New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Darcy James Argue

One Mighty Showstopper After Another on the JCA Orchestra’s Latest Live Album

The JCA Orchestra are the Boston counterpart to Miho Hazama’s rotating cast of big band jazz talent, whose home until the lockdown was the Jazz Gallery. But the JCA Orchestra have been championing the work of lesser-known composers since before Hazama was born. These days the Jazz Gallery has been repurposed as a web tv studio – temporarily, let’s hope – and the JCA Orchestra are on ice, at least for the time being. But they have a brilliant, wildly diverse and entertaining new album, Live at the BPC streaming at youtube.

A couple of extremely colorful compositions by violinist Mimi Rabson open and then close this concert from early October, 2018. The former, Romanople, imagines a Turkish entourage journeying to ancient Rome, only to be drafted into the army and killed in battle. The Strings Theory Trio – Rabson, cellist Junko Fujiwara and violinist Helen Sherrah-Davies – slink along on a cantering Near Eastern theme, turning it over to the brass for a boisterous Balkan dance with a simmering Phil Scharff clarinet solo. The orchestra’s eerie nebulosity as the two themes mingle is deliciously disquieting; Fujiwara’s similarly bracing solo is tantalizingly brief. Everything falls apart, as empires tend to do, a ghost of a melody undulating into the sunset.

The closing number, Super Eyes – Private Heroes is a sort of big band take on Spy vs. Spy-era John Zorn, a bustling swing tune with an incisively bluesy Sherrah-Davies solo over a halfspeed breakdown, trombonist David Harris’ tongue-in-cheek solo triggering an irresistibly funny coda.

The middle of the set is every bit as entertaining. The slow, enigmatic swells that introduce The Latest, the first of two Harris compositions, don’t hint at the electra-glide latin groove that follows, Melanie Howell-Brooks’ crystalline bass clarinet solo over a catchy theme that looks back to McCoy Tyner’s orchestrated 1976 classic, Fly With the Wind. Subtle variations on Thai-influenced pentatonics and a fanged, prowling Norm Zocher guitar solo raise the energy from there.

Harris’ conduction on his other tune here, Yellow, Orange, Blue, blends Butch Morris-style massed clusters and bursts with a catchy, allusively Middle Eastern clave theme, strongly bringing to mind Amir ElSaffar‘s adventures in largescale improvisation. Trombonist Jason Camelio’s invigorating solo as drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith drives this beast doublespeed and then cuts loose himself is one of the album’s tastiest interludes.

Trombonist Bob Pilkington’s epic The Sixth Snake sheds its skin more times than you can count, from suspenseful atmosphere puncuated by Vessela Stoyanova’s vibraphone, to Darcy James Argue-like insistence, to an eerie, spacious Maxim Lubarsky solo piano break. The composer follows with a sagacious solo as the rhythm edges toward a funky sway; Lihi Haruvi’s sailing soprano sax narrowly averts a collision with Scharff and draws an explosion of applause before the funky romp out.

Uneasy microtones filter through the airy introduction of another equally epic number, Darrell Katz’s A Wallflower in the Amazon, a setting of text by his late wife, poet Paula Tatarunis. Soprano Rebecca Shrimpton gives velvety, soaring affirmation to an embattled individualist finally finding her footing in an unexpected milieu, the band reaching from a lustrous sway, to a bubbling waltz, to a tropical duel between the string section and Hiro Honshuko’s EWI. Rick Stone’s agitated alto sax fuels a shivering massed coda; Shrimpton pulls the volume down and the intensity back up to all-stops-out squall. They take it out elegantly.

A richly conceived accomplishment by a group that also includes trumpeters Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal and Jerry Sabatini, horn player Jim Mosher, percussionist Gilbert Mansour and bassist Jesse Williams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

A Chilling Real Estate Bubble Parable Orchestrated by Clint Mansell

Today’s album is composer Clint Mansell‘s orchestral soundtrack to the Ben Wheatley film High-Rise, streaming at Spotify and based on the JG Ballard novel. Ballard was unsurpassed at bleak, dystopic tableaux, and Mansell has found a kindred soul in his work. Much of the music here is very close to the almost gleefully grim cynicism of another gentrification-era parable, Darcy James Argue‘s iconic Brooklyn Babylon. This is Mansell working at full steam, shifting between action and suspense constantly: you never know know where the music’s going to end up here.

