New York Music Daily

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Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

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High-Voltage Suspense and State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz From Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Uptown Saturday Night

The suspense was relentless throughout Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s sold-out concert Saturday night at the Miller Theatre. Although a couple of numbers on the bill had genuinely visceral suspense narratives, there was no central mystery theme. That’s just the way Argue writes. What a thrill!

Throughout the show, four of the composer/conductor’s favorite tropes jumped out over and over again: artful variations on simple, acerbic hooks; circular phrases that widened and sometimes contracted; unexpected pairings between instruments, and high/low contrasts that often took on a sinister quality. Gil Evans did a lot of that, but drawing on vintage swing; Argue does that with just as much symphonic sweep, but more acidic harmonies.

Obviously, with a eighteen-piece big band, there was a whole lot more to the night than just that. They opened the first of their two marathon sets with Phobos, a mighty showstopper from the group’s debut album Infernal Machines, inspired by the moon of Mars which will someday either crash into the planet or shatter under the force of gravity. Drummer Jon Wikan’s first ominously shuffling notes of the night introduced bassist Matt Clohesy’s grim, gothic riffs that bookended the piece, guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s smoldering chords looming behind the steady interweave of brass and reeds. Tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ lyrical solo proved to be a red herring.

They’d revisit that catchy, cinematic ominousness with a pulsing take of Transit, seemingly slower and more portentous than the album version, to close the first set with a mighty, cold ending that nobody but the band could see coming.

Blow-Out Prevention, a shout-out to Argue’s late influence Bob Brookmeyer, juxtaposed bright but astringent brass harmonies against a shifting, lustrous backdrop. All In, a tribute to the late, longtime Secret Society mainstay and “trumpet guru” Laurie Frink, got a Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo which offered somber homage to her old bandmate, then took a triumphantly spiraling turn and eventually wound down against pianist Adam Birnbaum’s stately, Satie-esque minimalism.

Codebreaker, a salute to Alan Turing, bristled with spy-movie twists and turns but never went over the edge into John Barry-style menace. The second set was a performance of Argue’s recent, mammoth, labyrinthine Tensile Curves, inspired by Ellington’s Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue. The bandleader, who was in rare form as emcee, explained that he’d decided to assemble the piece – a commission requiring a full forty minutes of music – as a study in subtle rhythmic decelerations. And much as it was a clinic in the use of that effect, it also was packed with innumerable dynamic shifts, a wryly squirrelly Sam Sadigursky clarinet solo, a much longer and eventually wildly churning one from trombonist Ryan Keberle, and a characteristically translucent one from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill – among other things.

Animatedly loopy phrases filtered throughout the ensemble, from a snide, nagging introductory theme through a final comfortable touchdown on the runway. Let’s hope this mighty tour de force makes it to the web – and maybe even a vinyl record – sooner than later. A towering performance for the rest of the crew, including but not limited to saxophonists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trumpeters Seneca Black, Matt Holman and David Smith, trombonists Mike Fahie, Jacob Garchik and George Flynn.

The next show at the Miller Theatre is on Feb 13 at 6 PM with the Mivos Quartet playing new works by  Marisol Jimenez, Jeffrey Mumford, their own Victor Lowrie and Mariel Roberts. It’s one of the wildly popular free concerts here. Get there close to when the doors open at 5:30 and there might be free beer or wine; show up later and there probably won’t be.

In Her First New York Solo Show, Seungmin Cha Invents a Riveting, Brand New Kind of Music

It’s impossible to think of anyone other than Seungmin Cha who could make a tiny dinner bell sound more menacing than she did at her first-ever New York solo concert last weekend. Or for that matter, who could get as much sound as she did out of a single Korean daegeum flute, sometimes serene and verdant, other times acidic or even macabre.

“Can I check out your rig?” an interested concertgoer asked her before the show.

“Sure,” she replied. On the floor in front of her were a couple of large pedalboards’ worth of stompboxes, hardly limited to reverb, delay, disortion, chorus, flange and an envelope filter. Hardly what you would expect a virtuoso of a centuries-old folk instrument to be playing her axe through.

