either organ or celesta into a coy dialogue betweeen that relatively rare organ stop and the high flutes. Then he improvises against the rattle of dried beans and macaroni atop percussionist Matt Andreini’s snare and tom-tom in a droning, hypnotic Alvin Lucier soundscape. A “hair-raising study in how not to play the organ” by John Zorn, contrastingly careening and quietly macabre, concludes the second disc.

Other standouts from among the total of 25 composers represented here include John Anthony Lennon‘s allusively Doors-influenced, cascading Misericordia; a towering, picturesque Rocky Mountain tableau by George Walker; Samuel Adler‘s purposeful, tightly coiling Schoenberg homage From Generation to Generation; and Joan Tower’s delightfully blustery, aptly titled Ascent. The portents of the penultimate number, Lukas Foss’ Hiroshima-themed triptych War and Peace are among the album’s most riveting moments. Harlow attacks each of these pieces with equal parts meticulousness and passion. Even better, there’s a sequel in the works.

Summoner Put Out the Best Heavy Psychedelic Album of 2020

When Summoner recorded their set at the Day of Doom Festival at St. Vitus in Brooklyn last year, were they even planning on releasing it? Did they have any idea that it would turn out to be the best heavy psychedelic rock record of the year?

It’s been desperate times, desperate measures for most artists this year. There’s never been such a deluge of archival live recordings dumped on the web, since studios have been officially put on ice by the lockdowners. Some of those albums are dodgy, but a surprising number are top-shelf and Summoner’s Live at Day of Doom – streaming at Bandcamp – is the best of the bunch. It’s amazing how this band manage to sound so unhinged yet so tight.

No overdubs, no punching in to fix mistakes: they’re in their element, playing through St. Vitus’ magnificently loud (and now tragically silent) PA system to a pretty rapt crowd. What immediately hits you about their performance is the subtle touches. For example, the way frontman Chris Johnson’s bass slithers up into the highs over the fanged guitar riffage of the opening number, Skies of the Unknown. That’s foreshadowing. He’ll do that later, especially toward the end, when he isn’t playing with a gritty, growling tone…or detuning his E string for the slashingly Arabic-tinged Into the Abyss.

Even though Summoner don’t sound much like Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath, you can see they’ve built off those groups’ best ideas to make something completely new. Listen to how guitarists AJ Peters and Joe Richner play their twin leads with a powerglide sleekness on that opening number. They’ll do that again in the evil, slurry chords of The Interloper over drummer Scott Smith’s stampede.

Counterintuitively, the centerpiece of the show is not an upbeat number but a slow, epically spare, almost ten-minute take of Let the Light In. It’s closer to Nektar or Desert Flower than, say, Mastodon, lingering jangle and clang rising to crushing waves. The eerily glimmering tremolo-picking and surreal flanged contrast between Peters and Richner’s guitars will send your natural opiates through the roof.

The chromatics get more sinister in The Prophecy: Johnson’s melodic approach essentially gives the band three lead guitarists. Textures spiral and roar and scream throughout the anthemic, galloping Horns of War. The band wind up the set with Conjuring, their Children of the Grave, with seamonster bass piercing the surface and a tantalizing exchange of solos. Every band this good – and there are hundreds of them around the world – needs to make a live album like this.

A Historic Meeting of Some of the World’s Greatest Improvisational Minds

The new release Flow States, a highly entertaining, frequently thrilling improvisatory session recorded in 2015, speaks to the imperiled state of music in 2020. After the lockdowners banned musicians from playing onstage and earning what had essentially become their sole source of income, artists around the world have been flooding the web with all kinds of incredible archival recordings. Desperate times, desperate measures – and the quality of this material reminds us of what we stand to lose if we continue to allow ourselves to be locked down.

This session has special historical value for being the very first time that saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell had played with either the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s iconic Marshall Allen, or with Milford Graves, the polymath drummer, cardiac medicine specialist, sound healing pioneer and musicologist. Multi-reedman Scott Robinson pulled the session together. While the session was in an open studio with no separation, the individual voices of this hall of fame lineup are distinct and everybody gets plenty of chances to give the listener goosebumps.

