New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Everybody’s Jumping Out of Their Shoes to Play Central Park

What a pleasure it was to walk down the hill to the Central Park mall on Sunday afternoon without being assaulted by the tedious, computerized whoomp-whoomp that all the druggies would be dancing to in years past. Instead, the sounds were organic. A guy with an acoustic guitar. A bunch of southern kids having a picnic and listening to twangy Nashville pop on a big boombox. Ralph Williams, tall and resolute, running sinuous riffs solo on tenor sax as he’s been doing since forever at the far end of the benches by the bandshell. The Dark Sky Hustlers playing expertly slinky, vampy funk instrumentals in the middle of the mall.

And at the south end, four of the foremost musicians in jazz, busking.

OK, this wasn’t your typical busker gig. Photographer Jimmy Katz and his nonprofit Giant Step Arts began booking top-tier jazz talent there on the weekends last fall, as a way to help keep New York musicians solvent in the time since Andrew Cuomo criminalized live music venues. Katz is keeping the series going this year, working with drummer Nasheet Waits on the booking side and Jazz Generation’s Keyed Up program for sponsorship. Sunday’s allstar lineup was the kind that people pay a hundred dollars a ticket for at swanky festivals: Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. At the peak of the quartet’s first set, there might have been forty people scattered around the area. Where was everybody else? In the middle of the mall, watching the Dark Sky Hustlers. More about that later.

But even with the sonic competition from the Hustlers’ loud guitar amp, this was the place to be for a set of classics. The four players took a winding staircase up into Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown, Escoffery’s flurrying solo contrasting with Pelt’s spacious, allusively modal approach. The way Pelt shadowed Escoffery at halfspeed or thereabouts, as they wound it down to a brief drum solo, was the kind of sage, perfectly executed moment so many jazz fans have had to turn to albums and youtube clips to find over the past year.

The rest of the set underscored the group’s combined erudition, each a bandleader in his own right. By the time they’d made it halfway through a roughly ten-minute, hard-swinging, anthemically bluesy take of Joe Henderson’s Punjab, Blake was already getting hot, throwing elbows and jabbing when least expected. Kenny Dorham’s Short Story was more of a short novel, from a snazzy latin intro to swinging sizzle from Escoffery and Pelt and a rat-a-tat coda from Blake that he could have kept going for twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more. They closed with a ballad, If Ever I Would Leave You, the drummer immediately cracking the whip when it was apparent that the Strat across the way was drowning out the horns. When Douglas went to take a spare, plaintive solo, the guitar went silent: pure serendipity.

After the set was over, the Dark Sky Hustlers were still going, and it turned out that they were good at what they were doing: loopmusic, essentially. The Strat player has a deep bag of Memphis and New Orleans licks, and used them voluminously over one slowly undulating two-chord vamp after another, stashed away in his loop pedal.

Therein lies the joy and also the hazard of playing public spaces. The elephant in the room, of course, is Cuomo: if clubs were open at capacity, all of these musicians could continue their careers without jousting for sonic space. What’s most ironic here is that had the Dark Sky Hustlers known who was playing just a few hundred feet away, they might have joined the crowd. They’re a funk band; Johnathan Blake plays in Dr. Lonnie Smith‘s group. And there’s nobody funkier than him.

This spring’s lineup of jazz talent in the park is just as off the hook as this group. This coming Saturday, April 10 there’s a twinbill starting at noon with alto saxophonist  Sarah Hanahan leading a trio with bassist Phil Norris and drummer Robert Lotreck followed at 1:30 by iconic free jazz bassist William Parker‘s Trio with Cooper-Moore plus Hamid Drake on percussion at Summit Rock in Seneca Village in Central Park – enter at 82nd St. on the west side. Hanahan and her trio return on Sunday the 11th at the same time, followed at 1:30 by intense tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading hers with Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. It’s not likely that there will be any funk bands to compete with up there.

