New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: jazz

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda May Han Oh Releases Her Gracefully Kinetic Marcel Marceau-Inspired New Album at the Jazz Standard

Linda May Han Oh is the only jazz bassist to ever make the cover of the Village Voice. That speaks both to her enormous popularity in the jazz community as well as her appeal beyond it. As a sidewoman, her distinctive style is tireless, purposeful and tuneful to the max: she’s never content to merely walk scales, but she also isn’t self-indulgent. Her own compositions have flair and wit and a general sense of optimism. Her latest album Walk Against Wind, inspired by the exploits of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on April 19 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

Her jaunty bass solo kicks off the lithely dancing opening diptych, Lucid Lullaby; guitarist Matthew Stevens throws some similarly goodnatured sparks into the mix, tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel adding airiness. The second part is a tone poem of sorts where Oh anchors Wendel’s serenity with stygian, sustained bowing.

Firedancer is more about the dancer than the flames, propelled by guest Fabian Almazan’s minimalistic pedalpoint and Wendel’s judiciously steady figures. Speech Impediment is Oh at her wryly amusing best, her own irrepressible vocalese punching in tandem with Wendel’s insistent upper-register lines over drummer Justin Brown’s flurries and clusters. Then the conversation restarts between Wendel and Stevens.

Oh switches to Fender for the bubbly Perpluzzle, a study in contrasts between Stevens’ distorted chords and Wendel’s gracefully kinetic melody over Brown’s shadowboxing beats. The title track alternates between an unexpectedly dark march over a catchy modal hook and a doublespeed variation that’s just short of frantic: clearly, getting out into the gusts was a challenge, but once you’ve got your footing, apparently all is well.

Oh returns to Fender for the similarly hypnotic, catchy Ikan Bilis, gingerly spiced with Minji Park’s traditional Korean percussion. The enigmatic Mother Reason juxtaposes Wendel’s occasionally Joe Maneri-ish, microtonally-tinged longtone phrases against Stevens’ resonant chords and slow, methodical single-note lines.

Stevens builds tension with a rising-and-falling phrase throughout Mantis as the rest of the band hovers distantly. Oh and then Brown scour the ocean floor beneath steady guitar/sax harmonies in another hypnotically catchy number, Deepsea Dancers. Stevens, Brown and Almazan – on electric piano – prowl energetically over Oh’s moody, chromatic pedalpoint in Midnight, a Hollywood hills noir set piece with a long, deliciously fiery crescendo out. The album winds up with the bouncy Steve Coleman-esque syncopation of Western. Good to hear such a consistently strong collection from such a major force on the low strings.

Haunting, Cinematic, Relevant State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz from the Jihye Lee Orchestra

If tuneful, cinematic, vivid and distantly haunting big band jazz is up your alley, you should know that the Jihye Lee Orchestra are playing Symphony Space this Friday, April 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $25, which is reasonable for a Manhattan gig by a 20-piece ensemble. To give you an idea of what they’ll be playing, here’s what their gripping, picturesque debut album April Wind sounds like. It hasn’t made it to any of the usual places on the web yet, although half the tracks are up at Lee’s video page. 

The title track, which opens the six-part suite, begins with a rhythmless lustre and a distant sense of foreboding, the only place in the piece where that’s allowed to creep in. Sean Jones’ airy trumpet mingles with the bandleader’s wistful vocalese. Spare, carefree piano phrases from Alain Mallett mingle as the orchestra rises with brassy flair over an easygoing sway. A dancing rhythm comes to the forefront with an incisive piano solo. A casually spiraling Shannon LeClaire alto sax solo leads the ensemble in a return to gently swaying lushness.

John Lockwood’s tersely dancing bass hook opens the practically thirteen-minute epic Sewol Ho, then gives way to a bit of icy, chromatic piano and then an exchange of brass that picks up the melody. Suspense builds over an understated clave, a brooding call-and-response between brass and reeds that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chris Jentsch big band book. A minor sixth chord lingers, actual or implied, eventually edged out by uneasy close harmonies and then a seemingly free interlude pairing off spare, bubbling individual voices: trumpet, drums, bass, trombone each scrambling around in the waves. Rhythm returns with an ominous low-brass pulse underneath those voices: then the music literally slides down and out for a second. Then the bass clarinet leads a search party, more or less, over a bubbling, reedy groove that builds with considerable gravitas and shivery clarinet.

