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Tag: Carmen Staaf

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

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Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Ben Holmes Brings His Darkly Tuneful Naked Lore Project Back to Barbes

Trumpeter Ben Holmes has been a mainstay of the Barbes scene practically since the beginning. With roots in klezmer, Balkan music and postbop jazz, he will often shift between all three idioms in the course of a single song…or even a single solo. Blasting away with endless volleys of notes is not his thing: his full, resonant tone, which comes out especially when he’s on the flugelhorn, pervades his dark chromatics, moments of sardonic humor and unselfconsciously poignant lyricism. Over the years he’s played the Park Slope hotspot with all sorts of bands, from legendary pianist Pete Sokolow’s Tarras Band to the Yiddish Art Trio, and most recently, with Big Lazy.

That iconic noir trio have experimented with horns many times over the years, but Holmes is the one trumpeter who really gets their ilngering menace. He sat in with the band after a more distantly uneasy set with his Naked Lore trio at the end of August and held the crowd rapt with his spacious, enigmatic lines and occasional stalker-from-the-shadows burst. Big Lazy guitarist/frontman Steve Ulrich likes to employ horns to max out the suspense in his crime jazz themes, and Holmes picked up on that in an instant. He also added spicy hints of Ethiopian style to a couple of more recent, rather epic Big Lazy numbers which look back to the group’s days of deep, dark dub exploration in the early zeros. Big Lazy’s next gig is at 8:30 PM this Dec 6 at Bar Lunatico.

Holmes’ set with Naked Lore to open that August Barbes gig was a chance to see how tightly the trio have refined their sound over the past several months. Guitarist Brad Shepik had cut the fret finger on his left hand – and was playing acoustic. Was he going to be able to pull this off? Hell yeah – even when that meant running tricky, syncopated cyclical phrases over and over, as he did on one recent number, or chopping his way through fluttery tremolo-picked passages. Was there any blood? Not sure – Shepik played the set seated next to drummer Shane Shanahan, and the venue was crowded, so it was sometimes hard to see the stage.

What’s become obvious lately is how prolific Holmes has been, and how vast his catalog of unrecorded material is. The best song of the set was a diptich of sorts that he’d begun as an attempt to write a pastoral jazz tune, but then he “Lapsed into freygish mode,” as he put it, drifting into biting Middle Eastern microtones as the melody grew more overcast. Naked Lore are back at Barbes on Dec 8 at 8 PM on a typically excellent if bizarre Saturday night bill. Trombonist Ron Hay’s fascinating Erik Satie Quartet – who reinvent works by Satie and other early 20th century composers as pieces for brass and winds – open the evening at 4 PM; bizarro, unpredictable psychedelic salsa revivalist Zemog El Gallo Bueno plays afterward at 10.

And catching the debut of Holmes’ brand-new trio earlier this month, again at Barbes, was a revelation. The not-so-secret weapon in this band is pianist Carmen Staaf. Among the sort-of-new, “rising star” generation of New York pianists, only Arco Sandoval can match her in terms of consistent edge, imagination and tunefulness. In fact, the best song of the night, built around a clenched-teeth, circling minor-key riff, might have been hers. Holmes’ own picturesque, pensive tunes gave her a springboard for plenty more of that. While Shanahan’s playing with Holmes is spacious, terse and part of a close interweave, this group’s drummer, Jeff Davis romped and thumped behind the kit, raising the energy at the show several notches. They closed with a funky, catchy number of his. Where Naked Lore is all about close attunement and interplay, this group is just the opposite: three very different personalities in contrast. Let’s hope this trio stay together and reach the depths that Naked Lore have been able to sink their chops into.

Lush, Kinetic, Imaginatively Purist New Big Band Jazz From Dan Pugach’s Nonet Plus One

How do you get the most bang for your buck, to make a handful of musicians sound like a whole orchestra? Composers and arrangers have been using every trick in the book to do that since the Middle Ages. One guy who’s particularly good at it is drummer/bandleader Dan Pugach, whose retro style harks back to the 60s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. Over the past couple of years, Pugach’s Nonet Plus One have refined that concept, gigging all over New York. They’re playing the album release show for their debut album tonight, May 18 at 10 PM at their usual hang, 55 Bar.

