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Category: review

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme. 

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba. 

Smart, Poignant Songs and Disarmingly Shattering Vocals From Kari van der Kloot

Singer Kari van der Kloot’s new album The Architects is completely its own animal. The closest reference point is Jenifer Jackson‘s early zeros work: informed by jazz, with rock tunefulness, classical lustre, breathtakingly unselfconscious, crystalline vocals and disarmingly sharp lyrics.

The key to the record – streaming at Bandcamp – is Caution, Nathan Ellman-Bell’s subtle, quasi-martial drums behind Jamie Reynolds’ spare, brooding, chiming piano, violinist Lisanne Tremblay’s turbulent lines channeling the horror-stricken angst this country felt in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. “Walk slow with your eyes closed, how could I have known how much more we could fall down,” van der Kloot wonders, rising to a leaping, vocalese solo. There are no words for moments like that.

The title track is a hopeful sequel, pondering the kind of world we might be able to build in the wake of such a tragedy: van der Kloot’s vocals over Reynolds’ purposeful piano bring to mind another brilliant, poltically aware jazz songwriter, Sara Serpa.

The opening track, What I’ll Find has both tenderness and wistful anticipation, a portrait of searching for home set to a moody clave jazz backdrop. The layers of vocals reflect van der Kloot’s background as a chorister; Tremblay’s jagged lines nail the song’s persistent restlessness.

Swimming is a pensively circling, metaphorically-charged tableau about being in over your head, with an edgy chordal solo from Reynolds. It May Not Always Be So is a setting of an E.E. Cummings (sorry, capitalizing proper nouns is done for a reason) poem, with starkly resonant violin.

Same Song, an insistent, steady portrait of frustration and breaking away which could work on many levels, has a wryly oscillating synth solo from Reynolds. The disquieting intro to Ask reflects the theme of a shy person trying to get up the courage to ask for more: it’s a brave, violin-fueled, jazz-oriented take on Dan Penta‘s comment that “I would have been greedy if I’d have known my size.”

Hide and Seek is a contemplation of one-sided relationships, whether romantically or otherwise, set to a sternly circular minor-key backdrop. Arguably the album’s most lushly bustling number, Careful Construction reflects the precarious situation anyone who managed to move to New York faced in the past decade, surrounded by forbidding speculator properties decimating practically every streetcorner; yet van der Kloot refuses to let all this rob her of being centered.

The album winds up with Holding Pattern, a tersely minimalistic, suspenseful portrait of a long-distance relationship that actually worked out well, based on the changes to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Yikes! A stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020, right up there with Aubrey Johnson‘s Unraveled.

A Slightly More Subtle But Hardly Subdued Album From the Explosive Captain Black Big Band

Of all the projects that pianist Orrin Evans has his fingers in, his Captain Black Big Band are arguably the most exciting. They’re definitely the loudest. It’s amazing how Evans manages to find the time for them, considering that he leads smaller groups, everybody wants to play with him, and until the lockdown he had the closest thing in the jazz world to a serious money gig, taking over the piano chair in a certain popular trio and then elevating them above…where they were before.

Auspiciously, the Captain Black Big Band have a new album, The Intangible Between streaming at Spotify. The difference this time is that they aren’t quite as much of a careening beast as they’ve been in the past. Part of that’s due to the bandleader writing most of the charts, selecting very specific groups from a vast talent base to play the songs, and in general, varying the size of the orchestation more.

The album’s first track, Proclaim Liberty, opens with brassy optimism, then after a rippling bit of suspense, the band hit an anthemic drive. The tumbling pairings of piano and drums are as avant-garde as anything Evans has ever done, the solos from trumpet and sax as adrenalizing as ever.

His wide-angle swing arrangement of This Little Light of Mine rises with the horns out of a carefree piano-trio intro that offers a nod to Coltrane and telegraphs that there’s going to be plenty of room for spontaneity, notably a fiery sax-drums duel and some savagery from the bandleader himself.

The tenderness of Sean Jones’ flugelhorn throughout an understatedly majestic Todd Bashore arrangement of A Time For Love contrasts with an underlying tension, which evaporates when the rest of the horns float in. Evans dividing his hands between piano and Rhodes is an unexpected textural touch.

With its New Orleans ebullience and bright hooks, That Too comes across as a slightly stripped-down take on the completely unleashed sound the band made a name for themselves with, trombone and then soprano sax bringing in the storm.

Their loose-limbed, Sun Ra-ish take of Thelonious Monk’s Off Minor features a rhythm section bustling with four (!!!!) bassists and two drummers behind shreddy trumpet, spacy Rhodes and a rise to plenty of the group’s signature, barely controlled mass chaos.

