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Uneasy Atmospheres and a Park Slope Gig by Trumpeter Nate Wooley

Trumpeter Nate Wooley has been on the front lines of the New York avant garde for almost twenty years. His latest album Columbia Icefield – streaming at Bandcamp – includes three tracks, two of them about twenty minutes long, a mix of the hypnoic and confrontational, the subdued and the dynamic. His next gig is an enticingly intimate one, at the Old Stone House in Park Slope tomorrow night, April 18 at 8 PM. Cover is $10

The album’s first number, Lionel Trilling begins with an overlapping series of contrastingly calm and agitated loops, spiced here and there with uneasy close harmonies. Ripsnorting textures intrude and then recede; finally a series of recognizable, spare, resonant, Wadada Leo Smith-like trumpet variations move to the center of the sonic picture. Mary Halvorson’s coldly clanging, loopy guitar, Susan Alcorn’s minutely textured pedal steel and Ryan Sawyer’s drum riffs linger and echo in the distance. From there it’s back to loops and then more rhythmic variations: just when the music seems about to drift off into the ether, something unexpected happens.

Seven in the Woods coalesces quickly into a moody dirge, desolate trumpet over lingering guitar jangle. Once the stringed instruments fade out, it grows more rhythmic and warmer, the second part with a lustrous, ambered brass interlude. Spacy bubbles from the guitar push it away; a momentary return once again is interrupted, this time by wailing, randomly shreddy fretwork as the drums tumble. The band bring it elegaically full circle at the end.

With Condolences is the album’s most spare, spacious, Wadada Leo Smith-inflected number, individual voices loosening and diverging, up to a moodily atmospheric series of tectonic shifts as the bandleader intones a nebulously regretful vocal interlude. The return to lustre and then a sense of mourning is unselfconsciously poignant: we’re in deep trouble when all the polar ice is gone. Wadada Leo Smith fans will love this record.

Intense, Allusively Political Improvisational Epics from Amirtha Kidambi

Singer/keyboardist Amirtha Kidambi’s work spans the worlds of jazz, Indian music and the avant garde. The relentless angst of her vocals was the icing on the cake throughout Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl album. As she puts it, her latest release, From Untruth – streaming at Bandcamp – contains “Four pieces grappling with issues of power, oppression, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, violence and the shifting nature of truth. This music means to give the listener momentary relief from the anxiety and pain caused by living in our current reality.”

The first track is the hypnotic, almost fourteen-minute dirge Eat the Rich. Kidambi runs a loopy gothic harmonium riff; Matt Nelson plays his tenor sax through a pedalboard for icy, squiggly effects; bassist Nick Dunston pounces and prances. Kidambi scats an insistent carnatic riff in tandem with the sax, then takes over the music as well while drummer Max Jaffe adds minimalist, thumping flourishes in the background. “Eat the rich or die starving,” is her mantra on the way out.

Nelson’s otherworldly, zurla-like atmospherics mingle with Kidambi’s similarly uneasy vocalese and synth as Dance of the Subaltern opens, then the rhythm section kicks into an insistently pulsing 7/8 groove and everyone goes off to squall by themselves. Murky, toxically pooling synth and video gunners in space ensue before Kidambi returns, handling both sides of a simple and emphatic conversation weighing victory versus defeat. 

Tightly wound atonal clusters from the whole ensemble converge in Decolonize the Mind, which shifts to what sounds like ambient bagpipe music before Nelson’s wryly oscillating chromatic riffage signals a blazing bhangra-inflected crescendo. The album’s coda is the epic, fourteen minute-plus title track. The atmospheric intro brings to mind Amina Claudine Myers’ work with the AACM, then vocals and sax intertwine to a sardonic march beat before Kidambi allows a sense of guarded hope to filter in over anthemic, ominously looping synth. Nelson echoes that with the album’s most lyrical, soaring solo; elastically snapping solo bass ushers in an unresolved ending.

