New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: jazz

Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resovle by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

An Embarrassment of Riches from Kenny Barron on Record and at the Vanguard This Month

Tis the season when venues show their true colors – or try to, anyway. There’s the Lower East Side shed that’s fallen on hard times and has been booked by that odious corporate empire for the past year, trying to relive some former glories with an overpriced residency by a legendary, noisy 90s band. Then there’s that West Village flagship of a global chain of jazz joints, who’ve brought in the trumpeter king of elevator jazz. There are going to even more Jersey license plates than usual this month in the vicinity of West Third Street.

On a more optimistic note, the Village Vanguard has booked timelessly mighty piano sage Kenny Barron for a long stand beginning this Dec 17, where he’s playing at 8:30 and around 11 through the 22nd with a quintet featuring the perennially adrenalizing Johnathan Blake on drums. Then Barron’s going to strip it down to a trio with bassist Buster Wiliams and drummer Tain Watts for the rest of the dates, which run through the 29th.

Barron’s latest record is The Art of the Piano Duo (streaming at Spotify), a lavish archival triple live album recorded with the late, greatly missed Mulgrew Miller on three dates spread over about a ten-year span. This isn’t piano four hands: it’s two of the great purists of the past several decades, locked in on separate pianos that often sound like one. Trying to figure out who’s who can be next to impossible until you determine who’s in which channel (it differs from record to record). In deference to his fleet-fingered friend, Barron’s legendary lefthand usually seems a little lighter than usual. Eventually, Miller’s fondness for gospel reveals itself, along with Barron’s occasional detour toward tropical sounds: in general, he’s the more adventurous one here. The first album dates from 2005, in Marciac, France; the second and third are Swiss shows, from Zurich on May 12, 2001 and Geneva just over a decade later, respectively.

The material is pretty much all midtempo ballads, plus an unexpectedly careening Yardbird Suite and a triumphantly saloonish Blue Monk. The first side opens with Stars Fell on Alabama, where the two pianists’ phrasing is sometimes so swingingly synced that it’s surreal; other times, there’s a little shadowing going on, the echo creating a quasi Fender Rhodes effect. Throughout their collaboration, the two trade expansive solos, each comping chords and/or walking the bass for the other as the tradition calls for it. Nobody’s in a hurry: they can stick with a tune for fifteen minutes or more. This isn’t a record for people with short attention spans.

Each artist also contributes solo pieces. Miller’s take of I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, from the Zurich date, turns out to be a stately ballad with a little playful leapfrogging. Barron’s solo version of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, from the Geneva set, contrasts saturnine, vampy lustre with jaunty ornamentation: it’s anything but sad. Likewise, his Song for Abdullah- a Abdullah Ibrahim shout-out – balances a precise, scampering approach with steady gravitas. The two close the final disc with a colorfully clustering version of Joy Spring, aptly capsulzing how everybody seemed to be feeling on that May night early in a decade that’s about to close. And none too soon: looks like we’ll have an impeachment to celebrate as the Twenties come roaring in.

Haunting Gravitas and Playful Beats with the Karuna Trio at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Lincoln Center, the Karuna Trio shifted between nocturnes and space jams. The nocturnes were intense and brooding, sometimes bordering on the macabre; the space jams ranged from starry effervescence to deep-nebula murk. Considering how many Euro-tourists pass through Jazz at Lincoln Center on any given night, free jazz like this would go over well at a space that so rarely programs it.

But it was great to see the trio of percussionist Adam Rudolph, drummer Hamid Drake and pianist Alexis Marcelo spinning all those sounds out of thin air, a couple of blocks to the north. Creative music tends to be all or nothing: when it’s good, there’s really nothing better. But free jazz also attracts some of the most annoyingly self-indulgent, pretentious players around. You know the type: they only play free jazz because if, perish the thought, they might actually have to say something meaningful, or acknowlege, let alone converse with their bandmates, that might limit their precious self-expression. So watching these three pros teaming up to build a majestic series of waves, and then ride them, was redemptive to say the least. Not to mention a lot of fun.

