New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: April, 2021

A Sophisticated, Tuneful Album and a Central Park Show From Saxophonist Michael Thomas

There’s crushing irony in that saxophonist Michael Thomas‘ latest album, Natural Habitat – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a shout-out to New York at a time when this city has never been more hostile to musicians. There’s even greater irony in that Thomas could leave the city he always gravitated toward, return to his native Florida and enjoy a busy career there. For the moment, he’s toughing it out here, and is playing one of Giant Step Arts‘ series of outdoor concerts on the west side of Central Park on April 25 at around 1 PM with a quartet featuring Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Edward Perez on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. Go in through the 81st St. entrance, follow the noise and walk uphill about a block north.

Blake also serves as the irrepressible force that propels this tuneful and ambitious album, alongside pianist Julian Shore and bassist Hans Glawischnig. Thomas opens it with Float, a vehicle for Shore’s rippling lyricism, assembled around a spiraling, syncopated, warmly pastoral sax theme.. The bandleader cuts loose with a long, triumphant solo as the backdrop grows more kinetic but also enigmatic.

He switches to bass clarinet to open the catchy jazz waltz Different Time with a sagely cheery solo, Glawischnig dancing between Shore’s spare chords. The band follow the goodnaturedly funky sway of First with the album’s similarly energetic, hard-swinging retro 60s title track and its slyly circling Blake solo.

Harbor, a pensive but anthemic ballad, takes its title from Boston Harbor, where Thomas was inspired to come up with the finishing touches. He saves his longest, optimistically crescendoing solo for Fourth, the rest of the band returning to a swaying, funk-tinged groove.

The album’s most dynamic number is Demise, at first built around a brooding, circling Shore riff, Thomas back on bass clarinet. Shore then switches to bubbly Rhodes for a cloudbusting solo as Blake gets more and more memorably restless.

Shore anchors No Words with his increasingly frenetic clusters, Thomas taking charge of bringing the sunlight in this time. The album winds up with Two Cities – a joint homage to Boston, where Thomas went to school, and New York as well, the contrast between the two reflected in the unsettled rhythm. Thomas picks this as the place to cut loose with his fieriest sax solo here as Blake pounces and prowls. If this is an accurate interpretation, Thomas sees Boston as having younger cred, while Gotham lives up to its vaunted sophistication. In actuality, neither New York nor Massachusetts are free states at the moment, and neither has much of a musical culture outside of speakeasies and clandestine venues…and public parks.

Venomous Australian Heavy Rockers Stay Strong Under Hellacious Conditions

You could make a strong case that Australian band Hellz Abyss named themselves after their home country. The lockdown there has arguably been more hellacious there than anywhere else in the world other than Communist China or North Korea: freedom of speech has been banned, the government shut down the rice industry to starve the population into submission, and most recently, lawyers who fight the lockdown are being disbarred. Meanwhile, the lockdowners are diverting the country’s scarce water resources to a massive fracking project.

Hellz Abyss’ new album N#1FG – streaming at Bandcamp – doesn’t specifically address the lockdown. but if Australians have as much balls as this band, everything’s eventually going to be ok. The group have a unique sound, based in metal but with a snotty new wave edge: imagine Missing Persons or Garbage but with genuine bite. In a twisted way, this is a great party record.

Guitarist Daryl Holden builds a gritty, slow crunch around a famous Pink Floyd riff in the first song, Dead Ones: “Don’t be afraid to die, you’re already dead inside,” frontwoman the Venomous Hellz, a.k.a. Lisa Perry luridly intones. “You lost everyone, you spread it like a disease,” she snarls in over a heavy, minimalist postpunk stomp in the second track, Ratatatatat.

Built around a catchy, circling riff, Kill the Real Girls seems to be an attack at backstabbers. The band keep the crunch and roar going with The Darkest, a kiss-off anthem. Then they get more psychedelic, with tinges of Indian music, but also a lot more explosive in the next cut, Faith.

The bass gets more of a snap in Waste of Time, one of the catchiest tunes here. After that, the group bludgeon their way through the bizarrely atmospheric Liar, Mark McLeod’s double kickdrum going full force.