The opening track, Brooklyn Blues, is definitely bluesy, but with an irrepressible New Orleans flair. Pugach likes short solos to keep things tight and purposeful: tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and trombonist Mike Fahie get gritty and lowdown while Jorn Swart’s piano bubbles up occasionally amid lushly brassy flares from the rest of the group.

Coming Here opens with a comfortable, late-night sweep anchored by Carmen Staaf’s glimmering piano, punctuated by gusts from throughout the band, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen soaring triumphantly and lyrically, Powell more pensive against Staaf’s hypnotic, emphatic attack. The tightly chattering outro, held down by bassist Tamir Shmerling, baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas and bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, is a tasty surprise.

You wouldn’t think a big band version of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene would work, but this group’s not-so-secret weapon, singer Nicole Zuraitis, gives it a Laura Nyro-like intensity as the group punch in and out throughout Pugach’s darkly latin-tinged arrangement. Staaf’s spiraling, serioso chromatics are spot on, Jensen taking that intensity to redline.

Andrew Gould’s optimistic alto sax and David Smith’s catchy, fluttering trumpet solo take centerstage in Zelda, a slow, swaying ballad. Individual and group voices burst in and out of Belo’s Bellow over Pugach’s samba-funk groove, bolstered by Bernardo Aguilar’s pandeiro. Then they reinvent Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence as blustery, arioso tropicalia, Zuraitis’ dramatic vocal flights and Gould’s bluesy alto over Swart’s terse, brooding piano and Pugach’s lush chart and cymbals.

Likewise, Pugach’s piano-based arrangement of Quincy Jones’ Love Dance gives it a welcome organic feel. Zuraitis’ Our Blues gets a powerhouse arrangement to match her wry hokum-inspired lyrics and defiant delivery: “You’re much more clever when you shut your mouth,” she advises. Smith’s sudden crescendo, using Swart’s piano as a launching pad early during the subtle syncopations of Discourse This might be the album’s high point. Keeping a large ensemble together is an awful lot of work, but it’s understandable why a cast of musicians of this caliber would relish playing Pugach’s inventively purist charts.

Powerful Singer Nicole Zuraitis’ New Album Explores the Dark Side of the Psyche

Nicole Zuraitis is one of the most powerfully eclectic singers in New York. She can literally sing anything: jazz, Americana, rock, you name it. Maybe because of that, her songwriting isn’t easily categorized. A similarly diverse pianist, she’s had a monthly 55 Bar residency since what seems forever. She’s playing there tomorrow night, Jan 12 at 10 PM with her husband, drummer Dan Pugach’s mighty nonet.

Zuraitis’ 2013 debut album Pariah Anthem was ambitious but not particularly translucent. Her new one, Hive Mind – streaming at Spotify – goes completely in the opposite direction. Yet while the music is often brightly attractive, Zuraitis’ subject matter drifts toward the dark side. The album’s title  is a reflection on madness, a theme that recurs occasionally in the ten tracks here. Carmen Staaf’s tersely echoey Wurlitzer adds subtle hints of reggae in the opening number, Move On, a hypnotic late 80s Sade-style jazz-pop ballad. Guitarist Idan Morim winds it up with a gritty, jagged solo, flying out of a big Zuraitis vocal crescendo.

Pugach’s jaunty shuffle and bassist Alex Busby Smith’s staccato pulse propel The Inscription: imagine peak-era Earth Wind & Fire stripped to the guitar and rhythm section, with a woman out front playing bubbly Rhodes lines. Guest singer Nandini Srika opens Idle, an angst-ridden Indian-influenced art-rock tone poem of sorts with rapturously enigmatic vocalese, in contrast to Zuraitis’ plaintive intensity over Morim’s David Gilmour-esque slide guitar. It packs a wallop, and it’s the album’s strongest cut.

