New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Dark, Pensive Two-Bass Soundscapes From Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci

Bassists Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci have just released their starkly evocative, immersive new duo album Now/Here on the reliably adventurous Acustronica label, where it’s streaming. The former also plays the Korean geomumgo bass lute on the album’s second track; the latter plays six-string electric bass and handles the electronic component. Like the best ambient music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, although the playing is more animated and considerably less reliant on drones than usual in this genre.

The first track is Nowhere, Barbiero beginning it by bowing a somber, Pink Floyd-like riff over the icy swirl behind him. Bocci eventually echoes him over down-the-drainpipe sonics. The second track, Paths (A Winter Day in a Seaside Town) features Barbiero bowing starkly, adding wispy high harmonics, Asian pentatonics and squirrelly accents over samples of waves and shorebirds.

Ten Lines for Nowhere is much the same but focused in the low registers with a more hypnotic, loopy backdrop. The two bassists switch roles for the first part of the diptych Elegy For Time and Space, Bocci’s spare plucks over dark, overtone-rich washes from Barbiero, then the textures grow denser and a simple, anthemic theme sneaks into the picture. Similarly, Bocci rumbles and adds bell-like accents as Barbiero supplies atmosphere as the second half begins; then there’s another role reversal. It’s both the catchiest and most hypnotic interlude on the album.

Green Over Grey is the most subtly shifting, drone-oriented, haunting piece here. The two wind up the album with the title cut, which follows the same pattern, but more minimalistically.

Jordi Savall Unearths a Vault of Secret Beethoven

As both a musician and conductor, Jordi Savall has made a career of rediscovering lost treasures from the Americas to the Middle East. When he finally turned his attention to recording works by the best-known composer in the history of the western world, the treasures he found were hidden in plain sight. If you think you know Beethoven, the level of detail in Savall’s latest recording with the orchestra Le Concert Des Nations will take your breath away. It’ll make you laugh, and give you chills.

Savall’s modus operandi for the massive six-disc set Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5 – streaming at Spotify – was to play the composer’s first five symphonies as they would have been performed contemporaneously, with period instruments and a considerably smaller ensemble compared to today’s orchestras, just sixty players. Yet the music is no less vigorous, and there are elements that will jump out at you for the first time because unless you’ve played this music with a chamber orchestra this closely attuned to the score, you simply haven’t heard them before. Even in concert, more often than not they get subsumed in the bluster. This is not Beethoven as relaxing wine-hour music, or innocuous background for multitasking. This is headphone music.

A lot of the hidden details that Savall brings to the foreground are jokes. Other than the violinists who play it, who noticed how frequently Beethoven uses glissandos as a punchline, especially in Symphonies 4 and 5? Or, for that matter, in Symphony No. 1? All that leaps out, not to mention the jagged flurries in the fourth movement of No. 1 – or, for that matter, how that movement foreshadows the introduction to No. 2? We now know that Beethoven wrote No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 – and obviously liked that gusty riffage to the point where he thought it was worth recycling. After all, only those who’d seen the scores at the time, or played them, could have picked up on that.

Call-and-response is another device that Beethoven loved to have fun with, and nobody has fun with it like this crew. The fugal moments between strings and winds, or strings and brass, are in particularly high definition throughout the entire set of symphonies, notably in the opening movement of No. 2 and the third movement of No. 4. And when’s the last time you heard an orchestra working contrasting loud/soft conversational dynamics in No. 4? Beethoven was writing  the so-called Razumovsky string quartets around the same time and was obviously having a jolly good time with that trope.

In lieu of timpani, there’s a single bass drum played with sticks rather than mallets. Who knew how prominent, or how deviously funny, the percussion in No. 5 actually is? This crew does.

And the details bristle as much as they tickle. Fleeting words of warning that go rubato and then hint at a complete stop in the first movement of No. 3; the starkness of the cellos introducing that iconic descending progression in the second movement of No. 4; and the sheer beefiness of the second movement of No. 5, which most orchestras play as a straightforwardly courtly dance. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to all of this in a single setting is overwhelming: stream these one a night for a week and your perspective on other recordings will be changed for life.

Celebrate the End of an Ugly World with Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s Protest Songs

Everybody’s favorite tongue-in-cheek baritone C&W crooner, Brent Amaker, has a new ep Ugly World, with his band the Rodeo streaming at Spotify. His protest songs speak for billions of people around the globe. How do you write a hit song? Make it a broadside about everybody’s least favorite bully.

