New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: February, 2021

Dynamic, Tuneful, Playful Outside-the-Box Solo Bass From Daniel Barbiero

Those of us who play low-register instruments tend to think of them as complementary, which in most styles of music they almost always are.

But inevitability theories of anything, whether history or music, are not healthy, and they don’t hold water. Maybe it’s high time we got past them.

With its sheer catchiness, playful sense of humor and dynamic range, bassist Daniel Barbiero‘s solo album of graphic scores, In/Completion – streaming at Bandcamp – will get you thinking outside the box, whether you’re a player or a listener. “At their best, graphic compositions are both beautiful and provocative. Beautiful in that they can, when artfully done, stand as independent works of visual art,” Barbiero asserts in his liner notes.

You could say that the album’s opening number, Root Music by Makoto Nomura, was written by nature itself, a vegetable patch that the composer planted in shallow soil whose roots turned out to be visible. Barbiero chose to interpret it as a series of catchy, hypnotically circling phrases in the high midrange.

Traces, by Silvia Corda, offers many choices of riffs and how to arrange them: Barbiero uses a generous amount of space for his emphatic, vigorously minimal plucks and washes. His solo arrangement of Alexis Porfiriadis‘ string quartet piece Spotting Nowhere makes a good segue and is considerably more spacious and often sepulchral, with its muted flurries and spiky pizzicato.

Barbiero recorded Paths (An Autumn Day in a Seaside Town), by his four-string compadre Cristiano Bocci on their recent duo album. The terse theme and variations of this solo version are more starkly sustained and expansive, yet whispery and sparkling with high harmonics in places, minus the found sounds from the shoreline which appear on the duo recording.

Barbiero employs a lot of extended technique on this record, especially in his deviously slithery, harmonically bristling lines in Bruce Friedman’s fleeting OPTIONS No. 3. Wilhelm Matthies’s GC 1 (2-9-17), a partita, is rather somberly bowed, yet Barbiero also incorporates some subtly wry conversational phrasing.

5 Paths 4 Directions, by Patrick Brennan comes across as contrasts between purposefulness and anxiety. Barbiero winds up the record with a stark, allusively chromatic interpretation of Morton Feldman’s Projection 1, originally devised for solo cello.

Moody, Enveloping, Purposeful Girl-Down-the-Well Sounds From Caitlin Pasko

Caitlin Pasko plays minimalist, pensive parlor pop songs and sings in a nebulous high soprano. An economy of notes is her thing. Her new solo album Greenhouse – streaming at Bandcamp – is sardonically titled. There’s nothing verdant about her alternately hazy and icy keyboard textures or her moody vocals. On one hand, this often comes across as one long song, with a relentlessly suffocating, claustrophobic feel. On the other, Pasko really owns that sound. Fans of Julee Cruise will love this.

She opens the record with the minimalist, rhythmic piano chords and enigmatic, close-harmonied vocals of I Know I: “I can’t trust my emotions,” Pasko reflects, “Because my skin crawls.”

Pasko reaches for her airy uppermost registers in Unwell as a drone looms in and wafts above her steady chords. She switches to electric piano for Even God. “I’m stuck in death,” she half-whispers, again and again, eventually shifting back to piano and then a low Rhodes rumble at the end. Definitely a lockdown moment!

Horrible Person is probably the most succinct kiss-off song ever written, and it’s actually very funny. Over lingering, Eno-esque atmospherics, Pasko doesn’t waste either notes or words. The simple instrumental Ooo Happy introduces To the Leaves, which seems to be a tenative stab at happiness…or merely escape.

She gets back on her feet – literally – in the next song, Mother: Pasko’s images of abandonment and alienation pack a quiet wallop. “You are lake and you’re still as glass,” she muses enigmatically in Quiet Weather: it seems to be a paradoxical love song. Pasko closes the album with Intimate Distance, the closest thing to a straightforward pop ballad, or for that matter any kind of closure. A cynic would say that any second-year piano student could play the whole record from beginning to end, but Pasko’s commitment to maintaining a mood and resisting the urge to go fulllblown orchestral is pretty remarkable.

 

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by skeletal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.