“This is a guitar rig,” the spectator observed. “Is that a volume pedal?” 

“It’s a total guitar rig,” Cha smiled. “That’s a distortion pedal. For my vocals.”

But this wasn’t a rock show. Instead, Cha invented a brand new kind of music right there on the spot. This particular blend of ancient Korean folk themes, western classical, jazz improvisation and the furthest reaches of the avant garde might have only existed for this one night.

She began by slowly making her way in a circle around the audience. It took her a good fifteen minutes, playing subtle, meticulously nuanced variations on a gentle Korean pastoral theme. On one hand, this might have been a welcoming gesture, a comfortably lulling interlude. More likely, Cha was getting a sense of the room’s acoustics for when she really cut loose.

Which she did, eventually. At one point, she was getting two separate overtones out of the flute, without relying on the electronics. As it turned out, she’d been talking shop with her special guest, clarinetist Ned Rothenberg, before the show and he’d shown her a couple of overtones. Which, maybe half an hour after learning them, she incorporated into the show. Can anybody say fearless?

As Cha built her first improvisational mini-epic of the night, a mist of microtones wafted through the space, sometimes light and tingling, sometimes mysteriously foggy. Slow, judicious bends and dips flowed through a mix that she eventually built to a dark deep-space pulse, the flute’s woody tone cutting through like a musical Hubble telescope somewhere beyond Pluto but unwilling to relent on its search for new planets. Yet when she sang a couple of resigned “my love’s gone over the hills” type ballads, her vocals made a contrast, low and calm – until she hit her pedal to raise the surrealism factor through the roof.

As it turns out, Cha can also be very funny. She began an improvisation inspired by a snakelike Alain Kirili sculpture on the floor in front of her with a sort of one-sided Q&A…then decided to pick it up and play it as if it was a flute. Grrrr!! This thing is evil!

Rothenberg joined her for a lively duet to close the show: he tried goosing her with a few riffs early on, and she goosed back, but it became clear that she wanted to take this in a more serious direction and he went with it, adding judicious, mostly midrange, confidently bubbling motives while Cha took a slow, similarly considered upward path. It was a playful way to close what had been an intense and sometimes harrowing journey up to that point. You’ll see this on the Best Concerts of 2017 page here later this year.

Cha flew back to her home turf in Seoul the next day, but a return to New York is in the works: watch this space.

Joan Soriano Brings a Classic, Classy Dominican Bachata Party to Lincoln Center

This past evening was a slinky feast of chiming, shimmering guitar overtones and dance beats that ran the gamut of music from the Caribbean and beyond. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh described her mission as bringing “The height of quality art”  to the series of free shows at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd, and she wasn’t kidding. Dominican bachata star Joan Soriano is such an interesting, incisive guitarist that it was hard to sit and chill with a beer instead of joining the twirling circles of dancers out on the floor.

Are Soriano’s fans all snappy dressers? From the looks of this crowd, guys done out in ties and white shirts, women in red or blue dresses, they could school pretty much any posse of dancers in this city, fashion-wise.

The star of the documentary El Duque De la Bachata fronts a first-rate band with rhythm guitar, guiro, punchy six-string bass and a nimble bongo player who also delivered a subtly boomy dancefloor thud (hard to imagine, but just try) on double-headed tambora. As they brought the guitar up in the mix to open the show, it sounded as if the rhythm player was using an accordion pedal, his playing was that crisp and resonant. Soriano was even faster on his big acoustic-electric, opening with a cheery two-chord vamp. Finally we got some of the deliciously sliding bass that got so popular in bachata twenty years ago

Soriano’s songs tackle the battle of the sexes: there were come-ons, and boudoir vamps, and lots of laments. They did a four-chord doo-wop vamp with a big sputtering crescendo early on, then a slinky, jazzily pensive bolero-tinged ballad that built to an impassioned peak where Soriano kept it going with his spiky broken chords as the rhythm shifted toward classic Afro-Cuban salsa.

They opened the next one with a Bollywood riff and this is where the night really started to cook: some sweet rat-a-tat from the bongos on the turnaround, bittersweet minor-key changes to mirror the angst of the lyrics.

