New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: art-rock

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,”Vilnai intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Skye Steele on violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn and David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Vilnai’s stately angst in Heartbreak. He layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

Brooklyn’s Funnest Band Put Out One of the Most Casually Creepy Albums of 2019

Hearing Things are Brooklyn’s funnest band and have been for the last three years or so. They play dance music that’s equal parts film noir, soul, go-go music, surf rock, creepy psychedelia and new wave. They’ve also been more or less AWOL lately since the core of the band – alto saxopphonist Matt Bauder, organist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – have all been busy with other projects. But they’ve fimally made an album, Here’s Hearing Things – streaming at Bandcamp – and they’re playing the release show at around 9 PM at C’Mon Everybody on May 24. Cover is $10.

Live, the band often sound like the Doors playing surf music, which makes more sense than you might think considering that Ray Manzarek got his start in a surf band. This album starts out in high spirits, gets more sardonic and ends very darkly.

The first track is Shadow Shuffle, a deliciously twisted remake of Green Onions: the band vamp out the second verse instead of sticking with a creepy chromatic reharmonization of the old Booker T & the MG’s hit. Schlegelmilch swirls and Bauder punches in alto and baritone sax parts throughout the catchy Tortuga, a go-go tune as the Stranglers would have done it.

Wooden Leg is a subtly sardonic horror theme in the same vein as Beninghove’s Hangmen, Bauder fluttering furtively in the low registers as the band picks up steam: it’s the album’s most deliciously noir epic.

Likewise, Stalefish is a more traditional, horror surf take on Turkish psychedelia, guitarist Ava Mendoza firing off slashing chords over baritone guitarist Jonny Lam’s snappy, evil basslines. Houndstooth is an evil, faux-loungey take on a blue-flame roadhouse theme, animated by irrepressible flurrying drumwork and more whipcracking from Lam.

Hotel Prison would be slyly swayng take on balmy early 60s summer-place theme music if if wasn’t just a little too outside the lines. The outro is cruelly funny. Mendoze’s echeoey leads contrast with tongue-in-cheek, blippy orgnn. goodnatured sax iand expertly flurrying surf drums n Uncle Jack. Then the band completeley flip the scirpt with Trasnsit of Venus, the band’s first and most trippily macabre adventure in Ethiopian jazz,

The abum’s most epic number, Ideomotor opens with Bauder’s bass clarinet over jungly drums, Schleegelmilch;s organ slinking between them as a brooding, dubwise Ethopian theme gains velocicy. .The album’s fiinal cut is Triplestep, coalescing into a into a menacing mashup of Ethiopiques and a death row strut. Bauder gets the alto and baritone to get the Pink Panther to cross over to the dark side, up to a defiantly soaring alto solo that makes a killer coda for the album as a whole. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year if we get that far.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Bewitching Singer Na-rae Lee Reverses the Curse in an Iconic Pansori Epic at Lincoln Center

Ong-nyeo lost her first husband when she was fifteen.

That’s how the story goes, anyway. In the ancient Korean pansori epic Byeongangsoe-ga, she’s a cursed woman in a cautionary tale about hubris and its consequences. In the American premiere of Na-rae Lee’s withering remake Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Ong-nyeo was transformed into a tragic heroine whose bravery in defying patriarchal norms leads to a grisly fate. Exactly what that fate was, star pansori singer Lee left to the audience to figure out. But the message was clear: in a misogynistic society, the perils a woman faces when she gains power over men can be treacherous to the extreme.

Considering how male-centric pansori narratives typically are, Lee acknowledges that there’s considerable irony in her choice of career, especially given her advocacy for women’s rights. So she decided to reinvent the tale of Byeongangsoe from his long-suffering wife’s point of view.

Lee sang that role and several others in Korean with a feral intensity, meticulously modulating a torrential vibrato that took on more power the further down the scale she went. English supertitles helped immensely. She was backed by an excellent, eclectic band – Hwayoung Lee on gayageum zither, Gina Hwang on geomungo bass zither, and Simun Lee on acoustic guitar – who began the show with unexpectedly subtle variations on an ominous chromatic riff that they would eventually turn into slightly muted doom metal when the guitarist kicked in with a primitive distortion effect.

The traditional version of the fable casts Ong-nyeo as a tragic character cursed to watch a succession of husbands die, often very gruesomely, since she’s too beautful for her own good. Na-rae Lee has recast her as defiant and fearless as she goes through man after man, curse be damned. Likewise, the one dude she thinks will help her reverse the curse, Byeongangsoe, is traditionally cast as a cartoonish, Falstaffian type. Here, the bandleader tore off the clown mask to reveal him as a smalltime thug who beats up on his wife since he’s not very good at picking on anyone his own size.