This was a leisurely, thoughtful performance, the three players leaving plenty of space for each other to think out where they’d go next, or respond to an idea that someone had thrown into the mix, and that empowered the audience just as much. Which made sense, considering Drake’s opening remarks that the spectators are just as integral to a concert as the musicians.

Marcelo played both the role of anchor and outlier. Opening with flickering, light-dappled phrases, then shifting to ominously resonant, vampy chromatic themes often enhanced by or echoing from a synthesizer perched above the keys, he was the dark knight of this soul. Other times, it was clear that the two drummer buds were going to lock in on a long series of subtly interwoven polyrhythms, with Marcelo adding color and texture, and after knocking at the door with one long hammering phrase, finally pulled the two percussionists back out of the sun and into the shadows.

There was also a playful, salsa-tinged interlude initiated by Marcelo; rippling echoes of Satie and the neoromantics; a pause for trinket noisemakers, an unselfconsciously funny one for singing bowls; hints of birdsong and deep-forest wildlife; and a final gnawa-influenced interlude with Rudolph on sintir and Drake on daf frame drum that was beside the point. Anyone in the house who was at this same space a couple of years ago to witness some of Morocco’s great maalems of gnawa music would have recognized that for the ersatz groove that it was. But the depth, and rapture, and generous interplay of the first four-fifths of the show lingered after the trio had left the stage.

Rudolph and his Go Organic Orchestra team up with the Brooklyn Raga Massive to create a monstrous, improvisational forty-person raga orchestra tomorrow night, Dec 13 at 7 PM at CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 5th Ave. just north of 34th St.; cover is $25. This year’s final free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on Dec 19 at 7:30 PM with Los Rumberos del Callejón bringing their oldschool salsa dura sound out of the alley. The salsa dance concerts here are insanely popular; showing up a half hour early wouldn’t be a bad idea

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

A Wildly Majestic New Double Live Album and a Vanguard Stand from High-Voltage, Individualistic Drummer/Composer Johnathan Blake

These days pretty much every phone can capture at least some of a concert in various degrees of dodgy audio or video. But what’s the likehlihood of being at a transcendent performance that ended up being released as a live album? For anybody who might regret missing out on drummer Johnathan Blake‘s transcendent, torrential trio performances with Chris Potter on tenor sax and Linda May Han Oh on bass at the Jazz Gallery earlier this year, good news! You can hear the group in all their dark, majestic, wickedly catchy glory on Blake’s marathon new double live album, Trion, streaming at Bandcamp. Blake has been on a creative tear this year: he’s making his Vanguard debut as a bandleader tonight, Dec 3 with his similarly exhilarating Pentad featuring Joel Ross on vibes and Immanuel Wilkins on tenor sax on a stand that continues through Dec 8, with sets at 8:30 and around 11. You might want to get there early because it’s going to be intense.

For anyone who might scowl snarkily at the idea of a seventeen-minute chordless jazz version of the Police’s Sychronicity I, you have to hear the album’s opening track – to be fair, the original is actually a decent new wave tune and fertile source material. The bandleader kicks it off with a judicious solo tour of the drumkit, like a tabla player making sure everything’s right: Blake’s unusually musical tuning instantly identifies him. All the other tracks here are as epic, if slightly shorter, i.e. around the ten-minute mark. If you want to kick back with an album that’s going to keep you up all night, this is it.

Potter playfully throws a spitball or two before launching into the tune head-on with the rhythm section tightly alongside. From there they motor along, leaving a lot of space and elbow room for Oh’s gritty propulsion, Blake’s adrenalizing outward expansion and Potter’s artful variations. The saxophonist teases the crowd until a searing trill in response to an evil Blake roll; Oh’s long solo has a remarkably austere, balletesque grace.

Oh introduces Trope, her lone composition here, with an expansive yet darkly terse, distantly Appalachian-tinged solo intro, taking the implied menace introduced by the Police tune to the next level; then Potter enters hazily over her warily pulsing chords, which will give you goosebumps. The rest is equal parts gorgeousness and latin-tinged gravitas, which Blake seizes on: it’s arguably the highlight of the night.

