New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: review

A Dynamic New Live Album and Some Rare New York Gigs From Purist Saxophonist Jesse Davis

Alto saxophonist Jesse Davis may not be a household name in the New York jazz scene, because he absconded for Italy a couple of decades ago, to forge a career as a deftly lyrical, Mark Turner-esque player and bandleader. The good news is that it seems Davis retained his US citizenship and not only came back, but also became one of the first artists to record a live album in 2022. That record, Live at Smalls Jazz Club is streaming at Bandcamp, which is where he’s playing a rare two-night stand starting tomorrow night, Feb 6, leading a quartet with sets at 7:30 and 9 PM. Then they’ll be at Mezzrow on Feb 10-11, same time, same $25 cover.

The lineup on the album is sympatico: Peter Washington on bass, Joe Farnsworth on drums and Smalls honcho Spike Wilner – with whom Davis has a long history – on piano. And the sound quality is pristine, as albums recorded there tend to be. The quartet open with a carefree take of Jimmy Heath’s Gingerbread Boy: Davis doesn’t waste his time launching into some seemingly effortless, quicksilver glissandos. The misterioso bass-and-drums break after Wilner’s solo really draws you in.

Next is a fond take of the Lee Morgan ballad Ceora, Wilner echoing Davis’ pinpoint articulacy with a similar flair. An expansive version of Cup Bearers, a swing tune popularized by James Moody, becomes a launching pad for some fleet-footed runs from the bandleader and Wilner choosing his spots. Then the group slow down for an aptly pensive but buoyant sway through Theses Foolish Things, Davis fluttering, Washington tiptoeing as Farnsworth flickers and Wilner surveys the spaces between.

They pick up the pace with Horace Silver’s Juicy Lucy, fueled by Davis’ curlicues and weightlessly floating melismas, and Farnsworth’s suddenly animated attack. By the time they get to Rhythm-A-Ning, the band is really simmering, Davis punching in unexpectedly over Farnsworth’s scampering solo.

They wind up the set with a couple of standards. Street of Dreams is where Davis gets more centerstage time than anywhere else: you can imagine the rhythm section just admiringly engaging with a guy they rarely get to see. Likewise, the final number, an allusive take of Love For Sale, is where everybody’s chops get a workout, from the polyrhythmic drive, to Davis’ most biting lines of the night, to arguably Wilner’s fastest playing on record. They really leave you wanting more. Did they get a second set in the can, maybe?

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Pensively Drifting Soundscapes and a Falafel Hill Show by Eclectic Film Composer Qasim Naqvi

Qasim Naqvi‘s raison d’etre seems to be getting the max out of the min. As a drummer, he propels the world’s most compellingly hypnotic live dancefloor instrumentalists, Dawn of Midi. Prior to the 2020 lockdown, he was a member of another even more adrenalizing trance-dance band, Innov Gnawa, who were the only oldschool Moroccan gnawa group in this hemisphere. And Naqvi has yet another identity, as a busy film composer. He’s on the bill at Roulette tomorrow night, Feb 5 at 8 PM, playing live soundtracks to Peter Burr video installations along with MIROVAYA LINIYA (Julia Pello & Heinrich Mueller’s dystopically cinematic Heisenberg Principle-influenced duo). You can get in for $25 in advance.

Naqvi’s 2017 album Film, streaming at Bandcamp, may hold the key to what you can expect. It’s a collection of hypnotic, calm and sometimes suspensefully minimalist miniatures from Naqvi’s two soundtracks to Naeem Mohaiemen films on industrial-wasteland themes. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole: tune in, bliss out. It’s testament to the fun you can have with oldtime equipment…and get paid for it.

As the set pieces unwind, subtly varied textures drift through the mix, wafting drones punctuated by icy accents. Climbs, echoes and calm/animated contrasts give way to steady doppler waves, which grow further and further apart, a pensive meditation on slow postindustrial decay. Naqvi spices his soundscapes with the occasional wry rhythmic trope or burst of cumulus clouds over the horizon. On the surface, this is very soothing music, but listen closely and you’ll find a persistent unease.

