New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: March, 2021

Savagely Brilliant Shostakovich Symphonies From the London Symphony Orchestra

In a time when global tyranny and repression have reached levels of terror not seen since the Middle Ages, it makes sense to revisit two great antifascist works from a composer who narrowly managed to survive under one of the world’s most evil regimes. Only Dmitri Shostakovich’s popularity saved him from the fate so many of his friends suffered under Stalin. Fortuituously, maestro Ginandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra have just released a live album of two completely different but equally relevant Shostakovich symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10, streaming at Spotify. The former is from 2018, the latter from performances at the Barbican in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before music there was banned by the Boris Johnson regime.

During his lifetime, Shostakovich explained away the savage irony, caricatures and stricken horror in his music as reflecting on the evil of the Tsarist regime, even though it was clear that he was taking shots at Stalin and then Krushchev. Symphony No. 9 is an oddball, the only one of its kind in the composer’s repertoire. It’s a goofy little piece of music whose sarcasm is almost completely deadpan. It’s impossible to imagine a more dispassionate celebration.

Written ostensibly in tribute to the Soviet victory over the Nazis, the blithe little flourishes of the first movement seem to ask, “So we aren’t going to find out if life under Hitler would be any better than it was under Stalin? It couldn’t be any worse.” Ultimately, history would validate that gruesome premise. Noseda leads the orchestra through a very individualistic interpretation, muting the turbulent undercurrent and practically turning it into a concerto for flute and violin.

The conductor takes the second movement slowly, letting the brooding reflection of Juliana Koch’s oboe speak for the weariness of millions of Russians. This depleted, exhausted waltz really drags. Then in the third movement Noseda really picks up the phony pageantry, a familiar trope in the Shostakovich playbook: trumpeter Philip Cobb’s facsimile of a martial Russian victory riff is a hoot.

But it doesn’t last. Timothy Jones’ sotto-voce, lightly vibrato-laden horn brings back the sullen atmosphere in movement four. The sober oboe introduction to the conclusion foreshadows a familiar, troubled hook from Symphony No. 10. The coda is appropriately rote, a whole nation bustling through the motions.

No. 10 might be the greatest symphony ever written: Noseda and the ensemble go deep into its innumerable layers for gravitas and historical impact. Grounded in the low strings, the vast expanse of pain and anguish in the first movement is visceral, a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror. Noseda’s choice to mute the flickers of hope against hope, as a pulsing sway grows more and more harrowing, is an apt template for the rest of the recording.

The furtive chase scene of the second movement gains coldly sleek momentum as it morphs into a danse macabre: holocausts throughout history are always carefully orchestrated. Movement three, in contrast, seems especially restrained in its most desolate moments, setting up the iconic, eerily syncopated, Scheherezade-like theme at the center.. Individually voices of mourning rise over a grim hush in the fourth movement: that brief, bubbly respite may only be a coded message to the composer’s girlfriend at the time, and it isn’t long before it becomes a completely different kind of pursuit theme.

Ultimately, Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies are cautionary tales. Look what happened in my country, he tells us. Don’t let this happen in yours. How crushingly ironic that an orchestra from the UK – sufffering under one of the most sadistic totalitarian regimes in the world at the moment – would be responsible for such deeply insightful performances.

A Cinematic, Energetic Live Album From Cowboys & Frenchmen

Among ambitious, relatively young jazz groups, Cowboys & Frenchmen are a lot closer to the virtuosic fractal flex of Kneebody than the goofy insiderness of Snarky Puppy. They did what every band ought to be doing: they put out a live album, Our Highway, streaming at Bandcamp and recorded in the nick of time just before the lockdown in the pristine sonics of the now-shuttered Subculture.

As the bandname implies, these guys are irreverent. The music is energetically picturesque, frequently springboarding off comfortably homey, pastoral themes. This is a concept album, a boisterous band-on-the-road saga with an accompanying video travelogue.

Alto saxophonist Ethan Helm’s calm, liquid solo intro to the night’s first number, American Whispers: Pines is a red herring. In a flash, the band come bustling in, rushing to make it to the next stop on the tour. Pianist Addison Frei’s terse Shaft-y riffs anchor the tightly flurrying clamor, down to a little hint of boogie and flickers of wry lounginess. Bassist Ethan O’Reilly is a sudden voice of reason, introducing a moment of clarity before the trick ending. No spoilers: it works with the crowd.

