New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: jazz

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.

Cheeery, Retro New Orleans, Dixieland and Swing Sounds From the Doggy Cats

The Doggy Cats got their start at legendary Red Hook watering hole Sunny’s Bar, and play the kind of music that the regulars who frequented the place during its Prohibition days listened to. Tetsuro Hoshii leads the sextet from behind the piano. His merry bandmates include trumpeter Aaron Bahr, saxophonist Zac Zinger, trombonist Christopher Palmer, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia. Their cheery, catchy debut album Daikon Pizza is streaming at Bandcamp.

Garcia kicks off the album’s opening number, Happy Dog with a nifty New Orleans shuffle, and from there the band build a lively, joyous, dixieland-flavored theme. Bourgeoisie Breakfast With Dogs is a ragtime strut with more of a lowdown feel. Howdy Cats! also has New Orleans flair, fleetingly lustrous horns and wry surf allusions from Garcia.

Fatty Catty is mostly a one-chord jam anchored by Hoshii’s insistent, syncopated lefthand, with droll low-register trombone and a tumbling drum solo. A somewhat more serious trombone solo and bluesy piano brighten up Old Clock, a midtempo swing song without words, The band get a little funkier with Dacadindan and its punchy solos around the horn.

Brass Hymn is just the horns doing what sounds like a paraphrase of Auld Lang Syne. The aptly titled, jubilantly swaying Happiest Cat has a sagacious conversation between sax and trombone. Then it’s time for trumpet and bass to do some playful jousting in Samba – that’s the name of the tune – which actually has a lot more Louisiana then Brazil in it. Hoshii’s emphatic stairstepping and scampering solo afterward take the song into much more modern territory.

Palmer’s wry muted lines rise over Hoshii’s stately gospel piano in the slow, 6/8 Sunset. The album’s most expansive track, Qui Rock is a detour into edgier postbop sounds, Hoshii’s stern, bluesy bassline variations holding it down as Zinger reaches for the sky; the terse interweave between bass and piano is an unexpectedly dynamic touch. The band stroll home to a Bourbon Street of the mind circa 1935 to close the album with Baila Biala Jambalaya. Spin this at your next houseparty if you want to keep everybody there.

A Darkly Playful, Timely Jazz Reinvention of a Brooding Schubert Suite

One of the most surrealistically enjoyable releases of recent months is a highly improvised instrumental version of Schubert’s Winterreise, an allusively political protest suite disguised as a collection of lovelorn ballads. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Phil Kline have drawn inspiration from the composer’s brooding early Romanticism, but it’s hard to remember if there’s ever been a jazz interpretation of the whole thing. The collective Madre Vaca are responsible for this crazy stunt, streaming at Bandcamp. The group’s drummer, Benjamin Shorstein gets credit for this fearless, inspired, latin-tinged arrangement.

The opening number, Goodnight, is a marching blend of Cab Calloway hi-de-ho, the Beatles’ For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and a little of the original courtesy of Jonah Pierre’s piano.

Likewise, the group play up the phantasmagoria in a strutting, waltzing take of The Weathervane, then they loosen, with the horns – Juan Rollan’s sax, Steve Strawley’s trumpet and Lance Reed’s trombone – getting nebulous until the rest of the band pull them back on track.

Shorstein and bassist Mike Perez rise from a klezmer-tinged shuffle as Frozen grows from an ambered gravitas to a postbop jazz crush with high-voltage solos from sax and piano. They reinvent Loneliness as a moodily energetic bossa, guitarist Jarrett Carter’s sage, spacious solo at the center.

Pierre and Carter converse broodingly in The Grey Head, with a chromatically-charged bristle and a more muted tropical tinge. Percussionist Milan Algood fuels the qawwali-ish groove of The Crow: once again, there are hints of klezmer, hard-charging sax and McCoy Tyner-inspired piano, and bubbly guitar solos.

The group make Monk-ish clave jazz out of Last Hope; even with the new syncopation, the underlying angst cuts through, especially when the carnivalesque atmosphere grows insistent. The version of The Stormy Morning here is a cha-cha, Reed’s chuffing trombone setting up a big coda from Strawley. Pierre’s Schubertian salsa piano is one of the funniest moments on the album.

Pierre and an uncredited vocalist do a serviceable, straight-up classical take of The Sun Dogs and close with a deviously Balkan-inflected take of The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Schubert’s disconsolate portrait of the suite’s protagonist all alone on the ice with only a homeless drunk for company.

The Winterreise has special relevance for our time as well. It wasn’t written under a lockdown, but during a serious crackdown on civil liberties under another repressive regime. Schubert changed the order of the Wilhelm Muller poems he used as text in order to fool the censors.

