New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: concert

Springtime Blossoms in Boston With a Concert of Vivid World Premieres

Last night at the Multicultural Art Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Juventas New Music Ensemble played eight verdant world premieres celebrating the Frederick Law Olmsted bicentennial. In a spot-on example of post-March 2020 programming, the bill was titled Lungs of the City. It was a breath of fresh air on many levels.

A subset of the ensemble – which comprised flutist Wei Zhao, clarinetist Wolcott Humphrey, horn player Anne Howarth, violinist Ryan Shannon, cellist Minjin Chung, violist Lu Yu and percussionist Thomas Schmidt – went off script to open with a sober arrangement the Ukrainian national anthem. With the stark cello introduction, it seemed like more of an elegy than a celebration of solidarity. Such are the times we live in.

The first piece on the program was The Forest and the Architect, by Christina Rusnak. The Portland, Oregon tableau began with elegantly cheerful passages spotted with moments of more somber reflection, moody clarinet over a gently emphatic march and a visceral sense of relief. Burred woodwind timbres and a dancing, enigmatic, circular theme quickly gave way to a lush pastorale and then a dance kicked off by woody flute tones. A terse interweave with lower pitches developed to mingle with the initial theme: this music breathed, deeply.

Ryan Suleiman‘s still, meditative Piece of Mind was inspired by Olmsted’s Brookline home workshop, as well as the Japanese concept of a park coexisting with nature rather than being imposed on its milieu. Subtly breathtaking long tones and circular breathing from the wind players were first punctuated by momentary sprouts in the ether, then the group slowly unfolded a calm series of harmonies. Like a muezzin, Chung’s cello sounded a bracing trill before the whole group returned to calmly shifting tectonic sheets.

That work’s minimalism was echoed more playfully by Libby Meyer‘s diptych Beauty of the Fields. Butterfly weed was brought to life by minutely oscillating overtones from Schmidt’s vibraphone behind a minimalistically balmy flute theme sailing on the breeze. With echoey percussion through a buzzy haze, evocations of muted insect activity and birdsong, her portrait of milkweed just might have involved somebody plucking a ripe stalk and blowing it on an unsuspecting neighbor.

Ayumi Okada‘s tantalizingly brief partita Golden Hour Walk at Fort Tryon Park traced the Washington Heights composer’s 2021 winter solstice stroll through her favorite spots there just as the sun was about to go down over the Hudson. It was characteristically evocative, beginning as a wistful pavane and growing more animated, with Carl Nielsen-esque echo phrases bouncing from voice to voice. Baroque inflections, elegantly intertwined horn and flute, and colorfully squirrelly pizzicato rose to a lushness that contrasted with shivery strings and silken flute lines. The final sunset theme became a gently wafting, Dvorakian singalong.

Composer Justin Ralls related that prior to creating parks, Olmsted worked as an undercover journalist chronicling the horrors of slavery in the American south, and that those experiences informed the democratic aspect of his designs. Ralls’ Olmsted 200: Theme and Variations reflected the bustle of the landscape assembled around Seattle’s Lincoln Reservoir. Somewhat akin to Peer Gynt taking a stroll in the garden, the group’s long tones coalesced from echoes of a familiar, sunny morning theme to a rather triumphant, steady, circular pulse fueled by the highs. Tight polyrhythmic counterpoint receded to a reflective, echoing quiet signaled by Schmidt’s lingering vibes.

The most unselfconsciously catchy piece on the bill was Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Indian-flavored mini-suite Olmsted Gardens. Anticipatory sprouts of melody pushed up, to a cheery carnatic flute theme followed by a deliciously coy, suspenseful interlude with film noir bongos, furtive individual voicings having devious fun in the shadows. The group took it out with an anthemic return to the initial dance.

Also on the bill were an unhurried, warmly crescendoing Oliver Caplan ballad without words, and a similarly fond summer pageant by Nell Shaw Cohen bookended around a cautious dance.

Those who missed the concert can catch the video of the entire performance here. Juventas New Music Ensemble’s next scheduled concert is June 5 at 6 PM at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Massachusetts. Tickets are $18, ages 4-12 get in for $12.

Elegant, Intricate, Psychedelic Cumbias and Tropical Sounds on the Upper West Side

Saturday evening on the Upper West Side, banks of grey clouds were moving in fast and ominous. But in the community garden on 89th west of Amsterdam, tucked in cozily under a tent, Inti & the Moon played a colorful, upbeat, intricately individualistic mix of tropical sounds with tinges of psychedelia and jazz.

There is no Inti in the band. Inti is the Incan sun god: so, the band cover all the bases. They did all that in a mix of originals and imaginative covers. Bandleader/guitarist Geo Suquillo played spiky thickets of fingerpicking, flinging shards of chords into the mix. Frontwoman Noel Wippler shifted from a simmering, ripe, oldschool soul-infused delivery to a wounded wail in the night’s biggest crescendos, in both Spanish and Portuguese. Alto saxophonist Xavier del Castillo began the night playing brooding resonance on the band’s first number, then shifted to alto flute on a few songs, including a bossa tune where he played both.

