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One of the Year’s Best Triplebills at Drom Last Friday Night

“We don’t play with horns that much,” Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich told the crowd late during their show headlining one of the year’s best triplebills at Drom Friday night. “Horns are,” he paused – and then resumed with just a flash of a menacing grin – ”Evil.” Then guest trumpeter Brian Carpenter and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring added a surreal acidity to the slow, ominous sway of a brand-new, ominously resonant film noir theme, Bluish.

“I wrote those harmonies to be as dissonant as possible,” Ulrich confided after the show. Which is ironic considering how little dissonance there actually is in Big Lazy’s constantly shifting cinematic songs without words. The trio’s sound may be incredibly catchy, but Ulrich really maxes out the ten percent of the time when the macabre  bares its fangs.

Case in point: the wistfully loping big-sky tableau The Low Way, where a single, lingering, reverberating tritone chord from Ulrich’s Les Paul suddenly dug into the creepy reality lurking beneath blue skies and calm, easygoing facades.

Drummer Yuval Lion and bassist Andrew Hall held the sometimes slinky, sometimes stampeding themes to the rails as Ulrich shifted from the moody, skronk-tinged sway of Influenza to the brisk Night Must Fall, finally firing off an offhandedly savage flurry of tremolo-picking to bring the intensity to a peak in a split-second. From there the group took a turn into tricky tempos with the surrealistic bounce of Avenue X and then the crushingly sarcastic faux-stripper theme Don’t Cross Myrtle, the title track from the band’s latest album (ranked best of the year for 2016 here). Big Lazy’s next New York show is Dec 4 at 10 PM at Barbes.

As the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter is known as a connoisseur of hot 20s swing and obscure, pioneering jazz composers from the decades after. This time he played mostly organ and guitar with his brilliant noir rock band the Confessions, second on the bill: it’s hard to remember two groups this good and this dark back to back at any New York venue in recent months. Guitarist Andrew Stern played murderously reverberating, sustained lines in a couple of long, suspenseful introductory buildups in tandem with violinist Jonathan LaMaster, bassist Anthony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy keeping a taut pulse through a mix of songs that sometimes evoked Tom Waits’ brooding Americana or the uneasy chamber pop of the Old Ceremony.

Frontwoman Jen Kenneally worked every offhand wiggle in her vibrato to add to the songs’ distantly lurid allure, often harmonizing with Carpenter’s brooding baritone. A relentless gloom pervaded the songs, rising to a peak in the tensely stampeding City on Fire and then hitting a high note at the end with Blinding Light, which ironically described darkness closing in as the band stomped into the chorus. Fans of Lynchian sounds shouldn’t miss this crew, who hark back to Carpenter’s early 90s circus rock days.

Opening act the Claudettes have gone in a completely different direction since ripping the roof off Barbes on a twinbill with Big Lazy a couple of years ago. These days, gonzo saloon jazz pianist Johnny Iguana has muted his attack somewhat: the band came across as a sort of Windy City counterpart to Lake Street Dive. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – Lake  Street Dive are a great blue-eyed soul band.

New frontwoman Berit Ulseth channeled brass, ice and brittle vulnerability through the sarcastic I Expect Big Things and then the cruel punchline that followed, Declined. In yet another of the evening’s many strokes of irony, the group’s biggest hit with the audience was a Debussy-esque, low-key tone-poem of sorts about discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bandleader brought to mind New York beatnik jazz cult hero Dred Scott in the sardonically frantic barrelhouse instrumental You Busy Beaver You and then the slyly bluesy cautionary tale Creeper Weed, about how to avoid getting blindsided by one hit too many. They wound up the set with the understatedly gloomy The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End), part Waits, part early Steely Dan. The Claudettes tour continues; the next stop is back in their Chicago hometown at 9 PM on Nov 17 at the Hideout; cover is $12.

And as always, Drom – downtown New York’s most consistently diverse music room – has some cool upcoming shows. One especially interesting one is on Nov 25 at 10:30 PM, and it’s a rare free event there, with Polish crew Nasza Sciana doing vintage Slavic turbo-folk hits.

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Big Lazy Bring Their Noir Intensity to the East Village This Friday Night

Even by their own legendary standards, Big Lazy’s show Friday night at Barbes was a high point in the history of a band who go back twenty years. Having seen the cinematic noir instrumental trio in various configurations since the 90s, this could have been their most improvisational show ever. Their music is often described as crime jazz, but they also play noir boleros, and go-go struts, and uneasy big-sky themes that turn macabre in seconds flat. Those are just a handful of styles they’ve played over the years. In between songs, frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich alluded to surf music, which makes sense considering how much reverb he uses. But ironically, there were more latin rhythms and pouncing suspense themes in this set than there was the horror surf which was one of the band’s signature sounds during the early days.  Since Ulrich’s main gig is writing scores for film and PBS, that’s no surprise.