The opening cut, cruelly titled Critical Mass, is a brisk, blustery, insistently optimistic string theme – maybe too optimistic for its own good, especially when creepy keys stop everything cold in its tracks. The highrise itself takes shape with brooding, steady overcast strings, Asian-tinged pizzicato, coldly sterile vibraphone and flute. Remember, Ballard was witness to the first cinderblock British council estates from the 1950s, and Mansell really nails that ambience.

Likewise, the longing in the oboe melody looking out from the grim concrete. Ballard’s uncannnily prophetic “vertical city” is portrayed with a strikingly accurate, moodily drab ambience. A circle of women get nothing more than a chilly, circular gamelanesque interlude.

With its sarcastically blithe whistle tune and circling harp, the score’s fifth track, Built Not for Man But For Man’s Absence is a chilling real-life portrait of any random New York corner, its desolately legoland “luxury condos” merely a sad sinkhole for a speculative bubble that may have already burst with the coronavirus scare

There’s Danger in the Streets of the Sky, as Mansell describes his sharply shifting scenario, is awash in a blasts of orchestration punctuated by quietly tense melody slipping out from random fragments of the sonic picture. As you can guess, nosiness leads to surveillance, portrayed here by more of that obnoxious whistling over increasingly ominous orchestration.

Mansell revisits the brazenly entitled earlier theme with bombastic drums and nebulous ambience, The Evening’s Entertainment turns out to be a macabre waltz, raised to a funereal power in the closing theme, Blood Garden. He’s has done a lot of great film work over the years: as luridly spot-on as his 2013 Stoker soundtrack was, this is Mansell’s best score to date. It’ll be tough to find subject matter as rich the next time around, although he’s shown an uncanny sense for projects that maximize his talents. Maybe someone can write a sequel. You could call it Crackhouse, and set it in a collapsing speculator property somewhere in a post-coronavirus Bushwick, abandoned to all but the the most desperate and most addicted. And then get this guy to come up with a soundtrack.

Or maybe that scenario plays out best in a near future Manhattan. Panic in Needle Condo?

An Inspired New School Big Band Plays Haunting and Propulsive Darcy James Argue Tunes

What’s the likelihood of being able to see this era’s most fearsomely relevant composer in big band jazz leading a diversely talented ensemble in a comfortable Manhattan auditorium, for free? It happened a couple of weeks ago at the New School, where Darcy James Argue conducted their newly created Studio Orchestra in a program of both well-known and more obscure works. And the great majority of the time, the group were up to the challenge.

It’s always fun to watch a student ensemble and try to figure out who the future stars are. That’s never obvious, since the best musician in the band might be out of the spotlight, working on his or her sight reading while the people getting solos might be the ones who need to step up that part of their game. At this show, one obvious pick was guitarist Theo Braun. Has Argue ever conducted a guitar player with such eclectic chops, who so thoroughly gets his material? Any composer would be lucky to be in that position.

Whether adding plaintive jangle, enigmatically ominous strolls through the unease of a handful of conspiracy theory-themed numbers from Argue’s haunting Real Enemies album, or careening and roaring along with the band in a particularly haphazard take of Transit, a bracing Fung Wah bus ride, Braun connected profoundly with the music. At times, he seamlessly interpolated a loop pedal into the music, no easy task, and he never fell back on too-cool-for-school scales or practice patterns. Obviously, no good musician should be that self-indulgent, but there are guys who’ve had long careers doing exactly that. Braun is a welcome exception.

Likewise, trombonist Isaac Poole is a rare musician with monster chops who doesn’t overplay. Throughout the night, he went deep into the blues and took a detour or two to New Orleans, showing off some blazing speed and command of extended technique not limited to high harmonics and duotones. Where Braun brought the darkness, Poole was the sun busting through it.

