New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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DWB: The Most Relevant, Hauntingly Evocative New Chamber Opera in Years

It’s hard to imagine a song cycle more apropos to our era than composer Susan Kander and soprano Roberta Gumbel’s chamber opera DWB (Driving While Black), streaming at Spotify. Gumbel’s lyrics draw on her own experiences and worries as the parent of a black adolescent who’s approaching driving age. Interspersed amid this mom’s reveries are real-life “bulletins” ranging from incidents of mundane everyday racism – Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to enter his own home – to allusively macabre references to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile.

Kander’s dynamic, sometimes kinetic, often haunting series of themes bring to mind Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock movie scores, Gumbel nimbly negotiating their dramatic twists and turns. With tense close harmonies and chiming arrangements, Messiaen and maybe George Crumb seem to be influences. The duo New Morse Code come across as a much larger ensemble: credit percussionist Michael Compitello, who plays a vast variety of instruments, most notably vibraphone and bells, alongside cellist Hannah Collins. Together they shift, often in the span of a few seconds, from a creepy, deep-space twinkle to a stalking, monstrous pulse and all-too-frequent evocations of gunfire.

What hits you right off the bat is that this narrator mom is smart. She frets about putting her infant in a backwards-facing car seat, because he won’t be able to see her, and she won’t be able to offer him a smile to comfort him. We get to watch him grow up: to Gumbel’s immense credit, there’s a lot of humor in the more familial moments, welcome relief from the relentless sinister outside world. The driver’s ed scene is particularly hilarious. Yet this doesn’t turn out to be a trouble-free childhood: Gumbel casts the kid as the son in a single-parent household, reflecting the reality that an inordinate percentage of people of color are forced to cope with.

Most of the numbers are over in less than a couple of minutes, a kaleidoscope of alternately fond and grisly images. A soaring, drifting lullaby, a slinky soul-tinged groove and a plaintive cello solo break up the furtive, often frantic sequences. One of the most chilling interludes involves not a police shooting but a near-miss. In a case of mistaken identity with a rare happy ending, the cops end up dumping the ex-suspect out of the police van in an unfamiliar part of town. He has to walk all the way home from there. Wait til you find out how old he is.

A Picturesque, Poignant New Volume From Jazz Violinist Tomoko Omura

This blog called violinist Tomoko Omura‘s 2020 album Branches “refreshingly uncluttered, tuneful and picturesque, especially when it comes to the nocturnes.” On her newly released second volume – streaming at Bandcamp – she takes both that saturnine ambience and picturesque sensibility to the next level. The band includes pianist Glenn Zaleski, bassist Pablo Menares, drummer Jay Sawyer and guitarist Jeff Miles. These songs burst with purposeful tunes, ideas and thoughtful solos.

They open with To a Firefly, Omura adding elegant vocal harmonies over a sober, slowly shuffling groove spiced with eerily flickering piano, ominously lingering guitar chords, lilting triplets from the bass, alternately sailing melody and apprehensive harmonics from the violin. The trick ending will take you completely by surprise.

Melancholy of a Crane is a spare, moodily balletesque jazz waltz, Zaleski’s enigmatically resonant chords behind Omura’s slowly unwinding, sustained tones. Little by little, his brightly incisive solo pushes the clouds away for a bit before the bandleader’s spare, subtly chromatic solo brings the unsettled atmosphere back.

To Ryan Se begins as a bracing, trickily rhythmic Balkan dance number and picks up with a racewalking swing. Omura chooses her spots in a biting, energetic, methodically crescendoing solo, Zaleski’s romping lines once again bringing up the lights, Miles shredding a path for a tantalizingly sizzling coda.

A murky bit of a tone poem, a lively series of solo arpeggios and then Zaleski’s somber, funereal chords take centerstage as Bow’s Dance slowly unwinds, Omura again steady and apprehensive overhead: damn, this is an album for our time! But the light-fingered stampede out is a hoot.

