New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: jam band

Edgy, Oldschool Electric Florida Blues From the Wailin’ Wolves

The Wailin’ Wolves come from blues country: deep down in Florida, as Muddy Waters used to sing. They’ve been a mainstay of East Florida roadhouses for years. There’s been some turnover in the band in the wake of the death of co-founder and guitarist Bert Calderon, but they continue to soldier on, and put on an often electrifying, unpredictable show. They’re playing a free outdoor gig at 3 PM on Oct 25 at Fish Camp, a burger joint at 12062 Waterfront Drive on Lake Lamonia in Tallahassee; there’s no cover.

Some blues bands go into the studio and make rushjob albums (Rounder Records was notorious for doing that throughout the 80s and 90s). Not the Wailin’ Wolves. They’ve got more than an hour of frequently feral live audio at their music page, a mix of classics and originals.

The group’s latest lead guitarist, Lenny Widener is the rare blues player who doesn’t waste notes, although he takes a lot of chances: he’s always thisclose to going over the edge, whether with his wah-wah on or just an icy, gritty tone on his Strat.

Frontwoman Brittany Widener is a brassy belter: imagine Susan Tedeschi but with more sass and simmer. Keyboardist Jim Graham holds the group together throughout the solos, and seems just as home playing honkytonk and blues piano in a swinging pocket with bassist Adam Gaffney and drummer Deb Berlinger.

Hit their music page and give a listen to Bert’s Bolero, a haphazard minor-key blues written by Calderon, which sounds like early Santana covering the Doors. Taxi Man, with a sultry vocal from the group’s frontwoman and some wry wah guitar, is another original, which they follow with the slow boogie Help Me. Some choice covers include a careening take of Hey Bartender, an unexpectedly energetic version of The Thrill Is Gone and a growling, upbeat, Stonesy reinvention of the Howlin’ Wolf classic Built For Comfort. This is how people play the blues in the parts of the world where it’s still party music.

For those who might why a New York music blog would suddenly take an interest in places like Tallahassee, or Sioux Falls, that’s because both of those cities have live music. And thanks to a power-mad dictator in the New York state house, New York City has little more than buskers in city parks and jazz groups phoning in sidewalk cafe gigs. Much respect to the people of Sioux Falls and Tallahassee for keeping the arts alive when they’re all but dead in Manhattan.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

Irrepressibly Playful, Intuitive, Funny Reinventions of Debussy Classics

Jazz artists have been having fun with classical themes since before jazz existed, per se: Scott Joplin sat down with a Schubert score one day and said to himself, “I’m better than this dude.” The new album Impressions of Debussy, by pianists Lori Sims and Jeremy Siskind along with arranger and soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun – streaming at Spotify – follows in that irrepressible tradition. It’s a concept record. First, Sims will play a solo Debussy piece, with thoughtful expressiveness and often surprising dynamics. Then Siskind and Rathbun follow with a new chart which is often considerably more improvisational but sometimes not, as Rathbun carries the melody line very straightforwardly some of the time. It’s a win-win situation: Debussy’s gamelan-influenced compositions vamp a lot and make good lauching pads, and this crew have an infectious affinity for the material.

Les Sons et les Parfums (for consistency’s sake, English title case is being used here) sets the stage. Rathbun plays the second part over Siskind’s puckish, ragtime-inflected staccato, evincing hints of flamenco until the two strut playfully off the page.

Likewise, Sims spaciously builds La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin up to a rapture – and then you realize that, hey, that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! The duo section follows a more immediately triumphant tangent: in this version, Debussy gets the girl.

Minstrels gets a jaunty, emphatic interpretation from Sims and a hilarious conversation from the other two players: that little medley of other famous tunes is priceless. Sims really brings out the underlying morbidity in Feuilles Mortes (better known to some as Autumn Leaves), while her comrades kick those piles around a little before realizing the gravity of the matter.

The three go deeper into less iconic material as the album goes on. Le Vent dans la Plaine gets an unexpectedly steady, straightforward attack from Sims followed by a duo version that’s actually more of a piano gamelan piece, and more airy than stormy, with some of Rathbun’s most acerbic playing here.

