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No New Abnormal

Category: music business

The Catalyst Quartet Release the Most Gorgeously Memorable Album of 2021 So Far

For the most rapturously gorgeous piece of music released so far this year, cue up the Catalyst Quartet’s new recording of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Humoresque, streaming at Spotify (there’s also a live version at youtube). It starts as a quasi-Balkan dance. When the sun busts through the clouds and a chorus of sorts kicks in, it’s a gutpunch. The album it’s on, Uncovered Vol. 1, should come with one of those stickers that you sometimes see on old heavy metal and punk records from the 80s: PLAY LOUD.

The quartet’s mission in recording an all Coleridge-Taylor album is to resurrect the poignant and sublimely melodic music of this fascinating composer beyond the organ demimonde. where his works are still frequently played – at least in free parts of the world, one hopes, anyway. Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes referred to as the British Brahms, but the British Dvorak is a much better comparison (this blog rates Coleridge-Taylor a cut above both). He died tragically young. His instantly identifiable sound echoes Dvorak’s fondness for Romany riffs, but also the African-American spiritual tradition. Which is no surprise, considering that Coleridge-Taylor was black.

It’s a trip to hear the Catalyst Quartet, champions of some of the most acerbic and sometimes challenging contemporary composers, playing such unselfconsciously beautiful High Romantic music, right down to an understated, period-perfect vibrato trailing out on the longer notes and the somewhat muted sonics of the recording. And yet, this music is rich with irony and a woundedness that’s sometimes allusively vengeful. The group – violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez are joined by pianist Stewart Goodyear to open the record with Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet in G minor for Piano and Strings, from 1893. The first movement reveals intriguing hints of both American Indian and Mexican music along with saturnine blues-tinged phrases woven into its dynamic shifts from the heroic to the pastoral.

Movement two has an opulent, tender, lullaby quality underscored by Goodyear and Laraia. The third movement has an elegant, Beethovenesque lilt but also a return to the gusty, bracing peaks of the opening theme. Goodyear’s emphatic, triumphant drive is matched by the ebullience of the strings in the conclusion, which manages to be as biting as it is cheerily catchy.

That delicious (and not necessarily amusing) Humoresque is the third movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke Op. 5, a string quartet work from two years later. The opening Prelude comes across as a comfortably dancing nocturne, the serenade of a second movement awash in rapt lustre. The Minuet and Trio are angst-tinged songs without words: it’s astonishing that nobody has ripped them off for pop songs in the century since they were written. The anthemic concluding dance is the most Dvoriakan moment here.

Anthony McGill is the soloist in the concluding piece, the Quintet in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 10, from 1906. The opening movement begins with sharp contrasts between McGrill’s unassailable liquidity and the dark incisiveness of the strings, then calms, but the tension remains, Vienna versus Veracruz. The textural richness and tenderness of the second will take your breath away, while the balletesque cheer of the third prefigures Gershwin. In the conclusion, it’s fascinating to see how the composer handles his return to the conflict inherent in the introduction, for a deviously playful payoff.

Just as auspiciously, this album is the first in a planned series featuring the works of other underrated and undeservedly obscure black composers including Florence Price and William Grant Still, among many others.

Revisiting a Couple of Familiar Beethoven Favorites

How tragic that more than 75% of last year’s planned Beethoven 250 celebrations were all cancelled by the lockdowners. In anticipation of the festivities, innumerable artists and orchestras had recorded an immense amount of Beethoven. One predictably confident, majestic concert recording that inadvertently foreshadowed the glut of live albums that would be dumped on the web less than a year after it was released is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s versions of two of the composer’s greatest hits, the Eroica Symphony and Symphony No. 5, streaming at Spotify. Kurt Masur leads the ensemble in these lustrous performances. This is a view from the back of the hall, individual voices distinct over a backdrop that’s often rather muted and wafts in, with production values approximating the comfortable integral quality of a vinyl record.

Even if you know these works by heart, it’s always fun to revisit them to see what surprises a particular conductor or orchestra can throw at you. This recording is particularly romantic, and Romantic as well. The first movement of the Eroica is as sleek as it is gusty, with pillowy exchanges between woodwinds over hushed ambience, but also precise, almost pointillistically leaping strings.

