New York Music Daily

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Category: jazz

Darkness and Revelry in Equal Measure in Tomas Fujiwara’s Brilliant New Triple Double Album

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s music is all about creating a mood, and narratives, and destinations, and all the fun a band can have with interplay and conversations and occasional jousting on the way there. For all of those reasons, he’s one of the busiest guys in jazz. The musicianship on his new album Triple Double – soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – is as deep as his address book. Just the fact that he’s got two of the most ferocious guitarists on the planet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook sparring with each other makes this a must-own for fans of dark, gritty, occasionally hilarious music.

It’s pretty high concept: in addition to the guitars, there are two horns – Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet – and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair. It’s akin to a  more improvisational, less assaultive take on percussive British guitar band Action Beat, . In an interesting stroke of fate, Seabrook also put out a ferociously good new double-drum album, wryly titled Die Trommel Fatale, earlier this year. Fujiwara and the band are playing the album release show on Sept 22 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $22.

The fun starts right ffom the first few bars of the squirrelly two-guitar conversation that opens the first track, Diving For Quarters. For the listener, it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who, especially as a long, rather grim crescendo slowly builds. Looming brass contrasts with a squall or two as Fujiwara swings with his work boots on, Alessi taking a long latin noir-infused solo up to a gleeful thunderstorm of drums and guitar swipes.

Likewise, Alessi chooses his moments in a long solo that bisects the leering storm and skronk of the two guitars and drumkits in Blueberry Eyes, Halvorson in the left channel, Seabrook in the right throwing blast after distorted blast at each other. Suddenly the sky clears and they’re following a circular, allusively New Orleans-tinged shuffle as Bynum comes to the front. Even as some sweet brass harmonies take over at the end, Halvorson can’t wait to let it trail out with a down-the-drain rattle.

A gloomy rainy-day ambience, astringent guitars over spare drums and cymbals, pervades Hurry Home, a psychedelic tone poem of sorts. Pocket Pass makes a flailing contrast, packed with blazing trumpet spirals, snarky kiss-off guitars, Halvorson’s bad cop against Seabrook’s deadpan good cop. All of a sudden it straightens out (as much as anything straightens out on this album) in a dark latin direction.

For Alan opens with a droll spoken-word sample of a ten-year-old Fujiwara in conversation with his mentor Alan Dawson, who encourages him to have a good time within the parameters. “If a cymbal falls in, if the pedal breaks, whatever.” This matter-of-factly rising Cleaver-Fujiwara duel stays on the rails even as flurries in each channel diverge: the chase is on! Eight-minute pieces for drums alone are rarely this entertaining.

An elegaic, mournful horn melody rises over the drums’ tumble and crush as Love and Protest coalesces, bolstered by Seabrook’s eerie, reverberating belltones and echo effects as the menacing cloud darkens. It’s finally punctured by Alessi, but even he’s eventually subsumed in the vortex. Halvorson artfully takes over the slasher role as the dirge returns.

Notwithstanding all the uneasy close harmonies, Decisive Shadow is awfully catchy, especially when the horns kick in, up to a trickily shifting, insistent vamp with a contrastingly ebullient Alessi solo. Halvorson’s shears and sputters signal the drums, and everybody else, to tunnel down into the darkness.

The group returns to the Hurry Home theme with gingerly tremoloing guitars amid the sleet of the percussion: it’s the album’s creepiest number. Sarcastic cornet opens Toasting the Mart, a twisted march, Halvfrson thinking about horror surf, the horns peeping in through respective windows. Seabrook flickers and then the whole thing dissolves in a toxic heap only to reemerge unexpectedly.

To Hours (a pun?) makes an apt concluding statement, from a loosely congealing free-improv interlude to an uneasily cantering vamp, Alessi battling the murky backdrop. This isn’t just one of the most gripping jazz albums of the year: it’s on the level of anything any of the cast here have released as leaders recently. One of the ten best, maybe five best albums of the year, to be more precise. Press play, hit repeat, you’ll get used to it.