Likewise, Oh’s funky intro kicks off the scampering shuffle One for Honor, by Charles Fambrough, the bassist who took a young Blake under his wing early in his career in Philadelphia. This song without words is just about as catchy and unsettled, Potter working the unease of the passing tones for all they’re worth, up to an enveloping hailstorm of a Blake solo.

Blake’s first anthem on the album, High School Daze, will resonate with anyone who couldn’t wait to get the hell out” Potter channels soul-crushing tedium balanced by guarded hope and then playful defiance. Oh subtly runs a hip-hop-tinged loop; Blake makes a second-line groove out of a simple rap riff; then Oh takes a biting solo that brings to mind mid-70s Stevie Wonder. No Bebop Daddy – an incisively waltzing shout out to Donny McCaslin’s kid, who really knew what he didn’t want to hear on the morning drive to school – has a delicously dark, pointillistic Oh solo and a long climb to an aching, livewire Potter crescendo.

Tne second record also gets a solo Blake intro, the subtly leapfrogging Bedrum, leading into the first of the Potter ompositions, the bouncy, hypnotically crescendoing, vampy Good Hope, with a long climb to a mighty sax solo. His second tune is the warmly saturnine Eagle, Oh’s twilit, folksy riffs setting the stage for the saxophonist’s lyrical drift toward wary, modal JD Allen-esque intensity and back. The trio stay in a similar, slightly more carefree latin-tinged vein for a sprawling, impromptu encore of Charlie Parker’s Relaxing at the Camarillo.

The debut recording of the catchy but enigmatically shifting Blue Heart, by Blake’s dad – the distinctive and underrated jazz violinist John Blake Jr. – has a loose-limbed, syncopated strut and Potter’s most casually genial work here. The album’s final number is West Berkley Street, a jaunty shout-out to Blake’s hip-hop-infused childhood stomping ground. What a treat to be able to revisit such a magic couple of nights.

High Voltage Latin Jazz with Dayramir Gonzalez & Cuba enTRANCe at Lincoln Center

It would probably be overhype to call pianist Dayramir Gonzalez the missing link between Eddie Palmieri and McCoy Tyner. But at his thundering, intense show last week Lincoln Center, Gonzalez and his booming ensemble Cuba enTRANCe strongly brought to mind both of those two icons. With a crushing lefthand attack, stampeding the entire length of the keys, Gonzalez’s intensity never relented. Nobody knows better than he does that the piano is a percussion instrument.

If that wasn’t enough, Gonzalez made sure he had plenty more torrential beats on hand, with both drums and congas in the band: each player got plenty of time in the spotlight and used it explosively. Contrastingly, Gonzalez’s bassist – playing a five-string model with an extra B on the low end – held the center, tersely and calmly, with his judicious, resonant slides and the occasional chord to drive a big crash home.

The quartet opened with a shapeshifting, majestic jazz waltz, introducing the calm/frenetic bass/piano dynamic that would last the duration of the night. The second number, Moving Foward, was a bristling, modally-charged epic, the thunder punctuated by Gonzalez’s glistening cascades and a couple of more moody, suspenseful interludes where the rhythm dropped back.

He explained that as a kid, he’d followed his mom’s advice that “Una sonrisa abre puertas,” building on that idea with Smiling, a more pointillistic, leaping number. He brought it down afterward with a solo ballad from his debut album, Grand Concourse, which was party salsa jazz and part late Beatles. The rest of the set was just as dynamic: loopy, catchy riffage over polyrhythms; more glistening, darkly vamping tableaux that were part salsa and part Chopin; sad boleroish balladry and pouncing, carnaval-esque party themes. Gonzalez spoke eloquently to the similarities between the refugee crisis in Europe and the one further south on this continent; he even sang a little. The crowd clapped along, hitting a salsa groove without any prompting. Right now, Gonzalez seems to be better known in Europe than he is here, and that’s a crime. His next gig is on Dec 4 at 8 PM at Vibrato Grill Jazz, 2930 N Beverly Glen Cir in Los Angeles; cover is $30.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues tonight, Dec 2, with an earlier, 7 PM show featuring Strings & Skins, who combine Colombian and Haitian dance grooves. There are also many other performances in the neighborhood until 9; if you can handle the cold, follow the sound.