Tomie’s Blues is actually a steady, gorgeously lyrical ballad, Menares taking a warmly dancing, mutedly incisive solo over Zaleski’s spare gleam and Sawyer’s whispery brushwork. They wind up the record with the Urashima Suite, unwinding from a tight, spiraling, Terry Riley-ish piano riff to a gracefully bounding, shimmering Zaleski solo, a jagged violin/guitar break, a subtly conversational series of violin and piano variations capped off by a lush Omura solo, and some deliciously unhinged bluesmetal from Miles. Don’t be surprised to see this album on a lot of best-of-2021 lists assuming that those who put them together haven’t collectively taken the needle of death.

A Colorful, Entertaining New Mix of Orchestral Works by Women Composers

Since the mid-teens, conductor Reuben Blundell has been unearthing one undiscovered American symphonic treasure after another, first with the Gowanus Arts Ensemble and most recently with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. His latest album with the latter, aptly titled American Discoveries, is streaming at Bandcamp. Fortuitously, he and the ensemble managed to wrap up the final recording sessions just a few weeks before the lockdown.

Blundell has been mining the vast archive in the Fleisher Collection of the Philadelphia Free Library for compositions which may not have been played in as much as a hundred years. This album features three women composers: an extremely rare work from 1928, and two better known, more recent pieces.

The orchestra open the album with Priscilla Alden Beach’s City Trees, a tantalizingly brief, triumphantly Romantic overture. The album’s liner notes mention Howard Hansen as a likely influence: Holst and Respighi also come strongly to mind. While Beach worked professionally in music for part of her life, she wore many different hats; tragically, most of her compositions have disappeared.

Linda Robbins Coleman‘s similarly colorful, Romantic 1996 pastorale For a Beautiful Land makes a good segue. Blundell evinces playful hints of birdsong over stillness, the orchestra rising to cheery bustle with hints of a fugue, Dvorakian sentinels amid the strings peeking across the prairie. The percussion section shimmer and shine, kicking off an ebullient, windswept waltz with the group going full tilt: Vaughan Williams is a good point of comparison.

The final piece is Alexandra Pierce’s 1976 Behemoth, an entertaining five-part suite inspired by the Biblical monster, even if it is not particularly monstruous. It’s a bit more modernist than the two preceding works. Portentous lows anchoring hazy strings, and tongue-in-cheek brass and percussion accents rise to heroic levels in the introduction. Puckish percussion flickers amidst alternating sheets of melody in the brief second movement, followed by a resonant, moody interlude, woodwinds and finally Suzanne Ballam’s harp precisely puncturing the amber.

The percussion section – Chris Kulp, Marshall Dugan, David Jamison and Susan Spina – get to indulge themselves in the very funny, fleeting bit of a fourth movement. Basses (Fay Kahmer, Barbara Brophy, Michael Carsley and Kurt Kuechler) take over the wary riffage beneath the lustre, cymbal crashes and blazing brass as the suite peaks out. Let’s hope for more from Blundell and this adventurous crew: Pennsylvanians seem to be getting restless, and the lockdown there looks like it’s on the ropes.

A Tight, Focused, Psychedelic Album From the Brooklyn Funk Essentials

The two hardest styles of music to write about are bluegrass and funk. There are basically two types of bluegrass: fast dancey stuff and slow morose material. The job gets even harder if the band only plays the fast kind because the slow kind tends to have interesting lyrics about murder and misery and such.

What can you say about a funk band? That you can dance to them? If you can’t, either you or the band have a problem, and usually it’s the band. Then there’s the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, whose signature sound is a psychedelic yet very tightly focused kind of funk. Over the years, they’ve played just about every sweatbox venue across the borough. Their latest album, Stay Good  is streaming at Soundcloud.

