New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: afrobeat

Punchy Afrobeat Grooves From Surefire Sweat

Toronto band Surefire Sweat play a very tight, purposeful style of Afrobeat. Solos are short and succinct, the grooves a little heavier and more focused than most acts who jam out African-flavored funk. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with Threshold, a brassy stomp built around an assertive, repetitive riff from tenor saxophonist Elena Kapeleris (their not-so-secret weapon here), baritone saxophonist Paul Metcalfe and trumpeter Brad Eaton.

Set to bandleader/drummer Larry Graves and bassist Liam Smith’s soukous-flavored groove, For All the Times I Never Came to See You has similarly punchy horn riffage and a bright, spiraling solo from Kapeleris.

The rhythms grow trickier and more loping in Sunshine Interference, with a jaggedly allusive guitar solo from Paul MacDougall. A Tale of Two Times is moodier and a lot closer to vintage Fela, Kapeleris’ long, pensive solo at the center. The band build RH Factor, a bright, cheery tune, around exchanges between Graves and percussionist Dave Chan along with a spacious trumpet solo.

The album’s catchiest and darkest number, On the Phrynge has some cool, subtle rhythmic shifts around an uneasy, trilling Kapeleris solo. Number Nine, a shout-out to longtime Fela drummer Tony Allen, slowly grows more complex, with accents from the whole band shifting through the mix. They close the record with Scuffle Strut, a slow New Orleans funk tune set to a pretty straight-up rock beat.

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

A Heavy Psychedelic Afrobeat-Metal Suite From Here Lies Man

Here Lies Man are a spinoff of legendary second-wave Afrobeat band Antibalas. Their first couple of records basically metalized that Fela-inspired sound, with mixed results. Their new album Ritual Divination – streaming at Bandcamp – is where the rubber really hits the road.

They’re found themselves here: if you have to hang a name on what they’re doing, you could call it heavy psychedelia. Rhythms shift suddenly, dubwise touches filter through the mix occasionally, guitars roar and stab. Because much of this album is basically a suite – or a Fela-style sidelong jam separated into shorter tracks – it’s best enjoyed as a whole. And it’s a long album, sixteen songs, mostly instrumental: you could say that after awhile it all sounds like one long song, but it’s a good one.

They open the album with In These Dreams, a loping minor-key groove with gusts from Marcos Garcia’s distorted guitar and organ from Doug Organ (that’s the dude’s name) over a beat that’s practically reggae until the chorus kicks in. I Told You (You Shall Die), the second track, is a killer minor-key number that could be a heavier Budos Band with a mellotron.

They run the big, brisk riff from Underland over and over, then with What You See they shift up the tempos with it. Can’t Kill It has a circling stoner blues riff, a tricky rhythmic interlude from bassist JP Maramba and drummer Geoff Mann and a big, swirly stampede. Things get swirlier, then more suspensefully gritty in Run Away Children

If Sabbath had played Afrobeat – or if Fela had been a metalhead – you’d have I Wander. There’s a little stoner boogie in Night Comes, and postpunk stomp in Come Inside.

Collector of Vanities has the whole picture: funereal organ, punchy chords, allusive chromatics. Disappointed will not disappoint you with its weird mashup of garage rock, dark dub and a goofy Sabbath reference. Then the band shift between leaden riffage and fleet-footed, organ-spiced Afrobeat in You Would Not See From Heaven.

Strangely, The Fates Have Won is one of the album’s catchiest yet most hypnotic tracks. Out Goes the Night has weirdly undulating rhythms and the trippiest organ parts here. The group finally wind everything up with Cutting Through the Tether, another organ-infused tune and the most trance-inducing one on the album.

Irresistibly Edgy, Catchy, Psychedelic Tropical Dance Sounds From Superfonicos

Texaas-Colombian band Superfonicos play slinky tropical psychedelia. They’re part cumbia, part skaragga, part Afrobeat and part classic descarga too: there’s no other band on the planet who sound like them. Their debut album Suelta is streaming at Soundcloud. There haven’t been a lot of albums released lately, but this has got to be one of the best short albums of the year. It’s got a million textures to tickle the synapses – and you can dance to all of it.

