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Tag: doug wieselman

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman Releases His Broodingly Hypnotic New Album at the Owl This Thursday 

Multi-reedman Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S has been around for almost as long as his legendary, phantasmagorically cinematic circus band Kamikaze Ground Crew (who played a mesmerizing reunion show at Roulette last fall). He started Trio S as a vehicle for his small-scale compositions, which these days involve a lot of hypnotic loopmusic and water melodies. Georg Friedrich Handel, you’re being schooled!

Wieselman, drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni are playing the album release for their new one, Somewhere Glimmer – streaming at Bandcamp – at the Owl at around 8 on Nov 9; suggested donation is $10. It’s music to get completely lost in, artful variations on very simple, catchy themes, like a less stylized Angelo Badalamenti.

The bandleader’s distantly Balkan-tinged, moodily resonant clarinet loops mingle over Wollesen’s wind chimes and Scarpantoni’s alternately stern and whispery washes in Sesto, the opening track. Wollesen’s gongs and toms then triangulate a series of angst-fueled crescendos.

Dissociative polyrhythms and echo effects slowly coalesce as New River, a tone poem of sorts, finally begins to ripple along: you could call it organic motorik music. Wieselman switches to banjo, anchoring Scarpantoni’s moody melody in That Way, a gorgeously melancholy, Britfolk-tinged waltz

Piper Hill is uneasily airy, its long-tone exchanges fading in and out over a similarly folk-tinged clarinet loop. A Scarpantoni drone and flickers from Wollesen underpin Wieselman’s moody Balkan melismas in Dreambox, which builds to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – it’s the album’s high point. Wollesen’s deep-forest brook sonics open the somber Metal in Wood, which morphs into a 19th century-style chain gang theme.

Hallucination of a Storm juxtaposes ominous low-register washes with Wieselman’s blithe bluegrass mandolin. The album winds up with Birdbath, a wryly bittersweet tableau. Call this jazz, or film music, or whatever you want, it’s one of the most darkly unexpected treats of 2017.

Kamikaze Ground Crew Revisit Their Playfully Carnivalesque, Distinctively Erudite Downtown Sound at Roulette

Kamikaze Ground Crew played a somewhat under-the-radar but nonetheless historic reunion show at Roulette last week. Those in attendance might not have completely packed Barbes, where co-founder Gina Leishman played most recently, but they would have sold out the Stone and would have thrilled the tourists at Jazz at Lincoln Center, whether or not that crowd would have recognized them. And many of them would have. This downtown supergroup dates back to the early 80s, when they were a real circus band. There’s been some turnover in the lineup over the years: this was the 90s edition, Leishman more or less out in front and joined by Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax, Doug Wieselman on multi-reeds, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Art Baron on trombone and Kenny Wollesen on drums and gongs Together they delivered a cinematic program that shifted elegantly from amusement to suspense, making tango out of Stravinsky, a wary stroll out of Stockhausen, kaleidescopically disasssembling noir cabaret and taking several detours in a sideshow direction.v

The funniest part of the evening, and the one that harked back most vividly to the band’s punk-jazz roots, was when everybody put down his or her horn and picked up a beer bottle. Bernstein had meticulously adjusted the level in each of them to deliver a specific pitch. Then the whole group blew a surprisingly tight horn chart on their bottles. All that extra beer didn’t seem to affect the trumpeter – although Leishman grinningly recounted how the whole band had to do a lot of drinking in rehearsal to get the part right.

She opened on piano, leading the band through a moody, carefully orchestrated, slowly pulsing new number, switching to alto sax and then back to piano. By the time the show finally wrapped up, almost two hours later, she’d also played baritone sax, ukulele and accordion. Apfelbaum provided judicious resonance and one of the night’s most mysterioualy captivating moments, a long, almost imperceptibly crescendoing solo while Wieselman spiraled artfully through the mix, Wollesen coloring the songs with his rims and hardware and finally the deep-space boom of the gongs. The brass alternated between looming, portentous swells and unleashed exuberance, Rojas opening one number with a solo that veered from comedic to a completely unexpected, frantic chase riff.

