New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: soul music

Soul Legend Bettye LaVette Releases Her Chilling Cover of Strange Fruit

It’s hard to imagine a more apt song for the year that George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks were murdered than Bettye LaVette’s slow, lingering, anguished cover of Strange Fruit. With her weathered voice and otherworldly wail, she channels the horror of a lynching as vividly as anyone who ever tackled this classic. Behind her, the band keep a slow, simmering ba-ba-ba-BUMP groove going.

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.

Playful Baroque Jazz, Among Other Styles, From the Endangered Quartet

If you’ve felt endangered this year, the Endangered Quartet can relate. But their debut album, Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t harrowing or particularly troubled music. It’s actually a lot of fun, and blends a wide variety of styles, as you would expect from a group whose individual members move seamlessly between the worlds of jazz, old and new classical music, and bluegrass. Multi-saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes are part of the core of the legendary, noir-tinged Jazz Passengers. Jesse Mills is a highly sought-after classical violinist, and bassist Tim Kiah is not only a brilliant composer of serious concert music, but also an accomplished bluegrass musician.

The opening track is the strangest version of Bach’s Chorale, BWV 244-44 that you’ll ever hear. Mills and Fowlkes provide statey harmonies as Nathanson adds droll microtones and Kiah sings a warmly homespun lyric.

The Home-Makers is genuinely acid jazz: a loopy, insistent violin riff and surreal vocals interrupt a tiptoeing swing tune. The individual members shift elegantly from a pavane of sorts to very individualistic paths in Same, Same, with the same combination of drollery and utter seriousness as Ron Hay’s work with the Erik Satie Quartet. The Beatles’ Blackbird works surprisingly well in that context here as well.

The quartet pulse gracefully through the second part of Ornette Coleman’s The Circle With a Hole in the Middle, with a rapidfire ascent from Mills. They follow it with the wryly conversational, minimalist Marbles, by Mills and Hugo Dwyer. Con Anima, also by Mills, comes as quite a change afterward, a moody baroque piece with much more somber exchanges of voices and a big shivery coda. Returning to the A-section of the Coleman piece, they diverge but without deviating from a swing beat.

The four go back to baroque jazz with the comfortable pulsing miniature Sweet Intentions and the more acerbic Cry of the Wild, a Dwyer/Kiah co-write with animated solos from Nathanson and Fowlkes. The trombonist’s vocals add a knowing gravitas to Kiah’s eco-disaster cautionary tale Endangered Hearts, a souful 6/8 soul ballad with a spiraling Mills solo.

Edges, a Mills tune, has baroque bursts and trills over a trip-hop bassline; then the rhythm drops out and a rather solemn exchange ensues. Bombardment Reconsidered, by Nathanson and Dwyer, features light-footed exchanges over loopy riffs, Fowlkes in the role of troll, Mills signaling a rise in agitation. Kiah takes over the mic on the album’s closing cut, a spare, nocturnal chamber pop take of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.

Three New Singles For Tough Times

Every Friday night at 8, Charming Disaster’s web series airs at their youtube channel. Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette‘s Ellia Bisker started the project as a murder ballad duo and branched out to include both Kotorino’s latin noir and Sweet Soubrette’s dark folk and soul, among an increasing number of styles. Their latest single, I Am a Librarian is an elegantly waltzing throwback to their creepy early days. Are you awaiting the moment you make your escape? Charming Disaster feel your pain.

Smoota – the boudoir soul crooner alter ago of trombonist Dave Smith – also has a new single, Catch It! (The Coronavirus Boogie). It’s a great oldschool funk tune, but if you’re 65 or older, or immunocompromised, you, um, might want to think twice about this particular path to herd immunity.

Once and future HUMANWINE frontwoman Holly Brewer continues to release singles at a breakneck pace. The latest one is Good Ole Fashioned Protest Song, up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Brewer has been a big-picture person for a long time: follow the money and you’ll find the perp, whether you’re talking about petty crime, or the nonsense coming out of the Oval Office.

Ferocious Oldschool Protest Soul and Funk From Soul Scratch

Soul Scratch play fearlessly woke, searingly political funk and soul with a spot-on early 70s vibe and more than a hint of Afrobeat in places. The production really nails a vintage analog feel: trebly, organic guitar and bass, shuffling percussion with drums and congas, and blazing, incisive horns. Their album Pushing Fire is streaming at Bandcamp.