He took a familiar oldschool soul riff and tremolo-picked furiously like Dick Dale. The songs weren’t all just two-chord vamps, either, unexpected minor changes leaping in all over the place. The rhythm player took over lead vocals on the night’s most angst-fueled, biting number, the crowd singing the chorus back at the stage. Later Soriano gave his moodiest, most subtly compelling vocal to a catchy but downcast number that was basically classic Jamaican rocksteady with a bachata beat. 

When so much of bachata has been polluted by cheesy, formulaic Disney autotune radio pop, Soriano is a breath of fresh air straight off the Caribbean. Or, as the show built steam, more like a friendly hurricane. The next show at the atrium is this Oct 19 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic, kinetic female-fronted Mexican downtempo-trip-hop/folk-pop band Ampersan as part of Celebrate Mexico Now month. If there ever was a time to celebrate Spanish-language music, or Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, that time is now.

Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Version of Terry Riley’s In C: The Most Psychedelic Album of 2017

Considering how much Indian music has influenced Terry Riley’s work, It makes sense that the iconic composer and pioneer of what’s come to be known as indie classical would give the thumbs-up to Brooklyn Raga Massive’s recording of his famous suite. The irrepressible New York collective can’t resist mashing up just about anything with classical Indian sounds: their previous album tackled a bunch of famous John Coltrane tunes. They’re playing the album release show for the new one – streaming at Bandcamp – on Oct 6 at 8 PM at the Poisson Rouge; $20 adv tix are recommended.  

They open the album with an alap (improvisation) on Raga Bihag, strings fluttering and slowly massing behind a rather jubilant bansuri flute line (that’s either Eric Fraser or Josh Geisler), handing off to bandleader Neel Murgai’s sitar, then Arun Ramamurthy’s spiraling violin before the sitar takes the band into the first variation on Riley’s 48 cells. A cynic might say that this is the best part of the album – either way, the band could have gone on four times as long and nobody would be complaining. 

Riley wrote In C on the piano in 1964, but just about every kind of ensemble imaginable – from flashmobs with flash cards, to Serena Jost’s army of fifty cellists – have played it. Any way it’s performed, it’s very hypnotic, this version especially. The whole group is in on it from the first insistent rhythmic measure, vocally and instrumentally, with the occasional minutely polyrhythmic variation. This is a mighty, full-force version of the massive, blending Trina Basu and Ken Shoji’s violins, Aaron Shragge’s dragon mouth trumpet, Michael Gam’s bass, Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer,Adam Malouf’s cello, David Ellenbogen’s guitar, with Timothy Hill and Andrew Shantz on vocals, Lauren Crump on cajon, Vin Scialla on riq and frame drum, Roshni Samlal and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

As the piece goes on, dancing flute and sitar accents answer each other with a gleeful abandon. Echo effects pulse like a stoned quasar, then about halfway in a triplet groove emerges and then straightens out. Kanes Mathis’ oud scampers like a street urchin running from the cops, then provides a low-register anchor for the fluttering strings. Which shift to the foreground, then recede as individual voices throughout the group signal the next change.

There are places where it brings to mind Brian Jones’ trippy loop collages on Their Satanic Majesties Request; elsewhere, the White Album’s most surreal experimental segments. Bottom line is that there hasn’t been an album nearly as psychedelically enveloping as this one released this year. How does it feel to listen to this album without being high? Weird. Either way, it’s great late-night listening for stoners and nonsmokers alike. 

Bird With Strings Reinvented Live at the New School

Wednesday night the New School auditorium on 12th Street drew a sold-out crowd for a live recreation of the Charlie Parker With Strings albums that transcended the originals. Sixty-plus years after they came out, the controversy hasn’t dimmed. Some see the two records as vital cross-pollination and a paradigm shift, others dismiss them as schlock and an ugly precursor to the syrupy orchestration that ruined a whole bunch of Sinatra and Wes Montgomery records. The involvement of Mitch Miller as orchestrator only bolsters that second argument.