Eager, budding suspense and a graceful courtship ensue in movement two: this is a particularly suave interpretation. Movement three seems a little fast, yet it’s also remarkably plush. And those horns are announcing a fox hunt, aren’t they!

Masur brings the lush/stormy dichotomy into even clearer focus in the concluding movement, although he doesn’t let the conversations between winds and strings go to waste. As far as gearshifting for The Fifth Symphony, there isn’t much, even though emotionally it’s often 180 degrees the opposite. Masur obviously decided to opt for elegance this time out as well, in lieu of rampaging intensity or fullscale goth gloom in the opening movement.

This blog’s favorite version is a field recording made at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park in June of 2011, where the Knights played the symphony with uninhibited passion against a background of tree frogs and passing airplanes while bats divebombed the crowd. Still, Masur’s attention to detail in this one is welcome – the presence of the bass section in the first movement is especially rewarding.

Masur works top-to-bottom dynamics here even more than in the Eroica, particularly in the starry moments of the second movement and ominous portents of the third. The matter-of-fact bittersweetness in both really shines through as well. The finale brings the whole album full circle, the brightness and delicacy of the high strings just enough to bob up over the waves before a remarkably methodical, even restrained coda.

Get Lost in Domkraft’s Day of Doom Live Album

The latest in the Day of Doom Live series – immortalizing the performances at last year’s festival of dark psychedelic rock at St. Vitus in Greenpoint – is Domkraft’s searing set, streaming at Bandcamp. This what separates real musicians from wannabes. Anybody can sound like a million bucks in the studio, but onstage, you have to bring it, and Domkraft don’t disappoint. As with the other bands who played the festival, their influences range beyond metal to sledgehammering postrock and swirilng dreampop.

They get epic right from the start with The Rift, a hypnotic, mostly one-chord jam punctuated by hypnotic, insistent upward waves, guitarist Martin Widholm slowly dialing in the wah to make things even trippier. Bassist/frontman Martin Wegeland’s downtuned axe buzzes behind Widholm’s uneasy resonance as they launch into Through the Ashes, which is more doomy and chromatic, with a gloomy interlude where the guitar drops out midway through.

The tasty, evil riff that opens the studio version of Watchers gets lost here: this is more about dense head-bobbing atmospherics as drummer Anders Dahlgren drives it into doublespeed. But the version of Flood here has more menace and textural bite than the original.

Meltdown of the Orb is the set’s most hypnotic moment, like the early Black Angels at their loudest. They close with Landslide, slowly bringing up the eerie opening riff and then hitting a vikings-in-space groove in 6/8 time.

It should go without saying that nobody wants to live in a world where shows like this are against the law: just ask Domkraft, who come from Sweden, which never locked down this past year. Time to get busy, people: the US Supreme Court handed down a temporary injunction overturning New York dictator Andrew Cuomo’s ban on religious gatherings. Concerts – the kind outside of houses of worship – should be our next order of business!

Magical, Otherworldly Korean Improvisation From Baum Sae

Some of the world’s most fascinating and strange music has been coming out of Korea lately. Upstart record label Mung Music are fixated on bringing some of these amazing sounds to a broader audience, not only digitally but also on limited edition cassette and 10” vinyl with original artwork. Perhaps the most individualistic and fascinating of the initial crop of releases is the new ep, Embrace, by Baum Sae (Korean for “Night Birds”), streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine Morphine at their most stark and surreal, with a woman out front singing in Korean: and that’s only a small part of the picture.

The offbeat cicada-like exchanges between pansori singer Borim Kim and geomungo bass lute player Gina Hwang in the first song, 여름 (Summer) reflect the lyric’s pastoral melancholy. The melody strongly evokes Moroccan gnawa music, at least until Kim goes up the scale toward melismatic drama.