Allen is in the left channel, mainly on alto sax. Mitchell is in the center, beginning on soprano, sometimes shifting in one piece from sopranino to bass or alto. Robinson is on the right, moving from tenor to bass to contrabass and then alto, mixing it up as usual. And you should see Graves’ kit, with all those toms, delivering a majestically boomy, mysterious groove. Who needs a bass when you have that guy in the band?

Mitchell’s rapidfire melismas are so otherworldly and bagpipe-like throughout the first number, Vortex State, that it’s almost as if he’s playing the EWI that Allen has used for so long in the Sun Ra band. Meanwhile, Graves goes to his mallets for a deep, spacious river as Allen and Robinson carry on a lively, sharp conversation from the edges.

Track two, the aptly titled Dream State, floats over Graves’ magically shamanic, muted, steady pulse, sprites slowly popping up amidst the mist. Allen first goes to the EWI in the trio piece Transition State for a woozily amusing contrast with the droll strutting and foghorn sonics from Robinson’s bass sax as Graves builds a hypnotic sway with his cymbals.

Steady State, a duo piece for Graves and Mitchell’s Balkan-tinged sopranino, is arguably the album’s most relentlessly adrenalizing interlude. Allen picks up the EWI again for the wryly spacy warpscape Plasma State, another duo with Graves. Altered State also has ridiculously funny moments, whether it’s Robinson’s heavy-lidded lows on contrabass sax, or Graves sounding the alarm.

Variable State, a conversation between Mitchell and Allen (back on alto), has plenty of jokes too good to give away, but just as much daunting extended technique. The full quartet close with the title track, which with its relentless traffic jam ambience could be called Garden State, where the album was recorded. More auspiciously, a vinyl release is planned, including extra material that wouldn’t fit on this one.

Guy Mintus Reinvents Gershwin Classics With High-Voltage Intensity and a Sense of Humor

Pianist Guy Mintus writes lyrical, often poignant, frequently Middle Eastern-tinged jazz. Much of his original material could be called songs without words, which may reflect his decision to release his first-ever all-cover album, A Gershwin Playground, which hasn’t hit the web yet. It’s his most energetic, classically-influenced release to date, no surprise considering the material.

What’s most stunning is Mintus’ opulent, playful solo take of the complete Rhapsody in Blue, packed with devious quotes and a long series of dynamically shifting diversions, winding up with a ridiculously fast but meticulously articulated coda. If you want to hear this piece as classical music that sticks to the script, this is not it – but it sure is a lot of fun. One suspects the composer would approve.

What’s also different this time around for Mintus is that he also takes a turn on the mic, a logical development. He reinvents The Man I Love as The Girl I Love and hits all the notes over an alternatingly emphatic and glimmering backdrop. His slinky, shapeshiftingly carnivalesque take of It Ain’t Necessarily So has special resonance for this era; looks like David really is going to take out Goliath once and for all this time! Another irrepressibly fun reinvention is I Loves You Porgy, with a rapt, imploring raga intro and a diversion into a stern nigun.

A blend of latin and Yemeni rhythms help save Summertime from drifting into cliche-land. The cascading neoromantic take of Someone to Watch Over Me has a more aching intensity, although the whistling is annoying. The strutting version of They Can’t Take That Away From Me is the album’s funniest track: bassist Omri Hadani gets to delivery most of the punchlines.

Mintus opens the record with an eerily spiraling Israeli riff before punching into a colorfully ornamented, starkly swinging take of Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off along with Hadani’s bass and Yonatan Rosen’s drums. They take it out with a punchy doublespeed romp.

Mintus makes a diptych out of Fascinating Rhythm and I Got Rhythm, spiraling and clustering and sometimes crushing as the bass and drums swing tirelessly. The Debussy-esque reflecting pool of a segue between them is an unexpected treat.

Darkly Glistening, Blissfully Tuneful Improvisation From Pianist Cat Toren’s Human Kind

Pianist Cat Toren’s new album Scintillating Beauty – streaming at Bandcamp – references a Martin Luther King quote about what the world would be like if we were able to conquer racism and achieve true equality. But the title is just as apt a description of the music. Toren has always been one of the most reliably melodic improvisers in the New York creative music scene, and her group Human Kind achieve a similarly high standard of tunefulness here. Jazz these days seldom sounds so effortlessly symphonic.