This group’s cumbias are more relaxed and slinky than the briskly pulsing chicha-style versions that some of the bands around town – at least the ones playing before the lockdown – typically gravitate toward. It was the bass player’s birthday, and he was clearly in a good mood, adding deft harmonic accents against low open strings, plus fleeting hammer-ons and slides. The drummer brought a jazz sophistication, whether subtly riding the rims, or working his way into a 5/4 groove on a biting minor key number which for a second seemed to be a Caribbean take on Take Five.

Suquillo saved his most sparkling solo for a bright, merengue-flavored tune, then took it unexpectedly dark and vampy after a long solo. Del Castillo’s plaintive phrasing pulled the song further into the shadows before a tantalizingly brief guitar/sax duel. The biggest hit with the crowd was Wippler singing an impassioned take of Los Hijos del Sol’s classic Carinito, over an animated but restrained backdrop. There were a couple of other popular covers in the mix, one possibly from the Yma Sumac catalog, but done with much less fanfare. The band approached a familiar Jobim theme with a similar elegance and encored with a stately Brazilian ballad.

With November looming, there isn’t much in the way of live music that’s been publicly announced which is open to all New Yorkers without apartheid restrictions. However, Inti & the Moon have been staples of the free outdoor concert circuit since the late teens, so it’s hardly a stretch to think they might try to squeeze in another park appearance like this before winter gets here.

New York’s Great Champion of Undeservedly Obscure Classical Repertoire Shares These Treasures at Her Magical Salon Series

Pianist and impresario Yelena Grinberg is New York’s greatest advocate for undiscovered and unorthodox classical repertoire. Her Upper West Side salons, founded in the Fall of 2013 as a monthly soiree, have since expanded to two thematic programs per month, and have become legendary. The Russian music site Etazhi calls them “Musical Salons for the Guinness Book.”

Grinberg graciously took some time away from her rigorous schedule of playing and teaching to give New York Music Daily the inside scoop into a New York phenomenon.

New York Music Daily: You’ve archived the programs going all the way back to Salon #1, where you played rarely-heard music by Charles-Valentine Alkan. Ever since I talked to you, I’ve been listening nonstop to his music. It’s mind-blowing. Now, I have a pretty decent exposure to lesser-known repertoire, and I have my favorite niches too, and I have vague memories of hearing one of Alkan’s organ works once. But hearing his piano music, thanks to you, has been life-changing. He sounds like nobody I’ve ever head before: Chopin and Beethoven mashed up with otherworldly old Jewish melodies, but also a rhythmic sensibility that reminds me of Hovhaness. And from a hundred years earlier! I owe you huge for this! I can’t imagine how much fun it must have been for you to play that program!

Yelena Grinberg: It was a fascinating undertaking to do all the research and perform Alkan’s unjustly neglected music. I was struck by the transcendental difficulty of the keyboard writing as well as the originality and the richness of his musical ideas. I programmed his demonic Grand Duo Concertante in F# minor, whose second movement, is entitled L’enfer  – “Hell”- for a good reason! I also played his epic Sonate de concert in E Major for cello and piano, which is among the most devilishly difficult works in the entire Romantic chamber music repertoire.

For my solo Alkan-inspired program, I performed selections from his evocative 24 Preludes, Esquisses, his enchanting Barcarolle and one of his last wild works, Toccatina. At some point in the future, I would love to program his never-heard Piano Trio.

NYMD: And he’s just one example of the innumerable lesser-known but amazing composers whose work you’ve championed. How did you discover Alkan and what drew you to his music?

YG: I can’t recall if there was one particular inspiration. I do recall that I came across an Alkan CD by Raymond Lewenthal and Marc-Andre Hamelin in the Fall of 2013, when I first began my salons, it marked the 200th anniversary Alkan’s birth, so I made him the focal composer for that season.

NYMD: Long before it became all the rage to resurrect forgotten treasures by, say, black composers, you were unearthing material that hadn’t been played in New York, maybe anywhere in the world, in a hundred years or more. I am amazed by your dedication to the cause. It must take an enormous amount of energy and sleuthing. What is your motivation, what drives you? Is this because you want to be the queen of niche, or that you’re sick of standard repertoire, or that you get bored fast? Or that you’re rewriting history to set the record straight?

YG: I was getting weary of overplayed standard repertoire and wanted to program music that was hard to find and fresh to the ear. Luckily I learn very quickly, which enables me to cover a lot of new repertoire in a short span of time. I typically build each season’s programs around the  anniversary of a celebrated or an unjustly neglected composer’s birth, for example, Charles-Valentin Alkan or Carl Czerny. I like to balance out the program with a work that everyone loves, like Franck’s Violin Sonata, along with lesser-known repertoire.

NYMD: At your salons, you always like to share insights on the material on the program . You seem completely immersed in the lore of classical music, with all the colorful characters and endless drama. With you, it’s a big epic movie. Most artists just get up and play but you seem to have as much fun engaging with the history of the music as the music itself. Is this just a performance shtick – look, Yelena is the pianist who always finds the great stories! – or do you have a more ambitious agenda here?