Covering a song as iconic as Jolene is a disaster waiting to happen, but Zuraitis pulls it off, reinventing it as brooding, dymamically shifting, gospel-infused soul: Roberta Flack might have done it this way. Then the band pick up the energy with the slinky, catchy, crescendoing Sunny Side: this time it’s Morim who’s adding the neat little reggae touches.

Episodes, a twinkling, sweeping Hollywood Hills boudoir soul instrumental, seems serene enough on the surface. but the disembodied voices in the background hint at something more sinister. Zuraitis’ reinvention of a tune from the Willy Wonka movie keeps the Rhodes lullaby ambience going. The album closes with Shirley’s Waltz, a tribute to Zuraitis’ late grandmother: you could call it Lynchian ragtime. While the album is obviously meant as a showcase for the many subtleties in Zuraitis’ voice, what she doesn’t do too often here is really cut loose with that fearsome wail of hers. Then again, you can always see her do that live.

Go See Michael Winograd at Barbes Again Tonight

You have to hand it to Michael Winograd. For his April residency at Barbes, he had the chutzpah to wait for a month with five Saturdays in it. The supersonic, dynamic clarinetist and esteemed klezmer composer/bandleader has one night left in that residency, tonight at 6. Miss it and you miss being in on what could someday be considered a series of legendary performances.

They’ve been that good. This blog hasn’t been witness to a series of shows this adrenalizing since Steve Wynn’s residency at Lakeside Lounge, and that was in another decade. Although Jewish music is Winograd’s passion, his writing and his playing transcend genre. His body of work encompasses circus rock, flamenco, noir cabaret, psychedelia, otherworldly old ngunim and sounds from the Middle East.

“Did you ever hear this guy back in the day, like, 2003?” the Magnetic Fields’ Quince Marcum asked the beer drinker to his right at the bar a couple of weeks ago.

‘No, I didn’t,” the drinker replied. The two sat silent, listening to Winograd and his large horn-and-piano-driven ensemble romp through a darkly vaudevillian melody. “I see what you mean, though. This reminds me of Luminescent Orchestrii.”

“Exactly,” replied Marcum. “Everybody was doing this back then.” And he’s right. The emergence of bands like World Inferno and Gogol Bordello opened up new opportunities for jazz musicians and players coming out of Balkan and klezmer music.

The first and third nights of Winograd’s residency here featured the big band. Opening night seemed like mostly original material – although with Winograd, it’s impossible to tell since he’s so deeply immersed in centuries’ worth of minor keys and slashing chromatics. Night three seemed to be more on the trad side.

Night two was a performance of a psychedelic, serpentine suite based on a Seder service. The clarinetist was joined on that one by keyboardist/singer Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Berkson channneled Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul and gritty Waitsian blues on her electric piano when she wasn’t venturing further into the avant garde. Fruchter wove a methodical, even darker tapestry of eerie Middle Eastern modes as Winograd shifted between conspiratorial volleys and a lustrous, ambered resonance. It was the quietest and most rapt of these shows so far.

Last week was arguably the best so far, which makes sense since a residency is supposed to be about concretizing and refining the music. For this one Winograd had a rhythm section and a not-so-secret weapon in pianist Carmen Staaf. Incisive, meticulous yet purposeful and unselfconsciously powerful, she brought a Spanish tinge to several of Winograd’s tunes – notably the angst-fueled waltz that opened the show – that brought to mind Chano Dominguez. Meanwhile, Winograd played with equal parts clarity and breathtaking, practically Ivo Papasov-class speed. It was one of the most thrilling shows of the year so far, something that Winograd could easily replicate tonight. See you at the bar at six:  Kate and Kat will be working and it’s going to be a wild night. The Dirty Waltz Project play oldtime Americana in 3/4 time afterward at 8.

Jazz Songwriter/Vocalist Allegra Levy Adds to the Canon with Her Haunting Breakthrough Album

Allegra Levy seems to be shooting for a franchise on heartbreak. For anybody who’s been blindsided – and let’s be honest, who hasn’t – she sings your life back to you.