Nixon Omollo Gives Us Eclectic Original Reggae Vibes to Brighten the Winter Chill

Much as pulling together the monthly concert calendar here can be a slog, the work has its rewards. As what’s left of this city continues to emerge from the wreckage that began with the 2020 lockdown, there are auspicious signs that we can return to doing what humans do naturally: getting out and mingling with each other. And just like February, 2020 and before, some unexpected talents are popping up in some of the least expected places. This blog’s favorite discovery this month is Kenyan roots reggae artist Nixon Omollo, who has a show tonight, Feb 3 at 9 PM at Shrine uptown. He has a low-key style on the mic and mixes up a lot of different flavors on his latest album Good Vibes Return, streaming at his Hearnow page. He recorded it in Addis Ababba in 2021: clearly, the Ethiopians knew what time it was even as the west was under a spell of fear and repression.

The first track is Who I Am. It’s a real throwback to a mid-70s Studio One sound. Credit Kenny Allen, who is a one-man band here, layering steady piano, guitar lines from chicken-scratch rhythm to elegant wide-angle chords, and simple basslines over Firaole Kumela’s low-key but colorful drumming. Saxophonist Jonovan Cooper wafts in and out of the picture.

With bright saxes, a little wah-wah guitar, an upbeat bounce and cheery backing vocals from Ebony J, the second track, Come Together has more of a Kaya-era Marley sound. The album’s title track is basically a swaying Central African kora song, with Amadou Diagne adding delicate textures on that ancient instrument over Allen’s organ.

Summertime – an original, not the Gershwin song – has Omollo doing a little dancehall toasting over a vintage roots riddim. The album’s most overtly political track, Speak Out is a fearless, pouncing broadside against political corruption in a general sense – as Sage Hana Productions calls it, “grifters grifting shit.”

Time Yoyote, Place Yoyote features a rap by DJ Scratches in his local patois: it may or may not relate to lockdown madness. The final cut, Hold You Close, could be an early 70s hit by a crooner like John Holt; and yet, Omollo doesn’t shy away from reality here either.

The Skull Practitioners Hit Queens With Their Most Savagely Tuneful Album in Tow

Nobody plays guitar with as much distinctively feral intensity as Jason Victor. He’ll hang a chord over the edge of a familiar resolution until it bleeds and screams to be pulled back from the abyss, or slash his way through the passing tones like a Sandinista chasing a World Bank operative through the sugarcane. He’s best known for his work as Steve Wynn‘s sparring partner in the Dream Syndicate as well as Wynn’s band the Miracle 3. But Victor is also a bandleader in his own right, and has slowly built an equally savage body of work as frontman of the Skull Practitioners. While you can hear elements of the Stooges, the Gun Club and maybe the Chrome Cranks in his music, there is no band who sound like them. Their new album Negative Stars is streaming at youtube. They’re opening the best twinbill of the year so far on Feb 4 at 8 PM, with Jon Spencer & the Hitmakers headlining at a new venue, TV Eye, at 1647 Weirfield St. between Wyckoff and Cypress in Ridgewood. Cover is $20; take the J/M to Myrtle-Wyckoff and walk about eight blocks.

The album’s first number is Dedication, Victor buzzing and growling over the loose-limbed attack of drummer Alex Baker while bassist Kenneth Levine booms lithely behind them. There’s a bridge that’s part Sonics Rendezvous Band, part Live Skull. All that in about five and half minutes.

Track two is Exit Wounds, a catchy, hard-riffing post-Stooges number propelled by Baker’s staggered stomp: when Levine takes a climb up the scale behind Victor’s acidically floating lines, it could be Radio Birdman. For that matter, so could LEAP, where Victor blends in a more 90s-flavored, acidic, Polvo-style edge.

Hypnotic fuzz guitar and a suspenseful, mutedly echoey syncopation kick off the album’s big epic, Intruder, a mashup of uneasy surf rock, the Dream Syndicate, and the Lords of the New Church (let Victor’s vocals sink in for a minute). “We start apart and we finish alone,” Victor snarls.

Levine gets his fuzz going in What Now, Victor bending his chords and firing off one of his signature, unhinged solos that ends in a flurry of machete-chops. He builds a loopy noir atmosphere and then an increasingly desperate, bittersweet drive as the band rise into a brisk new wave groove in the album’s lone instrumental, Fire Drill.

