New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: January, 2021

Stirring Drama and Persistent Unease in Huang Ruo’s First Symphonic Album

Huang Ruo’s music is instantly recognizable and completely unique. He likes brass and percussion, but utilizes both in surprising ways, especially in his most horizontal moments. The many traditions of his native China are an influence, but subtly. Close harmonies, dense orchestration and the stately grandeur of Chinese court music are persistent tropes throughout his diverse new album Into the Vast World – streaming at Spotify – the first collection of his symphonic works. Liang Zhang conducts the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with equal parts fire and precision in this live concert performance from the fall of 2019.

Ruo himself shows off a dramatic, highly ornamented falsetto in his long a-cappella introduction to the pulsing first number, Shattered Steps – in an imaginary, improvised language. In the beginning this is a fanfare, it’s a dance, it’s driving and dramatic, with lots of bracing close harmonies. A sudden stillness fueled by unsettled brass and low flutters ensues; Zhang meticulously leads the ensemble up a long slope toward starrier but also more suspenseful textures. After a hint of a spring ritual, Ruo returns for the shivery coda.

Becoming Another, a study in contrasts between stillness and activity, has a persistent, enveloping tension, horizontality looming behind a series of increasingly animated motives. Counterintuitively, it grows more lustrously atmospheric as a minimalist fanfare spirals up through the cloud: John Luther Adams’ recent environmentally-themed work is a good point of comparison.

Ruo returns to the same dichotomy in Stil/Motion, which is more minimal, with simpler, persistent rhythms, and covers a wider dynamic range.

Mezzo-soprano Guang Yang sings two segments from Ruo’s opera An American Soldier, based on the short life of Private Danny Chen, who was murdered by fellow American troops during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. The first part, So That’s the Man, has an acidic, accusatory, gusty intensity as his mother witnesses the courtmartial of the racists who killed him. Yang delivers the first moment of distinctly Chinese pentatonics over restlessly drifting, brass-tinged atmosphere in the second, Lullaby: Sleep Now, Little One

The Two Pieces For Orchestra begin with a Fanfare which has more of the same brass and fleeting upper-register motives puncturing a dense, nebulous atmosphere. The second part, Announcement opens with a distant paraphrase of a Chinese riverboat song, tossing and then floating while the percussion section maintains a relentless intensity. The massed string glissandos are an unexpected extra shot of adrenaline and offer no hint of the windswept cello-fueled interlude afterward. The orchestra calmly sing the outro before one of Ruo’s characteristic, dramatic gong crashes at the end.

The orchestra wind up the album with four shorter works also based on folk themes. With its precise, racewalking beat and stabbing flutes, Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang has a martial feel. Love Song from Kang Ding and Little Blue Flower are the album’s most hypnotically circling piece, yet each also rises to a pulsing drama, the latter with a plaintive violin solo. The ensemble make a triumphant anthem out of The Girl from Da Ban City, a catchy taxi driver’s song, to wind up the album.

A Spot-On, Politically Fearless Live Album From the Impassioned Kemp Harris

Songwriter/pianist/activist/actor Kemp Harris has made a career out of absolutely smoking you with a lyric when you least expect it. His signature blend of politically smart oldschool soul, gospel and funk earned him a devoted following on the crunchy circuit. His gritty, expressive vocals hardly hint that he was in his late sixties the evening he played a dynamic, impassioned set on February 29, 2020 at the Bird in San Francisco with a pickup band. Less than two weeks later, concerts there were criminalized by California dictator Gavin Newsom in order to comply with a cabal of tech Nazis hell-bent on turning the entire world into an Orwellian surveillance state.

Harris’ show happened to be recorded, and has now been released as the album Live at the Bird SF. streaming at Bandcamp. It’s endemic of the glut of live recordings that no one at the time ever thought they’d release, which are now being dumped all over the web. If there’s any silver lining to this dismal era in human history, some of those shows turned out to be fantastic, and this one has its moments.

Harris opens the show as a duo with drummer Jim Lucchese. You’re going to want to start with the third track, Ruthie’s, a wise, aphoristic illustration of the utility of hanging away from idiots intent on starting a confrontation. “Escape from the lions, let the gladiator games begin,” Harris intones midway through.

He brings up bassist Jose Saravia and guitarist James Nash for a haphazardly swampy, simmering take of the political broadside Sweet Weeping Jesus. Saravia runs the hook from the Isley Bros.’ Money, underscoring the political context in the flood metaphors of Didn’t It Rain: “I saw the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time,” Harris avers.