What’s amazing about the title track, which opens the record, is how little there actually is going on in it – and that the band can make what’s mostly a one-chord jam interesting for almost seven minutes. They do it with Lati Kronlund’s dubwise bass, Iwan VanHetten’s wah keys, Desmond Foster’s chicken-scratch guitar, spare horns, a brief Anna Brooks alto sax solo and a good lyric from frontwoman Alison Limerick: the point of the song is that not everything sucks.

The rest of the record is just as imaginative. Hux Flux Nettermalm’s drums get your head bobbing and the little touches make it spin, from the hints of reggae and echoey electric piano in Ain’t Nothing to the squiggly portamento synth in No Strings.

The band build Watcha Want From Me around a catchy Rick James-style bassline and take a detour toward moody but bouncy tropicalia and then dub with Miss Mess, Limerick doing a little lively scatting. Just when you think Keep the Love is going to be a slow, dubby jam, they take it doublespeed. The rhythm section really pushes the beat in the oldschool disco tune Funk Ain’t Ova.

They stick with a slow jam all the way through Breeze on Me, over a spare reggae bassline with the wah open just a little bit. Bakabara has a gritty oldschool 70s edge, while the skeletal strut Y Todav (La La Quiero) is a platform for a low-key, dancing sax solo. They wind up the album with the slow, hypnotic Steps and then the oldschool disco groove Where Love Lives. Great dance music? That’s a no-brainer. Good head music too.

An Electrifying Debut Album by Cellist John-Henry Crawford

Cellist John-Henry Crawford obviously wanted to make a splash with his debut album, Dialogo, streaming at Spotify.. First he tackles an old Germanic warhorse, then a cruelly challenging solo sonata and closes with prime Shostakovich. And he leaves a mark with each piece.

Brahms’ Sonata for Piano and Cello No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99 may be a pleasant if unmemorable work, but Crawford goes deep under the hood and finds innumerable ways to hold the listener’s attention. He airs out his vaunted technique in Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello And Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 is as sardonic and vibrant as anyone could want.

Right out of the gate in the first movement of the Brahms, Crawford explores the fullness of his range, with a stark, stygian resonance on the lows and contrasting airiness in the highs. His use of vibrato is intuitive and varied, depending on the phrase: he tends to be sparing with it, eschewing full-blown High Romantic drama. Meanwhile, pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion matches that dynamic attack, from distant glimmer to the occasional insistent peak.

There’s a welcome spareness to the second movement, from both cellist and pianist. Yet Crawford’s versatile attack in the pizzicato sections, from a stomp to a whisper, are attention-grabbing to say the least. The two really dig into movement three: this is far more of a boisterous country waltz than tiresome Viennese high-society gala. They close it out with a finely detailed wariness and wistfulness: if only others would play it that way more often.

Crawford’s approach to Ligeti’s completely different, elegaic Sonata for Solo Cello is similar in that dynamic contrasts and shifts are every bit as finely honed, and striking when a sudden, troubled moment appears. The steadiness of the first movement harks appropriately back to Bach; the chase scenes of the second are less furtive than simply breathtaking.

The duo close out the album with Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40. It’s the composer putting an acerbic modernist edge on his early Romantic influences, with a vividly lyricism. The first movement shifts between a rather nostalgic glimmer to more enigmatic insistence, aching crescendos and a stunning move to a mutedly stalking theme out of a poignantly resonant passage.

The elegantly off-center dervish dance of a second movement is pure fun: Crawford’s harmonic glissandos are hilarious (and brutally tough to play). The third’s slow, broodingly upward drift from minimalism to an increasingly wary pavane and back is otherworldly and unselfconsciously affecting. The two wind up the sonata, and the album, with a gremlinish playfulness, trading off breathlessly between torrential streams of notes and an irresistibly wry jauntiness. It’s reason to look forward to whatever else these two choose to do together – and let’s hope they will.