The unexpected material was fascinating, The group more or less eased their way into the set with the anthemically circling, Bob Brookmeyer-influenced Drift, then stampeded through the faux pageantry and bluster of The Tallest Tower in the World, the caustic critique of narcissism run amok from Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon album. Another track from that collection, Coney Island, was affectingly plaintive.

With its shift from tense, cell-like Philip Glass-ine phrases to more envelopingly nocturnal ambience, Redeye was a very convincing portrait of sleep deprivation. Argue explained a triptych of slinky, noirish numbers from Real Enemies as exploring the right wing’s vested interest in conspiracy theories as tools for disempowerment: if the Illuminati control the world, for instance, what’s the use in voting? 

The orchestra wound that sequence up with Casus Belli, which Argue said was inspired by Operation Northwoods, an early 60s proposal for the CIA or its proxy to blow up a civilian airliner as a false flag attempt to start a war with the Soviet Union: in that sense, 9/11 has a long backstory. The song’s broodingly kinetic salsa-jazz theme imagines the plotters working out the details as a Catskill mambo band plays in the background at some cheesy upstate resort.

The group also swayed their way through Last Waltz for Levon, a gospel-tinged elegy for Levon Helm which Argue had begun writing as a final salute to Dave Brubeck before pastoral jazz crept into it.

If the exact same crew who played this gig are onstage for their next one, so much the better. They all deserve a shout: Melvin Carter, Sade Whittier, Alain Mitrailler, Bapiste Horcholle and Benjamin Huff on saxes; Michelle Hromin on clarinet and bass clarinet; Louis Arques on bass clarinet; Jose Valle, Joshua Bialkin, Moe Feinberg, Raul Rios and Elijah Michaux on trumpets; Valerio Aleman, Rebecca Patterson and Olivia Gadberry filling out the trombone section; Benjamin Appel on piano and Nord Electro; Jonathan Livnate and Arturo Valdez Aguilar alternating on electric and acoustic bass; and Parker Trent on drums.

A Broodingly Catchy, Lithely Orchestrated Album and a Week at the Vanguard by Pianist Edward Simon

Duke Ellington liked suites. So does Edward Simon. Likewise, the jazz icon and the Venezuelan pianist share classical roots, a genius for orchestration and a completely outside-the box sensibility. Simon’s latest album Sorrows and Triumphs – streaming at Bandcamp – reaffirms his darkly eclectic sensibility, interspersing material from two suites. The first is the broodingly orchestrated title suite, the second is his more rhythm-centered House of Numbers suite. The result is as lavishly hypnotic as it is incisive and edgy. Simon is bringing a stripped-down version of the band on the album – his Steel House trio with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade – to a stand at the Vanguard that runs from Jan 8 through the 13th, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $35.

The album’s epic opening track, Incessant Desires begins with a misterioso rustle, chamber quartet the Imani Winds wafting over a tersely enigmatic series of hooks, alto saxophonist David Binney adding spaciously placed colors. Singer Gretchen Parlato joins them as the music rises joyously, guitarist Adam Rogers leading a pensive return downward. Darcy James Argue at his most plaintively lyrical is a strong reference point; Binney’s moody modal solo over Simon’s tense, distantly menacing glimmer as the wind ensemble circle around behind them could be the high point of the album.

The group keep the eerily dancing glimmer going with the circling counterpoint of Uninvited Thoughts, with piano that’s both carnivalesque and carnaval-esque. Once again, Binney adds judicious riffage, this time throughout a lively exchange with the wind ensemble.

The shadowy interweave between piano, guitar and Parlato’s tender yet assertive vocalese as Equanimity gets underway slowly reaches toward anthemic proportions. This time it’s Rogers who gets to take centerstage in the ongoing enigma: the sense of mystery throughout this album is pretty relentless.

With its persistently uneasy, often hypnotic piano chromatics, the winds weaving in and out, Triangle is equal parts Bernard Herrmann suspense film theme and Darcy James Argue altered blues. It’s the key to the album.

