New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: November, 2020

Prime, Incendiary, Epically Relevant Live Mingus Rescued From the Archives

Even if he was just walking the changes to an otherwise pedestrian blues, Charles Mingus would inevitably infuse it with the irony, and dark humor, and quite possibly righteous rage that characterized his compositions. On April 16, 1964, in a modest auditorium attached to the local radio station in Bremen, Germany, Mingus didn’t reach for the rage immediately, but he channeled everything else, an icon always searching to find new ways to articulate himself. In doing that, he elevated the hall-of-fame lineup alongside him to rare levels of intensity and wild, reckless fun. The recording of the simulcast has been out there for awhile, as The Complete Bremen Concert. It’s  been newly digitized, and most of it is  available on a mammoth quadruple album along with a second performance in the same city from more than ten years later. These often withering historical performances, titled Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, are streaming at Sunnyside Records.

Two concerts, two completely different contexts. 1964: in America, Jim Crow is still de jure rather than de facto, Mingus focused intently on civil rights themes. 1975, post-Attica massacre, the composer turns his attention to prisoners’ rights while not neglecting general issues of equality. Either way, his fiercely populist vision never wavered.

The sound for the first show is broadcast-quality mono awash in generous reverb. The second one has a a far more dynamic stereo mix. Together they total more than four hours of the legendary bassist with two almost completely different but equally incendiary bands.

The first show features a dream team of players, many of them as revered as the bandleader. Eric Dolphy, in one of his last recordings here, plays alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard on a piano in, um, saloon tuning, and colorful, underrated, longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

How do you keep a crowd engaged in a 26-minute blues? Get these guys involved; the bandleader’s terse irony is a big part of it, as is Dolphy’s irrepressible outsider sensibility. Their 34-minute take of Fables of Faubus, the lone holdover that would reappear in the 1975 setlist, has plenty of cruelly cartoonish mockery of the little Hitler governor of Arkansas, but also a venomous duet between Mingus and Byard, vindictive blaze and chilling noir swing, Coles’ mournful lines backlit by Dolphy’s bass clarinet – which emerges as voice of both horror and reason.

Byard teases the audience with phantasmagorical stride one step beyond Monk to introduce a delicate bass/piano take of Sophisticated Lady. The group indulge the crowd as much as themselves in Mingus’ Parkeriana, a careening mashup of Bird themes, Dolphy hitting those high harmonics like probably only their composer could have. In Meditations on Integration, they take an immersive roller-coaster ride from poignancy to haphazardly floating swing and for awhile, more optimistic terrain. The brooding triangulation between Byard’s crushing chords, Dolphy’s ominous airiness and Mingus’ severe, bowed lines at the end is one of the album’s most shattering interludes.

The July 9, 1975 concert at a larger venue, Post Aula, features a quintet including George Adams on tenor sax, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen, with Richmond on drums again. This time the songs are more succinct, in contrast with the sheer wildness of the solos. Their first number here is the epically bustling ballad Sue’s Changes (Mingus’ beloved wife Sue was editor of Changes magazine), with expansive, explosive solos all around. Mingus’ bass is far grittier and dynamic on this recording, probably due to close-miking. Pullen’s turbulence against his long chromatic vamp paints an aptly formidable portrait.

A broodingly bluesy, angst-fueled take of Sy Johnson’s tribute For Harry Carney is next, Adams whirling and punching, mostly in the lows, over a catchy, modally shamanic pulse. Mingus’ aching microtonal solo as Pullen runs the hook is tantalizingly brief. Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA – a protest piece against grim conditions in southern prisons’ death row blocks – is surprisingly, scamperingly bright, all the soloists in determined, seemingly defiant mode as this swing shuffle takes on more of a latin feel.

The group scramble and pulse insistently through Walrath’s Black Bats and Poles, anchored by Mingus’ vamping octaves and lickety-split variations. The version of Fables of Faubus this time around clocks in at a comparatively modest fifteen-plus minutes, much more contiguously and solo-centric after the band careen their way in.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, Mingus’ fond elegy for his big influence, provides a calm platform for tender Adams and Walrath solos, and gentle lyricism from piano and bass. They indulge in a brief bit of Ray Noble’s Cherokee to pick up the pace and end the set.