Sims’ muted, careful steps through the snow in Des Pas Sur la Neige create a magically nocturnal ambience; Rathbun’s expertly arpeggiated paraphrases introduce a more understatedly determined approach from piano and sax.

Sims’ take of La Puerta del Vino comes across as a nocturne with echoes of Satie along with the flamenco. Siskind and Rathbun, on the other hand, bring the Spanish tinge front and center: this is a party.

The two versions of Canope are a carefully articulted, enigmatically shimmery one from Sims and then a tongue-in-cheek, tropical reinvention by Siskind and Rathbun. The three close the record with Danseuses des Delphes, more of a Chopin prelude when played solo here, Rathbun’s version making lively ragtime out of it.

Intriguingly Original Chinese and American Jazz and Funk Grooves From Song Dynasty

One of the most individualistic albums to come over the transom here in recent months is Song Dynasty’s debut album Searching, streaming at Spotify. The Dallas band (not to be confused with the similarly named Chinese group) play jazz and jazz-adjacent sounds with Chinese lyrics, both covers and originals. The bandname is a pun: the Song Dynasty in China lasted from approximately 960 to 1279 AD. During this period, China was one of the world’s great powers, a leader in scientific innovation. Thanks to invention of gunpowder, the Chinese navy ruled the waves off the coast of Asia for centuries. 

You might not expect such a searing guitar solo as Ben Holt plays in the band’s otherwise understatedly slinky lounge-funk cover of the Chinese pop hit, Fa Su Ha (Under the Blossom Tree), but that’s the band’s strong suit. Their music is very unpredictable. Frontwoman Li Liu sings expressively, airy and misty at the same time in this case. She has a very expressive and dynamic delivery that transcends the limitations of language: you don’t have to speak Chinese to get a good sense of what she’s putting across.

The first Liu original here, Tango Cha has more of a bite, both vocally and musically, Dan Porter’s glittering piano edging toward latin noir over the low-key pulse of bassist Corentin le Hir and drummer Hiroki Kitazawa; Holt and saxophonist Jeff Chang add chill solos.

Liu sings the album’s disquietingly modal title ballad in both English and Chinese; Porter’s spare chords and precise ripples enhance the theme of struggling to find inner calm. Liu adds original lyrics to a bustling samba reinvention of Herlin Riley’s Shake Off the Dust, then remakes the standard I Remember You as a cool, briskly tiptoeing swing tune with her own lyrics as well.

Liu and Holt revert to low-key, twinkling Hollywood Hills funk in Flying, with Porter on Rhodes, trumpeter Kevin Swaim and trombonist Kenny Davis adding bright harmonies. The group open Heart in Sorrow, a setting of a text by Chinese poet Li Qing Zhao, as wide-angle chords by Holt and Porter gently edge into a moody jazz waltz.

Liu brings both her sultriest and most insistent vocals to Ai Ta (Love Him) as the band return to slinky funk, with a sly dubwise bass solo by guest Mike Luzecky and some welcome grit from  Holt. They close with the album’s most trad and chipper tune, Summer Ride, nicking the chords from Charlie Parker’s Confirmation. This is a vocalist and backing band – there’s not a lot of interplay here. But the ideas and the creativity make you want to hear more.

A Psychedelic New Korean Rock Record From the Colorful, Eclectic Coreyah

Coreyah doesn’t mean “Korea” in Korean. It translates as either “inheritance” or “whale.”  The shapeshifting Korean psychedelic art-folk band consider that mammal their spirit animal. Their 2016 North American debut performance earned a rave review here; their long-awaited new album, Clap and Applause is streaming at youtube.

The band have had some turnover in the time since that rapturous New York show, but they haven’t lost their surreal sense of humor. They open with Baksurori, a mutedly pulsing, shamanic folk melody anchored by guitarist Ko Jaehyeo’s reverb-drenched staccato in tandem with the pulse of percussionist Kim Chorong and drummer Kyungyi. Frontwoman Ham Boyoung sings in her native tongue, warmly and calmly. Na Sunjin plays spare, warpy tones on her geomungo bass lute, Kim Dongkun’s wood flute finally wafting into the mix. They slowly pick up the pace in the long jam afterward, but only hints at the crazy mix of sounds they’ll play later on. The narrative concerns an escape from the political turmoil on the streets outside for the comfort of a big party

For the sake of consistency, the song titles here are English translations, as are the quotes from song lyrics. The second track, How Far You’ve Come is a mashup of chicken-scratch funk and what sounds like Colombian parranda music, with slyly amusing solos from geomungo and flute, and coy vocal exchanges between the women and the guys in the band. It’s a traveler’s tale: “How far have you come?” is the recurrent question.