The genesis of the albums is clouded as well. Conventional wisdom is that Charlie Parker, a huge Stravinsky fan, wanted to record with an orchestra. Was it time constraints, lack of label money, or the fact that Miller wasn’t able to round up an orchestra either capable or willing to play bebop, that explains why the songs chosen for the album are standards rather than Bird originals? We’ll never know for sure.

What was most strikingly rewarding about this performance was how much more present the strings were, compared to the original, rather tinny analog recordings (scroll down for a list of the talented up-and-coming New School students who pulled off this mighty feat). And as conductor Keller Coker told the crowd with not a little pride, this group swung the hell out of the music. For many students on the classical track, that’s a genuine stretch.

The role of Bird himself – thankless task? Monumental challenge? – was assumed by alto saxophonist Dave Glasser, who approached it with unselfconscious bliss. All but a couple of these songs are ballads, a showcase for Bird in what was becoming increasingly rare lyrical mode, and Glasser gave them every bit of elegance in his valves, more than ably channeling those graceful blue notes. He also duetted amiably and eruditely with guest trumpeter Frank Owens on a bouncy Dizzy Gillespie number – the lone tune on the program that wasn’t on the original albums.

The most striking performance was the lone number written specifically for the original sessions, Neal Hefti’s Catskill bossa nova Repetition. Dynamic shifts were strong and seamless when the orchestra would kick in or out. Oboeist Dave Briceno played Milller’s own parts with a crystalline clarity that surpassed the originals, and pianist Michael Sheelar contributed nifty, dancing solos when given a tantalizingly brief few bars. Alongside him, bassist Joshua Marcum and drummer Adam Briere walked, shuffled and swung tirelessly, in period-perfect early 50s mode.

And big up to the rest of the orchestra: violinists Daniel Zinn, Nathalie Barret-Mas, Sesil Cho, So Young Kim, Chloe Kim and Yukiko Kuhara; violists Hsuan Chen and Seo Hyeon Park; cellists Juie Kim and Mark Serkin; horn player Josh Davies, harpist Skyla Budd and guitarist Nick Semenykhin.

This performance was part of this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary as a New  York institution. The festival continues tonight at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem at 7 with saxophonist Camille Thurman and her combo, followed by stellar reedwoman Anat Cohen’s Tentet

Aakash Mittal Pulls Together an Amazing Band to Reinvent Some Unexpected Tunes

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal surveyed the scene from offstage, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with his eyes closed, lost in the music at Rockwood Music Hall last week. This time he had his serious impresario hat on, and the band he’d pulled together was killing it. To his far right, pianist Arcoiris Sandoval drove hard to a crescendo, valkyrie fingers voicing wide-angle, upwardly cascading chords. Bassist Ray Parker shifted in a second from stark. bowed washes into a late 70s Ron Carter-style racewalk. Drummer Alex Ritz made a different, similarly devious shift, from triplets to a jazz waltz. Trumpeter Brad Goode was also chilling at that moment, having tickled the audience with his leperchaun glissandos and fleeting swoops and chirps, when he wasn’t inviting a harbor mist in with his looming, lustrously sustained muted phrases.

That was just the first song. They didn’t even hit the head – it was Straight, No Chaser – until the final chorus. With a lyricism that was as subtle as it was striking, Mittal had opened it with a vivid bhangra riff, but the attack was the opposite of the kind of wind-tunnel pyrotechnics that another Indian-inspired altoist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, would probably have made out of it.

Throughout the group’s tantalizing hour onstage Mittal relished the role of protean instigator, reaffirming his position as one of the most mutable, versatile saxophonists in New York. That opening riff and variations were gentle but bright and brassy, in a Jackie McLean vein. After that, Mittal went into balmy mode, but with a brisk, Birdlike, bluesy focus. Then he brought some gruffness into the picture as the band built steam.

It’s very rare to see Mittal playing standards – he usually plays his own intricate, dynamic material which frequently references or interpolates classical Indian themes.. Yet he also calls for more individual input than most bandleaders do: assembling the exact core of personalities for a specific blend of jousting and unexpected thrills seems to mean as much to Mittal as the tunes themselves.

