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No New Abnormal

Tag: aubrey johnson

Pianist Carolina Calvache Takes Her Lyrical, Individualistic Style to New Depths

It’s always validating to see an artist follow his or her muse and take their art to the next level. Pianist Carolina Calvache‘s 2014 debut album Sotareño was an ambitious mix of classically-inspired lyricism, postbop jazz and rhythms from her native Colombia. But Calvache is also a songwriter. On her new album Vida Profunda – streaming at Bandcamp -, she backs a murderer’s row of vocal talent in a collection of originals plus new settings of poems from across the ages. Calvache’s style is distinctly her own: 19th century art-song, classical music, jazz and diverse sounds from south of the border all figure in. Most of the lyrics on the album are in Spanish.

Marta Gomez sings the album’s title track, an anthemic neoromantic art-song awash in lush strings, with an understated intensity. Based on a poem by Porfirio Barba Jacob, it’s an uneasy coming to terms with extremes, emotional or otherwise. As Calvache sees it, an unfelt life is not worth living.

Sofia Ribeiro takes over the mic for El Pájaro Yo (The Bird Is Me), a darkly lilting setting of the famous Pablo Neruda poem. Hadar Noiberg’s flute soaring as fearlessly as the lyric. Ruben Blades delivers Te Conocí de Nuevo (I Met You Again), a reunited-for-good ballad, with hope and tenderness over Calvache’s bright, emphatic melody.

Claudia Acuña gives an aching, imploring angst to Sin un Despido (unpoetic translation: We Never Got to Say Goodbye), a glistening, symphonic requiem for the 2015 LaMia Flight 2933 crash whose victims included the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoens. Sara Serpa provides her signature, crystalline vocalese gravitas to Hope, a optimistically clustering number propelled by Jonathan Blake’s drums, Samuel Torres’ djembe and Peter Slavov’s bass, Calvache introducing it with a reference to Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Aubrey Johnson brings a bracing, unsettled energy to Childhood Retreat, a poignant setting of a Robert Duncan poem capped off by Michael Rodriguez’s soaring trumpet. Haydee Milanes offers warm and reflection in the Horace Silver-inspired Stella, a tribute to Calvache’s mom, with the composer on twinkling Rhodes and then incisive acoustic piano as harmonica player Gregoire Maret spirals overhead.

Serpa takes over on vocals again for the album’s most stunning song, The Trail, based on the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow. Calvache ripples and cascades over sweeping string orchestration: at a time when the lockdowners are insisting on increasingly sinister levels of surveillance, this song couldn’t be more timely.

Lara Bello lends a warmly reflective tone to No Te Vi Crecer (I Didn’t See You Grow Up) over Calvache’s glistening lines: as lullabies go, this is a particularly enegetic one. The album’s only dud is a pop song that smacks of label mismanagement and doesn’t take advantage of Calvache’s many talents. This is a quiet triumph of outside-the-box playing from a rotating cast that also includes drummer Keita Ogawa; bassists Petros Klampanis and Ricky Rodriguez; violinists Tomoko Omura, Leonor Falcon, Ben Russell, Annaliesa Place and Adda Kridler; violists Allysin Clare and Jocelin Pan; cellists Brian Sanders and Diego Garcia; oboist Katie Scheele; trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulous and bass clarinetist Paul Won Jin Cho.

A Mesmerizingly Eclectic Debut Album From Singer Aubrey Johnson

Singer Aubrey Johnson has been a rivetingly individualistic part of the fabric of the New York jazz scene, with both large and small ensembles for the better part of a decade. So it’s hard to believe that she’s only now releasing her debut album as a bandleader. That record, Unraveled, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a chance to hear her arrestingly clear, crystalline voice delivering her own material as well as a few vastly multistylistic covers: it was worth the wait. Johnson has newfound gravitas in her lower registers as well as a little Americana rusticity further up the scale, bolstering an already formidable stylistic arsenal.

Herer she’s joined by by pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller and bassist Matt Aronoff, along with austere violin from  Tomoko Omura. The band launch into a straight-up trip-hop groove to kick off the album with the understatedly angst-ridden twists and turns of No More I Love Yous, written by obscore 80s new wave duoThe Lover Speaks: “I used to have demons in my room at night,” Johnson confides.

She switches to Portuguese for an expansively spare take of the Jobim standard Dindi, Michael Sachs adding graceful clarinet. The duet between Johnson and Aronoff is tantalizingly brief; her spiraling vocalese before she sings the final verse in English wil give you goosebumps.

She leaps around, over fluttery bass clarinet, Ziemba’s insistent minimalism and Noller’s altered trip-hop beat in Happy to Stay, a souped-up chamber pop tune that sounds like Gretchen Parlato on steroids. Karate is a coyly funny, blippily wordless remake of a famous Egberto Gismonti theme that echoes Johnson’s Mycale bandmate Sofia Rei‘s most playful work.

