New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: noir music

Magical, Otherworldly Guitar Music Inspired by the Art of Sol Lewitt

The number of musicians whose albums were either sidelined, or more or less disappeared without a trace after the lockdown, is staggering. Guitarist Gabriel Birnbaum’s otherworldly, mysterious, often haunting solo record, Wall Music For Sol Lewitt – streaming at Bandcamp – was one of them. And that’s tragic. If you like magical, spacious, stark sounds, you’ll love this album: fans of the bell-like piano works of Federico Mompou are especially encouraged to check it out. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole rather than track by track. It was tempting to save the album for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here, but that’s way too long to deprive you, considering that Birnbaum released it six months ago.

Each piece takes its title from a number of the pieces in Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. In  keeping with Lewitt’s architectural approach, Birnbaum created graphic scores for his elegantly looping, very subtly microtonal compositions. #11 is the first, with understated polyrhythms woven into the eerily chiming, stately, circling theme.

#16 is a skeletal, somber march. His precisely plucked belltones are more delicate and intricate, akin to a carillon, in #17. He expands the sonic frame, adding harmonics on the high end in the enigmatic #19. Then he introduces lushly strummed chords for a much warmer sound in #38 – imagine Glenn Branca at low volume, without the distortion.

Birnbaum shifts gears again with the slow, sirening swoops of #46. Resonant major-key ambience alternates back and forth between creepy tritones and minimalist clock-chime phrases in #47, then he basically works that dynamic in reverse in #85

He winds up the album, taking inspiration from four works beginning with #154 over the course of thirty-eight minutes. This suite has the album’s airiest, most atmospheric moments: tritones linger briefly before an utterly hypnotic web of saxophone drones sets in. The way Birnbaum works more disquieting tonalities into it, at a glacial pace, is artful to the extreme. It makes you want to visit find the museum where Birnbaum’s inspirations are housed to see what springboarded this strange and beguiling record. Oh wait, you can’t, museums are locked and dead now in most parts of the world. Music isn’t the only art form the would-be engineers of the New Abnormal are trying to destroy.

A Smart, Darkly Lyrical, Catchy New Album From Kristy Hinds

Kristy Hinds is not a pretender. She is the real deal. The New Mexico chanteuse has a voice that can be sassy one moment, pillowy the next, with a sophisticated command of jazz phrasing and an irrepressible sense of humor. Which you pretty much need to have, if your axe is the ukulele. But as a songwriter, Hinds’ mini-movies are more serious and substantial, and tinged with noir menace, than you usually hear plinked out on that little instrument. Alongside other members of the uke demimonde, Bliss Blood is the obvious comparison. Hinds has a new short album, Strange Religion streaming at Soundcloud.

The opening track, Miss Morocco is a catchy, slinky cha-cha with the kind of double entendres that Hinds has a knack for, i.e. this femme fatale and would-be starlet “killed him with a head shot.” Track two, She Told Someone, has a funky Rhodes piano bounce behind Hinds’ vengeful narrative about speaking truth to power after a grim Metoo moment: that’s Robert Muller at the keys, with Claudio Tolousse on guitar and Arnaldo Acosta on drums. Samantha Harris and Colin Deuble share bass duties on the record.

The closing diptych, Burn or Drown and Drive begins as a reggae tune: “A daily sacrifice is needed to keep the mice in bullets – my car outside is loaded,” Hinds relates.

While you’re at Hinds’ Soundcloud page, check out the live tracks: flying without a net, she’s arguably even more dynamic onstage than she is in the studio. Hinds’ next gig will be a weekly 9 PM Friday night residency at Old Town Farm Bike-in Coffee, 949 Montoya St NW in Albuquerque as soon as they reopen next month.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

An Uneasy Treat From Noa Fort and Vinnie Sperrazza

The new short album Small Cities by multi-keyboardist Noa Fort and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – streaming at Bandcamp – is a real change of pace for both of them because it’s so minimalist. The centerpiece, Only Happy When I’m Haunted, is the real showstopper here. Bookended by a wry drum solo, and a final, playful vocal-and drum-tune, it features Fort on what sounds like an old Yamaha organ instead of her usual piano. And it’s creepy, with an almost-unhinged tension similar to Serena Jost’s improvisational work in a completely diffferent context.

All proceeds of purchases go to Planned Parenthood.