The sarcasm, and the surprise punchline of Edenton are absolutely withering, Harris reflecting on his childhood in a supportive but insular North Carolina black community surrounded by sinister forces. He and the band hit a minimalist Bill Withers vamp that picks up with a funky syncopation in Invisible, with a hip hop-flavored interlude that looks back to an iconic Ralph Ellison novel.

After a medley of covers and a bit of a hopeful original in tribute to Martin Luther King, he turns in an emphatic, gospel-infused solo take of Willie Nelson’s Night Life, then brings the band back for a sly, funky, suggestive take of The Rain Came Down.

He gives Wiggle the same vibe with tinges of reggae and hip-hop, finds the inner hymn in Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, and closes the set with Swing Down Chariot, a funky remake of the gospel standard. The first of the encores is a late-period Buddy Guy-ish take of the blues Going Down. Harris winds up the night with a benedictory, hopeful solo version of Good Night America.

Revisiting One of the Funnest Albums Released by a Big Band in Recent Years

One of the funniest, most individualistically lavish albums ever to be featured on this page is Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra’s Telepathy & Bop, streaming at Spotify. The album cover image says a lot: a cartoon cyclops bounding down the subway stairs at 14th St. and 6th Ave., just as the doors on the L train are closing.

Just to be clear, this isn’t electronic music. Green’s compositions are totally organic, wildly picturesque and often irresistibly cartoonish. Brian Carpenter‘s many surreal rediscoveries from the 1930s and 1940s are a good point of comparison; Juan Esquivel’s most adventurous largescale works also come to mind. Green is a brilliant musical surrealist: all options seem to be on the table as these unpredictable and counterintuitive sonic narratives unfold.

The seventeen-piece group open the Basquiat-inspired first track, Boy & Dog in a Jonnypump with a big, brassy splash and then a wry, staggered cha-cha; Green very subtly builds tiptoeing but pillowy suspense, up to a long, gritty, Balkan-tinged Sungwon Kim guitar solo. Accordionist Nathan Koci takes over as everybody but the rhythm section drops out, then Green brings back the string section – that’s the PUBLIQuartet with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and Amanda Gookin bolstered by violist Nathan Schram and cellist Clarice Jenson. As the orchestra punch in and out, Kim goes shredding again. By ten minutes in, Todd Groves has wrapped up his cheery flute solo and the strings do A Day in the Life. They would really love to turn you on.

Green conjures a busy tv studio setting, individual voices bustling and skulking down the hallway in The Lauer Faceplant, based on a real-life head-on collision with a tv personality who was enjoying his fifteen minutes at the time. A gruff sax solo (that’s either Groves or Charles Pillow) leads to the moment of impact, which leaves the orchestra reeling, echo phrases bounding back and forth. A balletesque flute theme gives way to trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf’s return to tongue-in-cheek gruffness. Are we having fun yet?

The album’s title track is a triptych. The first part is a mashup of a woozily sirening cartoon tableau, Georgyi Ligeti somberness and a sideshow shooting gallery of individual voices, dat wabbit thumbing his nose at Elmer Fudd. Green brings back an expansion of an earlier Indian-flavored sax riff for the acidically resonant, fleetingly brief part two. The group tiptoe and pounce up to caffeinated clarinet and sax solos, the latter a duet with drummer Josh Bailey and a reprise of an earlier theme that’s too good to give away. Telepathic? Maybe. Bop? No question.

The gorgeously epic centerpiece here is La Victoire, inspired by Magritte’s famous cloud floating through a disembodied door. A wistful accordion theme quickly sinks in lush, nocturnal ambience, a jaunty sax solo leading the group upward as Michael Verselli’s piano adds incisive gleam amid the warmly inviting wash of sound. A dip to folksy contentment with the accordion quickly grows more luminous, sax leading the vividly triumphant upward drive: it’s Maria Schneider-worthy music.

Verselli introduces the distantly haunting, Ligeti-esque Nebula with a similarly glistening, eerily modal solo, drifting into deep-space minimalism and then icy contrasts. With individual voices shifting through a Darcy James Argue-esque staccato theme, the humor in Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba is more distant, at least until a ridiculous synth solo. The album’s closing cut, Soir Bleu – A Rag of Sorts draws on a surreal Edward Hopper image of a clown in a Parisian cafe. After a flicker of Django Reinhardt, the group work a pulse and a theme that grow more carnivalesque, Koci’s ambiguous solo enhancing the unease. With the strings edging into the macabre and Verselli’s noir cabaret solo, it’s by far the album’s darkest number. Nobody in this band is ever going to forget playing on this record: the rest of a very inspired cast includes clarinetist Jay Hassler, trumpeter John Lake and bassist Brian Courage.

