New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: December, 2020

A Creepy, Trippy Maxi-Single For a Creepy Year From Scorpio 70

“People are eating people now,” drummer Guy Bibi observes about ten minutes into Scorpio 70’s new “horror motorik spacerock” soundscape, Space Madness, streaming at Bandcamp.

From a distance, it reminds of the most vast segments of 17 Pygmies’ classic album Celestina, one of the most haunting outer space psychedelic albums ever made.

This one takes a long time to get going. Keyboardist Yair Etziony sets the stage with his layers of blips and twisted radio transmissions. Eventually guitarist Barry Berko joins the picture, sparely and warily over the dirgelike wave motion that rises behind him. Bassist Benjamin Esterlis finally introduces a slow dub reggae pulse before the music decays to a slowly turning vortex again. 

Transient Canvas Have Irrepressible Fun with Bass Clarinet and Marimba

What is the likelihood that a bass clarinet and marimba duo would even exist, let alone commission over sixty new compositions for such an unorthodox pairing? Transient Canvas – bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimba player Matt Sharrock – cover all the bases in the lows and the highs, and have built an often absolutely fascinating body of work. For anyone who feels daunted or overwhelmed by the sheer effort it’s going to take for us to end the lockdown, this group’s very existence is an inspiration: if they can succeed, so can we. The irrepressible duo’s latest album Right Now, in a Second is streaming at Bandcamp.

As is typical for this pair, there’s a lot going on here: this is new classical music as entertainment. They open with Barbara White’s Fool Me Once, beginning with a series of variations on a catchy, circling bass clarinet riff, Advocat up the scale just a little below the marimba. If the squall and then the hazy atmospherics afterward aren’t improvised, White’s done a great job imitating it. Looming ambience, a playful game of knuckles and a more wistful conversation ensue, going out with a wry whisper. Likewise, Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Rebounds begins with good-natured call-and-response and then calms, the amusement factor growing more subtle. 

Emily Koh’s \Very/ Specifically Vague is inspired by from Singaporean English patois, Advocat’s precise trills and the occasional upward flare contrasting with Sharrock’s anchoring accents and ripples. Clifton Ingram’s triptych Cold Column, Calving draws on the 2008 Jakobshavn Glacier calving incident where a chunk of ice the size of lower Manhattan broke off into the Atlantic.  The composer also seeks to explore the development (some would say devolution) of bicameral brain hemispheres. Again, a lot of call-and-response is involved, in a spare, spritely, noirish, Bernard Herrmann-ish sense. Told you there was a lot going on here!

Resonance Imaging, by Crystal Pascucci reflects the composer’s many angst-filled experiences inside a MRI tube, both via a sardonic evocation of  mechanical blips and buzzes, and Advocat’s resolute spirals and sheets of sound as Sharrock edges toward more lyrical territory. A MRI as edge-of-your seat carnival ride, who knew?

The album’s title track, by Stefanie Lubkowski is a neat interweave of alternately sustained and rhythmic riffs for the duo to negotiate. They wind up the record with the jaunty, lilting, minimalist variations of Keith Kirchoff’s Monochrome.

Lively Ambience From Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti and Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti is a violist on a mission to build the repertoire for her instrument. One of the most captivating, immersive albums she’s released to date is her recording of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s electroacoustic triptych Sola, streaming at Bandcamp.

For many listeners and critics, Thorvaldsdottir epitomizes the vast, windswept Icelandic compositional sensibility of recent decades. This mini-suite is on the livelier side of that zeitgeist. The first movement begins with slow modulations, dopplers and flickers of wind in the rafters of some abandoned barn on the tundra – or at least its sonic equivalent. However, Lanzilotti gets many chances to add austere color and the occasional moment of levity via steady, emphatic phrases and the occasional coy glissando.

There are places where it’s hard to figure out which is which, Lanzilotti’s nuanced, delicate harmonics, or Thorvaldsdottir’s own keening electronics, which are processed samples recorded earlier on the viola. The brooding, droning, fleeting second movement seems to be all Lanzilotti – at least until the puckish ending. The conclusion is more lush, similarly moody and enigmatically microtonal, again with the occasional playful flourish. Even in the badlands, life is sprouting in the ruts.