YG: I especially like to engage with the audience in a lecture-performance format, and I love the Q&A afterward. The majority of the people who come to my salons are not musicians, so they bring their individual interests and professional backgrounds to the conversation. The guests often tell me they appreciate the commentary, the history, they may not know a certain musical term but they enjoy the historical background and find the listening experience richer as a result.

Over the years, I’ve had some fascinating visitors at the salon such as Ruth Slenczynska, the last living pupil of Rachmaninoff, who attended my solo Alkan program back in 2013.

NYMD: As I understand it, your salons started exactly the same way a lot of regular classical series started: friends getting together to read chamber music. That’s how ICE started, how Kettle Corn New Music evolved. At what point did you realize that you were doing something that nobody else was? Was there a moment where you realized that in your own unique way, you were making New York music history?

YG: Initially, I did not expect that my salons would blossom into a regular concert series, and that I would showcase 230-plus salon programs up to this point. The initial salons were attended mostly by a handful of family members and close friends, and by word of mouth, they grew to a much larger audience over the years. I didn’t know how frequently I would end up doing these concerts. I was excited to recreate the refined, European style “hausmusik”, which is how much of this music was meant to be enjoyed in its original conception.

NYMD: Can we talk about where you find your material? For example, your most recent sold-out event featured duo works for piano and guitar. Can I ask you, are you also a fan of classical guitar? How much of this repertoire actually exists? And of the material you discovered, how much of it turned out to be worth playing? Obviously, you discovered a lot!

YG: For the lesser-known repertoire I do more extensive research to see which libraries or stores have it, and a lot of what I find comes from Europe. Thankfully, I have close connections to the music librarians at Columbia University, the Juilliard library, and the Brooklyn College library, who have been very helpful over the years in obtaining rare editions for my research and performance.

Initially, I chose the topic or the focal composer for the entire season. Then, I thoroughly research all the solo and chamber music repertoire by that composer and think of creative interconnections with the composers who were in his or her close circle of friends, pupils, and fellow composers. For instance, this year I am presenting a series inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s belated 250th birthday, and have programmed works by such lesser-known composers as C.P.E. Bach, Ferdinand Ries, Ignaz Moscheles and Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn.

This summer, I presented an Enchanting Evening for Guitar and Piano – the first time I featured a guitar in my series. Turns out, there is very little music originally written for piano and guitar, and a lot of it obviously shines the spotlight on the piano. Aside from rarities like Hummel’s Potpourri for Guitar and Piano and Tedesco’s Fantasia, the majority of other works are arrangements or transcriptions. It turned out to be a kaleidoscopic program and everybody loved it. I designed it to cover 250 years – from Vivaldi to Piazzolla.

In the past, I’ve programmed music by seldom-represented women composers such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Cecile Chaminade, Ethel Smythe and Pauline Viardot.

And over the last few years, every February, I present an Aquarian Genius program featuring three composers born under the sign of Aquarius, namely Mozart, Mendelssohn and Schubert.

NYMD: That makes sense, if anybody understands Aquarian genius, it’s probably you, considering you have the same birthday as Mendelssohn!

YG: Thank you! I’m truly honored to share my birthday with Felix Mendelssohn.

NYMD: OK. Have you ever tried to come up with a program that didn’t get off the drawing board because enough material for it didn’t exist?

YG: I never had that quandary. When I come up with a program, it’s partly analytical and partly intuitive. I do these concerts so frequently, so my mind has to stay focused. I do very extensive research, and I always find enough repertoire to make for what, I hope, is a satisfying salon program.

NYMD: How about commissioning contemporary artists? I don’t see a lot of 20th century, let alone 21st century material on your programs. You’ve played Satie, and Piazzolla, but not much that’s more current. Is that just not your thing?

YG:  My area of interest lies in the music from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. I prefer to play the music that I find intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding, that speaks to me and challenges me. That’s not to say that I’m not open to including some works from the 20th century. For instance, I will be including Gyorgy Kurtag’s atmospheric Three Pieces for violin and piano, from 1979, at my November 7 and 10 salons.

My salons are meant to be a throwback to the music of the Enlightenment so it makes sense that the material relates to that time period. I think there’s a certain joy for people to be able to anticipate the sound of a piece from a particular era, even if they don’t know that specific work. There’s a lot to be said for historical context.

NYMD: Let’s talk about your collaborators. You have a duo project with an absolutely brilliant violinist, Emilie-Anne Gendron of the Momenta Quartet. She’s pretty high-profile. Where do you find all these people to play with? Or is this just being part of the classical scene here and having a good sense of who might be a good fit for a particular bill?

YG: It’s a combination of those factors. Either a musician is recommended to me, or it is someone I’ve known and collaborated with from my years at Columbia University and Juilliard. I also consider who might be a good fit for a particular program. Interpersonal chemistry is key. In a sense, playing chamber music together is like being in a relationship. Emilie and I have been playing together since 2003, since we were both students at the Barnard-Columbia-Juilliard program.