Kidambi is just back from Mary Halvorson tour and playing Luisa Muhr’s Women Between Arts series at the glass box theatre at the New School (the new Stone) on April 13 at 4 PM with dancer Leyna Marika Papach and choreographer Lilleth Glimcher. Cover is $20, but the series’ policy is not to turn anyone away for lack of funds,

Slavic Surrealism, Somber Strauss and Bittersweet Beethoven at Lincoln Center

This past evening the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staged a program on themes of endings and goodbyes. In various configurations, eight musicians contributed to a final work in a specific genre, an elegy, and what could have been a fervent wave goodbye to a composer’s beloved home turf. Each was performed in unusually high-definition, sometimes revelatory detail. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd agreed that braving late-winter bluster for a show like this was infinitely more rewarding than snuggling with a handful of favorite records (or with youtube).

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and violinist Bella Hristova opened the night with a remarkably straightforward take of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10. It seemed just a hair slow. That turned out to be a wise choice, considering that other musicians often romp through the whole thing since the piano part does not require typical Beethovenesque virtuosity (the duke who commissioned it also played the premiere). Likewise, Hristova held back on the vibrato until the hymnal second movement was underway: the effect turned what could have been sentimentality into genuine bittersweetness. Constant exchanges between piano lefthand and violin were coyly amusing, in contrast to the first hint of an ending in the third movement, which Kalish imbued with a distantly desperate quality, raising the ante with sudden extra vigor.

The centerpiece was an absolutely shattering performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, arguably the saddest tone poem ever written. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violists Mark Holloway and Richard O’Neil, cellists Dmitri Atapine and David Requiro, and bassist Xavier Foley joined Hristova to build a relentless, aching, meticulous interweave that finally came full circle, fueled by the cellos’ plaintive angst. Here as elsewhere, the septet’s attention to minutiae was such that Strauss’ cell-like permutations echoed Bach as much as they foreshadowed Philip Glass. At the end, the audience sat in stunned silence for what felt like a full thirty seconds before breaking into applause.

Dynamics bristled and sparkled throughout the night’s coda, Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, best known as the Dumky. Joined by Sussmann and Requiro, Kalish seemed to revel in the suite’s almost gleeful phantasmagoria. The savagery in how the composer takes an initial, cloying dance theme and then twists it through a funhouse mirror had a magnetic effect on the trio, especially when Kalish decided to pick up the pace. The numerous contrasts, particularly a silken ending to the adagio second movement, were striking and unselfconsciously poignant…or just plain funny. Sussmann and Requiro approached their solo spots with a straightforwardness that matched the Beethoven. It wouldn’t be fair to call the ending diabolical, but it was close, a devilishly good time. Glistening with Slavic chromatics, if this was a goodbye, it could have been a salute to everything Dvorak loved about his home country…and also quite possibly a snide dismissal of everything he didn’t.

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Still Corners Bring the Noir to Bushwick This Week

London band Still Corners play deliciously Lynchian cinematic rock with frequent detours into new wave. Their album Slow Air is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’ve got a show this Sept 18 at 10 PM at Elsewhere. Cover is $18.

The album is a diptych of sorts: they stack the noir stuff deep early and then lighten up as the 80s filter in with a glossy sheen. The aptly titled opening track, In the Middle of the Night sounds like the Lost Patrol doing trip-hop, Greg Hughes’ catchy rainy-day guitars awash in lush noir soundtrack synth. The Message has lingering spaghetti western licks over a tight backbeat, singer Tessa Murray’s misty voice channeling lost-highway desolation.

Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well stoicism and longing permeates Sad Movies, with more incisive/lush contrast between starry guitar and orchestral sweep. The band go back to catchy, vampy Twin Peaks ambience in Welcome to Slow Air, surreal tropical touches contrasting with neoromantic elegance.

Black Lagoon is hardly the monster movie theme you might imagine; instead, it’s a sleek, pulsing new wave pop tune with an unexpectedly desperate undercurrent. Dreamlands, the least troubled track here, has echoey Cure guitar front and center.

Whisper is the album’s most minimalist cut, the synthesizers’ growling lows and ethereal highs sandwiching spare, watery gothic guitar and bass riffage. Fade Out has wry phony low-brass synth over a steady backbeat. The Photograph is totally 80s – like, totally – a mashup of ABC and early U2 that works infinitely better than that bastardly pairing. The album’s final cut is the loopy Long Goodbyes, with its juxtaposition of simple, keening guitar and looming Angelo Badalamenti synth.

