New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Purist, Bluesy Swing From Trombonist Mariel Bildstein

Mariel Bildstein may be best know as the high-voltage lead trombonist in Arturo O’Farrill‘s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but she’s also a composer and bandleader. Her new album Backbone – streaming at Bandcamp – is a straight-up, swinging, purist mix of tunes from across the ages. Bildstein maintains a remarkable focus and doesn’t waste notes.

The opening number, Horace Silver’s Ecaroh bristles with surreal harmonies, Stacy Dillard taking a couple of bracing solos on soprano sax, pianist Sean Mason bringing in some ragtime and gospel, the bandleader getting wry with the quotebook right off the bat.

Harold Arlen’s The Man That Got Away is a steady swing blues, Bildstein taking a spare, New Orleans-flavored solo as Evan Sherman’s drums drop out and bassist Ben Wolfe strolls along purposefully. A  nocturnal Spanish atmosphere permeates Rosita, from Mason’s biting bolero piano to Dillard’s misty tenor sax; the coy horn harmonies lighten the piece considerably as it goes on, with a jaunty little bass cadenza to cap it off. The Coleman Hawkins version is an obvious precursor.

Monaco follows a similar trajectory from stern intensity toward jubilation on the wings of Bildstein’s no-nonsense solo, handing off to Dillard’s spiraling tenor, Mason adding bluesy simmer. Bildstein looms distantly, then has sly fun with her mute over Wolfe’s slow, considered syncopation in their stripped-down duo version of Mood Indigo. The  group close the album by reinventing The Lamp Is Low as a jaunty cha-cha anchored by guest percussionist Keisel Jimenez’s clave.

A Revelatory, Riveting, Whirlwind Webcast by Pianist Karine Poghosyan

Pianist Karine Poghosyan had a banner year of concerts lined up for 2020. She was riding a wave of critical adulation for her most recent album of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works, and then a particularly spellbinding Carnegie Hall concert. A week before the lockdown, she played a symphony orchestra gig. All of a sudden, a career that seemed to be on a meteoric rise hit a brick wall.

In the meantime, like so many other artists, Poghosyan has gone to plan B and found a temporary home on the web. But she’s taken her webcasting to the next level. Every week since the beginning of the lockdown, she’s memorized a different program, which she plays on Friday nights for her Facebook followers (for the general public, many of these are archived on her youtube channel). And at the end of every month, she treats her Patreon supporters to a longer, more intimate and interactive performance. Last month’s was an all-Chopin program with an intensity which was visceral beyond the sonic and atmospheric limitations of a small screen.

Seated at her vintage 1925 Boston Chickering baby grand in a classically small Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, she fretted about her hair. Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 is “not very kind to hair,” Poghosyan explained to her followers. That might seem trivial, except that for Poghosyan, hair is part of the performance. Playing is a full-body experience in her world. Swaying, throwing back her black mane to the wind, then reaching forward as if to magnetize some unseen Rosetta Stone from under the piano lid, she seemed to be channeling this music more than performing it. Paradoxically, even many times removed from the actual venue, that physicality has an exponential effect on her performance.

In her hands this time, the Ballade turned out to be a song without words until it exploded in a hailstorm. How many other pianists have the nerve to take the first crescendo to such a wild peak? Afterward that, her steady arc back upward gave the audience pause to consider what had just happened.

She takes a painstaking approach to her programming. “I think of these piece as a mini-group,” she explained, introducing the Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, no.2. Poghosyan’s dad is renowned painter Razmik Pogosyan, who, as it turns out, is a devotee of Italian opera. As a rising star of the teenage piano world in Yerevan, Armenia, she heard a lot of her father’s opera records and remains a fan. She mentioned a very cantabile quality to this piece and stuck to that through an understatedly waltzing approach with a little judicious rubato, up to a regal, stately segue into the centerpiece of the evening, the famous Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66.

It took an awful lot of nerve, but an equal amount of skill to play it at Art Tatum speed like she did. As breathtaking as that was to hear, she somehow found a solid elasticity to connect these volleys of notes, rather than taking a simple, rapidfire icepick approach to the big peaks. And when she backed off, the suspense was something to savor. She’s been playing it since high school, but she never gets sick of it, always finding “new characters” to evince from the notes, as she put it.

The end of the program was fascinating, She found torrential proto-Debussy in Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, no. 15 and closed with a towering, turbulent, exhilaratingly triumphant take of his Polonaise-Heroique, Op. 53. This was a battle, not a parade, a charismatic gunslinger who’d come to save us all from the needle of death. The force she used attacking the initial sequence of chords left no doubt that she’d come to slay. This wasn’t the troops strutting for the cameras, or Ray Manzarek slyly quoting from his fellow Pole in that classic Doors song. This was victory come hell or high water. Again, Poghosyan’s quicksilver articulacy and intuitive sense of dynamics kept this piece’s angst and aching hope from regressing into classical heavy metal.

Poghosyan’s next webcast for her Patreon people is March 28 at 4 PM with works by Gershwin, Amy Beach and Samuel Barber. You need a Zoom connection: monthly contributions can be as low as $25. That might keep her piano in tune until the next webcast.

A Lyrical, Eclectic, Politically-Inspired Album From Gregory Tardy

Although saxophonist Gregory Tardy‘s latest album If Time Could Stand Still – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded well in advance of the lockdown, it’s pretty dark in places. Tardy was clearly fed up with the political situation in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, and that resounds intensely in the record’s more acerbic moments. This is a refreshingly purposeful recording, Tardy relying on several shadowy modes beyond his usual purist blues and gospel influences.

The album’s first track, A Great Cloud of Witnesses opens with drummer Willie Jones III looping a solo Burundian folk riff that could just as easily pass for qawwali, echoed in pianist Keith Brown’s uneasy modalities as bassist Alex Claffy maintains a gently springing groove, the bandleader choosing his spots overhead.

Brown’s darkly ambered incisions are a boxer’s fist in a velvet glove, veering in and out of the blues in Absolute Truth as Tardy harmonizes with trumpeter Alex Norris and then circles skyward over a floating swing. The song title reflects Tardy’s amusement with the concept that there is no absolute truth, which itself is an absolute.

Brown’s phantasmagorical, Monkish curlicues and Tardy’s precise, moody modal lines drive the cynicism and anger of Blind Guides, a broodingly shuffling post 2016 election reflection. The group slow things down considerably for a relaxed, fondly glimmering take of Everything Happens to Me and follow that with the aptly titled I Swing Because I’m Happy, loosely based on the spiritual His Eye is on the Sparrow: Brown’s insistent, gleaming chordal attack is a highlight.

The title track begins as a warmly contented sax/piano duet before Brown shifts it into more warily pensive territory. Norris busts through the clouds over a subtly circling triplet groove in The Message in the Miracle, Brown’s triumphant chords peaking out midway through. They close, aptly, with the catchy, cheery, riff-driven It Is Finished.