New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: review

Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

Loosie Bring Their Enigmatically Intriguing, Artsy Psychedelia to Brooklyn

Loosie’s distinctively scruffy, psychedelic songs are tight, but also very unpredictable. Drummer/bandleader Alex Kirkpatrick’s tunesmithing doesn’t fall into typical verse/chorus patterns, and as with the best abstract art, it’s not easily categorized. This band is all about setting a mood.

Tempos and dynamics shift abruptly and impactfully, frontwoman Sara McDonald’s distantly soul-influenced vocals typically lingering back in the mix, drawing the listener in. It would be easy to call Loosie the bastard child of Sonic Youth and This Mortal Coil, but they’re more than the sum of that noisy, rainyday 80s mashup. A better comparison would be the similarly uncategorizable but more free-jazz influenced Parlor Walls – or McDonald’s other project, the mighty, majestic NYChillharmonic, who play blustery art-rock and chamber pop with big band jazz arrangements. Loosie’s new album Solvents in the Dream is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing the album release show for their new one, on April 27 at 10 PM at Friends & Lovers in Bed-Stuy. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $5; pensive guitar instrumentalist Koby Williamson opens the night at 8, followed by tuneful, delicate dreampop band Pecas at 9.

The album’s opening track, Turning, morphs in and out of Dominic Mekky’s allusively creepy toy piano and a slow, crashing, cymbal-fueled sway spiced with the occasional flicker of slide guitar from Louis Cohen. All Lies is another study in contrasts: gritty, unresolved dreampop guitar layers alongside tersely straightforward close-harmonied piano, the water imagery of the lyrics matching the music.

Fragmentary, minimalist lullaby phrases give way to towering, crushingly anthemic guitars in I Stopped You. Dirty Laundry comes across as part Os Mutantes tropical psychedelia, part chilly late Pixies mist, and part uneasy early Wire stomp – a weird blend, but the band manages to make it work. Reverbtoned slide guitar, violin and steady piano mingle in the brightly crescendoing 6/8 ballad Sitting on the Rooftop, one of the most straightforward tracks here.

The epically psychedelic, nine-minute Here #2 follows a loosely syncopated groove, guitars flickering, amps sputtering and cymbals building a hailstorm: “Just feels good to be here,” is McDonald’s mantra. Today is a sweeping, swaying, mostly instrumental piano-and-vocalese number, followed by Burnt Rubber, the closest thing to a pop song here. McDonald’s disarmingly distinct, cheery vocals mask a dark lyrical undercurrent as the song decays into a pulsing psychedelic cloud. The final cut, Blank, makes a return to syncopatedly enigmatic instrumental territory. A lot of thought and outside-the-box creativity went into this.

About the bandname: for those outside urban areas, a loosie is a single cigarette typically sold on the street or at bodegas. The murder of Eric Garner was instigated when the black Staten Islander was arrested for selling untaxed loosies outside a newly constructed “luxury” condo built for rich white gentrifiers.

 

The New Pornographers Go New Wave at Terminal 5 on the 26th

How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.

That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.

The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.

Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:

Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…

Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.

High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.

Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”

Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.

Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”

Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble Bring Their Haunting, Otherworldly Exploration of Near-Death Themes to the French Institute

The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s latest album, Crossing Over – streaming at Spotify – is as haunting a collection of music as has been released over the past year. It’s meant to be. Making their way through a dynamic mix of works from around the globe and the past hundred years or so, with an emphasis on contemporary composers, the lustrous choir explore themes addressing an end-of-life dream state and the prospect of life after death. They’re bringing their rapt intensity to a concert at the French Institute/Alliance Française, 55 E 59th St. on April 27 at 7:30 PM where they’ll be singing Poulenc’s Figure Humaine along with stark American Civil War hymns. Tix are $30, $10 for students, and worth it.

The album opens with Daniel Elder’s Elegy and its somberly memorable variations on a stark three-chord theme based on the familiar trumpet tune Taps, punctuated by an energetic soprano solo. The group follows that with John Tavener’s Butterfly Dreams, an eight-part suite of mostly Japanese haiku-inspired miniatures. A calm processional sets the stage for brief variations that vary from more hazy to disarmingly direct and minimalist, to fluttering and echoey, often anchored by an unwavering resonance. The suite concludes with the warily anthemic The Butterfly, an austere Acoman Indian folk tune and an overture on the main theme. Hardly easy material to sing, but the performance is steely and focused.

Nicolai Kedrov’s brief Otche Nash maintains the steady, sober ambience, followed by Jón Leifs’ Requiem with its cavatina-like pulse and low//high contrasts. The harmonies grow denser and more nebulous, then pair off in treble and bass registers in the dynamically shifting, brooding John Donne-inspired Heliocentric Meditation, by Robert Vuichard.