The first of the encores is the catchy, briskly swinging Remember Rockefeller at Attica, with bright, crescendoing trumpet and piano solos, Adams’ rapidfire attack leading the band out. He takes a similarly impassioned turn on vocals to close the night with Devil’s Blues after a sagacious Mingus solo intro. Is it unfair to compare new material by contemporary artists to the transcendence on this album? Wait and see when – and if – we reach the moment where there’s a best albums of 2020 list here.

Witheringly Smart, Cynical Oldschool Soul, Gospel and Funk From Fantastic Negrito

Multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito a.k.a. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz has been pumping out fearlessly populist, cynically amusing, pro-freedom songs that span the worlds of oldschool soul, hard funk, hip-hop and gospel music since the zeros. His deliciously layered, often witheringly lyrical latest album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is streaming at Spotify. It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s a clinic in vintage soul music, the layers of guitar and organ are killer, and you’ll see it on the list of the best albums of 2020 here at the end of December. If you miss Prince, this guy picks up where he left off.

The first track is Chocolate Samurai, a gritty ba-bump roadhouse blues theme mashed up with some psychedelic hard funk and swirly gospel organ: a sly message to free ourselves from mental slavery, as Bob Marley put it.

I’m So Happy I Could Cry is a similarly high-voltage minor-key gospel hip-hop number complete with passionate guest vocals from Tarriona Ball of Tank and the Bangas. How Long? is next, a brooding, savagely wise soul tune in a bluesy Gil Scott-Heron vein:

To alll the baby Al Capones
Out there screaming all alone
Full of shit, full of hope
Holding on
We can repeat the same old lies
That make us feel all right
Try to escape
But but we gotta fight the scary ones
…moving so fast, spitting out hashtags
But the lynch mob’s ready to kill

The saturnine guitar solo midway through packs a wallop.

Searching For Captain Save A Hoe features golden age Bay Area rapper E-40, in a darkly organic, soul-infused reprise of his surreal, sarcastic 1993 stoner classic. Your Sex Is Overrated is more subtly amusing than you would think – and the expertly guitar-infused, darkly jazzy early 70s soul ballad atmosphere is spot-on.

These Are My Friends is a strutting, gospel-tinged chronicle of the shady characters Fantastic Negrito surrounds himself with. “Things that don’t kill you in this lockdown will only make you stronger,” he reminds. Easier said than done!

“You want me kissing your ass and you know I never could do that,” he explains in All Up In My Space, an eerie mashup of noir 60s soul and hip-hop, with a slithery organ solo. He brings in a harder funk edge in Platypus Dipster, the album’s most psychedelic number – the ending is priceless. He winds up the record with King Frustration, blending vintage soul, searing Chicago blues and early 70s Stevie Wonder in a fervently detailed message to the masses to wake up. We’ve never needed music this good as much as we do now. 

Edgy, Memorable Rainy-Day Jazz From Jorma Tapio & Kaski

Reedman Jorma Tapio & Kaski play purposeful, moody jazz that shifts between incisive compositions and thoughtful, cohesive improvisation. Their latest album Aliseen is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Reppurin Laulu, a bracingly terse melody with Tapio on alto sax, choosing his spots over an ominously hypnotic, boomy, qawwali-inflected gallop from bassist Ville Rauhala and drummer Janne Tuomi. They immediately flip the script with Henkaeys, a study in eerie, airy extended technique over a muted swing and then spare cymbal accents.

The spare fragmentary bass-and-sax riffs of the next track, Lasten Juhlat expand to more of a wry conversation as the drums linger off to the side, a deadpan bowed bass solo at the center. From there the group edge their way into Siltasalmi, a slow, brooding ballad, interrupted by desolate solos from bass and drums

Tapio switches to throaty-toned flute for the lithely swinging She’s Back and stays there through Lost, a ghostly tableau punctuated by sparse bass and cymbal whispers. With allusively modal sax, incisive bass chords and Tuomi’s light-fingered touch on the cymbals and snare, Manner brings to mind JD Allen’s trio work, at that group’s most pensive.