In the next track, Ventilation, the band work a warped, ominously galloping southwestern gothic take on the Dream Syndicate. The album’s final cut is Nelson D – a reference to former New York Governor, pathological racist and deep state operative Nelson Rockefeller, maybe? Victor howls and wails, building a volcanic interweave with a few finely sharpened, dueling layers over the rhythm section’s ineluctable drive toward chaos. Having picked Steve Ulrich’s eerie Music From This American Life as the frontrunner for best album of 2023, this one’s a contender too.

The Buck and a Quarter Quartet: A Party in a Box in an Unexpected Spot

It’s been estimated that a quarter of this city’s 2019 population left in the months following the 2020 lockdown. Whatever the actual percentage is, it stands to reason that those who could afford to get out, did.

Beyond the Cuomo regime’s throttling of music venues when the disgraced former governor criminalized indoor live performances, the resulting brain drain has no doubt exacerbated the closure of so many former hotspots, both from the demand and the supply side. It also helps explain why an unorthodox 20s hot jazz band like the Buck and a Quarter Quartet would be playing a pseudo-honkytonk like Skinny Dennis, where they’ll be at 9 PM on Feb 6.

Prior to March of 2020, they were a familiar presence in what was left of the Americana scene here, at places which have since fallen victim to the “you comply, you die” trap. Ultimately, it may be a blessing in disguise for this irrepressibly upbeat crew to find a new following off their old turf, because they’re a lot of fun: there’s more room for dancing where they’ll be next week than there was where they used to play.

This band – who seem to be a rotating cast of devoted oldtimey swing players – make 78 RPM records and keep a pretty low profile online. Although their greatest love seems to be obscure and odd treasures from the 20s and 30s, the live clips up at their youtube channel are mostly well-known tunes. But it gives you a good idea of what they’re about.

The quartet expand to a sextet on their take of When I Take My Sugar to Tea, which they do as a pretty straight-up string band shuffle until they leap into doublespeed. Violinist John Landry provides a stark intro and then sings It’s Mating Time, an innuendo-fueled tune undulating along on the beat of John Bianchi’s tenor banjo, Angus Lauten’s baritone uke, Carl Luckert’s National Steel guitar, Ben Mealer’s uke and Brian Nalpeka’s bass.

They strut nonchalantly through a ramshackle version of If I Had You, then Lauten switches to glockenspiel and Nalepka bows his bass to mimic a tuba on a wry, steady take of Deed I Do. Bianchi switches to clarinet for an expansive, upbeat but unexpectedly lush swing through The Very Thought of You, the last of the youtube clips. These guys don’t let you forget for one second that a hundred years ago, jazz was the default party music throughout much of the world, some Williamsburg bars included.

A Magical Microtonal Album and a Lower East Side Gig With Violin Innovators String Noise

The 2020 lockdown didn’t stop violin duo String Noise. Over the past couple of years, avant garde violin luminaries Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris have been releasing albums at an epic pace. Serendipitously, they’re back to playing live again. The duo’s next appearance is a somewhat unusual but aptly wintry one, on Feb 4 at 8 PM at the Clemente Soto Velez communithy center at 107 Suffolk St off Rivington. It’s a collaboration with singer/sound artist Stine Janvin and composer Cory Arcangel, where the two violinists will play scores to accompany an audiovisual performance based on the knitting patterns for traditional Norwegian sweaters. Which might mean cozy, or abrasive – or both. Cover is $20; take the F/J/M to Delancey.

The group’s latest album, Way, comprises a trio of texturally delicious microtonal works, streaming at New Focus Recordings. They open with Alex Mincek‘s magically disquieting, microtonal suite, referencing an enigmatic Antonio Machado poem whose central road metaphor could be either liberation or a huis clos. Interestingly, the composer quotes Samuel Beckett in the liner notes.

They begin with muted puffing white noise, up to a steady stride with increasingly acidic microtones and harmonics as the music reaches toward horror. Artful approximations of a minor chord and a tritone shift ever so slightly. Slowly, the two voices begin to diverge and follow separate paths, the harmonies growing warmer and more diverse. There’s a second movement that starts with an approximation of a drifting snowstorm, which builds momentum even as the music becomes more spacious, the steps spaced further apart along with the harmonies. The slow procession eventually reaches an ending that may take you by surprise. It’s as entrancing as it is hypnotic: what a way to open the record!