They made an early Ellingtonian strut out of Robert Johnson’s Rolling and Tumbling, coalescing slowly out of a flutter of individual voices. A new diptych by Wieselman began as variations on a deceptively simple circular phrase and finally rose out of its slow, whirlpooling chart to more animated terrain. The night’s most overtly noir moments came during a Piazzolla number that shifted back and forth between bustling 50s noir jazz, dixieland flair and a murky interlude midway through. A couple of slow, altered swing numbers souned like the long buildups to the circus acts they probably were written for. And Leishman entreated the audience to listen closely to the Bach-like beauty in a Brecht-Weill number that she’d sliced and diced to bring out every bit of longing its central, canon-like melody before pulling it all together and singing the wistful song pretty much straight up.

Bernstein and Baron got to cut loose the most on a trio of boisterous New Orleans shuffles in the same vein as the former’s recent work with his band the Hot 9, with pianist Henry Butler. Since each band member is involved in so many other projects, there’s no telling if and when this group will reconvene. If there was any band who were before their time, this is them.

Beyond the indie classical and the avant garde stuff that Roulette programs – Glenn Branca is bringing his guitar orchestra here on Oct 8, which should raise the roof – the venue books a lot of jazz as well, no surprise since the space’s original Tribeca incarnation was a jazz loft. On Oct 16, veteran alto saxophonist Oliver Lake begins a contrasting two-night stand. The first night, trumpeter Josh Evans’ Quintet opens for Lake’s Big Band. The second night, Oct 18 pairs two especially interesting postbop trios: trombonist/crooner Frank Lacy with a rhythm section of Kevin Ray and Andrew Drury followed by Lake with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Showtime is 8 PM; $20 adv tix are highly rcommended.

A Rare, Can’t-Miss Reuinon of Phantasmagorical 80s Legends Kamikaze Ground Crew This Thursday at Roulette

This coming Thursday, Sept 29 at 8 PM there’s a rare reunion of legendary, carnivalesque 80s band Kamikaze Ground Crew at Roulette. Advance tix are $20 and worth it. Before World Inferno, or for that matter, Beat Circus were even conceived, there was this band. Kamikaze Ground Crew were just as phantasmagorical – because they were a real circus band. Fans of the dark and surreal would be crazy to miss this early kickoff to Halloween month.

Since the horn-driven supergroup – whose members over the years included saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Kenny Wollesen, among others – disbanded, co-founder Gina Leishman has pursued a similarly eclectic solo career, spanning from elegant, Britfolk-inflected chamber pop, to more theatrical material. The highlight of her most recent show at Barbes was a long, understatedly chilling, dystopic “bardic ballad,” as she put it, in the same vein as Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, going on for more than ten verses. She played that one on piano, as she did on about half the set, switching to mandola on the rest of the songs, much of the material from a forthcoming album.

Austere strings from violinist Dana Lyn and cellist Hank Roberts lowlit a brooding, rainy-day art-song, Leishman’s calm, steady, nuanced vocals channeling wistful melancholy and saturnine angst. Multi-reedman Doug Wieselman (another Kamikaze alum) added sepulchral sax atmospherics, fluttering over Leishman’s piano as a rather coy, trickly rhythmic number built momentum, like a jazzier Robin Aigner (whose most recent couple of Barbes shows have also been pretty rapturous).

Then Leishman went into sunnier territory with a lush, balmy baroque-pop waltz, stately cello contrasting with soaring, spiraling clarinet. The lilting chamber-folk number after that blended catchy Sandy Denny purism with Chelsea Girl instrumentation, followed by a bossa-inflected tune. Leishman’s solo material is a lot quieter than Kamikaze Ground Crew typically was, so you can expect her and the rest of the crew to pick up the pace for what should be a killer night Thursday at Roulette.

 

Villa Delirium Play Creepy Music on a Creepy Night

Villa Delirium hit the stage with a little Appalachian gothic and a lot of noir cabaret early on Valentine’s evening. It was an aptly creepy show on a day that always threatens to get creepy the later you stay out, if you end up secondguessing your better judgment. Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday this year was probably a plus. And the show was at Barbes, as good a choice as any when it comes to getting away from creeps in Brooklyn these days.