Dawn is a trippy, slashing rock tune set to a staggered 5/4 beat, a snakecharmer flute solo at the center. When the Sun Rises turns on a dime between Pink Floyd guitar roar, delicately swooping geomungo and fluttering flute. It’s a daily grind scenario:

I’m just minding
Yesterday’s business today
Today’s business tomorrow
And on and on until it’s time
To take a little rest

It seems that pretty much everybody in the band takes a turn on lead vocals in the jauntily strutting Big Things, which has has a suspiciously satirical cheeriness. Competition can be a bitch, whether it’s personal or business! 

The group mash up slinky wah guitar psychedelia, ancient Korean folk themes and a relentless dancefloor thud in Escape. It’s the key to the album: “If I ever come back, cheer for me please, just one more time,” Boyoung insists over a tempestuous hwimori beat.

Tongue-in-cheek chirps from the flute contrast with the muted backdrop of Yellow Flower, a mostly-acoustic spacerock duet, Boyoung determined to revisit a fleeting moment of rapt beauty. It’s the band’s Can’t Get It Out of My Head.

Bygone Days is a wistful vintage Memphis soul-tinged ballad, with delicate accents from geomungo and flute. The album’s final and most epic cut is Good Dreams, an enveloping lullaby spiced with spare geomungo riffage, rising to a big,  Gilmouresque guitar solo. The world needs more bands who are this much fun and willing to take chances.

Jazz on an Autumn Day

This has been a year of heroes and zeros like no other. One of the more recent heroes is Jimmy Katz of Giant Step Arts, who has stepped in to program a world-class series of weekend afternoon outdoor jazz concerts in Central Park at a time when musicians have arguably become more imperiled than at any other point in world history. Of the many nonprofits advocating for jazz artists, Katz’s is one of the most ambitious. Before the lockdown, he was booking a series of concerts at the Jazz Gallery, recording them for release on album and also on video, putting his own talent behind the lens to good use. Sunday afternoon’s performance on the southern end of the Central Park mall by vibraphonist Joel Ross and his quartet wasn’t like a hot Saturday night at Smalls or the Vanguard, but that didn’t seem to be the point anyway. Instead, a small, transient but generally very attentive crowd of maybe fifty people, at the most, scattered around the statue towering over the band, were treated to a thoughtful, very purposeful and occasionally outright haunting show.

Until we get Smalls and the Vanguard back again, in the short run this seems to be the future of live music in New York: communities coming together to support each other. Lately the park has become a pretty much daylong jazz festival, buskers everywhere, and several of them threw some of their own hard-earned cash into tenor saxophonist Sergio Tabanico’s open case as they passed by. A toddler sprinted up to the group in a joyous attempt to become their dancer, and the band loved it. His muzzled mom snatched him away: the child was distraught.

With mist from Tabanico’s sax and glimmer from Ross’ vibes, pedal down all the way, the group launched into the show with a wary take of what sounded like John Coltrane’s Birmingham. Drummer Craig Weinrib methodically worked his way up to the loose-limbed swing that would propel most of the set: like his bandmates, he was pacing himself. Tabanico set the stage for the rest of his afternoon, building slowly to a coda of insistent bursts and occasional shrieks against the beat.

Bassist Rashaan Carter maintained a more undulating, bubbling approach throughout the set, airing out his extended technique with harmonics in a couple of low-key solos. The bandleader was as terse as always, whether driving through steady but increasingly intense volleys of eighth notes, or providing spacious, judiciously ringing ambience behind the rest of the group.

One of the high points of Ross’ afternoon was an absolutely gorgeous, creepily tritone-infused solo to open the broodingly modal but increasingly funky third number. Another was the rivetingly allusive solo he took during an otherwise upbeat, bluesy swing tune toward the end. The group hinted they’d go further in a latin direction with a catchy, vamping minor-key number punctuated by another emphatically rhythmic Tabanico solo, but ended up holding back.

