New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: April, 2021

The Susan Krebs Chamber Band Play Imaginative, Deviously Funny Jazz and Other Styles

It was impossible to resist cueing up the final track on the Susan Krebs Chamber Band’s album Spring: Light Out of Darkness before listening to the others. It’s hilarious, a quiet, completely deadpan, roughly seven-minute chamber arrangement of the most famous themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s no whirling, aching release from cabin fever and no virgins being sacrificed here: pianist Rich Eames plays the percussion parts. This seems closer in spirit to Bridget Kibbey romping through the Bach Toccata in D on the concert harp than, say, Richard Cheese doing lounge versions of Nirvana songs.

The rest of the record – which came out in 2018 and is still streaming at Bandcamp – is just as imaginative and entertaining. The group ease their way playfully and atmospherically into a lithe jazz version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez playbook, spiced with Luis Mascaro’s violin and Rob Lockart’s bass clarinet  over Eames’ piano and Scott Breadman’s drums.

Likewise, the band coyly edge their way toward oldtimey-flavored swing in their take of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass, Krebs’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery underscoring its message of how loose lips sink ships. She looks back to the cabaret origins of Some Other Time in a slow, lingering version with piano, bluesy violin and sailing clarinet.

Spring is another ridiculously funny interlude, the famous Vivaldi theme from the Four Seasons reinvented as a jaunty soul-gospel tune. You Must Believe in Spring has a steady implied clave bounce and cheerily lyrical piano, then Krebs shifts to a wee-hours saloon blues ambience for the album’s title track. It’s been a rough year: this album will lift your spirits.

Gorgeously Haunting, Surreal Cinematics From Dictaphone

Dictaphone’s distinctive, unique sound falls somewhere between film noir soundtrack music, jazz and the Middle East. Which makes sense, considering that bandleader Oliver Doerell does a lot of movie scores. The group’s often sweepingly crepuscular instrumentals are much more lush than one would expect from just three musicians, yet it’s also very minimalist: no note goes to waste here. Their new album Goats & Distortions 5 – streaming at Bandcamp – expands on their exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

The album’s opening track, simply titled O, has a loopy trip-hop beat beneath drifting ambience over that could be muted pizzicato violin, or a processed guitar riff, or a sintir at a distance: it’s often hard to isolate who’s playing what here. Clarinetist Roger Döring looms sparely and moodily as the atmospherics pulse in and out.

The second track, Island 92 quickly coalesces into a hypnotic Middle Eastern groove, Döring’s bass clarinet chromatics weaving broodingly, then suddenly dropping out for Alex Stolze’s hazy violin. From there, Doerell builds a terse, resonant web of guitar clang and atmospherics.

Döring’s sax and Stolze’s violin waft uneasily over Doerrell’s sintir loop and a lo-fi electronic click track in track three, titled 808.14.4. The album’s title track is in two parts: the first a brief, swoopy, minimalist loop pastiche and the second a trickily rhythmic, darkly surreal dub interlude, pings and blips contrasting with spare bass and morose bass clarinet.

Likewise, washes of grey noise, bass clarinet and amplified loops from an old, broken tape recorder mingle mournfully in Tempete et Stress. Il Grande Silenzio is anything but, a lament with funeral parlor organ and more of that bass clarinet, plus some creepy robotic textures.

M – which doesn’t seem to be a salute to the iconic Peter Lorre horror film – is the driftiest interlude here. Helga Raimondi takes an enigmatic cameo on the mic in Your Reign Is Over, a rainy-day Balkan reggae dub theme. They close with Griot Dub, which is not a reggae tune but a grey-sky tableau.

Fun fact: the band take their name from a lo-fi tape recorder with a variable-speed motor, invented in the late 40s and commonly used in offices as late as the 1990s. It was meant to free up secretarial staff from the slow process of taking dictation. A typist could transcribe the tape and slow the machine down if the person doing the dictating was speaking rapidly. There was also Dictaphone etiquette: to avoid mistakes in transcription, it was considered de rigeur to enunciate slowly and clearly, to spell out proper names and difficult words, and to thank the typist – almost invariably a woman working for near-minimum wage – at the end of the tape.