The brass punches in, Joel Givertz’s wah-wah guitar scatters and the rhythm section – Johnny Chou on bass and Adam Greenberg on drums – slinks along with an emphatic 70s latin soul groove on the confrontational opening track, Pacified. “Where’s that outrage now, where’s my people on the streets? Corporations got a voice while we sit silent in defeat!” frontman Dale Spollett reminds. “We’ve got that same old addiction, a different kind of coke.”

Look How Far We’ve Come is an impassioned noir soul ballad in 6/8 time, referencing the murder of Eric Garner, “Just another life lost to the beast.” The horns soar and punch in over a strutting, swinging minor-key vamp in The Road Looks Long, a message of strength and resilience for dark times.

The bass scampers underneath the summery horns of the instrumental Odessa Heat, capturing that magic late 60s moment when American soul bands started to catch what was coming out of Ethopia, and vice versa. The group go back to a warmly soulful sway in It’s Not Over, a bittersweet look at the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the work still left for us to do. “Don’t cry now, it’s not over,” Spollett encourages. “Ir’s hard to change a system, there’s no fellowship, only greed.”

Kiss Me in the Morning is a one-chord jam and a launching pad for his soaring voice. They pick up the pace with more of a vintage JB’s feel in Be Kind and then keep that going, reaching escape velocity in Empty Cup, smoky baritone sax underneath the brass.

The album’s catchiest instrumental is the simmering Fireside Lounge, which could be a vintage Isaac Hayes jam with a tight, purposeful Matt Reale trumpet solo over the rippling wah-wah backdrop. They close the album with Thank You, a slow vintage Memphis style gospel/blues ballad. This is a great party record and a great dance record – and it’s also inspiration to keep up the fight.

One of the World’s Sharpest, Funniest Song Stylists Salutes the Dearly Departed

Rachelle Garniez has gotten more ink from this blog than just about any other artist, starting with the very first concert ever reviewed here, an installment of Paul Wallfisch‘s fantastic and greatly missed Small Beast series in the late summer of 2011. Since then, she’s released plenty of studio material as well, from the song ranked best of 2015 here – the metaphorically searing, Elizabethan-tinged Vanity’s Curse, from her album Who’s Counting – to her charming, oldtimey-flavored An Evening in New York duo record with Kill Henry Sugar guitar wizard Erik Della Penna earlier this year.

The latest installment of Garniez’s recent creative tear is yet another album, Gone to Glory – streaming at Spotify – her first-ever covers record. The project took shape at a series of shows at East Village boite Pangea, beginning as an annual salute to artists who’d left us the previous year. The secret of playing covers is simple: either you do the song in a completely different way, or make it better than the original, otherwise it’s a waste of time. In this case, Garniez splits the difference between reinventions and improvements.

Playing piano, she opens the record with a quote that’s almost painfully obvious, but still too funny to give away. Then she switches to accordion over the strutting groove of drummer Dave Cole, bassist Derek Nievergelt and violist Karen Waltuch for a polka-tinged take of Motorhead’s Killed By Death. That’s the album’s funniest song, although most of the rest are equally radical reinventions: Garniez has a laserlike sense of a song’s inner meaning and teases that out here, time after time.

She does Prince’s Raspberry Beret as a country song and then discovers the slinky inner suspensefulness in a low-key, noir-tinged take of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. It’s super creepier than the original, as is a slightly stormier version of Mose Allison’s Monsters of the Id. She switches to piano for a brooding, lush, string-infused version of Jimmy Dorsey’s My Sister and I, a World War II refugee’s tale originally sung by Bea Wain in 1941.

Aretha Franklin is represented twice. Garniez’s droning accordion imbues The Day Is Past and Gone with an otherworldly druid-folk ambience. Her whispery, subtle solo piano take of Day Dreaming is all the more sultry for its simmering calm and mutedly cajoling intensity. Her tender delivery of a pillowy, orchestrated version of Della Reese’s Don’t You Know has much the same effect.

She keeps the sepulchral stillness and poignancy going through a folky arrangement of Kenny Rogers’ disabled veteran’s lament Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town – it’s infinitely sadder than the original. Sharon Jones’ 100 Days, 100 Nights gets a dark bolero-tinged interpretation that rises to a brassy peak

Garniez mashes up a little Piazzolla into her gently lilting version of Frank Mills, from the Hair soundtrack, playing up the song’s stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Nancy Wilson’s How Glad I Am has a lush retro 60s soul vibe, in a Bettye LaVette vein.