Rope Bunny has hammering QOTSA riffage, while Salute comes across as a tighter take on the Runaways: “I’m gonna make you regret every choice you made,” Perry warns. Nine tracks in, we finally get a squealing guitar solo.

They slow down for Trust, Perry cutting loose with her wounded wail, then go back to a fullscale four-on-the-floor roar with some weird sci-fi EFX in Paper Back Lover.

Viscious is a mix of black-lipstick goth ballad and growling punk rock, with the album’s most unhinged guitar shredding. Shoot to Kill is a thinly disguised one-chord riff-rocker; “You can’t control me” is the mantra. The album winds up with Soul Eater, an echoey mashup of early Van Halen and AC/DC with a woman out front.

Magical, Transcendent New Carillon Music

Tiffany Ng is a virtuoso of one of the rarest instruments: the carillon. It didn’t used to be that way. A hundred years ago, every respectable European town with a bell tower or two had one, sometimes several. Like church organs, every carillon is custom-made for its own space and available bells. Ng chose the magnificent model on her home turf at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to record her magical, otherworldly album Dark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush, streaming at Spotify.

Rush made waves in the carillon demimonde with his Three Etudes in 1987 and remains a major figure. Ng maintains a steady pace through the clever counterpoint and echo effects of the first segment and the hypnotic, more spacious tolling of the second. The finale, “With Drive,” is nothing short of mesmerizing, a web of alternate sonic universes unfolding as the overtones ring out, Ng shifting from a march of sorts to a solemn, spare, deep-space clang and a catchy, icily dancing theme.

The album’s title track has allusive chromatics and music box-like chimes in contrast to spare, resonant low accents and a relentless, sepulchral mystery. Six Treatments, a site-specific electroacoustic suite, spans from anvil minimalism to sparse, plaintive figures, a playfully ghostly “tilted waltz” and a vast, meditative panorama. The electronics kick in most noticeably in a shivery, wintry river tableau, followed by a rapt, often warmly fugal Charles Ives homage and a whirring, lingering vortex of a conclusion.

Ng begins Rush’s Sonata for Carillon as the closest thing to variations on a bold, on-the-hour riff here, building to a friendly exorcist theme of sorts. Part two, Flux most closely approximates a stately piano theme, but with some devious echo effects. The finale, Variations on Holy Manna, is as catchy and dramatic as it is trancelike.

The composer conducts a brass quintet – Keenan Bakowski on trumpet, Zoe Cutler on trombone, Dominic Hayes on horn, Michael Stern on trumpet, Jacob Taitel on tuba and Tanner Tanyeri on percussion – alongside Ng in the album’s suspensefully shapeshifting, concluding number, September Fanfares. The recording quality is sublime: it’s as if you’re there in the tower with Ng. What a ravishingly beautiful album.

Jazz on a Chilly Spring Day

.About ten minutes into the first number at his Saturday show, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter took advantage of a spring-loaded Joe Martin bass solo for a chance to pull on a windbreaker. That made sense: it was a raw, chilly, overcast afternoon.

It’s a little early in the year for outdoor jazz festivals. Was the air conditioning at the Village Vanguard working overtime? Before the lockdown, Potter would routinely sell out a weeklong stand there.

Nope. Potter was playing Central Park.

The chance to see him leading a chordless trio, featuring some breathtakingly masterful drumming from Nasheet Waits – for free! – was every bit the thrill it promised to be. Musicians are typically nocturnal creatures, but none of the acts in the ongoing weekend series that Giant Step Arts are booking in the park have phoned in their shows. Until we get back to normal – which is inevitable, if we are going to survive at all, let alone as a society – what photographer Jimmy Katz’s organization is doing is genuinely heroic.

At the series’ installment couple of weeks ago, the crowd was transient, many people lured away (or driven away) by a loud electric band up the block. This time, everyone had come to stick around and listen. The audience gathered around the rise at Central Park West close to 82nd Street wasn’t a mass sea of bodies, but they would have sold out the Vanguard.

