New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: film music

Throwback Moment: Gothic Music Icon Sells Out Williamsburg Venue

Very rarely does a concert in New York actually sell out. That’s why Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center offer last-minute discounted rush tickets. On one hand, it’s kind of a big deal that JG Thirlwell sold out both nights of his two-night stand at National Sawdust at the end of the month. On the other, it shouldn’t be any surprise, considering that Thirlwell has enjoyed a rabid cult following for more than thirty years, and that he’s doing a rare performance with a classical ensemble. And for all the venue’s vaunted, spacious sonics, there’s a lot more empty space there than there are seats.

So if you missed your chance to see catch this phantasmic hero of dark rock, industrial and film music, you could still hit his merch page, if it was working, and drift off to places even more disturbing than this one, with his score to the film Imponderable.

Coldly oscillating drainpipe sonics eventually give way to moody ambience; a door, footfalls and then a series of disjointed doppler effects interrupt the second track, Sleep. Houdini’s Lament has an elegant interweave of chromatic electric piano with a bittersweet baroque horn arrangement floating overhead. Then there’s a silly, synthy video game remake of a famous classical theme: too bad the Phoenix folks beat you to Fur Elise, huh JG?

Spark of Life has tolilng bells, suspenseful strings, weary vocals and the immortal couplet “Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley/Scary electrshock therapy.” From there Thirlwell weaves icy drones and echoes up to a desolate, elegaic, utterly cynical piano-and-strings theme, Faerie Bust.

For the record, there is a track here called Ectoplasm (this is where you’re supposed to go “Yesssss!), a minute forty seconds of drifty strings and distant diabolical twinkle. The Controlling Spirit seems completely untethered and lost; by contrast, The History of Magic is a stately, slowly unwinding Japanese folk-tinged theme with koto, piano, strings and neat psychedelic touches.

Giggle Water sounds for a second like it’s going to be comic relief in the form of a blithe French musette: nope. Courtly Asian elements return in in Chinese Ghost, followed by the creepy Night Nurse Chant and then Night Nurse, which is not the Gregory Isaacs reggae hit but a chilly carnivalesque nocturnal stroll. As with so much of what Thirlwell has done over the years, as far as late-night cinematics are concerned, this is hard to beat. Let’s hope he gets his website back up to speed so everybody can hear it.

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Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9 by . Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Red Room Orchestra Bring Iconic Noir Cinematics to the Upper West

Are the Red Room Orchestra the world’s most distinctive noir cinematic band? Considering that they specialize in Twin Peaks themes, if they’re not, there would be something wrong. Last night at what appeared to be a sold-out New York debut at Symphony Space, they went deep into Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic David Lynch tv and film music to conjure up a relentlessly bittersweet, menacing “purgatory,” as bandleader Marc Capelle put it.

But they didn’t just do meticulously arranged, spot-on recreations from the original scores. There were lots of surprises. Who knew that violist Dina Maccabee could do such a perfect Julee Cruise imitation? Or that original cast member James Marshall, singing and wielding his Strat, had the chops to play Hendrix? Or that Capelle, who spent most of the set at the piano, would turn in one of the night’s most gorgeously bittersweet solos, playing muted trumpet on the title theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?

He and the group have spared no detail to appeal to a rabid fan base who totally geek out on this stuff, not limiting themselves to coy little flourishes on intros and outros. The original Twin Peaks tv themes were the most luridly luscious numbers on the bill, although here they had more of an organic feel than Badalamenti’s original score. Those recordings balance blue-neon tremolo guitar against icy string synth: although these versions had plenty of swirling keyboard orchestration, courtesy of Capelle, Yuka C. Honda and vibraphonist Toby Dammit, who also doubled on keys, the music was warmer and more intimate, amplified by Capelle’s grand piano, Maccabee’s viola and Scott Larson’s looming trombone.

They opened with the tv show’s title theme, bassist Eli Crews and baritone guitarist Tom Ayres doubling their lines on the low end. From there, they slunk and fingersnapped their way through the stripper theme that eventually became would-be femme fatale Audrey Horne’s dance. And they took their time reaching from nostalgic, melancholy Americana to foreboding grey-sky sonics as they worked sweeping, majestic, ineluctably gloomy permutations on dead girl Laura Palmer’s themes.