The second number, 화 (Anger) is a duet between Kim and drummer Soojin Suh. It’s shorter but much more dramatic and closer to traditional pansori, recounting the execution of a brave individual who dared secondguess a bellicose Chinese emperor. The final cut, 가느다란 선 (Thin Line) slowly and spaciously rises from Suh’s temple bells and Hwang’s suspenseful geomungo, through rather brooding variations on a traditional work song from the Jeju Islands. For all its shadowy ambience, those basslines are catchy!

You will be hearing more here about several other artists on the label in the near future.

The Best Manhattan Venue of 2017

Yesterday’s pick for this year’s best Brooklyn venue went to Barbes. The well-loved Brooklyn hotspot is the first stop on a pipeline that continues through the lowlit, romantic, adventurous Drom on the Lower East Side and winds up at Lincoln Center. Today’s pick for this year’s best Manhattan venue, the Lincoln Center Atrium, reflects that logically triumphant conclusion.

For anyone who might think it unimaginative to the extreme to choose one of the spaces at Manhattan’s world-famous cultural mecca, think again. What the three women who program the weekly events here are doing is extremely sophisticated – and wildly successful. Their outreach is global; their commitment to pushing the envelope – in artistic terms anyway – is genuinely radical. Given an opportunity to be a transformative force in a city that desperately needs it, they are schooling every other center of culture in this country.

We all know the depressing stats: the AVERAGE age of crowds at the big Manhattan classical concert halls is 65. And that’s counting the many gaggles of kids you see there. Clearly, these institutions need to look elsewhere for a customer base that will sustain them in the future.

Lincoln Center’s a step ahead of the game. By reaching out to communities who are underserved by the other Manhattan institutions, the programming at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is building a new foundation that mirrors the future of this city as a whole. This is the cool Lincoln Center space. Not that classical music, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, are uncool. The atrium is just cooler.

How do you bring the crowds out? With panel discussions on social justice issues, a monthly dance party or two or three, and music that often can’t be seen anywhere else in town…or in this country. This past year’s lineup spanned from noir mariachi rock, to techno big band jazz, Cameroonian downtempo psychedelia, Harlem symphonic funk, an improvisational Middle Eastern jazz orchestra playing Indian ragas, and one of the world’s most spectacular female electric guitarists. The first-ever US tour by the stars of Morocco’s wildly popular annual summer festival of gnawa trance-dance music kicked off here last spring. And that’s typical of what you get here. It doesn’t hurt that all of these events are free.

The success of the atrium shatters the myth that Manhattan isn’t a destination for young people anymore. You know the drill: Manhattan is too expensive, too stodgy, too tourist-ridden, and it’s impossible to get home at night because the trains are such a mess. But week after week, crowds pack the space. It’s like Barbes, but bigger, and without the stress of the F train.

What’s happening here isn’t just fun – it’s historic. They’re building a scene, a mix of neighborhood oldtimers and kids from every borough of the city. Someday there will be documentaries about it. It’s yours if you want it – clearly, the kids do.

The Best Brooklyn Venue of 2017

Every year for ten years now, this blog’s predecessor has picked two New York venues as the best in their respective boroughs, Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s time for this blog to take over that responsibility.

For those of you who follow concert coverage here, it won’t come as any surprise that the pick for best Brooklyn venue this year goes to Barbes.

On one hand, that this modest Park Slope boîte has been able to stay in business for fifteen years during the longest downward spiral that this city’s arts scene has ever experienced validates the argument that if you give people good music, people will come.

Hang at the bar long enough and you may meet locals who, when they were growing up, probably never listened to anything edgier than Bonnie Raitt. Yet they’re nuts about Slavic Soul Party. And have seen the band dozens of times – simply because Barbes’ management thought that giving a weekly residency to an oompahing brass band who love hip-hop as much as Serbian music would be a moneymaking venture. On a Tuesday night, no less.

And they were right!

For years, the Barbes house band, Chicha Libre – who probably deserve more credit than any other group for making cumbia the world’s default party music – packed the house on what otherwise would have been a dead Monday night. Had they played Saturday nights like every other band in the world wants to do, they could have succeeded at a venue ten times the size of Barbes. But this was a win-win situation. The bar made Saturday night money, the band did well, and the weekly residency eliminated the need for a rehearsal space.