“The dawn is calling your name,” Johnson intones soberly in the moodily syncopated ballad Lie in Wait, “Are we just hanging on to prove everybody wrong?” Sachs and Omura add judiciously energetic solos as the band go scampering. Ripples from Ziemba and the bass clarinet permeate Love Again, Johnson’s voice rising and dipping from daunting heights as the beat grows funkier.

Her take of Jimmy Rowles’ noir jazz classic The Peacocks, with a bracing solo from Sachs,, is especially spare and cinematic: the rapport with Ziemba’s icy backdrop brings to mind Sara Serpa‘s similarly chilling work with Ran Blake. These Days is not the Joy Division postpunk classic but a poignantly energetic, rainy-day original, Johnson working her entire range as the violin sails, Ziemba’s piano rages and then backs away.

The album’s title track is a song for our time, a portrait of dissociation and alienation: over a shifting modal groove, Johnson asks for anything that would generate some kind of emotional response. Alice Lee‘s most adventurous jazz work comes to mind. And Johnson reaches back to the tropics again with the jauntily lilting, matter-of-fact Voice Is Magic, through a stunningly phantasmagorical midsection. Admittedly, there haven’t been many albums released in the last few weeks, but this is still the frontrunner for best vocal jazz release of 2020.

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics, El Gavilan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Gavilan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

Epic Grandeur and Cool Subtleties with the Christopher Zuar Orchestra at Symphony Space

If there’s a future for big band jazz, it’s in good hands with Christopher Zuar. Him, and Ben Kono, the ubiquitous multi-reedman who seems to be front and center at pretty much every good big band performance in this city these days, including plenty of lyrical work on alto sax and oboe at the Christopher Zuar Orchestra’s ecstatic, dynamic show Thursday night at Symphony Space..The nineteen-piece ensemble, including the composer out front on the podium, comprised members of the various Mingus repertory bands, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Alan Ferber Nonet. Notwithstanding this group’s camaraderie, never mind a program packed with strong tunesmithing and all sorts of ideas worth stealing, Zuar has staked a claim in an ever-shrinking field dominated by a few iconic composers and Jazz Hall of Fame personalities: Ron Carter, David Murray and Roy Hargrove, for instance. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, filthy lucre is not the name of the game: you have to do this out of pure passion. This group had plenty of that, as does Zuar’s debut album, Musings, this blog’s choice as best jazz debut of 2016.

The concert gave an impressively full house a chance to revel in the nuance as well as the big hooks that Zuar has made his stock in trade. To see that the night’s best number was not a richly conversational new arrangement of Egberto Gismonti’s rippling, tropical epic 7 Aneis, or the plaintive ballad Lonely Road, but Zuar’s newest number of the night, portends well for his career. He introduced that diptych, Native Tongue, as his way of writing his way out of a musical existential crisis in the wake of the album’s release earlier this spring. The composition turned out to be a dynamically crescendoing anthem matching brooding Bach, bright Brazil, an enigmatic second part fueled by Mike Holober’s incisive piano paired with Mark Ferber’s terse drumming, a moodily expressive Charles Pillow clarinet solo that finally soared skyward, and an almost defiantly fiery, brass-fueled coda

Otherwise, despite the grandeur and majesty of the rest of the program, it was the subtle moments that resonated the most. The subtle handoffs between voices to complete a phrase, and the sarcastic trick ending that Zuar spun inside out at the end of the opening number, Remembrance, were among the most memorable. But so was the sheerly cantabile, singalong balance between brass and winds in Of Certain Uncertainty, which matched  the actual vocalese, sung with relish by Aubrey Johnson. She’s a major addition to this band. Jo Lawry does a fine job on the album, but Johnson brought a touch of sass and brass, found the inner blue-eyed soul ballad at the center of Vulnerable States and brought out every ounce of it. She may be best known for her bell-like clarity, but this show reminded how much else she has up her sleeve.

Guitarist Pete McCann got a chance to chew the scenery with a completely over-the-top metal solo midway through Ha! Joke’s on You – centered around a “uh-oh, here comes trouble” funk riff – winding it up with a just plain hilarious, furtive glissando at the end that had both the band and audience in stitches.

The second set was a bit shorter but every bit as eclectic, including a spiraling, achingly lyrical soprano sax solo from Jason Rigby on the blustery So Close, So Far Away, along with the wryly humorous Chaconne – with elements of both Bach and Led Zep – and the aptly titled Anthem. In sum, a lush and incisive performance by a crew that also included Dave Pietro on alto sax, Carl Maraghi on baritone sax; Tony Kadleck, Jay Owens, Dave Smith and Matt Holman on trumpets; Matt McDonald, Mark Patterson and Alan Ferber on trombones; another ubiquitously welcome presence, Jennifer Wharton on bass trombone; and Aidan O’Donnell on bass. If everybody here can find time in their schedules, it would be rewarding to see this band get a traditional Monday night residency somewhere. Jazz Gallery, are you interested?

Mesmerizing Lynchian Nocturnes from Sara Serpa and Andre Matos

Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums

While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.

It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.

Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work

Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.

The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.

Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.