New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Darkly Focused, Kinetic Themes and Improvisations From Pianist Mara Rosenbloom

Pianist Mara Rosenbloom picked the most politically-charged possible title for her new album: Respiration. From George Floyd to the average corporate employee struggling for oxygen through his or her muzzle, that’s the one thing – other than basic human rights – that the world didn’t get enough of in 2020. To be clear, Rosenbloom made this record with her trio, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, just prior to the lockdown. She got her start as an elegantly tuneful composer and bandleader, has very eclectic credits as a sidewoman and has drifted further into the more adventurous reaches of pure improvisation in the last couple of years.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – doesn’t have the raw, feral intensity of what’s been her career-defining release so far, 2016’s Prairie Burn. It’s more somber and concise than viscerally crushing, if just as tuneful – as you would expect, with an intro based on a theme by the iconic Amina Claudine Myers. That turns out to be a loopy little latin-tinged thing with subtle accents from the bass.

Things pick up quickly from there with The Choo, which is just plain gorgeous. Rosenbloom’s warmly insistent, gospel-tinged lefthand anchors an increasingly anthemic soul song without words set to a muted shuffle beat, which she takes it down to a long, spare, summery, mostly solo outro.

The group improvise a lingering yet rhythmic transition aptly titled Daydream into a duskily otherworldly, rubato take of Caravan mashed up with Connie’s Groove, a similarly enigmatic, dancing Connie Crothers homage.

She keeps the uneasy modaliaties going in Uncertain Bird, veering in and out of purist, darkly ambered blues as the rhythm section kick things around, down to a tantalizingly fleeting, ghostly interlude and then back as an altered waltz. In The Ballad for Carolyn Trousers (Carol in Trousers), Rosenbloom skirts a famous Chopin theme and makes it vastly more lighthearted, once again blending in the blues over an allusive 3/4 groove.

Conly breaks out his bow and Taylor tumbles mutedly while the bandleader builds haunting, spacious minor-key lustre in their take of the spiritual Have Mercy Upon Us: her relentless, minimalist mantra of an outro is arguably the high point of the album.

She returns to the album’s opening circularity in Ramblin’ on Her Mind, inspired by the Lightnin’ Hopkins version of the blues standard. To close the record, Rosenbloom draws the band back into Caravan as a saturnine march out. You are going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 pages this year.

Hauntingly Imagistic, Socially Aware Songs From Australia’s Emily Barker

Beyond the increasingly Orwellian nightmare of communist China, what the lockdowners have done to Australia is a crime unequaled in antipodean history. Infants torn from their mothers by police enforcing muzzle regulations, pregnant women arrested for pro-freedom Facebook posts, food production facilities shut down in order to starve citizens into submission: the list of atrocities is endless. Meanwhile, lockdowner collaborators in the Australian government have been busy recruiting diverse representatives of the country’s many ethnicities to star in reality tv-style pro-lockdown propaganda videos, for pay. All this is going to happen in America, and everywhere else, if we don’t end the lockdown. And then hold Nuremberg trials for those responsible.

One can only hope Australian songwriter Emily Barker has been spared from the bulk of the country’s assault on human rights. Under the regime, any ecologically aware, politically-inspired songwriter would seem to be imperiled. She paints haunting pictures with few words, is a strong folk-rock tunesmith and sings with an understated intensity. Her latest album A Dark Murmuration of Words is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Return Me has an easygoing, sparely loping groove but also a stark string arrangement and otherworldly, reverb-toned banjo. The second track, Geography is a wistful midtempo shuffle with the strings and also organ hovering in the distance, Barker contemplating how much the idea of home is an actual space, or a mindspace.

“From a prison cell, you dreamt of trees while the blood dries up upon your cheek,” Barker sings in The Woman Who Planted Trees, a brooding, minor-key fingerpicked tune. “You didn’t know, you never heard, around the world, people learned.” Barker takes her inspiration from the struggles of Nobel Prizewinning Kenyan ecological activist Wangari Maathai.

The album’s most unforgettable song is Where Have the Sparrows Gone. It’s an understatedly harrowing, baroque-tinged double narrative, an imagistic travelogue that’s both an eco-disaster parable and an elegy for an unnamed individual whose ashes are about to be scattered.

Over an elegantly picked web of acoustic and electric guitars, Barker paints an allusively detailed portrait of rural poverty and impending natural disaster in Strange Weather: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook.