NYMD: Can we talk about you as an artist, start at square one and work forward? You were born in Moscow, started playing piano at an early age. Your mom plays, right?

YG: Yes, my mother was my first piano teacher. She went to the Gnessin Institute, and I began my professional music study at Moscow’s Gnessin School for Gifted Children at age 5.

NYMD: You had famous teachers at the Gnessin school. You were a sixth grader when you came here. Did you have your sights on being a famous pianist, or were you just a kid who liked playing?

YG: I was studying professionally, and that was probably going to be my professional path, but of course I didn’t know how my life would ultimately play out. I always had great intellectual curiosity, I wanted to expand my horizons and was very social. I knew music would always be my path but I was not sure of what I would do more of, teaching versus performing. Today, I combine both, along with coordinating my salon series…which is nearly a full-time job in and of itself [laughing].

For a long time I was fascinated by biology. I was very keen on becoming a biologist, but between the lab work and music, I chose the latter, which was my true calling. But my love of science definitely informs my salon programming. I’ve adopted a scientific approach to the way I conduct the research for the repertoire and the way that I select my programs, pair the works thematically, etcetera. This intellectually rigorous approach appeals to me much more to me than a purely emotional one.

NYMD: Can we talk about the difference between music education in Russia, and here? Was there anything that struck you immediately when you first got here?

YG: I would say that teachers’ expectations were much higher in Russia, coaches were to be obeyed and greatly admired. In US, the emphasis is much more of consumer-oriented. For instance, a student can request that he or she wants to play the Moonlight Sonata, even though they may not be at that level.. In Russia, teachers typically get more respect, and students are much more obedient. But a lot of that has to do with the political landscape – freedom of speech, for example, which we did not have in Russia.

NYMD: Obviously, you never stopped playing, but I see your undergraduate degree from Columbia is not in music but in English literature. You’re a Shakespeare scholar. Was this a departure from your career path, or were there other reasons involved?

YG: I always enjoyed Shakespeare – the brilliance of his writing, his razor-sharp wit, the wonderful paradoxes in his language, and the universality and timelessness of the characters in his plays. Obviously, English isn’t my first language, but I always enjoyed the subtlety and the witty banter in Shakespeare. Which you find in the music of Haydn, for example, or Schumann: the use of extra-musical narrative, the different fictional characters which remind me a lot of the Shakespearean world, Mendelssohn, of course – the way the music feeds off literature and poetry, and vice versa. I was always drawn much more to Schumann as opposed to Chopin, for example, because of the literary richness and multifaceted humor in Schumann’s music which appeals to my personality. In fact, my doctoral dissertation at Juilliard was on Late Schumann.

NYMD: Have you ever merged those two passions? Say, a Shakespeare-themed program?

YG: I have not yet… but that’s a great idea!

NYMD: Since your Columbia days, you’ve done all the usual career-track things that every other classical pianist wants to do. You studied with even more famous pianists – Richard Goode among them – and you got your doctorate from Juilliard. You played competitions and did well, you played Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and all the usual places. But you followed your own muse, off the beaten path. Was this something that just evolved or did you have a plan?

YG: The way it’s happened with the salons, I guess my path in life has always been kind of off the beaten path. I don’t concertize too much like a lot of other musicians and my home base is here in New York. I strive for balance between stability and variety. I enjoy having my own enterprise, and not having anyone to report to. And I love that I can program whatever composers that suit me for my salons. That would be much different if I had to fill a thousand seats. In an intimate salon setting, I can afford to exercise my creative license when it comes to programming,, etcetera. Luckily in New York, there are a lot of intellectually sophisticated, open-minded individuals who are drawn to the lesser-known repertoire that I present, and they enjoy coming to my salons for the enlightenment and novelty.

NYMD: As you know, I love getting a scoop, covering artists who are underrepresented in the media. I have a thing for rugged individualists. But I also have a larger agenda and that’s much more ambitious – and goes against the current corporate zeitgeist. I’ve always advocated for live performance because it gets people off their screens, back into reality, where real communities are born. I get the sense that the raison d’etre behind your salons dovetails with my agenda, at least to some extent. Am I on to something here?

YG: In a sense, yes. My salons hark back to the old tradition of “hausmusik” since the day of the Enlightenment. I wanted to revive this old and elegant tradition of music-making and thereby create a community on the Upper West Side and beyond, that would go against the current trend of increased robotization and commercialization in our society. The salons enable a lively and stimulating dialogue between the performer and the audience, in an intimate setting that, I think, is highly precious during this day and age.

NYMD: How much, if any audio exists from your salons? Is there an archive? Where can we hear it, or when will we be able to?

YG: Yes, I audio-record each salon for my own personal archive.

NYMD: You are aware that hundreds of years from now, your audio and sheet music libraries will be referred to as the “Grinberg Collection” and will be both a resource and a record of a major achievement in music history, right?

YG: You are too kind.. Should that ever happen, I would be very honored, indeed.

NYMD: Can I ask you, what’s your musical fallback? You have such a wide range of musical interests, wider than just about anybody I know. Who do you play just for you? When nobody else is listening, or for your family, or loved ones? What sets your synapses on fire more than anything else?