The guy can play anything. Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot get all the props for being this era’s preeminent jazz guitarists, but Ulrich can do anything they do, just more darkly. There was a lot of new material in this set, and as Ulrich cut loose with lingering, mournful approximations of wee-hours horn lines, bottom-of-the-well echoes, plaintive country twang or elegant proto-rockabilly Nashville riffs, creating a constantly shifting tableau that was as close to straight-up postbop jazz as this band’s ever played.

Amplifying that was how nimbly bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion negotiatid the songs’ tricky syncopation and odd meters. Hall is the one bass player in this group to actually carry the melody from time to time,  with a lot of conversational interplay, but this show was more or less Ulrich out alone over a taut, slinky backdrop, flying without a net. One common device that came back again and again with a wallop was how he’d answer his own semi-hopeful, soaring phrases with a crushing barrage of tremolo-picking,  akin to what Rachmaninoff would do.

Ulrich usually saves that kind of unhinged attack for when he really needs it – he leaves the pick-melting to Dick Dale. But this time the angst and fury was relentless, through expansive and careening versions of the lickety-split Princess Nicotine, a gloomily gorgeous take of Uneasy Street and finally a warped version of Don’t Cross Myrtle. That’s the title track of the band’s latest album, and while New Yorkers might think it means “stay out of the bad part of town,” it could just as easily mean “keep your hideous condos and money laundering out of what’s left of our cool neighborhood.”

Big Lazy pick up where they left off this Friday night, Nov 10 at Drom at around 9 PM on one of the year’s best triplebills, which opens with wild, theatrical, female-fronted Chicago barrelhouse piano blues band the Claudettes, and trumpeter Brian Carpenter and the Confessions – the dark oldtime jazz maven’s Lynchian rock band. Showtime is 7 PM; $12 adv tix are highly recommended.

Big Lazy at the Peak of Their Darkly Cinematic Power in Brooklyn This Saturday Night

Friday night at Barbes the room was packed and the girls in the front row were dancing up a storm through two slinky sets by Big Lazy. Less than 24 hours later, seeing Los Straitjackets – a similarly twangy, virtuosic guitar instrumental band who go far deeper into the surf than Big Lazy but are nowhere near as picturesque – raised the question of how many other bands are actually better now than they were twenty years ago.

The New York Philharmonic, maybe?

Big Lazy had already earned iconic status in noir music circles before the end of the 90s, and continued that streak with a reverb-drenched series of albums that combined elements of crime jazz, macabre boleros, Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes, horror surf, ghoulabilly and bittersweet big-sky tableaux. But this current edition of the band is their classic lineup. If you were around when they were playing Friday nights at midnight at Tonic during the early to mid-zeros, and you haven’t seen the band since, you’re missing out  on the best part of their career.And you have a rare chance to see a very intimate show when they play this August 12 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy.

Drummer Yuval Lion can be combustible, but Friday night he was in misterioso mode. These guys haven’t had someone so colorful, who can build suspense with every part of the kit as subtly as this guy does, since Willie Martinez left the original lineup when his latin music career got in the way. Bassist Andrew Hall co-founded the Moonlighters and plays with western swing band Brain Cloud, so he swings, hard. And he’s also the funniest bass player this band’s had. He’ll sometimes fake a charge into the crowd, or do a wry faux-rockabilly slap thing, and he likes glissandos and swoops and dives. He always seems to be at the center of the eye-rolling “gotcha” moments.

Guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich can also be hilarious, notwithstanding how bleak most of the band’s music can be. But they never play the same thing remotely the same way twice. This time out the recurrent, unexpecr\ted quotes he’d randomly slip in were from My Funny Valentine and It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To. A couple of months before, it was Mission Impossible. And just when it seemed he’d go off on a couple of long, savage scenery-chewing chord-chopping interludes, he stopped both cold, in midstream: he spars with the crowd as much as he does with his bandmates.