So where the hell was this blog the night the band played the album release show at National Sawdust in the spring of 2017? At Barbes – big surprise, considering the New York music scene that year. Rest assured, there will be a music scene in this city again…and let’s hope Green has another album ready to go by then. How long it takes this city to be open to that eventuality is really up to us.

A Magical, Mysterious Masterpiece by Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito

Pianist Satoko Fujii has made more good albums than just about anyone alive. Part of that is because she’s made more albums than just about anyone alive – over ninety as a bandleader or co-leader. There is no one with more infinite gravitas livened by a surprisingly devious sense of humor. Her latest album, Beyond is one of her most rivetingly evocative and marks the debut of yet another new project, Futari, a duo with vibraphonist Taiko Saito streaming at Bandcamp.

These songs are on the long, quiet and extremely spacious side. Fujii typically takes centerstage but not always. Her sound world has expanded considerably, to an otherworldly rapture in the last couple of years. The one here is akin to an eclipse, equal parts dark and celestial. Often it’s hard to tell who’s playing what, enhancing the mystery.

The opening number, Molecular has a subtly tremoloing vibraphone drone punctuated by whispery rustles and eerily microtonal, rhythmically chiming prepared piano, like a mobile in the breeze wafting from the great beyond. In the second track, Proliferation, a murky drone filters in and then gives way to squirrelly noises and surreal hints of a boogie before Saito fires off liltingly Lynchian phrases over Fujii’s gathering storm.

Echoey long-tone vibraphone drifts through the mix in Todokani Tegami as Fujii colors it with a haunting austerity, leading up to an absolutely macabre music-box theme. The album’s title track rises from barely perceptible whispers to spare bell-like piano accents, Saito’s microtones a chill little breeze under the door.

On the Road is not a jazz poetry piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) – it’s a moody, modal tableau with a tight, steady interweave of allusively Arabic tonalities and an ending tacked on that’s way too good to spoil. To steal a title from the John Cale book, the calmer moments of Mizube could be called Fragments of a Rainy Season.

A shockingly straightforward, Lynchian waltz quickly gives way to Messiaenic insistence and eventual fullscale freakout, then back, in Ame No Ato. Saito’s chromatics lingering above Fujii’s steady, phantasmagorical chords in Mobius Loop are a red-neon treat; thunder and an after-the-rain chill ensue.

The two return to ambience punctuated by bell-like accents to close the record on a vast, meditative note with Spectrum. Saito’s strengths as a listener and an elegant orchestrator deserve a bandmate as focused as Fujii, whose extemporaneous tunesmithing gets pushed to new levels here. It’s awfully early in the year to be speculating about the best album of 2021, but there’s nothing that’s been released so far that can touch the sheer magic of this one.

Romance Conquers Everything in Brian Landrus’ Lush, Quietly Thrilling Album

If there’s one thing the lockdowners fear even more than massive crowds of us assembling against them, it’s romance.

Millions of people out in the streets can get pretty fired up, but love conquers everything.

Ultimately, why did the lockdowners come up with their crazy six-foot rule? To keep people from falling in love. If we are kept in a constant state of terror, paralyzed by the fear that everyone we see is spreading a seasonal flu rebranded as the apocalypse, we are very easily divided and conquered.

But throughout history, people have fallen in love that no matter what, even in the Nazi death camps. And that’s why the lockdowners are destined to fail: because the one thing that could save them is alien to them, in fact, completely unattainable. Consider: there is no one more profoundly lonely than a tyrant. So today, let’s celebrate our ability to get close to the ones we love with one of the most unabashedly and eclectically romantic albums of the past several months: Brian Landrus’ For Now, streaming at Soundcloud.

Landrus is one of the kings of the lows. Baritone sax is his main axe. In moments where he wants to get particularly slinky, he’ll switch to the bass clarinet. He put out a lusciously lustrous big band album, Generations, about four years ago. But he obviously hasn’t gotten those epic, majestic sounds out of his system – and let’s hope he never does. This record is most notable for Landrus scoring Fred Hersch on piano, a guy who knows a little something about emotionally attuned sounds. Bassist Drew Gress and drummer Billy Hart keep things chill and close to the ground.

They open with The Signs, a genially blues-infused swing tune fueled right from the start by Michael Rodriguez’s low-key, purist trumpet. then Hersch brings his signature wit and erudition to the equation. Landrus echoes Rodriguez’s terseness; everybody harmonizes warmly at the end.