Stephane Wrembel, the paradigm-shifting Romany jazz guitarist, has been playing there pretty much every week, practically from day one. He has a gig somewhere else in town, or out of town, most every other night. New Yorkers have more chances to see this guy than we do pretty much anyone else. And yet, if you don’t show up early enough, you won’t be able to get into the room to see him.

On a Sunday night.

A few weeks ago there was a klezmer band in the back, and it was impossible to get in to see them, too. This was at four on a lazy weekend afternoon.

Practically every night of the week, there is an act here worth seeing. The scene is global; cross-pollination is the name of the game. Bollywood cumbia; creepy surf art-rock; film noir dance music; Afrobeat psychedelia; Peruvian parlor pop, and one of the original and most popular mashups in the history of American music: latin jazz. If Barbes has found success in pushing the envelope, why don’t other venues do the same thing?

Obviously, a lot of them haven’t been around as long and are under considerably more pressure to pay the rent. In their circumstances, the hope of being able to weather a couple of down nights if an act doesn’t pull the expected crowd is a luxury they can’t afford. The opposite is true too: many of the new neighborhood clubs are vanity projects funded by rich out-of-state parents who want to give Junior something to keep him busy and off dope until his trust fund kicks in. And the trend at larger venues is to hand over booking to number-crunching poindexters who won’t work with any artist who doesn’t have the requisite social numbers – which are all fake, by the way.

Still, you have to wonder. What Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas are doing at Barbes is nothing new. Bill Graham did that at the Fillmores, east and west. Hilly Kristal did it at CBGB. You’d think that somebody, somewhere in this city beyond the elite echelon of Barbes, the Jalopy, Drom and Lincoln Center would see the value in niche programming – if only to eliminate the agony of having to suffer through one lame Muse or Beyonce wannabe after another.

Sure, there’s the magical Owl in Crown Heights. But as far as pretty-much-nightly music is concerned, that’s it. Barbes has at least another five years left in their comfortable former laundromat space at the corner of Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s a scene every bit as historic as what was happening at Birdland in 1957, or at CB’s and in the vacant lots of the South Bronx twenty years later. And it’s yours if you want it.

Tomorrow, this blog’s pick for best Manhattan venue.

Happy Tenth Birthday to Manhattan’s Best Music Venue

[adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming photo book celebrating the tenth anniversary of Manhattan’s edgiest music venue and romantic date spot, Drom]

Every great city is defined by its artistic spaces. Paris has the Louvre and the Bataclan, London has the Royal Albert Hall, New York has the Met and and Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre.

But every city also has a secret history. No real history of New York in the past decade would be complete without Drom, Manhattan’s global music mecca since 2007.

High on the back wall of the lowlit, old-world space, there’s an amber-toned painting of the Galata Tower, an iconic landmark on the western Istanbul skyline. In the shadow of the tower is a historic neighborhood which throughout the centuries has been home to churches, mosques and also a synagogue. That striking image mirrors the inclusive sensibility central to the philosophy at Drom, in a decade of booking artists from around the world, from every tradition from the West and beyond.

Among New York venues booking music and the arts from around the globe, Drom is the only one over the past half-century to succeed without corporate or public funding. In an era in Manhattan increasingly defined by rising rents and displacement of independent business, that achievement is all the more astonishing, testament to the tirelessness and depth of vision of founders Serdar Ilhan and Mehmet Dede, bolstered by their partner Ekmel Anda.

The two are a contrast in personalities: Ilhan, the aesthete, an accomplished visual artist with a focus and drive to create a milieu that best represents the vast range of artists who grace the stage there. Dede, the gregarious impresario, with a similarly vast address book and fearlessness to match the eclecticism of the acts he books. In a field that can be awfully shady, Ilhan and Dede aren’t afraid to be transparent with their terms. No wonder so many artists from around the world, and across New York’s five boroughs, have made their North American or New York debuts here.

The space itself is both indelibly urban and urbane. The wrought iron steps down to the brickwalled basement-level landing are gritty New York to the core. Inside the front doors, past the plush red velvet curtains, an oasis reveals itself.

