New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Carmen Staaf

Fearless Singer Reinvents Jazz Luminary’s Compositions in the Here and Now

Allegra Levy’s lyrics have a somewhat cynical, noir-ish take on the world – right up my alley,” says trumpeter John McNeil. That’s an understatement. The New York singer and jazz songwriter is a McNeil protegee, and has most recently written lyrics to a bunch of his compositions dating from the early 80s into the zeros. Then she had the chutzpah to release them as a new album, Lose My Number, with an otherwise all-female band, streaming at Soundcloud.

The intrigue with Levy is that she’s always been a bit of a cipher, someone with a fondness for working allusion and understatement to her advantage. Not nearly so much here. Suddenly Andante Cantabile Levy is, well, the name on the album cover, fearless yet often more misty.

“Another night that I could have been somebody’s someone…fickle fortune would finally be mine,” she intones just short of breathlessly in the album’s opening number, Samba de Beah. But, “Now misfortune is aways by my side.” There’s a gorgeously scrambling Carmen Staaf piano solo over a similarly dramatic backdrop from bassist Carmen Rothwell and drummer Colleen Clark.

Livin Small turns into an understatedly corrosive reflection on settling for less than we deserve in gentrification-era New York, a determined clave tune with an incisive solo that Staaf refuses to let go of as Rothwell dances over steady washes of cymbals. Remember, New York had a housing crisis long before the lockdown.

The third track, Tiffany is the key to the album. McNeil came up with the song after a gig, walking past Tiffany’s to the train, frustrated that he couldn’t afford the kind of bling he wanted for his fiancee. In this pulsing, rippling nocturne, Levy captures the quiet triumph of walking down Fifh Avenue in the wee hours and realizing that the two didn’t need bling because they had each other.

The composer trades irresisibly amusing, terse phrases with the bandleader in Strictly Ballroom, reinvented as matter-of-fact, metoo-era swing. The even harder-swinging C.J. has irresistible, LOL drum breaks and obvious political subtext. The question is which real-life figure Levy is referring to:

And you’re thinking that you could be what we need
The savior, incomprehensible
And you don’t realize that we look at you
And see zero more than hero

“And in an ocean of despair, a rising tide will leave you stranded,” Levy warns in her interpretation of Dover Beach, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility of a lifeguard. Clark’s cymbal work, always a treat through the album, really makes a mark here. The cynicism hits redline in the oldtimey Ukulele Tune, Staaf’s judicious Rhodes voicings matched by Levy’s muted strumming and venomous lyrics

Opening with a wryly lyrical McNeil solo, the version of Zephyr here is a spare, gorgeously autumnal reflection, The Peacocks minus the birds, Rothwell adding balletesque grace. The band close with the title track, a redemptively scurrying, increasingly hilarious swing tune reflecting Levy and McNeil’s mutual inability to suffer fools gladly. He obviously fanned a fire under her that had been smoldering for a long time. Stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020. Looks like the polls – the jazz kind as well as the political kind – are going to be a tough call this year.

An Album of Songs For Our Time by Nicole Zuraitis

“All the screens block something inside, those afraid of their beginnings, unfulfilling,” singer Nicole Zuraitis wails over an anthemic 6/i8 groove, deep into her new album All Wandering Hearts, streaming at Bandcamp. “Eyes find comfort in darkness, eyes find comfort in escaping deep in a slumber to block out the overdrive mind.” Behind her, the band oscillates into a desperate vortex.

Of all the singers to have come out of New York in the last ten years or so, Zuraitis is one of the most individualistic. Gifted with scary range and gale-force power, she’s always embraced a lot of styles, from the big band jazz she belts over her husband Dan Pugach’s nonet, to thorny art-rock, lilting Americana and impassioned oldschool soul. Zuraitis has an intense, big-picture presence: her mind always seems to be racing, and she’s always looking for a respite, a reprieve. And she can be a hell of a lyricist.

And in the years since she was raising the roof at places like Caffe Vivaldi and 55 Bar, that fearsome voice has grown: there’s new grit in the lows, new power in the highs, new subtlety everywhere, In the liner notes, she sardonically calls this a “jazz adjacent album.”