There were some funny bits too. When guitarist Allyson Baker wasn’t absolutely nailing all those deliciously terse, resonantly tremoloing riffs, she evoked Chuck Berry on acid during a surprisingly un-cheeseball reinvention of Bill Doggett’s silly 50s instrumental Honky Tonk. Singer Karina Denike reached for the rafters with an aching wail in dynamic takes of the expected Orbison hits Lynch has used to drive home big dramatic moments, from Blue Velvet through the Twin Peaks franchises. And Margaret Cho joined with Marshall and Beth Lisick for a couple of over-the-top bits from the drama within the drama, the make-believe soap opera Invitation to Love.

Multi-reedman Ben Goldberg added liquid crystal clarinet as well as gritty low end on contrabass clarinet, notably during the Audrey Horne sequences. Drummer Robin MacMillan provided a nimble, frequently muted swing, often using his mallets. At the end, Marshall plugged in again and blazed through a dirty, noisy take of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return. It was appropriate because of the Pacific Northwest connection, Capelle explained.

Denike is at Pete’s this Sunday, Feb 17 at 8:30; the Red Room Orchestra are playing a completely different program of material from Wes Anderson movies tonight, Feb 16 at 8 again at Symphony Space;  you can get in for $30.

Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

Haunting Film Noir and Desert Rock Themes from Reverend Screaming Fingers

Reverend Screaming Fingers’ cinematic, surfy instrumental themes don’t often scream, but boy do they resonate. And there are no doubt films in development screaming out for these songs. The guitarist (real name: Lucio Menegon) layers colorful multitracks over a steady, low-key rhythm section for a mix of creepy noir themes, spaghetti western tunes and midtempo surf rock. The Desert Years, his new third volume in his series of Music for Driving and Film, is streaming at Bandcamp. Big Lazy’s highly anticipated new album isn’t out yet, but until then, this twangy, dusky masterpiece will do just fine. It’s a lock for one of the best albums of 2019.

Here Menegon is supported by a rotating rhythm section: Wally Ingram on drums, with Danny Frankel, Damian Lester, Kip Powell and Janie Cowan sharing bass duties.The opening track, No Destination starts out with a fleeting, insistent new wave guitar riff but quickly slinks into the shadows with a southwestern gothic ambience capped off midway through with a little Tex-Mex. Then the bandleader completely lfips the script with the tender, oldtimey country ballad Chapparal Kiss, with low-key mandolin over a graceful 6/8 sway.

Dream of the Desperado comes across as a mashup of rapt Japanese temple music mingled with slow-burn Black Lodge guitar that finally coalesces as a creepy slide guitar blues: it would be a solid track on any Big Lazy album. Monsoon Gully has snarling, distorted, serpentine guitar leads set to a gently tumbling cha-cha beat: Beninghove’s Hangmen are a good point of comparison.

Spare, spaciously fingerpicked guitar figures mingle above a backdrop of rain and tree frog samples throughout Funereal. Speaking of funereal, the organ beneath the loping, savagely crescendoing desert theme Dance of the Dust adds immensely to the ominous ambience.

Delicate tremolo-picking beneath lingering reverbtoned riffs raises the suspense in Yuma Interlude, up to a tantalizing exchange of riffs in both channels, then back down again. Lost Alien Highway slowly builds into a simmering roadhouse blues. Almost Home is a lively blend of Buck Owens twang and roller-rink organ theme. The final cut is Rattler Ranch, an upbeat, catchy, woodsy groove for guitar and bass.

Tredici Bacci Bring Their Sick Sense of Humor to the Mercury

The album cover painting for cinematic, lushly orchestrated psychedelic band Tredici Bacci’s new album La Fine del Futuro – streaming at Bandcamp – shows a knife stuck in the back of a beach chair, blood dripping from the blade. How much of that is outright menace and how much is the band’s signature, cosmopolitan snark? This time out, the jokes and the satire in bandleader/bassist Simon Hanes’ themes are much more front and center. You can decide out for yourself at the album release show at 11 PM on Valentine’s Day at the Mercury; cover is $12. Since the band name is Italian for “thirteen kisses,”  they get a pass for booking a show on one of the three nights when everybody should stay home (St. Paddy’s and New Years Eve are the others).