It’s hard to figure out what that trebly, reverbtoned instrument that opens the first track is: turns out it’s reverb guitar, sax and gaita flute all at the same time. With wry reggaeton-infuenced lyrics, gracefully syncopated bass and hypnotically shuffling drums and percussion, it’s as catchy as it is hypnotic. That seems to be the point of the record.

The second track, Ethiopian Dust is a dusky gem, with an undulating clave beat, bracingly chromatic sax over trippy wah-wah guitar effects blipping through the mix, a brief guitar solo leaving a trail of sparks. Merecumbe is a straight-up oldschool disco groove with jagged merengue accents, biting Afrobeat brass and an even more searing guitar break.

With its chugging organ, shuffling drums and spare, dubwise bass, Rio Negro is closer to straight-up Afrobeat – until the instruments build an echoy web and the band make a cumbia out of it. The swaying, riff-driven Sigo Palante is the loudest track here. They close the album with the title cut, rising from a toxic cloud of noise to a a funky wah guitar groove with a couple of reggaeton breaks, a metalish guitar solo and punchy minor-key horns all around. Let’s hope we get an even longer album from these guys – singer/gaitero Jaime Ospina, guitarists Erick Bohorquez and Andres Villegas, bassist Nico Sanchez and percussionist Daniel Sanchez – next time around.

Ferocious Oldschool Protest Soul and Funk From Soul Scratch

Soul Scratch play fearlessly woke, searingly political funk and soul with a spot-on early 70s vibe and more than a hint of Afrobeat in places. The production really nails a vintage analog feel: trebly, organic guitar and bass, shuffling percussion with drums and congas, and blazing, incisive horns. Their album Pushing Fire is streaming at Bandcamp.

The brass punches in, Joel Givertz’s wah-wah guitar scatters and the rhythm section – Johnny Chou on bass and Adam Greenberg on drums – slinks along with an emphatic 70s latin soul groove on the confrontational opening track, Pacified. “Where’s that outrage now, where’s my people on the streets? Corporations got a voice while we sit silent in defeat!” frontman Dale Spollett reminds. “We’ve got that same old addiction, a different kind of coke.”

Look How Far We’ve Come is an impassioned noir soul ballad in 6/8 time, referencing the murder of Eric Garner, “Just another life lost to the beast.” The horns soar and punch in over a strutting, swinging minor-key vamp in The Road Looks Long, a message of strength and resilience for dark times.

The bass scampers underneath the summery horns of the instrumental Odessa Heat, capturing that magic late 60s moment when American soul bands started to catch what was coming out of Ethopia, and vice versa. The group go back to a warmly soulful sway in It’s Not Over, a bittersweet look at the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the work still left for us to do. “Don’t cry now, it’s not over,” Spollett encourages. “Ir’s hard to change a system, there’s no fellowship, only greed.”

Kiss Me in the Morning is a one-chord jam and a launching pad for his soaring voice. They pick up the pace with more of a vintage JB’s feel in Be Kind and then keep that going, reaching escape velocity in Empty Cup, smoky baritone sax underneath the brass.

The album’s catchiest instrumental is the simmering Fireside Lounge, which could be a vintage Isaac Hayes jam with a tight, purposeful Matt Reale trumpet solo over the rippling wah-wah backdrop. They close the album with Thank You, a slow vintage Memphis style gospel/blues ballad. This is a great party record and a great dance record – and it’s also inspiration to keep up the fight.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Best New York Concert of the Year

The best New York concert of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding. In case you think it’s elitist to choose a private event over something everybody in town theoretically could have gone to…you could have been there too if you happened to wander into Union Pool the night of September 29. “You thought you were coming to a wedding!” the protean, psychedelic Great Plains gothic lit-rock songwriter beamed. “I gave you a music festival!”

