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Category: noir music

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

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Darkly Eclectic Psychedelia and Americana From the Reliably Captivating Raquel Bell

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Raquel Bell has built a wildly eclectic career that spans from her work with legendary/obscure psychedelic art-rockers Norden Bombsight, her aptly tilted Dark Tips duo with violist Jessica Pavone and her solo writing, which ranges from post-Exene punk-flavored Americana to the furthest fringes of the avant garde. Bell’s debut album as a bandleader, Swandala is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the most keyboard-oriented project she’s been involved with. Her next gig is at the Grand Star Jazz Club, 943 N. Broadway in Los Angeles on Jan 17.

The album’s opening track, Stones, was originally written for a Klaus Nomi tribute show. This lush, jauntily bubbling, swinging number is a cross between My Brightest Diamond and Explosions in the Sky. Bell describes Vibration Carnation as “seducing over-compression to capture a dream quality;” her outer space witch vocals loom over sweeping, starry keys, Jonathan Horne’s big dramatic stadium guitar chords, Lisa Cameron’s low-key bass and Adam Jones’ drums. “Maybe she wants to cross over to the dark side with me and all my friends,” Bell intones.

With its catchy, watery guitar multitracks rising to a slashing peak, A Solo to Mars looks back to early New Order before they went all synthy. Bell’s rainswept, wounded vocals glisten throughout the album’s best track, the melancholy country ballad Who Gets to Name the Name, Bob Hoffnar’s pedal steel soaring in the background against spiky reverb guitar accents.

The epic Wizard Liar is a growling psychedelic soul groove as the Dream Syndicate would do it – but with hints of dub reggae and a woman out front. The final two tracks – both the spare, acoustic It’s Growing In Your Mouth and the achingly bucolic Swan, with violin by Justin Scheibel, piano from Zac Traeger, theremin by Blair Bovbjerg, and Thor Harris on vibraphone – reflect the breakup of Bell’s “love affair with her trailer,” moving back from the boondocks to Austin. It’s both a good capsule history of Bell’s wide-ranging vision and a great late-night immersive listen.

Cartoons and Monsters From Satoko Fujii’s Thermos

File this under be careful what you wish for: a dozen albums, one every month, from perennially intense, captivating pianist Satoko Fujii? To celebrate her sixtieth birthday, she’s done exactly that. Much as the nuts and bolts of officially putting out each record must have been tiresome, the music has been characteristically fresh and outside-the-box. And the project has been a lot easier for her than it would be for most artists. Like most jazz musicians these days, she pretty much lives on the road, and at this point in her career everybody from Wadada Leo Smith on down wants to work with her, so she has pretty much unlimited access to global talent. And she’s figured out that the way to make albums in this era is simply to record her shows and release the best ones.

Album number ten in her twelve-album cycle is the debut of a group she calls Mahobin. In Japanese, it means “thermos,’ but the literal meaning is “magic bottle.” To what extent did she manage to bottle the magic at this 2018 set in Kobe, Japan with her husband and longtime collaborator, Natsuki Tamura, along with tenor saxophonist Lotte Anker and Ikue Mori on laptop? The results are both hilarious and macabre. This is an amazing record, even if the electronics are too loud.

There’s a set and an encore here – ot so it seems. The humor is relentless at the beginning  of the 42-minute first piece, Rainbow Elephant. Everybody is in on it; Star Trek command center bubbles and blips, black noise like at the end of A Day in the Life, a fishtank on steroids, cuisinarted minor-key piano blues riffage, mulish snorts, a ridiculously funny trumpet fanfare and cartoon mice on a treadmill inside the piano tinkling away are just a few things the music might remind you of.

Then Fujii suddenly flips the script with a stern, syncopated low lefthand pedal note and works uneasy Messiaenic permutations, moving slowly upward as Mori oscillates wildly. Anker’s role here is mostly quavery, uneasy sustained lines; Tamura sticks mostly to more sepulchral extended technique, although when he goes in with his chromatics, he goes for the jugular.

Meanwhile, it seems like Mori is sampling her bandmates and then spinning everybody back on themselves, sometimes using a backward making pedal for extra surrealism. Fujii’s ability to make up a theme on the spot and embellish it later on is unsurpassed in all of music, and the enigmatic way she ends this very long, very strange trip goes against all conventional thinking in order to drive it home, dark and hard.