Garniez’s spare, gospel-tinged piano and subued vocals reveal the battle fatigue in the worn-down showbiz narrative of Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. She closes the record with an apt, guardedly hopeful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how Rachelle Garniez gets in.

Big up to the rest of the ensemble, who elevate many of these songs to symphonic levels: violinists Paul Woodiel and Cenovia Cummins, violist Entcho Todorov, cellist Mary Wooten, french horn player Jacob Garniez, multi-reedman Steve Elson, trombonist Dan Levine, trumpeter John Sneider, harpist Mia Theodoratis, harmonica player Randy Weinstein and backing vocalists Amanda Homi and Jeremy Beck.

Alice Lee’s Isolation Blues: Brilliant Music for Troubled Times

Alice Lee has forged a career writing smart, catchy soul music with an often witheringly insightful lyricism. Her album The Wheel made the top ten albums of the year list here in 2017; a year later, her single Me, Too landed on the ten best songs of the year list. Now, she’s released Isolation Blues, the best song of 2020 so far. It’s part darkly rustic, fingerpicked 1920s style blues, part sophisticated soul anthem.

The New York multi-instrumentalist/singer – one of this city’s “essential workers” – dedicates it to John Prine and Bill Withers. She wears a mask in the video – and it’s subtitled, a characteristically subtle touch that speaks volumes:

The people outside got fear in their eyes
Above the cover of a mandated disguise
When we need each other most
And it doesn’t make sense
We stay away from each other
In self-defense
As we scatter and hide, just trying to stay alive
They didn’t get out, they couldn’t survive
…We’re expendable when we don’t have the cash unbled
‘Cause when you’re black, brown or poor
You might as well be dead
We once were free to roam now we cannot choose
To live or die with these isolation blues

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmy lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Compilation: Five Albums of Crescent City Madness

What can you do when you’re unemployed (temporarily, let’s hope) and your city’s nightlife has gone completely dark? You could fire up Bandcamp and listen to all five of the albums of Jazz Fest: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival compilation. In a sick way, most New Yorkers will never have as much time on our hands as we do now – and let’s all swear that we will never again use this same excuse for sitting around listening to long albums!

This playlist spans several decades of revelry. Pretty much every style of music and every culture to ever play the festival are represented here – historically, New Orleans has been a melting pot every bit as diverse as New York. There are a lot of big names from across the years, a bunch of standards and many rare treats as well. In general, these are LONG songs: if you can multitask, the compilation has you covered for two days of a work week.

It’s a mixed bag. Some of the segues are jarring, and you can quit halfway through album five without missing anything. Giving Kenny Neal and his generic blues band fifteen minutes, more than just about anybody else, to phone in a medley was a waste. Surely the compilers could have found something more compelling from Professor Longhair than the song where he plays a trebly Wurlitzer…and whistles. Notwithstanding how much great material Preservation Hall Jazz Band have put out lately, we get…My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It? And who really wants to hear all the band intros at the end of a rote version of a familiar Clarence Frogman Henry novelty song?

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a ton of great material you can use for your own playlists. You can tell from the first few close harmonies of Hey, Now Baby that it’s Henry Butler at the piano. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are represented by a pouncing guitar-and-sax-fueled 2004 take of Blackbird Special. Dr. John’s emphatic, darkly stirring Litanie des Saints and a smoldering, vengeful, psychedelic take of I Walk on Gilded Splinters could be the high point of the whole album. The soulful John Boutte contributes a simmering post-Katrina parable, Louisiana 1927, a tale of “Twelve feet of water in the Lower Nine….They’re trying to wash us away, don’t let ’em!”

The Al Belletto Big Band bring the storm with their mambo-tinged Jazzmocracy. Bluesman Champion Jack Dupree and pianist Allen Toussaint deliver Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living with plenty of gallows humor, then cut loose in Rub a Little Boogie. Toussaint turns in a brass-fueled Yes We Can Can, as well as What Is Success, with Bonnie Raitt on sunbaked slide guitar, a little later on.

The expansive, oldtimey version of Summertime, by the Original Liberty Jazz Band featuring Dr. Michael White is strikingly fresh. The bursts from the choir in Ain’t Nobody Can Do Me Like Jesus, by Raymond Myles with the Gospel Soul Children are viscerally breathtaking. The Zion Harmonizers‘ I Want to Be At the Meeting and Golden Gate Gospel Train are just as stirring instrumentally as they are vocally.