Throughout the show, there seemed to be a great deal of improvisation, often hectic, sometimes frantic or sepulchrally sinister, the music matching the narrative. Pensive, bossa-tinged folk-pop set the stage for the meeting between the two lovers; the ensuing marathon sex scene (sans disrobing) got plenty of droll bed-shaking effects. A lament for what Ong-nyeo ‘s scrub of a husband could have been – after the gods’ verdict took its grisly toll on him – brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most vampy, with a biting gayageum solo. Byeongangsoe’s main theme, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a loopy march.

In her bright red dress, the singer held the crowd rapt. From a plaintive, understated, wordless lament, to throaty, shamanistic interludes where she turned loose a wide vibrato that approached diesel engine power and rumble, Lee spanned a range that even pansori singers seldom tackle. As the drama grew more grisly and the bodies piled up – this is a horror story of Gogolian proportions – the lighting went completely red several times, Lee scurrying furtively, then horrified, from one end of the stage to the other. A last-gasp attempt at an exorcism backfired spectacularly as the band played quasi trip-hop and then finally a dejected waltz. The audience sat stunned as the group let the music die away.

The performance was co-sponsored by the tireless folks at the Korean Cultural Service, who bring some amazing talent to this country: if only the US government advocated for American artists with a fraction of the Koreans’ tenacity! The next performance at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is tomorrow night, May 16 at 7:30 PM. an entertaining annual multimedia event featuring an allstar cast from film and tv reading provocative selections from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Stark, Almost Shockingly Catchy String Tunes and Improvisations From Allstar Trio Hear in Now

Violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi all have busy careers as bandleaders, but they also occasionally play in an edgy, often stunningly catchy trio they call Hear in Now. The project is bracingly and deliciously uncategorizable: ostensibly the music is string jazz, and there’s a lot of improvisation, but also more than a hint of Italian folk, the blues and even string metal. Their latest album Not Living in Fear is streaming at Bandcamp. Reid may be airing out any material from it in two sets at the Jazz Gallery on April 26, the first a duo with drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the second with her quartet including Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jason Roebke. Cover is $25.

The trio open the album with a jam, rising from hints of a stately march to shivery squall…and then Frankenstein looks in the window but keeps going. Leaving Livorno is every bit the lament the title suggests, Bolognesi’s stark bowed lines taking centerstage over a whispery backdrop.

Transiti has a staggered staccato pulse, errie close harmonies and a sharp, acidically emphatic cello solo. Requiem for Charlie Haden is unexpectedly catchy, despite the astringency of the circling strings. The aptly titled Circle is even bouncier, bordering on parlor pop in the same vein as groups like the Real Vocal String Quartet: it’s neat how the group shift from punchy to a balletesque strut.

Bolognesi’s steady bowing anchors the sailing melody overhead in the miniature Billions and Billions, another strikingly direct, catchy number. Swift sings the album’s title cut, its message of indomitability set to keening high string harmonies and plucky chords over growly bass.

The album’s second improvisation, interestingly, is just as memorable, waltzing intricately around a circling, blues-tinged hook. Terrortoma is the most darkly bluesy track, with its tight, bracing haronies. The longing in Prayer for Wadud – a diptych – is visceral, Swift’s spare, resonant riffs, Reid and Bolognesi joining underneath with a brooding, bowed riff.

They open Cantiere Orlando with neo-baroque elegance, then hit a spiky interlude and artfully bring the main theme back. They close with the liltingly anthemic waltz Last Night’s Vacation and then the showstopper Cultural Differences, shifting gears hard through minimalism, some atmospherics and then shivery, metal-tinged phrasing. There’s really nothing like this out there.

Lurid, Creepy, Lush String Sounds on Natalia Steinbach’s New WaterLynx Album

Violinist Natalia Steinbach turns into a haunting, carnivalesque one-woman string orchestra on her new WaterLynx ep, streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s as grand guignol and gothic AF; on the other it’s not cliched either. That’s a fine line, and Steinbach manages to walk it…in black six-inch stilettos, one assumes. The former member of the alternatively lush and assaultive Naked Roots Conducive duo with cellist Valerie Kuehne is playing the album release show at Pine Box Rock Shop on May 16 at 9:30 PM.

Steinbach opens the album with a big, pulsing, angst-fueled ballad, Moonlight in Decay, switching back and forth between a creepy waltz and a more straightforwardly anthemic theme. There’s klezmer and Romany influences in the moody minor-keys; “Having trouble seeing when the lights are in full bloom,” she alludes in her dramatic, colorful soprano.