Hersch anchors Landrus’ wafting midrange and gentle upward spirals with an aptly crystlaline, chiming attack in the second number, Clarity in Time, bolstered lushly by the string quartet of violinists Sara Caswell, Joyce Hamman, violist Lois Martin and cellist Jody Redhage-Ferber.

Is The Miss a fond shout-out to a certain girl, or a lament for an opportunity gone under the bridge? Definitely the former, it seems, with Hersch, Rodriguez and the bandleader weaving over the pillowy backdrop.

Hart and Gress build a subtle latin pulse in JJ, Landrus’ simmering solo handing off to Rodriguez’s spacious optimism and Hersch’s balmy charm, although there’s something unexpected around the bend. Landrus switches to bass clarinet for the album’s brief. broodingly sweeping title track and sticks with it on an absolutely gorgeous, plaintive solo take of “Round Midnight, uncovering the song’s wounded inner bolero.

Back on the baritone, Landrus channels guarded hope and then genuine thrills in Invitation, which rises quickly to a mutedly cosmopolitan, anthemic bustle. By now, everybody is cutting loose more: it’s just plain killer.

Landrus overdubs an intertwine of bass clarinet and bass flute over a subtly cresdendoing upward drive in For Whom I Imagined. Likewise, he sticks with the bass flute as Rodriguez puts on his mute for The Night Of Change, a lively, allusively tropical jazz waltz.

With its brassy thicket of an intro, The Second is basically a segue, a calmly loping, serenely triumphant number that echoes one of the album’s big influences, Harry Carney With Strings.

Her Smile has an irresistible cheer and several LOL moments, the strings more energized then ever. Caswell following Landrus with a jauntily swinging solo of her own.

They go back to waltz time for The Wait, Hersch’s expectant joy matched by Gress, Landrus’ bass clarinet spiraling fondly up the scale. He’s one of many – this blog is another – who assert that Hersch is this era’s most insightful interpreter of Monk on the piano, so it makes sense that the two would close the album with a casually expansive, late-night take of Ruby My Dear. Seldom has romance been so dynamically portrayed, in both ups and downs, as Landrus does here.

Catchy, Rewardingly Unpredictable Accordion Jazz From the Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project

The Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project’s new album Kites and Strings – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is as unpredictable as it is richly and entertainingly melodic.These songs hit you in waves: lots of long crescendos, with no predictable verse/chorus pattern. Rosenblum plays both piano and accordion here with a remarkable economy of notes, often overdubbing one instrument or another. He likes circling hooks and variations. Sometimes this evokes the Claudia Quintet at their most playful

In the album’s opening number,  Cedar Place, he bedevils the listener with an endless series of rhythmic shifts beneath Wayne Tucker’s jaunty trumpet swing melody. Jasper Dutz’s bass clarinet looms to the surface after a hard-hitting yet hypnotic trumpet-fueled interlude, then he switches to tenor sax, floating and weaving as the brisk swing of bassist Marty Jaffe and drummer Ben Zweig reaches critical mass.

The title track opens with a coyly strutting pairing of Rosenblum’s accordion and Jake Chapman’s vibraphone before the horns float in, then recede for a twinkling solo from the vibes as Rosenblum runs a subtle, flamenco-tinged accordion riff. Tucker’s calm, contented solo signals another brightly methodical upward climb.

Halfway to Wonderland is a bracing gem, veering in and out of waltz time to a hard-hitting piano solo, bass clarinet bubbling away as the rhythm section flurries, True to its title, Motif From Brahms is a wistful chamber jazz piece, the accordion adding cheer and bringing the temperature to a boil over a balletesque pulse following a moody, tersely neoromantic piano solo. The orchestral interweave at the end is tantalizingly brief: Rosenblum could have kept it going twice as long and nobody would be complaining.

The quasi-Balkan Fight or Flight is cartoonish and irresistibly funny, the whole band getting into the picture as guitarist Rafael Rosa flings off his distorted chords and then cuts loose on his own. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Greg Squared catalog.

Roseblum’s accordion sails over spacious, emphatic piano chords as Somewhere picks up from pensiveness toward a sense of triumph fueled by the trumpet, then the bass clarinet signals a shift toward latin territory. The warmly nocturnal ending is a neat, unpredictable touch.