Moody Songs Without Words For Our Time by Eydís Evensen

If there ever was an album tailor-made for a zeitgeist, pianist Eydís Evensen‘s debut, Bylur – Icelandic for “snowstorm” – is it. Of all the youtube memes which have come and gone over the years, one of the first and longest-lasting ones is the thousands of sad piano channels, every wannabe film composer with modest piano talent rushing to put up one rainy-day theme after another. Most of them sound pretty much the same: a little Pink Floyd, a little Schubert, if we’re lucky. Evensen’s terse, often hypnotic, overcast compositions – streaming at Spotify – are a cut above.

The album begins with Deep Under, an achingly lush minor-key theme with cello and eventually a string section soaring over her anthemic broken chords: the whole thing quietly screams out “scary arthouse movie score.”

While Dagdraumur (Daydream) is a real-life elegy, Evensen’s circling phrases are more pensive than overtly grief-stricken. The Northern Sky has an steady, elegantly moody interweave, the strings wafting more distantly this time. Wandering is a diptych: the cello darkens over Evensen’s hypnotic righthand clusters in the first part, then she turns that dynamic upside down in the conclusion, a solitary horn moving front and center.

Vetur Genginn í Garð’ (“Winter Is Here”) is the most obvious, derivatively Romantic piece here, ostensibly Evensen’s first-ever composition, written when she was seven. Fyrir Mikael depicts the resilience and hope of her nephew, battling an autoimmune disorder.

With its tricky, dancing syncopation, Circulation is a welcome change of pace, even while Evensen loops the big hook. Likewise, Innsti Kjarni og Tilbrigði (“My Innermost Core”) has some lively ornamentation: if this is an accurate self-portrait, Evensen isn’t all gloom and doom.

But the nextr track, Ntrdogg proves she’s hardly done with that, and the cumulo-nimbus atmosphere continues in the art-rock ballad Midnight Moon, sung in heavily accented English by vocalist GDRN. The pall lifts, if only for a bit in the distantly starry instrumental Brolin; the album concludes with the tensely orchestrated, angst-fueled title track.

Fun fact: Evensen joins Tex-Mex rocker Patricia Vonne and cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost in the thin ranks of ex-models with genuine musical talent.

Drummer/Bandleader Alex Louloudis Puts Out a Brilliant, Intense, Ferocious New Album

Until the lockdown, the jazz program at New York’s New School was a fertile crucible for up-and-coming talent. One lucky composer who had the presence of mind to seize the moment and make an album there is drummer Alex Louloudis, whose often savagely kinetic, sizzling new release, Words is streaming at Bandcamp. A lot of the firepower comes from tenor saxophonist Rafael Statin, a rivetingly intense, feral yet keenly focused player, someone we will no doubt be hearing a lot more from in the years to come. Kaelen Ghandhi also contributes memorably on tenor here.

The opening number is the aptly titled Surviving. Bassist Dean Torrey hints at an evil chromatic climb and then alludes to it over and over while Louloudis swings hard. Ghandhi squalls and wails, guitarist Aaron Rubinstein throwing steady, skronky chords into the mix. The sax straightens out for a searing solo, then Ghandhi and Rubinstein build a bonfire again as Loulodis throws elbows, Torrey’s racewalking pulse holding the center. The ending is a logical surprise. It’s a strong opener.

Most of the rest of the album is a trio effort. The second number, Expedition in NOLA has moodily crescendoing, increasingly agitated sax over a tensely swinging pulse that Statin does his best to drag off the rails, but the rhythm section remain resolute. Torrey’s coyly dancing solo hints at a New Orleans second-line groove,

If there’s a common thread among the New School crowd, it’s improvisation, borne out by the next number, The Magic of 3. The bandleader’s tightly wound, suspensefully stampeding drive in tandem with Torrey’s dancing pedalpoint give Statin a long launching pad for a slashing modal solo, Louloudis’ own solo subtly dipping to launch what could have been a far eerier reprise. It’s too bad they fade it so soon.

In Ochun’s Dance – presumably a shout-out to the Yoruban love goddess – the band springboard off a wry, Monk-like theme to a racewalking swing, Statin’s careening from smoky to completely incendiary. I Hear You Eric – a Dolphy homage, maybe – begins with a gentle, lyrical insistence which Torrey seizes to get the pot boiling and send Statin skyward with his quicksilver trills, machinegunning riffs, sixteenth-note volleys and overdriven exuberance. Yeah, all of these are Coltrane tropes, but Statin nails them.