The balmiest, most atmospheric track is Chant, anchored by Rogers’ tremoloing guitar waves and Parlato’s gentle, encouraging vocals. Colley’s minimalist solo echoes Simon – and is that an organ, back in the mix, or just Rogers using a pedal?

Venezuela Unida, a shout-out to Simon’s home turf, has most of the band running a warily dancing melody together, then diverging into clever, tightly clustered polyrhythms. The sparse/ornate dichotomies and moody/ebullient contrasts as it winds up and out wouldn’t be out of place in the Maria Schneider playbook.

Triumphs is part circling indie classical, part terse latin jazz, Parlato’s misty mantras and Rogers’ wry oscillations at the center. The album’s slowly pulsing closing cut, Rebirth, is even more envelopingly stripped down. If this otherwise jauntily orchestrated masterpiece slipped under the radar for you in the past year’s deluge of albums, now’s as good a time to immerse yourself in Simon’s dark melodic splendor.

The 25 Best New York Concerts of 2018

2018’s best concert was Golden Fest. For the second year in a row, the annual two-night Brooklyn festival of Balkan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean music tops the list here. This year’s edition in mid-January began with the original gangsters of New York Balkan brass music, Zlatne Uste – who run the festival – and ended around two in the morning, 36 hours later, with Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions playing otherworldly, microtonal Turkish zurna oboe music. In between, there were equally haunting womens’ choirs, more brass than you could count, rustic string bands playing ancient dance tunes, the most lavish klezmer big band imaginable, and a searing Greek heavy metal group, among more than seventy acts from all over the globe.

And there was tons of Eastern European and Turkish food – every kind of pickle ever invented, it seemed, plus stews and sausages and dips and desserts and drinks too. Golden Fest 2019 takes place January 18 and 19: it’s a New York rite of passage. Pretty much everybody does this at least once. The festival is going strong right now, but perish the thought that Grand Prospect Hall, the gilded-age wedding palace on the south side of Park Slope, might someday be bulldozed to make room for yet another empty “luxury” condo. If that happens, it’s all over. Catch it while you can.

The rest of the year was just as epic, if you add it all up. That live music continues to flourish in this city, despite the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the devastation of entire neighborhoods to make room for speculator property, is reason for optimism. That’s a rare thing these days, but the immigrants moving into the most remote fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, along with many millions born and raised here, still make up a formidable artistic base.

On the other hand, scroll down this list. Beyond Golden Fest, every single one of the year’s best shows happened either at a small club, or at a venue subsidized by nonprofit foundation money.

OK, small clubs have always been where the real action is. And historically speaking, larger venues in this city have always been reticent to book innovative, individualistic talent. But there’s never been less upward mobility available to artists than there is now. Which mirrors the city’s changing demographics.

Recent immigrants face the same situation as the majority of New Yorkers; if you’re working sixty hours a week just to pay your share of the rent, where do you find the time, let alone the money, to go out? And the ones who have money, the privileged children moving in and displacing working class people from their homes in places like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, don’t support the arts.

So here’s to small clubs, nonprofit money, hardworking immigrants and the superhuman tenacity and resilience of New York’s greatest musicians. The rest of this list is in chronological order since trying to rank these shows wouldn’t make much sense. If you or your band didn’t make the list, sorry, that doesn’t mean you don’t rate. There were so many good concerts this year that it feels criminal to whittle it down to a reasonably digestible number.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Miller Theatre, 2/3/18
High-octane suspense, spy themes, blustery illustrations of doom in outer space and an Ellington-inspired epic by this era’s most politically relevant large jazz ensemble

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at NYU, 2/10/18
Just back from a deep-freeze midwestern tour, the trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s epic Middle Eastern big band jazz suite Not Two – which the group played in its entirety – was especially dynamic and torrential

Greg Squared’s Great Circles at Barbes, 3/1/18
Two long sets of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics from these ferocious Balkan jammers

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz in the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession, 3/15/18
The pyrotechnic violinist and her pianist collaborator turned a mysterious, intimate underground Harlem space into a fiery klezmer and Balkan dance joint

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center, 3/23/18
The Lebanese-American pianist and his trio evoked peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences, a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove

Dark Beasts at the Gatehouse, 3/27/18
The three young women in the band – Lillian Schrag, Trixie Madell and Violet Paris-Hillmer – painted their faces and then switched off instruments throughout a tantalizingly brief set of menacing, haunting, often environmentally-themed, often glamrock-inspired originals. What was most impressive is that nobody in the band is more than eleven years old.

