New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: August, 2022

Back at Mona’s For a Hot, Moody Evening of Swing Jazz

Last night Mona’s was pretty crowded by the time the rotating cast from the house band gathered in the corner at the end of the bar. Which from an audience perspective was actually a good thing. Drinks at Mona’s are expensive: invisibility in a crowd has its advantages.

It wasn’t always that pricy fifteen years ago when Mona’s Hot Four played their first gig here. Little did they know that after a break for a plandemic, they and the bar would still be here keeping a well-loved New York oldtimey swing tradition alive.

This time out they were a quintet. An interesting opening number that shifted between minor and major proved to be a great launching pad for solos from bandleader and clarinetist Dennis Lichtman, pianist Jon Thomas and bassist Jen Hodge, who mined that uneasy terrain for all the edgy passing tones they could find. Sax player Jay Rattman bolstered the phantasmagorical hi-de-ho harmonies as they wound it out.

Rattman switched to clarinet for a dusky, Ellingtonian frontline on the moodily shuffling second number of the night, I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues, Thomas supplying starry curlicues in the upper registers: his sense of irony and counterintuitive phrasing were rich throughout the evening’s first set. An unidentified guitarist who is still stuck in 2020 hygiene theatre played spiky Django riffs and clustering minor-sixth chords, and took a turn on the mic to sing a couple of verses through a thick black muzzle. You’d think that members of an ostensibly sophisticated New York artistic community would be awake by now…but, pseudoscience.

Ultimately, what this group does is dance music. Early in the evening, people typically dance in their chairs, although it gets a lot wilder as the night goes on, both musically and audience-wise. Admittedly, that perception dates from a previous decade before fear had been fully weaponized in this city.

They did I Ain’t Got Nobody as a brisk, staccato shuffle next and went back toward moody terrain with the next number: having the two clarinets out front enhanced that vibe. Lichtman’s signature, liquid-crystal arpeggios and cascades were as distinctive and spine-tingling as always.

The group expanded to a sextet with the addition of Mike Davis on trumpet for the last couple of tunes. The first, High Society, had a martial, W.C. Handy flair, which Rattman brought down to earth with a silky sax solo. Davis put his mute in for the final, coyly shuffling number.

Mona’s Hot Four, or Five, or Six – as they were a week ago – play the Avenue B bar just south of 14th St. every Tuesday night starting at nine sharp.

Picturesque Americana Singer Hope DeBates Brings Her Songs Back to a Familiar Williamsburg Haunt

Singer Hope DeBates has been a fixture of the New York Americana scene since the zeros, when it was arguably as popular here as hip-hop or reggaeton. She calls her music “high plains country,” drawing on her childhood in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These days, C&W is harder than ever to find on a New York stage, but DeBates didn’t let the lockdown stop her and has picked up where she left off when the World Economic Forum and BlackRock turned this city into a fascist prison camp in March of 2020. Her next gig with her band North 40, a rotating cast of characters, is on August 28 at 4 PM at Skinny Dennis.

DeBates’ album Moody Country is streaming at her music page. On one hand, it’s a throwback to brooding, often haunting countrypolitan artists like Skeeter Davis. On the other, DeBates can be hilarious. She sings in a nuanced, carefully modulated delivery, beginning with the death-fixated opening track, Leaves Bright Yellow. It’s a grimly vivid, aphoristic midtempo shuffle about somebody who couldn’t pull their act together until it was too late.

The first of the two covers on the record is a wafting, atmospheric cover of Willie Nelson’s Satisfied Mind. Then DeBates reinvents Tom Petty’s Breakdown as a lurid Peggy Lee-style slow drag.

Perfectly Imperfect is a funny, oldtimey-flavored swing tune with a glockenspiel: “You’re not that nice a fella, what makes you think you deserve Snow White and Cinderella?” DeBates wants to know. The last song on the record, Pink and Mean is a Dusty Springfield-style Memphis soul song and is even funnier, a meticulously detailed dis aimed at a first-class bitch.

She also has a video for the slow, thoughtful ballad Champagne and Cowboys: it’s an old story, how wide open spaces and Hollywood hills don’t mix, and DeBates tells it poignantly. She recorded it at a darkened bar, so it’s hard to tell for sure, but it might have been at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park where she held down a monthly residency for awhile. That was where this blog last caught up with her, on a noisy evening in 2015, where she was tucked into the front window with her band and taking everybody back in time to a heartbreak saloon of the mind circa fifty years earlier. With DeBates, there’s no arguing that she owns her retro style.