YG: Undoubtedly, it would be Bach. I’ve always had a special affinity for Bach’s music, which is sublime and transcendent. That’s not to say I don’t love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, just to name a few, but Bach for me is No. 1. In the early stages of the lockdown I just kept playing Bach. His music is inspiring, empowering, and therapeutic like that of no other composer. I typically perform an all-Bach program every January. In 2016, I presented an Italian Bach program, featuring his Italian-style works, in 2018, I performed all his French Suites; in 2019, all English Suites, and in 2021, showcased seldom-heard Preludes, Fugues and Fantasies, which I entitled Rare Bach. And I am hoping to get to perform his complete Partitas in January 2022!

NYMD: What do you think the future holds for your salon?

YG: It’s so hard to even think of the future right now. I hope that my salons will continue to bring joy and meaning to people’s lives, and that more people get to discover them!

Yelena Grinberg’s next salon (No. 239), entitled The Leuzer Sonata, is Sunday, November 7 at 5 PM, repeating on Wednesday, November 10 at 6:30 PM. showcasing a colorful program where she’ll be joined by violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron. They’ll be playing Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major for violin and keyboard, BWV 1015, Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Kurtag’s Three Pieces for violin and piano, and the piece de resisteance is Beetehoven’s iconic “Kreutzer” Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin. This not-to-be-missed salon is a short walk from the 1/2/3 train at 96th St. To learn more and to register, email her.

How to Sneak In to See Yo La Tengo

Many years ago, before blogs existed, a future daily New York music blog owner and a friend went to Central Park Summerstage to see Anoushka Shankar. It was a late-season afterwork show, and by the time the two got there, the space was sold out.

Big surprise. Shankar had played Carnegie Hall with her famous dad a couple of years previously, and although she was still in her teens at that point, she blew everybody away with her sitar work.

Undeterred, the intrepid concertgoers walked around the back, jumped the wire fence and crawled on their bellies through the shrubbery until they were about fifty feet from the rear of the stage. Shaded from the indian summer sun, they got to enjoy a tranceworthy qawwali ensemble – if memory serves right, they were called Kamkars – and then Shankar, who proved as adept at more western-oriented material as the ragas she played so beautifully.

Last Friday, a daily New York music blog owner went to Central Park Summerstage to check out the Yo La Tengo show. Having seen them several times over the years, the issue of getting in or not wasn’t a big deal. If that had been an issue, would it have been possible to go through the thicket out back, just like in the old days?

Yes!

The vegetation has grown in much thicker since then, but there’s nothing but chicken wire between you, the trees and the shrubs. Considering that it was after eight at night, and that you never know what’s lurking in the park after dark, the optimal choice at that point seemed to be to leave the greenery and head for the rear embankment and the bandshell, where all but the show’s quietest moments were plenty audible.

Seeing how the Patti Smith concert there last month not only didn’t sell out, but that the younger contingent there walked out in droves during her set, was weird enough. It gets weirder.

Like Smith, Yo La Tengo had originally been scheduled for the wide expanse of the Rumsey Playfield immediately to the south and east, but had been moved to the much smaller Summerstage arena. Standing at the entrance were a couple of women trying to lure random people into the space. For a free concert.

A little context: Yo La Tengo might be the most popular indie rock band in the world. Sure, their crowd has greyed over the years, but they still sell out wherever they play…or used to play, anyway.

“Hi!” a young woman in a blue skirt chirped from underneath her muzzle as she approached, aggressively, like a 34th Street hustler trying to score a fiver for Save the Children. “Are you here for the show?”

Blog owner was taken off guard. A sheepish grin. “Uh, maybe…”

“We have [inaudible – opening band] and Yo La Tengo, they’re just going on. I just need to see your ID and your [proof of lethal injection].”

“I’m going to live to see next year instead,” blog owner replied and walked off. Yeah, that’s snarky. But how do you respond? Kevin Jenkins says he doesn’t do “low-frequency conversations” and walks away: words of wisdom.

What’s happened at the Central Park free concerts is part of a much bigger referendum. Don’t engage with the monster: without your energy to feed off, it shrivels and dies.

Yo La Tengo’s jams are legendary. Where was the big stoner picnic crowd out back? Maybe a half a dozen small gaggles on the slope, if that. Friday night, Central Park smelled like the inside of a bong, but this wasn’t where the smoke was coming from.

The benches by the bandshell? Deserted. A couple leapt onto the empty stage and danced for a bit. From time to time, a few fearless souls would take a walk up the steps up behind the shell, only to be shooed off by a security guard hidden out of view.

Maybe this is a function of not being able to watch Ira Kaplan’s volcanic fingers on the fretboard, or spinning the knobs on his pedalboard, but Yo La Tengo seemed on the quiet side. Georgia Hubley sang one of the shorter, sparse numbers and wasn’t very high in the mix. Kaplan moved to keys for a brief, no-nonsense take of the Stereolab soundalike Autumn Sweater. They closed with a deliciously extended, feedback-laced noisefest version of I Heard You Looking, the missing link between the Velvets at their most crazed, and New Order.