Tapio returns to flute for Huli, a catchy, upbeat miniature. The album’s most epic track, Way Off again evokes Allen’s work in a more turbulent context as the bandleader choose his spots and wails with the bass and drums each clustering in separate corners; Rauhala provides a moody, spacious solo at the center.

The album winds up with Nukunuku, a study in contrasts between warmly muted flute and gritty bowed bass, and then the marching title track, the bass’ reedy harmonics mimicking a harmonica. If this was a shot at maintaining a consistent mood throughout a whole slew of styles, it’s a calmly smashing success.

Phantasmagoria and Playful Jousting on Sylvie Courvoisier’s Latest Trio Album

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s music can be dark and pensive, but a puckish sense of humor often pops up unexpectedly. Free Hoops, her latest album with one of the few consistent, long-running trios in jazz, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, is one of her most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s one of the high points in what’s been a long, ceaselessly creative run for her since the zeros. For jazz fans who might miss Kris Davis’ work from when she was exclusively a pianist, Courvoisier is a bracing breath of fresh air.

Marionettish, low-register scrambles alternate with saturnine, latin-inflected chords and playful, flitting exchanges throughout the album’s title track, Wollesen getting to wryly circle the perimeter. Similarly phantasmagorical, circling riffage kicks off the second number, Lulu Dance, Wollesen again volleying colorfully around the kit as Courvoisier runs the riff against Gress’ muted rhythm, up to another coy game of tag from the three musicians and then back.

Just Twisted is exactly that: crepuscular glimmers, a bit of a grim boogie, cold low accents, slashes and rattles from the whole ensemble. The three coalesce flickeringly into Requiem Pour Un Songe. imagine Bill Mays playing a vampy David Lynch set piece by Angelo Badalamenti, with a dancing bass solo followed by a slightly crazed piano break in the middle.

Courvoisier’s eerie, glittering phrases follow Gress’ clave in As We Are, before the rhythm comes apart and elbows start flying. Then in Birdies of Paradise, the bass, atmospheric cymbals and Wollesen’s tongue-in-cheek avian flickers follow Courvoisier’s poltergeist neoromantic flourishes. Finally, six songs into the record, Gress hits a tritone or two.

The insistent intro to Galore is the album’s most overtly macabre interlude, then the trio hit a slow, stark, funky, swing: this Frankenstein walks on tiptoe. Bits of Lynchian stripper swing and icy Messiaenic climbs mingle in Nicotine Sarcoline, Wollesen luring Courvoisier to a vengeful crescendo. They close the record with Highway 1, rising out of an ominously rumbling, shivering nightscape to a grimly minimalist, ghostly analogue of a Rachmaninoff prelude and then back, sinister waves gently eroding the coastline. A strong contender for best jazz album of 2020.

Andrée Burelli Builds Elegant Ambience with Classical Tinges

Keyboardist Andrée Burelli writes drifting, hypnotic ambient music with pensive, sometimes distinctly dark neoromantic themes. Her album De Sidera- streaming at Bandcamp – is a good choice for meditation, multitasking to a pleasant backdrop, or drifting away in a cloud of bluish smoke on a rainy weekend afternoon.

As she sees it, the first track, Mediterraneo, is a sad place, portrayed by loopy, stark piano awash in echo and spiced with frequent splashes up against the shore. Those, in turn, eventually waft through the echo patch, a recurrent device here.

In the title piece, Burelli positions a distant, spare bassline amid washes of sound, raising the energy with her wordless, melismatically Balkan-tinged vocals.

Ultimi Raggi has what sounds like mutedly flaring guitar amid the swirl and the occasional shooting star falling to earth. In Pezzi Sopra La Tua Pelle is a sunny, slowly uwinding, Eno-ish tune, followed by the cheery miniature Aquilone Perduto, an evocation of birdsong.

Burelli’s airy vocals raise Cum Sidera out of desolation and suspense, then she brings back the spare, elegant piano in Natura Domina. She winds up the record with Cuore Di Piume, a sort of baroque chorale study in wave motion, and the windswept, pensive Leggeri Come Cenere.