The melodies leap around more in William Schuman’a triptych Carols of Death, although they’re far from celebratory and awash in tense close harmonies. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Heyr þú oss himnum á has the stately pace of a medieval funeral procession. Strange as it is to say, this new setting of an ancient psalm is a lot more upbeat than the rest of the composer’s vast, spacious work. The album concludes with a final hymn-like Tavener piece, Funeral Ikos.

Bryan and the Aardvarks: The Ultimate Deep-Space Band

It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.

Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo

Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.

Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet,  a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.

Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.

Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.

The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.

Brilliant Bassist Bridget Kearney Releases a Catchy, Purist Keyboard-Driven Debut Album

Bridget Kearney is the rare bass player you want to hear more of. From day one, she’s been the groove on the low strings and the source of innumerable, tersely tasty solos as the bassist in popular blue-eyed soul group Lake Street Dive. But she’s also a solo artist, and a multi-instrumentalist. On her new album Won’t Let You Down – streaming at Bandcamp – she plays guitars and keys as well. It first took shape as a studio side project, and it’s been several years in the making. Taking a momentary detour from the never-ending Lake Street Dive tour (which this year includes a stop at Prospect Park Bandshell on June 13 at 8:30 PM), Kearney leads her own band playing songs from the new album at Rough Trade on April 21 at 10 PM. Advance tix are $12.

Vocally, Kearney works the same turf as her Lake Street Dive bandmate Rachael Price, but with an airier, more breathy delivery evocative of Holly Miranda. As a tunesmith, Kearney is very eclectic, blending elements of vintage 60s soul, garage rock, Beatlesque pop, psychedelia and glam, among other styles: this is a very keyboard-driven record. It opens with the playfully scampering garage rock title track: with its cheery layers of keys, it sounds like the New Pornographers covering the Friggs. The piano ballad What Happened Today is a catchy mashup of 70s John Lennon and classic soul, sprinkled with starry keyboard textures. With its blend of swirly roller-rink organ, twinkling electric piano and blazing guitars, Serenity brings to mind Ward White’s recent adventures in Bowie-esque glamrock.

Wash Up has a brisk new wave beat, a hypnotic swirl and a couple of tantalizingly brief lead guitar breaks. Kearney makes echoey, nocturnal trip-hop out of oldschool soul in Who Are We Kidding , then multitracks her own edgy bass and guitar harmonies in the Lynchian Nashville gothic pop of Living in a Cave. It’s the album’s strongest song.

Love Doctor isn’t a seduction theme: it’s a kiss-off anthem that looks back to Bowie in his Young Americans period. Kearney breaks out her acoustic guitar for the flamenco-tinged intro to the bitterly simmering minor-key noir soul ballad Nothing Does: the Motown chorus comes out of nowhere, and is absolutely delicious.

Kearney pushes the upper limits of her voice on Daniel, a Penny Lane pop number: it’s the only place on the album where it sounds like she’s really straining to hit the notes. The final cut is the ethereal, Lennonsque ballad So Long. It’s impossible to think of a better debut album released this year so far.

Linda May Han Oh Releases Her Gracefully Kinetic Marcel Marceau-Inspired New Album at the Jazz Standard

Linda May Han Oh is the only jazz bassist to ever make the cover of the Village Voice. That speaks both to her enormous popularity in the jazz community as well as her appeal beyond it. As a sidewoman, her distinctive style is tireless, purposeful and tuneful to the max: she’s never content to merely walk scales, but she also isn’t self-indulgent. Her own compositions have flair and wit and a general sense of optimism. Her latest album Walk Against Wind, inspired by the exploits of legendary mime Marcel Marceau, is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on April 19 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

Her jaunty bass solo kicks off the lithely dancing opening diptych, Lucid Lullaby; guitarist Matthew Stevens throws some similarly goodnatured sparks into the mix, tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel adding airiness. The second part is a tone poem of sorts where Oh anchors Wendel’s serenity with stygian, sustained bowing.

Firedancer is more about the dancer than the flames, propelled by guest Fabian Almazan’s minimalistic pedalpoint and Wendel’s judiciously steady figures. Speech Impediment is Oh at her wryly amusing best, her own irrepressible vocalese punching in tandem with Wendel’s insistent upper-register lines over drummer Justin Brown’s flurries and clusters. Then the conversation restarts between Wendel and Stevens.

Oh switches to Fender for the bubbly Perpluzzle, a study in contrasts between Stevens’ distorted chords and Wendel’s gracefully kinetic melody over Brown’s shadowboxing beats. The title track alternates between an unexpectedly dark march over a catchy modal hook and a doublespeed variation that’s just short of frantic: clearly, getting out into the gusts was a challenge, but once you’ve got your footing, apparently all is well.