They encored with a lickety-split, practically hardcore AC/DC cover which included a mystery second guitarist. Then Kaplan’s mom came up to the mic and sang something as the band tentatively tried to pull themselves together. And that was it.

For anyone worried that these shows are the last ones that Smith or Yo La Tengo will ever play, good news. A loophole in the DiBozo administration’s lethal injection scheme exempts touring musicians and their entourages. All this is based on science, of course. Won’t it be beautiful to see both of these acts play again somewhere, someday in this city after all this madness is over.

Entertaining, Mesmerizing Solo Soprano Sax? Check Out Sam Newsome on the 9th

It’s hard to imagine anything more difficult than playing a solo show on a chordless instrument. Sure, there are buskers…but it’s rare to see someone sticking around to watch an entire solo “set.”. On the other hand, the prospect of watching soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome play a solo show is enticing to the extreme. He has three solo live albums out and all of them are worth hearing. And if his East Village duo show with guitarist Elliott Sharp last weekend is any indication, his upcoming gig on Oct 9 at 2 PM at the Urban Meadow park at the corner of President and Van Brunt in Red Hook is going to be off the hook.

You could take the B61 bus and get out just down the block from the Jalopy, but it might be even faster to take the F to Carroll, exit at the front of the downtown train, take First Place straight to the pedestrian bridge over the BQE, then make a U-turn at the base of the bridge, go another block on Summit and then hang a left on Columbia. That’s about ten minutes from the subway.

It’s funny how, ten years ago, Newsome was regarded as the rising star for straight-ahead postbop jazz on the soprano. Then all of a sudden he started turning up at places like the late, great Spectrum and took a deep plunge into the avant garde. It was then that his mind-blowing extended technique really came to the surface. For example, at the East Village gig, he got his horn to resonate with a low digeridoo buzz, or a keening wail like an Indian shennai or a Bulgarian zurla, shedding otherworldly overtones and duotones. And while Sharp was playing through his usual arsenal of effects, Newsome was completely unamplified. What had he done to his reeds, or his valves, or both? Who knows – but it was raw magic.

There were all kinds of irresistibly amusing moments, when Newsome would pick up a rack of wind chimes, or two, slinging them over the body of the horn as he blew looming duotones for background. Then there was the point where Sharp, who’d been tapping out tensely frenetic sequences, fired off a phrase of about twenty notes. Newsome paused and played the whole paragraph back to him, and suddenly the dialogue shifted from jaunty banter to a serious joust. Musicians engaging each other with short. singalong riffs is the oldest cliche in the book, but this seemed to be a philosophical discussion between two sages. What they were philosophizing about wasn’t entirely clear, but it was deep.

Meanwhile, Sharp maintained his edge throughout about fifty minutes of close interplay, whether opaquely ambient, squirrelly, skronky, or lingering in a couple of brief, overcast A minor interludes. Newsome got plaintive in response to the first one, then expansive on the second, drawing out similarly thoughtful flurries from the guitarist. There were plenty of other points in the improvisation that were funny, and formidable, and fleeting; you can expect the same at the Red Hook show.

Yo La Tengo Return to Central Park on the First of the Month: Are You Game?

Yo La Tengo are playing Central Park Summerstage on Oct 1 at around 8:30 PM. In a normal world, that’s cause for celebration, if you’re a fan of crazed, noisy psychedelic guitar jams, or the quieter, more reflective post-Velvets sound the band have turned more and more to since the turn of the century.

But this year this city’s creepy, homicidal mayor has thrust us into the New Abnormal, where proof of a lethal injection is required for entry. So that means we have to listen from outside. It’s not such a big deal:  if you’ve seen any number of shows here, chances are there was probably some instance where you didn’t get to the arena early enough to get in. Obviously, it would be fun to be able to watch Ira Kaplan’s guitar-torturing, but there’s still plenty of room on the slope out back, the sound carries well, and if you want you can catch a glimpse of the band from the sidewalk on the east side near the entrance. This blog was there for Patti Smith last weekend and while it would have been more fun to be able to hear what she said to the audience, the songs came through loud and clear.

The last time Yo La Tengo played the park, it was on a muggy Monday night in July of 2017. Kaplan sized up the capacity crowd and reflected with just the hint of contempt about free concerts he’d attended here as a kid: “Sha Na Na. Pure Prairie League. Mahavishnu Orchestra.” And then launched into a sarcastic bit of the Ace Frehley novelty hit New York Groove.

That didn’t last long. The show was a characteristic mix of paint-peeling squall over hypnotic, practically mantra-like vamps, and spare, reflective, airy songs that matched the hazy atmosphere. Kaplan’s antics are a little more subdued than they were back in the 90s, but there were plenty of beautifully ugly interludes where he’d go to his knees, shaking and bending at the neck of his guitar, sticking it into his amp or just leaving it to feed there. There was at least one point where he left the guitar feeding and then picked up another, and then resumed the song. Meanwhile, drummer Georgia Hubley kept a supple, swinging beat while James McNew played his simple, catchy, endlessly circling bass riffs for minutes on end without once falling back on a loop pedal.