Composer Jen Kutler’s Fascinating New Album Transcends Evocations of Trauma

As if the early days of the lockdown in New York weren’t terroristic enough, composer Jen Kutler spent them further terrorizing herself by watching a long sequence of violent movie scenes. Murder, rape, torture, verbal abuse, the works. Before exposing herself to this barrage of disturbing stimuli, she hooked herself up to electrodes to record the magnetic response time from her skin. Then she ran the data set through MIDI and orchestrated it electronically. The result is an alternately soothing and menacing new album, Sonified Physiological Indicators of Empathy, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: a work of art drawn from what must have been a viscerally painful experience.

Kutler was intrigued by the prospect that human response to sounds of trauma might be an indicator of a capacity for empathy – or lack thereof. We speak of people as being warm or cold. Is there scientific evidence to back up such an observation? Kutler discovered research which suggests there is. A psychopath can feign compassion, but skin response to stimuli is a reflex action which can’t be controlled.

Research in this area is still in its infancy, especially as far as sound is concerned, and it has become clear that the wider the set of stimuli used in an experiment, the more unique an individual’s responses will be. However, there does seem to be a correlation between desensitization to traumatic sounds and self-identification with psychopathic behavior on one scale or another. Kutler is quick to point out that we need more research in this area, and is involved with a new project examining human response to various environmental and linguistic cues. And as our body of knowledge in this field grows, we need to be careful to consider individual experiences that may have desensitized us – from childhood trauma, to the environment around us. How many times does an urban dweller hear a scream and assume it’s just a crazy crackhead? What does that say about us?

The sounds on Kutler’s album drift toward the more industrial side of ambient music: Philip Blackburn‘s work often comes to mind. The six tracks here draw the listener in as Kutler’s allusive, methodically shifting timbres and tones waft through the sonic picture. Fragments of stately organ melody give way to what could be monks throat-singing in unison through a garage wall. Echoey drainpipes, wheels shedding overtones at high velocity, elevators, rainstorms and gently wobbling pulleys all come to mind. Sunlight looms in on the most shadowy moments, and vice versa.

The calmest, most enveloping track here is perhaps ironically titled Long Term Memory Loss, an atmosphere that drifts over into the next one, Fairness, although that piece grows more enigmatic. The shifts arrive faster and more uneasily in Short Term Memory Loss. Flickers of minimalistic melody take centerstage in Borders, but even there the textures remain on the cold and plasticky side. Kutler likes synthesized choir patches, which oscillate and pulse in the album’s final cut, A Piece For Amplified Children. It has a funny ending.

Kutler is also an inventor. One recent creation of hers that’s genuinely heartwarming is part of her In Loving Memory of Being Touched project. During the early part of the lockdown last year, Kutler found herself alone and discovered how, like probably billions of people around the world at the time, she missed a simple human touch. So she built a touch simulator which people can use to send each other anything from a playful tap to more emotionally complex tactile messages. Beyond the fun you could have with this, it has immense potential as a means of transmitting secret codes.

Warmly Minimalist, Oceanically-Inspired Electroacoustic Piano Themes From Kumi Takahara

Go out to watch the ocean just as the sun is about to slip under the horizon and you’ll get a good idea of what keyboardist Kumi Takahara’s gently rippling new album See-Through – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about. Her pensive, elegant themes are minimalist to the core: she most definitely does not waste notes. Philip Glass seems to be an influence. This is a great album for winding down or meditation.

She opens the album with Artegio, a warmly minimalist, simple major-key piano piece with subtle ambient electronic touches. Roll, the second track, has variations on a catchy, ratchetingly circling piano riff and what sounds like a wistful melodica in places. Nostalgia is even simpler and just as loopy, Takahara moving methodically up and down the scale as echoey, hypnotically ambient phrases drift into the foreground.

Tide, with its intricate web of string orchestration, is even more hypnotic but also majestic as it swells and brightens. Chime, on the other hand, has more distinct disquiet (and a droll reference to a very famous clock). The strings return, rising with a stark resonance against the bell-like piano, in Kai-kou. 