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Entertainment and Formidable Piano Chops at an Unexpectedly Contemplative Spot with Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton brings a rare blend of daunting piano and vocal chops to the final nights of her indian summer Radegast Hall residency this Sept 18 at 8 PM. She’s also here on the 25th. Either way, it’s Monday, and it’s professional night, and while you might not expect people to come to listen, they do. Remember, every bar on a Monday could be the best bar in town.

Fulton’s latest album is The Things We Did Last Summer, a collaboration with suave tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton recorded live onstage in Spain last year and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers, and despite the fact that it’s mostly standards, it’s arguably the high point of Fulton’s career so far. She makes solid studio albums – her all-instrumental collection, Speechless, is a party in a box – but both co-leaders do their best work onstage. More artists – particularly players who can improvise at the level the band reaches here – should be making live records.

Fulton’s subtle, tantalizingly melismatic vocals and entertaining stage presence are what she’s best known for, but she’s also a hell of a pianist. To open the album, she brings a moody been-there, done-that, know-your-pain feel to When Your Lover Has Gone, contrasting with a spacious, playfully jaunty, ragtime-tinged piano solo. Hamilton brings in the mist from there; Fulton really works the blue notes at the end.

The ten-plus minute take of Basie’s Black Velvet is a classic example of the kind of extended excursion Fulton excels at when the night is winding down, but she’s not ready to call it quits. Bassist Ignasi Gonzalez and drummer Esteve Pi settle into a comfortable midtempo stroll as Fulton winds her way up from gimlet-eye glimmer toward jubilation, Hamilton echoing her as he takes the long way in through the fog.

Fulton gets back on the mic with a barely restrained vengefulness for I Cried for You, which the band takes scampering, Gonzalez’ wry, brisk bass ballet contrasting with Fulton’s clenched-teeth attack on the keys. There’s a Sarah Vaughan-ish told-your-so quality to the vocals, but it’s not derivative.

The album’s instrumental title track brings back the wee-hours serenity, Hamilton plush and balmy over Fulton’s lingering phrases. Then the two offer contrast, floating sax against Fulton’s lowdown bluesy vocals and joyous staccato piano in Too Marvelous For Words.

Allusive, understated bluesy angst pervades an expansive vocal take of My Future Just Passed, this one closer to the Shirley Horn version. Then the band picks up the pace with the hot jazz standard Running Wild before going back to the “Great American Songbook” for a lush excursion through The Very Thought of You, Fulton ending the night with misty suspense that Hamilton works for all it’s worth before her fingers finally bust it through the clouds. It’s a good bet she’ll do something a lot like this during the Williamsburg stand.

For those in Jersey, she’s also at the Gruin Center for the Arts on College Drive on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River on Sept 19 at 8; tix are $24/$20 srs.

Vocal Sensation Camille Bertault Brings Her Wit and Eclectic Chops to the Jazz Standard

Conservatory-trained as a pianist, Camille Bertault became a social media sensation a couple of years ago for her vocal versions of classic jazz solos. It turns out that she’s not only an inventive singer but a clever, playful songwriter as well. The title of her debut album En Vie – streaming at her music page – is a pun which translates essentially as ‘lust for life.” Although she can do all sorts of things with her voice, Bertault sing with restraint and a sharp sense of irony here: she doesn’t overemote and lets the lyrics speak for themselves. She and her combo are bringing that French charm to the Jazz Standard tomorrow night, Sept 14, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album’s cynical opening track, Quoi de Plus Anodin (Nothing More Harmless: we’re sticking to English title style here for consistency’s sake, ok?) is fueled by pianist Olivier Hutman’s terse, insistent phrasing over the briskly shuffling drive of bassist Gildas Boclé and drummer Antoine Paganotti. The cheery tune contrasts with Bertault’s lyrics for an age of austerité:

Pas de dimanche
Pour les paluches qui s’épanchent
Plutôt crever que d’ faire la manche
Meme si y’a pas de fric en avalanche

[No day off for these poor sods; better to kick the bucket than put your hand out, even if there isn’t exactly an avalanche of dough on the way…]

Gritty, bustling bass, scrambling piano and bracing doubletracked vocalese harmonies percolate through the second cut, Course. Then Bertault hints at a cornet in the distance, then offers a bittersweet look at seeing through a child’s eyes in her lustrous, resonant soul-jazz reinterpretation of the Wayne Shorter ballad Enfant Eyes.