A return to pensive minor-key balladry – more Trane, maybe? – gave Ross a springboard for a stiletto-precise solo where he completely took the pedal off: it was almost as if he was playing a steel pan. Ross’ next scheduled gig is this Oct 9 at 4 PM with the Jazz Gallery Allstars at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

This particular Central Park series continues on Sept 26 at around 1:30 PM with drummer Nasheet Waits and saxophonist Mark Turner, plus Carter on bass again. It’s possible the players may not be at this exact location – on this particular afternoon, there was every possible kind of sonic competition further north, so sometimes you have to move around the park a little. The mall extends from the skating rink to the north, past the Naumburg Bandshell to about five blocks further south. The closest entrance is probably at 72nd St. and Central Park West.

Revisiting Fiery Violinist Briga’s Wildly Eclectic Balkan Album

Quebecoise violinist Brigitte Dajczer, who performs under the name Briga for branding’s sake, put out a 2017 album, Femme, which made the best albums of year page here, Then it disappeared into the abyss known as this blog’s hard drive. If you missed it then, you missed a deliciously entertaining mix of songs from across the Balkans along with several similarly diverse originals. Looking at the international cast of special guests on it, it’s obvious that they knew she was on to something good. She sings in French and several Eastern European languages as well. The album is still up at Bandcamp.

The first track is Ibrahim, a bouncingly bittersweet love song with a break for a wildfire solo by kanun player Didem Bagar. New York’s own Eva Salina supplies otherworly harmonies on the tightly pulsing Albanian song Dada Do Ta Shes, the bandleader opening it with a stark solo over accordionist Alix Noel’s drone. As the song goes on, he switches to synth for wry P-Funk textures, bassist Gregoire Carrier-Bonneau hitting a nimbly syncopated groove in tandem with drummer Marton Maderspach and percussionist Tacfarinas Kichou.

Accordionist Sergiu Popa duets with Dajczer on the fleetingly joyful Romanian song Dragoi. Svetulka Rachenitsa, a breathless south Serbian-flavored dance tune, features alto saxophonist Ariane Morin matching Dajcer’s ferocity; Noel’s eerily blipping keys add an unexpected psychedelic edge.

Guest chanteuse Tamar Ilana opens the slow, haunting epic Pour Pelin – inspired by Marcel Khalife’s Asfour – with a sharply plaintive solo over another accordion drone. Again, Bagar’s kanun ripples and pounces, then hands off to the string section (which also includes cellist Gael Huard) and the music grows more lushly orchestral.

Elfassi is a rai hip-hop tune with an amusing stoner rap in French from Giselle Numba One. The album’s itle track is an icepick-precise mashup of Balkan brass and salsa, Briga’s violin leaping over an undulating, tumbling groove featuring trombonist Rachel Lemisch. Briga and singer/violinist Iva Bittova duet on the stark, stripped-down dance tune Mama Irena.

Cafe Sarajevo is a fond, trippy, North African-flavored disco portait of a party spot there, inspired by rai music legend Cheika Rimitti. Briga really picks up the pace and cuts loose on the rapidfire, strutting minor-key Chanson Moldave…and then they speed it up some more! Eva Salina and Popa close the album with a calmly passionate, benedictory duet. From a New York perspective, this is Golden Fest in a box. May we get a Golden Fest in 2021.

A Volcanic Harlem Jam Rescued From the Archives

Considering what happened to live music in this city this year, it’s heartbreaking to think back on the free improvisation scene here in 1999. CB’s Gallery was still open. So was Tonic, along with a Harlem loft space called the Hint House, where the quartet TEST joined with trumpeter Roy Campbell for a pyrotechnic jam on April 16 of that year. The Hint House is long gone – as seemingly every music venue in town may also be at this point – but the band had the good sense to record the show that night. And in keeping with the vast deluge of rare archival material being released this year, this uninterrupted, roughly 47-minute improvisation is streaming at Bandcamp.