Jace Maxwell Releases the Most Cynically Entertaining Protest Song Album Since March of 2020

This album was written during the fake Covid 19 pandemic. It is a protest against all the abuse I and many others suffered for our choice not to be injected with an experimental drug. The album is a thank you to all those brave people who said NO,” says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jace Maxwell. Being Australian, he’s especially brave, considering how brutal lockdown restrictions there have been. Here in New York, a court threw down the unelected Governor’s unconstitutional concentration camp regulations. Australia started sending their citizens to concentration camps in 2020.

Maxwell’s eclectic tunesmithing chops match his bravery as he covers a wide range of styles, from 80s gothic rock, to bleakly cinematic soundscapes and metal. And beyond the sheer catchiness of the songs, the album is a cruelly vivid, sometimes savagely funny chronicle of the plandemic. Song after song, Maxwell refuses to comply.

The most amusing number on the record – which Maxwell has generously made available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – is Tony Says (Follow the Science), a parody of Faucism set to goofy, squiggly new wave synthpop.

Otherwise, the individual tracks typically focus on a specific aspect of the plandemic, from the initial lockstep reaction to the Wuhan bioweapon, to the fullscale assault on human rights, to the lethal injection rollout. Maxwell peppers his songs with sardonic samples, from Biden’s feeble “pandemic of the unvaccinated” recitation, to Pfizer ingredients and more. There’s as much history here as there are hooks.

Maxwell builds the album’s rainswept overture, The Fall of the Rebel Angels around a spoken-word passage about EcoHealth Alliance conspirator Peter Daszak‘s bizarrely pedantic attempt to cast the famous Brueghel painting as a portent of zoonotic viral spread.

The sarcasm immediately rises to redline over an icy New Order clang in Turning the Lights Down, an offhandedly chilling portrait of tyranny reaching a slow boil.

“Cover your face and check on your neighbor,” Maxwell instructs over a slinky death disco groove in You’ve Got the Fear: the lyrical jokes are too good to spoil.

He evokes a plaintively drifting mid-90s Church spacerock ambience in Please Leave, a distantly harrowing hospital protocol murder tableau. Then he hits his distortion pedal for Run for Your Life (Cytokine Storm), a grittily industrial-tinged faux-authoritarian stomp.

As the slowly swaying indictment What the Hell Andy? unfolds, Maxwell revisits the sad affair where the courageous Dr. Tess Lawrie called bullshit on how the lure of Gates Foundation money derailed a crucial ivermectin research study.

Safe and Effective is a menacing, dystopic motorik instrumental, with a break that speaks to the effectiveness of propaganda, rather than rushjob genetic modifications. The next track, IgG4 is a succinct explanation of the mechanism of “mortal antigenic sin,” as Dr. Paul Alexander calls it. Maxwell goes back to heavier and even more troubling science in Superantigen, a later interlude.

The sarcasm rises to critical mass again in Damage Control, a menacing, strutting mashup of Gang of Four and early 80s XTC. These Are the Days is not a Natalie Merchant cover but a guardedly hopeful, Bowie-esque minor-key wake-up call.

Maxwell shifts back and forth between regretful late 70s Bowie and Rammstein, maybe, in Blame and Lies, a telling and ultimately heartbreaking chronicle of the lethal injection campaign’s mounting toll. The album’s final cut, The Left Has Become the Right is not a political broadside but a bitter reflection on how meaningless party affiliations became when we’re all being deplatformed and depersoned. “Would you please close the Overton Window, I’m getting quite a chill,” Maxwell sneers.

As an indelible musical portrait of a grim time and place, this ranks with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist and Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement. Get this album, if only for the sake of validation. It’s one of the best rock releases of 2022.

Melissa Aldana Brings Her Simmering Intensity to the Charlie Parker Festival

This year’s concluding installment of the annual Charlie Parker Festival, which returns to Tompkins Square Park on August 28, has something for everyone. Purist postbop guitarist Pasquale Grasso, who continues the tradition in a Peter Bernstein vein, opens at 3 with his group. At 4, swing trumpeter and singer Bria Skonberg revisits an era from a decade or two before. Representing newer styles, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana brings many different levels of meaning with her group at 5. A multi-generational band including sax legend Archie Shepp and pianist Jason Moran with the irrepressible and brilliant Cecile Mclorin Salvant on vocals close out the show.

Aldana is the wild card in this deck. In recent years the scion of a major Chilean jazz legacy has fine-tuned a laser focus that has always been far more American than latin simply because that’s where her interests seem to be. There, and the tarot deck, which she explores musically on her latest album 12 Stories, streaming at youtube. It’s a relentlessly unsettled, distantly haunting record, a potent reflection on a society at the brink of a totalitarian abyss. The level of control, yet also the microtonal woundedness in Aldana’s attack, will hold you rapt in many places here.