In the time-honored tradition of Booker T & the MG’s and the Ventures, there were two versions of this band in their earliest days: in their case, one in Boston and one in New York. That might explain why their Bandcamp page doesn’t have musician credits. The baritone sax solo in the new album’s first number, Titoli de Testa, sounds like a series of split-second attempts to cover mistakes. However, versatile singer Sami Stevens’ deadpan arioso vocals seem committed to the bouncy, blithe, bossa-tinged theme. It brings to mind Banda Magda before they got serious and political.

In the 1970s is a bizarre mashup of Italian film score and fluffy American disco, Stevens enumerating how many reasons things were better forty-plus ago. As anybody who was there will tell you, they weren’t – it’s just that contested elections were swung by phony ballots instead of Russian hackers, and in lieu of mining data, employers and banks simply wouldn’t hire or lend to people from certain neighborhoods.

Minimalissimo pokes fun at both 70s motorik instrumentals and peevishly repetitive 20th century composers – and the 21st century ones who still don’t know better. Barbarians is a mashup of the album’s first and third tracks: repetitive hooks, operatic vocals and a tongue-in-cheek heroic fanfare at the center. Complete with peppy brass, Stevens’ high-voltage vocalese and a probably intentionally wretched attempt at singing by one of the guys in the band, Emmanuelle could be the great, twisted lost spaghetti western psychedelic pop tune from Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack.

Felicity Grows could be Weird Al Yankovic making fun of Burt Bacharach, with a woman out front. Promises, Promises is much the same: it’s so spot-on it could be a Dionne Warwick b-side from when she spelled her last name with an E. As a parody of 70s easy-listening pop, The Cavalry is even more blithely savage: Ward White at his most sardonic comes to mind.

Awash in elegant strings and woodwinds, the moody Impressions shifts in and out of waltz time: it’s the only track on the album that doesn’t sound like a joke, at least until the bizarre mashup of tropicalia and horror film score kicks in. Ambulette is a series of variations on a simple, ridiculously obvious theme – it’s not a real ambulance, get it? To close the album, the band make disco out of a phony patriotic tune they call The Liberty Belle. How apropos for 2019, right? If this isn’t the best album of the year, it’s definitely the funniest so far.

Luscious Noir Atmosphere in Alphabet City Last Night

An icy, distantly lurid, reverbtoned mist of sound began wafting through the PA moments after keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s haunting House of Echo quartet took the stage last night at Nublu 151. Slowly and methodically, guitarist Marc-Antoine Perrio added thicker washes to darken the fog, finally introducing a few portentous, lingering chords from his Fender Jazzmaster. Bassist Simon Tailleu added subtle pitchblende textures, then Carniel’s Fender Rhodes finally entered the picture with a brooding, echoey minor-key riff. There hasn’t been music this profoundly noir made anywhere in New York this year.

Which makes sense; Carniel and his group hail from the part of the world that invented noir. The rest of their set was every bit as Lynchian as their opening Twin Peaks tone poem. It would be at least ten minutes before drummer Ariel Tessier made an entrance, trailing the music as it unspooled slowly on its path of no return. As the set went on, it was somewhat akin to Sun Ra playing Bill Frisell…or Anthony Braxton disassembling Angelo Badalamenti film themes at a glacial pace.

Carniel stuck mostly to blue-neon arpeggios and rippling riffs, often making live loops out of them: there were places where minimalist 20th century composers like Ligeti came to mind. Tailleu could easily have put much of what he played into a loop pedal, but instead he ran those slowly circling motives and greyscale shades over and over without tiring. And when he finally went up the scale for a tersely bowed solo, Carniel took over and ran the riff.

Perrio’s role grew more and more demanding as the hour grew later and the temperature fell outside, shifting with split-second precision between stompboxes, resonantly pulsing Fender licks and echoey phrases looped via a mini-synth. A guest tenor saxophonist joined them for a few numbers, adding wary, astringently enveloping phrases, at one point becoming the trailer in an intricate five-piece rondo. Tessier’s spaciously echoing work on the toms gave the music additional grim inevitability.