Every note serves a purpose here. Nothing is wasted in setting a mood and maintaining it, especially when the game plan is mystery.

A Colorful, Auspicious Debut Album and a Jazz Gallery Show by the Mighty Big Heart Machine

Big Heart Machine’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is not for curmudgeons. It’s for people who appreciate robust tunesmithing and vivid, lavish arrangements with a sense of humor. That quality is all too often missing in big band jazz, which might explain why two of the heaviest hitters in the field – Darcy James Argue and Miho Hazama – have thrown their weight behind it. Argue produced the record; Hazama will be conducting the 20-piece orchestra at the album release show on Aug 16 at the Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $15, a real bargain at this joint.

Texture-wise, this is a very colorful album, loaded from the top to the bottom of the sonic spectrum like a pastrami sandwich at the old Stage Deli. Bandleader/tenor sax player Brian Krock writes cinematic, shiftingly kinetic music that at its most intense is almost a dead ringer for Argue’s work – it can be as impactful as it is sardonic. ’The opening track, Don’t Analyze opens with Krock’s balmy intro, then polyrhythms kick in with a laid-back sway and plush pulses throughout the ensemble. Variations on a stalking bass melody contrast with sly P-Funk keyboard textures; after a long crescendo, there’s no easy resolution.

The album’s centerpiece is a five-part suite, Tamalpais. The opening segment, Stratus builds high-sky ambience with microtonal understatement over a melody that slowly develops out of the bass. The segue into Deep Ravine comes across like Argue doing the Theme from Shaft. Nick Grinder’s trombone and Yuhan Su’s vibes do a wry dance over John Hollenbeck-esque pointillisms. Staggered motorik beats emerge from a haze, capped off by Olli Hirvonen’s shrieking guitar; flittingly amusing faux-dixieland gives way to battlefield guitar mist..

The somber piano/trumpet duet between Arcoiris Sandoval and Kenny Warren that introduces Stinson Beach brings to mind the muted angst of the conclusion of Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon, rising with jaunty swirls and pulses as the sun emerges over the Bay Area. And yet, a grim memory persists as Krock bobs and weaves, dark and bluesy, over the orchestra’s heavy resonance.

Gingerly tiptoeing vibes pair off against low brass foreshadowing as Dipsea Steps gets underway. The way the pairings shift afterward, from trumpet against guitar power chords, to neooromantic piano and vibes, up to where wary tenor sax and the orchestra coalesce, is as much fun as it is a clinic in clever composition

The suite comes full circle (a device Krock excels at) with Cirrus. Is this not as high as the intro? Sort of. Wistfully energetic muted trumpet spins over a resonant backdrop of guitar, Dr. Dre synth and orchestration throughout what’s essentially a tone poem.

There are two more stand-alone tracks. Jelly Cat emerges from wispiness to emphatic bursts of close harmonies and a spare interlude for trombone against the highs. The clarinet’s descent from the clouds is one of the album’s high points, up to a boisteously funky ending. 

The epic closing number, Mighty Purty begins with peekaboo voices, shifts to allusions to trad 50s ebullience, a return to bittersweet piano and trumpet and a long upward climb. A gritty interweave of trombone, tenor and eventually the rest of the horns take it skyward over a heavy Pink Floyd sway. This is the frontrunner for best jazz debut album of 2018. Who would have thought that Krock’s roots are as a metal guitarist tirelessly copying Dimebag solos? 

Heroes of Toolik Reprise One of 2018’s Most Entrancing Shows in Williamsburg This Weekend

On one hand, the idea of Heroes of Toolik squeezing themselves into Pete’s Candy Store might seem incongruous. On the other hand, the band have pared down their sound to a more acoustic, pastoral, overcast psychedelia. Their show at the irresistibly intimate new Spectrum, out by what’s left of the Brooklyn Navy Yard last month, revealed a side of the band that they’d been percolating for a long time but really perfected with their 2016 album Like Night. They’ll be at Pete’s at 8;30 PM on March 25, and then at Sunny’s on April 17 at 9:30.