The album’s title track, another vocalese number, shifts between a balletesque grace, clenched-teeth intensity and syncopated swing behind Hutman’s crushing chordal attack. Cette Nuit, Bertault’s version of the Jimmy Rowles epic The Peacocks, offers contrasting, starry ambience, a lingering tone poem that springs into action when the bass and drums kick in and Bertault takes a purposefully scatting solo. Hutman’s cascades and  Paganotti’s elegant tumbles top it off expertly.

The steady, expansively moody ballad A la Mer Tume (an oceanic pun on “bitterness”) provides a launching pad for a balletesque bass solo. The band reaches toward a scamper but then pulls back throughout the catchy, vamping, latin-tinged Double Face, the last of the vocalese numbers

Bertault kicks off Tatie Cardie with a coy spoken word and drum duet and then relates a hilarious, Spike Jones-style account of unexpected events at a prim and proper aunt’s tea party, the whole band getting in on the joke. She opens her take of Prelude to A Kiss a-cappella, then the band take their moody time with it, Boclé adding a melancholy bowed solo. The final cut is Satiesque, a title that should have been taken long ago. It’s a syncopated, lyrical salute to the great surrealist composer:

Satie, est-ce que les fous ne sont pas
Plus sages qu’ils n’en ont l’air?
L’endroit est peut-être l’envers?

[Satie, are crazy people smarter than the ones who don’t let it show? Or is it the other way around?]

Lots of flavors here, all of them worth savoring. Few other artists can make phrases like “ba da da” as consistently surprising and interesting as Bertault.

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics. El Galivan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Galivan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

Radical Cross-Pollination From Amir ElSaffar and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

The waves of melody slowly massing, leaping and often caressing the walls at Lincoln Center Friday night were less radical than they were a natural, spontaneous new invention. The premise: to mash up two often haunting, otherworldly traditions, Arabic maqam and Indian ragas, into a sometimes serene, sometimes turbulent, ultimately transcendent new element. Fresh off European tour, trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar joined forces with violinist Arun Ramamurthy and another five of the world’s leading creative musicians in Indian classical music and beyond, for a dynamic, characteristically epic performance. As far as single-band concerts in New York in 2017 are concerned, this might have been the best of them all.

There’s far less of a stylistic gap between Arabic music and its counterparts from the Hindustani subcontinent than some might assume. Both traditions are highly improvisational and rely on overtones outside the western scale. Among many other things, this performance underscored how closely the most chromatic Indian modes resemble those of the Middle East, and how resonantly hypnotic Middle Eastern music can be.

“We’re going to experience Indian music in a radical new way!” grinned Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal.  Ramamurthy enthused about how this show was an attempt to connect the “parallel lives” and shifting modes of Middle Eastern maqam with the Indian tradition’s slow upward trajectories, along with a heavy dose of improvisation.

The five-part suite hit a counterintuitive peak during the night’s first really lighthearted moment, a lively raga-based number fueled by tabla player Shiva Ghoshal’s increasingly animated beats. But even that grew overcast and wary to match the nebulous, distantly ominous sensibility that had pervaded the evening up to that point. Then sitarist Abhik Mukherjee took a gracefully bounding solo that was just short of imploring – and then Ramamurthy jumped in. This was too good to not be a part of. Everybody wanted a piece of it.. Bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, cellist Naseem Alatrash and finally the bandleader himself followed, building a bracing, acerbic mist with his trumpet..

