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A Long, Strange, Psychedelic New York Week, Part Two

In two parts – part one is here

After seeing Cameroonian singer Blick Bassy‘s unexpectedly psychedelic New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday night, it was fun to wind up the evening at Barbes with a whole set by cinematic Venezuelan-American psychedelic instrumental trio Los Crema Paraiso. After taking their time loading their loop pedals, they played most of their newest album, De Pelicula to projections of segments from 1970s Venezuelan films: a road movie, a comedy and maybe a documentary or two.

When they do their all-instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, they usually play the whole monstrosity – this time the crowd got just the short version. Bittersweetly summery highway themes, frenetic volleys of tremolo-picking from guitarist José Luis Pardo, slinky and emphatic basslines from Bam Bam Rodriguez and the shapeshifting rhythms of drummer Neil Ochoa were mostly live, although both Pardo and Rodriguez’s pedals kicked in with some simple harmony lines or hazy textures from time to time, as their bouncy chamame rock themes unwound. At the end, they played their cover of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and finally, after having sufffered through that atrocity more than once before, it made sense – as theme music for a montage of banana republic dictators and their crimes. In this band’s hands, it became a horrible song about horrible people.

Saturday afternoon, it was even more annoying to miss almost all of psychedelic latin soul stars Chicano Batman’s set at Central Park Summerstage. The same thing happened with Roy Ayers’ set on Sunday  too. Both acts ended up going on an hour ahead of schedule, and a lot of people who showed up were disappointed. Five minutes of Bardo Martinez’s magic-carpet organ textures against Carlos Arévalo’s similarly kaleidoscopic guitar were tantalizing to the point of being painful.

And while it’s impossible to hate on Los Pericos – the Argentine ska-reggae crew has been around for thirty years and sound better now than their records from the 80s – it was also impossible to get out of sulk mode for them. Their tunes are catchy, their choruses go to more interesting places than most current roots reggae acts do, and just when it seemed they were about to get bogged down in a vampy, simplistic rut, they finally hit a grey-sky, Steel Pulse-ish minor-key groove. But all that was no substitute for the group originally schedued to headline this bill.

Back at home base Barbes on Saturday night, singer Chi-Chi Glass provided solace in the form of an unselfconsciously psychedelic solo set that she opened with a segment from an Albeniz piano suite. From there she built a synth-and-cajon suite of her own based on a Peruvian folk theme, sang a revolutionary folk tune in Quecha and finally encored with a haunting setting of a Maya Angelou poem, part noir cha-cha, part classical tone poem, part eerie art-rock.

Piano Titan Vijay Iyer Scores a Harrowing Multimedia Performance

Last night at National Sawdust, pianist Vijay Iyer joined with bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan to create a somber, stunned, broodingly opaque and occasionally picturesque backdrop for Teju Cole‘s  allusively harrowing spoken word narrative, Blind Spot. Informed by history, portraiture, archaeology and Greek myth, Cole’s vignettes traced decades of humans being inhuman to each other, and how conveniently we forget.

Cole didn’t waste any time making his point. One of the first of the photo projections in his series of vignettes was a snapshot of a simple piece of poster graffiti in a Berlin neighborhood which once housed a gestapo torture complex. The message was simple. In black-and-white English, it said, “Sign here.” Cole related that when he returned a week later, the poster had been replaced by a billboard. “Darkness is lack of information,” he mused later during the performance. Is it ever.

Cole nonchalantly offered that his way of seeing had been radically changed by a blindness scare and then an apparently successful eye operation. The unseen seems to be as central to his work as the visible. An elegaic sensibility wove through his quietly provocative, interconnected narrative. Death – by torture, drowning, car accident, Klansmen and genocide – was a constant and pervasive presence.

The music matched the words and visuals. Iyer set the stage with a simple binary chord, a distant star against an obsidian sky. From time to time, the group improvisation became more programmatic – rushing water imagery and a sudden gust off a Swiss lake, for example. The most harrowing moment was when Cole related visiting the site of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and referenced both McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison’s roles in John Coltrane’s classic elegy for the victims, Alabama. Iyer and then Oh both quoted Coltrane’s pianist and bassist briefly – Oh’s sudden, frantic downward cascade might have been the night’s most stunning moment.