She opens the first number, Falling, with a simmering, brooding intensity, underscored by guitarist Lage Lund’s icily ominous chords and pianist Sullivan Fortner’s judicious, incisive accents in tandem with bassist Pablo Menares as drummer Kush Abadey chews the scenery. Aldana’s clustering modalities finally give way to a characteristic phantasmagorical flourish and then a similarly uneasy solo from Fortner.

Aldana follows a similar template with the second number, Intuition, this time working the upper registers as the rhythm section punch in and out with an enigmatic tension. Lund provides a surreal, lingering solo intro to Emilia, a delicately spare ballad, carefully moving the clouds away as Fortner builds an enigmatically reflective gleam on Fender Rhodes. This time it’s Aldana, with her steady lines, who resists any hint of resolution.

The rhythm section play tug-of-war as Aldana strolls with a pensive, bittersweet intensity through the beginning of The Bluest Eye. Finally, she lightens with a series of increasingly ebullient spirals, Fortner playing sly leaps and bounds much as he does with Salvant. Lund’s percolating solo fuels a darkly swirling coda that fades out almost cruelly – we know how this ends, but the details would be helpful!

The Fool – a reference to the tarot card, which is actually a rugged individualist archetype – has a moody sway, Fortner and Lund’s allusively churning bolero over Abadey’s grimly triumphant, crescendoing drive. Aldana chooses her spots on the way out.

Los Ojos de Chile is the most animated number here, Fortner rising out of variations on a cheery riff with his usual saturnine energy, Lund setting up Aldana’s determined drive out. The hazy title tableau leaves the listener wondering what’s coming next: may we all survive to hear Aldana’s next album after this brilliant, career-best collection.

Nikara Warren’s Black Wall Street Band Make a Trip to the Charlie Parker Festival

Vibraphonist Nikara Warren is iconic jazz pianist Kenny Barron‘s granddaughter. She and her Black Wall Street project are arguably the most cutting-edge attraction on opening night of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival at Marcus Garvey Park on August 27 at around 4 PM. Veteran postbop bassist Buster Willliams and his band, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Turtle Island Quartet follow on the bill.

The Black Wall Street album – streaming at Bandcamp – is yet another project that would have been completed much earlier if not for the 2020 totalitarian takeover. The bandname doesn’t seem to reference the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma racist massacre.

On the first track, Heather Grey (BK gritty), Warren looks back to the slinky sounds of 70s Roy Ayers, but brassier and crunchier, her chugging solo handing off to a matching forward drive from her grandfather’s piano.

She moves to the mic for Run Ricky, a scampering, syncopated, cinematic hip-hop-jazz narrative about the murder of a innocent man. After a towering brass break. Warren’s vibes mingle with Corey Sanchez’s guitar as the storm rises from drummer David Frazier, Jr.’s drums.

Warren’s younger sister, soul singer Be.Be takes over the vocals on Mona Lisa, a darkly carnivalesque soul waltz that comes across as a more psychedelic take on Amy Winehouse. Warren builds a low-key, suspenseful solo before the horns burst into Womb Woes, tenor saxophonist Hailey Niswanger reaching an unhinged wail. Sanchez choose his spots against another brassy wall , Frazier tumbling elegantly on the way out.

Trumpeter Stephen “Khemestry” Fowler harmonizes and trades off warmly with Niswanger as the next number, Persistence shuffles along – but damn, those breaks for whistling will get your earbuds out in a hurry. At least Sanchez’s simmering, resonant solo will make you forget that. “The most righteous thing you can do is shake the table,” Warren intones at the end.

Barron returns to the piano for Thick Girls, an altered latin groove with Fowler channeling a lurid intensity out front, Barron’s prowling, stiletto solo contrasting with Parker McAllister’s tersely looming bass. They bring it down to a lingering duo from Warren’s vibes and Paul Wilson’s electric piano at the end.

The suspense-film intro to Ms. Mimi’s Fried Chicken is a false start: it’s a rapidfire DC-style go-go groove: Niswanger’s smoky, chromatic descent out of a blazing sunset is arguably the high point of the record. The group wind it up with an alternate, mistier take of Mona Lisa with Melanie JB Charles on vocals.