The relatively short encore, Yellow Sky is seven minutes ten seconds of Frankenstein building a fire – that’s Fujii – with the rest of the band as seagulls circling overhead. Creative music in 2018 doesn’t get any better, or more captivatingly weird, than this. Fujii and Mahobin are at the Stone – which is now located at the first-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St. – at 8:30 PM on Dec 13. Cover is $20; get there early, because Fujii’s New York shows have been selling out regularly.

The best overview of Fujii’s yearlong project is not at this blog, sadly. The New York City Jazz Record put her on the cover of their September issue and included an exhaustive and enthusiastic review of her 2018 output. But not to worry: there will be much more Fujii on this page in the weeks and months ahead.

Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.

A Characteristically Dark, Cinematic New Album and a Smalls Gig from Phillip Johnston

Best known as a co-founder of the irrepressibly cinematic Microscopic Septet, saxophonist Phillip Johnston has also unsurprisingly done a lot of film work in addition to a bunch of smaller-group projects over the years. He’s playing with the celluloid-oriented Silent Six tonight, Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, although his latest project is with a smaller group, the darkly picturesque organ quartet the Coolerators.

Their new album, Diggin’ Bones, is streaming at Bandcamp. As the bandname indicates, the Thelonious Monk influence that informs so much of what Johnston has done throughout his career is front and center here. The tunes are a mix of older material rearranged for organ quartet plus some deliciously menacing new material which gives new meaning to the term “gutbucket organ music.”

The opening track, Frankly, sets the stage, a carnivalesque strut juxtaposing Alister Spence’s smoky, menacing organ against Johnston’s more lighthearted riffage, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Nic Cecire light on their feet. Further back in the mirror but just as present is a certain cover of Pictures at an Exhibition.

What Is Real?, a catchy number that dates back to the 80s, expands out of a syncopated Lou Donaldson-tinged soul-jazz tune, the bandleader sailing uneasily overhead. The title track blends elements of Monk, klezmer and latin noir, Spence raising the suspense with his blend of marionettish staccato and funereal swirl that loosens and lightens, Johnston’s biting modalisms bringing it full circle.

Temporary Blindness is a more latin-flavored take on the album’s opening track: the macabre duet between Spence’s stabbing organ and Swanton’s bowed riffage is one of the album’s high points. Later, which dates from Johnston’s days as a busker in San Francisco in the 70s, is an altered waltz with a surreal, enveloping blend of Monk, the Middle East and psychedelic rock. It’s the album’s most epic and strongest track out of many.

The lone cover is The Revenant, by 70s folk noir icon Michael Hurley, reinvented as a wistful, sparsely arranged shuffle groove with an aptly ghostly, tiptoeing Swanton solo. Legs Yet is the group at their slinkiest and most modally improvisational – and the most traditional, funky organ jazz tune here. Trial By Error – which Johnston had originally recorded with accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek – has a brisk, brightly pulsing klezmer influence fueled by Johnston’s acerbic yet balmy soprano sax attack.

Regrets #17, another number that dates from the 80s, works tight variations on a bluesy chromatic swing theme: here and throughout the album, Spence’s smoky ripples bring to mind the great expat New York organist Jordan Shapiro. The final cut, Ducket Got a Whole In It brings the album full circle with a creepy circus flair. This is arguably the best band Johnston has worked with outside of the Micros, and this album is one of the best and most tuneful of 2018.

Twisted Psychedelic Balkan Noir From Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores

The first track on Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores’ relentlessly creepy 2012 masterpiece Sister Death was a menacing, chromatically psychedelic Balkan art-rock epic aptly titled Fire Shuffle. The Rhode Island-based accordionist/bandleader opens his similarly brilliant, macabre new one, The Opposite – streaming at Cuneiform Records – in a similar vein, with Soft Motors. The difference is that this time he’s playing all the keyboards. In many cases, he overdubs his accordion, running it through several wildly diverse effects patches. This particular number is awash in an ever-closer circling web of catchy minor-key riffs, Redfearn a one-man Balkan orchestra. “Fear won’t stop til the mornings are soft,” horn player Ann Schattle sings, deadpan but troubled.

Tramadoliday is a deviously bouncy, chromatically juicy, increasingly orchestral danse macabre, Schattle’s horn wry and steady while Redfearn conjures up lysergic Stoogoid wah-wah, bass synth fuzz and Carnival of Souls organ around a wicked Balkan accordion riff.

Drummer Matt McLaren flits around on his rims for a good approximation of a vintage drum machine to propel the hypnotic, cell-like phrases of the album’s title track, its quasar pulse looming closer and closer. Carnivore has a carnivalesque, hurdy gurdy-like theme and dark, allusively chromatic variations: “Come, turn out the lights,” is the mantra. Finally, bassist Christopher Sadlers gets a juicy fuzztone riff of his own to run underneath Redfearn’s strobe attack.