There were many others. Iyer began by working uneasy harmonies against a central tone, raga style, eventually building a Satie-esque menace while Brennan bowed her bells. As the night went on, Oh became more present, whether with an unexpected, circling series of harmonics that evoked Stephan Crump, or spare, emphatic accents moving with a slow but immutable defiance away from the center.

Brennan took the lead when Iyer went into Lynchian soundtrack mode, adding shivery chromatic phrases over macabre piano allusions that Iyer quickly embellished so as to keep the suspense from ever reaching any kind of resolution. The three finally reached toward closure with a concluding requiem, but even there the gloom didn’t lift. Earlier, Cole recalled a medieval painting that depicts Agamemnon offering his daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that he could start a war with Troy: the anguished tyrant has his back to the viewer, unable to face what he’s just done. These days it looks more and more like the House of Atreus is us.

Iyer plays Tanglewood on July 13 with violinist Jennifer Koh. The next jazz event at National Sawdust – always a pleasure to visit and revel in the exquisite sonics  there – is on August 30 at 7 PM with perennially unpredictable guitar luminary Mary Halvorson; advance tix are $25.

Iconic, Haunting Jazz Guitarist Bill Frisell Plays a Rare Duo Show in Brooklyn

Bill Frisell’s first album as a bandleader was just guitar and bass (and lots of overdubs). Who knew that this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist would ever revisit that format? Almost thirty-five years later, the bassist is Thomas Morgan, and the album, Small Town, is a live recording from the Village Vanguard from just a few months ago It’s hard to hear online, but you can catch the two when they make a relatively rare Brooklyn appearance at Roulette on June 30 at 8. Advance tix are just $20, and having seen Frisell in this particular borough, it’s not a safe bet to assume that the show won’t sell out.

The first track is an eleven-minute version of Paul Motian’s Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Resonant, starry, minimalist motives give way to a distantly ominous big-sky theme spiced with wispy harmonics and Morgan’s lurking presence. A wistful waltz develops and is then subsumed by  brooding pedalpoint with stark gospel allusions as Frisell builds a hypnotic web of contrapuntal loops. If this doesn’t end up in a Twin Peaks episode, that would be criminal.

The two make a briskly caravanning stroll out of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, threatening to take it down into the depths but never completely submerging. Morgan hangs back and punches in gingerly throughout most of the spacious, uneasy ballad Song for Andrew No. 1 (an Andrew Cyrille shout-out). Referneces to a famously infirm New Orleans funeral tune flicker amidst Frisell’s lingering single-note lines as he waits til the very end to go for the macabre.

He does Wildwood Flower a lot – this one offers genially blithe, bluegrassy contrast and some neatly understated counterpoint between the two musicians. 

The title track expands on the old Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme, Frisell finally flinging some noir and some wryly muted surf riffs into the purposeful, steady walk as Morgan straddles the same thin grey line. After that, the two pulse their way mutedly through Fats Domino’s What a Party; which sounds a lot more like the old folk song Shortnin’ Bread. Ironically, it’s the most pastoral track here – hearing Morgan toss off a handful of C&W guitar licks on his bass is a trip.

Poet – Pearl is a diptych. Morgan shifts around with a pensive incisiveness in the upper midrange, as he usually does throughout the set while Frisell plays a gently tremoloing lullaby of sorts. then the two follow the night’s most divergent courses, segueing into the lone Morgan composition here, a bittersweetly catchy jazz waltz where the bassist finally gets to carry the melody. The last song of the set is a spare, lowlit, increasingly desolate take of the Goldfinger theme that leaves no doubt that it’s about a spy. At the end, Frisell turns it into the old blues lament Baby Please Don’t Go.

Where does this rank in the Frisell pantheon? Maybe not on the towering, harrowing noir pinnacle with, say, 2007’s History, Mystery but it’s close. You’ll see this on a whole lot of best-of-2017 lists, not just here, at the end of the year.

The World’s Most Popular Surf Band Cover a New Wave Cult Hero

Los Straitjackets are hardly known as a cover band  Sure, every surf group does a version of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, just like the Ventures. But what’s made Los Straitjackets one of the best-loved (and by now, best-covered) surf bands ever is their originals. That’s why their new album What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets – streaming at Spotify   is such a radical departure for them. Still, in keeping with the band’s signature originality, they chose an odd source: the Nick Lowe catalog. Then they redo the songs like probably no one ever imagined.