A Radical Japanese Firestorm Back in Print After Forty-Five Years

On September 5, 1975 guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit played a marathon concert at Yasuda Seimei Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Any kind of jazz beyond traditional swing was considered radical and frowned on by the authorities at the time – and by pretty much any standard, this is utterly fearless, often completely unhinged  music.  The performance was eventually immortalized on two albums, but never in the exact order of the setlist, such that there was a setlist. Finally, this landmark performance of transgressive improvisation has been reissued just as it was played, titled Axis/Another Revolvable Thing, streaming at Bandcamp courtesy of the folks at Blank Forms.

The first album comprises just three tracks: two group improvisations and a drum solo, none of which offer any idea of the carnage to come later. The conversational rapport between the players is obvious as the thicket of staccato in the opening segment coalesces in a flash: Takayanagi joined by Kenji Mori on flutes and bass clarinet, Nobuyoshi Ino alternating between bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on drums. This is a jungle, a brisk worker ants’ round-robin of short exchanges. extended flurries and jaunty echo effects punctuated by Mori’s leaping flute. Takayanagi plays without a hint of effects, mostly cello-like pizzicato. never really approximating any kind of traditional melody. It’s as playful as it is purposeful. Gabor Szabo in especially terse mode comes to mind. No wonder the band saw fit to release it.

Devious poltergeist accents and coy humor pervade the second improvisation amid lots of space. The colorful drum solo is basically a synopsis of what’s happened up to this point, and as quickly becomes clear, Yamazaki has tuned his kit to continue a couple of simple, catchy two-note themes from the previous piece. Drama and suspense prevail, no small achievement.

The second disc is where the inferno starts, both Takayanagi and Nobuyoshi conjuring evil sheets of feedback, often receding back to a Shinto temple of the mind for minutes on end. It’s basically the shadow side of the first record, with toxic white noise from Takayanagi’s wah pedal, Yamazaki walking a tightrope expertly between mystery and mayhem. Ironically, Mori, the adventurous sprite of the first album, holds the center blithely as all hell breaks loose around him. Finally, he breaks free with one shriek after another.The feral 23-minute coda is to die for, if you like this kind of noise.

A sonic portent for this fall’s lockdowner blitzkrieg when it’s clear that COVID-19 is gone and is not coming back, and the lockdowners have to find a new excuse to keep us imprisoned? We have a choice in this, folks: it’s time to take off the mask and take our society back. or else.

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

Getting Unspooled

Jazz trio Unspooling‘s debut album Scot Free– streaming at Bandcamp – is ambitious bordering on hyperactive: pianist Julia Chen is tireless to the nth degree. This isn’t your typical trio album, either. There aren’t a lot of big solo moments, and the rhythm section – bassist Matt Adomeit and drummer Nate Friedman – aren’t frequently engaged in a particularly colorful way. Yet this is sophisticated music, the group have a sense of humor and reach for a wide expanse of ideas and moods. Getting there is sometimes a work in progress.

They open it with Shrimpy, a persistent, steady tune, at least in the sense that there are either tightly triangulated polyrhythms or a steady clustering forward drive. It also doesn’t breathe: a musical airshaft or two wouldn’t have hurt.

The album’s title track is a suspiciously blithe stroll, with echoes of Donald Fagen and some wryly cascading flourishes. Chen’s piano manages to escape a pervasive, toxic, heavily processed cloud of bass to give Bad Morning some obviously long-awaited, sober closure. The three go back to tricky, interwoven rhythms in Immaculate Conception, Chen skirting blues and gospel allusions.

The eerie, stairstepping close harmonies as she introduces the somber ballad Big Misunderstanding are a cool touch, as is the bass/piano interweave in the pastorally-tinged Moose Trial (they’re good with song titles). Cultural Appropriation is a slyly catchy salsa-jazz strut, while the group shift up the metrics in the distantly Monk-tinged Barman.

Chen moves to Rhodes over a steady swing shuffle for the blippy Soymilk Savior. The band’s eponymous epic track finally coalesces around a welcome detour down to the catacombs and then an even creepier, music box-like finale: this is where the trio really excel at creating an atmosphere.

Back on Rhodes for Second Chance, Chen builds bright latin soul ambience over Friedman’s steady clave and playful offbeats. The album’s strongest overall number is perhaps ironically its simplest, most lingering one, Just Fine, a syncopated Rhodes soul tune. They close with the hypnotically minimalist New and Old. There’s genuine talent and promise here: giving the music a little space would be a good jump-off point.