Trumpet and sax build a lowlit exchange over Rosenblum’s dusky glimmer in Philadelphia, an unselfconsciously gorgeous ballad. Slightly restrained joy in solos from bass and trumpet finds a payoff in Rosa’s haphazard coda. Rossenblum keeps the glistening song-without-words ambience going in Bright Above Us, vibraphone adding extra tingle on the high end, guitar blazing a return from the stars, bass reaching for a subtler peak before the whole band ignites.

The horns start out in New Orleans as Laughing on the Inside kicks off with a brisk swing, accordion and then guitar taking the song further outside with echoes of Monk and eventually a devious drum solo. They close with Izpoved, a lingering, wary chorale for horns and accordion. One of the most adrenalizing and enjoyable albums of the past several months.

An Unintentionally Prophetic Choral Reflection on a Genuine Health Crisis From a Century Ago

The irony in renowned new-music choir the Crossing’s recording of David Lang’s Protect Yourself From Infection – streaming at Bandcamp – is crushing. In September 2019, about a month before the lockdowners got together for their first rehearsal for their planned global takeover the following year, Philadelphia’s legendary Mutter Museum sponsored a parade in memory of the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic. This calmly pulsing, subtly funny, roughly six-minute chorale was commissioned for the event. It’s safe to say that at the time, neither the composer, choir or museum staff had the slightest idea that a cabal springboarded by the World Economic Forum would succeed in rebranding the 2019-20 seasonal flu as a terrifying plague, and a pretext for turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

The choir steadily punch in and out, harmonizing on a single chord, voicing a series of commonsense ways to stay healthy which are just as useful today as they would have been in 1918, had the general public been aware of how disease spreads. Meanwhile, individual voices from the ensemble sing a litany of names, presumably people who perished in the outbreak just over a hundred years ago. With choral performances on ice in most parts of the world, the Crossing have been releasing a series of videos over the past year, and this is the most compelling of the bunch.

Youtube Piano Sensation Tackles Iconic Music Outlawed by a Previous Fascist Regime

In the Soviet Union under Stalin, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music was illegal. In January 2021 under the lockdown, it’s also forbidden to play or invite an audience to his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his even more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So it makes sense to celebrate those two iconically poignant pieces this month, just to thumb our noses at the lockdowners. Pianist Anna Fedorova has an album of both, plus some preludes, with the St. Gallen Orchestra conducted by Modestas Pitrenas, streaming at Spotify.

While youtube page hits are notoriously inaccurate, there’s no question that her concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has generated a lot of traffic. How does her version of these two somewhat less harrowing pieces compare? After the tumbling, torrential piano introduction to the Concerto No. 1, Pitrenas puts the orchestra on a very long leash, with a heartfelt, languid fluidity throughout the first movement. A delicate balance of cascades from Fedorova against mournful horns and orchestration develops, up to a restrained crescendo that many other ensembles love to rampage through. This crew make it work just as well under lower lights, even as. Fedorova’s torrents rise to gale force at the end.

The calm and suspense of the second movement are absolutely Lynchian, Fedorova often embracing a spaciousness that borders on lurid. So the hurried first part of the concluding movement is a surprise, less a romp than a scurry. Happily, a glistening nocturnal calm descends from there, although the ending also feels like a rush job in places.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is also fast, beginning with a real strut. Paganini was legendary as a shredder and Fedorova seems determined to match that – although that sets up a noticeable contrast with the calmer passages, Pitrenas again opting for muted elegance, even in the famous love theme. Ultimately, this is classical music as entertainment. The stabbing, dancing quality of the seventh segment, and toward the end, is closer to Moussorgsky phantasmagoria – or Gogol Bordello – than, say, Chopin. This isn’t the most nuanced version of the suite ever recorded: “This album is like an express train,” Fedorova enthuses in the album liner notes. And how. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphis Orchestra put out a predictably much more lush version which those seeking greater luxuriance should check out.

Fedorova takes an energetically painterly approach to the preludes: she feels close to the composer and as a fellow expat clearly misses her home turf. She gives Op. 23 No. 1 a very understated gloom bordering on despondency. She sees Op. 32 No. 12 as a weary winter tableau, although she really rocks it out, getting unusual shimmer out of the belltone riffs, which is no small feat in what’s actually a far more haunting piece of music.

By contrast, Op. 32 No. 5: is all lilacs in springtime, a charming, spring-loaded performance. Her take of Op. 23 No. 2 has the same spirit, but with a regal, High Romantic angst. Some of these interpretations leave room for debate, but there’s no criticizing Fedorova’s passion for this music.

