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Category: ragtime

Pianist Lara Downes Resurrects Lyrical Short Works by Black Women Composers

Pianist Lara Downes has a new ep, Phenomenal Women, a collection of relatively obscure short works by female composers of color streaming at Spotify. She opens solo with Hazel Scott’s Peace of Mind, a glistening, highly ornamented neoromantic 1954 ballad. Soprano Nicole Cabell joins Downes for a dramatic but enigmatic take of Margaret Bonds’ What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, a setting of an Edna St. Vincent Millay text.

Nora’s Dance, a 1921 hit by Nora Holt, has a joyous ragtime lilt. The final cut is Florence Price’s Barcarolle, which makes an aptly elegant segue. Nonstandard repertoire righteously resurrected and played with considerable grace by an artist with a significant following from her popular radio gig. May that inspire us as positive forces in our own spheres of influence.

Artfully Shifting New Ambient Music From Enona

Ambient ensemble Enona were born out of the most popular musical meme of 2020: trading files over the web. When the group, featuring members of Ensemble Et Al. and Quatre Vingt Neuf, realized that their remote experiments during the ugliest early days of the lockdown were worth releasing, they put a trio of them up at Bandcamp as their debut album, The Challenge Is in the Moment. As with most drifty, immersive music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, letting the subtle thematic development carry you off to a better place…like a year ago, when the members of the group were free to play and record wherever they chose, and invite audiences to see them.

Slowly pulsing long tones hold the center as slashy electronic thunderbolts enter and then recede in the almost 22-minute opening title track. Eventually, Ron Tucker’s electric piano punctures the surface, tentatively and sparely: the melody would be a wistful ballad if played at quadruplespeed. Arun Antonyraj’s simple electric guitar echoes coalesce into a countermelody to variations on a piano loop; from there, an elegant web of contrastingly calm and gritty tonalities develops.

Another Kind of Open could be a scary proposition, a slow, brooding series of synth chords flecked with echoey, muted hits on what sounds like an acoustic guitar. Again, a loopy electric guitar phrase ties it all together, bittersweetly.

The final theme, Present Air Will Have to Do is more of a shimmery dreampop guitar tableau, spiced with simple, jaunty electric piano flourishes and electroacoustic ambience from saxophonist Jason Candler. It’s always rewarding to hear an album of slowly unwinding music like this and find substance in it beyond “This is a great record to help you stay centered while you multitask!”

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

Poignancy, Unease and Playful Improvisation from Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman are one of the most consistently vivid, often hauntingly melodic groups to emerge from the often noisy, acidic New York downtown jazz scene over the past couple of decades. It might seem strange to call a duo a group, but they’ve crystallized a unique and often strikingly poignant sound. Their latest release, Time Gone Out – streaming at Bandcamp – is ironically both their most succinct and expansively ambitious release ttogether They don’t have any duo shows lined up currently, although Courvoisier is playing duo sets this weekend, June 14 and 15 at 8 PM at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with a similarly edgy sparring partner, guitarist Mary Halvorson. Cover is $20.

Feldman opens the new album’s first track, Homesick for Another World, with a steady, allusively chromatic solo passage, then Courvoisier’s harplike brushing under the piano lid signals a shift to misty stillness. The jaunty call-and-response and variations throughout Eclats for Ornette echo Jean-Luc Ponty’s most bop-oriented 60s work, with hints of Stephane Grappelli thrown around while Courvoisier pounces and clusters, up to a bracing, chiming coda.

Limits of the Useful is a playfully crescendoing tone poem, Feldman whirling, sliding and then providing airy ambience for Courvoisier’s unsettling upward stroll; then the two switch roles. They work the same dynamic for Blindspot, but with much more energetic riffage and a droll uh-oh-here-come-the-cops interlude.

From its whirling intro, the album’s epic title track shifts expansively between creepy stillness and the remnants of a cuisinarted bolero. Feldman’s momentary, blazing cadenzas contrast with Courvoisier’s glittering gloom and gravitas as the two rise, fall and then slowly shift toward brightly animated leaps, bounds and glissandos. But all this bustling doesn’t last: is this autobiographical, or a potrait of a thriving scene now scattered by the real estate bubble blitzkrieg?

Crytoporticus has similar Spanish-tinged flourishes, but considerably more flitting ones mingled amid a hazy calm, Courvoisier going under the lid again for dusky flickers. Her haunted Debussyesqe music box interlude midway through is the album’s most arresting moment.

The most striking study in contrasts here is Not a Song, Other Songs, Courvoisier’s stern, stygian lows versus Feldman’s puckish good cheer, although he manages to pull her out of the murk for an unexpectedly carefree, scampering middle section.

The album’s final and most improvisational cut is Blue Pearl, Feldman’s terse phrases holding the center as Courvoisier’s staccato leaps and stabs cover the entire span of the keys. You’re going to see this on a whole bunch of best-of lists at the end of the year.

 

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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