Rubinstein and Ghandhi return to join the trio for the album’s concluding, title cut, an echoey, deep-space tableau. “I like words that kill and free us all, some from our poverty, others from their bourgeois life,” vocalist Rosdeli Marte intones with just a hint of gleeful triumph. The choice of musical theme seems sarcastic to the extreme. It’s a strange way to end the album, but this is a group who aren’t afraid of taking risks. In 2021, that’s a survivor’s defining esthetic.

Remembering a Rapturous Annual Brooklyn Festival of Cutting-Edge Vocal Music

The annual Resonant Bodies Festival of avant garde vocal music ran from 2013 to 2019 at Roulette, and had just begun to branch out to other major cities when the lockdown crushed the performing arts throughout most of the world. This blog was there for the initial festival, and subsequent editions matched that year’s outside-the-box sensibility. Roulette’s vast archive still exists, and presumably everything from those often riveting performances was recorded. Let’s hope that there’s been enough resistance to the lockdown, and enough talent left in New York this fall to resume the series; if not, there’s a fantastic live compilation album featuring some of the highlights from over the years streaming at Bandcamp.

The lineup here is a who’s who of some of the most formidable new-music vocal talent out there. As was often the case with the series itself, all of the singers here are women, most of them composer-performers playing and singing solo. All but two of the tracks are from the festival.

Charmaine Lee‘s Littorals makes an apt opener. Her shtick is that she uses all the sounds in the international phonetic alphabet, plus some that may not have symbols. Part human beatbox, part devious infant, part comic, her solo performance will leave you in stitches. It sounds as if the mic is inside her mouth for much of this. This might be the funniest track anyone’s released this year.

Julia Bullock brings a beefy, soul-inspired vibrato to John Cage’s She is Asleep, Milena Gligić supplying muted, percussive microtones under the piano lid. Pamela Z’s highly processed solo diptych Quatre Couches/Badagada spins an increasingly agitated pastiche through a funhouse mirror.

Backed by clarinetist Campbell MacDonald, Sarah Maria Sun delivers Thierry Tidrow‘s grisly murder ballad Die Flamme, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire recast as arsonist. Tony Arnold nimbly negotiates the multiple voices and disjointedly demanding extended technique of Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb.

Arooj Aftab joins forces with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist Shahzad Ismaily for En Route to Unfriending, a slowly unwinding, ghazal-inspired, melancholy tour de force from the 2017 festival. Iyer’s gently insistent staccato, evoking the ringing of a santoor, is masterful.

The title of Kamala Sankaram‘s slowly crescendoing solo electroacoustic piece Ololyga reflects a shrieking mourning ritual practiced in ancient Greece, which men reputedly scared off all the guys. Needless to say, the Bombay Rickey frontwoman pulls out all the stops with her five-octave range.

Another solo electroacoustic performance, Caroline Shaw‘s diptych Rise/Other Song is considerably calmer, with a gently incantatory quality. Gelsey Bell‘s Feedback Belly is one of the more imaginative and intense pieces here, drawing on her battle with the waves of pain she experienced during a long battle with endometriosis. “If there’s anything you take away from this, please take women’s pain seriously. There is nothing like having a women’s disease to radicalize a feminist in this incredibly misogynistic health system,” she relates in the album’s extensive, colorful liner notes. Manipulating feedback from a Fender amp inside a metal canister hidden under her oversize dress, Bell builds a strangely rapt, dynamically shifting atmosphere punctuated by pulsing electronic grit.

Duo Cortona – vocalist Rachel Calloway and violinist/vocalist Ari Streisfeld – perform Amadeus Regucera‘s relationship drama If Only After You Then Me, beginning furtively and ripping through many moments of franticness and sheer terror. The iconic Lucy Shelton sings a dynamically impassioned take of Susan Botti‘s Listen, My Heart, a setting of a comforting Rabindrath Tagore poem, accompanying herself energetically on singing bowls and metal percussion.