This was one of the band’s best setlists ever: top ten, by this blog’s standards, and this blog and Big Lazy go back to the very beginning. The lingering chromatics and morose washes were balanced by a droll go-go strut, lickety-split artful-dodger escapades and matter-of-factly perambulating but increasingly grey western sky pastorales. As much jagged menace as they brought to Skinless Boneless, one of their signature songs, the two best songs in the evening’s two full sets were both brand new. The first was awash in distant longing and echoes of sad Orbison noir pop, the second a bloodstained bolero and a platform for both some nimbly creepy tumbles from Lion, and sniper-in-the-shadows fire from Ulrich. Because the Bar Lunatico gig is happening so fresh on the heels of this one, you’re likely to hear all this and more this Saturday night.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy in Brooklyn: Noir Music Heaven

Considering that we’re only in March, it’s hardly safe to say that the twinbill coming up this Monday the 14th at around 9 at Manhattan Inn, with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy, is the best one of the year. The April 15, 10 PM doublebill of Desert Flower and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons, at Sidewalk, of all places, looks awfully good. And there will be others. But as far as dark and blackly amusing sounds are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than Monday’s lineup in Greenpoint.

Big Lazy’s set last Friday night at Barbes was surprisingly quirky. Gallows humor, and funny quotes from other songs are familiar tropes for the noir cinematic trio, but frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich was having an especially good time with them: Mission Impossible, My Funny Valentine, Caravan – which Ulrich has covered murderously well in the past – and a whole bunch of others. And a trio of creepy cover tunes: Girl, by the Beatles, a stabbing version of an Astor Piazzolla tango and an absolutely lurid take of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, with a savagely tremolo-picked solo midway through.

It was kind of a weird night, if a good one. The crowd wasn’t the usual mobscene that this band draws. Out front at the bar, it looked like the prom bus from Jersey or somewhere in Alabama had just disembarked. Scarier than Big Lazy’s originals – even Park Slope isn’t safe from yuppie puppy zombie apocalypse anymore. But in back, people were dancing in an oasis of reverb guitar and pitchblende basslines.

This Monday’s opening act, Beninghove’s Hangmen work the same turf: raindrenched wee hours crime jazz tableaux and more overtly humorous interludes. Like Ulrich, frontman/multi-saxophonist Bryan Beninghove gets a lot of film work, so his instrumentals can shift shape from, say, blithe to brutal in a split second and the segue doesn’t seem the least bit jarring. Case in point: the title track to their deliciously creepy upcoming album, Pineapples & Ashtrays.

And they’re more of a jamband than Big Lazy. While a lot of their material can be grim, and ghoulish, and sometimes downright morose, they can also be hilarious. The best example is Zohove, their instrumental album of Led Zep covers, streaming at Spotify.. Zep’s music can be awfully funny by itself, and Beninghove’s reimaginings are even funnier.

On the opening track, Kashmir, Rick Parker’s elephantine trombone snorts and Beninghove’s spectacularly swirling soprano sax lines over the stomp behind it elevate it to Vesuvius heights. Heavy new wave rhythm from drummer Kevin Shea (of another even funnier band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Ezra Gale (of dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi, who are also hardly strangers to funny songs) might be the last thing you might expect to work in a cover of Misty Mountain Hop, but it does. And the guitar is trippy behond belief: Eyal Maoz’s droll Spinal Tap bends over Dane Johnson’s Jabba the Hut Space Lounge electro-breakdown.

What Is and What Never Should Be is a droll mashup of quotes:You Can’t Just Get What You Want, ad infinitum. Likewise, the album’s title track, a sort of a greatest-riffs collection, cleverly disassembled in the same vein as what you find in how-to books like “Play Guitar in the Style of Tony Iommi.”

The group’s version of Immigrant Song substitutes Bennghove’s sax and Parker’s trombone for Robert Plant’s bleat – and it’s priceless. A shivery twin guitar solo decays toward the noir the band’s known for, over dancing bass to match Beninghove’s bluesy tenor spirals

It’s amazing how they reinvent D’yer Maker as uneasy, metrically tricky noir ska, and then an Afrobeat epic, And the Specials quote at the end is LMFAO too. The album ends with a slinking, incendiary take of When the Levee Breaks fueled by blue-flame slide guitar worthy of Jimmy Page himself. It’s the one place on the album where the band actually seems to take the material seriously, and it might be the best track of all. Get this and get a roomful of Zep fans laughing their collective asses off. Beninghove’s Hangmen usually play at least one Zep cover at most of their shows, so we’re likely to get some of this buffoonery Monday night in Brooklyn.

Film Noir Instrumentalists Big Lazy and Italian Singer Julia Patinella Haunt the Crowd at Barbes

As the story goes, Julia Patinella‘s first live appearance at Barbes lasted for about two bars.worth of music “But what two bars!” said Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich, as he introduced the singer early in the band’s set there last month. The two first met in the wee hours there. She’d done what a lot of musicians do when it’s past midnight and the bands are finished: she broke out her guitar and took a stab at entertaining her friends with a couple of Italian folk songs, completely unplugged.