Darkly Lingering, Lynchian Atmosphere From Lucas Brode and Kevin Shea

Guitarist Lucas Brode went to the well for inspiration from David Lynch films and Paul Motian compositions, drank deeply, and came up with his new album Vague Sense of Virtue. A duo recording with brilliant, purposeful drummer Kevin Shea (famously of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), it often brings to mind Bill Frisell, Cameron Mizell or Don Fiorino at their darkest. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The two open with There Is Someone Softly Singing in the Other Room, a pensive, reverb-drenched pastoral jazz theme over Shea’s mist of cymbals and muted rumbles. Train-whistle slides emerge mournfully out of a fog as the duo slowly gather steam in We All Missed & Are Missed, rising to a spacious, twangy soundscape that could be a very long outro in the Big Lazy catalog.

The album’s most epic number is You Will Be Remembered Simply As an Idea. Here as everywhere else, Shea’s looming ambience and judicious use of his hardware are masterful while Brode runs variations on a simple, catchy, tremoloing, distantly Lynchian riff.

The title track comes across as a more ambient take on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky, with some of Brode’s most unexpectedly lively work here. The album’s fifth number, a triptych, begins with a somber, slowly drifting song without words, Brode spiraling and squiggling around with his slide, hitting his distortion pedal as Shea prowls the perimeter. The twinkling, loopy outro is a surprise touch.

Shea supplies the uneasy energy in the spare nocturne Movement or Motionlessness, One and the Same as Brode parses his deep bag of riffs; he brings the album full circle at the end. This is a quantum leap, creatively speaking: he’s really found his muse in this immersively shadowy music.

Flickering Nocturnes and Big Sky Atmospherics From Suss

Back in 2018, this blog called New York cinematic instrumenalists Suss “the missing link beween Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone.” Their debut album was aptly titled Ghost; the release show, at a black-box theatre in Long Island City, was magically sepulchral and unexpectedly energetic, the band taking their time expanding on the record’s distantly Lynchian themes. Their new vinyl album Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more vast and atmospheric. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole – with a pause to flip the record over.

The opening number, Midnight is a characteristic, glacially unwinding big-sky tableau, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg’s minimalist lines washing over the ambience from guitarists Pat Irwin, Bob Holmes and keyboardist Gary Lieb.

Drift, the second cut, is exactly that, a flicker of low, twangy reverb guitar finally puncturing the enveloping, misty layers. Individual instruments become more distinct in Home, a minimistically folksy Great Plains nocturne.

The guitars get a little grittier and starrier in No Man’s Land – and is that a harmonium shadowing them? Mission is Pink Floyd spacerock with half the notes and layers of guitar, while  Echo Lake is a clever study in sound bouncing off one distant surface back to another.

Pensively strummed acoustic chords and the occasional troubled, watery electric guitar phrase linger beneath the hovering atmospherics in Winter Light, the album’s most ominous and memorable interlude. They close with the hypnotically twinkling Nightlight.

A Long Overdue New Live Album From Tom Csatari’s Drifting, Haunting, Maddening, Defiantly Individualistic Uncivilized Big Band

Back in 2016, this blog characterized guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized as a “tectonically shifting ten-piece ‘drone-jazz orchestra.’“ They earned a glowing New York Times review for a show at a short-lived Bushwick strip club. That gig also earned them a listing here on what was then a monthly concert calendar. Nobody from this blog ended up going.

The prolific bandleader’s compositions fall into a netherworld of film noir themes, bittersweet Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, the Grateful Dead at their dark early 80s peak and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. During the band’s long, mostly-monthly Barbes residency, they played several cover nights. Chico Hamilton night was shockingly trad and tight. It would have been fun to see what they did with John Fahey. The best of them all was Twin Peaks night in October 2017, where they played Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film scores. The group’s transcendently haphazard take on that iconic noir repertoire was captured on the live album Uncivilized Plays Peaks.

They also released another, considerably shorter record as a salute to five separate music venues which were shuttered during the pandemic of gentrification that devastated this city right up until the lockdown. Their latest live album, Garden, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The title seems to stem (sorry, awful pun) from the fact that the tracklist matches the setlist they played at another killer show, outdoors at Pioneer Works in late summer 2018 with guest Jaimie Branch being her usual extrovert self on trumpet. There’s some of that show here along with material captured at various venues, including the Barbes residency.

Csatari’s arrangements span the sonic spectrum in a vast Gil Evans vein, Tristan Cooley’s upwardsly fluttering flute often engaged on the low end by Nick Jozwiak’s slinky bass and Casey Berman’s solid bass clarinet. A series of fleeting modal interludes separate the individual themes here, many of which are barely a minute long: fades and splices are usually subtle but inevitably obvious. Colorful, imperturbable drummer Rachel Housle is the Casey Jones who manages to keep this ramshackle train on the rails – barely.