You probably know the big hit, Dump Trump:

He has his head up his own butt…
Dude loves himself so much he’ll take us down for a buck
This tv star is a hack
I want my country back

It’s a solid piece of retro tunesmithing, too – that machete-chord guitar outro is spot-on.

The rest of the record is just as relevant. The title track is a spaghetti western tune with a bunch of amusing musical quotes and a long, incendiary guitar solo. Amaker would love a beer, but the bars are closed: things just get uglier and uglier in this lockdown hell!

He sticks with a loping southwestern gothic groove for Soldier, an unexpectedly subtle number that manages to be sympathetic to the battlescarred dude while not missing the implications of what people this damaged do if they’re running the show. Amaker closes with  New Rodeo Anthem. a stadium-friendly (or corral-friendly) singalong. You know that when the lockdown is over and Amaker is back on the road, he and the band are going to break this one out for the encores.

Now, some of you regular readers might be wondering why, after salivating over the prospect of a Trump impeachment week after week a year ago, this blog went totally silent on the Presidential election. Did New York Music Daily secretly go over to the dark side and endorse Trump?

No. But if anybody thinks Biden is an improvement, they’re living in a dream world. In many respects Biden is Trump with a smiley face – or wearing a muzzle with a smiley face on it. Trump was surrounded by a bunch of cheap snatch-and-grab thugs, but Biden’s people are far more sinister. The Trump crowd simply wanted to loot the treasury and make a quick getaway. Biden’s people have an agenda: permanent lockdown. The New Abnormal. We are going to have to be twice as dedicated to noncompliance as we’ve been the past year in order to get rid of it. And this blog believes we can. Stay strong because the next four years are going to be hell. But we’re going to win this thing.

The Webber/Morris Big Band Deliver a Smartly Thematic, Unique, Entertaining Sound

The Webber/Morris Big Band‘s album Both Are True – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is a treat for anyone who likes meticulously crafted new big band jazz. It’s unusual in that most of it is remarkably delicate for such a big ensemble. Bandleaders and saxophonists Anna Webber and Angela Morris gravitate toward the upper registers in the compositions here. Although much of this music is persistently unsettled, it’s not particularly heavy and has a welcome, sardonic sense of humor. Not everyone plays on every track: some include Dustin Carlson’s guitar, others have Marc Hannaford’s spare piano.

The opening epic, Climbing on Mirrors is a real roller-coaster ride. Delicate staccatto upper-register textures join the gently circling, distantly Afrobeat-inflected milieu one by one until a terse, plaintive Charlotte Greve sax solo slows the song as the ensemble recedes to just the rhythm section. The big crescendo brings everybody back with a joyously syncopated pulse. The way the brass bracingly shadow the reeds really ramps up the suspense, toward a lush chorale that brings the opening theme full circle – in more ways than one. Darcy James Argue seems to be the obvious influence.

The album’s title track has a similar but heavier syncopation that contrasts with a much more improvisational element, pairs of instruments seemingly choosing their own material to converse with, and moments of uneasy massed resonance where the rhythm drops out. Again, a sax solo pulls the music together; the pianp mingles with Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone, but not to the point of any big reveal. Is the sleekness that follows a signal that all is finally clear? No spoilers!

In Rebonds, the band shift from spacious rhythmic riffs and uneasy, dirty resonance,  guitar skronk front and center. They begin Coral with a Brian Eno-esque haze and then gradually move en masse to break it up with increasingly flickering textures, lingering, spacious Adam O’Farrill trumpet solos and a groove that could be Isaac Hayes on mushrooms.

And It Rolled Right Down is an amusingly cuisinarted mix of New Orleans-flavored riffs, with an ending that’s too funny to give away. With its echoey/blippy dichotomy, the massed improvisation Foggy Valley is aptly titled. The group close with the album’s longest epic, Reverses, a close-harmonied march from the horns over a spare, wary three-chord piano figure. Then the band echo it as a slowly syncopated pulse returns in the background, down to a moody Adam O’Farrill break and then up to an irresistibly stampeding payoff: it’s the most intricate and beefiest of all the tracks here.

The record also includes a couple of casual, playful two-sax conversations to break up the tracks. An original and judicious triumph for a group who also include saxophonists Jay Rattman, Adam Schneit and Lisa Parrott:; trumpeters John Lake, Jake Henry and Kenny Warren: trombonists Tim Vaughn, Nick Grinder. Jen Baker anad Reginald Chapman; bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Jeff Davis.