Up next is Lou Bunk’s five-part suite, Field. The first movement has spritely microtonal flickers that build, fall away and drift delicately into the ether, only to spring back into action, finally up to a slashing peak and then gracefully back down. The duo end it with a series of gently sirening glissandos.

Movement two is more wispy and sepulchral; the next more spacious and surprising, with the occasional doppler effect. The violinists follow a tightly spiraling interweave in the fourth movement and wrap it up with a brief coda that flits by almost imperceptibly.

The album’s final work is (In) Tone, by Catherine Lamb. Uneasy, slow tectonic shifts drift through the sonic frame and diverge like a raga at one-tenth speed. Notwithstanding the glacial pace, the wary atmosphere seldom lifts; likewise, the shimmering harmonics and otherworldly close harmonies. Fans of music that defies the western scale have a feast to sink their ears into here.

Fearless Microbiology Expert Dr. Jessica Rose Creates a Party Playlist For the Noncompliant

Dr. Jessica Rose is one of the world’s foremost experts on the VAERS database of vaccine injury and death in the US. Despite the seriousness of her research, she has a devastatingly deadpan sense of humor and a sleuth’s determination to figure out where the data is and what it tells us. She’s also one of the most lucid and entertaining writers on subjects ranging from microbiology, to biostastistics and lipid nanoparticles. She documents her research (and her surfing adventures, and her cats) on her Substack page. You should subscribe!

And like a lot of the fighters on the frontline of the freedom movement, she’s an interesting and original musician. Keyboards are Rose’s axe. Like her writing, her instrumentals have a quirky charm and a devious sense of humor. Most of them you can dance to: Rose is definitely a bon vivant. There’s a ton of her work up at Bandcamp as a free download, and if this kind of stuff is your thing, you should grab it while it lasts.

Somehow, between conferences and interviews and writing scientific papers with Dr. Peter McCullough, Rose has found time to make a short album, titled Thank Him For His Email and Cut Him Off. It has three tracks: a wryly loopy march, a funky strut and a piece where she multitracks polyrhythmic piano and organ before taking it in a minimalist dubstep direction.

Rose’s previous albums are also a lot of fun. The oldest album up at Bandcamp, going all the way back to 2012, is There Will Be Words (one of the free downloads). This one actually has words. Rose’s determined individualism comes across in a mix of bouncy, playful themes that echo Bjork, Goldfrapp, Tom Tom Club and vintage Kraftwerk, infused with catchy, diversely textured riffage and occasional airy, multitracked vocals. One of the more sweeping, orchestrally majestic instrumentals has bass, flute and an irresistibly funny lakeside scene. There are also shamanic percussion interludes, an ominous tableau with flaring guitar, some trip-hop, a loopy gnawa tune and an empowering rap about being in this for the long haul. Was that prophetic or what?

True to the title, There Are No Words – another 2012 release, and a free download – is pretty much all-instrumental. There’s a trio of catchy New Order-style dancefloor jams, a couple of action movie-style themes, and a bit of what could be a medieval chorale.

Inertia, a 2014 release, is very sarcastically titled: the beats come flying out of this one. There’s a lot of late 70s Tangerine Dream and Alan Parsons sequencer influence, with an epic twelve-minute salute to transgression to close it out. And Rose picked up right where she left off with a couple of singles she released in March, 2020: the consistent theme throughout her music seems to be to party for our right to fight.

Dark Tunesmith Gemma Ray Takes a Detour Into Enigmatic, Minimalist Tableaux

Gemma Ray made a name for herself in the previous decade as a connoisseur of eerily twangy, Lynchian songcraft. On her new album Gemma Ray & the Death Bell Gang – streaming at youtube – she completely flips the script, switching out her signature retro guitar sonics for cold, disquieting keyboard atmospherics. You could call this her Low album. In addition to the guitars, Ray plays keys, joined by Ralf Goldkind on keys and bass, Kristof Hahn on lapsteel and Andy Zammit on drums.