Layers of wordless vocals permeate Chant along with the strings and sheer simplicity of the piano. Takahara runs subtle, increasingly wistful variations on a four-note riff over what sounds like a viola drone in Sea. She closes the album with Log, well over seven minutes of hazy horizontality and then what turns out to be the album’s most anthemic interlude, punctuated by gentle vocalizing, sparse piano and light electronics. There are also a couple of remixes here that don’t really add anything.

Catchy, Thoughtful Rainy-Day Sounds From Modern Nature

Modern Nature play a tuneful, individualistic blend of pastoral jazz and chamber pop with tinges of vintage 70s soul music. Their new album Annual is streaming at Bandcamp. They like nature imagery and long, catchy, circling phrases over simple, muted drums.

They open the record with Dawn, a hazy miniature balancing bandleader Jack Cooper’s uneasy, lingering guitar over Arnulf Lindner’s overtone-laden bass drone. Elegantly uneasy soul guitar anchors frontwoman Kayla Cohen’s muted, half-whispered delivery as Flourish gets imderway, up to a big, anthemic chorus with Jeff Tobias’ fluttery sax and then back down. From there they segue into Mayday, which has a funkier swing but is just as hypnotically circling.

Spacious, incisive piano and balmy sax mingle with syncopated guitar jangle throughout the album’s fourth track, Halo. In Harvest, the band build very subtle variations into a staggered, loopy hook. They bring the record full circle with Wynter. “Outside the trees are groaning,” Cohen sings with an airy calm over the resonant, brooding clang of the guitar. Let’s hope the lockdown doesn’t destroy this band as it has so many others, and we get to hear more from them.

An Eclectically Catchy Big Band Album by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players

Does listening to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players transform them from a seventeen-piece big band into a trio? One of the premises of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that some particles are so small that merely observing them changes their state. It’s an extension of the basic idea that some tools are too heavy for the job: you don’t use a hammer where just your thumb would do.

Ultimately, Heisenberg’s postulate challenges us to consider whether some things will always be essentially unknowable: a very Islamic concept, when you think about it. But you hardly need special powers of observation to enjoy this big band’s energy, and catchy themes, and pervasive sense of humor. Their album Gradient is streaming at Bandcamp. There’s a high-energy sax solo on almost every one of bandleader/conductor John Dorhauer’s compositions here, sometimes expected, sometimes not.

The opening number, Boombox, makes a momentary Mission Impossible theme out of the old surf rock hit Tequila, then hits a Weather Report style faux-soukous bubbliness for a bit before shifting toward a gospel groove beneath Matthew Beck’s joyous tenor sax.

The second track, Nevertheless She Persisted is a slow, slinky gospel tune, Stuart Seale’s tersely soulful organ ceding the spotlight to a low-key, burbling trombone solo from Chris Shuttleworth and a big massed crescendo from the brass. Subject/Verb/Object has clever, rhythmless variations on a circling, Ethiopian-tinged riff, in an Either/Orchestra vein; the polyrhythms that ensue as the piece comes together and then calms to an uneasy syncopation are a cool touch.

Four Sides of the Circle begins as a stately, mysterious, Indian-tinged theme for choir and piano, then chattering high reeds take centerstage as the song almost imperceptibly edges toward dusky, modal soul over a familiar Radiohead hook.

The East African tinges return, but more cheerily in Plasma, with its rhythmically tricky interweave of counterpoint. Mahler 3 Movement 1 is exactly that: a moody, jazzed-up classical theme that rises from rumors of war, to brassy King Crimson art-rock fueled by Chris Parsons’ burning guitar, to chipper, Gershwinesque swing over a quasi-reggae beat and then back.

The record winds up with the Basketball Suite. The first segment, Switch Everything is the band’s Dr. J (that’s a Grover Washington Jr. reference). Part two, Point Giannis is probably the slowest hoops theme ever written: Dan Parker’s hypnotic bassline brings to mind a classic Jah Wobble groove on PiL’s Metal Box album. The band take a turn back toward booding, pulsing Ethiopiques with Schedule Loss, Adam Roebuck’s incisive trumpet contrasting with James Baum’s suave, smoky baritone sax. It ends with the album’s warmly funky, vamping title track An entertaining achievement from an ensemble that also includies saxophonists Natalie Lande, Kelley Dorhauer and Dan Burke, trombonists Michael Nearpass, Josh Torrey and Dan Dicesare, trumpeters Jon Rarick and Emily Kuhn and drummer Jonathon Wenzel.