The Rhythm Method Quartet at Roulette, 3/29/18
Magical, otherworldly wails, wisps and dazzling displays of extended technique in the all-female string quartet’s program of 21st century works by Lewis Neilson, Kristin Bolstad and the quartet’s Marina Kifferstein and Meaghan Burke. It ended with a swordfight between the violinists.

Hannah vs. the Many at LIC Bar, 4/4/18
Frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s banshee voice channeled white-knuckle angst, wounded wrath and savage insight as she delivered her torrents of puns and double entendres over a tight, pummeling punk rock backdrop. There is no lyrical rock band in the world better than this trio.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz at City Winery, 4/8/18
Violinist Ben Sutin’s pyrotechnic band transcended their klezmer origins and the early hour of eleven in the morning at this ferociously eclectic brunch show, reinventing classic themes and jamming out with equal parts jazz virtuosity and feral attack.

Shattered Glass at Our Savior’s Atonement, 4/13/18
The string orchestra stood in a circle, facing each other and then whirled and slashed through Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite for Strings, plus harrowing works by Shostakovich and hypnotic pieces by Caroline Shaw and Philip Glass. 

Yacine Boulares, Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits at Lincoln Center, 4/19/18
The multi-reedman, cellist and drummer hit breathtaking peaks and made their way through haunted valleys throughout Boulares’ new Abu Sadiya Suite of Tunisian jazz nocturnes

The Chelsea Symphony at the American Museum of Natural History, 4/22/18
Other than a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, maybe, it’s impossible to imagine a more lavish, titanic concert anywhere in New York this year. The intrepid west side orchestra enveloped the audience in an environmentally-themed program: the world premiere of an ominous Michael Boyman eco-disaster narrative, a shout-out to whales by Hovhaness, and John Luther Adams’ vast Become Ocean, played by three separate groups in the cathedral-like confines of the museum’s ocean life section.

The Dream Syndicate at the Hoboken Arts & Music Festival, 5/6/18
That the best New York rock show of the year happened in New Jersey speaks for itself. Steve Wynn’s legendary, revitalized, careeningly psychedelic band schooled every other loud, noisy act out there with their feral guitar duels and smoldering intensity.

Rose Thomas Bannister at the Gowanus Dredgers Society Boathouse, 6/16/18
A low-key neighborhood gig by the ferociously lyrical, broodingly psychedelic, protean Shakespearean-inspired songstress, playing what she called her “bluegrass set” since drummer Ben Engel switched to mandolin for this one.

The Sadies at Union Pool, 6/30/18
A ringing, reverb-iced feast of jangle and clang and twang, plus a couple of trips out into the surf and some sizzling bluegrass at one of this year’s free outdoor shows

Charming Disaster at Pete’s Candy Store, 7/3/18
What’s most impressive about New York’s creepiest parlor pop duo is how much new material Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker have – and how eclectic it is. Hints of metal, psychedelia and the group’s signature folk noir and latin-tinged sounds, with some of the most memorably macabre stories in all of rock.

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/24/18
The perennially tuneful, cinematic trumpeter/composer’s edgy Middle Eastern-tinged trio, followed by this city’s ultimate cinematic noir instrumentalists, who took a dive down to dub as deep as their early zeroes adventures in immersively menacing reverb guitar sonics.