Oh returns to Fender for the similarly hypnotic, catchy Ikan Bilis, gingerly spiced with Minji Park’s traditional Korean percussion. The enigmatic Mother Reason juxtaposes Wendel’s occasionally Joe Maneri-ish, microtonally-tinged longtone phrases against Stevens’ resonant chords and slow, methodical single-note lines.

Stevens builds tension with a rising-and-falling phrase throughout Mantis as the rest of the band hovers distantly. Oh and then Brown scour the ocean floor beneath steady guitar/sax harmonies in another hypnotically catchy number, Deepsea Dancers. Stevens, Brown and Almazan – on electric piano – prowl energetically over Oh’s moody, chromatic pedalpoint in Midnight, a Hollywood hills noir set piece with a long, deliciously fiery crescendo out. The album winds up with the bouncy Steve Coleman-esque syncopation of Western. Good to hear such a consistently strong collection from such a major force on the low strings.

Bearthoven Take a Bite Out of the Accessible Side of the Avant Garde

Bearthoven’s piano/bass/percussion lineup would be as orthodox as orthodox gets if they were a jazz trio, In the world of indie classical and chamber music, that’s a much less likely configuration. The eclectic, disarmingly tuneful debut album by pianist Karl Larson, Gutbucket bassist Pat Swoboda and Tigue percussionist Matt Evans, aptly titled Trios, features the work of six cutting-edge composers and is due to be streaming this May 5 at the Cantaloupe Music Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show at 7:15 sharp on April 18 at the Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15.

A lot of this music follows a rapid, steady staccato rhythm that is maddeningly difficult to play, but the trio make it sound easy. Brooks Frederickson’s catchy, anvilling, minimalist Undertoad opens the album, a steady but intricate and subtly polyrhythmic web of melody. A little later on, Ken Thomson’s Grizzly follows a similar tangent with bells, both struck and bowed, dancing through the mix as it brightens, then descends into the murk briefly only to emerge re-energized. By contrast, Anthony Vine’s From a Forest of Standing Mirrors moves glacially and raptly through an Arvo Part-like haze to slightly more kinetic, distantly Japanese-flavored belltones.

Fjóla Evans’ tone poem Shoaling explores individual voicings within a group arrangement, rising out of almost imperceptible, shifting fogbanks of sound to a series of grimly catchy low-register piano melodies within the smoky vortex. Larson’s subtly dynamic yet forceful attack pierces the surface above his bandmates’ bowed bass and other instruments. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s atmospheric/arrestive dichotomies come to mind: it’s album’s the most intense and captivating track.

Simple Machines, by Brendon Randall-Myers is a a cleverly and dauntingly arranged series of polyrhythmic melodies, its motorik cadence interrupted by the closest thing to free jazz here on its way to a triumphant, cinematic sweep. The album’s final piece is Adrian Knight’s uneasily serene The Ringing World, which appropriates its title from the journal of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Swoboda’s wispy harmonics flit like ghosts in a churchyard amidst Mompou-like belltones played in unison by Larson and Evans on piano and bells. 

As accessible as it is cutting-edge, this album could go a long way toward changing plenty of misconceptions. As if we need more proof that this century’s serious concert music isn’t all necessarily awkward and spastic, this is it.

Insanely Eclectic Psychedelic Brass Band Intensity from the Dirty Bourbon River Show

Considering the Butcher Knives’ and Dirty Bourbon River Show’s output on record so far, you might think that their twinbill tonight at the Knitting Factory – which starts at 8:30 PM for a $12 cover – would be a bad segue. But it isn’t.  The openers’ guitar-driven, minor-key Gogol Bordello-style Romany rock makes a good setup for the New Orleans band’s more rustically raucous, canivalesque sound.

The Dirty Bourbon River Show’s latest album, The Flying Musical Circus, is aptly titled and streaming at Bandcamp. To sum things up, the brass-fueled five-piece group tackles Balkan and circus rock, reggae, Beatlesque psychedelia, soca, mariachi, oldtimey swing and gospel and pulls it off. If there’s a style of music that they can’t play, it probably hasn’t been invented yet. The opening track, Passion, is a brassy Balkan reggae tune, the bassline held down by Jimmy Williams’ sousaphone. Waltzing along with Noah Adams’ strutting electric piano and a dixieland-flavored horn chart, The Cruel and Hollow Fate of Time Travel takes an unexpected detour down a wormhole into Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles psychedelia.

“Everybody’s coming to my party, but I’m not fucking going to that party,” Adams insists in the funky All My Friends Are Dead. Matt Thomas overdubs cheery soca sax harmonies in Knockin’ on Your Headboard: it’s about watching out for “your crazy-ass dad and your crazy-ass mama,” who’d spoil the party if they could. My Name Is Soul is a scampering, surreal turn back to Balkan circus rock: “I’m in your mouth, I’m on your tongue, but you don’t know me,” you get the picture.