The accordion/fiddle harmonies of the Savoy Family Cajun Band‘s Midland Two Step are especially juicy. When Beausoleil‘s sad twelve-string guitar waltz Recherche d’Acadie finally appears, four albums in, it’s actually a welcome break from all the relentless good cheer. Shortly afterward, the Neville Brothers’ slow-burning Yellow Moon rises to an eerily surreal halfspeed dixieland raveup. And bluesman John Mooney’s It Don’t Mean a Doggone Thing, Deacon John‘s Happy Home and Sonny Landreth‘s Blue Tarp Blues each have some sizzling slide guitar. Those are just some of the highlights: at this point, it’s time to stop and turn it over to you. Enjoy.

Imani Uzuri Brings Her Gospel-Inspired Gravitas and Historical Insight to Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, singer Imani Uzuri put on a mesmerizing show that was part joyous gospel revival and part hushed, rapt classical concert, with a little Showtime at the Apollo during the early part. Uzuri stands with Fanon in asserting that the damned of the earth keep things running, and someday will inherit it. She wasted no time in dedicating the performance to the marginalized, the oppressed and those trapped in the prison-industrial complex.

That set the tone for what she had in store: the way she expressed those ideas was much more poetic and succinct. Her most recent show here was a stark, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on old African-American spiritual themes. This show was much more lavish, Uzuri flanked by a trio of singers – Joshuah B. Campbell, Ann McCormack and Carami Hilaire in addition to Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Kaoru Watanabe on flute, and Dana Lyn and Trina Basu on strings. And yet, Uzuri’s themes were just as hypnotic, emphatically grounded in dark, wounded, ancient-sounding minor-key blues riffs.

She took special care to send a shout-out to Vera Hall, one of the songwriters she covered, since her song, Troubles So Hard, had been sampled from a rare Smithsonian recording by a corporate radio meme – and apparently had been left uncredited. That long, allusively tormented number finally took an unexpected turn into a final verse with a message of hope against hope even in the most troubled times. As she did in several other numbers, Uzuri gave the other singers onstage plenty of room to add soaring, achingly melismatic solos. She also tried engaging the audience, with mixed results. Much as there were some very inspired, gospelly-informed voices in the house, the general afterwork lethargy absolutely bedeviled her. But that’s to be expected; Uzuri is used to energizing late-night crowds.

Another musical pioneer Uzuri covered was Elizabeth Cotten, who in her sixties worked as a maid for Pete Seeger until he found out that she was a songwriter, and the rest is history. Since then, her signature three-finger guitar technique has become a popular device throughout the worlds of folk music and acoustic blues. Uzuri and the group delivered that particular number with somewhat more of an upbeat vibe than they did with Hall’s resolute, relentless epic.

Throughout the show, Uzuri’s powerful voice ranged from looming, defiantly resonant lows to a stratospheric falsetto that sent microtones bleeding from the atrium’s bare walls. Ikawa rose from minimalist atmospherics, to nonchalantly loungey phrasing, to a sudden, white-knuckle intensity with a series of achingly gorgeous gospel-infused, chromatic solos. Sewell’s stamina in running the same leaping acoustic blues phrase over and over during one of the later numbers was impressive, not to mention the erudite, intricate Chicago blues, and little later the plaintive, elegaic slide work he he played on Telecaster.

Watanabe gave the opening and closing numbers a charanga-like brightness, balanced by a broodingly slashing blues solo from Lyn along with Basu, whose glimmering, nocturnal solo early on literally sent shivers through the PA system. And with  Dunston holding close to the ground with his terse, propulsive, woody lines, who said a band has to have a drummer?

Uzuri closed with a world premiere commissioned by Chamber Music America, who spent their money well. In this pensively immersive suite, questioning where the human spirit has disappeared to, the group opened with a suspensefully circling string interlude and then went deeper in a gospel direction, winding down to a whisper. The ensemble brought the show full circle with a summery, vamping, latin-tinged psychedelic soul tableau.

The Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. has arguably the best and most eclectic mostly-weekly series of free concerts anywhere in New York. You can get your classical on this coming week when the Argus Quartet play there on March 5 at 7:30 PM. Then on March 12 there’s a shamanistic Korean dance-and-percussion performance.