The first song is Make It Flood, somber vocals in a guarded triumph: it’s Rockwood Music Hall pop in in heavy disguise. The Way Home rises, subtly, to a funky sway and then the lushness takes over again:

Trying to abandon my post
Before i lose this war…
Minus one’s a new concept
The slope of loss is steep
i know that there’s a void for us to fill
But there’s an answer if there is a will

Zuraitis’ circling, incisive piano provides a haunting backdrop for Gold, a prophetic, lithe clave anthem for a post-lockdown era where compassion trumps greed, Carmen Staaf enhancing that with a cheery, bubbly Rhodes solo.

The sinister Monk tonalties of the witheringly sarcatic Sugar Spun Girl set up the narrative in Rock Bottom, the most hilarious but also saddest song ever written about being on the road as a singer-songwriter. There’s no small irony in how singer-songwriters have earned a massive resurgence in the months since the lockdown, playing clandestine house concerts and parties, spreading the news and offering good cheer in the spirit of their medieval troubadour ancestors.

Zuraitis dedicates an elegant solo piano-and-vocal lullaby to her daugther, reinvents Prince’s I Would Die 4 U as swirling art-rock, and goes deep into What a Wonderful World for tenderness and rapture, in the context of a sobering dialectic. Deep music from a deep soul. A thoughtful and purposeful performance from a band that also includes Pugach on drums, Alex Busby Smith on bass, Elise Testone on backing vocals and Chase Potter on strings.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

Wildfire Klezmer and Reinvented Cumbias at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Sometimes you have to light a fire under a musician to get them to elevate their game. Sunday afternoon on the Lincoln Center plaza, it was as if somebody, i.e. Mr. Sun, had taken a blowtorch – or a steam pipe, at least – to klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd and his wryly named band the Honorable Mentshn. Onstage, Winograd is usually all business, generating thrills with his horn and his often sublimely catchy, subtly witty tunesmithing. This time, he was in rare form as a raconteur.

Maybe that was the heat…or maybe he was still riding the high of a return from his latest European tour. A heckler in the crowd suggested he take off his coat. “Dad, be quiet, I told you to stay in the car,” was Winograd’s response. Later, he alluded to how sardonic the title of his new album Kosher Style is: see, at a kosher-style restaurant, you can get a brisket sandwich with mustard and a pickle, but they also give you a piece of cheesecake at the end.

And this show was a feast, drawn mostly from the new record. Winograd was at the top of his game with his whirlwind trills, leaping and bounding through slashing chromatics and bracing minor keys with typically unwavering, crystalline, wind-tunnel focus, no matter how fast the music became. Trumpeter Ben Holmes had a similar, meticulously modulated resonance, often in tandem with trombonist Dan Blacksberg. The group’s bassist fingerpicked rather than using the traditional bow, while drummer Dave Licht switched from sticks to mallets and back, flickering his hardware, vaudeville style and then stomping with abandon through the colorful rhythms of one of the new numbers, Theme from David and Goliath.

Pianist Carmen Staaf got to employ her jazz chops most clearly in a moody, muted, especially plaintive take of Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant. The afternoon’s opening number, Bar Mitzvah Bulgar, was a blast right from the ridiculously catchy first few riffs. Likewise, the slower Dinner in Bay Ridge was a launching pad for a succession of brief, slashing solos from the horns, with a nifty interweave at the end. With its blend of gravitas and fire, It Pays to Buy the Best was a shout-out to Manischewitz, Winograd informed everyone They balanced out the somberness of a couple of slow horas with a boisterous diptych of wedding tunes to wind out the show.

This was part of the annual Heritage Sunday program assembled by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Over the last few years, it’s always been one of Lincoln Center Out of Doors‘ most consistently entertaining events, and this was no exception. A Puerto Rican bomba ensemble had opened the festivities. The afternoon closed with a serpentine and often hypnotic if somewhat abbreviated set by Inkarayku, who reinvent old cumbias and Andean panpipe tunes from what’s now Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Watching them bounce their way through their relentlessly catchy set in their matching purple ponchos while a series of circle dances spontaneously erupted in the crowd by the edge of the stage was a reminder of where the first wave of classic psychedelic cumbia bands like Los Destellos and Juaneco Y Su Combo got their inspiration. Inkarayku’s take on cumbia and ancient mountain melodies is more acoustic, although this particular edition of the band also featured a string synth player who doubled on traditional flute.