High-Voltage, Picturesque, Purposeful New Jazz Epics From the Alchemy Sound Project

The Alchemy Sound Project’s new album Afrika Love – streaming at youtube – comes across as one of those recordings which under less duress would have been a 2020 release, and maybe a bit longer. It’s fantastic as it is, with picturesque, edgy compositions from each of the band’s core members and an acerbic, often combustible blend of very distinct, individual voices. There’s a lot happening in these songs. Pianist Sumi Tonooka, multi-reed players Salim Washington and Erica Lindsay, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack and bassist David Arend are joined by trombonist Michael Ventoso and drummer Chad Taylor.

The album kicks off with The Fountain, a biting clave tune by Arend, featuring bubbly horn riffage, a marvelously elusive Washington tenor sax solo winding around and behind a bracing rise. Tonooka’s careeningly rhythmic solo backs away for a tense tenor duel between Washington and Lindsay as Taylor builds the perfect storm. One doesn’t expect a composer collective to be this unhinged, or have this much fun.

Dark Blue Residue, a Tonooka tune has a similarly assertive but more syncopated rhythmic drive, Taylor just slightly more restrained through ambered horn passages, Arend’s elastic leaps anchoring a terse, considered piano solo. It’s an aptly conflicted portrait of the memory of friendship: play this for someone whose friends were brain-drained out of a place like New York in the months following March 16 of last year.

Washington begins Afrika Love – a dramatic, suspenseful shout-out to his South African countryman, pianist Afrika Mkhize – with a moody oboe solo based on Zulu modes. Arend’s stinging riff signals a fondly soaring Boshnack solo, Taylor’s relentless turbulence enhanced by ominous harmonies from Ventoso and Lindsay. Bracing, rapidfire solos from Lindsay and Washington bookend Tonooka’s decisive move to part the clouds and introduce a subtle shift to waltz time.

Boshnack is a devoted fan of the outdoors, reflected in The Cadillac of Mountains. A regally shuffling theme hints at New Orleans and then subsides for a gorgeously lyrical clarinet duet between Washington (on bass clarinet) and Lindsay, the latter shifting to tenor and soaring skyward. Taylor – who kills on this album, again and again – gets a secret cha-cha going, Arend a spring-loaded wild card against the horns’ cohesive comfort.

With its wry Ellington allusions, stately rhythms and wistfully lyrical horn lines punctuated by the rhythm section’s incisions, the album’s concluding cut, Kesii is Lindsay’s shout-out to a friend who died recently at 107. Clearly, this was a life well lived. Count this tantalizingly short album as one of the best of 2021 so far.

A Poignant, Broodingly Gorgeous Greek Psychedelic Album From Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis

You could make the argument that Greece has had a psychedelic music scene since the 1920s, when waves of refugees and exiles from Smyrna and Turkey brought their Middle Eastern-flavored hash-smoking songs with them. So it’s no surprise that psychedelic rock became a big thing there forty years later. Singer Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis’ 2016 album NYN – streaming at Spotify – looks back to that era, with tastefully bulked-up 21st century production values.

The opening track, Ethertai Haimonas (Winter Is Coming) has a muted, wistful As Tears Go By vibe, set to a 90s trip-hop beat with layers of keys. The second track, Ouden Oida (I Know Nothing) is a gorgeously bristling, minor-key blend of brooding 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk and chiming bouzouki janglerock.

The hypnotically droning, chromatically biting, syncopated Strati Strati (Step by Step) vividly echoes the dusky rembetiko sound from a hundred years ago, complete with a moody sax solo. Stassinopoulou’s poignantly misty mezzo-soprano takes centerstage in Gia Mia Stigmi (For a Moment), an unselfconsciously beautiful, swaying ballad with layers of clanging, ringing guitar and bouzouki.

They interrupt the pervasive melancholy for Mystic Rap, a whispery trip-hop number and then pick up the pace with Par Me Agea (Take Me, Wind), a starkly dancing, distantly Egyptian-tinged piano tune awash in trippy samples. The album’s most straight-up rock tune is the steady, darkly insistent Ah Athanate (Oh, You Century), bagpipes and backward-masked snippets fluttering in the background.

Nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and swooping electric slide work contrast in the pensive Allarokania (Change in the Weather). Stassinopoulou sings the haunting rembetiko-tinged Sabah Tuo Erota, a love song, with an understated, melismatic, microtonal angst. While it’s understandable that the band would want to do something to beef up the hypnotic one-chord jam Kyma To Kyma (Wave After Wave), loopy trip-hop is definitely not the answer.

Thela Na Mouna Nero (I Wish I Was Water) is the album’s sparest number, just gongs, chimes, vocals and clattering percussion. The title track is a mashup of loops, a minor-key bouzouki riff and swoopy P-Funk keyboards. They break out the distorted electric guitar to close the record with the trickily dancing Ola Pane Ki Erhondai (Everything Comes and Goes). What a delicious rediscovery.

Otherworldly Norwegian Folk-Influenced Sounds From Sinikka Langeland

Sinikka Langeland‘s axe is the kantele, the magical rippling Norwegian stringed instrument which is sort of a Nordic counterpart to the English psaltery. Langeland got her start in the world of traditional music and then moved from that seemingly inexhaustible well to writing her own songs, and then to improvisation. Her latest album, Wolf Rune – streaming at Spotify – features solo instrumentals and original songs.

She sings in Norwegian in a full, expressive, sometimes grittily soaring voice. She plays with a purposeful, lingering approach, using the kantele both for ringing, chiming textures akin to a twelve-string guitar, and also for violin-like washes in places. And she uses its full range: on the sparse Kantele Prayer, for example, she gets a muted, low-register texture almost like an oud.

Most of the songs here have a slowly drifting pace, occasionally blurring the line into ambient music. That aspect is what’s going to appeal to non-Norwegian speakers. For those who can appreciate her lyrics, she typically uses nature imagery, often metaphorically. The lure and perils of the ocean are recurrent themes; otherwise, these songs are populated with moose, wolves and wintry tableaux.

In the album’s epic centerpiece, When I Was the Forest, she rises to a symphonic, energetic peak: in places, it could almost be early 70s pastoral Pink Floyd with a woman out front. In Winter Rune, she alternates between a spare, hypnotically plucked interweave and harsh, cello-like scrapes. The best song title – and most warmly immersive track here – is Don’t Come to Me With the Entire Truth. There are no boisterous salutes to bellicose Norse gods here: Langeland is dedicated to creating a much more contemplative, original sound world.

Haunting, Purposeful, Hypnotic New Trio Album From Pianist Dahveed Behroozi

Pianist Davheed Behroozi‘s new album Echos – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a magically immersive, often haunting, stunningly improvisational suite of sorts. Behroozi likes to cast a stone and then minimalistically parse the ripples, joined by a sympatico rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Billy Mintz. Interestingly, it’s Morgan – who’s done similarly brilliant work with Bill Frisell, especially – who pierces this nocturnal veil more often than not. Mintz flashes his plates for drizzle and snowstorm ambience more than he drives the music forward: rhythms here are tidal rather than torrential.

The trio open with Imagery, a broodingly drifting, subtly polyrhythmic, frequently rubato tone poem that draws obvious comparisons to Keith Jarrett and never strays far from a central mode. Yet the shifts in timbre, dynamics and the trio’s elastic use of space are stunning, all the more so for being so minute. The moment where Morgan steps back to get a Weegee angle on this shadowy tableau about midway through will take your breath away.

Track two, Chimes comes across as a more dizzyingly rhythmic variation on the same theme, like a waterwheel on an off-center axle, a perpetual-motion machine wavering but ultimately unstoppable. The band revisit the theme toward the end of the record with a more stern, lingering approach.