And everybody delivered. Goode – a Chicago-based player who gets here too infrequently – switched effortlessly between daunting extended technique and solitary deep-night Miles, whether playing with a mute or not. Parker and Ritz delivered a percolating, floating swing early on, then Parker played chiller, Ritz following with one nifty peek-a-boo turn through his hardware and cymbal bells after another until everybody was smiling. Then he found a clave and hung with it, through the night’s best number, All the Things You Are – even when he went back to the hardware department. Meanwhile, Sandoval flashed lowdown roadhouse blues, austere Chopin and bright, condor-winged chords that brought to mind Luis Perdomo.

After all that,  the group made a rapturously closing tone poem of sorts out of You Don’t Know What Love Is. Mittal’s next gig is on October 22 at 4 AM (yes, in the morning) at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s allnight festival. Tix for the 4 to 7 AM time slot (probably the hottest part of the night) are $30.

An Intense, Mesmerizing New Album From the Mehmet Polat Trio

The Mehmet Polat Trio are one of the world’s most distinctive and cutting-edge groups in Middle Eastern and Turkish music. Their songs are epic and picturesque, incorporating elements of West African, Andalucian, Romany and Balkan sounds as well. Bandleader and oud virtuoso Polat can play with blazing speed if he wants, but he typically prefers a dynamically charged approach. His compositions have a cinematic sensibility that gets very dark on occasion. In this group he’s joined by kora player Dymphi Peeters and ney flutist Sinan Arat. Their show last summer at Lincoln Center was one of the most compelling concerts of the year; their latest album Ask Your Heart is streaming at Spotify.

This is deep, rich, impeccably crafted music that demands repeated listening. The opening epic, Untouched Stories, builds out of an enigmatic intro with echoes of Indian baul minstrelsy to a catchy, verdantly anthemic sway, It wouldn’t be out of place on an early 80s Pat Metheny album, but with organic production values. Arat’s balmy flute solo eventually gives way to Polat’s low, suspenseful oud solo over a syncopated strum, a high-spirited highway theme of sorts that calms as the rhythm drops out and segues into the second track, Dance It Out. Hazy ney over a hypnotically leaping, circular hook rises to a gently triumphant chorus, then a waterfalling kora solo and an unexpectedly insistent, enigmatic coda that Polat steers back toward the Levant. All this brings to mind the most energetic original work of fellow Turkish composer/oudist Omar Faruk Tekbilek.

The trio open Sandcastles as a pouncing, bristling, modal suspense theme with flamenco and Romany echoes, then the bandleader takes it into more pensive terrain with an insistent, minimalist solo, rising and falling. Neset quickly becomes even more insistent and imbued with longing, the kora at times supplying ripples akin to a kanun or santoor in Egyptian or Iraqi music while Polat essentially plays a bassline, ney wafting mournfully overhead.

Likewise, a muted, wounded sensibility pervades the beginning and end of Whispering to Waves, a brooding interweave of oud and kora falling away for a shimmering. crescendoing kora solo and then desolate solo ney.

With its implied melody and pensively dancing syncopation, the album’s title track lives up to its name. Polat plays melismatic, sitar-like low-register lines, then guardedly picks up steam. Arat’s gentle rhythmic puffs add a hypnotic element.

Evening Prayer, with allusively heartbroken lyrics by Leyla Hamin and melody by Turkish oudist Kazanci Bedih, is more gently sprightly than you might expect. although the catchy tune grows more pensive as the band builds variations on it. A brooding solo by Arat bridges into the more anthemic and also much darker Everything Is in You as it rises from the lows (Polat plays a custom-built oud with extra low register). His aching, angst-ridden solo midway through could be the high point of the album.

Serenity opens with stately, starry kora, but the band picks up the pace, taking it down into murkier depths via a syncopated take on a familiar Middle Eastern progression. The band double their dancing lines and then dig in hard in Simorgh, an altered waltz, hypnotic kora anchoring Polat’s pulsing solo. The album ends with Mardin, a lilting flute tune by Turkish oudist Ahmet Uzungol. Meticulous interplay, striking tunes and a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of instruments make this one of the best albums of the year.