Super Yamba Band headlined. By that time, plenty of people had come out to the bar, with no idea that two of this era’s most formidable musical minds had just tied the knot. And soon there were plenty of random strangers getting down to slinky Afrobeat in the back room with all the wedding guests.

It’s probably safe to say that Super Yamba’s set was a mashup of their mid-July 2018 show on an old shipping pier by the water on the Upper West Side, and their gig at Barbes this past March. If there’s any band in town worth seeing more than once, it’s these guys. The pier show seemed to be louder and heavier on the horns, the keyboardist doing double duty on both, while the Barbes gig had more dynamics, instruments leaving and then rejoining the mix, Both shows were heavy on the minor-key, sometimes distantly, sometimes closely Ethiopian-tinged jams. Impassioned frontman Leon Ligan-Majek a.k.a. Kaleta did a long stint in Fela’s band toward the end, so he learned from the guy who invented Afrobeat. Cantering, undulating rhythms, sharply sparkly electric piano, looming organ and spicy, emphatic horns and brass filtered through the mix, sometimes for minutes on end, sometimes shifting quickly to a faster tempo or back the other way.

Super Yamba Band’s next gig is at 9 PM on Dec 14 at Bar Chord for the tip jar. For those who can’t make it to deep Brooklyn, they’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 19 at 7:30, where you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under.

The rest of the wedding was a mix of searing jams and savagely brilliant tunesmithing. The wildest jam was when Bannister’s virtuoso bagipiper dad Tom Campbell came up to the stage and joined 75 Dollar Bill for a hypnotic yet searing duel with guitarist Che Chen. It was as if the freedom fighters in Tinariwen had flown to Scotland for a predawn raid to liberate a Trump property.

Bannister has never sung more powerfully, or with more triumphant intensity. Which made sense in that marrying guitar polymath Bob Bannister was the crowning stroke in a career that began when she escaped from a Christian supremacist environment, driving off in a little car with her secret collection of forbidden secular cassettes. In that context, the sudden, wary martial flurry in the opening number, Ambition, made sense on every possible level: a word of warning, but also a vengeful, martial riff. Whichever motivation you might ascribe to the slowly crescendoing anthem – a portrait of greed, or revenge – it worked.

Working on only two rehearsals, drummer Rob Smith colored the music with his subtle brushwork and cymbals while the groom wove restlessly articulated webs of notes, from saturnine Richard Thompson-esque leads to lingering jangle and clang, austere blues, warmly soulful Beatlesque lines and even a little wry Tex-Mex. When bride and groom calmly matched voices in the stately, understated, Macbeth-inspired Lady M – “Your children will be kings” – there was no mistaking how much of a victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rest of the set was a mix of the hypnotic and the ferocious. The Real Penelope, a mashup of Revolver Beatles psychedelia and Britfolk, was wistful yet guardedly optimistic, the future Mrs. Bannister realizing that she’d found the lead guitarist of her dreams. Same Name Blues, which she rarely plays live, had a seethingly sardonic edge, as did the most relevant song of the night, Heaven Is a Wall, a shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that she loves to use to drive a point home. And Iowa, with its simple yet eerie Midwestern imagery and coda that fell away abruptly at the end, seemed to synopsize her flight from repression, knowing that there would be possibly apocalyptic consequences, both personally and globally,

After that, most of the band reconvened as PG Six, frontman/guitarist Pat Gubler a steely, dapperly suited presence out front. Debby Schwartz, fresh off a sizzling set with the Bannisters, was even more of a whirlwind, firing off incisive chords, raga riffs working around an open string and sinuous, soaring leads that gave the band a third lead player. Gubler’s resonant, darkly opaque chords and tersely circling lines rang out as Bannister’s leads slashed and wailed around them, sometimes bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode, at other times veering closer to unhinged Sonic Youth territory. His bride eventually came up to sing harmonies, one of the great Brooklyn musical power couples reveling in making it official.