Lowe is well-loved by an aging new wave era crowd (a New Yorker might cynically say that he’s a WFMU guy). But a lot of people, especially those who haven’t seen him live, might not realize what a good guitarist the self-described Jesus of Cool is. So his first-wave retro rock is a lot better suited to a fast 2/4 beat, and twang and clang and lots of reverb than might first seem apparent. The band are making a quick New York stop tomorrow night, June 25 at 9 PM at City Winery; cover is $30 for standing room. Be aware that there is a headlining act and that he is not worth seeing – unless you go for dorky guys who steal their fashion sense from early Elvis Costello, but forget to rip off Costello’s catchy tunes and edgy lyrics.

Another cool thing about the new album is that it isn’t all just the popular or the uptempo stuff: these guys really went through Lowe’s repertoire to find material that makes the most waves, whether whitecaps or gentle ripples across the pond. The A-side opens with Shake and Pop, bassist Pete Curry anchoring it with a little grit in his tone over Chris Sprague’s drums. Is that Eddie Angel or Danny Amis taking that nasty tremolo-picked solo? Everybody’s wearing masks, so it’s impossible to tell.

By contrast, they give All Men Are Liars a cheery, conversational early 60s Joe Meek bounce. Then they turn a relatively more recent tune, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide into resonant midtempo Ventures with a little Tex-Mex and Hank Williams thrown in. After that, a balmy take of You Inspire Me throws a fond nod back to Theme From a Summer Place

Rollers Show – Lowe’s snarky swipe at wildly popular 70s British teenybopper rock band the Bay City Rollers – gets an aptly swaying sock-hop beat and a deviously cruel quote or two from other songs. The first side closes with (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, which a million bands have covered, none of them remotely as well as Costello did. Los Straitjackets opt for reinventing it as a loping Lee Hazlewood desert-rock theme.

The B-side begins with I Read a Lot, slow and shadowy, drums drenched in reverb for extra noir, along with some wry siren effects. Half a Boy and Half a Man is the first number that isn’t really surf: it’s pretty close to the British pub rock that Lowe got his start in. Likewise, Checkout Time is a mashup of early Shadows skiffle and the Mexican side of the Ventures: the tongue-in-cheek medley of riffs from classic surf tracks at the end is LOL funny.

The Lowe tune that turns out to make the best surf song of all of these is I Live on a Battlefield, yet even with all the wry historical references – DAMN, these guys know their surf – they don’t add a chord change in the verse that would totally Venturize it.

Sprague’s Wipeout drums add a droll touch to the cover of Raging Eyes. The band saves the most obvious stuff for last, Cruel to Be Kind recast as a melancholy, swaying ballad and Heart of the City as a mashup of Buck Owens and the Modern Lovers (you know the song – the Sex Pistols covered it). If you always wanted to be in a surf band, get this album and learn it cover to cover. Someday somebody will pay you good money to play this stuff.

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Brandon Seabrook Will See You on the Dark Side of the Drum

Brandon Seabrook is one of New York’s great musical individualists. He made his name as a shredder – anybody who’s witnessed his neutron-beam attack on guitar or banjo can vouch for how accurately the bandname Seabrook Power Plant reflects his sound. Yet anyone who’s ever seen him play guitar in magically nuanced singer Eva Salina’s electric Balkan group knows how gorgeously lyrical and restrained his playing can be. Seabrook’s latest album, Die Trommel Fatale, is streaming at Bandcamp . As drummer Dave Treut, who’s played with Seabrook for longer than most anyone else, observed over drinks the other night at Barbes, it pretty well capsulizes Seabrook’s career so far.  He’s likely to become the loudest, most assaultive guitarist ever to play Joe’s Pub when he and the band show up for the album release show this June 8 at  9:30 PM. Cover is $15.

The premise of the album is what can happen when you anchor the music with two drummers, without cymbals. The result turns out to be less funereal than simply monstrous. Treut and Sam Ospovat rumble and crush behind those stripped-down kits, with Marika Hughes on cello, Eivind Opsvik on bass and Chuck Bettis doing the Odin deathmetal thing on the mic.