“I made it harder the more your skin is dark,” Barker’s white supremacist prison-industrial complex oligarch narrator sings cynically in Machine, a surreal mashup of trip-hop and 19th century African-American gospel

Organ and banjo mingle in When Stars Cannot Be Found, a gently shuffling lullaby. The strings return with a moody bluster in Ordinary, a troubled return to allusive environmental disaster imagery.

With lingering baritone guitar and organ, Any More Goodbyes is the most American country-flavored and gorgeously bittersweet tune here. Barker closes the record with Sonogram, a piano-and-vocal number which could be about pregnancy, or something much less auspicious. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

A Gorgeous, Prophetic Protest Anthem From the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

After years of fronting the brilliantly lyrical, psychedelic Jigsaw Seen, Dennis Davison made waves with his similarly tuneful solo debut album earlier this year. As it turned out, he has a lot more material in the can than just the tunes on that album, including his visionary latest single, The Monuments, a name-your-price download at Bandcamp.

The cover alone will creep you out: a corpse-like statue in tribute to the “Confederate States of America 1861-1865.” But look closer: the statue has been splattered with paint. Over a lush, brooding web of twelve-string guitar and bass, Davison warns of a paradigm shift. The dictator at the center of the story won’t budge:

You live in peace
Upon the gift of my consent
I’ll set you free
The day that they topple the monuments

But Davison knows that they’re going to be “ground into powder, the graven marble recast.” Take off that muzzle, hug your friends, we’re free! Watch for this at the top of the best songs of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

Yet Another Haunting, Exhilarating Album From Oud Master Mehmet Polat

Oudist Mehmet Polat hails from the Urfa region of Turkey, a hotspot for cultural cross-pollination for centuries. So it’s hardly a surprise to hear how individualistically he blends traditional Turkish sounds with Arabic, African and Andalucian music in addition to American jazz rhythms. Every year, he seems to put out a new record that always ends up on the best albums of the year page here. The latest one, The Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – will definitely be on the best of 2020 list here next month. In general, it’s Polat’s at his most upbeat and optimistic.

While Polat’s custom-made oud has a couple of extra bass strings, the electrifying opening track here, Firefighters is more of an exploration of the upper registers, peaking out with a series of incisive chords after a long build through enigmatic Balkan-tinged modes over Daniel van Huffelen’s bass and Joan Terol Amigo’s drums.

Polat builds an almost teasing, unresolved suspense in the second track, Nature Hits Back, before spiraling and then descending to the depths over percussionist Ruven Ruppik’s many textures and shifting rhythms. Pathfinder is a catchy, anthemic, dynamically vamping number over elegantly syncopated, boomy frame drum by Alper Kekeç.

Polat teams up with Sinan Arat on ney flute and Kekeç on frame drum again for Footprints, a hypnotically pulsing, mysterious, mostly one-chord jam. Then he completely flips the script with the spare, funky Permission, featuring a starkly melismatic solo from kamancheh fiddle player Elnur Mikayılov.

Polat and the opening track’s rhythm section hint that they’re going into qawwali as Swinging in Hands gets underway, but instead they go off on a bouncy West African kora-inspired tangent and end with a spacious bass solo. The undulating Fidelity to İstanbul makes a good, upbeat segue.

Guest Shwan Sulaiman contributes an expressive, dramatic vocal in Being the Voice over a scampering backdrop with echoes of North African rai music. Polat breaks out his loop and distortion pedals for Symbolizations, the most overtly psychedelic track here.

The real stunner here is Nêterseno, with haunting clarinet and defiantly populist vocals from Mikail Aslan and trebly tenbur lute by Cemil Qocgiri, picking up with a fiery flamenco groove before coming full circle. Polat plays a darkly incisive, melancholy solo over a drone in the lament Nothing Is Yours and closes with My Cultural Womb, a syncopated, edgily modal number reflecting influences from Turkey to Egypt.

An Exhilarating Live Album of Anna Clyne Symphonic Works

It’s criminal how the BBC – until this past spring a fairly reliable source of information that American corporate media would never dare go near – was transformed overnight into just another sycophantic lockdowner fake-news channel. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra are not to blame – in fact, they can’t play right now because of the lockdown, and if Boris Johnson gets his way, they never will again.

Assuming the British wake up and overthrow his fascist regime, we will be able to look forward to more concerts and recordings by this colorful, diverse ensemble. Until then, we have a passionate, exhilarating live album of Anna Clyne works, titled Mythologies and performed under the baton of four separate conductors – and streaming at Spotify – to tide us over.