The slightly more playful, hip hop-influenced There’s a Bat Living in My Room takes its inspiration from Redfearn’s former coke dealer, whose inability to resist getting high on his own supply resulted in hallucinations reputedly more prosaically troubling than the song title. Rend the Veil blends uneasy 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic rock into a ba-BUMP theme for the Macedonian wedding from hell, with a sick, echoingly dissociative outro that segues into Possum, a shout-out to an old Redfearn pal who killed himself. It’s the album’s hardest-hitting and most Middle Eastern-flavored track, with a spot-on Redfearn approximation of a mighty metal guitar battle theme at the center.

The final cut, Pterodactyl, is the album’s longest epic: picture a 60s Bollywood band putting a dub reggae spin on the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It, if you can imagine that kind of time warp. As with the band’s previous album, look for this one high on the list of best albums of 2018 next month here.

Much as Redfearn is a spellbinding player in the purest sense of the word, it would have been even better to be able to hear Rose Thomas Bannister’s elegant organ work alongside his accordion. The similarly haunting noir psychedelic Brooklyn songwriter toured with Redfearn as a sidewoman back in 2015. Onstage, the contrasting textures and interplay between the two was unadulterated sonic absinthe.

Another Relentlessly Haunting Album and an Alphabet City Gig by Guitarist Gordon Grdina

Even by his own high-voltage standards, fiery jazz oudist/guitarist Gordon Grdina has really been on a roll making albums lately. Edjeha, with his Middle Eastern jazz quartet Marrow might well be one of the half-dozen best albums released this year. His other new one, Inroads, with his quartet of reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Russ Lossing and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi blends haunting Middle Eastern chromatics with savage improvisation and even detours into snarling doom metal and Lynchian cinematics. This is deep, dark music. Their next gig is Nov 26 at 9 PM at the old Nublu on Ave. C; cover is $10.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – kicks off with a haunting, spaciously Satie-esque rainy-day piano tableau cruelly titled Giggles. The band follow with the album’s most epic track, Not Sure, opening with frenetic, polyrhythmic variations on a Balkan-tinged theme, disintegrating for a bit and then regrouping with a savage late 70s King Crimson focus and more of a Middle Eastern attack. Lingering psychedelic pulses give way to a brisk, twisted stroll that isn’t Britfolk or Egyptian but alludes to each of those worlds. From there the band scamper and then memorably blast their way out.

P.B.S., another epic, beginns with interchanges of creepy Rhodes and more stern acoustic piano, Grdina and Noriega – on alto sax – playing the morose central theme in tandem. A marionettish theme develops; Noriega’s microtonal, allusive circling beyond an increasingly tense center is pure genius. Deep-space oxygen bubbles escape the Sun Ra craft as solar flares loom ever closer, then sear the scenery:.Grdina’s merciless, resonant attack is breathtakingly evil.

Semantics is a brooding, morosely wafting duet for echoey, spare guitar and ghostly sax. The next epic, clocking in at practically ten minutes, is Fragments, the bandleader’s spare, spacious oud intro echoed by Lossing’s inside-the-piano flickers and muted rustles. The two develop a phantasmagorical catacomb stroll; then each band member takes a separate elegaic tour, only to reconvene with a frenetic hope against hope. Noriega’s looming foghorn solo at the end is another gloomy highlight.

The desolately crescendoing guitar/sax tableau Casper brings to mind Bill Frisell at his most disconsolate, or Todd Neufeld’s whispery work with trombonist Samuel Blaser. Kite Fight, a squirrelly and then assaultive Grdina/Noiriega duet introduces the album’s final epic, Apokalympic, Noriega eventually wafting in to join Grdina’s expansive postbop chordal guitar phrasing. Lossing’s arrival signals a turn toward franticness and terror, fueled by a scorching guitar/sax duel. The marionettish Macedonian psychedelic outro is irresistibly twisted. 

The group close with a Lynchian reprise of Giggles, Grdina’s angst-fixated, starry reverb guitar paired with Lossing’s close-to-the-vest, wounded neoromanticisms. Looks like Grdina has not one but two albums on the best of 2018 list here.