Before it was Drom, the high-ceilinged, L-shaped space was a neighborhood dance club called Opaline. Ilhan completely gutted and redesigned it himself, directing renovations from up on a ladder. The contrast of elegant dark wood paneling and rustic brick under the low light of the chandeliers reflect a welcoming atmosphere. The same friendly faces work here, night after night – everybody seems comfortable here, a rarity at music venues and even more so in the service industry.

The only feature from the old space that Ilhan retained was the L-shape and the high ceiling, which enhances the sonics: Drom is a live room. No matter who’s onstage – a classical ensemble, a jazz group, a blazing Balkan brass band or hip-hop – the sound is reliably good. Depending on the music or the performance – Drom has also been home to the Fringe Festival and other theatrical performances over the years – there might be tables, or the entire floor might be opened up for concertgoers. The bar always fills up fast: the wine is good, the bartenders are friendly and it’s one of the few places in all of New York where you can find Yeni Raki, the delicious anise liqueur.

Ilhan got his start in show business in the theatre: his first booking at the Town Hall was a sellout. When Dede first began booking music at Drom, he was doing regular Balkan events at a gritty Alphabet City bar a few blocks further east. Since their first days producing the annual New York Gypsy Festival, this city’s most wide-ranging series of concerts featuring performers from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Balkans , the two have combined to offer more diverse programming than any other venue in all of New York, in the same vein as Barbes in Brooklyn.

Long before Obama hinted at normalizing relations with Cuba, Drom was booking Cuban artists. Since its inception, the venue has been the first stop in Manhattan for Russian bands. Before Snarky Puppy became the most happening thing in progressive jazz, they were playing here as well. Boban Markovic took the stage at Drom years before his Balkan wedding and funeral band began packing Lincoln Center. Iconic jazz drummer Chico Hamilton played his final show on that stage, while noted klezmer trumpeter Frank London’s Glass House Ensemble made their debut here, among countless other artists’ genre-defying projects, blending Eastern European, Mediterranean and jazz sounds.

Meanwhile, Ilhan and Dede have expanded beyond their home base. They’re the only American promoters doing national tours for some of the most happening Turkish rock and folk acts. And numerous iconic Turkish artists have made their American debuts at Ilhan and Dede’s annual showcase, Istanbulive – “the Turkish Woodstock.”

You could make a case that Drom is CBGB, LaMaMa, Carnegie Hall and Mehanata – the downtown Bulgarian bar where Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz held court for so many years – rolled into one. Except that the sound is on par with any good New York jazz venue, and the ambience is more inviting: among New York music spots, few are as unabashedly romantic as Drom.

If your agenda in running a music blog is to cover the entirety of New York and the vast expanse of styles across this city, you need to move around a lot. But it helps to have an anchor. In Manhattan, Drom is New York Music Daily’s home base. If you’ve followed this blog, especially if sounds from around the world and the Balkans are concerned, you’re no stranger to Drom. If you’ve never been, now is as good a time as any to discover the space. June is looking especially hot. Since they’re celebrating ten years of going against the tide – seriously, did anybody really expect these guys to last ten months, let alone ten years? – their ten-year celebration month is off the hook. Just for starters, on June 9 at 7 there’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Advance tix are a bargain at $20.

Then on June 10 at 8 Romany guitar legend Stephane Wrembel airs out material from his wildly eclectic, psychedelic new double album The Django Experiment, with another show at 11 by Brooklyn Balkan brass faves Slavic Soul Party featuring sensational Serbian trumpeter Demirhan Cerimovic; advance tix for those are $15.

On June 14, the wildfire NY Gypsy All-Stars are joined by brilliant guest oudist Ara Dinkjian at 9:30; advance tix are $10. On June 21 at 8, there’s one of the year’s hottest jazz lineups: imagine seeing the Rolling Stones’ Tim Ries on sax, leading a quintet with Randy Brecker, the great Chano Dominguez on piano, with James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums, for real, and for fifteen bucks! And for fans of serious esoterica, percussionist Navin Chettri‘s band makes jazz out of rarely heard Nepali themes on June 25 at 9:30, and that’s ten bucks if you buy in advance. That’s just a taste of what’s coming up.