As a composer, ElSaffar’s genius is how translucent and irresistibly catchy his themes are: he is to this era what Miles Davis was to the late 50s. Likewise, Ramamurthy is taking carnatic  themes to places no one ever imagined – like this. From the allusively angst-fueled opening theme and variations that rose on an ashen tide of sound, to the concluding number – built around a familiar riff that the Grateful Dead famously appropriated – these elegant, often wounded melodies lingered long after the show. Yet ElSaffar’s most electrifying moments here were not on trumpet, but on vocals and then santoor, methodically and incisively rippling and pinging, once in exquisitely pointillistic tandem with kanun player Firas Zreik. Perhaps the most haunting, stunning solo of all was Alatrash’s somber, intense pavane right after the first movement finally coalesced. 

And the audience was treated to a fullscale spectacle that went beyond the music. Mukherjee opened the show with a brief creation-myth narration that set the stage for the night’s looming, enveloping introductory sonic cocoon. Meanwhile, intricate, tectonically shifting projections by Nitin Mukul played on the screen over the stage. Depending on the music, or the individual tableau – a mudpuddle, planes in the clouds, mandala-like images – he’d slowly pour water into each slide for a kaleidoscopically dissolving effect. And midway through the set, ElSaffar read a passage from Rumi about how after humans are long gone from this planet, invisible instruments will still be playing. For that we can only hope.

Much as it’s going to be hard to top this, that’s the game plan for Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which seeks to radicalize and transform the Indian classical tradition for all sorts of innovations. Future artists who will be joined by Massive members here include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Raga Massive return to their weekly 8:30 PM Wednesday residency this month at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.  (at Washington Ave) in Ft. Greene. There’s a special guest every week, followed by a raga jam. Cover is $15; the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St.

A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

A Small Subset of the Great Microscopic Septet Plays the Lower East Side Saturday Afternoon

There are few more definitively New York outfits than the Microscopic Septet – notwithstanding that a co-founder of this “surrealistic swing” crew is Australian. They predated the swing jazz revival here, but they’re not the least bit retro. They come out of the late 70s/early 80s punk jazz scene, but they’re not the least bit skronky. And pianist Joel Forrester foreshadowed this year’s avalanche of protest jazz by writing the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air as a brooding broadside against Bush I’s Gulf War. Beyond their substantial back catalog, they reputedly have a couple hundred more compositions they’ve played live over the decades but have never recorded. Their latest album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is streaming at Cuneiform Records.

The Micros typically reunite for an annual Manhattan show or two. They haven’t done that this year, but their two lowest-register members, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and bassist Dave Hofstra are playing a real 80s throwback kind of gig, a duo improvisation on Sept 9 in the community garden at Stanton and Norfolk at around 3. Avant garde cult favorite multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore – a big influence on Mara Rosenbloom – duets with bassist William Parker to start the afternoon at 2; afterward at 4, trombone wizard Steve Swell joins with Parker and TA Thompson.

The Micros’ album is a about as serious as they get – which isn’t totally dead serious, considering how much of their catalog is sort of the Spinal Tap of classic jazz – in that sense, they predated Mostly Other People Do the Killing by a couple of decades. The album opens with Cat Toys, a slinky horror film theme theme with the occasional wry piano flourish, a smoky Don Davis alto solo and Hofstra’s coy strut over drummer Richard Dworkin’s sotto-voce rimshots. Blues Cubistico is full of tongue-in-cheek stop-and-starts and gives Sewelson a vehicle for his genial wit. Likewise, the slowly swaying Dark Blue, with plenty of droll echo tradeoffs with the rest of the band and a similarly sardonic outro where the four-horn frontline finally coalesces.

Don’t Mind If I Do is a rare departure into straight-ahead, blithe, New Orleans-tinged territory with a slithery solo from tenor saxophonist Mike Hashin (who’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Svetlana & the Delancey Five). Similarly, another of soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s tunes here, Migraine Blues has a comfortable wee-hours strut, but with contrasting, shivery solos from Davis and Sewelson.