Anaïs Maviel plays spiky, circling ngoni on In the Garden, a hypnotically moody, masterfully melismatic retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. The album’s closing epic is Sofia Jernberg’s One Pitch: Birds for Distortion and Mouth Synthesizers. Is she going to be able to hold up through seventeen minutes of nonstop, increasingly rigorous falsetto birdsong-like motives…let alone without a break for water? No spoilers!

Fifth Element Breathe New Life into a Bunch of Familiar Standards

The tracklist for swing band Fifth Element’s new album – streaming at Soundcloud- is pretty generic. A gazillion lounge acts have mined these escapist standards, mostly from the 40s and 50s, for decades. What sets Fifth Element apart from the legions of torchy hotel bar happy hour groups is singer Nina Richmond’s dynamic, subtly electrifying, insightful interpretations and tenor sax player Dave Coules’ outside-the-box, economical arrangements. Moldy oldies have seldom been reinvented with this kind of flair and zest.

The group set the stage for the rest of the record with the opening number, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me. Richmond’s delivery has vintage 60s soul-infused edge and bite; pianist Dale Scaife’s terse solo sets up Coules’ balmy solo, bassist Ron Johnston and drummer Glenn Anderson maintaining a similarly purposeful shuffle groove.

Johnston’s coyly swooping bass solo kicks off A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square; again, Richmond’s mezzo-soprano channels an undercurrent of unease. The band do It Might As Well Be Spring as a lively cha-cha – and vivid portrait of cabin fever. I Love Being Here With You has some good jokes – let’s say that Johnston seems to be the cutup in the band.

Anderson has fun introducing a passing shower in The Gentle Rain, reinvented it as a bossa tune. The band romp through There Will Never Be Another You, then completely flip the script with the brooding first verse of More Than You Know, anchored by Scaife’s plaintive chords before shifting to a slow, simmering 12/8 swing,

They follow a subtly Monk-inflected September in the Rain with a blue-flame take of The Look of Love: sticking with a backbeat on the turnaround in lieu of Burt Bacharach’s flurrying syncopation really seals the deal. Richmond isn’t out on the ledge again in Days of Wine and Roses, but she does give it a silky poignancy.

The quintet slow down again for a bit but pick up with tropical cheer in My Romance, Richmond cutting loose with her vibrato. They close the album with My Shining Hour, shifting from gospel-inflected rapture to a briskly triumphant pulse. If you’re outside the free world right now and you have a speakeasy nearby – as everybody seems to these days – this makes a good soundtrack. Just don’t play it too loud: you don’t want snitches!

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

A Revealing New Take on an Iconically Scary Suite From Patricia Kopatchinskaja

As a student, Patricia Kopatchinskaja fell in love with Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. But she didn’t stop with the music: “All my life I have felt that I was Pierrot,” she reveals.

Scary admission. Now we know why she would seize the opportunity to be the macabre Michael Hersch’s go-to violinist. For fans of Schoenberg’s iconic portrait of mad obsession (and staple of horror movie scores), Kopatchinskaja has recorded the suite on her new album, streaming at Spotify. It’s truly a dream (or nightmare) come true for her, since she doubles as both violinist and vocalist.

And she revels in it. The way her voice matches that fleeting glissando early in the opening miniature attests to how deeply she dives into the rest of it. Having seen the great Lucy Shelton gleefully tackle these pieces more than once, it’s fair to say that Kopatchinskaja’s approach just as fearlessly entertaining, and surprisingly nuanced. Shelton would really dig in and try to half-sing Albert Giraud’s texts. Kopatchinskaja is more of an otherworldly narrator sprite.

Pianist Joonas Ahonen and the rest of an inspired ensemble join her in giving a stately strut to Colombine, providing sotto-voce, cynical cheer in Der Dandy, flitting mystery in Ein blasse Wascherin, a moody stroll for Madonna, and a distant moroseness to Der kranke Mond. Beyond just those highlights, the attention to detail throughout the twenty-one short segments is spectacular, from film noir furtiveness to deep-space gloom, unexpectedly restrained phantasmagoria and flickers of sardonic humor.

There are a handful of other pieces on the record. Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7 drift sepulchrally and offer stygian mystery alongside puckish cheer. Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen bounce slyly through Fritz Kreisler’s Miniature Viennese and its ersatz Romany riffage.