Evans’ beefy yet spacious chart for Roy Hargrove’s Into Dawn gets lit up by spiraling alto sax, trumpet that delivers both sage blues and wild doublestops, and some serious crush from the piano. The album’s biggest epic is Evans’ arrangement of Andrew Hill’s Tough Love. In practically sixteen minutes, the group shift through fluttery stereo pairings of basses and piano, gritty dueling saxes, uneasily shifting sheets of sound, the whole ensemble helping Evans deliver an astute, politically insightful lyric by his brother, author and hip-hop artist Son of Black.

They wind up the record with I’m So Glad I Got To Know You, Evans’ elegy for his drummer friend Lawrence Leathers building from spare, stricken solo piano, to hints of calypso and a fond gospel sendoff. This is a mighty entertaining and rewardingly eclectic effort from a group also including but hardly limited to drummers Anwar Marshall and Mark Whitfield Jr., saxophonists Immanuel Wilkins, Troy Roberts and Caleb Wheeler Curtis, bassist Luques Curtis, trombonist David Gibson and bassist Eric Revis.

A Rare, Turbulent Pauline Oliveros Online Concert Rescued From the Archives

The great Pauline Oliveros played her last New York concert in the spring of 2015, trading soulful accordion riffs and subtly sly musical banter with members of International Contemporary Ensemble at a since-relocated radical theatre space in Fort Greene. The inventor of the concept of deep listening had been such a force in the world of improvisation and the avant garde for so long that it seemed she’d be around forever.

She left behind an enormous body of work. Decades before locked-down musicians desperately turned to Zoom to serenade their fans or make records, Oliveros coined the term “telematic” and participated in innumerable online collaborations. One welcome rediscovery is the new vinyl album Telematic Concert, a duo performance with Argentine electronic musician Alan Courtis, originally webcast in the fall of 2009. It hasn’t hit the web yet, but as Oliveros would be quick to tell you, her work sounds best on vinyl.

This joint improvisation is divided into just two tracks, their long upward drives, swells and sustain mingling to the point where it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what. Much of this brings to mind early industrial acts like Suicide. The treble is really gaining in the mix early on: you may want to bring down the highs, especially if you’re listening on earbuds.

Courtis introduces flitting poltergeist accents, sudden, menacingly responsive drones, sounds of water and wind. A hammering interlude subsumes the accordion, but Oliveros returns resolutely to the mix. The music takes on a decidedly assaultive, disquieting edge from this point, Oliveros choosing her spots amid the looming, toxic whirlpool. The second part of the improvisation begins with its most grim interlude, rising and falling more spaciously and basically falling apart at the end: with a single coy flourish, Oliveros lets it be known she’s done.

It would be nice to hear more of her here in general, although it’s also extremely instructive to see how spaciously and methodically she approaches music this overtly dystopic. With her puckish sense of humor and finely honed improvisational reflexes matched by an unassailable calm, her own music was often dead serious, and the very definition of immersive, but seldom so macabre.

Good Times and Purist Oldschool Soul From the California Honeydrops

The California Honeydrops have a fun, upbeat new short album, Just One More and Then Some streaming at Bandcamp. It’s going to end up on a lot of party playlists this summer – if we don’t run out of party money first. Lift that insane lockdown, Cuomo!

The first track, Just One More, is a honkytonk song with some classic 50s style piano from Lorenzo Loera,  frontman Lech Wierzynski on his usual guitar along with Johnny Bones and Leon Cotter on saxes.

The second track, Pocket Chicken is closer to the oldschool soul the band have made a name for themselves with: it’s a funny story about finding a bucket of food, literally and otherwise, with more of that oldtimey-flavored piano.

Honey, Sugar Has a vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul groove. The last song, Shack in the Back is slower, steamier and funkier, with soaring horns and more of a classic Memphis feel. There’s a reason why these guys were such a big draw on the concert circuit before the lockdown: they’ve got a bottomless bag of catchy hooks and real passion for retro styles.

A Dark, Noisy, Psychedelic Swedish Blend of 90s Indie Rock, Dreampop and No Wave

Kall are another one of those bands who sound like no other group on the planet. Their attack is part unhinged 90s indie rock, part no wave, with a little dreampop and a rhythm section that’s heavier but also busier than you typically find in any of those styles. Add lead vocalist Kim’s guttural black metal rasp and you have one of the most distinctively psychedelic acts around. They have a thing for loops and really like long songs. Their latest limited edition vinyl album Brand is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with Rise, beginning with a sun-seared, disjointedly lingering solo guitar intro, building to an even more scorching, reverb-infused, careening minor-key drive. The band’s two guitarists, H. and Fix, team up for a roar that strongly brings to mind Thalia Zedek’s legendary 90s band, Come.