Levon Henry’s alto sax bubbles and sails alongside Luther Wong’s trumpet, Dominick Mekky’s transistor organ ranging from spacy ambience to ripples and washes. Csatari tends to fling low-key but persistently uneasy chordlets and jangly riffs into the ether, Julian Cubillos typically carrying the harder-edged guitar lines, although the two sometimes switch roles.

Henry provides shivery ambience in a brief portion of Pink Room, from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. They segue into a starry, pulsing take of Csatari’s Melted Candy and soon edge their way to a slowly coalescing, genuinely joyous crescendo in the Twin Peaks title theme. You might think that joy would be completely out of place in that context but it isn’t.

Csatari’s Rowlings – in several parts – makes an optimistic, soul-infused segue. Likewise, the take of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock rises from a brief, broodingly sway to a triumphant country-soul anthem. The coda is Evil, deviously quoting at length from Paul McCartney: if we ever get out of here!

If this is the last album the band ever release – and it could be, since the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying music and the arts – they went out with a bang. On the other hand, if we destroy the lockdowners, music like this will flourish. It’s a no-brainer: Microsoft, or Tom Csatari’s Unciviiized. At this point in history, we can’t have both.

Be aware that you need to make a playlist out of this to enjoy it as a full-length album. Otherwise, constantly having to reach for the play button in between these often very short tracks is like driving a loaded tractor-trailer along a steep mountain road, distracted by the need to double-clutch and downshift.

Prime, Incendiary, Epically Relevant Live Mingus Rescued From the Archives

Even if he was just walking the changes to an otherwise pedestrian blues, Charles Mingus would inevitably infuse it with the irony, and dark humor, and quite possibly righteous rage that characterized his compositions. On April 16, 1964, in a modest auditorium attached to the local radio station in Bremen, Germany, Mingus didn’t reach for the rage immediately, but he channeled everything else, an icon always searching to find new ways to articulate himself. In doing that, he elevated the hall-of-fame lineup alongside him to rare levels of intensity and wild, reckless fun. The recording of the simulcast has been out there for awhile, as The Complete Bremen Concert. It’s  been newly digitized, and most of it is  available on a mammoth quadruple album along with a second performance in the same city from more than ten years later. These often withering historical performances, titled Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, are streaming at Sunnyside Records.

Two concerts, two completely different contexts. 1964: in America, Jim Crow is still de jure rather than de facto, Mingus focused intently on civil rights themes. 1975, post-Attica massacre, the composer turns his attention to prisoners’ rights while not neglecting general issues of equality. Either way, his fiercely populist vision never wavered.

The sound for the first show is broadcast-quality mono awash in generous reverb. The second one has a a far more dynamic stereo mix. Together they total more than four hours of the legendary bassist with two almost completely different but equally incendiary bands.

The first show features a dream team of players, many of them as revered as the bandleader. Eric Dolphy, in one of his last recordings here, plays alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard on a piano in, um, saloon tuning, and colorful, underrated, longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

How do you keep a crowd engaged in a 26-minute blues? Get these guys involved; the bandleader’s terse irony is a big part of it, as is Dolphy’s irrepressible outsider sensibility. Their 34-minute take of Fables of Faubus, the lone holdover that would reappear in the 1975 setlist, has plenty of cruelly cartoonish mockery of the little Hitler governor of Arkansas, but also a venomous duet between Mingus and Byard, vindictive blaze and chilling noir swing, Coles’ mournful lines backlit by Dolphy’s bass clarinet – which emerges as voice of both horror and reason.

Byard teases the audience with phantasmagorical stride one step beyond Monk to introduce a delicate bass/piano take of Sophisticated Lady. The group indulge the crowd as much as themselves in Mingus’ Parkeriana, a careening mashup of Bird themes, Dolphy hitting those high harmonics like probably only their composer could have. In Meditations on Integration, they take an immersive roller-coaster ride from poignancy to haphazardly floating swing and for awhile, more optimistic terrain. The brooding triangulation between Byard’s crushing chords, Dolphy’s ominous airiness and Mingus’ severe, bowed lines at the end is one of the album’s most shattering interludes.

The July 9, 1975 concert at a larger venue, Post Aula, features a quintet including George Adams on tenor sax, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen, with Richmond on drums again. This time the songs are more succinct, in contrast with the sheer wildness of the solos. Their first number here is the epically bustling ballad Sue’s Changes (Mingus’ beloved wife Sue was editor of Changes magazine), with expansive, explosive solos all around. Mingus’ bass is far grittier and dynamic on this recording, probably due to close-miking. Pullen’s turbulence against his long chromatic vamp paints an aptly formidable portrait.