Appropriately enough, the first sound you hear echoes the way AC/DC opened the bestselling album of alltime. From there, the opening track, No Love grows into a hazy, chilly, electronicized take on a stark 19th century gospel sound: Algiers with a woman out front.

Likewise, the second cut, Procession, is a stern minor-key blues awash in nebulous keys, Ray’s eerie, tremoloing guitar tantalizingly hinting at piercing the veil.

She channels early 80s Siouxsie in Be Still, a slowly swaying, distantly lurid, quasi trip-hop tune. Howling also brings to mind Ms. Sioux, but in sleek, keyboard-driven mode from ten years later.

Come Oblivion is a surprisingly successful attempt to blend early 60s soul and pulsing, organ-driven bedroom pop. The instrumental Tempelhof Desert Inn – a reference to the abandoned German airport – begins with wry helicopter sonics, then Ray picks up her big hollowbody Gibson and builds a terse deep-sky tableau.

I Am Not Who I Am is an uneasily hypnotic boogie blues disguised as murky, cinematic trip-hop. The album’s loopiest song is The Point That Tears, a mashup of cheery 60s soul-pop and smoky, synthesized battlefield sonics. The most surreal track is All These Things, a collage of echoey, disjointed phrases around a buzzy synth loop.

“She was born with her dark taste/Let her stray to the cliff face,” Ray muses in the final cut, Blowing Up Rocks, taking her time rising from a skeletal sway to what could be smoky, menacingly orchestrated Portishead. On one hand, another Twin Peaks guitar record from Ray would have been welcome; on the other, her invitation to this strange and opaquely troubled new sound world is well worth your time.

The World’s Most Cinematic Guitarist Continues His Dark Dynasty

It was the spring of 2016, and cinematic instrumental trio Big Lazy had just finished slinking their way through a slowly simmering, increasingly macabre, chromatically slashing crime theme. The Brooklyn bar was packed, and people were dancing, notwithstanding the band’s somber, noir-drenched sonics.

Then guitarist Steve Ulrich took the mic and led the band through a brisk if somewhat wistful new wave song. Half the audience did a doubletake: a Big Lazy song with lyrics, in a major key, no less!

But fans of Ulrich’s signature blend of nocturnal bristle, deep-sky twang and white-knuckle improvisational scramble know that he has a completely different body of work. In addition to Big Lazy – the first band to top the best-albums-of-the-year lists here twice, in 2014 and 2019 – Ulrich does a lot of work in film and other media. His soundtrack to the artworld forgery documentary Art and Craft ranges from his signature, shadowy style to more lighthearted terrain. And now, he’s finally released a compilation of some of his most vivid and surprisingly eclectic soundtrack work from the NPR series This American Life, due to hit his Bandcamp page. Ulrich is celebrating the release of the album with a characteristically epic night on Feb 4 at 7 PM at the Sultan Room, playing a set with a string quartet, then bringing Big Lazy in to close the evening. The venue is easy to get to from the Jefferson St. stop on the L; like a lot of the trendier Brooklyn joints, they’ve become enamored of weird online dollars-and-cents cover charges, meaning that $26 cash should get you in.

On one hand, this is the great lost Big Lazy album. On the other, it’s more texturally diverse and slightly more lighthearted: the increased use of keyboards is a newer development for Ulrich. Typically, he’ll lay down a simple, muted riff and then judiciously add layers.

The first track, Earthly begins as a klezmer-tinged, lithely pulsing, delicately disquieted cha-cha, drummer Dean Sharenow spacing out his playfully counterintuitive hits, keyboardist Thomas Bartlett channeling a deep-space cabana with his lightly processed piano. Ulrich orchestrates bass and lapsteel into the mix as well.

The group slowly straighten out into a dark, wry strut in Handheld as Ulrich’s layers of skeletal guitar and resonant lapsteel mingle with Bartlett’s occasional roller-rink organ. In track three, The Swell, they trace a similar light-footed path, following a familiar Ulrich pattern, shifting almost imperceptibly out of the shadows into a sunny pastoral theme and then back.