Fervour has contrasting, loopy, lingering rainy-day guitars over bassist Phil A. Cirone’s lithe, trebly lines until the distortion kicks in. Sax player Sofia blows noisy sheets of sound as the volcanic layers grow thicker.

Eld sounds like Yo La Tengo playing an early Wilco song, drummer Peter guiding its increasingly complex, Sonic Youth-tinged trajectory before everybody drifts away for a summery sax break.

The seventeen-minute epic Fukta din Aska has a hammering, hypnotic Astronomy Domine feel that rises and falls between noisy SY interludes and sparse, spacious sketches. When the sax wafts in, it’s very evocative of Brooklyn band Parlor Walls‘ early work,

Hide Below could be enveloping early zeros favorites Serena Maneesh, rising in thirteen minutes from drizzly and atmospheric to more gusty terrain as the bass bubbles and the drums pummel. The band wind up the album with Fall, shifting from a funereal bass pulse to elegantly brooding guitar variations, a long scream and a drift through hints of doom metal to a slowly swaying, psychedelic peak.

By the way, the lp cover illustration is also excellent: a real metaphor for this point in global history. The Swedes, who DIDN’T lock down, know this better than pretty much everyone else.

A Rippling Jazz Rarity From Chris Dingman

Chris Dingman gets a lot of work, some of it in places where jazz vibraphonists aren’t usually found. If you listen to New York public radio, you may have heard several of his themes on WNYC. His latest album, Embrace – streaming at his music page – is a rarity in the jazz world: a vibraphone trio record. It has the catchiness of his radio work; the lingering lushness of Milt Jackson also comes to mind. Here Dingman’s joined by Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tim Keiper on drums. One of the album’s coolest touches is how Dingman’s right and left hand are panned in the stereo mix; it often seems like there’s a second set of vibes here.

He opens the album’s starry opening track, Inner Child with a lullaby theme, the rhythm shifting between waltz time and a more straightforward, syncopated pulse. Baby steps from the bass introduce a vamping, soul-tinged tune which finally gains critical mass with a big tumble from the vibes.

Dingman works a similarly rippling vamp up to a catchy, anthemic chorus in Find a Way: see, they got there pretty quick! The lithe bass/drums interlude is something you might expect from a vibraphonist; the stairstepping waves afterward, maybe not. He shifts to a gentle, resonantly summery, West African-tinged 6/8 sway with Ali, set to a mutedly circling groove.

Dingman builds The Opening-Mudita around a series of insistentlly hypnotic echo phrases, then expands them. Oh’s catchy, dancing bass riff is a stepping-off point for more of the same in Goddess, building a gentle rainstorm in the second half. Forgive/Embrace opens on a similarly lush note, then grows more kinetic as Dingman advances into and then backs away from a series of circular phrases.

A carefree pop anthem provides a lilting foundation for Hijinks and Wizardry. The steady processional, Steps on the Path is just as catchy if more sober. Dingman closes the album with Folly of Progress, a funky study in loopy phrasing. If twinkling, glimmering, trance-inducing music is your thing, you can get lost in this.

Wickedly Smart Metaphors and Catchy, Socially Aware Songs From Lara Herscovitch

A lot of the songs on Lara Herscovitch‘s new album Highway Philosphers – streaming at Spotify – pack a wallop rarely found in the normally sedate world of singer-songwriters. Take the album’s fifth track, You USA. The music may be low-key – just her intricate fingerpicking and lead guitarist Stephen Murphy’s airy washes – but the political content is fierce, and really captures the embryonic phase of the paradigm shift that’s sweeping the world:

We are underestimated, undeterred, here to stay
Pins in the rafters from the rally yesterday
Learning to look each other in the eye
Power grid’s gone down so we live like fireflies
Don’t look away USA

At at time where we’re finding Bernie supporters standing shoulder to shoulder with Trumpies at anti-lockdown protests, and just about everybody protesting the murder of George Floyd, something amazing is going on here. The whole world is uniting to rip those masks off ourselves…and also off everyone who profits from racism and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Another killer track is the Neko Case-ish Careful Porcelain Doll, a defiant tale of breaking away from a life of “paint by numbers in reverse.” The girl at the center of this story dreams of emulating her idol, Yankees home run champion and Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, then trades that for adult domesticity…but ends the story with a spectacular Jacoby Ellsbury kind of move. For fans of the pinstripes, maybe it’s best that guys like DiMag and Bernie Williams didn’t try to make plays like that! We may not have baseball this year, but at least we have this song.