To close the album, Ahonen parses Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces op.19 for moody acidity, lingering unease and peek-a-boo humor. The inclusion of Schoenberg’s pointless arrangement of Johann Strauss’s schlocky Emperor Waltz makes an awful segue out of Pierrot Lunaire: punk classical this is not. Going straight to Schoenberg’s Phantasy For Violin and Piano, op.47, which Kopatchinskaja and Ahonen play colorfully and acerbically afterward, would have been perfect.

Revisiting a Wild Moment in the Elegant Satoko Fujii’s Unbelievably Prolific Career

The idea of pairing the brilliant and meticulously focused pianist Satoko Fujii with the unhinged energy of Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida might seem incongruous, but the two actually have a history. In 2004, they formed a short-lived duo, Toh-Kichi, which they occasionally resurrected over the years, culminating in a brief Japanese tour and a 2019 album, Baikamo – streaming at Bandcamp – with compositions by both members. It’s synergistic, it’s a lot of fun and it’s also pretty intense.

Essentially, it’s a theme and variations interrupted by miniatures which run the gamut from crazed, to simple and emphatic, to hypnotically circling and sometimes ridiculously funny. This is just about the loudest album Fujii has ever made, but it’s rich with her signature melodicism, and Yoshida turns out to be a strong tunesmith in his own right.

After a cacaphonous intro, Fujii gets down to business with the stern, emphatic, catchy Rolling Down, Yoshida locked in on her clustering and then insistent attack. Her punk rock Messiaen climb afterward is a hoot; then the duo bring the song full circle.

The two have wry lockstep fun with the tricky, staccato rhythms of the Radiohead-ish No Reflection, Yoshida indulging in some tongue-in-cheek stadium rock exuberance before Fujii brings the clouds to hover ominously.

Yoshida clusters and Fujii circles in the album’s title track, with some of the pianist’s most deliciously glittering phantasmagoria of recent years. The best of Yoshida’s pieces here is Aspherical Dance, another catchy number that follows a suspensefully climbing trajectory to an anti-coda that’s too good to give away.

The two lighten the stark, heroic intensity of the album’s first theme in Laughing Birds without losing any relentless drive. The unpronounceable number afrer that signals a return to circling, emphatic riffs, following an atmospheric intro; the heavy metal outro is a trip.

The two take the heroic theme further into disquiet, chaos and back in Front Line, with a creepy, marionettish Fujii solo. They keep the evil music-box sonics going in the miniature after that, then in Climber’s High they spin and stomp around with the main theme again. The next-to-last track is a mashup of circular grimness and stop-and-start rhythms. The two close with the menacingly vast, windswept soundscape Ice Age, a rare opportunity to hear Fujii on vocals.

Vast, Relentless, Menacing Epics From Nordgeist

T sits alone in her room somewhere in Siberia and screams.

And sings in a ghastly whisper, and plays layers and layers of guitar, and records it, probably on Garageband. And releases it under the name Nordgeist. That’s about all we know about her. Glenn Branca’s minimalist multi-guitar symphonies are a good point of comparison, Paysage D’Hiver is another: endless, hypnotic epics, vast clouds of guitar overdubs, and, song length aside, a very tuneful sensibility. You really can hum – or scream – along to Nordgeist’s new album Frostwinter, streaming at Bandcamp.

You could crank up the almost fourteen-minute opening monstrosity, Winter, and notice how fast she’s tremolo-picking those chords. The woman must have strength in her wrists to match the venom in her lungs. She finally slows down to a bitter, resigned descending progression before returning to the jackhammer assault.

A drum riff and then a pummeling vortex of My Bloody Valentine digital-reverb guitar burst in over Siberian steppe sonics as she launches into The Old Wolf. It’s a muddy, hypnotic mix, guitar and bass a lot higher than the vocals and the drums, which seems intentional. Is that a wood flute way, way in the back? Is that a blunt you’re smoking? That would make sense under the circumstances.

What does Revenge sound like? A lot like the rest of the album, and until about a third of the way through it doesn’t seem to have a time signature: it just keeps going on, and on, and on for almost a quarter of an hour. Talk about getting even.

From there she segues into the last song, Sorrow, quickly rising to a galloping intensity. The past almost fourteen months have been hell. Nordgeist feels your pain.