Smart, Relevant Protest Jazz From Irreversible Entanglements

Protest jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements came together out of a 2015 Musicians Against Police Brutality response to the killing of Akai Gurley, who was gunned down in a New York housing project stairwell the year before. Their debut album, Who Sent You? is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s smart, conversational, powerful and surprisingly catchy stuff. MC Camae Ayewa (better known as Moor Mother), saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes have a tight, purposeful rapport that echoes the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s more kinetic improvisations, and Ayewa’s lyrics are spot-on. If music that’s in touch with reality is your thing, this is your jam.

The album’s first track, The Code Noir Amina has a galloping, hypnotic Afrobeat groove with sunny, sustained horn lines shimmering overhead, building to a relentlessly tumbling drive and then receding elegantly. “At what point do we stand up…do we stand up at the breaking point? At the point of no return?” Ayewa asks.

The title track follows a similar pattern, from a big pummeling whirlwind of an intro to a series of rises and falls, the horns first spare and then frenetic. There are light electroacoustic touches, a quiet, persistent, echoey horn break in the middle and an unexpectedly calm, reflective djembe-and-sax outro. “What are you doing here in my home, my neighborhood, who sent you? Where did they tell you to patrol, to oversee, redeem, crucify? Did they tell you to walk around with your finger on the trigger? Who sent you? Did they tell you how long we’re supposed to stay here, under your gun, the occupation, who sent you?” Ayewa wants to know. What an appropriate song for this summer, right?

No Mas opens with the horns building variations on a stark minor-key blues riff, then hits a bass-and-drums groove that’s the closest thing to straight-up hip-hop here. “No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer, divide and oppress, define our humanity,” Ayewa insists.

Blues Ideoogy is the album’s fastest number, starting out with a tight, racewalking pulse and fraying at the edges as it goes along: it’s a snide commentary alluding to child rape in the Catholic church. The album’s final track is Bread Out of Stone, Ayewa reflecting on a turbulent heritage of enslavement and resistance over a loopy bass-and-drums clave groove. If there are historians twenty years from now, they’ll look back to this as a foundational album for the beginning of a new era. But we’ll have to fight to get to that point if we do at all.

New York’s Hottest New Music Venue: The Cube at Astor Place

As concertgoers are going to find out more and more this year, one of the very few good things to come out of the lockdown is that it provided a very fertile – if completely unwanted – opportunity for artists to create new material.This blog is long overdue to get back to spreading the word about upcoming concerts: one of the first to officially hit the calendar this month is an outdoor show at the cube at Astor Place this Weds, July 8 at 7 PM where CenterPoint Arts have been scheduling a series of improvisational lineups. This one includes but is probably not limited to drummer Dan Kurfirst, multi-reedman/trumpeter Daniel Carter and trumpeter Matt Lavelle. Once again, it bears mentioning that New York’s most forward-thinking improvisers are doing more than improvise with just their instruments. Obviously, we need to reopen all our music venues at full capacity, yesterday, but at least this is a start.

Of all the guys on this particular bill, Carter has appeared on more albums than everybody else combined. And he keeps popping up on new ones. The latest is Welcome Adventure, Volume 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

In keeping with these guys’ most expansive, improvisational esthetic, it’s just three tracks ranging from about four and a half to a full twenty minutes. The first is Majestic Travel Agency, which clocks in at thirteen. If you didn’t know all this was completely made up on the spot, you might easily assume it’s just a tight postbop quartet going out on a limb with some inspired interplay and solos. Cleaver’s beat is closer to trip-hop than straight up funk or swing as it unfolds from Parker’s catchy variations playing off a central tone. Shipp jabs at the edges; Carter’s balmy initial tenor sax solo alludes to the Middle East.

From there they swing it in more of a trad postbop mode, loosen and hit a more murky haze even as Cleaver refuses to quit. Shipp’s bad cop versus Carter’s good one is another amusing touch; after the piano cedes centerstage to the bass, they take it out surprisingly calmly.

Carter opens Scintillate with restrained muted trumpet: from a loose-limbed swing, they take it into brooding, vintage Miles Davis-ish jazz waltz territory. The closing epic,  Ear-regularities – probably not a reference to Matt Munisteri’s legendary Ear Inn residency – is where everybody gets to diverge. Parker and Cleaver prowl, Shipp’s incisions and Carter’s airy flute holding the center more or less. Restless, gleaming piano chromatics and saturnine muted trumpet draw the bass and drums into contrasting, funky swing. The unselfconsciously resonant, allusively haunting ambience afterward is completely unexpected and genuinely breathtaking.

Carter, Parker and Shipp go back to the jazz loft days of the 80s, and Cleaver fits right in, so it’s both a trip forward and backward in time.