New York Music Daily

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Category: jazz

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

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The Brilliant, Surreal Roots of Jazz and Third-Stream Sounds Rescued From Obscurity on the Latest Black Manhattan Collection

Since the 1980s, pianist Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra have built a vast living archive of rare ragtime and theatre music from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. Possibly hundreds of these pieces might have been lost forever if not for Benjamin’s tireless sleuthing. He and the orchestra have a new album, Black Manhattan, Volume 3, streaming at Spotify, continuing an amazing tradition that’s just as fun to hear as it is to read about  – his exhaustive liner notes are essential for anyone seriously interested in New York music history.

Benjamin named the series after James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 history of New York black artistic life. This latest volume – the first and second are both streaming at Spotify – follows the pattern of previous editions, a dynamic mix of dance numbers, colorful theatrical themes and ballads, many of them marking the magic moments where ragtime and blues began to morph into jazz.

The composers run the gamut from the legendary to the most obscure. It may come as a shock to discover that the world premiere recording of the original 1900 score of Lift Every Voice and Sing is on this album. Incredibly, it’s been over a century since J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson wrote the iconic secular hymn. It reveals itself as peppier than you might think, sung with operatic passion by the album’s four vocalists: sopranos Janai Brugger and Andrea Jones, tenor Chauncey Packer and baritone Edward Pleasant. For anyone wondering how far afield from the blues the quartet are, the answer is that by 1900, the western bel canto style had become so pervasive in urban areas in this country that most professional singers were trying to emulate it.

The rest of this lavish archive includes a grand total of 22 tracks, from cakewalks to struts to foxtrots. The oldest song is James Bland’s Oh Dem Golden Slippers, published in 1879, its puckish signification matched by the band’s slyly jaunty interpretation. The most recent is a bubbly, violin-driven version of famed pianist Eubie Blake’s I’m Just Wild About Harry, proof that Presidential candidates long before Bill Clinton were mining the pop hits of a previous generation for their campaign songs.

Many of the composers immortalized here were members of the Clef Club, a black counterpart to the fledgling New York music unions of the era. Black musicians here could be in charge of the music at the Ziegfield Follies, and stage Carnegie Hall concerts, but weren’t allowed to join the white-controlled unions. Luckey Roberts, a major Clef Club figure, is represented by a handful of tracks, among them the Tremolo Trot, which is actually more staccato – and Italian. By contrast, his 1919 song Jewel fo the Big Blue Nile, sung by Brugger, is a lavish, orchestrated take on stark 19th century spiritual sounds.

Packer matches the careful, mutedly plaintive cadences of Benjamin’s piano in Gussie L. Davis’ 1896 waltz In the Baggage Coach Ahead, inspired by a morbid poem of the time. A brisk, blustery take of J. Turner Layton’s 1918 hit After You’ve Gone – popularized by Bessie Smith and thousands after her – sits side by side with Will H. Dixon’s  lushly enigmatic Delicioso: Tango Aristocratico, from four years previously. Likewise, the themes run the gamut from Scott Joplin’s perhaps intentionally balmy Wall Street Rag to the boisterously lavish Overture to My Friend from Kentucky, a 1913 musical.

Plenty of marquee names have passed through this band over the years. Vince Giordano is an alum; the great clarinetist Vasko Dukovski gets to flex his blues chops here. The rest of the cast seems to be having a great time, including Keiko Tokunaga and Melissa Tong on violin; Colin Brookes on viola; Lisa Caravan on cello; Max Jacob on bass; Leslie Cullen on flute and piccolo; Paul Murphy and Michael Blutman on cornets; Michael Boschen on trombone; Mike Dobson on drums and Diane Scott on piano. Fans of the surreal third-stream mashups that are being mined by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – featured on this page yesterday – will find an amazing precedent to all that here.