Villa Delirium don’t play live very much, maybe because bandleader/multi-instrumentalist John Kruth is busy with kitchen-sink Middle Eastern/Central Asian jamband Tribecastan. Or because he’s also a writer: his next project chronicles the recording of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. So this was a rare opportunity to catch the group’s sardonically sinister sound. Singing saw player Tine Kindermann channeled shivery, sepulchraly keeningl textures and sang with a nonchalantly crystalline intensity.

One of her most interesting numbers was Marie, a dramatically waltzing cabaret number chronicling the colorful, globe-trotting life of Mme. Marie Tussaud, whose adventures ran far afield of the wax kind. A grisly tribute to the original Paris Grand Guignol (which Kindermann mispronounced) was even more dramatic. She teamed with Kruth for a Berthold Brecht uumber set to the tune of old English ballad. Later they did a song based on the first half of a Grimms’ fairy tale – “Class warfare between the sexes,” as Kruth put it, in this case a woodsman who draws the line when the mistress of the house demands special favors.

Percussionist Steve Bear – whose kit was built from pots and pans – got up and sang a sarcastic faux doo-wop number based on the Sisyphus myth. Asked by someone in the crowd if it would be a happy song, the drummer replied, “This song’s about life in hell.” Nobody questioned if The Simpsons’ mainman Matt Groening was an inspiration. Bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman played slinky basslines for the most part while keyboardist Kenny Margolis switched with split-second precision between accordion, luridly tremoloing funeral organ and piano. Meanwhile, Kruth alternahed between banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar.

The funniest song of the night was an older one he’d written about Donald Trump, reminding that the old blowhard hasn’t changed much since his developer dad hooked him up with tax breaks for his architectural ego-stroking. Another funny one was Kindermanns’s Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get, a Russian folksong parody with plenty of political resonance. Eventually, they went completely over the top with a boisterous barrelhouse piano number, Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse. Villa Delirium don’t seem to have any upcoming gigs at the moment; when they play, they’re usually either here or at Joe’s Pub.

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”

Another Brilliant, Disconcerting Album from Lee Feldman

Now that the world has made its way out of post-Saturnalia mode, this is as good a time as any to catch up on some of the albums that should have been covered here last year but weren’t. Case in point: Lee Feldman’s absolutely brilliant, chilling Album No. 4: Trying To Put The Things Together That Never Been Together Before. Feldman is a terrifically eclectic pianist, equally at home with Bach or jazz as with the elegant art-rock songs he’s been writing since the 90s. His animated musical Starboy is a classic, a charmingly witty piece of vintage 80s style performance art. His late-2011 collaboration with cellist Noah Hoffeld, Sacred Time, was a richly tuneful detour into traditional Jewish instrumental themes that the duo transformed into what could be termed indie classical music (or something that John Zorn would put out on Tzadik). This is a return to original songcraft, and it stands with the best Feldman has ever done, which is saying a lot. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page along with several of his other albums, going all the way back to 1996’s Living It All Wrong.

This one’s a continuation of the themes Feldman explored on his 2007 album I’ve Forgotten Everything, an understatedly haunting portrait of alienation and disorientation brought on perhaps by age, perhaps by other factors, possibly in combination. Here as well as there, Feldman writes in the voice of a naif, echoed in his clear, bright, deceptively simple vocals and melodic hooks. Where I’ve Forgotten Everything mined an austere art-rock vibe, this one’s a much more ornate, stylistically diverse chamber-pop effort with terse horn charts and a string section.

The album peaks immediately with a surreal, Middle Eastern tinged art-rock waltz spiced with Carol Lipnik’s creepy, swooping vocals. Whoooah, this ride is going way too fast, gotta stop the machine and get off! The abruptness with which the narrator puts an end to some pretty spectacular fireworks is telling, and sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is not a happy one, and in a Faulknerian sense, this tale told by an idiot capsulizes our own present danger.