Alice in Promisedland, a Alice Coltrane homage is built around Frei’s reflecting-pool ripples and O’Reilly’s lithely muscular bassline, Owen Broder’s alto sax entwining airily with Helm’s flute. He sticks with the flute over drummer Matt Honor’s snowstorm cymbals. and more Shaft/Mission Impossible piano from Frei, until O’Reilly hits a racewalking pace in the next segment of American Whispers. This one’s a portrait of torrential streams and an old church, captured with wistful gospel-infused warmth by sax, piano, a terse bass solo and an oldtimey anthem of sorts on the way out.

A similar, somewhat darker gospel-inspired atmosphere finally emerges in Where Is Your Wealth: the degree to which this is either sarcastic, a philosophical inquiry, or a stickup, isn’t clear. The big epic here is the final American Whispers tableau, Mountains. The range looms ahead, imposing, as birds cluster tightly over the slopes, Frei channeling the spring runoff, or at least so it seems. The group meet the challenge with an insistent pulse, swaying, swinging and finally hitting a disquieting series of echoes. The scenery changes with the rhythm, from defiant insistence to brisk swing, a long Helm solo with Broder shadowing him on baritone and then leading a calming downward trajectory, solo, into the night’s closing, benedictory nocturne, The Farmer’s Reason. It’s easy to imagine the band highfiving each other afterward: good thing somebody had the presence of mind to record the night !

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Darkly Diverse, Atmospherically Trippy Sounds From Georgian Singer Nainnoh

Singer Nainnoh hails from the nation of Georgia, which has one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive choral music traditions. Georgian music is often described as otherworldly: its stark modes aren’t quite western, yet they don’t sound Middle Eastern or Asian, either. Much of Nainnoh’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – comes across as the missing link between Enya and Nico. English is not her strong suit – song titles are a giveaway – but to her credit she really enunciates. Behind her, spare acoustic guitars and layers of keyboards build an atmosphere that’s sometimes gothic, sometimes psychedelic.

She likes long songs: some of these tracks go on for five or six minutes apiece. Skip the opening ballad, which is pretty generic. The second track, Colors, is trippy trip-hop with brooding minor-key changes and tremoloing layers of keys. Sample lyric: “I am pixels.”

Nainnoh has fun with her pitch pedal in Water, building warpy ambience over spare, reverbtoned acoustic guitar. She follows Run, a starkly marching goth ballad with Threads, which sounds like Goldfrapp underwater.

Seasons could be late 90s Missy Elliott taking a stab at tropicalia. Nainnoh goes back toward gothic ambience in Reasons, pushing the bottom of her low register with mixed results. Angst rises in Break Apart, its loopy metal guitar shred half-buried in the mix: “Confrontation is a work of art,” Nainnoh muses.

The wafty keys, drum machine and ka-chunk sway return in Vital Illusions. Words is not a BeeGees cover but a catchy, surreal Gipsy Kings-style faux-flamenco tune. The airily gothic closing cut, Velvet Mode makes a good segue.

Joy and Desolation From the Tesla Quartet

The Tesla Quartet have been around for more than a decade. In keeping with this century’s zeitgeist, artists release albums when they’re ready, not when some accountant says they have to in order to fulfill some sleazy record label contract. So their debut album, Joy and Desolation – streaming at their music page – was worth the wait. It’s a mix of very familiar repertoire and more adventurous material.

They open the record with a classical radio staple: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, with soloist Alexander Fiterstein. Let’s not kid ourselves: pensive third movement notwithstanding, this is wine-hour music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of suburban Vienna, such as suburbs existed in 1789. The more you drink, the easier it is to get lost in its lustre and exchanges of subdued revelry. But it’s gorgeously executed. Fiterstein maintains a stunning, wind-tunnel clarity, throughout both extended passages and bubbly staccato phrases. Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, and violist Edwin Kaplan provide echoes and a strong backdrop, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy switches seamlessly between resonant ballast and serving as bass player.

Next on the bill are Gerald Finzi’s innocuously neo-baroque Five Bagatelles. A drifting legato quickly transforms to leaps and bounds in the opening Prelude. Fiterstein’s moody vistas echo in Smigelskiy’s undercurrent in the nocturnal Romance, followed by a nostalgically snowy, waltzing carol of a third movement. The fourth relies more on stark pastoral textures from the strings; the concluding fughetta, on bubbly exchanges. Aaron Copland comes to mind often here: this music is facile, derivative – and seamlessly played.