A Heavy Psychedelic Afrobeat-Metal Suite From Here Lies Man

Here Lies Man are a spinoff of legendary second-wave Afrobeat band Antibalas. Their first couple of records basically metalized that Fela-inspired sound, with mixed results. Their new album Ritual Divination – streaming at Bandcamp – is where the rubber really hits the road.

They’re found themselves here: if you have to hang a name on what they’re doing, you could call it heavy psychedelia. Rhythms shift suddenly, dubwise touches filter through the mix occasionally, guitars roar and stab. Because much of this album is basically a suite – or a Fela-style sidelong jam separated into shorter tracks – it’s best enjoyed as a whole. And it’s a long album, sixteen songs, mostly instrumental: you could say that after awhile it all sounds like one long song, but it’s a good one.

They open the album with In These Dreams, a loping minor-key groove with gusts from Marcos Garcia’s distorted guitar and organ from Doug Organ (that’s the dude’s name) over a beat that’s practically reggae until the chorus kicks in. I Told You (You Shall Die), the second track, is a killer minor-key number that could be a heavier Budos Band with a mellotron.

They run the big, brisk riff from Underland over and over, then with What You See they shift up the tempos with it. Can’t Kill It has a circling stoner blues riff, a tricky rhythmic interlude from bassist JP Maramba and drummer Geoff Mann and a big, swirly stampede. Things get swirlier, then more suspensefully gritty in Run Away Children

If Sabbath had played Afrobeat – or if Fela had been a metalhead – you’d have I Wander. There’s a little stoner boogie in Night Comes, and postpunk stomp in Come Inside.

Collector of Vanities has the whole picture: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. Disappointed will not disappoint you with its weird mashup of garage rock, dark dub and a goofy Sabbath reference. Then the band shift between leaden riffage and fleet-footed, organ-spiced Afrobeat in You Would Not See From Heaven.

Strangely, The Fates Have Won is one of the album’s catchiest yet most hypnotic tracks. Out Goes the Night has weirdly undulating rhythms and the trippiest organ parts here. The group finally wind everything up with Cutting Through the Tether, another organ-infused tune and the most trance-inducing one on the album.

Broodingly Gorgeous, Tightly Orchestrated Sounds From Organist Bence Vas’ Big Band

Large ensembles led by organists are about the rarest of any configuration of jazz musicians, yet they all seem to find this page. The 8 Cylinder Big Band, Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, and now the stunningly mysterious Bence Vas’ Big Band, who might be the best of all of them. Their riveting, very tightly orchestrated Bartok-inspired new album Overture et. al. is streaming at Spotify. If you don’t agree that some of the best jazz in the world is coming out of Hungary, you haven’t heard this darkly elegant record. 

Vas weaves a series of stunningly memorable themes methodically and dynamically throughout this often sinister suite. It opens with a big swell from the deliciously noir overture, Vas and pianist Gábor Cseke scurrying with furtive purpose down to a precise, loopy piano solo and subtle, moody variations as the orchestra drift in and disappear just as suddenly. A detour toward comfortably clustering early 60s Prestige-style postbop sounds fueled by Cseke cedes centerstage to the bandleader’s eerily keening phrases, up and out.

The Overture at Late Afternoon takes that distantly Ethiopian-tinged chromatic riffage to even creepier new places, from a circling intro, through still, tense foreshadowing and a somber woodwind-infused sway. Cseke once again adds a convivial touch, then the requiem for what’s left of the afternoon returns. Vas’ judicious solo raises the intensity, classic gutbucket harmonies tinted with just enough menace to raise the disquiet, eventually bringing the gathering gloom full circle. As lockdown-era music goes, this really nails the zeitgeist. 

Cseke’s clusters behind a wary march recede to an ominously minimalist flute solo over the orchestra’s brooding expanse as Jedna Minuta gathers steam. Elegiacally brassy variations and  fleeting flute gleam distantly amid the remaining expanse.

Kołysanka opens with balmy/moody contrasts fueled by guitar and flute until the bandleader lets the sunshine in with a gently gospel-infused, soulful groove that’s not quite a strut. They bring the chromatic menace back, the murk looms in and suddenly it’s over. The group close with One Last Attempt, Vas’ funeral-parlor atmosphere ushering in Cseke spirals, hovering brass and a brightly enigmatic Kristóf Bacsó alto sax solo in contrast with the darker flurries all around. That blustery false ending is a neat touch. It’s awfully early in the year to be thinking of the best jazz album of 2021 but right now the choice is between Satoko Fujii’s new vibraphone duo record and this one.