Poignant, Gorgeous, Paradigm-Shifting Iranian and Ethiopian Flavored Mashups From SoSaLa

It’s been a long time between albums as a bandleader for Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, who records under the name SoSaLa. His 2008 album Nu World Trash was a wildly eclectic mix of Middle Eastern, dub, Ethiopiques and jazz, among other styles. The album’s underlying concept was to encourage people to get back to reality and leave the virtual one behind. There’s never been a more important time for that message, and auspiciously SoSaLa has a follow-up, wryly titled Nu World Trashed – streaming at Spotify – to remind us how little the paradigm has changed since then. But, damn, the world is on the brink of a seismic shift, and this guy is ready!. If jazz, psychedelia, Middle Eastern or Ethiopian music are your jams. crank this often starkly beautiful album. Fans of great Levantine reedmen from Daro Behroozi to Hafez Modirzadeh are especially encouraged to check it out.

The opening number, Welcome Nu World has brooding, gorgeously allusive tenor sax over spare, echoey electric piano from Paul Amrod and a dissociative electronic backdrop with agitated crowd noise.  The second track, Enough Is Enough is a hip-hop broadside against “vampire capitalists” and the anti-artistic contingent who are so well represented among the lockdowners. Cornel West makes a characteristically fiery cameo; the bandleader plays a poignantly melismatic, Ethopian-tinged solo.

Mystical Full Moon Hymn for Ornette Coleman is an attractively modal Ethiopian reggae shout-out to Ladjevardi’s onetime teacher and mentor. David Belmont does a spot-on recreation of a sarod, Ladjevardi loops a balmy but bracing Ethiopiques riff and kamancheh player Kaveh Haghtalab jabs and plucks in a live remake of an acid jazz number from the previous album, Sad, Sad, Sad Sake.

There are two versions of Anybody Out There?, the first a haunting trip-hop number with stately, flurrying Ethiopian-tinged sax and delicate acoustic guitar attcents from Bob Romanowski over an echoey, loopy backdrop of Rhodes electric piano and twinkling atmospherics. The second is a bitingly swirly dub miniature.

What’s What? is the album’s most hypnotic number, Ladjevardi’s elegantly incisive modal phrasing over similarly stark kamancheh from Haghtalab and a dubby background. “Fucking internet, taking our private time away,” Ladjevardi grouses.. The album’s most epic track is  My Shushtari, a shout-out to the late Iranian musical icon Mohamad Reza Shajarian, with Ladjevardi on imploring, plaintive soprano sax and David Shively rippling sepulchrally and intensely across the sonic spectrum on cimbalom. It will give you chills. The duo revisit the theme more broodingly further down the scale to close the album with the ironically titled Intro Music.

Devious Humor and Poignancy on Violinist Mark Feldman’s New Solo Album

Violinist Mark Feldman has been a staple of the downtown New York jazz scene since the 90s, notably in his long-running duo with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Like innumerable artists during the lockdown, he’s put out a solo album, Sounding Point, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s incisive, purposeful and sometimes haunting, everything the artists he’s played with have sought him out for. But there are just as many moments here that border on hilarious. Feldman’s sense of humor has seldom come across so deviously as it does on this album.

Some of these pieces are built around a single melody line, others are judiciously multitracked. The opening number, As We Are features varations on a coy “here we go!” theme, Feldman building to his usual erudite mix of extended technique and economical melodicism, laced with harmonics, swells and delicate pizzicato. The album’s title track has plaintive, spacious phrases over delicately fluttering sustained lines.

Warriors is an amusingly ornamented multitracked piece including but not limited to swirly glissandos, a plucky march, pregnant pauses, hints of darkly rustic blues and Appalachia: it could be completely improvised. Unbound has a bit of a scramble, calmly whistling buffoonery, and a sly classical quote or two.

The album’s big, almost ten-minute epic is Viciously, which is aptly titled, horrified cadenzas emerging and suddenly giving way to spare, pensive variations on a blues riff, surreal glissandos and strangely muted echoes. Rebound is arguably the album’s funniest number, a mashup of echoey extended technique and all sorts of cartoonish japes.