The epic opening cut is Radiance in Veils, sax player Xavier del Castillo introducing a balmy, Indian-tinged nocturnal theme immediately echoed by oudist Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor as Toren glistens and ripples spaciously in the upper registers behind them. The bandleader glides into Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics and then pounces hard as the bass and drums develop an elegant syncopation, del Castillo and Fruchter weaving a similar gravitas. Shuddering sax and torrential piano fuel a couple of big crescendos, Toren and Leckie team up for a tersely dancing passage and Fruchter pulls uneasily away from a broodingly emphatic center. The great Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani comes to mind.

The lush, rapturous Middle Eastern ambience continues in Garment of Destiny, from the flourishes of Toren’s solo intro, through Fruchter’s hypnotic oud solo over reflecting-pool piano chords. Del Castillo adds nocturnal ambience and then agitation matching the murk rising behind him.

Ignus Fatuus is a moody midtempo swing number, Toren doing a more allusively chromatic take on Errol Garner, del Castillo taking his most jaggedly intense, spine-tingling solo here. Toren switches to funeral-parlor organ to open the closing diptych, Rising Phoenix, Fruchter leading the band into a reflective calm spiced with Toren’s many bells and rattles. Her switch to the piano signals an increasingly bustling return from dreamland, del Castillo a confidently bluesy light in the darkness. The second part has a bittersweet, rather stern soul-infused sway, Honor and the rest of the band finally seizing the chance to cut loose. In Toren’s view, we all make it to the mountaintop. This is one of the best and most memorable jazz albums of the year.

A Brilliant, Scorchingly Lyrical Short Album From Swedish Rockers the Plastic Pals

Stockholm band the Plastic Pals are connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk. Frontman Håkan “Hawk” Soold sings in English and writes sharp, sardonic, spot-on lyrics in a very individualistic vernacular. The cover image of their new ep It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine – streaming at Bandcamp – nails their sensibility, a municipal worker on a bridge struggling with a chain while a shiny expanse of skyscrapers looms ahead.

They open with their signature song, Plastic Pal, a scorching mashup of Radio Birdman, the Buzzcocks and the Clash. In two minutes eighteen seconds, they let you know they want no part of any New Abnormal:

I’ve got a brain the size of a planet
And they have me parking cars
I’m cruising through the universe
For some money in my tip jar
Artificial intelligence sex dolls
And self-driving cars
I need a better option
Than stumbling home from the bars

They completely flip the script with the second track, If Love Should Call, a slow, pastoral Velvets-inspired nocturne with a subtle revolutionary message:

You say life is like a circus
Well here you are, there’s the ring
Do you comply with the terms of service?
You fly like a butterfly but how do you sting?

The layers of jangly, lingering guitars – that’s Soold and Anders Sahlin – are exquisite.

With a completely different twin-guitar attack, Hangin´in the Louvre is a slashingly cynical, backbeat-driven minor-key anthem, its secret agent man waiting for the museum to close so the team can pull off the heist.

They close the album with More Than an Icon,, bassist Bengt Alm and drummer Olov Öqvist driving the new wave pulse:

Like Elvis, you left the building, you just took your cross and split
This planet wasn’t big enough for you
Palm branches at your feet, the future was already writ
A classic case of too much too soon

Along with Karla Rose‘s ep from earlier this year, this is one of the best short albums of 2020.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.

A Chilling Lockdown Halloween Song From the Grasping Straws

In an elegant, poetic minute and thirty-nine seconds, Mallory Feuer captures the surreal horror and cognitive dissonance of this year’s lockdown hell in her new single Quarantine Halloween. It’s totally acoustic, released under the name of her power trio the Grasping Straws and streaming at Bandcamp.

For Halloween, democracy is dressed up like money
Who’s a sheep? We’re all dressed as sheep
Consuming news like candy

Right up until the lockdown, Feuer maintained a busy schedule playing all over New York, whether as the Grasping Straws’ frontwoman and guitarist, or as the drummer in the darkly psychedelic Mischief Night with guitarist Marcus Kitchen.

Feuer suggests trying to find a movie scarier than this reality. Watch for this one on the best songs of 2020 page at the end of next month