As a bonus, the album includes a podcast of sorts with both performers discussing all sorts of fascinating nuts-and-bolts details, from composing to performing. Listening to Thorvaldsdottir enthusing about traveling to premieres and leading master classes will break your heart: based in the UK, her career as a working composer has been crushed by the Boris Johnson regime.

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

The Lockdown Can’t Stop Satoko Fujii, Ikue Mori and Natsuki Tamura From Making Gorgeous, Haunted Music

Very little of the music made over the web since the lockdown is worth hearing. Rhythms are jittery, the playing is over-careful, maybe in keeping with conventional wisdom – never a good thing to fall back on. And mixes are haphazard, considering the vast variations in sonics between locations. In that context, pianist Satoko Fujii’s new album Prickly Pear Cactus with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and laptop pioneer Ikue Mori is even more of a triumph.

it started with two old buds from the Stone scene swapping files over the web. To Mori’s immense credit as engineer and sonic architect, she lets Fujii be Fujii and keeps the electronics in sync with the music’s characteristically vast, often unselfconsciously poignant emotional content

Fujii, as usual, is transcendent. Thoughtful and focused to the nth degree, this is persistently troubled but also resolutely energetic music. “We encouraged each other to help us deal with a crazy and dangerous global situation,” Fujii explains. And how.

The electronic waterfall that opens the album’s title track is a red herring: this isn’t one of Mori’s cyclotron remixes. Fujii moves somberly and spaciously further into the picture, soon cutting loose torrents in the low registers in contrast to Mori’s twinkles, Tamura hanging sepulchrally on the fringes. Unresolved as it remains, Fujii’s stygian descent at the end is a welcome payoff.

Fujii’s spare, guarded neoromantic lines mingle with Mori’s bloops and bleeps in Sweet Fish. Mori delicately shadows Fujii’s scrambles, clusters and incisions in Guerrilla Rain. This particular Mountain Stream moves more like a glacier, Tamura’s wispy extended technique barely present. One of the great extrovert wits in jazz, he looks absolutely disconsolate on the album cover. Who can blame him.

Five tracks in, we finally get the surreal, desolate epic Overnight Mushroom, beginning as a soundscape with Fujii first inside the piano, then circling in the lows with frequently creepy Satie-esque chromatics. The considerably shorter Empty Factory makes a good segue: it’s basically a second movement.

In the Water begins with Fujii’s eerie, mutedly bell-like prepared piano, which gives way to what could be an approximation of whale song from her bandmates. Her ominous return is one of the album’s most riveting interludes

She goes back to clusters and Satie, building suspense in the lows before rising toward Russian Romantic majesty in Turning. Tamura whistles and flurries over Fujii’s kinetic rumbles in Muddy Stream. The album’s concluding epic is Sign, Fujii tracing a spacious, stark trajectory through the desolation. What a gorgeous and haunting record.

The Best Manhattan and Brooklyn Music Venues of 2020

Every year since 2007, this blog and its predecessor would salute a venue from both Manhattan and Brooklyn as the best in its respective borough. The premise was to give props to clubs and spaces that might be flying a little under the radar but deserved to be better known.

In the beginning, there was no shortage of venues to choose from. As the years went by, gentrification took its ugly toll. In Manhattan, especially, trying to come up with a new pick every year became more and more of a challenge. In 2020, with the lockdowners hell-bent on destroying the arts around the world, the only commercial spaces in New York where musicians were allowed to perform for pay after March 16 were restaurants. In an edict that will go down in infamy, dictator Andrew Cuomo’s State Liquor Authority prohibited any kind of music that wasn’t “incidental.” Consider: the SLA were given the right to determine who can and who can’t be booked to perform. It’s as if we’re living in North Korea, or the old Soviet Union.

But New York musicians and devotees of the arts weren’t about to be stopped by a fascist regime. In private homes and back gardens, on lawns and in parks, on streetcorners and under monuments, in cemeteries, vacated classrooms and the backs of empty trucks, church basements, disused gyms and shuttered retail backrooms, you gathered to keep music alive: unafraid, unmuzzled and undeterred.

When the lockdown has been overthrown and the history is written, you will be remembered forever as heroes. You kept your musical chops up to speed, but even more importantly, you gave people hope at a time when there didn’t seem to be any. For that reason, the Best Manhattan Venue and Best Brooklyn Venue this year is your place. You earned it.