Unmasking One of the Most Deviously Brilliant Rock Hoaxes Ever

Working over the web last year, the Armoires decided to release a whole slew of singles under a bunch of assumed names (you bastards, you snagged October Surprise, the best bandname ever!). Despite widespread interest online and on radio, nobody ever got wise to the fact that it was really them. Finally, the muzzle is off, and this alternately hilarious and poignant, erudite mix of originals and covers – inspired by the Dukes of Stratosphear‘s immortal parodies of 60s psychedelic rock excess – has been released as an official Armoires record, Incognito, streaming at Bandcamp.

Based in California, the harmony-rock band found themselves stymied in attempts to pull the whole group together under dictator Gavin Nuisance’s fascist lockdowner restrictions. Fortuitously, the core of the band, keyboardist Christina Bulbenko and multi-instrumentalist Rex Broome, also run a very popular specialty label, Big Stir Records, so they have access to a global talent base. Drawing on a rotating cast of guitarists and drummers, the result is the most eclectically delicious album of the year so far.

The Armoires are more likely to slyly quote from late 70s powerpop than 60s psychedelia, although pretty much every rock style since then is fair game for their sometimes loving, sometimes witheringly cynical satire. What differentiates this album from the Dukes of Stratosphear’s (a.k.a. XTC’s) mashups is the cleverness of the lyrics.

Say what you want that “October Surprise” turn John Cale’s iconic proto-goth Paris 1919 into bouncy Penny Lane Beatles: that’s the spirit of punk, right? The B-side, Just Can’t See the Attraction, is an acidic original immersed in schadenfreude and driven by Larysa Bulbenko’s violin. “She was maybe too much, too demanding/She was surely too much in demand,” and the haters abound.

As D.F.E., the band give themselves several fictitious shout-outs in their A-side, I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit, a seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media. The quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. But the B-side is sobering, a lively, deadpan cover of Zager and Evans Hall of Famers Christie’s 1970 pentatonic folk-rock hit Yellow River, a post-Vietnam War anthem told from the winning side of that pyrrhic victory.

Bagfoot Run, the A-side of the single by “The Chessie System” is an irresistibly funny bluegrass escape anthem. You’d think that somebody would have figured out the joke from the subtly venomous anti-lockdown flip side, Homebound, a Louvin Brothers sendup, but nobody did.

As The Yes It Is, their jangly, anthemic cover of new wave band 20/20’s The Night I Heard a Scream, a portrait of an unsolved hit-and-run is infinitely more chilling. The cover of XTC’s Senses Working Overtime blows away the original, raising the Orwellian ambience several notches with piano and violin. Likewise, the line about “we’ll give it pause to breathe the air” in the triumphantly jangly, unlikely cover of the Andy Gibb rarity Words and Music.

Jackrabbit Protector, released under the name Zed Cats, is part Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir parody, part metaphorically-loaded populist throwdown. “I can count my friends on the palm of my hand,” Broome laments in the Beatlesque Walking Distance, awash in searing guitar multitracks. The lyrically torrential Sergeant Pepper-esque stroll, Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place, by the “Ceramic Age,” follows in the same vein: it could be a parable. Their B-side is Magenta Moon, a gorgeous, lushly swaying kiss-off anthem and cautionary tale (and maybe a Nick Drake shout-out). This eerie orb is “My one and true companion in the way you never were,” as Bulbenko relates in her simmering, mentholated mezzo-soprano.

Great Distances, by “Gospel Swamps” will rip your face off: over a tense twelve-string janglerock pulse, the band salute a time, and a person, lost to transcontinental barriers. It’s the great lost track from the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies record. The concluding cut, Awkward City Limits makes an apt segue, an irresistible, metaphorically-loaded road narrative set to simmering backbeat roadhouse rock, the New Pornographers mashed up with early ELO.

But wait! There’s more! There are bonus tracks including a hilarious Lou Reed reference; Nashville gothic gloom transposed to early Trump-era lockdown; and Babyshambles retro garage rock recast as Burroughs cut-and-paste novelette in New Abnormal hell. Was it worth risking being unmasked as pretenders throughout these wild adventures into the furthest reaches of the band’s creativity? “We’ve always believed that art without risk isn’t worth doing,” is their response in the liner notes.