Steinbach sings Don’t Tempt Me – a setting of an embittered, distraught Evgeny Baratynsky poem – in the original Russian, over a plaintively swaying arrangement akin to what Tschaikovsky would have done with a folk lament. Then she switches gears with the insistent, lyrically torrential, sardonically desperate Breathe in Nothing, her one-woman string section flickering up some delicious chromatics.

The album’s final cut is There Is No Demon, a steady, dancing anthem with an intro like Vivaldi on acid, and gorgeously macabre vocal harmonies on the chorus: it’s the album’s most venomous track. Fans of the dark and dramatic, from the little girls who crushed on Lorde, to the vets who prefer Rasputina and Carol Lipnik, ought to give this often spine-tingling collection a spin.

Icy, Trippy, Shapeshifting Anthems and a Bed-Stuy Show From Arc Iris

Arc Iris sometimes play icily orchestrated, techy art-rock in the same vein as My Brightest Diamond, or a more keyboard-driven Wye Oak. In more concise moments, they put a trippier spin on glossy 80s new wave pop – not what you might expect from a band fronted by a woman who got her start in earnest-core folk-rockers the Low Anthem. Arc Iris are playing C’Mon Everybody on April 10 at 10 PM; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Icon of Ego is streaming at Bandcamp. This band likes long songs, weird time signatures and syncopation, and surreal lyrics that sometimes seem to be in the stream-of-consciousness vein, other times with a Romantic poetic tinge. There’s also a welcome guitar-fueled edge: this is the hardest-rocking release the band’s put out to date. 

Drummer Ray Belli’s insistent thump anchors singer Jocie Adams chirpy yet emphatic vocals as the anxiously blustery opening track, $GNMS (a remake of the first cut on the band’s debut album) gets underway, keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller layering his textures from lush to woozy and bassy.

Dylan & Me is a chilly, loopy, stainless-topped 90s trip-hop joint in an early Goldfrapp vein, the swirly oscillations of the keys contrasting with Adams’ coyly nuanced vocals. The charmingly catchy If You Can See begins with a big smack from Adams’ guitar and grows more serpentine, with echoey Rhodes piano cascades as the song goes along.

She multitracks stately, incisive stadium rock riffage into the towering atmosphere of Turn It Up: the lyrics seem to be more playfully amusing than on any of the other tracks. The fluttering strings of violinist Anna Williams and cellist Misha Veselov open the album’s title cut, then it takes on both more epic and hypnotic proportions.

Chattermachines has echoes of Radiohead and the Cocteau Twins filtering through a mix of sheen and low growl. It’s hard to figure out what these songs are about: this could be a snide commentary on social media obsession, but it could just as easily be something else entirely.

Beautiful Mind is a catchy, starrlly orchestrated, trickily dancing kiss-off anthem, it seems. Everybody’s Counting on Her is a rather wistful early 70s soul ballad spun through the prism of post-Radiohead art-rock. Something here is “shadowed by the great machine” – ain’t that the truth. The album’s final cut is Suzy, Adams’ torrents of lyrics bringing to mind REM’s It’s the End of the World. If you like to get lost in an epic way, Arc Iris are for you. 

The Budos Band Bring Their Darkest, Trippiest Album Yet to a Couple of Hometown Gigs

The Budos Band are one of those rare acts with an immense fan base across every divide imaginable. Which makes sense in a lot of ways: their trippy, hypnotic quasi-Ethiopiques instrumentals work equally well as dance music, party music and down-the-rabbit-hole headphone listening. If you’re a fan of the band and you want to see them in Manhattan this month, hopefully you have your advance tickets for tonight’s Bowery Ballroom show because the price has gone up up five bucks to $25 at the door. You can also see them tomorrow night, April 6 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg for the same deal. Brooding instrumentalists the Menahan Street Band open both shows at 9 PM

The Budos Band’s fifth and latest album, simply titled V, is streaming at Bandcamp. The gothic album art alludes to the band taking a heavier, darker direction, which is somewhat true: much of the new record compares to Grupo Fantasma’s Texas heavy stoner funk spinoff, Brownout. The first track, Old Engine Oil has guitarist Thomas Brenneck churning out sunbaked bluesmetal and wah-wah flares over a loopy riff straight out of the Syd Barrett playbook as the horns – Jared Tankel on baritone sax and Andrew Greene on trumpet – blaze in call-and-response overhead.

Mike Deller’s smoky organ kicks off The Enchanter, bassist Daniel Foder doubling Brenneck’s slashing Ethiopiques hook as the horns team up for eerie modalities, up to a twisted pseudo-dub interlude. Who knew how well Ethiopian music works as heavy psychedelic rock?