PJ in the 60s, a catchy, triumphant swing shuffle, is Forrester’s shout-out to his bandmate Johnston, building out of a surprisingly messy sax cauldron and featuring a balmy Johnston trading off with the rest of the horns. When It’s Getting Dark is basically variations on the Peter Gunne theme, Forrester’s sardonic piano up against Dworkin’s emphatic drumming and some cartoonish chartwork from the horns. Simple-Minded Blues, dedicated to Spectrum impresario Glenn Cornett, is anything but simple, a cheery exercise in dressing up the blues in all kinds of strange voicings, but with a purist Forrester solo as a sweet caramel center.

After You, Joel, dedicated by Forrester to painter Joel Goldstein, brings back the shuffle groove and Looney Tunes exchanges of voices. 12 Angry Birds, a low-key, marching Ellington homage by Johnston, reaches for Mood Indigo lustre, with a brooding soprano sax solo that’s arguably the album’s most riveting moment.

Quizzical, Johnston’s salute to his bandmate and Micros co-founder Forrester, threatens to get satirical early on but straightens out with a purposeful Monk influence and plenty of room for the pianist to channel that. The album winds up with a blues version of a xmas carol – which should have been left at the curb for the trash truck beside that moldy Simon & Garfunkel album  – and a hefty cover of Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers’ 1950 R&B hit I’ve Got a Right to Cry, sung with gritty passion by Sewelson. It’s unlikely that he and Hofstra will do much of anything this composed at the Saturday show in the garden…but you never know with any of these guys.

There’s Nothing Jorge Glem Can’t Play on the Cuatro

Last night before the show at Joe’s Pub, the trippy sounds of cumbia icons Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo album wafted through the PA, a very good omen. Like Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, Venezuelan wizard Jorge Glem plays the cuatro, the shortscale Pan-American four-stringed instrument. The C4 Trio co-founder explained that he wants to bring that spiky little axe into every style of music around the world…and if there’s anybody who has the chops to do that, it’s Glem. You can watch the whole show at youtube.

He drew plenty of laughs for his account of how he came to play it. As a small child, he wanted to be a percussionist, but his mom wouldn’t let him use the family pots and pans. But there was a cuatro hanging on the wall of his home in Cumaná, a common sight in a neighborhood where it was more kitschy decor than anything else. With a big grin, he vigorously delivered the very first sounds he was able to get out of it: mimicking the beats of a conga by banging on the instrument’s body while muting the strings, first at the sound hole and then right at the headstock for highs and lows. Throughout the show, he also made it sound like a banjo, a mandolin, a flamenco guitar, a pandeiro, many different drums, a mosquito and a jet engine among other things.

Guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera also related a funny anecdote about Blues for Sonny, a Sonny Rollins tribute by Toots Thielemans that D’Rivera had recorded with the late jazz harmonica player. Michel Camilo heard it and said to D’Rivera, “That’s a Venezuelan tune! What does Sonny Rollins have to do with Venezuela?” So it would make sense for D’Rivera to play that warmly bouncing number with Glem. The two followed with A Night in Tunisia, which D’Rivera had first thrown at Glem at an impromptu performance at the National Arts Club…and was amazed to find that Glem knew it. That was a showcase for Glem’s postbop phrasing, but then again, so was Glem’s opening solo improvisation.

Joined by accordionist Sam Reider, Glem mashed up what sounded like an Irish reel, a high lonesome Applachian dance, vallenato and champeta, maybe, throwing in a boisterous improvisation midway through. Likewise, guitarist Yotam Silberstein playfully jousted with Glem throughout a shapeshifting blend of Caribbean coastal folk, postbop and some of the most fluidly legato Django Reinhardt ever played.