A broodingly bluesy, angst-fueled take of Sy Johnson’s tribute For Harry Carney is next, Adams whirling and punching, mostly in the lows, over a catchy, modally shamanic pulse. Mingus’ aching microtonal solo as Pullen runs the hook is tantalizingly brief. Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA – a protest piece against grim conditions in southern prisons’ death row blocks – is surprisingly, scamperingly bright, all the soloists in determined, seemingly defiant mode as this swing shuffle takes on more of a latin feel.

The group scramble and pulse insistently through Walrath’s Black Bats and Poles, anchored by Mingus’ vamping octaves and lickety-split variations. The version of Fables of Faubus this time around clocks in at a comparatively modest fifteen-plus minutes, much more contiguously and solo-centric after the band careen their way in.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, Mingus’ fond elegy for his big influence, provides a calm platform for tender Adams and Walrath solos, and gentle lyricism from piano and bass. They indulge in a brief bit of Ray Noble’s Cherokee to pick up the pace and end the set.

The first of the encores is the catchy, briskly swinging Remember Rockefeller at Attica, with bright, crescendoing trumpet and piano solos, Adams’ rapidfire attack leading the band out. He takes a similarly impassioned turn on vocals to close the night with Devil’s Blues after a sagacious Mingus solo intro. Is it unfair to compare new material by contemporary artists to the transcendence on this album? Wait and see when – and if – we reach the moment where there’s a best albums of 2020 list here.

Phantasmagoria and Playful Jousting on Sylvie Courvoisier’s Latest Trio Album

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s music can be dark and pensive, but a puckish sense of humor often pops up unexpectedly. Free Hoops, her latest album with one of the few consistent, long-running trios in jazz, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, is one of her most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s one of the high points in what’s been a long, ceaselessly creative run for her since the zeros. For jazz fans who might miss Kris Davis’ work from when she was exclusively a pianist, Courvoisier is a bracing breath of fresh air.

Marionettish, low-register scrambles alternate with saturnine, latin-inflected chords and playful, flitting exchanges throughout the album’s title track, Wollesen getting to wryly circle the perimeter. Similarly phantasmagorical, circling riffage kicks off the second number, Lulu Dance, Wollesen again volleying colorfully around the kit as Courvoisier runs the riff against Gress’ muted rhythm, up to another coy game of tag from the three musicians and then back.

Just Twisted is exactly that: crepuscular glimmers, a bit of a grim boogie, cold low accents, slashes and rattles from the whole ensemble. The three coalesce flickeringly into Requiem Pour Un Songe. imagine Bill Mays playing a vampy David Lynch set piece by Angelo Badalamenti, with a dancing bass solo followed by a slightly crazed piano break in the middle.

Courvoisier’s eerie, glittering phrases follow Gress’ clave in As We Are, before the rhythm comes apart and elbows start flying. Then in Birdies of Paradise, the bass, atmospheric cymbals and Wollesen’s tongue-in-cheek avian flickers follow Courvoisier’s poltergeist neoromantic flourishes. Finally, six songs into the record, Gress hits a tritone or two.

The insistent intro to Galore is the album’s most overtly macabre interlude, then the trio hit a slow, stark, funky, swing: this Frankenstein walks on tiptoe. Bits of Lynchian stripper swing and icy Messiaenic climbs mingle in Nicotine Sarcoline, Wollesen luring Courvoisier to a vengeful crescendo. They close the record with Highway 1, rising out of an ominously rumbling, shivering nightscape to a grimly minimalist, ghostly analogue of a Rachmaninoff prelude and then back, sinister waves gently eroding the coastline. A strong contender for best jazz album of 2020.

A Pretty Close to Perfect Score For This Year’s Halloween Celebrations

Just the two opening notes of Daniel Hart’s 2017 soundtrack to the film A Ghost Story are a dead giveaway that it’s not going to be just a rehash of old monster-movie cliches. The pregnant pause after that stunned violin riff speaks volumes. If you want a musical backdrop for this year’s Halloween party – you’re not going to let the lockdowners ruin your Halloween or anyone else’s, are you? – this electroacoustic score is a good choice. It’s still streaming at Spotify.

The soundtrack’s first movement is a dead ringer for Philip Glass in sinister mode. After that we get fluttery wave motion, stygian voices from the deep and lumbering footfalls over brooding ambience. Somber minimalist cello…allusions to Angelo Badalementi’s iconic Twin Peaks soundtracks…tinkling piano and melancholy violin over grey noise. And a deliciously moody faux-baroque song! Tracks six and eleven, a pair of cliched 90s-style trip-hop pop songs, are something to skip if you’re making a playlist out of this.

What we don’t get is cheesy Iron Man or Godzilla themes: this is all about persistent suspense, and ultimately, loss. This ghost can’t come back and knows it. That’s why he’s hanging on by his nails.