The album opens with Emotional Cleavage, which could be very sad or completely the opposite, depending on how you interpret the title. This one’s a mashup of free jazz, death metal and 70s King Crimson: squirrelly franticness side by side with lingering, Messianic unease. Clangorous Vistas begin with a wry car horn allusion, a high drone, then sudden insectile scampering into a dancing skronk that eventually catapults Seabrook into one of his usual feral, tremolo-picked assaults

Jungly electronics, eerily resonant jangle and warped, machinegunning squall alternate throughout Abccessed Pettifogger (gotta love those titles, huh?) Shamans Never R.S.V.P. is a real creeper, waves of stark strings underpinning Seabrook’s elegantly skeletal, upper-register stroll: it sounds like Hildegarde von Bingen on acid, and it’s one of the few places on the album where the percussion gets as ominous as the rest of the band. And then everybody goes skronking and squalling, with a tumbling duel between Treut and Ospovat. From there, the similarly shrieky Litany of Turncoats makes a good segue.

The Greatest Bile, a diptych, builds out of crackling, circling riffage to the most twisted march released this year, Seabrook radiating evil Keith Levene-esque overtones when he’s not torturing the strings with volley after volley of tremolo-picking. Opsvik’s calmly pulsing solo, and then Hughes’ far more grim one, reach down for something approaching a respite from the firestorm. The second part is just as dirty if a little less unhinged, like a drony Martin Bisi noisescape with the strings and drums hovering on the periphery. 

The sandy-paintbrush drum brushing of the atmospheric Rhizomatic comes as a welcome surprise, then the band goes back to Quickstep Grotesquerie (the next number, which would be an apt secondary album title). The final cut is a chaotic, cauldron sarcastically titled Beautiful Flowers. This isn’t exactly easy listening, but in its own extremely twisted way, it’s a party in a box. Lights out on the floor with headphones on! 

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

Moist Paula Henderson Brings Her Starry, Playful Improvisations Back to Greenpoint

Baritone sax star Moist Paula Henderson is, among other things, the not-so-secret weapon in gonzo gospel-funk pianist/showman Rev. Vince Anderson’s wild jamband. Last night at Union Pool, she was in a characteristically devious mood, having all sorts of fun in between the notes. But she’s not limited to baritone sax. Last month at Troost, she played a fascinatingly enveloping, psychedelic show with multi-instrumentalist and film composer Dorothea Tachler and inventor/guitar shredder Nick Demopoulos. She’s back there tomorrow night, April 26 at around 9 in a duo with Demopoulos, who will no doubt be improvising on the SMOMID, his own electronic invention that looks like a vintage keytar would look if such things existed back in the 50s.

Beyond her work as a hardworking sidewoman, Henderson is also a great wit as a composer. And she’s not limited to baritone sax, either: like the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen, she frequently employs the EWI (electronic wind instrument) for her more adventurous projects. Her most recent solo album, Moist Paula’s Electric Embouchere – streaming at Bandcamp – is a series of EWI compositions that harken back to the playfully cinematic pieces she explored with her late-zeros electroacoustic act Secretary, while also echoing her work with legendary downtown punk-dance sax-bass-drums trio Moisturizer.

The album’s opening track, I Dream of Dreams on Wheels juxtaposes wispy, fragmented, woozily tremoloing upper-register accents over a wryly shuffling, primitive, 70s style drum machine beat. We Always Fought on Thanksgiving – Henderson is unsurpassed at titles – is typical example of how she artfully she can take a very simple low-register blues-scale riff and build a loopy tune around it. 

Awake Against One’s Will is as surreal and distantly ominous as a starry dreamscape can be, awash in ambient waves and gamelanesque flickers. Old Ass Air Mattress is a jaunty electronic strut over a buzzy pedal note that threatens to implode any second: if there’s anybody alive who can translate sound into visuals, it’s Moist Paula. 

Riskily, She Named her 13th Child Friday sounds like P-Funk on bath salts, a rapidfire series of sonic phosphenes over which she layers the occasional droll, warpy accent. The album’s final cut is the mini-epic  Trick Or Treat Suite, ironically its calmest, most spacious and gamelanesque number, spiced with the occasional wry, unexpected swell amidst the twinkles and ripples. It’s like a sonic whippit except that it’s not as intense and it lasts longer. 

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.