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A Feast of Catchy Tunesmithing, Big Ideas and Picturesque Themes on Annie Chen’s New Album

Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.

Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.

It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.

Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.

Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.

The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.

The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.

Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.

Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.

Guitarist Chris Jentsch Air Out His Latest Vivid, Cinematic, Politically Relevant Suite

Where so many jazz musicians write riffs and then jam them out, guitarist Chris Jentsch writes lavish suites – which he then plays with remarkable terseness and attention to detail. His narratives are vivid and often very funny. His latest, Topics in American History, couldn’t be more relevant. Leading his sardonically titled No Net in what was the final live performance of those songs last week at Greenwich House Music School, Jentsch played with his usual purposefulness. restraint and sense of the musical mot juste, joined by an all-star cast including Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet, David Smith on trumpet, Brian Drye on trombone, Michel Gentle on flutes, Jacob Sacks on piano, Jim Whitney on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums.

Last-minute substitution Jon Irabagon did a heroic job reading his parts, as Jentsch acknowledged, adding both volleys of postbop purism on tenor sax along with wry, microtonally-tinged humor that dovetailed with the bandleader’s own sensibility.

The centerpiece of the show was Dominos, a forebodingly expanding tableau that brought to mind Darcy James Argue in particularly sinister mode. A sotto-voce, latin-tinged, quasi-Lynchian spy theme that explores Cold War-era paranoia, its high point was a distantly grim, hazily sunbaked Jentsch solo midway through.

The evening’s coda, Meeting at Surratt’s, was arguably even better. The band built hushedly marching, conspiratorial ambience around a wistfully folksy Ashokan Farewell-ish theme to commemorate Mary Surratt, the first woman in US history executed for a Federal crime. The proprietor of the Washington, DC boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators hatched the plot for the Lincoln assassination, she may well have been innocent. Ineluctably and somberly, the band made their way through its mighty, cinematic sweep, from southern gothic to Morricone-esque insistence, down to a single macabre swoop from Jentsch’s guitar, a body falling from the gallows.

The rest of the set was just as diverse and no less gripping. Tempest-Tost, inspired by an inscription on the Statue of Liberty, followed the steady if turbulent path of Ellis Island immigrants, Jentsch’s low, looming solo front and center. Smith and Drye’s irresistibly cartoonish dueling personalities brought jaunty banter to the New Orleans-tinged Lincoln-Douglass Debates. The uneasily expanding vistas of Manifest Destiny – with incisive solos from Whitney, McGinnis and Irabagon, the latter on soprano – grew more satirical in Suburban Diaspora, its vintage soul roots subsumed by blustery faux-optimism. And the night’s opening number, 1491, bookended a jaunty tropical-tinged shuffle with wryly jungly atmospherics – clearly, the continent was in a lot better shape that year than the next, when the slaver Columbus arrived.

Annie Chen Brings Her Fearlessly Eclectic, Soulful, Smart New Jazz Compositions to Midtown

Annie Chen sings with a resolute, purposeful alto voice, often with a sense of suspense. But her greatest strength right now, as she becomes more comfortable with her adopted English language, is as a composer. Singer/composers in jazz are rare; those as ambitious, and fearless, and have as much of a gift for melody as Chen are rarer still. She has no issues with leapfrogging from one influence to another, whether that’s vintage soul, the folk and classical music of her native China, purposeful American postbop or more epic larger-ensemble sounds with intricate and unpredictable charts. There’s a sense of the surreal, even a dream state, that permeates much of what she writes, and it draws the listener in. She’s got an auspicious gig coming up on July 10 at 7 PM at Club Bonafide, leading a septet with Glenn Zaleski on piano, Alex Lore on saxophone and flute, David Smith on trumpet, Marius Duboule on guitar, Desmond White on bass and Jerad Lippi on drums, with special guest violinist Tomoko Omura, who’s collaborated vividly with Chen in the past. Cover is $10.

In the time since Chen’s 2014 sextet album Pisces the Dreamer, she’s grown considerably as both as a singer and as a writer. While it’s worth a spin if imaginative postbop arrangements and tunesemithing are concerned, Chen’s most intriguing material right now is recent, and it’s up at her audio and video pages. Check out her septet gig at Flushing Town Hall earlier this year. There’s Orange Tears Lullaby, with its suspenseful pizzicato violin intro into to a lush, vampy verse and eventually a balmy, crescendoing coda over a determined triplet groove. Mr. Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning mashes up an Asian folk-tinged theme over a balletesque pulse as Chen scats the blues, alto saxophonis Alex LoRe spiraling optimistically over Jarrett Cherner’s incisive, low-key piano.

Leaving Sonnet is more enigmatic, moody and introspective but with a solid groove as well, trumpeter David Smith slowly and methodically following Chen’s countours as the theme grows more energetic and optimistic, a door closing while another one opens. She also covers Nirvana and a Mongolian folk tune that she turns into a bittersweet tone poem.