Uh uh. Like a lot of venues, Barbes has a strict curfew on music, and they enforce it. But unlike the bartender who did the enforcing, Ulrich was entranced. Being a devotee of Italian music and heavily influenced by both Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, Ulrich asked Patinella if she’d sing with the band. The result turned out to be a couple of hauntingly affecting, nocturnally lilting numbers, the first with Romany tinges, the second a playful commentary on how women deserve just as much fun in the sack as guys do, complete with sardonically low-key orgasmic vocalese. And as comfortable as she was with this material, maybe considering her Sicilian heritage, this was something of a departure for her since she’s focused mostly on flamenco lately. Years from now, when Patinella is playing big stages around the globe, she can tell the world that she was discovered by Big Lazy.

For their part, the iconic noir instrumental trio hung back with a moody jangle to match Patinella’s nuance. Their own material was just as dynamic, and considerably darker, as you would expect from this creepy crew. Their show on New Year’s Day here featured a lot of highway themes and big-sky ambience: this set was a particularly murderous one. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow more than usual, painting pitchblend swaths underneath Ulrich’s lurid chromatics, lingering blues phrases drenched in reverb, and the occasional savage flurry of tremolo-picking. It’s a mystery how this guy manages not to break strings.

Mystery was the theme for the rest of the show, part horror surf, part crime jazz, part shapeshifting cinematic sweep. Drummer Yuval Lion seemed more amped than usual as the band stabbed and pulsed through a cover of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion #5, then later the surrealistic sprint Princess Nicotine – a new theme for an old silent short from the 20s. Otherwise, the menace was relentless, through the slinky shadows of Don’t Cross Myrtle, Swampesque and one of the creepiest songs of the night, Influenza, which Ulrich wryly pondered about renaming. If dark sounds are your thing, Big Lazy are your band. Their monthly Friday night Barbes residency continues this Friday, March 4 at 10. T’hey’re also at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint on March 14 at around 9 on what might be the years’s best twinbill, with similarly macabre, surfy, shapeshifting soundtrack instrumentalists Beninghove’s Hangmen.

Charming, Erudite Swing Sophistication from Daria Grace & the Pre-War Ponies

Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies distinguish themselves from the rest of the hot jazz pack by hanging out on the pillowy side of the street. Their sophisticatedly charming new album, Get Out Under the Moon is snuggle music. It’s best experienced with someone near and dear to you, or thoughts of someone near and dear to you. It can be danced to; much of it was written for that. Speaking from experience, let’s say that if you are a single person in New York, you will be missing out if you don’t own this album. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll meet someone with something similar in mind at the release show on January 17 at 7 PM at the Slipper Room, that’s not out of the question either. Cover is $12.

Grace is one of New York’s most distinctive and elegant singers. Her voice is plush, clear and unadorned; often she’ll add just the subtlest hint of vibrato at the end of a phrase. She sings in character, but with warmth and restraint: even the most over-the-top personas from both the rare and well-known swing numbers in her repertoire get the benefit of her sophistication and wit. The new album opens with a bit of a red herring, an opiated take of a noir cha-cha, Amapola, a shout-out to a pretty little poppy, spiced gingerly with solos from irrepressible multi-instrumentalist J. Walter Hawkes’ trombone and Tom Beckham’s simmering vibraphone.

Grace lends a wary, understatedly brooding edge to Say It Isn’t So, Hawkes matching the vocals with his foghorn resonance. She takes a more cajoling approach on the album’s swinging title track, infused with aptly wry, early-evening roller-rink organ from Hawkes. Cole Porter’s Find Me a Primitive Man digs deeper into the song’s cabana-jazz roots than its composer probably ever dreamed, anchored with a muted oomph by Tom Pietrycha’s bass and Russ Meissner’s drums, with latin jazz great Willie Martinez on percussion and Hawkes having the time of his caveman life with the mute on his trombone.

Grace picks up the coy charm, but just a little, with the gentle innuendos of the boudoir swing tune What Do We Do on a Dew Dew Dewy Day, Hawkes switching to uke for a good-natured solo. Then Grace puts a little brittle, wounded brass into her voice for a plaintive take of Irving Berlin’s heartbroken waltz, You Forgot to Remember, M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson adding sad, sepulchral ambience with her singing saw behind Hawkes’ twinkling glockenspiel. I Only Want a Buddy, Not a Sweetheart, popularized by Bing Crosby, makes an apt segue.