Gilroy (the California municipality which produces a major percentage of the world’s garlic, in case you weren’t aware) seems like an absolutely haunted place, if the album’s third track is to be taken at face value. Again, the triangulation between the trio’s minimalistic, emphatic rhythmic gestures is staggered just enough to raise the suspense factor. Behroozi brings up the lights a little with a bit of a churning drive and a few wry glissandos as Mintz mists the windows with his cymbals.

Mintz’s cymbal bell hits add coy mystique as Behroozi ventures little by little from a circling pattern in Alliteration: you could call it Tiny Steps. Then with Sendoff he completely fips the script, building a murkily raging stormscape, torrents from Morgan and Mintz finally breaking the stygian levee.

Royal Star is the album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous, mysterious number, Dark Side-era Pink Floyd done in 12/8 over Mintz’s steady brushwork, Morgan’s terse upward flickers in subtle contrast with the bandleader’s saturnine resonance.

Behroozi’s much more trad, bluesy-infused rivulets in Tricks come as a real shock: maybe this unexpectedly upbeat quasi-ballad is a pressure valve for all the meticulous focus of what’s been played up to here. The trio bring the record full circle with TDB (that’s their initials). a calmly minimalistic, benedictory coda. Play this with the lights out but not if you’re trying to drift off to sleep. And let’s hope it won’t be so long between albums for Behroozi next time out.

A Richly Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting New Album From the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris

With his usual modesty, Gary Louris would probably call himself the co-leader of the Jayhawks. But the reality is that they didn’t become one of the best bands in the world until he took over as their main songwriter. And that’s not meant as disrespect to Karen Grotberg, Marc Perlman and Tim O’Reagan, whose harmonies became so crucial to Louris’ eclectic lyrical brilliance, which blends influences from Big Star, to Bowie, to all sorts of Americana and psychedelia.

Beyond the Jayhawks, Louris has released plenty of material, notably with Golden Smog. His latest solo record, Jump for Joy is streaming at Spotify. The title could be taken at face value, or as total sarcasm. It’s definitely an album for our time: the spectre of death and impending doom hangs over many of the songs here, although there’s some upbeat material as well.

He opens with Almost Home, a cheerfully shuffling, Tex-Mex flavored, band-on-the-road saga livened by his usual colorful narrative detail. Living in Between could be the Jayhawks: gorgeously Beatlesque vocal harmonies, bittersweet changes, some George Harrison-ish slide guitar and an allusively troubled look at the bewildering state of the world. “All the books that I have read didn’t get me through,” Louris concedes. Ain’t that the truth.

Set to a hypnotic web of open-tuned acoustic guitars, White Squirrel is another typically imagistic number, a hopeful anthem for anyone who feels alienated and atomized by encroaching New Abnormal fascism. It’s Louris’ Rock N Roll Suicide.

Driven by a sunshiney keyboard riff that wouldn’t be out of place on the Jayhawks’ Smile album, the fourth track is titled New Normal. It’s surreal to the extreme, although Louris finally drops the facade as his guitar solo goes sputtering over the edge, the world outside “gathering like slow death, nipping at your heels.”

He salutes John Updike in the glamrock anthem after that: it brings to mind Ward White‘s most literary work. The guitars chime and shimmer throughout the Merseybeat-flavored next cut, Follow. The rest of the record alternates gloomy numbers with contrasting optimism, beginning with the richly textured, wintry guitars of Too Late the Key, a somber contemplation of missed exits with potentially catastrophic results.

One Way Conversation is an enigmatic, pensive, possibly elegaic number with tinges of Kraftwerk, Indian music and the Grateful Dead. The album’s chiming, lush title track is very guardedly exuberant: “Hip hip hooray for the longue dureé, bearing this parade of souls.” He closes with the eight-minute, late-Beatlesque apocalyptic epic Dead Man’s Burden. It asks more questions than it answers. Do we have it in us to transcend the residue of unsustainable evil left over from the Cold War, from centuries of ravaging the environment and anything else that got in our way? We’re going to have to figure that out this fall and winter when the toll from the needle of death starts to skyrocket.