And if you have the time, contrast the gritty 2014 Shapeshifter Lab take of another, older original, the latin soul-inspired Things I Know with the much more confident and dynamic version she and the group delivered onstage in Queens earlier this year. Since her arrival from Beijing, Chen has really grabbed the tiger by the tail and hasn’t looked back. Let’s hope she sticks around.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Bring Their Intense, Politically Relevant, Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz to BAM This Week

Starting tonight, November 18 and continuing through November 22 at 7:30 PM, New York’s arguably most intense, poliitically relevant, cutting-edge large jazz ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays a stand they’ve earned many times over, at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. $25 seats are still available as of today. To credit composer/conductor Argue’s long-running vehicle – who made their debut in the basement of CB’s Gallery just over ten years ago – for maintaining an unflinching, uncompromisingly populist worldview is in no way intended as a dis to another mighty big band, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, whose latest album The Offense of the Drum confronts some of the most troubling issues facing urban areas, and this city in particular. But where O’Farrill’s music finds guarded optimism in a celebration of indomitable creativity among even the most impoverished, Argue’s Secret Society’s most recent album, Brooklyn Babylon, reaches much darker conclusions. At the band’s most recent New York concert, a ten-year anniversary bash at the Bell House, Argue spoke derisively of “the destruction of Brooklyn” when introducing songs from that wildly ambitious, tightly wound and often utterly chilling suite, a coldly sober narrative of gentrification and its discontents, seen through the eyes of a construction worker who ends up watching in horror as one grandiose project after another takes its grim toll.

Argue’s latest suite, Real Enemies – which the band is going to air out at BAM – is even more ambitious. Its central theme is conspiracy theories. At the Bell House, Argue explained with just the hint of a grin that “You have to choose which ones to believe.” And then offered a tantalizing preview with two new pieces, both with an epic, cinematically noir sweep, the first evocative of early 70s Morricone scores, with a relentless, driving clave rhythm and wide-eyed, terrorized brass crescendos, The second was more muted and brooding but also featuring a lot of moody latin riffage from drummer Jon Wikan.

A triptych of songs – and these pieces are songs in the most genuine sense of the word – from Brooklyn Babylon were just as gripping. The insistent, increasingly agitated staccato and tricky syncopation of Construction-Destruction and eventually the morose, defeated seaside tableau Coney Island were the centerpieces of the show, amidst some older material which, if probably inadvertently, made for a good career retrospective. Lower-register instruments, especially, were given prominent features in the hands of baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trombonists Mike Fahie and Ryan Keberle, everyone in the 24-piece ensemble firing on an extra cylinder, it seemed, through the epic outer-space flight of Moon of Mars, the stormy wave motion of a portrait of an island off the Canadian coast – a ruggedly crescendoing number that’s sort of Argue’s Hebrides Overture – as well as some unexpectedly straight-up oldschool swing.

Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis did double duty, adding her concisely soaring sonics to this group as well as opening the show with her innovative and richly melodic quintet featuring Sara Caswell on violin, Vitor Goncalves on piano and accordion, Matt Clohesy on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. It’s easy to see how Argue and Noordhuis would be drawn to each others’ music: both favor long upward trajectories, proportions that edge toward the titanic and intricate permutations on simple, repeating themes. Her group opened with a slowly crescendoing, rather epic trans-oceanic Australia-to-New York travelogue, then brought things down with a plaintive trio eletgy dedicated to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, moving through enigmatic nuevo tango and back up again into blazingly triumphant, anthemic territory.

State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz and a Shapeshifter Show by John Yao & His 17-Piece Instrument

John Yao is one of New York’s elite trombonists, and a frequent performer with both Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.Yao is also a first-class, ambitious and witty composer and leader of his own all-star large ensemble, John Yao and His 17-Piece Instrument. They have a new album, Flip-Flop, and a release show at 7 PM on June 17 at Brooklyn’s home for big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab, with sets at 7 and 8:15 PM and an enticingly low $10 cover.

As you might imagine from a trombonist, the album is a big, bright, brassy extravaganza. But it’s also full of unexpected dynamics, dips and rises, imaginative voicings and occasional sardonic humor. The title track bookends punchy brass exchanges around a couple of long sax-and-rhythm-section vectors upward, John O’Gallagher on alto and Rich Perry on tenor, the two engaging in a genial conversation midway through. New Guy is Yao at his sardonic best: a moody, syncopated vamp with fluttery brass gives way to punchy swing with cleverly echoing voices, Andy Gravish’s stairstepping trumpet leading into to more serioso trombone from Yao and then a pugilistic exchange that builds to a hopeful crescendo and then a memorable punchline.

Slow Children at Play follows a bright, balmy clave stroll, echoing Yao’s work with the O’Farrill band, with a warmly considered Rich Perry tenor sax solo that builds to a lively exchange with the brass, followed by a summery trombone-and-rhythm-section interlude. It’s very New York. For that matter, the same could be said for the two “soundscapes” here, group improvisation in a Butch Morris vein, the first a luminously suspenseful intro of sorts with shivery violin at its center, the second with a similarly apprehensive, cinematic sweep.

With a blazing brass kickoff, impressively terse yet punchy David Smith trumpet solo and bustling Jon Irabagon tenor sax solo, the gritty swing tune Hellgate is the most trad and also the catchiest number here. Opening with Yao’s own moody trombone, Reflection shifts toward noir, its resonant, shifting sheets building a tensely expectant ambience with a lull for pianist Jesse Stacken’s brooding excursion and then a rewardingly brass-fueled crescendo. Yao’s sense of humor and aptitude for relating a good yarn take centerstage on Ode to the Last Twinkie, its playful echo effects and Jon Irabagon’s droll, eye-rolling tenor sax offering a nod to Arnold Schoenberg.

Illumination also features those echoes that Yao likes so much, a much more serious piece with Alejandro Aviles’ spiraling flute and Frank Basile’s energetic baritone sax over a tensely hypnotic piano riff, the brass falling into place with a mighty domino effect, Stacken adding a cascading, neoromantically-tinged break. The album winds up with the hard-swinging Out of Socket. Taken as a whole, it’s a tight, adrenalizing performance by a collection of first-call NYC jazz talent that also includes trumpeters John Walsh and Jason Wiseman; Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald, Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton on trombones; Robert Sabin on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. As the album’s just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but Yao has lots of good stuff on his music page including several of these tracks.