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

No Wasted Notes From Guitarist Amanda Monaco and Her Killer Organ Jazz Quartet

Beyond the obvious Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations, there haven’t been a lot of jazz guitarists leading organ bands. Guitarist Amanda Monaco is a welcome exception – it’s a role she excels at, although hers is hardly your typical B3 group. She’s leading a trio with Justin Carrol on organ and Jeff Davis on drums on Dec 20 at 8 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 plus the usual $10 minimum. As a bonus, edgy, lyrical tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss leads her quintet afterward at 9:30.

Monaco pulled together a killer, refreshingly unorthodox lineup for her latest album, Glitter, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. Gary Versace plays organ, joined by Matt Wilson on drums and Lauren Sevian on baritone sax. Diehard organ types might feel that Versace is underutilized here, but ultimately this is all about the frontline: the way Monaco fills the role of a horn in tandem with the baritone is as interesting as it is innovative.

Monaco’s effervescent wit is in full effect right from the first droll around-the-horn echo effects of the album’s opening track, Dry Clean Only. Nicking the changes of Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, the group motors along throught tight, purposeful growl from Sevian, similarly spaced clusters from Versace and some delicious off-beat cymbal work from Wilson.

Monaco learned Tommy Flanagan’s jaunty “let’s go” theme Freight Trane from the Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane album; the way the group hangs back, refusing to hit a straight-up shuffle in the beginning is tantalizingly fun. Gremlin From the Kremlin – a shout-out to Monaco’s husband written before the disastrous events of November 8, 2016 – comes across as a gruffly edgy, bitingly chromatic strut, part klezmer and part noir bolero: Versace manages to find his creepiest tremolo setting before Monaco sets a vector for an uneasy stroll.

Monaco and Sevian go way back together, so Girly Day takes its inspiration from their years of brunching and comparing notes on the trials of being female musicians in a male-dominated genre. It’s catchy but unsettled, with some neatly diverging harmonies and a priceless what-now solo from Wilson.

Inspired by Holly Golightly’s method for pulling herself out of the doldrums in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Mean Reds is a gutbucket strut, part Chuck Berry, part Jimmy McGriff go-go and part T-Bone Walker. Step Counter has a slightly staggered clave beat, low-key Giant Steps changes and similarly amiable guitar-sax conversations. Fred Lacey’s Theme For Ernie, popularized by Trane, serves as a moody launching pad for poignant solos by Sevian and Monaco.

Meant to evoke what must have been a hell of a hangover, Mimosa Blues is the album’s darkest number, Versace climbing around tirelessly through his most menacing, Messiaenic voicings, Monaco echoing that surrealism. The album winds up with the title track, a catchy, anthemic look back at Monaco and Sevian’s days in the early zeros getting ready for big-band gigs  If Dave Brubeck had been an organist, he might have written something like it. Throughout these tracks, it’s refreshing to the extreme to hear a guitarist so purposeful and individualistic, who never feels the need to fall back on tired postbop comping mechanisms.

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens  the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughans White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

Uri Gurvich Brings His Fiery Latin and Middle Eastern-Influenced Jazz to a Cozy Saturday Night Spot

Kinship, the latest release by saxophonist Uri Gurvich and his quartet, is a rarity in jazz these days: a concept album. The central theme is connections: familial, ancestral, cultural and musical. Gurvich also deals with issues of non-belonging, including racism and discrimination. Musically, it’s extremely ambitious, with influences spanning from Argentine and Israeli folk, the Middle East and the Balkans. This album – streaming at Soundcloud – doesn’t have the white-knuckle intensity of Gurvich’s landmark 2013 Middle Eastern jazz collection, BabEL, but its scope is even more global. Gurvich is playing a rare trio date comprising three quarters of the quartet, with bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, at the Bar Next Door on Dec 16, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $12.

Pianist Leo Genovese’s glittering chords and Mela’s majestic cymbals anchor Gurvich’s tenderly gliding and swirling lines in the rhythmically shifting ballad Song for Kate, a dedication to his wife. Slavov’s leaping bass kicks off Dance of the Ñañigos, which shifts between an uneasy, altered boogie and more jaunty latin Caribbean tinges, inspired by a 19th century Afro-Cuban secret society.