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

Smart, Diverse, Lyrical Acoustic Americana From the Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers first exploded onto the Americana scene in the zeros as a pretty straight-up bluegrass band, but in the years since then they’ve become a lot more diverse. They’re just as informed by oldschool honkytonk as they are by hi-de-ho swing and punkgrass jamband music. Their latest album Arm in Arm is streaming at Bandcamp.

The third track, Sunny Days is a classic example of why these guys have such a big following. It’s a big singalong anthem, a showcase for banjo player Graham Sharp’s sizzling lines over guitarist Woody Platt’s punchy chords, fiddler Nicky Sanders sailing over bassist Barrett Smith’s steady pulse. When they take it down for a suspenseful break and then build up again, it’s Mike Guggino’s mandolin that’s out front. Old Crow Medicine Show made a living with songs like these for years, and so have the Steep Canyon Rangers. Crowds love this kind of stuff – and it’s a crime that in most parts of the United States, crowds aren’t allowed to come out to see it these days.

Everything You Know is another killer cut, a slow, hauntingly lyrical parable of imperialist evil and how to hang under the radar away from it. It could be the Jayhawks. In the year of the lockdown, this one really packs a wallop.

The rest of the record runs the gamut. Skipping right to the last track, Crystal Ship, to see if it was a crazy cover of the Doors song, turned out to be a false alarm: it’s an original, a subdued, slow, spare, melancholy ballad. Opening the album, One Drop of Rain follows a pretty standard newgrass pattern: enigmatic verse, catchy anthemic chorus.

Platt breaks out his electric slide guitar for Every River over drummer Michael Ashworth’s low-key drive, with some searing interplay with the fiddle. Honey on My Tongue has more of a low-key front-porch folk vibe, while In the Next Life diverges into wry, midtempo, syncopated Americana rock.

Bullet in the Fire is a pensive, stoically philosophical mandolin-driven ballad, followed by Take My Mind, a brisk shuffle featuring Oliver Wood and Michael Bearden. There’s also a sly, fiddle-fueled pickup number, A Body Like Yours and the Grateful Dead-influenced Afterglow.

Darkly Focused, Kinetic Themes and Improvisations From Pianist Mara Rosenbloom

Pianist Mara Rosenbloom picked the most politically-charged possible title for her new album: Respiration. From George Floyd to the average corporate employee struggling for oxygen through his or her muzzle, that’s the one thing – other than basic human rights – that the world didn’t get enough of in 2020. To be clear, Rosenbloom made this record with her trio, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, just prior to the lockdown. She got her start as an elegantly tuneful composer and bandleader, has very eclectic credits as a sidewoman and has drifted further into the more adventurous reaches of pure improvisation in the last couple of years.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – doesn’t have the raw, feral intensity of what’s been her career-defining release so far, 2016’s Prairie Burn. It’s more somber and concise than viscerally crushing, if just as tuneful – as you would expect, with an intro based on a theme by the iconic Amina Claudine Myers. That turns out to be a loopy little latin-tinged thing with subtle accents from the bass.

Things pick up quickly from there with The Choo, which is just plain gorgeous. Rosenbloom’s warmly insistent, gospel-tinged lefthand anchors an increasingly anthemic soul song without words set to a muted shuffle beat, which she takes it down to a long, spare, summery, mostly solo outro.

The group improvise a lingering yet rhythmic transition aptly titled Daydream into a duskily otherworldly, rubato take of Caravan mashed up with Connie’s Groove, a similarly enigmatic, dancing Connie Crothers homage.

She keeps the uneasy modaliaties going in Uncertain Bird, veering in and out of purist, darkly ambered blues as the rhythm section kick things around, down to a tantalizingly fleeting, ghostly interlude and then back as an altered waltz. In The Ballad for Carolyn Trousers (Carol in Trousers), Rosenbloom skirts a famous Chopin theme and makes it vastly more lighthearted, once again blending in the blues over an allusive 3/4 groove.