Singer/syndrum player Romina Cárnica Navarro delivered a lilting, catchy number in the original Quechua language; otherwise, when the tunes had lyrics, they were in Spanish. Frontwoman Naomi Sturm’s high harmonies were grounded by flute player Carlos Moises Ambia’s expressive, dramatic baritone while charanga player and lead guitarist Andres Jimenez’s spiky lines intertwined with acoustic guitarist Adam Negrin’s bright chordal work. Bassist Erico Benavente’s trebly groove kept the dancers twirling.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tonight, July 31 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with a group led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington saluting the pioneering women of jazz and early rock. The eclectic lineup includes but is not limited to vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

Lavish, Exhilarating New Klezmer Sounds and a Lincoln Center Gig From Clarinetist Michael Winograd

The cover of clarinetist Michael Winograd’s wildly adrenalizing new large-ensemble album Kosher Style – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him at Coney Island. It’’s winter. Facing north, just past the cantina, he raises his horn. The Thunderbolt and Parachute Jump loom in the background, sepia-toned. It’s retro, but look closely and it’s obviously in the here and now, just like the new vinyl record.

This album is all about thrills, and minor-key electicity, and sabretoothed chromatics, with all sorts of devious references that hardcore fans of the klezmer demimonde will get. Winograd worked up a lot of this material at a frequently spine-tingling weekly residency at Barbes a couple of years ago, and his bandmates sound like they’re jumping out of their shoes to play this stuff. His clarinet and Ben Holmes’ trumpet are the two main solo instruments, although the rest of the band blazes as well. Winograd is bringing this party to Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where he and the group will be playing on July 28 at 3 PM on the plaza in front of the Beaumont Theatre. Puerto Rican bomba crew Redobles de Cultura open the afternoon at 1; psychedelic Incan folk band Inkarayku close the show at around 4.

Winograd opens the record – and a lot of his live shows – with the title track, built around a rapidfire two-bar clarinet riff. If there was such a thing as Jewish dixieland, this would be it. Dave Licht’s drums tumble and rustle up a storm, Ken Maltz’s bass clarinet smokes and then Holmes takes over the big hook right before the end. All this in less than two and a half breathless minutes.

The Bar Mitzvah Bulgar has a steady, almost stern pulse: clearly, the adults are in charge at this particular simcha. Is that wistful trumpet solo a signal that they might not be so happy to see their little one pass into adulthood? Winograd’s crystalline, meticulously trilling solo after that lifts the mood and the party really starts to cook.

Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant is a moody hora of sorts, swaying along with Carmen Staaf’s stately piano and Jordan Sand’s bass, Sanne Möricke’s accordion in tandem with the clarinet as a famous Beethoven riff peeks out from the background. The International Hora has the whole ensemble pulsing tensely behind the bandleader’s edgily precise articulation. The sober syncopation is the same in Dinner in Bay Ridge, a gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, Holmes eventually taking over from Winograd, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.

The triumphantly incisive Wedding Sher is just as catchy, a long, six-minute launching pad for bracing solos from Winograd and Holmes. Online Polka seems suspiciously close to a boisterous Italian opera theme, while Brooklyn Pursuit – a popular encore at shows – has a frantic noir bustle and some of Winograd’s most thrilling lines here.

The album’s most dynamic number, Manhattan Beach Doina shifts through a brassy, Andalucian-tinged intro to a spare jazz piano piano-and-clarinet interlude and a series of false starts: just when you think it’s going to explode, it’s over. Theme From David and Goliath bristles with contrasts: Winograd’s impetuous clarinet fanning the flames of a lush, stately backdrop over waves of cymbals.

Soulful clarinet-trumpet harmonies fuel the brief Kiddish Club. It Pays to Buy the Best has an opulent, pulsing hora sway; Winograd winds up the album with a crashing, loose-limbed diptych, South Brooklyn Bulgars. The icons of the American klezmer movement of the 50s – guys like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, who brough their fearsome chops and improvisational flair to brooding melodies from the old country – would be proud of how far Winograd has taken the tradition. You’ll see this on the top ten albums of the year list here in December if Trump doesn’t blow us all up first.

Allegra Levy Brings Her Nocturnal Reinventions to Birdland

Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.

The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.

Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady,  roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.

Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.

A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.

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.

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.