Spider Web only has a Part 1 on this album, built around a catchy hook straight out of psychedelic London, 1966, benefiting from a horn chart that smolders and then bursts into flame It’s anybody’s guess what the second part sounds like. The band’s percussion section – Brian Profilio on drums, John Carbonella Jr. on congas, Rob Lombardo on bongos and Dame Rodriguez on various implements – team up to anchor Peak of Eternal Night, a deliciously doomy theme whose Ethiopian roots come into bracing focus in the dub interlude midway through.

Ghost Talk is a clenched-teeth, uneasily crescendoing mashup of gritty early 70s riff-rock, Afrobeat and Ethiopiques, Deller’s fluttery organ adding extra menace. Arcane Rambler is much the same, but with a more aggressive sway. Maelstrom is an especially neat example of how well broodingly latin-tinged guitar psychedelia and Ethiopian anthems intersect. 

The band finally switch up the rhythm to cantering triplets in Veil of Shadows: imagine Link Wray jamming with Mulatu Astatke’s 1960s band, with a flamenco trumpet solo midway through. Bass riffs propel the brief Rumble from the Void and then kick off with a fuzzy menace in the slowly swaying Valley of the Damned: imagine a more atmospheric Black Sabbath meeting Sun Ra around 1972. 

It’s a good bet the band will jam the hell out of these tunes live: count this among the half-dozen or so best and most thoroughly consistent albums of 2019 so far.

There Will Be No Intermission: Amanda Palmer’s Big Comeback Album?

Let’s not get into the issue of Amanda Palmer, polarizing figure, naked on the cover of her new album There Will Be No Intermission, streaming at Bandcamp.  At her best, she’s a big-picture person, a withering lyricist, a distinctive and finely nuanced singer, a strong pianist and an equally strong, surprisingly eclectic tunesmith. She also plays ukulele. The core of the band here is Jherek Bischoff on bass, guitars and a bunch of other instruments,  John Congleton on drums and Max Henry on synths 

The album’s opening track is as riveting as Palmer is onstage: whatever you think of her, you cannot deny her prowess as a performer. After a wisp of an intro, her waltzing piano elegantly and eerily introduces the ten-minute epic The Ride. Working neoromantic variations on a carnivalesque riff we all know, she sings intimately, comfortingly…as the planet heats up, the waters rise and

Some are too scared to let go of their children,
And some are too scared now to have them
Suicide, homicide, genocide, man
That’s a fuck ton of sides you can choose from
I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you
I wish we could meet all the people who got left behind
The ride is so loud it can make you think no one is listening
But isn’t it nice when we all can cry at the same time?

There’s a whole lot more to the song than that, but it’s Roger Waters-class visionary, and it’s the best song released this year so far.

Much as that proves to be an impossible act to follow, Palmer is clearly over the crippling case of writer’s block that plagued her for years. Drowning in the Sound, a surreal mashup of 80s Peter Gabriel, vintage Bowie glamrock and swishy mid-zeros theatreboy pop, has a similarly grim narrative:

Your body is a temple
And the temple is a prison
And the prison’s overcrowded
And the inmates know it’s flooding
And the body politic is getting sicker by the minute
And the media’s not fake
It’s just very inconvenient
Do you ever feel like this should be officially the end?
And that you should be the one to do the ending, but you can’t?
Do you ever feel like everyone is slowly letting go?
Do you ever feel that, that incredibly alone?

The Thing About Things is a uke song with a big dramatic chorus midway through. It’s a story about a lost ring, and how objects serve as surrogates for those we care about (Palmer’s take on that is far more poetic than that description). Machete – a 2016 single – is another good story, shifting between catchy new wave disco and atmospheric, Floydian art-rock. The title is a loaded metaphor.

In Voicemail for Jill, a tender piano ballad, Palmer offers to throw “the best abortion shower” for a Boston friend who numbers among the 33% of American women who’ve had one. And hang with A Mother’s Confession (another older tune) for all ten minutes plus, even though it’s mawkish and way too long, because the punchline is killer – and it’s the second time Palmer, mother of two, delivers it.

Look Mummy No Hands is the album’s most musically creepy track, even more phantasmagorical than the starker live version released on Palmer’s 2013 triple live album with her husband Neil Gaiman. The album ends with the cynical, ornate, Alan Parsons Project-style elegy Death Thing. There’s other material here, but considering how relevant and masterfully crafted the crux of the album is, let’s leave the haters on Facebook and Instagram where they belong. Even with all the filler, it’s good to see an important voice still speaking truth to power. Nice to see you still making records, Amanda Palmer.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.