The way the piano and horns, then Lee’s voice paired with alto sax, mirror the previous number’s intro as Deep Blue Sea gets underway is especially artful. A carefree/foreboding dichotomy develops between highs and lows; again, the rhythm grows bouncier, this time on the wings of a gentle, smoke-tinted tenor sax solo. Lee takes the orchestra in a more ebullient, brass-fueled direction, then pauses and returns to a spare, moody piano-and-tenor interlude

Whirlwind begins over a brisk clave, cloudbanks of brass passing quickly overhead, punctuated by dynamic shifts, a piano solo bristling with icepick chords, and then a return to a brass-driven intensity. Building out of a spare piano phrase beneath emphatic horns, Guilty follows a martial beat up to Shostakovian, menacingly gavelling phrases that back away for a long, judicious Bruce Bartlett guitar solo, then a long, crushing coda that leaves no doubt what the verdict is. The final number is You, a slow ballad with a bright opening chart that backs away for a melancholy Jones flugelhorn solo and then brightens as the energy picks up. A series of pensive swells make way for a calmly lively Jones solo spot, then spring returns and everything is in bloom again.

Spoiler alert: if you want to find out for yourself what this is about, stop here, bookmark the page, give the album a spin or better yet, go see the show and then come back.

The backstory here is that Lee’s suite follows the narrative of the April, 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. More than three hundred passengers were killed when the vessel sank off the Korean coast. In Boston at the time, the Korean-born composer wrote much of the suite in the weeks that followed.

News reports on the disaster have been conflicted: what is apparent is that the ferry was overloaded, and many eyewitness accounts concur that the crew didn’t react immediately when it was obvious that the ship was in distress. The same thing happened over a hundred years ago north of Nova Scotia; an iceberg was involved that time. Nobody went to jail for that one. The owner of the Sewol was found dead, victim of foul play, a year after going on the run. That case also remains unsolved. 

Les Chauds Lapins For Virgins – Or Not

Les Chauds Lapins sing about drunk couples emerging disheveled from the bushes, expats missing Paris during the Nazi occupation, and sex. Lots of that. “You told me yes, you told me yes, you told me yes,” frontwoman Meg Reichardt sang in insistently cheery, carefully enunciated and pretty damn good French at the band’s most recent show at Barbes last month.

The material they cover – old French swing and chanson, mostly from the 30s and 40s, emphasis on the Charles Trenet catalog – is pretty radical compared to American pop from that era. Even today, these songs are racy. And as funny and clever as the wordplay is, the band’s sound is lush and swoony.  if you’re looking for a place to take your boo this Friday night, April 14, there’s no better place than Barbes at 8 PM where Les Chauds Lapins (“The Hot Rabbits,” as in “hot to trot”) will be picking up where they left off.

The music matched the lyrics, full of chipper, strutting, swinging tunes, glimmering strings from cellist Garo Yellin and violist Karen Waltuch and a wry basketball-courtside “let’s go” riff from clarinetist/frontman Kurt Hoffman at one point. And yet, there’s an underlying cynicism, and frequent yearning, in the lyrics, that often rears its head, just as the music isn’t all just soft edges either. Hearing the occasional austere minor-key blues phrase from either Waltuch or Yellin was a treat. Reichardt fired off a couple of stinging blues guitar solos when she wasn’t holding down rhythm on her hundred-year-old banjo uke and adding to the oldtimey atmosphere.

As the show went on, shivery strings paired off with a plaintive clarinet intro, there was an unexpected detour into quasi-funk fueled by a cello bassline, and eventually a long interlude straight out of Mood Indigo with a lustrous, moonlit clarinet solo from Hoffman. For those who don’t speak French, the show is best enjoyed as a long, sweet suite. As date-night music in New York in 2017, it’s unsurpassed. Without crossing the line into TMI, let’s say that after the show, the person you bring might be more likely to tell you, “Je t’adore,” instead of just a plain old “Je t’aime” See,“Je t’aime” doesn’t amount to much more than a peck on the cheek. “Je t’adore” is where the tongue gets involved. Just saying. Bonne chance à tout le monde demain soir.

Jazz Songwriter/Vocalist Allegra Levy Adds to the Canon with Her Haunting Breakthrough Album

Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.

She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.

Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.

Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore  -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.

Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…

Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.

Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.

Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”

The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.

Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.

The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.

The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:

Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…

If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.