Uneasily Enveloping Sonics in a Midtown Park With Rafiq Bhatia and His Trio

“I want to give you permission to just lie down if you want,” guitarist Rafiq Bhatia said to the crowd who’d gathered on the lawn at Bryant Park for his show yesterday evening with trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and drummer Ian Chang. The latter had just opened with a mildly diverting set of solo loopmusic utilizing a variety of electronic patches.

Bhatia has been a prime mover in electroacoustic music in New York for several years. He, too, had plenty of ghosts in his machines, although it was generally easy to tell what he was actually playing and what was just microcircuitry.

His opening number evoked whalesong and birdsong, spiced with gentle volume-knob washes and harmonic plucks, in a Bill Frisell Jr. mode. Chang, having emerged from the metaverse, iced the sonic sculpture with his cymbals as Mulherkar peeked his way in. Bhatia continued to build a brooding, lingering pastorale as the loops behind him flitted further into white noise.

As the night went on, each player left plenty of room for the other, from acidic clouds of overtones, to echoes of noirish Bob Belden-style post-Miles improvisation when Mulherkar would run variations on his own judiciously circling phrases. Bhatia hit his octave pedal (or octave patch, more likely) for minimalistic bass punches as Chang flitted around gracefully: the chemistry between the two was clear, considering their time together in Son Lux.

Swooshy electronic clouds unleashed a gentle quasi-shower from which Mulherkar goodnaturedly emerged into a gently comedic interlude while Bhatia remained attentive, bent over his mixer. But it wasn’t long before the sci-fi noir ambience returned and the trio built to a cold industrial stomp. As the music rose and then Bhatia brought the show full circle, it was all too easy to imagine that this was just another muggy August evening in Manhattan circa 2019, when dystopia was just a theoretical construct that musicians and writers could have fun with since there was a comforting reality to return to when the show was over.

The next free concert at Bryant Park, on August 26 at 7 PM, could be one of this year’s best. Billed as a “habibi festival,” it features three artists and their groups exploring cutting-edge Middle Eastern sounds: North African dancer Esraa Warda & the Châab Lab, eclectic kanun virtuoso Firas Zreik, and haunting French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ Ajoyo trio.

The Zoo Berries Bring Their Slinky, Imaginative Funk and Soul Grooves to Long Island City

Have you noticed how suspiciously much the word “lab” is trending, not just when connected with things that escape or are released from labs, but in everything from rehearsal studios, to bands, to music venues? Especially the places with free shows? What’s that all about?

One of those venues, surprise surprise, is a new one, Culture Lab in Long Island City. Even so, there have been a ton of good acts playing on the back of the flatbed trailer in the parking lot there this summer. One of them is the Zoo Berries, who are there on August 26 at 8 PM.

Back in 2018, their bandleader and bassist Ayal Tsubery – also of sizzling Balkan band Tipsy Oxcart – sent over some files. Since everybody in the band had plenty of other projects going on, this group didn’t play that many shows, so those files just sat, and sat, and sat on the hard drive here. But the band’s lone studio release is good!. If imaginative soul and funk sounds are your thing, give it a spin at Bandcamp.

The first number is Back In Time, which the band build from a spare intro, to an easygoing slow jam, then guitarist Nadav Peled (also of ferocious Ethiopiques band Anbessa Orchestra) takes a machinegunning solo, and the energy goes through the roof. Soprano saxophonist Hailey Niswanger’s solo after that is just about as incendiary.

The second track is Brother, a warmly swaying 6/8 oldschool soul groove, Niswanger harmonizing exuberantly with tenor player Arnan Raz before the two diverge and go blasting through the stratosphere as pianist Daniel Meron and drummer Peter Kronrief kick in harder. They follow the same trajectory in Final Decision, an update on a classic, slinky Booker T sound, Peled’s icepick guitar anchoring the groove to where Meron unexpectedly takes it into hard-hitting jazz.

He pulls back to a moody ripple in Shir LeShabbat, a traditional Jewish melody: finally, the bandleader takes a serpentine solo, climbing and then taking the long way down from the top of the fretboard with his nimble hammer-on riffs. The final tune is Acceptance, a real change of pace with its rainy-day intro. But then spoken-word artist Kéren Or Tayar gets on the mic, and Niswanger plays gentle, sustained lines and a few curlicues, and the sun bursts from behind the clouds.

An Enticing, Cutting-Edge Triplebill of New Middle Eastern Music at Bryant Park

This August 26 at 7 PM at Bryant Park there’s a “habibi festival” that transcends the term. This isn’t a concert of synthy Middle Eastern dance-pop. Instead, the artists on the bill blend jazz with sounds from across the Middle East and North Africa. Opening the night is Moroccan dancer Esraa Warda, whose group the Châab Lab specialize in raucous, percussion-driven acoustic chaabi performances. Next up is Palestinian-American kanun virtuoso Firas Zreik, followed by haunting French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ Ajoyo trio.