Conly breaks out his bow and Taylor tumbles mutedly while the bandleader builds haunting, spacious minor-key lustre in their take of the spiritual Have Mercy Upon Us: her relentless, minimalist mantra of an outro is arguably the high point of the album.

She returns to the album’s opening circularity in Ramblin’ on Her Mind, inspired by the Lightnin’ Hopkins version of the blues standard. To close the record, Rosenbloom draws the band back into Caravan as a saturnine march out. You are going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 pages this year.

Hauntingly Imagistic, Socially Aware Songs From Australia’s Emily Barker

Beyond the increasingly Orwellian nightmare of communist China, what the lockdowners have done to Australia is a crime unequaled in antipodean history. Infants torn from their mothers by police enforcing muzzle regulations, pregnant women arrested for pro-freedom Facebook posts, food production facilities shut down in order to starve citizens into submission: the list of atrocities is endless. Meanwhile, lockdowner collaborators in the Australian government have been busy recruiting diverse representatives of the country’s many ethnicities to star in reality tv-style pro-lockdown propaganda videos, for pay. All this is going to happen in America, and everywhere else, if we don’t end the lockdown. And then hold Nuremberg trials for those responsible.

One can only hope Australian songwriter Emily Barker has been spared from the bulk of the country’s assault on human rights. Under the regime, any ecologically aware, politically-inspired songwriter would seem to be imperiled. She paints haunting pictures with few words, is a strong folk-rock tunesmith and sings with an understated intensity. Her latest album A Dark Murmuration of Words is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Return Me has an easygoing, sparely loping groove but also a stark string arrangement and otherworldly, reverb-toned banjo. The second track, Geography is a wistful midtempo shuffle with the strings and also organ hovering in the distance, Barker contemplating how much the idea of home is an actual space, or a mindspace.

“From a prison cell, you dreamt of trees while the blood dries up upon your cheek,” Barker sings in The Woman Who Planted Trees, a brooding, minor-key fingerpicked tune. “You didn’t know, you never heard, around the world, people learned.” Barker takes her inspiration from the struggles of Nobel Prizewinning Kenyan ecological activist Wangari Maathai.

The album’s most unforgettable song is Where Have the Sparrows Gone. It’s an understatedly harrowing, baroque-tinged double narrative, an imagistic travelogue that’s both an eco-disaster parable and an elegy for an unnamed individual whose ashes are about to be scattered.

Over an elegantly picked web of acoustic and electric guitars, Barker paints an allusively detailed portrait of rural poverty and impending natural disaster in Strange Weather: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook.

“I made it harder the more your skin is dark,” Barker’s white supremacist prison-industrial complex oligarch narrator sings cynically in Machine, a surreal mashup of trip-hop and 19th century African-American gospel

Organ and banjo mingle in When Stars Cannot Be Found, a gently shuffling lullaby. The strings return with a moody bluster in Ordinary, a troubled return to allusive environmental disaster imagery.

With lingering baritone guitar and organ, Any More Goodbyes is the most American country-flavored and gorgeously bittersweet tune here. Barker closes the record with Sonogram, a piano-and-vocal number which could be about pregnancy, or something much less auspicious. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

A Gorgeous, Prophetic Protest Anthem From the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

After years of fronting the brilliantly lyrical, psychedelic Jigsaw Seen, Dennis Davison made waves with his similarly tuneful solo debut album earlier this year. As it turned out, he has a lot more material in the can than just the tunes on that album, including his visionary latest single, The Monuments, a name-your-price download at Bandcamp.

The cover alone will creep you out: a corpse-like statue in tribute to the “Confederate States of America 1861-1865.” But look closer: the statue has been splattered with paint. Over a lush, brooding web of twelve-string guitar and bass, Davison warns of a paradigm shift. The dictator at the center of the story won’t budge:

You live in peace
Upon the gift of my consent
I’ll set you free
The day that they topple the monuments

But Davison knows that they’re going to be “ground into powder, the graven marble recast.” Take off that muzzle, hug your friends, we’re free! Watch for this at the top of the best songs of 2020 page here at the end of the year.