Trying to Keep Up With Pianist Satoko Fujii’s Grey-Sky Majesty

What’s more amazing about Satoko Fujii‘s over eighty albums as a bandleader – that virtually all of them are worth owning? Or that she reached that epic number in about twenty years? It’s hard to imagine another artist building such a vast and consistently excellent, often transcendent body of work over that  timeline.

The pianist has always been ahead of her time, touring relentlessly, releasing an average of four records a year (a dozen in 2018, to celebrate her sixtieth birthday). She’s got a three-day series of New York shows coming up next month with her husband Natsuki Tamura, the world’s number one samurai extended-technique trumpeter. On Dec 13 at 8:30 PM at the Stone at the New School the two will be remixed live by a frequent collaborator, Ikue Mori; cover is $20. The-following night, Dec 14 at the same time Fujii and Tamura are at I-Beam for five bucks less. Then on the 15th at 8 they’re at 244’s Black Box Theatre, 244 West 54th St., 10th Flo, time TBA.

Fujii is neither a particularly dark nor political person – although her music is often brooding and troubled, she’s actually very funny. Ironically, her most harrowing album to date is one she conducted rather than played on, the Fukushima Suite, with her improvisational Orchestra New York. That reflection on the terror in the wake of the March 11, 2011 nuclear meltdowns earned the designation of #1 album of the year here in 2017. Considering her prolific output, it’s hard to pick a single record to get stoked for her Manhattan and Brooklyn shows, although one recent release, this past summer’s Confluence, a live-in-the-studio duo set with drummer Ramon Lopez, is especially good and arguably her most minimalist so far. It hasn’t made its way to the usual online spots yet.

The album’s first track, Asatsuyu has a close resemblance to the Twin Peaks title theme…only more interesting and unpredictable. Lopez uses his brushes to ice the background as Fujii builds variations on a simple, forlorn theme, up to a majestic, latin-tinged crescendo and gracefully down again.

Fujii goes under the piano lid, way down in the lows, as album’s most epic number, Road Salt gets underway. From there the two rise from a muted majesty to a steady series of catchy, loopy, emphatic phrases, a cautiously boomy drum solo and a hammering coda that reminds of the Police’s Synchronicity (speaking of synchronicity, just wait til you see what’s on this page in about 48 hours!).

Run! Is a fun, picturesque, scampering interlude, followed by Winter Sky, a surrealistically crescendoing tableau, Fujii both under the hood and on the keys as Lopez evokes hailstones and banks of snowclouds. Three Days Later, the album’s most gorgeous track, is an understatedly moody, spacious neoromantic theme, Lopez’s rumbles shadowing Fujii’s somber chords.

Fujii pairs a coy cathedral chime-like theme and then an unexpectedly austere, wintry melody with Lopez’s syncopation in Tick Down. The two cautiously lowlight the lingering atmospherics of Quiet Shadow and close out the album with the austere stillness of the title track. Although it’s probably safe to say that Fujii had a lot of these ideas in her head or a sketchbook by the time she recorded the album, most of this music was most likely made up on the spot.

A Radical Change of Pace and a Park Slope Gig From a Future Vocal Jazz Icon

Svetlana & the Delancey 5 have had a memorable run as one of New York’s most colorful swing bands. But their charismatic Moscow-born frontwoman is much more eclectic than most of the other oldtimey hot jazz chicks in town – and you can hear it in her voice. Her latest album Night at the Movies – streaming at her music page – is a total change of pace for her, yet in a way it’s a logical step forward for someone who was always too sophisticated to be fenced in by just one style. It’s a collection of movie music. Peggy Lee and Mel Torme – iconic voices, but worthy comparisons – made lavishly escapist records like this, although neither of them had to escape Soviet ugliness as so many other Russians did before the Chernobyl disaster bankrupted the regime. You can get a sense of that at her quartet gig Nov 21, with sets at 7 and 9 PM at the newly opened, ambitious Made in New York Jazz Cafe & Bar at 155 5th Ave off Degraw in Park Slope. You can get in for free; it’s ten bucks for a table. Take the R to Union St., walk uphill and back toward Atlantic.