The show was everything that everyone had come out for, maybe a little on the judicious, spare side. In over an hour onstage (or on bedrock, maybe), the group seldom hit a straight-ahead swing, shifting artfully and slyly between themes, JD Allen style, rather than playing anything all the way through. Potter was very generous with solos. Martin’s approach was a spring-wound intensity, sometimes very spaciously, echoing the bandleader at times.

Waits’ game plan was symphonic, starting with sticks, then moving to mallets, brushes and finally sticks again. While Potter waited til the closing number to swing hard, Waits was fueling a turbulent forward drive with hypnotically churning helicopter-wing rumbles, teasing out a very subtle clave at doublespeed on the rims of his snare, and taking charge of the suspense factor.

Potter didn’t waste time dispensing adrenaline: after the band had edged and shimmied themselves into the opening theme, he chose his spots to rise to trills, and slithery glissandos, and chilling microtones. The first number – if you count thirty-three minutes as a number – had a jaunty but spacious latin flair. About two thirds of the way in Potter, shifted to ominous modalities to match the encroaching grey clouds overhead.

Waits’ rolling thunder syncopation and Potter’s tantalizing, spacious cheer fueled an expansive, dynamically vast romp through I’m In the Mood For Love, the bandleader finally going for fullscale lyrical suaveness but also some wildfire spiraling as the trio wound it out. They went back to endless variations on a latin groove for the closing number, Potter’s crisply chopped blues phrasing, flurries and glissandos matched by Waits’ insistence and flourishes on his hardware as Martin chose his own subtle spots for victorious ricochets.

Giant Step Arts’ next Central Park show is on April 24 at around 1 PM (start time has been a work in progress here) with trumpeter Marquis Hill and his band on the little hill north of the 81st St. entrance on the west side. There will probably be Mister Softee and people with boomboxes within earshot in the quieter moments. What there won’t be is Bill Gates’ spyware, or a temperature gun, or a list of attendees which goes straight to Bloomberg’s trace-and-track gestapo to single out anyone who might be a threat to permanent lockdown surveillance. We’re going to win this war: this concert series is a small but enormously important step toward victory.

The Latest Dose of Brown Acid: Trippier and More Amusing Than Ever

Over the course of eleven volumes, the Brown Acid compilations have rescued well over a hundred incredibly obscure proto-metal, psychedelic and soul songs from oblivion. Some of the original copies of those records go for thousands of dollars on the collector market, but the better part of this wild archive, from some of the most unlikely places on this continent, never reached beyond a small fan base. The loosely connecting thread here is the stoner factor. To celebrate 4/20 – and the de facto legalization of weed in New York this year – Riding Easy Records are releasing the twelfth “trip” in the series, streaming at Bandcamp. In keeping with a hallowed tradition, every volume is available on vinyl.

Is this the point where the bowl is finally cashed? Are we scraping the bong yet? No, although there are more WTF moments here than usual. Intentionally or not, this is one of the funniest mixes in the series.

Louisville power trio the Waters open the playlist with their 1969 single Mother Samwell: it sounds like the Yardbirds spun through a flange, panning the speakers. The bass player – who would go on to play with Hank Williams Jr. – is excellent, although he totally misses his cue right before the fade. Classic Brown Acid moment.

The Village S.T.O.P., from Hamilton, Ontario nick a famous Beatles playground riff – plus maybe a little Iron Butterfly – for their 1969 wah-wah tune Vibration. Minneapolis band White Lightning hit a chilling lyrical peak in 1930, a Move-inspired protest song whose anti-Vietnam War message resonates more than ever half a century later: “I’m not going to die for your greed!”

Bay Area heavy soul band Shane’s lone 1968 single, a one-chord jam, is a badly recorded mess. Another 1968 rediscovery, Dallas group Ace Song Service’s organ-fueled Persuasion is a more successfully trippy take on the same style. The compilation reaches outside the US in a rare moment for yet another one-chord jam, Belgian band Opus Est’s ridiculously PG-rated faux-risque 1974 single, Bed, which sadly never reached its intended audience of American thirteen-year-olds.