Marin Alsop leads the group in a concert performance of a swooping, suspenseful, electrifyingly crescendoing short work, Masquerade. Those massed glissandos are best appreciated at loud volume!

Sakari Oramo conducts the similarly brisk and colorful This Midnight Hour. Clyne cites two poems – a Juan Ramón Jiménez depiction of a naked woman running madly through the darkness, along with Baudelaire’s creepy Harmonie du soir. A lithely leaping waltz with echoes of Saint-Saens’ Bacchanal from Samson and Deiliah ends cold; distant boomy bass drums signal a series of tense, mysterious swells. With its brooding, chromatic trumpet solo, the lush neoromantic waltz afterward could be Dvorak.

The Seamstress, an imaginary one-act ballet on themes of loss and absence with vivid Appalachian tinges, is a concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh and also includes Irene Buckley’s voiceover of William Butler Yeats’ poem A Coat. Stark, folksy, leaping figures give way to steady, pizzicato-fueled starriness and then a fleeting Balkan-toned crescendo. Raga-like variations on a twelve-tone row are a clever touch for Koh’s steady hand. She reaches to the heights over the orchestra’s muted cavatina in the concluding movement, which is where Buckley comes in.

Andrew Litton conducts For Night Ferry, for which Clyne also painted a lurid mural. She takes the title from Seamus Heaney’s Elegy for Robert Lowell, the American poet who like Schubert was manic-depressive. Through a long series of gusts, swirls and cascades, the orchestra hit a series of insistent, brassy peaks that alternate with warmly sparkling, nocturnal passages. The cynical dance of death and rollercoaster ride afterward are spine-tingling; the ending is hardly what you would expect.   

André de Ridder takes the podium for the album’s final piece, <<Rewind<<, a wryly microtonal, darkly majestic romp evoking a battered videotape being rewound, glitches and all. This is hands-down one of the half-dozen best classical albums of 2020.

A Global Cast of Characters Reinvent Classic Indian Themes With a Massive Webcast

There’s no small irony in that the annual 24-hour Ragas Live Marathon broadcast wouldn’t go global until a moment where live music had been illegalized in most parts of the world. The good news is that this year’s performances – which began as a radio broadcast on little WKCR in Brooklyn – have spread to include artists performing live on their own turf around the world. In keeping with the festival’s esthetic, this year’s lineup features an allstar cast both from within the Indian raga tradition as well as the worlds of jazz, latin music, classical music and klezmer, among other styles. This year it’s streaming at wkcr.org startimg at 7 PM on Nov 21 and going until 7 the following evening, Nov 22, as well as via video link from Pioneer Works.

Past years have featured a lot of jazz musicians who’ve found nirvana in Indian music. As usual, the ever-growing multitudes in the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective, who founded the festival, are widely represented. This year’s stars include but are hardly limited to avant garde icon (and Indian music devotee) Terry Riley, legendary tabla personality Zakir Hussain, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, coastal Venezuelan trance-dance bandleader Betsayda Machado, Middle Eastern jazz trumpet visionary Amir ElSaffar and klezmer powerhouse Andy Statman.

If this sounds intriguing, dial up a random raga on the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s even more massive Ragas Live Festival album, streaming at Bandcamp. Virtually everything on this record – probably the most epic album released by any New York group this century – is worth hearing. It’s been sitting around this blog’s archive for the past couple of years, and a couple of hours’ worth of listening only scratches the surface. For fans of Indian sounds, it’s a serendipitous look at where the music is going – and what we will be enjoying in concert after we liberate ourselves from the lockdown.

An Eclectic, Colorful Single From Darkly Literary Rockers Lusterlit

Lit-rock superduo Lusterlit – guitarist Charlie Nieland and percussionist/keyboardist Susan Hwang – have a vinyl single, Meat Cake, that’s been kicking around here. Time to wipe off the dust and give it a spin, at Bandcamp if you want.

The band take the title from the well-known series by graphic novelist and artist Dame Darcy. One side of the record is Wax Wolf, which sounds like a shuffling, acoustic version of X, with a neat web of voices early on. This guy “gives new meaning to ‘one track mind.’”

Hwang sings the flip side, Cutting, a diptych that shifts from a slinky, hip-hop-influenced groove to glimmering, noirish art-rock, with a message of empowerment referencing feminists from Cleopatra to Frances Farmer.