Svetlana is at her balmiest throughout the album’s opening track, a lushly orchestrated bossa-nova take of In the Moonlight, from the 1995 flick Sabrina – it’s a good showcase for her impeccable nuance and remarkably vigorous low register, considering that the song is essentially a simple two-chord vamp. Sullivan Fornter’s terse piano cuts through the orchestration in the torch song Sooner or Later – not the Skatalites classic but a Sondheim track sung by Madonna in the 1990 Dick Tracy film.

Svetlana pairs off with her bud, trombonist/crooner Wycliffe Gordon – whose deviously entertaining charts she’s used for years – in the swing standard Cheek to Cheek, a throwback to the classic Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duets. Their remake of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, from 2010’s Despicable Me, is even more of a revelation: who knew what a great blues tune this could be?

Svetlana makes an elegant ballad out of Pure Imagination, a devious stoner theme from the Willy Wonka movie, with a sly take of a lyric that works as well for experienced older people as well as for the kids. Her disarmingly intimate duet intro with guitarist Chico Pinheiro on Moon River is the coolest interpretation of that song since the days when REM used to surprise audiences with a janglerock version.

Fortner’s celestial gravitas matches the bandleader’s knowing, wistful take of the standard When You Wish Upon a Star. Michel Legrand’s Watch What Happens, from the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an unexpected match of jaunty, New Orleans-tinged swing and bruised hope against hope, with a jaunty Jon-Erik Kellso trumpet solo.

John Chin’s crushingly crescendoing piano in a sambafied take of Remember Me, from the 2017 film Coco, contrasts with Svetlana’s lushly bittersweet delivery. She sings Boris Pasternak’s ominous lyric from No One’s In This House – from the 1975 Russian drama Irony of Fate – as latin noir, spiced with Sam Sadigursky’s moody clarinet. The band reinvent the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile as a gentle latin swing tune, then make a chugging New Orleans romp out of Randy Newman’s Almost There, from the 2009 Princess & the Frog film. Has anybody ever done so many unexpected things with so many movie songs?

The epic cast of characters here also includes but is not limited to Rob Garcia and Matt Wilson on drums, Elias Bailey on bass, Rogerio Boccatto on percussion, Michael Davis on trombone, Antoine Silverman and Entcho Todorov on violin and Emily Brausa on cello.

John Yao’s Triceratops Is Warm-Blooded and Has a Brain

Trombonist John Yao‘s music tends to be vivid, colorful and cinematic. As you would guess from someone who named his current quintet Triceratops, he also has a sense of humor – these guys are actually the furthest thing from dinosaurs. The quintet’s eruditely tuneful debut album How We Do – streaming at Bandcamp – is a change of pace in that Yao’s game plan was to challenge himself writing harmonically transparent charts for three horns in a chordless band, as well as to mix up the textures for the sake of contrast. Improvisation tends to wander further outside here than in the rest of his catalog, occasionally with more of a hardbop edge as well.

It doesn’t take Jon Irabagon two minutes into the opening number, Three Parts As One, before he’s skronking and then warmly rejoining the frontline, with a bit of a cheery Tex-Mex touch echoed by fellow altoist Billy Drewes over the clustering rhythm section of bassist Peter Brendler and drummer Mark Ferber.

Brendler pedals spacious, syncopated chords as the moody, rather majestic Triceratops Blues lurches along: thematically and tunefully, it brings to mind JD Allen’s occasional work with multiple-horn bands. The album’s title track slowly coalesces, like a B train slowly making its way out of the yards and then picking up the pace, in this case with a jaunty steamwhistle shuffle.

The Golden Hour is aptly titled, a waltzing study in lustre, divergent and convergent architecture, both harmonically and rhythmically, with a killer, bracingly spiraling solo from Drewes at the center. Doin’ the Thing has a matter-of-fact, Adderley Brothers-tinged swing, a wiseass Irabagon solo, Yao taking his time and choosing his spots afterward.