Souren Baronian’s Taksim at Barbes, 9/7/18
The ageless octogenarian multi-reedman and king of Middle Eastern jazz channeled deep soul, and Parker and Coltrane, and seemed to be having the time of his life throwing elbows at the music, and his bandmates. The older he gets, the more energetic he sounds. His gig a month later in midtown – which was videotaped in its entirety – was awfully good too.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade at Roulette, 9/21/18
The Egyptian oudist and his sizzling, eclectic band paid their respects to a thousand years of otherworldly, kinetic sounds while adding an individualistic edge equally informed by American jazz, psychedelic rock and even funk.

International Contemporary Ensemble playing Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up at the Miller Theatre, 9/26/18
An endlessly suspenseful, bloodcurdling, macabre New York debut for Mazzoli’s latest avant garde opera, a grim parable concerning the American Dream and how few actually attain it – and what happens when they don’t.

Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/28/18
Everybody’s pick for this era’s best and most versatile jazz singer turns out to be as diverse and haunting a songwriter. Darcy James Argue conducted a mighty alllstar ensemble shifting between torch song, noir Americana and lavish, Gil Evans-like sweep throughout this withering suite, a parable of racial and gender relations in the age of Metoo.

Youssra El Hawary at Lincoln Center, 10/4/18
The Egyptian accordionist/singer and her fantastic band mashed up classic levantine sounds with retro French chanson and an omnipresent, politically fearless edge, no less defiant when she was singing about pissing on walls in the early, optimistic days of the Arab Spring.

The Ahmet Erdogdular Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 11/13/18
The brooding, charismatic Turkish crooner and his brilliant band – featuring Ara Dinkjian on oud, Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi and kanun player Didem Basar – played rapt, haunting anthems, ballads and improvisations spanning three hundred years’ worth of composers and influences.

Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah and many others at Symphony Space, 11/17/18
Giddens’ soaring wail, multi-instrumental chops and searingly relevant political focus was matched by powerful contralto singer, guitarist/banjoist and songwriter Kiah, who brought a similar, historically deep edge to a night of protest songs from across the ages.

Cécile McLorin Salvant Premieres Her Macabre, Majestically Relevant New Suite at the Met

“The man is lying!”

Cécile McLorin Salvant’s voice rose with an ineluctable, fearsome wail through that accusatory phrase as the orchestra behind her reached hurricane force. In the year of Metoo, fake news emanating daily via Twitter from the nation’s highest office, and Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers risking their lives to deny rape culture a seat on the nation’s highest court, Salvant could not have picked a more appropriate time to sing that.

The character she was voicing in that moment, the most fervent in a night full of metaphorically-charged, magic realist narrative, was a robin. It was warning the protagonist in Salvant’s new suite, Ogresse, to beware of a would-be suitor’s ulterior motives. It was possibly the highest peak that Salvant and the band reached in almost two hours of lush, sweeping big band jazz drawing on a hundred years’ worth of influences.

Yet the world premiere of the work, performed to a sold-out crowd last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, turned out to be just as firmly rooted in the here and now. Many of the suite’s themes mirrored Rachelle Garniez’s fabulist reinventions and Rose Thomas Bannister’s great plans gothic as much as they did Billy Strayhorn, or Cole Porter, or Ellington.

The book on Salvant is that she can personify just about any singer from jazz’s golden age. That may be true, but as much as the night’s more coy moments brought to mind Dinah Washington, along with Sarah Vaughan in the more somber ones and Ella Fitzgerald when the music swung hardest, Salvant was most shattering when she sang without the slightest adornment. Knowingly, she went to that calm purity at the night’s most telling junctures.

The suite began with a hypnotically atmospheric, practically Indian lustre and ended with a bittersweetly low-key glimmer. In between, In between, Salvant bolstered her chameleonic reputation with expertly nuanced, torchy ballads, stark delta blues, epic swing anthems and a couple of detours into French chanson and all sorts of blue-neon Lynchian luridness. Late in the score, the band finally alluded to the Twin Peaks theme for a couple of bars.

Darcy James Argue conducted and also arranged the suite. Having seen him many times in the former role over the last few years, he seemed to be having more fun than ever before – then again, he plays his cards close to the vest onstage. Whatever the case, Salvant’s songs have given him fertile territory for his signature, epic sweep and counterintuitive pairings between individual voices in the ensemble.