Hawaiian band the Mopptops contribute Our Lives, a funky, catchy, organ-fueled populist anthem. In 1977, at the peak of the CBGB era, Youngstown, Ohio’s Artist were still ripping off Hendrix, as evidenced by the innuendo-fueled Every Lady Does It.

Carthage, Missouri power trio Stagefright distinguish themselves with their tumbling drums (that’s frontman Jim Mills) in Comin’ Home, the compilation’s first foray into the 80s. And this is where the album ought to end: NRBQ’s lame, pseudonymous attempt to parody early 70s heavy psych sounds is as weak as everything else they ever did. Whatever the case, you don’t have to be high to get into this playlist: it sounds perfectly good after a couple of whiskies.

Heather Trost Goes into Lush Psychedelia With Her New Solo Album

Violinist Heather Trost may be best known as the ferocious lead instrumentalist in Balkan band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but she’s also proficient on several other instruments. Her new solo album Petrichor – streaming at Bandcamp – is quite a change. It’s a playful psychedelic rock album in the same vein as another solo debut from a couple of years ago by a similarly talented instrumentalist, Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney.

Trost opens the record with Let It In, a pulsing, shoegazy psychedelic tableau, layers of keys wafting around over distantly flurrying drums. For someone whose instrumental chops are so fierce, her voice is surprisingly delicate and airy.

The second song, Love It Grows is part Mamas & the Papas at their most warily autumnal, part Alec K. Redfearn Balkan noir – with fractured French lyrics. Tracks to Nowhere grows ghostlier over steady, spare electric guitar arpeggios, then the bass and drums come in and it takes shape as a moody, soul-tinged ballad.

Trost keeps the stately 6/8 rhythm going through I’ll Think Of You, a lullaby of sorts buoyed by her soaring violin. Burbling high keys contrast with a Velvets drone in VK09, a dead ringer for the Black Angels. Trost brings the album full circle with the hypnotically echoey Sunrise. The only miss here is the album’s lone cover – 70s hippie pop, ugh.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

A Major Discovery of Rapturous, Previously Unreleased Alan Hovhaness Piano Works

Although Alan Hovhaness earned a place in the pantheon with his mystical, often haunting, Armenian-inspired orchestral works, he was a fine organist and pianist. His piano music is lesser known, and while it often shares those same qualities, it’s often delivishly rhythmic…and challenging to play. One would think that the complete works of the greatest American classical composer would have seen the light of day by now, but as pianist Sahan Arzruni reveals on his new album Alan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions – streaming at Spotify – there was more in the archive. And the quality is astonishing, consistent with the rest of the composer’s iconic repertoire.

How was this material discovered? Arzruni worked closely with Hovhaness and has continued to be a leading advocate for his music, and as a result was given unprecedented access. Most of these newly unearthed compositions are on the short side, interspersed among some of Hovhaness’ better-known piano pieces.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an early champion of Hovhaness, and would play his lively, broodingly Indian-tinged miniature, Mystic Flute, as a concert encore. Here, Arzruni gives it equal parts opulence and fire. He rolls with the wave motion in Laona, a river tableau. In the 68-page album booklet – in Armenian, Turkish and English – Arzruni mentions that Laona, in upstate New York, was a summer home to the 19th century spiritualist movement. It’s hardly a surprise that Hovhaness, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of a medieval Armenian composer, would make a point to spend time in that area.

The six-part suite Yenovk – which the composer dedicated to his colleague, Armenian traditional singer Yenovk Der Hagopian – is an early version of Hovhaness’ Madras Sonata. Arzruni plays with detail and dynamism through the percussive modal minimalism of the Fantasy and Ballata, the gorgeously glittering, carnatic-flavored Jhala, a couple of enigmatic songs without words and the concluding fugue, a playful mashup akin to what Bach would have done if he’d gone to the Paris Expo with Debussy.

