Haunting Music From Happier Times

by delarue

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.