Grace’s gracefully defiant understatement in Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me Now underscores the lyrics’ bitterness, set to a purposeful stroll punctuated by vibes and trombone. Then she moves to a sweetly lilting cajolement in the risqe 1934 hit Pettin’ in the Park and keeps the balmy, upbeat trajectory climbing through the Johnny Mercer novelty swing tune Pardon My Southern Accent, guitarist Mike Neer contributing a spiky Wes Montgomery-flavored solo.The album’s most disarming moment – arguably the most upbeat suicide song ever written – is Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River, Thompson serving as rustic one-woman string section.

The only place on the album where Grace reaches toward vaudevillian territory is So Is Your Old Lady, which, by contrast, makes the longing of Take My Heart all the more poignant, lowlit by Beckham’s lingering vibes. The album winds up on a lively Hawaiian-flavored note with I Love a Ukulele, harking back to Grace’s days as a founding member of pioneering New York oldtimey band the Moonlighters. The album’s not officially out yet and therefore not at the usual spots, but there are a couple of tracks up at the band’s music page and also Hawkes’ youtube channel.

Visions of a Deadly, Rainy Friday Night This December, In and Out of Focus

This is not a dream.

The gleep struts and waltzes in from the shadows, licking his lips. Is that blood? Maybe. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of it, and it’s energized him. He makes a mad dash at your face, only to swerve away at the last second as his foot catches something on the rain-slicked cobblestones  – no pavement down here in what’s left of the old city. Better leave him in his rubber raincoat to slink away now that he’s made an impression. Damn, it’s cold out here, and it’s wet. Global warming be damned. Where is that umbrella?

The funeral procession wears sombreros. Black ones to match their vests and bolo ties, which are only visible in a trick of the light from the lamppost, at the top of its arc as the flickers oscilllate downward to blackness. Suddenly the parade scampers off and in a second it’s clear why, as an ancient if immaculately preserved, jet-black 1956 Nash Ambassador police cruiser enters the picture in a rush of oxygen and exhaust and then is gone in a split second. Where did that come from, and was there any police department anywhere in the union that actually used that make and model in 1956?

This isn’t a dream.

Pan in on that warehouse a block away. Who’s that going up the fire escape, how did he get there and why is it taking him so long? Suddenly he sprints up the wrought iron and vanishes. Is it the gleep from the first few frames? Probably not, considering how fast he moved. Everything is moving too fast now to focus for very long anyway, even if everything is also simultaneously moving very slowly. Will daylight ever come? At this point, that’s doubtful.

[What if Nino Rota had a secret life beyond the erudite, irrepressibly witty Italian intelllectual cinemaphile composer that everyone took him for? What if he was a serial killer? Just asking.]

Timothy MacVeigh and Suspect #2 (remember him?) are cruising cross-country in their loaded rental van, headed blithely for Junction City, Kansas. It’s a comfortable, big-sky afternoon, but one that feels inevitable, heavy despite the wide-open expanse above them. Remember, this is not a dream. MacVeigh floors the loaded-down vehicle to get past an eighteen-wheeler and the big V8 delivers an unexpected roar to get the job done.

These are just a few of the kind of images that might come to mind at a Big Lazy concert. New York’s creepiest, most cinematic noir soundtrack instrumental band has a monthly Friday night residency at Barbes. Their next gig is at 10 PM on December 4 – and if you’re coming, get there on time because the last time they played here, they gave away their second set to another band (the awesome Mercury Radio Theater – more on them here a little later).

Bassist Andrew Hall slinks and bows his lines, drawing on a tarpit of lethal low-register sonics. Guitarist Steve Ulrich is a surgeon, or a coroner, awash in reverb, armed with a sharp scalpel.

Drummer Yuval Lion rides the traps, very subtly. For the record, it’s hard to remember anyone playing the rims with as much nuance as he did at this particular show, whenever it was – October’s, most likely (the cassette isn’t labeled for reasons that will soon be obvious).

Listening back to the room mix, it swirls, as if through a flange. One second the sound’s distinct, front and center in the frame, the next it pans left and then makes its way to the middle again. Maybe because the recorder’s owner might have been swaying in front of it, obscuring the sonic picture, adrift in a haze of whiskey and PBR? That’s a possibility. Barbes is a place to drink. They take good care of you there. It’s up to you to take care after you head uphill through the shadows to the F train, or to the Donut Diner on 7th Ave. if you don’t have to rush home to file your story.