Baritone Sax Goddess Moist Paula Henderson Explores Her More Devious Side

Moist Paula Henderson is one of the world’s most distinctive and highly sought after baritone saxophonists. She got her nickname as the co-leader of legendary downtown punk-dance sax-bass-drums trio Moisturizer. She’s toured the world with avant jazz collective Burnt Sugar, noir rock crooner Nick Waterhouse and oldtime blues marauder C.W. Stoneking, among others. She’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Rev. Vince Anderson’s ecstatically careening gospel-funk jamband. But she’s not limited to baritone sax: like Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra, she also plays the electronic wind instrument, a.k.a. EWI.

The last time this this blog was in the house to catch one of Henderson’s “GPS” gigs, as she calls them, was last month at Troost in a trio with multi-instrumentalist and film composer Dorothea Tachler and inventor/guitar shredder Nick Demopoulos. The three played music to get lost in, improvisation on the highest level, throughout a mix of themes that seemed at least semi-composed.

And the music was as fun as it was enveloping and trippy. Henderson is one of the world’s great musical wits: she takes her art very seriously, but not herself. She introduced a couple of long, kaleidoscopically unwinding soundscapes with wry P-Funk-style wah-wah basslines. Throughout about 45 minutes of music, Henderson got just about every sound that can be conjured out of an EWI, further enhanced by Tachler’s constant looping and shifting the riffs through an serpentine series of patches on her mixers. When she wasn’t occupied with that, Tachler sang calm, balmy vocalese, played and then looped all sorts of catchy, warpy riffs on a mini-synth, and on the night’s most ornately assembled sonic adventure, played and then looped a series of austere violin phrases.

Waves of gentle countermelodies, droll marching band cadenzas, artful pairings of fuzzy lows and twinkling highs from both EWI and the rest of the instruments, a rapturous quasi-Americana hymn and twinkling trails of deep-space dust wafted through the mix. At the end of the set, Demopoulos joined the duo, adding shifting tones on a couple of home-made analog synths as well as a custom-built, brightly color-coded keytar called a SMOMID. Silly vocoder-like phrases mingled within an increasingly warmer framework, the bassline growing gentler and more pillowy. They brought the morass of shifting textures down to the just that bassline and a few upper-register sparkles, then took it up again, building a starlit backdrop peppered with woozy Dr. Dre synth. They faded it down with a couple of mini lightning bolts and an echoey bubble or two. Henderson’s next show is with the Rev. – as the dancers who pack his Monday night residency like to call him – at Union Pool on April 10 at around 10:30 PM.

Ethio-Jazz Soul Singer Meklit Airs Out Her Brilliant Forthcoming Album at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Meklit came to conquer. Rocking a sassy kente cloth skirt and black top, the ex-Brooklynite Ethio-jazz belter bounded and whirled across the stage, singing in both English and Amharic, leading a tight six-piece band through a passionate, fiery, subtly relevant mix of mostly new songs from her forthcoming album When the People Move, the Music Moves Too. Freed from behind her acoustic guitar – at least for most of the set – she’s found new vocal power in her low register, and commands the stage like never before. It’s hard to believe that the artist formerly known as Meklit Hadero – her full name – got her start in the cautious, sedate world of singer-songwriters.

While her work has always drawn on her Ethiopian roots, her newest material goes deeper into that nation’s joyously cantering, brassy dance music from the 60s and 70s. “Ethio-jazz in 2017!” was the mantra throughout the night’s most explosively kinetic number, I Want to Sing For Them All, a shout-out to influences ranging from the golden-age hip-hop she grew up with and found kinship in, to Coltrane and Mulatu Astatke, among many others. Drummer Colin Douglas and percussionist Marco Peris Coppola negotiated the song’s twists and turns with a steely precision as bassist Sam Bevan bubbled behind the searing, thrilling, trilling chomatic harmonies of tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpeter DeAndre Schaifer. It was a visceral validation of George Clinton’s observation about how freedom begins in the lower extremities.

In between songs, there was silence, and Meklit let it linger, choosing her thoughts like she chooses her spots as a singer. “Welcome to my living room!” she beamed as the second line-tinged groove of You Are My Luck got underway, an irrepressibly shuffling shout-out to the power of love as fuel for the struggle. She bookended her roughly hourlong set with a couple of bracing Ethio-jazz numbers, the first with a trick ending and a tantalizingly brief Wiley solo, the closing number a careening, pulsing take of the first Ethiopian number Miriam Makeba learned for her initial trip to that country in the 1960s.

They reinvented an Erykah Badu pop hit as Ethiopiques, with a still, suspenseful intro that gave way to spine-tingling microtonal horn riffage. One of the new songs, Supernova was akin to the Sometime Boys tackling Ethiopian funk, with Meklit’s most powerful, dramatic vocal of the night. “In case you’re ever feeling ordinary, remember you were born in a supernova,” she mused beforehand.