The second track is a red herring and a throwaway. Feldman picks up where he left off with That’s The Way the World Used to Work, an allusive ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny theme set to lush, woodwind-enhanced chamber pop. River, a latin-tinged bounce, downplays the lyrics’ loaded symbolism. The hippie eco-pop of Trees Are People Too could be a children’s song, a vibe that flips 180 degrees on The Magician, a wistful ballad: Pete Galub’s distantly majestic lead guitar lowlights the mantra “I’m an outsider.”

I Remember The Night captures a family meeting at a particularly serious moment, in the Twilight Zone. An elegant piano waltz, Do You Want to Dance mingles gospel piano with a lyric that descends from carefree to absolutely miserable in seconds flat. The most psychedelic of all the tracks is the ninth one (the title is absurdly long, for a reason), a blend of trip-hop, Terry Riley and Beat Crazy-era Joe Jackson that seems to chronicle fragments from what’s essentially been a wasted life.

On the lullaby that follows, the narrator explains to the infant that “when you are ready to run, it’s me you’ll be running from.” The album’s creepiest track is Empty Room, the drums (guessing that’s the Universal Thump’s Adam D Gold behind the kit) shifting around its echoey, arrythmic ambience, a portrait of isolation and defeat.  In typical Feldman fashion, that reaches a peak with the blithe madness of Hamfest: over a casually comfortable Rhodes piano groove, the narrator (lapsing in and out of outer-borough accent) announces how “I play the trumpet just like Emperor Hirohito/I try to play the books I read but I never play repeato.” The Party’s Over has the same kind of disconcerting, disassociative blitheness: “The ship is sinking and the fish are friendly, and I’ve been thinking that I don’t like fish,” the protagonist reflects. The album ends with Thanks and its characteristically simple yet crushing sadness. In just a few words and a few major chords, Feldman delivers a wallop. The star-studded band behind Feldman, besides Lipnik, Galub and Gold, includes Hoffeld on cello, Nadia Sirota on viola, Doug Wieselman on reeds, keyboardists Greta Gertler, Dan Bryk and Glenn Patscha, trombonist Clark Gayton, bassist Byron Isaacs and singer Amy Allison among others.

Lianne Smith’s Two Sides of a River – A Classic

Lianne Smith is an individualist. She does things her way – even if it means taking ten years or more to put out an album. Long considered to be one of New York’s most important songwriters, she personifies the definition of cult artist. She’ll play the occasional Bowery Ballroom gig and owns a rabid fan base who’ve followed her since her days as the Brooklyn dark Americana rock girl “most likely to get signed” in the late 90s. But that coincided with the sea change where the big record labels started to drop off the map – and the fact that Smith never courted fame in the first place. Since then, she’s teased her fan base with home recordings on the web; one suspects that there are many prized live shows of hers kicking around as well. That it would take her this long to make her debut album, Two Sides of a River, turns out to be worth it: it’s the best rock record of 2012 so far by a country mile.

Check her Bandcamp site – where the whole thing is streaming – and among the tags is “folk noir,” an apt way to describe her more low-key stuff. And while most artists find themselves at a loss for words to describe what they do, Smith pretty much nails what she’s about: “I write songs about standing in the middle of the road and wondering which way to go, about how others cheat us and how we cheat ourselves, about free-wheeling, bicycle riding, look-ma-no-hands exhilarations, and how it feels to say goodbye to summer.” The album is a mix of the expected – allusive, enigmatic, captivating folk-rock and some psychedelia – along with several lush, towering art-rock anthems, a style that turns out to suit her better than anyone would have thought. Good songwriters never have to look far for good musicians to play their songs, and Smith is no exception: the band here includes Paul Simon sideman Larry Saltzman and Tony Scherr on guitars and bass, Flutterbox’s Neill C. Furio also on bass, Anton Fier (who also produced) on drums, Doug Wieselman on saxophones, and Joe McGinty on keys on a couple of tracks, with lush, sometimes stormy string arrangements by Irwin Fisch.