Guest singer Bernardo Palumbo opens El Chubut with a harrowing poem written in the 1970s by a captive at that notorious Argentine torture site, then gives it a similarly plaintive edge over a moody waltz that elegantly shifts meters. The Argentine-Israeli Gurvich’s balmy lines seem to offer hope over Genovese’s gritty gleam.

Twelve Tribes is a gorgeously cantering mashup of moody Israeli riffage and stark blues over a circling, qawalli-ish groove, Mela shifting the ambience toward Cuba as he throws off sparks during a tantalizingly brief solo midway through. Im Tirtzi, a slinky cover of a 1970s Sasha Argov Israeli pop ballad, gets a gracefully shuflfing bolero rhythm and a low-key staccato solo from Slavov.

Gurvich makes a soaring soprano sax-infused jazz waltz out of the old spiritual Go Down Moses, whose “let my people go” message has significance far beyond its African-American and Jewish roots. Genovese’s energetically sun-dappled lines duet with Gurvich’s calm, summery sax throughout the album’s title track

Gurvich and Genovese spin off allusively Middle Eastern lines over Mela’s lithely churning rhythm in Blue Nomad. Hermetos – a Hermeto Pascual homage – is another dizzying cross-genre blend, Genovese spiraling and rippling from the Amazon across the Caribbean and back, then trading off with the bandleader. Ha’im Ha’im closes the album, rising from Slavov’s murkily insistent bass intro to a steady midtempo swing, Gurvich alluding to Coltrane, mining for inner blues in another 1970s Argov pop ballad.

James Ilgenfritz’s Richly Textural Album Pushes the Limits of What Solo Bass Can Do

James Ilgenfritz’s second solo album, Origami Universe – streaming at Bandcamp – transcends the concept of solo bass, both in terms of performance and composition. He’s a ferocious improviser with daunting extended technique. Yet the album comprises four new compositions by major New York composers who date from an era when the downtown scene meant black-box former shooting gallery spaces instead of tourist bars.

The espionage-inspired Annie Gosfield’s mini-suite Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens opens the album, juxtaposing stygian bowing, elephantine snorts, oud-like reverberations, allusively jaunty, overtone-spiced harmonic riffs, gently bowed cello motives, swoops and dives galore. It’s catchy despite itself.

Miya Misaoka, classical Japanese koto virtuoso who’s taking the instrument to new places, contributes Four Moons Of Pluto. also a multi-part piece. Dark lows give way to uneasily hovering, insectile close harmonies and then slowly shifting, oscillating ocean liner diesel chords.Then Ilgenfritz ends it with a stately series of climbing variations.

He approaches the epic Xigliox, by master of the macabre JG Thirlwell, with a similarly ominous, matter-of-fact pacing. With its slowly crescendoing horror-film stroll and brooding bowed themes as it winds out, it’s both the most predictable and funniest piece here. When Ilgenfritz finally hits his first foreshadowing tritone early on, the effect packs a quiet wallop.

Guitar shredmeister Elliott Sharp’s Aletheia serves as a richly obsidian-toned coda that gets more mysterious as it goes along. Harmonics glisten and flicker against a cumulo-nimbus drone that fades to almost white noise and eventually a series of droll percussive oscillations. Thirlwell isn’t the only guy here with a sense of humor. In this piece and elsewhere, it’s amazing what a spectacular variety of timbres and textures Ilgenfritz creates without the use of any effects other than what appears to be a healthy amount of natural reverb.

Ilgenfritz gets around. He’s playing as part of guitarist Eyal Maoz’s fearsome Hypercolor trio with percussionist Lukas Ligeti at Spectrum on Dec 14 at 8. The Admiral Launch Duo – Jennifer Ellis on harp and Jonathan Hulting-Cohen on sax – headline at 9. Cover is $15.