New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tuneful, Purposeful, Unorthodox Jukebox Jazz From Cellist Christopher Hoffman

Christopher Hoffman‘s new Asp Nimbus – streaming at Bandcamp – might well be the first-ever jazz quartet album to feature a lineup of cello, vibraphone, bass and drums. That’s typical of Hoffman, who continues to push the envelope for what an improvising cellist can do. Interestingly, this is an album of jukebox jazz. Most everything here is under the four minute mark, and highly composed, as traditional as this dedicated nontraditionalist will probably ever get. This texturally enticing and often unselfconsciously beautiful album is one of the best of 2021 so far.

The opening number, Discretionary dances in on drummer Craig Weinrib’s fluttery beat and bassist Rashaan Carter’s elastic pulse, the bandleader entering with a bluesy, martially-tinged, thoughtfully spacious solo, then handing off to vibraphonist Bryan Carrott’s soaring, clustering lines.

Dylan George, a dedication to the bandleader’s late brother, is an energetic, ebullient theme spiced with guest David Virelles’ steady, enigmatic piano, Hoffman again choosing his spots, Carrott leading the band down to hazy unease and then back toward a funky sway before a macabre, tinkling outro. Clearly, we lost a forceful presence way too soon.

The album’s title track has moments of ridiculous levity over a lithe quasi-shuffle fueled by a twin bassline: Hoffman’s solo is more tongue-in-cheek. With its brooding klezmer inflections over a contrastingly nimble pulse, Angles of Influence is just plain gorgeous; Carter’s clustering solo raises the temperature several degrees.

The album’s fifth track, Orb, comes across as an interlude from something more expansive, centered around Carrott’s bittersweet gleam as the rhythm section fidgets. Set to a spring-loaded, slow stroll, Non-Submersible seems to allude to both a famous ballad and the Cure, Hoffman slyly shadowing Carter’s scrambling solo, Carrott pushing even further into anthemic territory.

For You comes across as a stormy latin ballad, from a distance, a catchy, acerbic theme that Carrott edges toward balmier territory until the bandleader pulls it back, almost exasperatedly. A slinky implied clave contrasts with the rustling of the strings in the album’s closing number, The Heights of Spectacle, Hoffman tightly unwinding a mutedly plucky solo: sarcasm could be running high here. You’ll be humming this one afterward.

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.