Perrio’s emphatic, enigmatic series of minimalist chords around a central tone in the last number echoed 90s shoegaze acts like Slowdive as well as cinematic indie soundscapers like the Quavers and Aaron Blount. It was a real surprise, and practically funny how they made a resolutely triumphant anthem out of it at the end, hardly the coda you’d expect after such a rapturously dark buildup.

After House of Echo, tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart completely flipped the script, leading a spirited quartet – Aaron Goldberg on the Rhodes plus bassist Or Bareket and drummer Ari Hoenig – through a series of jazz variations on well-known Shabbat themes. Goldberg really made that Rhodes sing with his robust neoromantic chords and cascades in the opening number, which Schwarz-Bart had obviously written for acoustic piano.

The saxophonist’s duet with Hoenig on Adon Olam was as poignant as it was propulsive; it was also the only other moment in the set where Schwarz-Bart’s reinventions of these old Jewish themes took on a particularly solemn tinge. Where John Zorn and his posse, or Uri Gurvich will take ancient cantorial melodies to similarly otherworldly places, Schwarz-Bart’s shtick is to make catchy, toe-tapping, early 60s Prestige Records-style postbop out of them.

Oseh Shalom was almost unrecognizable until he backed away from a sizzling, perfectly articulated, Coltrane-esque series of arpeggios to reveal the theme. He prefaced his version of the foundational Passover litany Ma Nishtana with similarly apt commentary on migrations, forced and otherwise, happening around the world in this era. Much as there was plenty of relentless good cheer in the rest of the set, it would have helped if Schwarz-Bart had stayed away from the pedalboard and the cheesy octave and pitch-shifting patches that only ramped up the schmaltz factor.

The show was staged by Paris Jazz Club, the indispensable website which maintains an exhaustive concert calendar for Paris and the surrounding area: it’s absolutely essential if you want to find out what’s happening, especially off the beaten path. House of Echo continue on tour tomorrow night, Jan 17 at 8 PM, opening for pianist Florian Pelissier’s quintet and then psychedelic Afropop bassist Bibi Tanga & the Selenites at L’Astral, 305 rue St.-Catherine Ouest in Montreal. Cover is $28.

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Carter Burwell’s Ballad of Buster Scruggs Score: Sardonic Southwestern Gothic

Carter Burwell’s stylistically shapeshifting orchestral soundtrack to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is like no other Coen Brothers movie score you’ve heard. Don’t expect the scathing, spot-on hilarity of O Brother Where Art Thou. In between moments of sarcasm, snark and gallows humor, pretty much everything here is relentlessly bleak. The record – streaming at Spotify – has a total of 23 tracks, most of them vignettes less than two minutes long.

A baroque guitar waltz with languid mariachi trumpet, an almost defiantly out-of-tune saloon piano miniature and a faux-Straussian scenario with strings and shivery resonator guitar set the stage, leaving no doubt where the rest of this is going. Burwell twists the baroque of the opening credits into an allusive horror theme and then southwestern gothic classical.

A surreal harp-and-strings interlude sounds like something you might encounter in one of the trippier moments on a late 60s Moody Blues album, followed by muted faux-gospel and numerous allusions to Irving Berlin’s biggest hit. The gentle bucolic ambience grows more windswept and ominous, in a Lynchian vein.

There are a handful of over-the-top hickoid vocal pieces as well. Tim Blake Nelson, star of the film, sings the campy, parched-earth western theme Cool Water as well as a silly singalong send-off to a cowpoke nobody liked. Willie Watson joins in for When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, which is even more morbid. Brendan Gleeson also contributes wintry a-cappella Celtic gloom.

Ghost riders cross the sky and then retreat like Nazgul back to the shadows of Mordor, so the dirge at the end hardly comes as a surprise. Sarcasm and irony don’t always translate musically, but Burwell really nails them here, with surprising subtlety. One suspects Shostakovich – renowned film composer that he was – couldn’t have done a better job.

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.