The steady, hypnotic storm began with Pass the Hatchet and continued with From a Motel 6. Kaplan reminded what a purist, catchy pop tunesmith he can be with a relatively undisturbed. loping version of All Your Secrets. Then he switched to keys for a Stereolab-ish take of Autumn Sweater. Did McNew switch to guitar on that one? All these years later, it’s impossible to remember all the details.

The quiet part of the show went on for what seemed like more than half an hour, with the wistful Nowhere Near and then Black Flowers, which Hubley sang from behind the keyboard. Almost mercifully, Kaplan brought the energy up slowly with I’ll Be Around, which sounded like the Stones’ Moonlight Mile on crank.

Hubley and McNew harmonized on Before We Run, then the trio buzzed and burned through Sugarcube, the closest thing to Sonic Youth in the set. After that, they took their time raising Ohm from a drony nocturne into a feral feedback fest. They closed with I Heard You Looking, Kaplan’s sparks and sputters and firestorm of raw noise going on for more than twenty minutes, the two guitarists from the awful opening act invited up but obviously in awe and not adding much to the jam.

The game plan for this blog that night was to get a field recording and use that as a reference. Sadly, the recorder, which was literally being held together with rubberbands, picked that evening to flatline. And after standing through an interminable opening set and then Yo La Tengo, this blog’s owner assumed the show was over and left.

Other blogs mention an encore and a jokey appearance on the mic by Kaplan’s mom. Don’t discount those kind of shenanigans, if the PA is really loud on the first.

Patti Smith Plays Prophetic Powerpop in Central Park

Have you seen the anti-discrimination signs? They’re popping up in the windows of small businesses all over town. Even on the conformist-AF Upper West Side.

“We shall live again,” Patti Smith intoned to start her Central Park show last night. And encored with People Have the Power. There’s a sea change going on.

Smith’s show had been moved abruptly from the expansive Rumsey Playfield lawn to the much smaller Summerstage arena space. Set time had also been changed: she hit the stage sometime after 8. Likewise, if Antibalas played the park on Saturday, the time and venue had been changed as well. Apologies to readers of the live music calendar here who might have been led astray – some of those listings date back to when those shows were first announced.

Constantly flipping the script is a hallmark of abusive relationships, whether between a couple, parents and children, or on a societal scale. You do the math.

There was another odd kind of arithmetic at play here. Before the lockdown, Smith would routinely sell out a weeklong year-end stand at Bowery Ballroom, at outrageous prices. This show was free. Yet the arena never reached capacity. What’s more, a steady trickle of concertgoers slowly – s l o w l y – being let in by security was matched by twice as many people traipsing out, beginning at the start of the show. And although the party on the slope out behind the space was much more lively, much of Smith’s diehard fanbase had clearly stayed away.

That’s because proof of being part of a lethal injection campaign, which completely stalled out several weeks ago, was required for entry. Europeans come out in the millions to protest fascist takeovers. Australians bust through police barricades. Americans just stand firm and wait it out.

Smith’s set went on for short of an hour. Opening with Ghost Dance was characteristic of this ageless sage, who shows no sign of slowing down. This was the powerpop set: rather than pouncing on the syncopation on the chorus of Pissing in a River, she and the band motored through the changes with a lingering burn.

Although there were quiet moments – it was impossible to hear any of Smith’s poetry, or her remarks to the crowd from outside the space – most of the material was backbeat rock hits, starting with Dancing Barefoot and continuing with Because the Night. Lenny Kaye limited his lead guitar pyrotechnics to a couple of blue-flame solos, moving around edgily against a resonating string, raga style. Speaking of ragas, the night’s longest interlude was a mostly acoustic, Indian-flavored jam which ended with Smith roaring that “The future is NOW!”

Bassist Tony Shanahan’s soaring, melodic lines were serendipitously high in the mix, most enjoyably in his reggae leads in Ain’t It Strange. From there on, it was all rock, beginning with a stripped-down cover of the Stones’ I’m Free wrapped around a verse of Take a Walk on the Wild Side – subtext, anyone? An assertive bit of Horses set up a steady, resolute G-l-o-r-i-a. And soon afterward, it was over. “Patti Smith! A full moon!” a pretty blonde woman enthused to a bearded man on the hill behind the space. “She picked the right night!” he grinned back. Both were off by a day – the full moon is tonight.

A Free Outdoor Show From Eclectically-Inspired Trumpeter Wayne Tucker

Wayne Tucker is known for his electrifying performances as a lead trumpeter in various jazz situations. And before the lockdown, he got around a lot. For a couple of years, he was the not-so-secret weapon in feral, high-voltage Ethiopian jamband Anbessa Orchestra, whose small-club gigs in Park Slope in the late teens are legendary. This blog covered one of them back in 2016, but they played shows after that which were even more spectacular.

For those who’ve seen Tucker raise the rafters, it might come as some surprise that he has a much mellower side. This past spring he was one of the first jazz artists to get back to playing publicly announced gigs, leading a quartet up on a little hill just off Central Park West back in early May. The show was part of photographer Jimmy Katz‘s nonprofit series, which turned out to be a lifesaver for musicians starved for money and for audiences starved for music.