She’s an anomaly in the vocal jazz world, a strong original songwriter who’d rather sing her own material than standards from decades ago. Her low-key, moody 2014 debut album Lonely City captured the downside of romance against a purist, trad backdrop. Her new album Cities Between Us – streaming at Spotify – swings harder and has more optimism, but there’s no evading the darkness in her writing.

Her lyrics are uncommonly smart, full of striking imagery and a pervasive angst. As all first-rate jazz vocalists do, she sings in character, word by word, line by line: you would think that other jazz singers would have a similarly meticulous, emotionally attuned approach, but unfortunately most of them don’t. You can tell that she’s listened to Sarah Vaughan – her low register is stronger here than on the debut album – and Ella Fitzgerald, but she doesn’t sound like either of them. Her distinctive, unadorned mezzo-soprano is on the soft and misty side. She’s playing the album release show tonight, April 8 at 7:30 PM at Club Bonafide on 52nd Street. The trains are as much of a mess this weekend as they’ve been in decades, but serendipitously, the 4 and 6 trains are running, meaning that if you’re on those lines or can get to them, you’ll have no problem getting to the show. Cover is $15.

Levy wears her heart on her sleeve. What do we know about her? She’s in her twenties, New York born and raised, very bright, and not shallow. Closeness and relationships are very important to her. She finally found one – in Hong Kong, during a long-running money gig. If the album is to be believed, she left the boyfriend behind, at least for awhile. But while this is a very personal album, it’s not couplecore  -or singlecore, if such thing exists, ugh. Levy’s narrative transcends the backstory. Cherry Tree, the catchy midtempo swing tune that opens the album, sets the stage: its melodic allusions to Walking in a Winter Wonderland are apt.

Does your bark recall
Every time you had a scrape or fall?
…this winter blows my confidence
Colors faded and I lost my defense…

Tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Billy Drummond all get terse, low-key solos, which also sets the stage in the sense that this is a band effort rather than a singer with a backing unit.

Like Dorian Devins, Levy likes to pen her own lyrics to well-known jazz tunes. Carmen Staaf’s soft-soled, bar’s-about-to-close piano pairs with Levy’s tender, wounded delivery in her take of Duke Jordan’s Lullaby of the Orient: Levy really nails the surrealism of returning to Manhattan after being out of the country for awhile. Missing her boo, she heads down to Chinatown for solace: “Back home feels much too small, when I hear the whole world call.” The way she lets the song’s final line resonate, with just a tinge of vibrato, will give you chills.

Staaf’s lingering, broodingly modal chords contrast with Kirk Knuffke’s fluttering cornet and Riley’s balmy lines in another midtempo swing number, I Shouldn’t Tell You: “I shouldn’t lean so hard against you when I need someone else to care.”

The real classic here is the jaunty bolero-swing tune Misery Makes the Music, a jazz counterpart to Elisa Peimer’s similarly witty folk-rock tune, Good Song. Levy could always write a good song when she was disconsolate, but now she’s worried about losing her edge now that she’s happy: “What’s a song without some bite?” That perfectly capsulizes the appeal of her music.

Yesterdays has an insistent, upbeat swing and a lot of dynamics from Levy, from a handful of Vaughan-like dips and an enigmatically scatted solo with an unexpected joke snuck in toward the end. With its bright New Orleans-flavored horns, hints of late 90s downtown songwriter rock and suspenseful triplet groove, the uneasily hopeful Dear Friend is another smash: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Gretchen Parlato songbook.

The ballad Sleepwalk With Me, underscored by Anderson’s poignantly minimalist solo, paints a colorfully nocturnal portrait of separation anxiety – and it’s not all angst, either. If you listen closely the narrative includes a pillow fight. Levy does Dexter Gordon’s Soy Califa as a triumphant samba, contrasting with the withering breakup scenario Leaving Today, where the cad who’s dumping her can’t be coaxed out of his easy chair. The version of John McNeil’s Down Sunday is even darker, and the most evocative of Sarah Vaughan, Levy cursing the “worthless, rotten Sunday, glum day, hurts me like a love untrue..then Monday, I wake up the same way…” Riley’s shivery solo juxtaposes against Knuffke’s ebullient upward drive, mirroring how Levy weighs triumph against defeat.