Which is something that adventurous New York concertgoers have taken for granted, and can pretty much still take for granted. Day in, day out, nobody in Manhattan does more fearless programming than these guys. July will no doubt be just as good as June…then there’s the annual New York Gypsy Festival to look forward to as we get into the fall. Here’s to another ten years of minor keys, intoxicating grooves and Yeni Raki!

Running the Rapids of Global Music Industry Change at the Inaugural Mondo Conference

Logistically speaking, the biggest takeaway from last week’s inaugural, five-day Mondo music business conference was that future attendees will need a buddy system. There were simply too many panels offering ready intelligence, inspiration and food for thought for any one individual to take in alone. Ambitious musicians and entrepreneurs planning to attend next year’s conference – and another is scheduled for 2017 – should bring a wingman or woman to cover as much ground as possible. And when there’s a lull in the action, double up with your bandmate, or manager, or subcontractor, and then discuss afterward. The roughly $250 per person it’s going to cost is a real bargain.

And make sure you explore outside your own turf. Even if you don’t like heavy metal – one of many specific genres covered in detail at multiple panels – or, if like most musicians, you don’t consider EDM to be music at all, you should still investigate how it’s being sold. If it is being sold at all – there wasn’t time for this blog to venture that far out.

Pretty much everybody who’s anybody – Spotify, Tunecore, Vevo, NPR, many streaming services, publicity firms, licensing agencies, booking agents, boutique label people, lawyers, educators and lots of touring musicians – were represented among the panelists. Likewise, attendees ran the gamut, a global cast, on the young side but with many grizzled veterans of an earlier era humbled by the changes of the past fifteen years or so, and just as hungry as their younger counterparts. The major labels may be dead in the water by their own admission, running on fumes and at ten percent of capacity, but people are still making money in music. Maybe not Wolf of Wall Street skrilla, but there are plenty of bands on the road who don’t need dayjobs.

What is the state of the industry at the moment? Sheer chaos. What was fascinating to witness was the degree of disagreement from market to market, and to weigh the credibility of opposing opinions to fit different individual models. According to one articulate panelist, in hip-hop, if you can get $10 out of one email address, you can monetize that for another $130, on average. Did you know that in the folk music world, physical cd’s are still a viable revenue stream, and not only as merch at shows? There wasn’t any one panel – at least that this blog got to cover – where this was stated outright, but in 2016, the inescapable and rather triumphant verdict is that niche rules.

The other ubiquitous meme was “across all platforms.” With a little help from their friends or bandmates, maybe, any artist can be on every major and not-so-major streaming service around the world. As one oldster put it, getting a track on a hot Spotify playlist in 2016 is like having your cd on a Tower Records endcap thirty years ago. Everybody agreed that Spotify is the world’s most important radio station: growing at a rate of 1.7 million PAID subscribers a month, not to mention the tens of millions who use the free service. And as far as terrestrial radio is concerned, one promoter noted that while there are still a small handful of commercial stations that play good music, all the action is in public, nonprofit or college markets. And that action is still viable, especially for emerging artists, since even the smallest labels, and booking agents, and licensors, are crunching numbers like crazy, parsing the flood of data available for even the most obscure acts.

By contrast, many of the big-business panels reflected a circle-the-wagons desperation. Everybody in that world seems to be up in arms over last year’s US Department of Justice consent decree, which simplified licensing by streamlining deals via rights administrators like ASCAP or BMI rather than through what in many cases can be multiple publishers. There was also an entire panel devoted to removing unauthorized videos and streams from the web – akin to Donald Trump asking people to take unauthorized “Trump in 2016” bumper stickers off their cars. Even according to Universal Music’s own survey, one in four artists has zero interest in being signed to a record label. Considering how many wannabes there still are out there, that’s a seismic shift.

Happily, the conference had very few vestiges of smarmy “I did blow backstage with Skynyrd at the Fox Theatre in 1974” insider smugness. Panelists interacted enthusiastically with the crowd, exchanged emails and such (Superphone honcho Ryan Leslie gave out his cell number – for those who don’t already have it, it’s 646-887-6978, and don’t abuse it). As one talent agent put it, this is the era where instead of screwing your neighbor, you give them a leg up because it will probably come back to you someday.