The sky may have been ominous that Sunday afternoon, but the music was balmy. Tucker and the band’s tenor saxophonist played calm, airy exchanges and harmonies over a diverse series of rhythms, with tinges of Afrobeat, salsa and bossa nova. Tucker’s latest album goes in a completely different direction, into trippy, hip hop-inspired corporate urban pop. You can find out which side he wants to have fun with – maybe, all of them – at his gig on Sept 21 at noon at the little pedestrian plaza at Pearl and Willoughby in downtown Brooklyn. It’s about equidistant from the 2/4/R Borough Hall station and the F train at Jay St.

Firey String Sistas Simmer on the Hudson

Jazz played on stringed instruments in general is usually a springboard for new and interesting ideas. After all, string players can sustain notes that horn players have a harder time with, never mind having unlimited access to blue notes. There was a point toward the end of the Firey String Sistas’ rapturously memorable set Tuesday night at Pier 84 on the Hudson where in the middle of a funky, blues-infused swing tune, violinist Marlene Rice went completely off script and took a bracing downward solo that could have been in the quartertone scale.

More likely, it was in whatever scale she was feeling at the moment. Pianist Mala Waldron picked up the handoff and responded with an insistent attack that ramped up the intensity with rhythm rather than avant garde harmony. Drummer Camille Gainer-Jones, whose lithe brushwork gave the set a comfortable wide-angle swing, built a subtly turbulent crescendo while Rice harmonized acerbically with cellist and co-founder Nioka Workman. With jazz clubs officially off limits to all but a small, physically imperiled subcaste of New Yorkers right now, this show hit the spot, to say the least.

The group opened with Waldron on vocals as well as the keys. on one of her famous dad Mal Waldron’s tunes: she’s a fine singer, with a poignant, nuanced, coloristic delivery. Workman and Rice set the stage with their terse harmonies as ringer bassist Melvin Bullock – who’d signed up to be a “Firey String Brotha,” as Workman put it – bolstered the rhythm with his judiciously incisive boom and pulse.

They reinvented Cedar Walton’s To the Holy Land with a starkly resonant, intense rubato intro, then swung it with a rustic, brooding minor key gospel feel. Rice reached for the rafters; Workman went for deep, minor-key gospel plaintiveness.

Waldron sang a loose-limbed, unexpectedly funky take of Round Midnight, her calm reassurance contrasting with the enigmatic melody. The group’s take of I Remember You surprisingly did not have vocals and was more nocturnal, all the way through the solos. Rice’s most sizzling, rapidfire moment came in the original after that. The night’s closing number, a brand-new original, was the most bitingly catchy tune of the night, Gainer-Jones subtly driving the groove from funky syncopation to a persistent clave. Workman introduced the song as being inspired by the “current situation,” and left that to the crowd to interpret.

A Wild Cuban Salsa Dance Party at Drom

Friday night at Drom, percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band put on a feral, thunderous dance party. This wasn’t tame, watered-down covers of famous salsa jams from the 70s: Martinez plays originals, set to a constantly shifting, slinky groove. If the club wasn’t sold out, it was close to capacity, and from the second the smoke machine kicked in and the band hit the stage, people were dancing in their seats.

That didn’t last. By the end, everybody was on their feet. There was one particular couple who spent the entirety of the show twirling in between the tables, and they were just as interesting to watch as the band were, completely locked into the kaleidoscope of rhythms. When the pretty brunette saw Martinez move from behind his massive kit to show off his own dance moves at the front of the stage, she leapt up onstage and joined him. By the end of the show, the duo looked as if they’d changed shirts. You would have too if you’d given yourself that kind of workout.

In this band, everybody is part of the percussion section, even the horns. Martinez had six congas, a snare, hi-hat, two cymbals slung overhead, and would occasionally drive home a turnaround with a mighty thump on the cajon he was sitting on. He introduced his timbalero as “the greatest percussionist of his generation,” and nobody in the crowd argued with that, especially when the two dueled and built supersonic volleys of beats, to a tropical hailstorm.

The group’s roughly ninety-minute set was like one long song, but with sometimes subtle, sometimes spectacular rhythmic shifts. Even more impressive than the sheer physicality and grace of the performance was how fresh it sounded. Martinez has been doing this for a long time, but the chemistry in this band is such that everybody knows how to push everybody else’s buttons and drive the jousting to new levels of intensity.

Martinez’s forthcoming album is titled Autentico, and his pianist is in charge of the arrangements, so it was no surprise to see what a polyrhythmic approach he took to his cascades and stabbing chords. Likewise, the group’s bassist would hammer on the strings with the edge of his fist rather than merely fingerpicking. The man in the sunburst shirt who started out on guiro doubled on both trombone and trumpet, often playing all three instruments in the same song. And it was fun to watch Martinez take a turn on bass late in the set: he knows what he’s doing! Likewise, the timbalero took over on congas when Martinez would get up to dance with a pretty girl.