Diana Golden and Shawn Chang Resurrect Rare Haitian Gems For Cello and Piano

One of the very few positive developments to come out of the era of western imperialism was the spread of classical music around the globe. One of the most fascinating and lyrical albums of chamber music from over the past several months is cellist Diana Golden and pianist Shawn Chang’s collection of works by Haitiian composers, Tanbou Kache, streaming at Bandcamp.

The title means “hidden drum” in kreyol. Just as the clave is ubiquitous in latin music, the vodou drum rhythm – a similarly African import – persists in much of Haitian music, whether outright or implied. As is the case with many global traditions where the culture has been repressed by tyrannical regimes, Haitian popular song is ripe with signification and subtle political subtext. How much of that translates to the compositions here?

As you might imagine from the instrumentation, much of this is on the somber side. The duo open with early 20th century composer Justin Élie’s Légende Créole, a disquieted neoromantic piece originally for violin and piano with a fleetingly blithe interlude midway through. Golden takes her time expressively with the chromatics and minor-key solemnity of Werner Jaegerhuber’s Petite Suite for Solo Cello. While it’s another early 20th century work, it draws a straight line back to Bach, in terms of melody if not thematic development.

Contemporary composer Julio Racine’s arrangement of 20th century classical guitarist Frantz Casséus’ Suite Haïtienne makes a return to sober, spacious minor-key neoromanticism with dark folk tinges in the opening movement. Golden and Chang wistfully parse the second movement before Chang picks up with a merengue-inspired bounce in the third and in the vigorous conclusion, originally a hit for Harry Belafonte with the composer on guitar.

Carmen Brouard, one of the prime movers in 20th century Haitian composition, died at 96 in 2005. Sadly, it wasn’t until she moved to Montreal that she began to earn recognition beyond the land of her birth. Her Duo Sentimental, a song without words, alternates between a distantly acerbic, dancing anthemic sensibiilty and Brahmsian familiarity.

Julio Racine is represented by his Sonate à Cynthia, written in 2014 and the most recent piece here. The simmering, Piazzolla-esque passion of the opening movement gives Chang a welcome moment to come to the forefront, while Golden’s plaintive phrasing takes over at the end. The second has a broodingly chromatic, anthemic sway; Golden’s trills fuel the coda at the end. It’s arguably the album’s most memorable work.

The duo follow with a moody, minimalist, bluesy Daniel Bernard Roumain miniature and conclude the record with two works by another contemporary composer, Jean “Rudy” Perrault. Still Around, for solo cello has more distant Bach echoes than the first solo cello piece here.

Brother Malcolm… for cello and piano imagines Martin Luther King and Malcolm X discussing Barack Obama’s inauguration via a sternly crescendoing, Romantic trajectory, and what seems like very guarded triumph.

Beyond the sheer emotional impact of the music, this album has enormous historical value. If the rest of the Haitian classical repertoire is anything like this, it should be vastly better known.

Guitarist Kurt Leege Reinvents Jazz Classics As Envelopingly Ambient, Richly Psychedelic Soundscapes

There’s considerable irony in that Kurt Leege, one of the most interesting guitarists in all of ambient music, first made his mark as a feral lead player, beginning with Curdlefur, then Noxes Pond and finally System Noise, New York’s best art-rock band of the zeros. Leege’s new album Sleepytime Jazz – streaming at Bandcamp – is his second solo release, a similarly celestial follow-up to his 2018 record Sleepytime Guitar, where he reinvented old folk tunes and spirituals as lullabies.

This one is calm, elegant, drifty music with a subtle, soulful edge, a mix of jazz classics from John Coltrane, to Miles Davis, to Herbie Hancock and Louis Armstrong. Leege layers these tracks meticulously, typically using his ebow to build a deep-space wash and then adding terse, thoughtful, often strikingly dynamic multitracks overhead. This may be on the quiet side, but it’s also incredibly psychedelic. Play it at low volume if you feel like drifting off; crank it and discover the beast lurking deep within.

Blue in Green has spiky, starry chords and resonant David Gilmour-like phrases fading deep into spacious, hypnotically echoing ebow vastness. Leege has always been a connoisseur of the blues, and that cuts through – literally – in At Last, his spare, gentle but incisive single-note lines over the starry resonance behind him. And Coltrane’s Spiritual is much the same, and even more starkly bluesy: shine on you distant diamond.