Fellow Traveler is not a Chinese army song but a syncopated waltz with hints of dub and classic country, courtesy of Ulrich’s baritone guitar work. Surprise, Arizona is a Big Lazy concert favorite that first took shape in the wake of a 2019 tour, a stern Appalachian theme that diverges into mysterious sagebrush.

Ulrich’s sense of humor tends to be on the cynical side, but Rinse Cycle – the loopiest number here – is irresistibly funny and a good example of how far afield he can go from Big Lazy noir when he feels like it. He begins Housebroken as a forlorn bolero over Sharenow’s shuffling snowstorm beats: it’s the closest thing to Big Lazy here and the album’s creepiest song.

The most jazz-inflected tune here is If and When, a classic example of how Ulrich can take a whimsical theme and turn it inside out in a split-second, Bartlett shadowing the unfolding menace with his airy fills. The most brisk tune here is Unpretty, which is actually very attractive, in a delicate, melancholy vein

Bookworm turns out to be an apt coda, a bouncy swing tune where Ulrich flips the script on his usual trajectory. It’s still January, but Ulrich just might have given us the answered to the question of what the best album of 2023 is.

Michael Formanek Plays a Richly Disquieting Brooklyn Album Release Show

Last night at Roulette, bassist Michael Formanek led his Drome Trio with reedman Chet Doxas and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza through two rewardingly acerbic sets to celebrate the release of their new album Were We Where We Were. That title opens up a floodgate of questions: do we romanticize the deeply flawed world we had before the March, 2020 fascist takeover? Are we out of the woods yet? Do Formanek’s stunningly vivid, persistently troubled compositions reflect a present danger? It’s hard to believe that this frequently haunting performance could be as simple as a band merely flexing their chops throughout a set of edgy and unselfconsciously profound new compositions.

Doxas opened the show solo with a simple but spine-tingling series of vaguely Armenian microtonal riffs, Sperrazza quickly rising from a loose-limbed pulse to an increasing storm, Formanek unperturbed at the center, leading the group subtly toward a steady sway as Doxas circled his way through a long, uneasy, Messiaenic passage. Formanek’s allusive solo bubbled and signaled a long, melancholy drift down to a suspenseful handoff to Sperrazza, who then channeled the spirits with a momentary shamanic break. The trio brought everything full circle at several times the energy.

That was just the first 25 minutes or so.

Doxas echoed Formanek’s phantasmagorically-tinged opening solo as Sperrazza’s drizzle gained force in the second number. Wary Jackie McLean-like sax phrases and wispy hints of vaudeville from Sperrazza followed. A coy, wispy sax-drum conversation set off a wistful, spacious solo from Doxas, who’d switched to clarinet. They ended cold.

Pianist Angelica Sanchez then joined them, choosing her spots to bound and ripple with a blithe Monklike swing in the first set’s closing number. Still, a disquiet persisted in her bell-like harmonies. Doxas took over with his muscular tenor lines, Formanek again an anchor with his insistent polyrhythms,

Sanchez opened the second set with an austere, somber solo, elevating to a clenched-teethed, close-harmonied intensity. It seemed she couldn’t wait to lighten the mood somewhat with a series of thorny rivulets. Doxas parsed the lower registers with a sinuous, Charlie Rouse-tinged solo, Formanek taking the song out on a fondly assertive note.

Next, the quartet danced through a catchy, Monkish swing fueled by Sperrazza’s subtle clave and Doxas’ smoky, insistent modal riffage. When he dropped out and Sanchez pulled the curtain back with a catchy if immutably melancholy solo, the effect was viscerally breathtaking.

The number after that made a good segue, with a more brooding chromaticism, through pulses and lulls. A wary mood persisted throughout, even the incisive Monkish riffage and syncopated bounce of the quartet’s concluding tune, with a tremoloing Doxas tenor solo and Sanchez’s eerily lingering incisions. Formanek plays in plenty of groups, but this might be the best of them all. Let’s hope this project continues.

The next jazz concert at Roulette is tomorrow night, Jan 26 at 8 PM, an epic performance where guitarist Joel Harrison leads five different ensembles including his Jazz Orchestra conducted by another fantastic composer, Erica Seguine, plus the New York Virtuoso Singers conducted by Harold Rosenbaum, plus the Alta String Quartet. You can get in for $25 in advance.