At the Spectrum show, the psychedelic factor might have been ratcheted up a few notches by a ringer rhythm section. Brian Adler took over Billy Ficca’s drum chair with a slithery pulse, using his hardware and rims for all kinds of spectral flickers. On bass was the most acerbic and funniest composer in jazz, Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s Moppa Elliott, playing the changes with a deadpan slink. Frontman Arad Evans played acoustic guitar with more of a spiky, incisive attack than he typically does when he’s on electric.

The songs ran the gamut of several decades’ worth of psychedelic, new wave and early CB’s era postrock influences. A swaying anthem with meticulous, nuanced vocals from violinist Jennifer Coates and tersely looming trombone from John Speck came across as sort of a mashup of lo-fi 90s British rock – think Comet Gain – and the Grateful Dead. Throughout a vampy post-Television rainy-day psychedelic mini-epic, the guy/girl vocals of Evans and Coates brought to mind similarly slinky, hypnotically jangly zeroes Brooklyn band Liza & the WonderWheels. Coates took lead vocals on another much more spare, marching number, with a clipped, broodingly precise delivery that brought to mind another luminary from the zeros, Erika Simonian.

As the show went on, there were several detours into freer improvisational interludes, individual voices going out on a limb and then reconfiguring in turn. Was Elliott going to indulge the crowd in any tongue-in-cheek shenanigans? As it turned out, no: he was just having fun chilling back with the drums. The overall ambience was enigmatic, sometimes bordering on trance-inducing, a constantly shifting textural intertwine of violin, guitar and trombone over a thicket of beats. Get your trance on at Pete’s on the 25th.

Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons Release a Swirling, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Live Album in Memory of Their Late Great Drummer Paul Triff

More bands should make live albums. They’re a lot less expensive, compared to studio recordings, and if the musicians are on their game they capture an energy that can’t be bottled in the studio. Orchestras and jazz artists have known this for a long time but rock acts are still catching up.

When Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons recorded their September 29, 2015 set at the Mercury Lounge, no one in the band could have known that someday it would have historical value beyond simply being a high-voltage performance. Tragically, this show would be the very last one that popular New York drummer Paul Triff would ever play. And it’s available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp, in his memory. Fittingly, Leckie and her band are playing the album release show at the Mercury on March 14 at 8 PM. Feral original punk/blues siren Molly Ruth opens the night at 7; cover is $10.

The premise of the September show was to air out a lot of new material from Leckie’s most recent studio album, The Raven Smiled, and the band were clearly amped to play it. While Leckie has flirted with psychedelia throughout her career, she’d never plunged so deeply into it. So it’s no surprise that guitarist Hugh Pool – who can channel Hendrix better than just about anyone alive – and bassist Charles DeChants, who comes from a jamband background, would be on top of their game here. Triff was also a big psychedelic fan, a devotee of Steely Dan; the great drummer Ron Howden, of Nektar, was also an influence. All that shows up in this performance. Violinist Pavel Cingl can play anything from punk to classical, but he also takes centerstage in kitchen-sink psychedelic folk band Jull Dajen, and his interplay with Pool here can be intoxicating.

The show opens with The Man Who Walks in the Rain – Cingl’s violin swirls and dances, mingling with Pool’s echoing leads over DeChants’ looming bass and Triff’s relentless drive. Leckie’s downtuned Telecaster growls and simmers as Dangerous Friends, a slow, slinky, scorchingly rising anthem gets underway. The two guitars and violin build a witchy web in Medicine Man, driven by Triff’s shamanic beat.

The group push their way through tricky polyrhythms into the surrealistically swaying, distantly menacing That Ain’t Nice and then follow it with the suspensefully lingering dynamics of Witches Heart, Pool’s quasar guitar matched by Cingl’s starry violin flickers. Then the intensity reaches volcanic levels with Climb Ya Like a Mountain, Leckie’s tribute to rugged outdoorsman Aleister Crowley, better known for his adventures in black magic than high-altitude hiking.

There’s a momentary lull when Leckie moves to the piano for a solo version of The Raven Smiled, then brings the band back for a rampaging version of her big crowd-pleaser, Ontario, Cingl and Pool sparring throughout the mighty Americana rock anthem. Its final triumphant flurries would be the last beats that Triff would ever play onstage. As the album attests, this is a great live band (Keith Robinson has since stepped in to fill the big shoes left behind by Triff). And this could be their best record.

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

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.