Ambitiously – and this conference is all about ambition – the conference was held not in some scuzzy Midtown hotel but at NYU’s comfortably airconditioned flagship building, the Kimell Center on Washington Square South. NYU students are a friendly bunch – maybe because they aren’t treated like criminals the second they cross the security gate – and the staff there follow suit.

The after-conference parties were excellent (but be careful, you don’t want to get so hungover the next day that you miss a useful 9 AM discussion or networking opp). Unfortunately, this year, the music wasn’t. Of all the acts scattered across various showcases in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a grand total of three – retro 60s garage rockers Del CaesarNew York chamber pop regulars Elizabeth & the Catapult and the subversively theatrical Killy Dwyer– offered anything more than what would probably clear the room or make you tune out after thirty seconds. But that’s to be expected at a first-year conference. There are still legions of clueless Taylor Swift and One Direction wannabes out there without benefit of either Swift’s relentless stage parents, or boyband velvet mafia. As the conference grows, and one assumes it will, the music will improve. And music at these events is an afterthought anyway – in New York, there are good bands playing all over town every night. Events like this one only come around once a year. It’ll be fun to see how far it’s grown next time around.

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

Moody, Goth-Tinged Duo the Smoke Fairies Play a Rare Free Show in Williamsburg

British duo the Smoke Fairies set unpretentious vocals with low-key harmonies to attractive, tersely constructed, subtly orchestrated keyboard melodies with a typically shadowy, nocturnal ambience. A lot of Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire’s songs bring to mind Blonde Redhead at their most darkly shoegazy. The Smoke Fairies have a new self-titled album, their third, streaming at Spotify and a free, full-band show coming up on Sept 1 at Rough Trade in Williamsburg at 7 PM.

It’s a change of pace – is the heavy use of synths and piano this time around an attempt to replicate a mannered, campy Lana Del Rey faux-noir vibe? Happily, no. What most of these songs are is 90s-style trip-hop pop, very cleverly disguised and arranged. There’s more than a hint of classic 70s Britfolk in the vocals, and a nod to 80s goth-pop and darkwave in the background. The opening track, We’ve Seen Birds has the synth imitating a guitar tremolo – “Did you think we could exist like this?” the duo ask enigmatically. Eclipse Them All reaches toward a funeral parlor organ sound with the occasional lingering cry from the guitar – it’s a shot at seductively anthemic, Goldfrapp-style atmospherics.

Shadow Inversions works a more anthemically ghostly ambience, swirling over a simple, rising bassline with distorted, echoey guitars and drums. The slowly vamping Hope Is Religion builds to a hypnotic, Indian-flavored string ambience. Waiting for Something to Begin, a pulsing, angst-ridden escape anthem, blends distant Beatlisms into its nocturnal downtempo groove.

Your Own Silent Movie is another slow, angst-fueled anthem, sort of a mashup of 80s goth-pop and teens chamber pop, the dynamics rising and falling: “Each room of your house a drama you’ve been staging, but I will never let the curtains unfold,” the two insist.

Guest Andy Newmark’s tumbling, artsy drums raise the energy of Misty Versions above by-the-numbers folk noir, building to an icily seductive mix of crackling guitar noise and dreampop vocalese. Drinks and Dancing is hardly the bubbly pop song the title would suggest – instead, it’s a more hi-tech take on torchy, wounded Amanda Thorpe-style balladry. Likewise, Koto is not a Japanese folk song but a simple, tersely crescendoing two-chord trip-hop vamp.

Want It Forever takes an unexpected detour into garage rock, souped up with layers of keys and guitars. The Very Last Time ponders a torrid but impossible relationship that sounds like it was doomed from the start, set to what’s become an expectedly echoey, minor-key, hallucinatory backdrop. The album ends with the haunted, bitter, defeated Are You Crazy,opening as a regretful piano ballad and growing to a swaying, deep-space pulsar ambience. It’ll be interesting to see how much of all this orchestration and atmospheric hocus-pocus the band can replicate onstage.