You can get a sense of Warda’s celebratory sensibility at her video page. Boulares earned a rave review here for one of the best New York performances of 2018 when he debuted a riveting trio project with cellist Vincent Segal and drummer Nasheet Waits at one of the rooms at a big midtown venue which, tragically, was weaponized as a lethal injection site. Zreik’s axe is the rapturously rippling Egyptian ancestor of the Indian santoor and Jewish tsimbl, among other instruments. He has a whole page of videos, much of it new solo work.

The first, Refractions, starts out with a cascading, loopy riff with echoes of Erik Satie, then Zreik merges it artfully with a vampy second theme. In the second tune, Shams, he bookends a slinky, anthemic interlude with a sparser, hypnotically wistful melody. Likewise, he builds Zawraq from a spacious, brooding, watery theme to a swaying, plaintively bolero-tinged rhythm.

The overtones fly fast and furious in the tantalizingly allusive, final 2021 number, Rastiyya. There’s plenty among the earlier piece to keep you rapt, particularly the blazing, playfully flamenco-tinged Sentiments in Emptiness. If you ever wondered what extended technique looked like on the kanun, this is it! And if you ever wondered what Bach or flamenco jazz sounds like on the kanun, Zreik can do that too.

Zreik also has a Soundcloud page with four tracks, including a wildfire improvisation with quotes from a famous horror film score, and a duel with oudist Anan Makhoul.

In Memoriam: Morgan Taylor

Morgan Taylor, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, author and animator, died suddenly earlier this month at his home in Chatham, New York. He was 52.

Taylor played in bands in his native Dayton, Ohio before moving to New York in the 90s, where he formed the Morgan Taylor Group. With his catchy, upbeat pop songs, quirky sense of humor and energetic, friendly stage presence, Taylor was a regular on the Lower East Side circuit in the early zeros at venues like Arlene Grocery and the Living Room.

After leaving New York, Taylor concentrated on children’s music and created a popular cartoon character, Gustafer Yellowgold. Condolences to his family and many friends from the Lower East Side scene.

A Gorgeous New Album and a Williamsburg Gig by Purist Tunesmith Alice Cohen

Alice Cohen plays purist, often gorgeously melodic, artsy rock anthems and sings with an unpretentious delivery that’s sometimes cheery and sometimes borders on conspiratorial. On her new album Moonrising – streaming at Bandcamp – she plays most of the instruments herself, building a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and vintage synths over an unobtrusive drum-machine beat. Multi-reedman David Lackner and multi-percussionist Adrian Knight flesh out Cohen’s elegant arrangements. She’s playing Union Pool on August 24 at 9 PM. Since the venue has fallen under the spell of surveillance-state digital ticketing, the cover charge there lately has been measured in dollars and cents. It stands to reason that the door girl will round it up to sixteen bucks for those of us who are ahead of the curve and have gone to #cashalways.

Cohen opens the record with Wild Wolf, a swaying, twangy, Lynchian trip-hop ballad: this “eight-track Cadillac cruising through the milky way” seems to be on its way back from the Black Lodge. Then she looks back to the bittersweet starriness of 80s janglerock in Bodies in Motion. It could be a track from the Church’s Seance album, with a woman out front.

Cohen picks up the pace with Life in a Bag, an insistent, 90s-flavored downstroke anthem spiced with neoromantic piano flourishes. After the starry keyboard instrumental Inner Galaxies, she goes back to a pensive, richly textured sway with Under Chandeliers, her watery guitars and glimmering keys mingling with Knight’s vibraphone and Lackner’s echoing, spiraling soprano sax.

Baby’s Fine is a surreal mashup of early 80s new wave pop with hip-hop lyrics: it’s hard to figure out where the sax stops and what could be an old Juno synth kicks in. Vanilla Tea is a glistening backbeat stadium rock nocturne without the bombast – an oxymoron, sure, but just try to imagine.

The driftiest, most opaque song on the album is Telepathic Postcards. Cohen follows that with Queen Anne’s Lace, a breezy, jazz-inflected ballad in a Stylistics vein that she takes ten years forward in time – or forty years forward, depending on how neo-retro it seems to you. She closes the record with Fragile Flowers, following a serpentine series of chord changes with Lackner’s sax floating above. It’s been a slow year for rock records, at least compared to what we were used to before March of 2020, but this is one of the best of 2022 so far.