The final guest was singer Claudia Acuña, who held the crowd in the palm of her hand with her bittersweetly nuanced low register throughout a couple of ballads in both English and Spanish. Glem encored with a final, chord-chopping solo piece that quoted liberally from Bach and Beethoven, and maybe Yomo Toro and Dick Dale too. How Glem managed to get through that one without breaking either strings or his fingers is a mystery that has yet to be solved. No wonder there’s a documentary film being made about his crazy cuatro cross-pollinations here in New York. 

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

JD Allen Brings His Restless, Uneasy Power and Tunefulness to Smalls This Labor Day

The restlessness and persistent unease in tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions mirror how he works.  Much as he’s concretized a wickedly terse, hard-hitting, sometimes grimly ironic melodicism, he never stays in the same place for long. As a composer, Allen has few rivals in any style, let alone the postbop jazz he’s mined so intensely over the past ten years in particular. Yet he and his trio are also consummate improvisers. That bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston have a thing for the darkness in Allen’s writing explains a lot about their interplay, which borders on the telepathic. More than a decade of touring together will help get you there too.

Allen’s latest album is Radio Flyer; he and the trio are playing a rare Monday night gig at Smalls at 10:30 PM on Labor Day, Sept 4; cover is $20. If you wish you’d seen those great Sonny Rollins trios of the 50s – or the 90s – this group is on that level. It’s time that the jazz world realized that Allen deserves to be up on that same pedestal with Rollins and Ben Webster. The great ones aren’t just plaques in the hall of fame: some of them walk among us and maybe hang at the bar after.

On one hand, Radio Flyer (a brand of little red wagon) is your typical Allen album: ominous minor modes, plenty of stark bowed bass and rumbling drums, gravitas  and tunes everywhere. What’s different this time is that the songs are a lot longer than Allen’s usual three-to-four minute “jukebox jazz” pieces, and that there’s guitar on the album. Allen has never had guitar in the band before: how does it work out? Liberty Ellman is also a consummate improviser, so he gets where Allen is coming from. And if you’ve seen Allen live, constructing  a jazz symphony out of a handful of themes from one album or another, this is what that sounds like.

The album opens with Sitting Bull, Allen’s distantly American Indian-inflected, brooding sax panned hard left, Ellman hanging back in the opposite channel, August moodily in and out of the picture as Royston machetes the underbrush. Yet as dark as this is, when Allen pulls a funky swing together, there’s a joke, and it’s way too good to give away. He’s like that. August’s chugging, deep blues contrasts with Ellman’s pensively chosen phrases up to where Allen takes it out with one of his signature grey-sky riffs.

The title track leaves no doubt that this is another one of Allen’s sonata-like suites: nobody in jazz does theme-and-variations better than this guy. Ellman’s ringing, overtone-laced washes and Royston’s rumble along the perimeter contrast with the bandleader and the bass, steady at the center. Then they leave it to Royston to hold it together, Ellman’s long, enigmatic solo echoing Allen’s.

How happy is Heureux? Somewhat. Counterrhythms and echo devices abound through the loose intro, to a bustling, floating swing, yet neither August nor Royston ever lapse into a straight-up walk or shuffle. If only other rhythm sections were this interesting- or had this much fun. Ellman can’t resist, and pushes them hard when he takes flight.

The band pick up the pace with The Angelus Bell, with its artful-dodger tradeoffs between voices  – lots and lots of clever echoing and use of space on this album. Sancho Panza echoes the restrained, stormy majesty of Allen’s iconic 2007 I Am I Am album, August edging toward the Middle East with his shadowy, dancing, microtone-infused lines, Royston’s relentless prowl and Ellman’s mournful, spare jangle underpinning Allen’s bright but elegaic melody.

Royston’s tongue-in-cheek rhythmic japes set the stage for the rest of the band in Daedalus. a apt decision considering that it’s the album’s most straight-ahead number. They close it out with another American Indian reference, Ghost Dance, Roston’s sotto-voce cymbals misting August’s purposeful incisions, Ellman finally getting to take an opening solo and matching Allen’s deep, bluesy grandeur. You’ll see this album on many best-of lists, here and at NPR and elsewhere at the end of the year.