Most of the music here is pretty spare: just the bandleader’s acoustic guitar and clear, uncluttered vocals, Murphy’s terse electric fills and Craig Akin’s bass. There’s always a welcome subtext in these songs: Sailing to Newfoundland, for example, works on every level that quasi sea chantey’s title implies.

Fault Lines is Herscovitch’s eerily detailed counterpart to Dawn Oberg‘s harrowing End of the Continent; “I still wonder what that summer measured on the Richter Scale,” Herscovitch muses.

Castle Walls is a similarly vivid, wise tale of a European fling that didn’t work out. The album’s arguably funniest song is The Tiger and I, the most hilarious account of formula retail as circus ever set to music. Rise is also irresistibly amusing: it could be a Trump parable, or a satirical look at Andrew Cuomo’s ridiculously taxpayer-funded adventures with bridges to New Jersey. Or both.

There’s also In Your Corner, a gospel song about boxing – on a surface level, at least – and From a Dream, a surreal spoken-word narrative. Anyone who can’t resist clever wordplay, unselfconsciously soulful vocals and catchy tunes should check this out.

A Fiery, Intense, Wickedly Catchy New Album From Above the Moon

Above the Moon are one of the few real feel-good stories in the New York rock scene in the last few years. The fiercely catchy guitar band followed an oldschool career trajectories, playing their first shows in dumps, slowly and steadily building a following which before the lockdown was coming out to see them at regular weekend headline gigs. Auspiciously, the band are still together, waiting out the lockdown (at least as far as officially sanctioned shows are concerned) with everybody else.

And they keep putting out great short albums. Their latest, Stay Awake, is streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe because of post-2016 election circumstances, it’s their angriest release yet. Frontwoman/guitarist Kate Griffin has been a charismatic presence for a long time, but in the last couple of years her vocals have become more savagely spine-tingling than ever.

The album’s first track, I Was Asleep Before is one of their catchiest, an anthem to mobilize and take control on what seems to be many levels. “Don’t know what you’re waiting for – I’m not waiting anymore,” is the big chorus, lead guitarist Shawn Murphy adding dreampop shimmer and keening upper-register riffage over drummer John Gramuglia’s relentless drive.

Chris Mangin’s bass bubbles and simmers in the equally anthemic second track. It’s one of the band’s funniest songs, about somebody who’s dealing out so much shit that “I could plant a little garden in your mouth,” Griffin wails

“One is too much but a hundred is not enough,” she observes enigatically in Just Stay, a dis to a wishy-washy guy and a musical throwback to the band’s earlier, more jaggedly 90s indie-flavored roots. Get Yours (Karma) is a little slower and more atmospheric; it brings to mind late 90s/early zeros Lower East Side legends Scout. The twin-guitar slash hits redline in the album’s last track, Birthday, a richly detailed kiss-off anthem over a pummeling 2/4 beat. This band absolutely slayed at Marcus Garvey Park last year; let’s hope there are still some indoor venues left in business where Above the Moon can play when that’s legal to do that again.

Epic, Sweeping, Gothic Nocturnes From the Moon and the Nightspirit

Don’t let the Moon and the Nightspirit’s name, or the title of their new album, Aether, lead you to think that this is hippie-dippy new age bullshit. Gothic psychedelia would be a more accurate way to describe the Hungarian band’s sound. They sing in their native language. The record is a suite, more or less; it comes with lyrics and English translations, which have a mystical focus. They like long, hypnotic, slowly crescendoing tableaux with both folk and classical influences.

Stately piano and frontwoman ‘Agnes Toth’s misty vocals blend with a whirl of white noise as the album’s opening, title track gets underway. From there Mihály Szabó takes over the mic, rising from a whisper to a roar as this one-chord jam hits a pummeling, imaginatively orchestrated sway. It comes full circle at the end.

That pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the record – streaming at Bandcamp and available on both purple and black limited-edition vinyl. The second track, Kaputlan Kapukon At (Through the Gateless Gates) has spare, circling twelve-string guitar and eerily tinkling piano over the slowly swaying neoromantic angst.

Toth moves back to lead vocals as the drifting minor-key vamp of Égi Messzeegek (Celestial Distances) gathers force; that bagpipe guitar is a tasty touch. Ringing twelve-string poignancy returns along with graceful, incisive harp above the oscillating loops and disquieting close harmonies in A Szarny (The Wing): it’s the album’s best and most majestic track.

With a deep-space twinkle from the harp and the keys, the album’s most hypnotic soundscape is Logos. The group follow a slow series of layers rich with somberly picked guitars, spare piano, keening microtonal violin and a wash of vocals in A Mindenseg Hivasa (Call of the Infinite). The suite ends with Asha, its Balkan folk illusions and a loop receding to the edge of the universe. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.