So much for joy. There’s a slow, fugal contrast between icy, troubled, tectonically shifting close-harmonied strings, built around a creepy chromatic riff and the clarinet’s looming textures, in John Corigliano‘s Soliloquy. The windswept, ghostly outro is absolutely gorgeous. The group wind up the album with Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, its haunted flickers and flutters behind plaintive clarinet up to a fire dance within the first couple of minutes. Demands on the ensemble increase from sudden shocked cadenzas to chilling mictrotonal interludes: what a piece de resistance to choose as a coda.

Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

Malian Guitar Powerhouse Makes a Welcome Return, More Psychedelic Than Ever

The backstory to Malian guitarslinger Anansy Cissé’s new album Anoura (Songhai for “Light” and streaming at Spotify) is a very troubling, but ultimately triumphant one. He’d already recorded some of it by 2018, when he was invited to play a festival in his hometown near Timbuktu. On the way there, he and his band were attacked and abducted by thugs, who destroyed his equipment. Devastated, Cissé shelved the project and retreated to doing studio production work. But he recovered, regrouped the band and the result is a cutting-edge, deliciously psychedelic album.

The instrumentation reflects Cissé’s blend of traditional desert sounds and jamband rock. Abdoulaye Kone and Bakari Diarra share the ngoni chair, with Abrahmane Toure on bass, Mahalmadane Traore on percussion and bass as well, with the late Zoumana Tereta on single-string soku fiddle on two tracks, quite possibly the Malian master’s final studio appearance.

They open the album with Tiawo (Education), Cissé essentially telling everybody to free themselves from mental slavery over a slowly swaying, melancholy minor-key vamp, his web of reverbtoned washes, skittishly loopy riffs and searing, distorted hammer-ons contrasting with the spiky ngoni.

He follows with a couple of festival anthems. Foussa Foussa, a catchy, neon-lit roadhouse blues shuffle returned closer to its roots, has more of those blazing, reverb-infused riffs and a sly dub breakdown. Tiara has tricky syncopation that reminds of the Grateful Dead during their late 60s flirtation with Indian music, plus trippy sheets of feedback and distortion filtering behind the intertwine of overdubs.

Cissé, a shout-out to his marabout ancestors, has a relaxed, hypnotically loping groove and a gentle call-and-response, enhanced by the looming reverb riffs throughout the sonic picture. Mina, the album’s most bizarre mashup, is a brisk minor-key stoner boogie awash in wah-wah and buzzy distortion.

The band return to more stark, darkly lingering ambience with Nafa (Patience), complete with icy gothic chorus-box bass. Tereta’s acidic, trumpet-like melismas raise the energy in the acoustic-electric textures of Talka (Poverty). For whatever reason, Balkissa, a love song to Cissé’s wife, is the most anthemic and rock-oriented track here.

Nia (Mothers) has the most richly melodic blend of simmering, jangly harmonies and multitracks, Tereta’s soku adding ghostly texture in the back of the mix. The message of the album’s slowly crescendoing final cut, Djam Maganouna is basically “you’re a creep, and people have long memories.” May we all live long enough to have memories of this album…and get to enjoy another one from this irrepressibly creative guitarist.

Another Bleakly Amusing Album of Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

“I did more business in July than I did in all of 2019,” a Brooklyn liquor store owner confided to a friend of this blog last summer. In a locked-down city where domestic violence is up 50%, suicide among young people is up 60%, with the murder rate soaring, that’s no wonder. It’s been even worse in the UK. The Pocket Gods offer a cynical, distinctly British and very catchy take on lockdown hell in Alcoholics Enormous, one of the funniest songs on their characteristically eclectic new album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall, streaming at Spotify.

Speaking of overdoing it, the pun in that song title is just as endangered. Alcoholics Anonymous became just plain Alcoholics when the lockdowners shut down all the churches and community centers where the meetings were held, and everything went online.

Pocket Gods mastermind Mark Christopher Lee has put out a staggering amount of music over the past decade. The band’s equally desperate, bleakly funny previous record of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, made the ten best albums of 2020 list here, and the gallows humor of this one is just as spot-on.

Lee assesses the lockdowners’ crazymaking over a disquieting, hypnotic pulse in Conspiracy Collagen: what can you believe when the fake news media gets more and more outlandish every day? He takes that same disbelief to a sarcastic sendup of celebrity obsession in JS X RQ. My Next High is just as angst-fueled, and sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain doing a decent job covering the Byrds.

Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday, a horror movie theme for the past year’s insanity, is the best song on the album (the Wenzels chain is sort of a British cross between Au Bon Pain and 7-11). Narcissistic Jogger has a similarly macabre pulse: all the same, you can’t help but laugh at these double-muzzled sheep gasping for air. And the catchy powerpop nugget Pound Shop Junkie speaks truth to the cognitive dissonance of desperate consumers lined up around the block for formula retail. Today the dollar store, tomorrow the breadline, after the lockdowners bulldoze all the independent farms because a couple of workers were caught within six feet of each other.