Potent, Evocative New Vocal Jazz: Helen Sung with Words Last Night at the Jazz Standard

On one hand, Helen Sung with Words last night at the Jazz Standard was a chance to hear both multi-reedman John Ellis and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen blaze together in front of a tight latin-flavored rhythm section, a treat not to be missed. On the other, it was an opportunity to witness the most cutting edge of vocal jazz, a tantalizingly eclectic, often harrowingly relevant work in progress bookended by a couple of real burners.

Singers Christie Dashiell, Carolyn Leonhart and Vuyo Sotashe took turns and often harmonized Sung’s settings of poems by Dana Gioia, whose recorded words wafted through the PA as each song got underway. Alternately brooding, sardonic or droll, Sung wove them into constantly shifting shapes, Dashiell getting the most time in the spotlight with her airy, often vividly wistful delivery bolstered by Leonhart’s sometimes brassy harmonies, Sotashe reaching toward Al Green territory from time to time with his balmy falsetto.

Ellis intoned mournful, blood-and-blues-drenched motives off the inside of the piano as a steady, hauntingly reflective elegy for a  murdered inmate in the US prison system got underway. Likewise, bassist Ricky Rodriguez gave a Lower East Side wee-hours lament a starkly bowed intro as percussionist Samuel Torres and drummer Kendrick Scott added their misty accents to the wounded ambience: it was the most avant garde moment of the night.

Yet there was as much adrenaline as poignancy in the set. Dave Brubeck famously joked that there’s a little lounge in every pianist, but whenever Sung hinted that she might go there, with a playful little trill or a chromatic downward run, she’d break it up with a fierce block chord or two. Her work defies standard A/B/C sectionality – these songs seemed to have an F, a G and an H too – and she has a flair for latin jazz. She wound up a couple of the more upbeat numbers with an altered couple of mambos that made a launching pad for tantalizingly brief duels between Torres and Scott.

The joyous closing number, the most straight-ahead of the evening, had echoes of funk. The opener – illustrating Gioia’s early 70s memories of a smoky West Coast jazz joint – grew out of Ellis and then Jensen blistering through a thicket of bluesy eights to Sung’s long, majestically driving solo, artfully expanding toward tropicalia and then back. As kaleidoscopically lyrical as the rest of the set was, it would have been even more fun to hear her cut loose like that again. As the saying goes, always leave them wanting more. Sung plays next on June 3 at 8 PM at Lulu Fest in Austin, Texas.

Microtonal Merrymaking at the Mayflower

It was a treat to get to hear Concetta Abbate on Sunday at Mayflower Bar in Fort Greene. Abbate is best known as a violinist and composer of beguiling chamber-pop miniatures, but she’s also a magically nuanced, expressive singer. Lately she’s been working on finishing up her Master’s at Columbia, so she hasn’t been playing out a lot.

This time was a rapturous, mostly improvised duo set with Kyle Farrell, who played a marimba-like instrument invented by Skip Laplante. Its series of eighteen evenly tuned metal pipes covered the span of an octave, laid flat atop a styrofoam box doing double duty as resonator and carrying case. Guitar maven Bob Bannister, who was in the house, called it a styrophone, and the name stuck.

Abbate began the show by improvising gracefully strolling melodies. singing and then riffing on a series of Rumi poems from an older and almost surrealistically literal English translation. Meanwhile, Farrell kept the otherworldly, microtonal ripples and pings going, occasionally using a daf frame drum for extra texture or rhythm. Later in the set, he removed a handful of pipes to pare down the available tones for what ended up sounding both more western and more Asian, depending on how close the harmonies were.

Singing in Spanish, Abbate also treated the crowd to a couple of Peruvian tonadas, one a plaintive traditional number and the other an original inspired by a training ritual employed by shamanic healers. After the set was over, impresario Rose Thomas Bannister – who has one of the deepest address books in New York and runs the weekly music series here – took a playful turn on the mallets. The show this coming Sunday, Feb 19 stats at around 2 PM and features excellent cellist/composer Leah Coloff, who’s best known for her Lou Reed collaboration but has an impressively eclectic solo catalog as well.