Musically speaking, the high point of the evening was an insistent minor-key anthem, part Ethiopiques, part Aretha, with a long, feral, microtonal Wiley solo that began with aching sirening effects and eventually picked up with volley after volley of chromatics and microtones. Then Meklit plugged in her krar harp for a number she hoped would be as hypnotic to the crowd as it is to her, an argument that held. Then she flipped the script with her own wryly sunny happy-birthday song, a welcome alternative to what you hear blasting from the speakers in East Village Indian restaurants.

The triumphantly crescendoing, anthemic, soukous-tinged This Was Made Here peaked out with a long, riveting, trilling trumpet solo fueled by Schaifer’s circular breathing. “I’m not going to wait, and I’m not going away,” Meklit belted. Throughout the set, Bevan – switching from standup and five-string Fender, and then back – impressed with his ability to be busy but not obtrusive, playing lots of variations on bouncy octaves. Coppola, with a big Indian dhol bass drum slung over his shoulder, handled the tricky metrics in tandem with Douglas and Bevan. At one point the drummers left their posts to bang on the bass strings for a solo: this group has as much fun onstage as their bandleader. The next stop on their current US tour is tonight, April 7 at 8 PM at World Cafe, 500 N. Market St. in Wilmington, Delaware.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center is where most of the most happening shows there take place – it’s an easy place to call home away from home. The next one is on April 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic Colombian champeta dance band Tribu Baharu.

Clarinet Titan Michael Winograd Plays a Full-Throttle Saturday Residency at Barbes This Month

If adrenaline is your thing, go see Michael Winograd this Saturday at Barbes. Even if you don’t know much about klezmer music, it’s worth the gamble. There is no Coney Island ride, with the possibility of the Cyclone, that can deliver thrills on the level of Winograd’s clarinet. And he makes it look easy. He’s got a silken, steady wind-tunnel tone, in the same vein as Rudresh Mahanthappa’s approach on the alto sax, and a Saturday 6 PM Barbes residency this month where he’s airing out a lot of new material. This Saturday, April 8 he’s doing “Order: A Musical Seder,” with singer/pianist Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Then Winograd plays with a large ensemble on the 15th and 29th, and with a quartet on the 22nd.

Last week’s show was packed with a mix of oldsters and kids who’d come out to see Winograd deliver an eclectic, dynamic set of new material from a forthcoming album, backed by a pretty sizeable group including accordion, piano, rhythm section (Zoe Guigueno on bass and Dave Licht on drums), plus Avi Fox-Rosen on banjo. The addition of that instrument turned out to be more of an extra textural treat than an attempt to be old-fashioned or go in a bluegrass direction like Andy Statman.

The new material is killer. The dark stuff came first, along with the biggest crescendos and slinkiest, rapidfire volleys of sixteenth notes from Winograd. Since these tunes are getting their first workouts from the band, he took most of the solos. They opened with a handful of chromatically bristling, Russian and Ukrainian-flavored numbers. There was a point early on where the flutter of the banjo against the steady chords of the piano amid the swells of the rest of the group had a bittersweet, achingly beautiful, Ellingtonian lushness.

Later in the set, they did a hora that started out all mysterious and then picked up with a bang, true to form. There was a doina that turned out to be the most exploratory number – some would say it was the the jazziest moment of the night. As the show went on, the songs got bouncier and sunnier. They closed with a catchy, anthemic tune that sounded like a classic from the Russian Jewish folk tradition but could have been an original: Winograd can be like that. And even back at the bar, the sound was good: hanging with friends, away from the crowd didn’t turn out to be an obstacle as far as listening was concerned. See you Saturday. 

Uncompromising Tenor Saxophonist Noah Preminger Releases the First Protest Jazz Album of 2017 at Smalls This Weekend

Noah Preminger started writing his new album Meditations on Freedom the night of the 2016 Presidential Election. A collection of originals and four judiciously chosen covers, it’s the first protest jazz album in a year that will no doubt be full of them. History will probably judge this among the best.

Preminger works fast and likes to record live in the studio as well as onstage. His expansive but purposeful previous concert album Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, with his long-running quartet, reinvented famous Skip James blues tunes. The songs on this one are shorter and even more impactful. Preminger and the quartet are playing a weekend album release stand at 10:30 PM at Smalls this Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8.