Circular Path has a lovely lullaby of an intro, Irabagon’s lyricism (is that a sopranino sax?) echoed by Yao as the rhythm drifts out tidally. Yao mashes up early 60s-style Prestige Records swing with momentary indie classical-style echo phrasing and an artful tempo change in Two Sides. The group wind up the album with Irabagon’s suspiciously cheery Tea for T, complete with a sprint to the finish line.

For a digital recording, the production values are outstanding; you can hear every woody note in Brendler’s spring-loaded lines, the snap of Ferber’s rims and every icy whisper of the cymbals.

Three Edgy Songwriters Provide Respite From the Cold at City Vineyard

Last night a crowd braved the cold for the comfortable confines of City Vineyard off the West Side Highway downtown to listen raptly to three first-class, veteran tunesmiths. Mary Lee Kortes, frontwoman of Mary Lee’s Corvette, set the bar impossibly high for the rest of evening, opening the night with a rare trio version of the band alongside Rod Hohl on lead guitar and Jeremy Chatzky on upright bass.

Their set drew from throughout an astonishingly eclectic twenty-year career. They started with Out From Under It, a grittily swaying Laurel Canyon psych-pop tune. “What an amazing sight to sail the longest night and make it home somehow,” Kortes sang in a delivery that was part silk and part spun steel, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, Chatzky nailing the slithery downward riff as the song peaked out on the final chorus.

Hohl played phantasmagorical swing beneath Kortes’ jaunty phrasing in The Music Got Me Here, from the band’s Songs of Beulah Rowley record, a concept album about a fictitious polymath songwriter from the early part of the past century. Then the trio shifted elegantly from straight-up jazz to moody blues in the slowly swaying ballad Will Anyone Know That I Was Here.

“Actually, songwriters do write songs not about themselves – it is shocking to some people,” Kortes mused, then led the group through a chilling, impassioned take of Why Don’t You Leave Him, a grim minor-key abused woman’s narrative that’s every bit as relevant in the age of Metoo as it was when the band released it in 1999 on the True Lovers of Adventure album.

Midway through the set, Kortes took a pause to read a couple of surreal excerpts from her new book Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob, a frequently hilarious collection crowdsourced from around the world. She reprised that theme at the end of the set with a deviously funny new song, Dreaming of Him, referencing some of those dreams without ever naming who they’re about. She challenged the crowd to sing along with the impossibly high, arioso hook on the chorus: unsurprisingly, she was the only one who could hit those notes.

The rest of the set was just as entertaining. The towering anthem Someplace We Can’t See seemed to be more triumphant than the uneasy, practically elegaic album version. Kortes brought up guitarist Steven Butler to play Byrdsy jangle and jagged Beatlisms on a couple of tunes they’d written together: the gorgeous End of the Road and a long, psychedelic take of One More Sun, which turned out to be closer to Yo La Tengo than the Indian music the album version alludes to.

Butler validated his unimpeachable taste in co-writers, following with a set of mostly new material from his latest project with crooner and vintage Britrock crooner Ed Rogers, with Don Piper playing acoustic rhythm guitar. A fixture in the East Village for years, Rogers’ songs have often savagely chronicled the destruction of New York neighborhoods in an endless blitzkrieg of gentrification. Many of the numbers last night were his most withering and spot-on yet.

The best was Old Storefronts, a bitter, chilling account of what happens when people stop supporting independent businesses and get all their stuff online. Possibilities (as in, “No possibilities”) had a Stonesy cynicism. Joined by drummer and #1 Kinks fan Frank Lima on percussion and backing vocals, their closing number, Seven Hour Man, caustically asssessed how the gig economy has made the forty hour work week a pipe dream from the past.

The rest of the material was as eclectic as expected. The trio jangled through Diana Dors, a wistful shout-out to a legendary British actress who died young after a failed attempt to make it in Hollywood. Love Lock Bridge, a catchy, rainswept ballad set in Dublin, had a similar bittersweetness.

There’s another potentially amazing lineup at City Vineyard on Nov 19 at 7:30 PM with two great champions of oldtime acoustic blues, Jontavious Willis and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Cover is $20.