Georgia on My Mind comes across as opiated Wes Montgomery with distant Memphis soul echoes. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage could be a particularly immersive, atmospheric interlude by 70s art-rock cult favorites Nektar.

Leege reinvents My Funny Valentine, artfully shifting up the metrics with equal parts Pink Floyd grandeur and Bill Frisell tenderness. He hits waltz time even more head-on in his version of Naima, the fastest and most hauntingly direct of all these slow numbers.

Neferititi, appropriately, is the album’s most delicate and hypnotic piece. The echoes come in waves most noticeably throughout Tenderly, tersely layered from top to bottom. And Leege’s take of What a Wonderful World is as anthemic as it is warmly enveloping. What a gorgeous record. It’s a real find for fans of jazz, ambient music, psychedelic rock, or for that matter anyone who just wants to escape to a comforting sonic cocoon

A Brilliant, Badass, Inventive Debut Album by Jazz Singer Joanna Berkebile

Every year, this blog receives scores of albums by jazz singers. Most of them are women, and most of those are in their fifties or older. These records, most of them available on cd, seem to be audio resumes, something a veteran of restaurant and bar gigs can use to get more of the same, or to sell there as souvenirs. Very few of them contain any originals. Fewer still hold up to repeated listening.

Once in awhile there’s a blast of fresh air from a younger singer like the Swingaroos’ Kimberly Hawkey, or polymath Champian Fulton, or the badass Brianna Thomas, who’s in a class by herself. So it’s refreshing to see Kansas City-based singer Joanna Berkebile come right out of the chute swinging with her debut album Love Me or Leave Me, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s firing on all cylinders. She has a badass sense of humor, she sings in character with a strong, mutable, vintage soul-infused soprano, she has great taste in songs and an equally inspired band behind her. Pianist Leslie Maclean gets credit for the inventive arrangements, with Tim Brewer on bass and Jerry Pollock on drums.

This is also a remarkably upbeat, energetic album. A couple of klezmer-inspired tunes are among the strongest. The first is the opening track, Blossom Dearie’s The Gentleman Is a Dope, done as straight-up swing with a devious bit of a tempo change and a purposeful bass solo, i.e. the good kind, plus a subtly glittering crescendo from Maclean before the last chorus. Berkebile starts out brassy but shifts toward poignancy as the song grows more complicated. This version should be required listening for any woman eating her heart out over some unattainable dude.

The other is Comes Love, which Berkebile and the band do as a spacious midtempo clave tune with a wry matter-of-factness that echoes the song’s roots. They reinvent Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby by ramping up the carnivalesque, Cab Calloway hi-de-ho factor, something she goes even deeper into in Temptation. The late Amy Winehouse couldn’t touch the noir smolder Berkebile channels here.

Likewise, Berkebile ramps up the revenge in Goody Goody, Maclean adding ragtime flair, bass and drums hinting at vindictive vaudeville. She pulls back, but just a little in the brisk, defiant title track, complete with soaring, triumphant scatting solo and some ridiculously funny moments from the rhythm section.

Although Berkebile’s take of Mean to Me has an undercurrent of exasperation, the band have just as much devious fun with it. Maclean’s glimmering, emphatic chords propel My Last Affair, Berkebile’s most dynamically bristling number here.

The album’s most expansive track is a stunningly moody, modally-tinged version of Peel Me a Grape, Berkebile relishing her insatiable narrator’s litany of demands. For those whose taste in vocal jazz runs to demure coquetry, this is not it. But for those who like their singers on the fearless and indominatible side, Berkebile is someone to keep your eye on.

A Blast of Garage Punk Intensity From the Grasping Straws

All of a sudden, good things are starting to happen around the world: resistance movements are building toward critical mass, and more rock bands are starting to release new material. The Grasping Straws’ latest single Help – which just hit Bandcamp – sounds nothing like the fantastic, fantastical, all-acoustic Quarantine Halloween, which frontwoman Mallory Feuer released last month. This one’s a full-band song and sounds like a cross between Patti Smith and the early Damned. “Meet me in the darkest room…I’m falling, I don’t need help,” Feuer warns. Love that gritty, catchy bassline!