Preminger and trumpeter Jason Palmer open the band’s take of Bob Dylan’s Only a Pawn in Their Game as a cynical, spot-on faux-fanfare. Preminger’s introduction of a couple of Middle Eastern phrases over Ian Froman’s misterioso drums is somewhat subtler; the group ends it unresolved. Likewise, there are hints of Mexican folk in Preminger’s intro to The Way It Is, a top 40 radio hit for Bruce Hornsby before his days with the Grateful Dead. Froman rumbles and prowls, Preminger spirals and squalls a bit, then bassist Kim Cass walks it briskly and they hit a blithe swing shuffle. Is this sarcasm, once again? Either way, the band, especially Palmer and Froman, have an awful lot of fun with it.

Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come has been done to the point where the most desirable change is almost always after the end of the song. Grounded by Cass’ low-key pulse, lowlit by Froman’s flurries, this one’s a welcome change for the better. It sets the stage for the first of Preminger’s originals, We Have a Dream, Cass’ bubbly bass introducing a resolute horn theme that sends Palmer confidently skyward. The message seems to be, stay strong, we’ll get through this.

Froman’s mutedly relentless drums – a rapturously recurrent trope throughout the album – propel the balmy Mother Earth. Women’s March is another sturdy theme that the band eventually rises to swing the hell out of, Preminger picking his spots, Palmer showing up to build a long crescendo of hazily tuneful harmonies.

Froman’s slow build beneath Preminger’s understatedly majestic, Wadada Leo Smith-like twin-horn theme as The 99 Percent gets going is masterful to the extreme. Clearly, we have the numbers, we just all have to add up together. The last of the covers, George Harrison’s Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth has a laid-back New Orleans second line flavor, a smartly contextual choice. The final cut, Broken Treaties, also brings to mind Wadada Leo Smith’s most vivid, politically-inspired work, whether with Froman’s perimeter-prowling, Cass’ elegant bass incisions or the tight, sober harmonies and interplay between Preminger and Palmer. If you think it’s hard to write political music that isn’t strident or mawkish, try writing political instrumentals. Preminger has a monumental achievement on his hands here. May it be heard widely and inspire us all to get our ducks lined up for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Can Iconoclasts Be Iconic?

It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty years since Iconoclast, one of the world’s definitive noir jazz acts, put out their first album. Since then, the duo of saxophonist/violinist Julie Joslyn and drummer/pianist Leo Ciesa have built a distinctive body of work that’s part rainswept nocturnes, part edgy downtown improvisation and part punk jazz. Their brand-new thirtieth anniversary album, aptly titled Driven to Defiance, is due out momentarily, and the duo have an album release show on April 7 at 7 PM at stage 2 at Michiko Studios, 149 W 46 St on the second floor.

The album opens with the title track, rising from Ciesa’s spare, ominously crescendoing, echoey drum intro, then Joslyn’s similarly spare, bittersweet late-night streetcorner sax takes over. It’s been a pretty desolate journey, but not an unrewarding one.

Fueled by Joslyn’s violin, One Hundred Verticals builds from horizontal Americana, through a bracingly microtonal dance to gleefully marauding shred. Too Late to Worry, with its catchy, mantra-like sax hook and artfully shifting polyrhythms, comes across as a mashup of Raya Brass Band and legendary downtown punk-sax band Moisturizer. Likewise, More of Plenty is awash in biting Balkan tonalities, from a tongue-in-cheek, icily dripping Ciesa solo piano intro to Joslyn’s airy sax multitracks.

The two follow Ciesa’s judiciously strolling, Schoenbergian piano piece Thinking Thoughts with You Are So Very Touchable, his muted stalker drums eerily anchoring Joslyn’s gentle, lyrical sax. Spheres of Influence is Iconoclast at their sardonic, epically assaultive best, a cackling, chattering, often hilarious Tower of Babel that would make an apt theme for Donald Trump’s next reality tv show, assuming he’s around to do one.

The Flat Magnetic Girl is a jaunty, honking strut, and the catchiest tune on the album…with a trick ending. Although nine minutes long and awash in moody resonance, the mini-suite Part of the Hour, with its menacing jazz-poetry interlude, is no less tuneful.

Ciesa’s intricately tuned snare and toms develop a countermelody under Joslyn’s somber sax in The Customary Slip. He does the same thing throughout the neat clave-funk-punk of Luck is Relative. There’s also a bonus track, wryly titled Take 18 (Live at Funkadelic), a playfully plucky, shrieky violin-and-drums theme that sounds like it was recorded at the legendary, labarynthine rehearsal space’s old Flower District location. Perennially fresh and always with a dark undercurrent, Iconoclast have more than earned themselves iconic status.