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Harrowing Ogresse Suite – Worth Seeing Twice

Cécile McLorin Salvant is widely acknowledged as this era’s foremost jazz singer. Any way you look at it, she’s the most mutable one. If you’ll forgive a little jazzspeak, she’s on first name terms with Ella and Sarah and Billie and Anita and Dinah…and even Blossom too. Salvant is a woman of a thousand voice, but also none other than her own – she transcends the sum of her influences for a uniquely nuanced yet dramatic style. And as much acclaim as she’s has earned for her voice, her songwriting is just as significant. The world premiere of her new big band suite, Ogresse, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past September was a lush, epic, phantasmagorical thrill ride, a withering parable of racial and gender politics that could not have come at a more appropriate time. How did that compare with the performance this past evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center?

This show seemed tighter, and somewhat shorter. There’s no question that solos, whether from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, Warren Wolf’s vibraphone, Brandon Seabrook’s banjo, Tom Christensen’s oboe and tenor sax, and Kirk Knuffke’s cornet, among others, were punchier and more emphatic. Pairings between instruments – one of conductor and arranger Darcy James Argue’s favorite tropes – also seemed to be far more fleeting this time around. More subjectively, this show seemed more intimate: it was possible to make out the ominous lettering on Salvant’s elegant white robe. But the Met premiere was on a high stage under low lights, no doubt enhancing the sense of majesty and overwhelming sweep. NJPAC – which, along with the Met, co-commissioned the piece – is an amphitheatre where every seat seems to be closer to the stage than it really is.

On the surface, Ogresse is about a monster who lives in the woods, where she’s escaped after some early trauma that Salvant addresses with characteristically macabre allusiveness early in the suite. An ingenue from town disappears; one of the people there, not known for his fortitude, decides to seduce the ogresse in order to kill her. Despite all attempts to resist, the would-be assassin’s seemingly selfless overtures start to get under her skin. Meanwhile, the woodland animals do their best to bring the ogresse to her senses. The high point of the show, vocally at least, is when a robin wails over and over, “The man is lying!” That interlude was possibly even more spine-tingling here than it was at the Manhattan show.

Salvant’s genius as a tunesmith comes through as she takes venerable themes from torch songs from over the decades and turns them inside out. Being a purist, she has meticulous command of golden-age jazz vernacular and uses that to full effect – but for distant menace rather than seduction. When the allusion to the Twin Peaks main theme finally appeared, foreshadowing a carnivalesque waltz in a graveyard, the impact packed even more of a wallop than the massed glimmer of the full ensemble, which included the strings of the Mivos Quartet.

And the suite k isn’t completely grim. Salvant has a coy, puckish and very deviously edgy sense of humor, which came through both via a couple of recipes – each sung in French – as well as the occasional detour into a wafting, boudoir jazz delivery or more playfully chirpy phrasing. There were also many moments where the music reflected a similar sensibility, whether when pianist Helen Sung picked up a melodica for a surreal ska-tinged passage, or when trombonist Josh Roseman delivered squeaky extended-technique drollery when he switched to tuba.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference in this performance was how Seabrook – a guitarist by trade, and an often rivetingly assaultive one – approached the main banjo theme, which Salvant employs as a Greek chorus of sorts. It’s built around a suspenseful, implied minor chord. At the Met, Seabrook approached it with more than a hint of skronk. This time out, he didn’t frail it, country-style, but nonetheless gave it more of a spare, traditional rustic Americana flavor, which raised the southern gothic ambience several notches.

So when the time came for Salvant to flip the script on both protagonist and antagonist, the tension had reached fever pitch – with the help of literally conflagrational orchestration behind her. It was here where she turned her back on the audience and faced the band, motionless, for what seemed minutes on end – and set up the crushing irony of the coda.

NJPAC is not only home to a lot of jazz but also classical music. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra have a stand here Nov 29-Dec 2, with music by Stravinsky and Milhaud  with pianist Aaron Diehl as soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. You can get in for $20. 

Single of the Day 11/10/18 – Full Frontal Ferocity

Arguably the loudest band ever to play the sedate Rockwood Music Hall, Hannah vs. the Many are New York’s best power trio. They’re at the Way Station at 10 tonight, a place where they actually could drown out the crowd of yuppie puppies at the bar. Check out their latest rad, theatrical single, Face Front (via youtube) frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s lyrical torch job on an ex she ran into when least expected/desired. Don’t ever mess with a songwriter – this could happen to you.

Single of the Day 11/6/18 – Lynchian Psychedelia

Not quite sure what dark songbird Ezza Rose’s American Man, a surreal mashup of Lynchian femme fatale waltz and slow Dream Syndicate psychedelia (via soundcloud), is all about, but it’s hard to turn away from