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

Multistylistic, Psychedelic Dance Grooves and a Midtown Release Show From Dawn Drake & ZapOte

Dawn Drake & ZapOte are a blazing horn-driven band who play just about every style of dance music you could want. Afrobeat? Check. Salsa? Doublecheck. Hard funk? Word. Ethiopiques? Kind of. They’re as psychedelic as they are stylistically diverse, and frontwoman Drake is the rare bassist across all those styles who likes incisive lowdown riffs and makes those notes count without overplaying. The band’s new album Nightshade isn’t out officially yet and is due up momentarily at her Bandcamp page They’re playing the release show in a more sit-downy place than usual for them, Club Bonafide, on Nov 8 at 10 PM. Cover is $15.

The album opens with Oya de Zarija, Mara Rosenbloom’s langorous electric piano over a trip-hop sway and elegantly layered polyrhythmic percussion: a stoner soul jam, more or less. The first of the Afrobeat numbers is Shoulda Never, a miniature that the band reprise toward the end of the record. Chi Chi’s Afrobeat, the album’s longest joint, is especially catchy, with a tantalizingly brief Maria Eisen sax break and dubby keys.

Ethwaap is just as anthemic, a vampy minor-key tune wryly flavored with P-Funk psychedelic keyb flourishes and a spiraling flute solo. Zim ta Tim is a slinky slice of tropicalia, kicking off with surreal, baroque-tinged vocal harmonies.

Drake mashes up cumbia with soca in Salon de Coiffure (i.e. Hair Salon), with a thicket of bright Eliane Amherd guitar multitracks. Likewise, the kiss-off anthem Judgment Rumba is part roots reggae, part oldschool salsa dura. The album’s best track is the East African-flavored Puriya Makuta, with a Bob Marley Exodus pulse, brief, purposeful solos from Eisen’s sax and Jackie Coleman’s trumpet, and the group’s dubbiest interlude.

Bunny’s Jam turns out to be a return to concise Afrobeat – imagine that, wow! The group stay on the Afrobeat tip to wind up the album with the Wake Up Remix, a fiery, organ-driven, apocalyptic cautionary tale. Great party record; play it loud.

 

The Ghost Funk Orchestra Materialize at Bryant Park

The Ghost Funk Orchestra was originally a one-man band studio project. Then word started getting out about how incredibly fun – and psychedelically creepy – Seth Applebaum’s oldschool soul instrumentals were. All of a sudden there was a band, and then songs with vocals, and now there’s an album, A Song for Paul, featuring the whole crew. This past evening they played the album release show to a huge crowd spread across the lawn at Bryant Park.

Applebaum turns out to be a beast of a lead guitarist, switching from evilly feathery tremolo-picking, to enigmatically sunbaked, scorchingly resonant lines, incisive funk and even some icily revertoned, surf-tinged riffs. The horn section – Rich Siebert on trumpet, James Kelly on trombone and Stephen Chen baritone sax, the latter being the most prominent in the mix – were as tight as the harmonies of the three women fronting the band with an unselfconscious, down-to-earth passion and intenstiy. Lo Gwynn, Romi Hanoch and Megan Mancini twirled and kept the groove going on tambourine as they sang, while second guitarist Josh Park played purposeful chords and oldschool soul licks on his Gibson SG, often trading off or intertwining with the bandleader and his Strat. Bassist Julian Applebaum and drummer Kyle Beach handled the tricky rhythmic shifts seamlessly.

The best of the songs was the darkest one, possibly titled Evil Mind. There were a handful with a galloping Afrobeat rhythm, another with a qawalli-inflected, circling pace and plenty with a swinging straight-up psychedelic funk groove. With all the textures simmering onstage, they didn’t need a keyboardist. Not much chatter with the crowd, no band intros – for all we know, the lineup could still be in flux – just one hypnotic, undulating, sometimes cinematically shifting tune after another. Their next gig is this Halloween at 9 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $12.