Maniac is more dissociative than frantic, a playful pastiche of concise riffs. Feldman’s final number is titled New Normal: other than being more ghostly and disturbingly furtive than the other tracks here, it’s impossible to read any references to totalitarianism, surveillance or death by lethal injection into it. Violin jazz fans, and anyone with a sense of humor, should check this out.

Mind-Blowing Power and Tunesmiting on Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s First Album

There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz recording as powerful, and lavish, and fun as Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s first album, Still I Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – in a long time. Solos are brilliantly wild, Gardner’s compositions are colorful, unpredictable, explosive and have a frequently searing political resonance. It’s very brassy, as you would expect from a trombonist bandleader. The arrangements are a clinic in counterintuitive creativity. It’s the kind of record you want to transcribe, to steal every good idea from. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best debut of the year, but if the world ended today, this would be a lock. We’ll see what else happens between now and December.

A couple of elegant rounds of baroque-inflected counterpoint followed by a couple darkly simmering, insistent massed riffs fueled by bassist Luke Sellick and pianist Zen Zadravec’s looming chords introduce the mighty first track, Push Come da Shove. Then the orchestra engage in Mozart-like exchanges of voicings up to a brightly enigmatic trumpet solo over drummer Curtis Nowosadl’s careening swing. Soprano sax bobs and weaves relentlessly in tandem with elephantine, undulating drums, then the band return. Eighth-note harmonies echo 1930s Ellington and lead to a firebomb of a false ending with the trumpets going full force. Told you this was fun!

The album’s title track is another hard swinger, trumpet spinning and soaring as layers of counterpoint burst throughout the orchestra, trombone taking over the spotlight with a steely focus. They keep the brisk pulse going with Soulful Brother Gelispie, guitarist Kasey Kurtz in punchy, trad mode even as the brass punch harder and harder all around. Soprano sax adds a fleeting pensive edge, but the conflagration returns. Kurtz gets another round over as the firestorm reaches fever pitch and once again keeps his cool, no easy task!

The group memorialize Trayvon Martin, murdered by a Florida racist who was later acquitted, in the lustrously brooding, blues-infused Melody for Trayvon. The conversational pairing of muted and unmuted trumpets packs a punch, as does the alto sax versus the whole ensemble later on and the gravitas of the trombone solo afterward. 

The band pick up the pace again with To Whom it May Concern, Kurtz’s cascading riffage setting off more of an elegant avalanche from the band. Likewise, Sellick’s sotto-voce, balletesque solo sets off another round of echoes from the orchestra, down to a cynical, circling theme and world-weary trombone solo. The ominously modal tenor solo afterward over a floating swing is one of the album’s calmer yet most riveting moments.

One Thing Led to Another is a terse but haphazard clave number with another tart, terse soprano solo, trumpet and trombone solos as voices of reason against all kinds of devious accents and riffs from the rest of the band: the devil is on everybody’s shoulder here.

Blues á la Burgess wouldn’t have a thing if it didn’t have that biting minor-key….you get the picture. Strange quasi-Ellingtonian reed harmonies will get you smiling; the wildly soaring trumpet solo afterward ignites the brass, tenor sax drawing a more titanic response from the rest of the orchestra.

8 Ball, Side Pocket is also a blues, part retro 30s, part Willy Wonka movie theme, with a long, suave tenor solo matched by the piano. The slinky next-to-last number, a more ambered blues, is titled DAAAYUUUM. Muted trumpet descends memorably from the clouds, signaling a return to a triumphant twin-trumpet trope; tenor sax brings contentment before the whole thing goes up in flames. The band wind up the record with the epic Heavens to Murgatroyd, in many respects a Spike Jones-class parody of basically everything they’ve just done here, the bandleader bustling at the center along with a slashing interweave of voices. DAAAYUUUM!

A performance for the ages by the bandleader and his brother Vincent Gardner alongside Joel Green, Anthony Bryson and Bill Green on trombones; saxophonists Mark Gross, Greg Gatien, Rob Dixon, Tristan Martinuson and Ken Gold; and trumpeters Bijon Watson, Jeff Johnson, Curtis Taylor and Andrew Littleford.