Persistently rhythmic, oud-like voicings recur throughout this music, as in Arzruni’s bracingly crescendoing take of Lalezar, a magically ringing, chromatic love theme. The Lake of Van Sonata, an Anatolian waterside portrait, is similarly sparkling but more vast and somber in places. The Suite on Greek Tunes, by contrast, is a much simpler, bouncier, catchy little triptych.

Now for the world premieres! Arzruni reaches for gravitas and majesty along with sharp-fanged pointillisms in Invocation to Vahakn (the Armenian god of war), an otherworldly lyrical 1946 suite of miniatures that’s on the minimal side and way ahead of its time. Percussionist Adam Rosenblatt kicks in a boomy beat in places.

Journey Into Dawn, a 1954 partita, opens with bell-like, Mompou-esque mystery, invokes Bach, romps into India for a bit, then Arzruni shifts to the album’s most fascinatingly allusive harmonies, thisclose to twelve-tone acidity.

Vijag is a capsule Armenian rite of spring – the countermelodies are phantasmagorically exquisite, and Arzruni makes short work of them. The final world premiere recording here is the 1946 Hakhpat Sonata, inspired by an ancient Armenian monastery complex dating to the tenth century. In eight parts, it runs from sober contemplation to precise, dancing figures, concise rainy-day sonics, Indian and Balkan-tinged circularity, Rosenblatt employing his ominous, gong-like thunder sheet and kettledrums. Arzruni has done a great service bringing this magical, undeservedly obscure repertoire to a global audience.

Saluting Some Great Women Blues Pioneers

These days, the irrepressible playlisters who put together the Rough Guide compilations have turned to the public domain. With digital music having flatlined as a consumer product a long time ago, one way a record label can survive is to reissue hundred-year-old blues songs that don’t require licensing or royalties. And these Rough Guide oldtime blues playlists are good! Each has lots of music, the greats alongside lesser-known talents. One of the best is the Rough Guide to Blues Women, a twenty-five track mix of guitar, piano and larger-group recordings, mostly from the 1920s, released in 2016 and streaming at Spotify.

There isn’t a lot of obvious material on this one. Among the iconic figures here, Ma Rainey is represented by a proto-dixieland version of Stack O’Lee Blues. Likewise, Bessie Smith’s Careless Love has chattering brass and piano. The Memphis Minnie track here is the lesser-known, upbeat shuffle Frisco Town. Sippie Wallace has a big band behind her in the speakeasy tale Parlor Social DeLuxe, while Victoria Spivey – the sweet-voiced Madonna of the 1920s – closes the album over some tasty stride piano with Hoodoo Man Blues.

For those looking for instrumental flash, check out the neat two-guitar intertwine in Ruth Willis’ Man of My Own, Lottie Kimbrough’s gorgeously chiming Rolling Log Blues, and Mattie Delaney’s elegantly pouncing fretwork in Down the Big Road Blues.

The blues can get pretty grim. Leola Manning’s Arcade Building Moan gruesomely recalls a lethal fire, and Greshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ contribute the alllusively grisly Pick Poor Robin Clean.

There’s risque material here too, notably Lucille Bogan’s barrelhouse tune Shave ‘Em Dry. Ida Cox’s Moaning Groaning Blues is somewhat subtler. And Hattie Hart fronts the Memphis Jug Band throughout a jauntily shuffling take of Cocaine Habit Blues, a.k.a. Take a Whiff on Me.

Pearl Dickson’s Little Rock Blues is built around a fleet-fingered, cascading riff, Louisa Johnson channels a brittle unease over thumping piano in By the Moon and Stars, otherwise known as I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Hattie Hudson’s surreal, imagistic Black Hand Blues makes a good segue.

There are a handful of ringers on this album. Louis Armstrong is one, with Bertha “Chippie” Hill fronting a piano-trumpet-vocal trio on a steady version of Trouble in Mind. Likewise, Blind Willie McTell backs his wife Kate in what seems an impromptu homemade version of the Prohibition-era relic God Don’t Like It. The version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do here is by Fats Waller, with Sara Martin on the mic. And Irene Scruggs sings over Blind Blake’s sparkling picking on Itching Heel Blues.