A Hilarious Powerpop Party Record From the Airport 77s

The Airport 77s write very funny, very catchy, perfectly retro late 70s style powerpop songs. If this was the year that the cheesy movie the band took their name from came out, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment. And their jokes extend beyond the lyrics to the music as well. In a year where so few rock acts have been releasing records, their debut album Rotation – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blast of fresh air.

The first track is Christine’s Coming Over, about a girl who won’t settle for scrubs – so the dude in the song has to frantically borrow a vacuum cleaner. And his choice of makeout music is spot-on for 1977! The band – frontman/bassist Chuck Dolan, guitarist Andy Sullivan and drummer John Kelly – nail all the requisite late 70s tropes. Brisk 2/4 beat, muted guitar downstrokes keeping time, twin guitar solo, the works.

When You’re Kissing On Me (Do You Think of James McAvoy) is a snidely funny scenario we all know too well: your crush just can’t get over theirs, with embarrassing results. The band hit a burning, minor-key, reggae-inflected groove with Shannon Speaks – it seems to be about a girl in a coma who has some kind of secret.

With its “whiskey/frisky” rhymes and devious innuendos, Wild Love comes across as the Romantics on steroids. The guitar quotes in All the Way, beginning with a smartly chosen Pink Floyd riff, are priceless, and match the lyrics. Their cover of Girl of My Dreams is more four-on-the-floor than the Bram Tchaikovsky original.

Strutting along on Dolan’s catchy bassline, Bad Mom! is the funniest track on the album: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols! And she’s been known to sneak a smoke every now and then! The group make you wait til the second verse of the final cut, Make It Happen before they drop a couple of their best jokes on you. Killer party record all the way through.

The 8-Bit Big Band Can’t Stop Playing Mighty, Orchestral Versions of Video Game Themes

The 8-Bit Big Band are one of the most improbably successful brands in music. They own the franchise on lavishly orchestrated, jazz-oriented arrangements of video game themes. They have more of a following in the video game world than in jazz circles, maybe because much of what they play is closer to action film scores than, say, Miles Davis. But it sure is a lot of fun. Their frequently hilarious latest album Backwards Compatible is streaming at Bandcamp.

Between the horns, and reeds, and string orchestra, and singers, there are so many people among the group’s rotating cast of characters that they would take up more space than there is on this page. After a bit of a lush intro, they launch into the album with the main theme from Chrono Trigger, pianist Steven Feifke scrambling over a fusiony backdrop that descends to a dreamy string interlude. Take out those piano breaks and this could be an early 80s Earth Wind and Fire number.

The Gourmet Race from Kirby Super Star is basically a beefed-up hot 20s tune, tenor saxophonist Sam Dillon soloing lickety-split over a racewalking pulse as the strings swell behind him. They do Hydrocity Zone, a Sonic the Hedgehog 3 theme, as beefed-up funk with Grace Kelly adding a gritty alto solo.

Benny Benack III croons a silly lyric, Rat Pack style, then raises his trumpet in a blustery 50s-style orchestral pop reinvention of Want You Gone, from the Portal 2 soundtrack. Metaknights Revenge, a Kirby Super Star theme has a clever interweave of horns in place of motorik synth and a trio of wry synth solos from the mysterious “Buttonmasher.”

The first Mario theme here is the killer, irresistibly amusing, quote-laden tarantella Super Mario Land Underground, from Super Mario 64, with Balkan-tinged baritone sax from another mystery soloist,  “Leo P.”  It’s the best track on the album. Dire Dire Docks, also from that soundtrack, features bassist and bandleader Charlie Rosen burbling around way up the fretboard over a pillowy ballad backdrop.

It’s hard to resist singing “That’s the way of the world, yeow,” as Birdman, from Pilot Wings 64, gets underway. Zac Zinger emulates a woozy synth through his EWI while the music edges closer toward Alan Parsons Project territory. Choral group Accent’s contribution to the floating Lost in Thoughts All Alone, from Fire Emblem Fates, will have you reaching for fast forward to get away from the autotune, ruining an otherwise clever Rosen chart.

Bassist Adam Neely goes up the scale and noodles in Saria’s Song, a cheerily symphonic remake from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time score. Tiffany Mann sings on a sweeping 70s soul version of Snake Eater, found on the Metal Gear Solid 3 soundtrack.

The group close with a couple of additional Mario themes. Kelly returns, this time on the mic, for a ridiculously amusing, vaudevillian reinvention of Jump Up Super Star, from Super Mario Odyssey. The orchestra close appropriately enough with a brassy take of the Super Mario World End Theme, complete with shivery strings and a ragtime piano solo. This is a great party record and obviously a labor of love. The amount of work Rosen spent reworking all these tunes is staggering, and the huge crew here seem to be having just as much fun with it.