The energy is through the roof, rising and falling, with individual horn solos drawing the rest of the lineup back in. Much of the time the rhythm section keeps a rapidfire swing going, more or less, in a Sam Rivers vein; other times the drums drop out for more spare, looming bass, even while the horns keep the cauldron blazing.

Campbell generously shares the spotlight with Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, trumpet and flute, Sabir Mateen on those same reeds and also clarinet, Matthew Heyner on bass and Tom Bruno on drums. A fanfare quickly coalesces – Bruno’s thump signals the rest of the horns to chill while Campbell plays a wildfire, trilling, thrilling solo. “God!” exclaims an audience member (or bandmate).

The rhythm section takes a momentary lull but in a flash they’re back out of it. It seems Carter takes the next solo as the bass bubbles upward and the drums cluster, then Campbell squalls and shrieks his way in and the crazed triangulation begins again. Is that Mateen taking that valve-torturing, squealing break?

Subtle shadowing, counterrythms and as much calm as could possibly exist under the circumstances follow in turn, well past the halfway mark. The murk clears a bit for resonance and lyricism, particularly from Carter and Campbell: Heyner’s spaciousness and use of spare chords make a good foil to Bruno’s smackdown riffs. There’s a sudden fade downward to haze and wisps instigated by the bass, Bruno deciding to get the show back on the road while the reeds play baroque-tinged spirals. The chugging, rumbling inferno that follows is the high point of the set: obviously, none of this was planned.

Edgy, Slinky, Lusciously Allusive Middle Eastern Jazz From Enrique Haneine

Drummer Enrique Haneine writes an ambitious, individualistic and often very captivating blend of succinct riffage, Middle Eastern-inspired themes and grooves. The lineup on his album Unlayered – streaming at Bandcamp – reflects that individualism, a three-horn frontline over a steady, bouncing rhythm section, facilitating lushnesss but more often than not a series of cleverly interpolated individual voices. Which means there’s a lot to sink your ears into here. The obvious comparison is the (otherwise pretty incomparable) Brooklyn chordless trio Ensemble Fanaa. If you love jazz and Middle Eastern music, this will push all your buttons.

The hypnotic opening track, Behind the Missing Whisper has a tasty, mysterious slink and artful, conspiratorially triangulated harmonies between Catherine Sikora’s tenor sax, Thomas Heberer’s trumpet and Christof Knoche’s bass clarinet over the undulating pulse from Haneine and bassist Jay Anderson.

The band put on the Ritz with a vampy mashup of Steve Coleman, salsa jazz and circular indie classical in the album’s second number, Luculent Jiggle (these titles seem generated by Google Translate in 404 mode), with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet and bass alluding to the Middle East in turn, but never quite going there.

A staggered, suspiciously deadpan quasi-funk drive propels Thriving Ring, Sikora taking an allusively chromatic solo. Queen of the Underground makes a good segue, a circling, bouncy, syncopated groove and an enigmatic trumpet loop underscoring brooding sax and bass clarinet solos, down to a steadily strolling bass interlude

Dance of Endless Encounter is a pulsing, Egyptian-tinged number with a lusciously modal sax solo, more straightforward trumpet and a priceless moment where the bass clarinet…well…disappears, because the rest of the band decide to jump back in! Likewise, Seldom Disguise has a subtly crescendoing, serpentine groove, building to a biting, rather cynical three-way conversation between the horns

The Sweetest Finding is built around enigmatic variarions on a sober but emphatic chromatic theme, with a droll, completely deadpan bustle and triumphant chaos. Likewise, the deadpan humor in Illustrious Bickering: some people want to bring this optimistically Middle Eastern-spiced theme to its logical conclusion, but there are diversions, a sax battle with the rhythm section and an irresistibly cartoonish coda: an Israeli wall parable, maybe?

The band revert to staggered, staccato synopcation in Oust No More, a vehicle for fiery extended-technique solos for the horns. There are hints of qawwali in the subtle but direct exchanges of voices in What of What We Are: Heberer finally goes for the grit that’s been waiting to bust loose here. The slow Ellingtonian lustre of Once, Knoche’s Lebanese blues at the center, comes as a shock until you realize the band have been building up to this understatedly gorgeous payoff all along. A stealth contender for best jazz album of 2020

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.