For the record, this blog doesn’t really believe that any of those apocalyptic New Abnormal horror scenarios will ever be more than a pipe dream for a handful of oligarchs and their propaganda squads. More than 30% of the US has been liberated and is back to normal as of today. Then again, weren’t we lucky to be sitting here in our (quasi) safe American homes, able to lustily sing, “Don’t wanna go back there again.”

Playful, Gently Trippy Dance Tunes and Neosoul From Kalbells

Kalbells play psychedelic funk and neosoul. They’re a road-warrior supergroup: Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver fronts the band with her cheery, chipper vocals, alongside Okkervil River keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti, Angelica Bess of Body Language and drummer Zoë Brecher of Hushpuppy. Their new album Max Heart is streaming at Bandcamp. This stuff is all about trippy textures and messing with your head: airy highs, reverb and uncluttered dance beats all figure into their web of sound. This is a good party record but it works just as well as chillout music.

Lush string synth joins the twinkly electric piano, Bernie Worrell-esque keyb flourishes, and fluttering flute in the opening track, Red Marker, Traver’s bandmates’ harmonies wafting behind her vocals. The song seems to be about picking up the pieces and moving on.

Traver testifies gently to the therapeutic effects of blowing some notes out into the street in Flute Windows Open In the Rain, exchanging phrases with thoughtful sax over an altered oldschool disco groove. Purplepink has a muted but resolutely funky strut and a slit-eyed, sunbaked guitar solo.

Twinkling keys return over a spare, steady beat and increasingly lush keys in Poppy Tree. Dancing along over some catchy bass octaves, Hump the Beach is just as hypnotic as it is catchy.

Pickles is the album’s funniest track: without giving anything away, it’s metaphorical and features a cameo by hip-hop artist Miss Eaves.

Brecher supplies an elegantly rattling Afrobeat rhythm to anchor the blippy, playful textures of Bubbles. Big Lake is closer to four-on-the-floor, with a catchy, leaping bassline and enveloping harmonies.

Diagram of Me Sleeping is a slow jam that gets funnier the more closely you listen to the lyrics – although that whistling is annoying. The band wind up the album with the defiantly anthemic, whimsically ornamented title track.

Ocelot Creates Spacious, Relentlessly Uneasy Improvisational Ambience

The new album by Ocelot – pianist Cat Toren, saxophonist Yuma Uesaka and drummer Colin Hinton – is streaming at Bandcamp. For the most part, this beast spends its time stalking its prey, not flexing its claws. The music is on the minimal side; much of it is still and sometimes rapturous, and when it gets aggressive, a central rhythm often disappears.  The repartee between the trio is thoughtfully conversational, and as usual Hinton is as much if not more of a colorist here as he is motive force.

The trio build the opening track, Daimon II, around an icy, looping series of simple stalactite piano licks in the upper righthand, echoed somberly in the lows, Hinton adding subtle shades on the perimeter as Uesaka provides hazy ambience. Factum, the second number, is a mini-suite. Hinton’s muted rustles on the toms contrasting with Uesaka’s airy, eerie microtonalities over Toren’s Rhodes loops to bookend the piece, with a dip into spare, mystical Japanese temple ambience, and then a triumphantly crashing, cascading tableau.

Likewise, in Iterations I, the band expand outward, upward, into the wild, and then back to tightly focused twin riffage from piano and sax. Hammering, hypnotic, Louis Andriessen-esque piledriver rhythms permeate the next track, Post, with a recurrent joke that’s too good to give away.

The sparse, crepuscular undersea landscape of Anemone slowly becomes more animated, with flitting presences crawling around Toren’s low lefthand murk and eventually, her broodingly circling modalities.

How much contempt is there in Contemptuality? Toren’s chilly, Messiaenic belltones give way to a solemn, dessicated quasi-stroll, Uesaka uneasily hanging overhead, Hinton further icing the scene with his glockenspiel and hardware. As a storm gains momentum, Toren circles soberly, Uesaka kicking up a modal frenzy, Hinton holding the center.

Chilly desolation reaches its vastest expanse here in the haunting, subtly crescendoing calls and responses of Sequestration. Toren’s sparse, Mompou-esque chiming melody and Uesaka’s guarded triumph over Hinton’s slow sway in the album’s concluding track, Crocus offer more than a hint of brighter days to come. May this be an omen for us all.