Smith also happens to be one of this era’s great singers, somebody who deserves to be mentioned alongside people like Laura Cantrell and Neko Case (and Mary Lee Kortes, with whom she’s collaborated). Surprisingly, she doesn’t show off her upper register here, instead lingering on the lyrics with a nuanced phrasing that’s sometimes wry, sometimes sultry and often viscerally chilling. The first track here is The Magpie Hunter, a bitter, subdued, symbolically-loaded dark folk lament with an anthemic “one for the this, two for the that” chorus. That one sets the stage for the other quiet tracks, like the concluding cut, Snow, a pensive waltz told from the point of view of a girl lost in a storm (Smith hails from Minnesota originally – she knows her subject matter well). And as much detail as there is in Smith’s songs, what isn’t said carries just as much weight, epitomized in The Ballad of Sad Endings. That one has prosaic origins, simply a capsulization of the plotlines from a couple of books Smith was reading in the early zeros, which she turned into a Great Plains gothic epic. When she pulls up the phrase “madness descends,” the effect is as poignant as it is lurid – the strings adding a grand guignol horror as the song reaches a peak.

The real stunner here is Hit and Run. In the past, Smith has done it as retro 80s (think Wire or Joy Division): here it’s a massive art-rock anthem, a gruesome eyewitness account (and account of eyewitnesses) of a deadly crash. Over the layers of guitar and the soaring bassline, Smith coldbloodedly addresses the driver who left a victim twisted by the side of the road and might have made that move too soon.

But not everything here is quite that dark. The mysterious dreampop rock anthem Marianne Was Tired reminds of the Church, with a big, soaring guitar solo from Scherr and just a hint of an ominous ending, while The Thief, a backbeat country song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cantrell playbook, winds up its aphoristic cautionary tale with an irresistible singalong “I found out, yeah, I found out too late” chorus. The seductive, psychedelic Sugar and the blithely charming Bicycle have been concert favorites for years. There’s also the joyously expectant powerpop anthem Saturday (8 Million Reasons), lit up by C.J. Camerieri’s ecstatic trumpet, and the tensely artsy, ambiguous pop song Old Times Sake. One of the most stylistically diverse rock albums of recent years, it’s also one of the best – and tops the list this year so far.

32 Concerts in 32 Days: Day 21

It’s funny how the corporate media typically praises violinists for their “clear, pure tone,” or words to that effect. But consider: if you play the violin and you can’t hold a note for at least a few seconds, maybe you should switch to sax or drums. Last night at Barbes Jenny Scheinman played with a lovely tone, and one that sometimes wasn’t so lovely, depending on the emotion she wanted to evoke. She’s sort of the Chet Atkins of the violin, completely at home both in country music and jazz. She also plays klezmer and indie classical and bluegrass, and elements of those styles and others also poked their heads out throughout her characteristically imaginative, eclectic set of originals and a cover or two.

She started out solo. The audience kept the tempo, stomping their feet through one hypnotic but bracing one-chord romp, sounding like a traditional piece from right where Irish reels were morphing into Appalachian music. Was it a classic, an original or was she just jamming? Either way, it was a lot of fun, as were a couple of more pensive, rustic solo country pieces. Joined by an excellent, versatile guitarist along with Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet (who also played guitar later), she then swung through a Django Reinhardt tune, Wieselman adding his signature wit and giving it a bouncy bossa pulse. The guitarist kicked off the next tune with a spaciously reverberating, David Lynch-style noir intro straight out of the Bill Frisell songbook (Frisell being a frequent Scheinman collaborator, it could well have been a Frisell composition). Scheinman’s originals ranged from a song that actually managed to make compelling music out of a generic two-chord indie rock vamp, a couple of hypnotic yet bracing, springlike numbers that were equal parts North Carolina woods and Harlem, and a deliciously unpredictable piece whose fast, shifting chords echoed the Arthur Lee classic 7 and 7 Is.

Just getting into the back room to see her was something of an accomplishment. Scheinman typically sells out much larger venues, including the Village Vanguard, where she’ll be for a week starting December 6 with Frisell and Brian Blade, so if you want to see her here, you need to show up early.