Hidalgo’s Lament is an unexpectedly biting, bittersweet, slowly swaying mariachi tune with a tantalizingly brief Adams accordion solo midway through. The steamboat soul tune Poor Boy, Rich Girl is as funny as you would expect: “Every leperchaun loves gold…you’re a circus, cartwheeling with no purpose.” Shark Belly, a pulsing Romany rock anthem, is even funnier: unleash your inner ten-year-old and laugh along with Adams’ litany of obscenities, echoed by the band, on the second verse.

Nick Garrison’s snaky trombone and Scott Graves’ tumbling drums anchor Roll It Around, a high-voltage stoner Balkan brass number. The album winds up with the gospel-infused title track, awash in mighty tasty horn harmonies, Adams’ accordion swirling amidst the storm. Definitely one of the ten best and most consistently fun albums to come over the transom here this year.

Haunting, Cinematic, Relevant State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz from the Jihye Lee Orchestra

If tuneful, cinematic, vivid and distantly haunting big band jazz is up your alley, you should know that the Jihye Lee Orchestra are playing Symphony Space this Friday, April 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $25, which is reasonable for a Manhattan gig by a 20-piece ensemble. To give you an idea of what they’ll be playing, here’s what their gripping, picturesque debut album April Wind sounds like. It hasn’t made it to any of the usual places on the web yet, although half the tracks are up at Lee’s video page. 

The title track, which opens the six-part suite, begins with a rhythmless lustre and a distant sense of foreboding, the only place in the piece where that’s allowed to creep in. Sean Jones’ airy trumpet mingles with the bandleader’s wistful vocalese. Spare, carefree piano phrases from Alain Mallett mingle as the orchestra rises with brassy flair over an easygoing sway. A dancing rhythm comes to the forefront with an incisive piano solo. A casually spiraling Shannon LeClaire alto sax solo leads the ensemble in a return to gently swaying lushness.

John Lockwood’s tersely dancing bass hook opens the practically thirteen-minute epic Sewol Ho, then gives way to a bit of icy, chromatic piano and then an exchange of brass that picks up the melody. Suspense builds over an understated clave, a brooding call-and-response between brass and reeds that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chris Jentsch big band book. A minor sixth chord lingers, actual or implied, eventually edged out by uneasy close harmonies and then a seemingly free interlude pairing off spare, bubbling individual voices: trumpet, drums, bass, trombone each scrambling around in the waves. Rhythm returns with an ominous low-brass pulse underneath those voices: then the music literally slides down and out for a second. Then the bass clarinet leads a search party, more or less, over a bubbling, reedy groove that builds with considerable gravitas and shivery clarinet.

The way the piano and horns, then Lee’s voice paired with alto sax, mirror the previous number’s intro as Deep Blue Sea gets underway is especially artful. A carefree/foreboding dichotomy develops between highs and lows; again, the rhythm grows bouncier, this time on the wings of a gentle, smoke-tinted tenor sax solo. Lee takes the orchestra in a more ebullient, brass-fueled direction, then pauses and returns to a spare, moody piano-and-tenor interlude

Whirlwind begins over a brisk clave, cloudbanks of brass passing quickly overhead, punctuated by dynamic shifts, a piano solo bristling with icepick chords, and then a return to a brass-driven intensity. Building out of a spare piano phrase beneath emphatic horns, Guilty follows a martial beat up to Shostakovian, menacingly gavelling phrases that back away for a long, judicious Bruce Bartlett guitar solo, then a long, crushing coda that leaves no doubt what the verdict is. The final number is You, a slow ballad with a bright opening chart that backs away for a melancholy Jones flugelhorn solo and then brightens as the energy picks up. A series of pensive swells make way for a calmly lively Jones solo spot, then spring returns and everything is in bloom again.

Spoiler alert: if you want to find out for yourself what this is about, stop here, bookmark the page, give the album a spin or better yet, go see the show and then come back.

The backstory here is that Lee’s suite follows the narrative of the April, 2014 Sewol ferry disaster. More than three hundred passengers were killed when the vessel sank off the Korean coast. In Boston at the time, the Korean-born composer wrote much of the suite in the weeks that followed.

News reports on the disaster have been conflicted: what is apparent is that the ferry was overloaded, and many eyewitness accounts concur that the crew didn’t react immediately when it was obvious that the ship was in distress. The same thing happened over a hundred years ago north of Nova Scotia; an iceberg was involved that time. Nobody went to jail for that one. The owner of the Sewol was found dead, victim of foul play, a year after going on the run. That case also remains unsolved.