Intimate Electricity From Joshua Bell

Isn’t it funny how some of the world’s most exciting sounds get lumped into a category with the most boring name? And who would have thought there would be such a mighty upsurge in chamber music in 2020? With established concert venues padlocked and imperiled – outside of Sweden, Moscow and Nicaragua, anyway – intimate performances largely by and for family and friends have become the new paradigm in classical music, at least until the lockdown is over.

And in keeping with the zeitgeist, some of the biggest names in the field are making intimate recordings. None other than Joshua Bell has made a diverse and often electrifying new live album, At Home with Music, streaming at Spotify. Although virtually all of it is arrangements of standard repertoire, the violinist seems especially amped to play it.

He opens with the famous first movement from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24, jauntily trading riffs with pianist Jeremy Denk. The two play it fast: in their most animated moments, the lack of digital separation between the instruments enhances the carefree energy.

Peter Dugan takes over the piano, joining Bell for a much more rubato, Romantic take of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B minor. Bell’s rise from silken vibrato to raw, Romany intensity is unselfconsciously electrifying, a real crowd-pleaser.

Next, he teams up with soprano Larisa Martínez and pianist Kamal Khan for a somewhat understatedly lyrical take of Mendelssohn’s “Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro” from the opera Infelice. They return to tackle a Puccini aria later on.

The rare treat here is Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major, Op. 4, with Dugan back on piano, both musicians digging in hard for its anthemic leaps, slashes and devious dips. Their remarkably steady, unvarnished take of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 makes a good segue, quiet as it generally is. And hearing Bell revel in the virtuoso ornamentation of the Jascha Heifetz arrangement of Gershwin’s Summertime is an expected thrill.

Martínez and Khan return for the closer, an alternately bracing and warmly familiar medley from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. with a triumphant coda.

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.

Escape to Paris in the 1930s with Chloe Perrier

The point of chanteuse Chloe Perrier’s new album Petite Fleur, with her French Heart Jazz Band – streaming at Spotify – is that these are dark times, and she wants to give everyone a little escape to a better time and place. Les Deux Magots in the Quartier Latin, smoky and electric…but with sounds far more cross-pollinated than even the musical mecca that was prewar Paris could have conjured at the time.

Over the past couple of years, Perrier and the band have been playing a mix of classic chanson, Romany jazz and American standards, many of them reinvented with counterintuitive panache. Everything on the album has been thoroughly crowd-tested: until the lockdown, Perrier and the group maintained a tough schedule of club and hotel bar gigs. And even though this is an upbeat album, she’s never sung with more depth and gravitas than she does here.

The album’s opening track, Charles Trenet’s Menilmontant, is one that Perrier really excels with. This is a particularly bright, brisk version, with scurrying guitar from Akira Ishiguro and cheery clarinet by guest Jon Hunt over the scampering shuffle of bassist Jim Robertson and colorful drummer Rodrigo Recabarren. Perrier’s clear, unselfconscious, personable vocals are the icing on the cake.

She sings the old klezmer-jazz standard Comes Love in French, with a vivid wistfulness, over a syncopated, bouncy bolero beat, violinist Caroline Bugala adding cosmopolitan flair. The group revisit that milieu later on, in their version of Sway.

Perrier returns to the Trenet songbook for a relatively slow, swinging, Django-and-Stephane-tinged take of Que reste-t-il de nos amours and then follows that by reinventing Helen Merrill’s Just Squeeze Me as the coy Lorsque tu m’embrasses.

Then Perrier pays a jaunty visit to “le pays aux oiseaux” – you could do the same if the 44th Street club immortalized in the song hadn’t been shut down by Il Duce in Albany. She goes deep into the expat subtext of the old Josephine Baker hit J’ai deux amours over a steady shuffle, then she sings Coquette in English as the band leap and bound elegantly behind her.

Guilty, a knowingly enigmatic take on the big hit by British crooner Al Bowlly, was included on the soundtrack to the film Amélie. The inevitable version of La vie en rose here gets redone with a Djangoesque pulse, triumphant energy from Perrier and Bugala.

Ray Ventura’s Je voudrais en savoir d’avantage gets a verdant workout with sailing violin and guitar solos. Perrier and band close the record with an absolutely gorgeous, haunting bolero take of the Sidney Bechet-penned title track. Perrier’s going to cheer up a lot of people in her “deux amours,” on both sides of the pond, with this one.