The album winds up with the tropically-tinged title track, Levy’s images painting a picture of an imperiled long-distance relationships:

Cities between us
Will mock us and tease us
Airlines will taunt us and haunt us…

If there’s anybody alive to sing these songs fifty yeas from now, many of them will be part of the standard repertoire. In keeping with Levy’s ongoing city theme, maybe next time she can do an album about love in a time of repression, mass displacement and pathological greed and call it City Under Siege.

Allegra Levy Invents Her Own Classic Vocal Jazz Songcraft

Singer and jazz composer Allegra Levy is a big-picture person. Her debut album Lonely City – streaming at Spotify – is less about the absence of affection and those who might provide it than it is about fullscale alienation. On a philosophical level, this New York jazz stylist captures the soul-crushing reality of a city where jazz artists under 40 are a rarity. On one level, there’s no lack of an indigenous talent base, as there should be in a city of ostensibly eight million. On the other, even native-born artists like Levy have never faced such a rigorous challenge simply paying the bills. Maybe that’s why she jumped at the chance to do a longterm Hong Kong gig last year. Singing in a cool, protean, enigmatic alto with a talented band behind her, she’s playing Cornelia Street Cafe on August 18 at 8:30 PM; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

What sets Levy apart from the hundreds of women scatting around with microphones is that she writes her own songs: every number on the album is an original, no small achievement. The opening track is a sophisticated, swinging take on a cabaret sound that goes back to the 30s. “Anxiety, stay the hell away from me!” Levy warns, guitarist Steve Cardenas taking a ratber furtive solo that tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker picks up more lightheartedly. The snide I Don’t Want to Be in Love has mambo tinges and a scampering groove fueled by drummer Richie Barshay, trumpeter John Bailey and pianist Carmen Staaf: “Someone wake me from this nightmare!” Levy insists.

She opens the early 70s-style soul-jazz ballad Everything Green with some balmy vocalese, a trick intro as it turns out: as Mark Feldman’s violin dances overhead, Levy musing about carving out a safe space amidst the stress. “I don’t want to die alone,” is the mantra on the outro.

A New Face works a familiar, vampy postbop latin swing, Levy dipping into the lows with some clever wordplay: “Antiquity is where I long to be, take me back to our ancient history,” she smiles. She goes in the other direction on the languid Why Do I: “Why do I stumble when you say something humble, or you fidget or you mumble,”Levy ponders, and follows the tangent down from there.

“Time has treated me a bit too coldly,” Levy admits in A Better Day, a study in how a band can resist the temptation to just cut loose and swing the hell out of a song: it’s fun to hear how it inches that way, little by little, Levy adding some jaunty, clear-voiced scatting. The album’s tour de force is the melismatic, noir-tinged ballad I’m Not Okay: Levy’s damaged existentialist heroine looks straight back to Blossom Dearie, vibewise if not stylistically.

Clear-Eyed Tango (as opposed to the blurry-eyed kind, one supposes) is closer to circus rock, or, say, the sardonic Coney Island phantasmagoria of Carol Lipnik, Feldman adding an aptly menacing solo. The album’s title track blends clave jazz with some unexpected Asian flavor, “Drowning in the crowd of the hungry and the persevering…what is this goal that we’re all trying to battle for?” Levy wants to know. Our Lullaby is a head-scratcher – what guy wants to rest his head on a girl’s knee? The final cut is The Duet, a gorgeous chamber jazz ballad fueled by bassist Jorge Roeder’s ambered bowing. On one level, Levy is as retro as they get. On another, the world is overdue for how much fresh air she’s breathing into a time-tested idiom. Those who like the classics won’t find her hopelessly lost in the hashtag generation; likewise, those from this generation who might think what she does is dated are in for a serious wake-up call.