Brilliant, Haunting New Works From Iranian Composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi

Teheran-based composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi have released an aptly titled, haunting new album Maelstrom, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a diverse but persistently dark collection of works for both solo instruments and small ensembles. The two draw on influences as vast as European minimalism and horizontal music as well as traditional Iranian sounds. In a year of one horror after another – especially in Iran, which was one of the first countries crippled by prppaganda and hysteria – this is indelibly an album for our time. Yet the music here also offers considerable hope and even devious humor.

The first work is Trauma, a Shirangi trio composition played by cellists Ella Bokor and Mircea Marian with accordionist Fernando Mihalache. The strings enter with a syncopated, mutedly shamanic drive that quickly rises to an insistent pedalpoint. The accordion first serves as a wary chordal anchor while the cellos diverge and then return with an increasingly stricken intensity, then wind out with plaintive washes.

Violinist Mykola Havyuk, clarinetist Yaroslav Zhovnirych and pianist Nataliya Martynova play Abbasi’s The Rebellion, beginning more hauntingly microtonal, its austere resonance punctuated by simple, forlorn piano incisions. Eerie, circling chromatics from the piano underscore troubled, anthemic phrases. A couple of vigorous flicks under the lid signals a wounded call-and-response: slowly but resolutely, a revolution flickers and eventually leaps from the desolation. The obvious comparison is the livelier moments in Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time.

By contrast, To Lose Hope – another Abbasi piece, featuring clarinetist Mykola Havyuk and a string quartet comprising violinists Marko Komonko and Petro Titiaiev, violist Ustym Zhuk and cellist Denys Lytvynenke – first takes shape as a hazy cavatina, Havyuk’s crystalline leads balanced by brooding cello and shivery vibrato from the rest of the strings. It’s the most distinctly Iranian piece here. The jauntiness, acerbity and suspense that follow are unexpectedly welcome. The point seems to be that hope is where you find it.

Afrooch, an Abbasi solo work played by violinist Farmehr Beyglou, requires daunting extended technique, shifting back and forth between ghostly harmonics, moody atmosphere, insistently hammering riffs, shivery crescendos and a call-and-response that grows from enigmatic to puckish. The ending is too funny to give away.

The closing composition, Shirangi’s The Common Motivations is a solo piano piece, Sahel Ebae’s low murk contrasting with muted inside-the-gestures, expanding with spacious minimalist accents and eventually forlorn, Messiaenic belltone chords. If this is characteristic of the new music coming out of Iran these days, the world needs to hear more of it.

A Fascinating Album of New Music From the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Home Turf

One of the most consistently interesting and richly diverse albums of symphonic music released in the last couple of years is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording, Contemporary Colours, a collection of new works by Maltese composers streaming at Spotify. Malta may be a relatively small place, but the country clearly has no shortage of orchestral or compositional talent. Many of these pieces reflect an edgy Arabic influence; the rest run the gamut from neoromanticism to horizontal music.

Led with striking attention to detail by maestro Sergey Smbatyan, they open with a triptych by Euchar Gravina inspired by the manufacture and then the deployment of fireworks. The first two segments are a a microtonal study in slowly rising, occasionally crushing wave motion against a recording of a brass band playing a much smaller-scale arrangement; most of the third is much more low-key.

Waiting, by Mariella Cassar-Cordina is exactly that, still horizontality from the high strings with a pensively minimalist, increasingly troubled cello solo floating overhead. Christopher Muscat’s magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key Mesogeios – a portrait of the Mediterranean – features soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance.

Veronique Vella’s colorful, artfully orchestrated, Romantically tinged Fine Line has a Rimsky-Korsakov sonic expanse and triumphant bustle. Alexander Vella Gregory’s short, Tschaikovskian five-part suite Riħ (Wind) evokes everything from calm sea breezes to winter storms, via pulsing counterpoint, disquieting close harmonies, percussive drama and whispers from the strings.

The orchestra close with Albert Garzia’s Xamm (Scent), a largescale arrangement of a dance piece about a murder mystery. The orchestra have fun with all the classic Bernard Herrmann-ish tropes: sharp tritones over stillness, sudden furtive swells, chase scenes and a surprising amount of Dvorakian windswept calm. Classical music as entertainment doesn’t get any better than this in 2021. Now if we could only see this live!

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.