Helen Sung’s poignant, lyrical piano traded off with David Wong’s similarly inflected bass during a graveyard waltz. Tenor saxophonist Tom Christensen’s plaintive oboe, vibraphonist Warren Wolf’s sepulchrally sprinting marimba, and trombonist Josh Roseman’s surprisingly lilting tuba all rose to the surreal command demanded by Argue’s wicked chart. The solo that drew the most awestruck applause was from Alexa Tarantino’s soprano sax, a particularly poignant, emotionally raw salvo.

Brandon Seabrook began the show on Strat but quickly switched to banjo, which anchored the 19th century blues-inflected interludes. Yet he never picked with traditional three-finger technique, hammering on enigmatic open chords or aggressively tremolo-picking his phrases. Maybe that was Argue’s decision not to dive deep into the delta swamp.

Salvant’s lyricism is as deep and vast as her music. The suite’s plotline involves a rugged individualist who has her own grisly way of dealing with the menace of the townspeople outside – we learn toward the end that she’s no angel herself, either.

Father had flown away sometime ago
My face was all he left behind
But soon he left my mother’s mind
She remarried a shadow

That set the stage for the grim ramifications of that particular circumstance, which Salvant and the group slowly unveiled, up to a literal forest fire of a coda. The conclusion, which Salvant had been foreshadowing all along, drew a fervent “Yessssss!” from an alluring, petite brunette in glasses and a smart sweater seated to the author’s immediate right. The audience echoed that sentiment via three standing ovations, a triumph for a group that also included purposeful trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, percussionist Samuel Torres and the sweeping strings of the Mivos Quartet.

This could have been the best concert of the year – and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many more. Some of them are free with museum admission: you could see plaintive Armenian duduk music played by the duo of Gevorg Dabaghyan and Vache Sharafyan in Gallery 199 at 5:30 PM on Oct 26.

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

Majestic Menace and a Free Download From an Iconic Big Band

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society rank with the Maria Schneider Orchestra as this era’s greatest big bands, even if Argue’s eighteen-piece behemoth hasn’t been around as long as hers. While his recorded catalog is understandably smaller, he has more albums than you might be aware of, including a trio of live collections. OK, their 2011 release, Live at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is an ep – and you can download it for free at Bandcamp. Argue is bringing this mighty crew to the Jazz Standard on Aug 29, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is not cheap – $30 – but if there’s any band alive who’re worth it, it’s this one.

The ep has only three tracks, but they’re epic. Recorded on a brief East Coast tour, they constitute some of the most sinister material from the 2009 Infernal Machines album. The first number, Ferromagnetic is pure Lynchian menace, opening with a sinister Bernard Herrmann noir twinkle, then Sebastian Noelle’s guitar twangs and the reeds flutter. A mean guitar riff circles as the orchestra pulses and the skies redden, then everybody drops out for a suspenseful bass-and-synth interlude. Is that Ingrid Jensen on the solo trumpet, echoing and sputtering, before the guitar, low reeds and brass move in with a grim anthem?   

Right where Jon Wikan’s polyrhythmic intro to the album’s mightiest number, Phobos, is about to shift from suspense to “drum solo,” bassist Matt Clohesy steps in with his macabre, modal riffs, echoed by the guitar.The title refers to the Mars moon destined to someday either crash into the planet or shatter from the force of gravity as it falls, an angst underscored by John Ellis’ big tenor sax crescendo. A bit later Noelle reemerges to shadow its increasingly frantic Tourette’s, the rest of the group following an ineluctable course.

The final cut is Transit, another dark masterpiece with the same blueprint: whispery intro, ominously chromatic, mantra-like riffage and variations. Space: the final destination. Jensen’s roller-coaster of a trumpet solo has to be heard to be believed: people practice their whole lives and never play something so thrilling. Recommend this to your friends who might not know the band. It’s as close to a bite-size introduction as there is and a rare gem in the ever-more-imposing Argue catalog.