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Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Two Masters of Menacing Piano Jazz at the Peak of Their Powers

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque.  Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.

Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.

The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.

They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.

Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.

The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.

Another Majestic, Darkly Eclectic Album and a Joe’s Pub Show by Pianist Guy Mintus

Pianist Guy Mintus’ 2017 album A Home In Between ranked high on the list of that year’s best releases here. His latest one, Connecting the Dots, with his trio, bassist Dan Pappalardo and drummer Philippe Lemm, is streaming at Soundcloud. It’s every bit as eclectic, and even more epic and playful. His next gig is on Feb 28 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with haunting, rapturous Palestinian singer Mira Awad; cover is $25.

That show says a lot about where he’s coming from: he’s also transcribed a lot of classic Moroccan gnawa music for piano. The new album’s first track is Koan, which in many ways is Mintus’ resume. It’s a clever, shapeshifting number that begins as a cinematic title theme of sorts, then shifts back and forth between a gospel/blues waltz and neoromantic grandeur punctuated by ominous, carnivalesque syncopation.

Although Little Italy also gets a bass-and-drums intro that offers even more of a hint of suspense, Mintus digs into this genial nocturne with jaunty flourishes offset with more of the glittering gravitas that’s become his signature sound – and finally as much of a pianistic explosion as anybody’s recorded in the last several years. Mintus must have had an especially epic San Genarro festival experience at some point.

Pappalardo and Mintus joust amiably as the distantly Indian-flavored Samarkand gets underway, then suddenly they’re in waltzing neoromantic territory again. For awhile, it’s more spare and kinetic than most of the other tracks…but then Mintus brings in the storm.

The lone number from the standard jazz repertoire here, Horace Silver’s Yeah has strong echoes of Monk as well as Frank Carlberg in particular phantasmagorical mode. Hunt Music, a setting of a Rumi text as a brief, nocturnal tone poem, features guest vocals from chanteuse Sivan Arbel. The trio dance through the folksy intro to Dalb, Pappalardo adding a sott-voce solo: it’s the album’s most lighthearted number.

The elegantly incisive Asfour brings to mind the groundbreaking work of Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani: this dusky gem is over too soon. Nothing New Under the Sun, a deviously Monkish blues, has a subtly altered swing. Mintus closes the album with two tunes drawing on his Israeli heritage. The first, Avenu Malkelnu is a tone poem with a muted, somber opening centered around guest Dave Liebman’s brooding alto sax solo; then Mintus builds a thorny thicket around it, his crushing lefthand attack driving it home. Mintus sing the second, Haperach Begani, a catchy, anthemic, chromatically edgy bounce from the catalog of the late Israeli Yemenite singer, Zohar Argov.

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

Sean Noonan Brings His Twisted Phantasmagoria to Joe’s Pub

Drummer-composers seldom write as intricate, elaborate, or haunting music as Sean Noonan does. The powerhouse drummer draws equally on Bartok, early Can, jazz, Balkan and avant garde theatre music. Thematically, he’s drawn to mythology and in particular the archetypal imagery of his Celtic heritage. His latest album, Memorable Sticks – streaming at Bandcamp – is a twisted, phantasmagorical trio suite with Alex Marcelo on piano and Peter Bitenc on bass, the composer himself often adding surrealistic spoken-word or sung interludes. The storyline involves a treasure buried deep in an Eastern European salt mine, a magic wand channeled by the drummer’s sticks, and a seemingly happy ending brought about by an African teleportation rescue mission. He and the band are playing the album release show tomorrow night, July 20 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15.

The opening track, Miala Baba stalks along with carnivalesque variations on an emphatic chromatic riff, then goes out into the stratosphere, Noonan’s breathless spoken-word interlude adding surreal menace. It wouldn’t be out of place on pianist Frank Carlberg’s marvelously creepy Tivoli Trio album. The second number, Hidden Treasures, works off an uneasily coy, Errol Garner-like riff into chugging postbop, then clenched-teeth circularity, up to a macabre, drum-fueled peak.

The title track edges toward a Monk-like stroll out of horror-film music-box harmonies, awash in Noonan’s coloristic cymbals and jagged bass drum attack, shifting in and our of focus, up to a funhour-mirror playground jump-rope theme of sorts. With its carefully waltzing groove, White Lady Bieliczka is more delicate, a blend of elegant bluesy phrasing and otherworldly chromatic vamps, Tolkien’s Galadriel in Jason’s hockey mask. The trio pick up the pace with the briskly shuffling Zabka, Bitenc adding the occasional blackly amusing phrase as the piano circles and stabs in an elegant duel with the drums – with a brooding art-rock interlude straight out of Procol Harum.

Marcelo switches to Rhodes electric piano for Nangadef, a detour into psychedelic soul, like Roy Ayers at his most darkly cinematic.“No reverb to that nation,” Noonan intones drolly at one point. “How are you? I’m partially free.” They wind up the suite with Shaka, winding in and out of altered latin funk. What’s most impressive, and enjoyable about this album is that as far outside as some of the trio’s improvisations go, nobody in the band overplays. The commitment to overall ambience, and mystery, and dark intensity is unwavering. Has there been an album so nonchalantly creepy released this year? That would be hard to imagine.

Noir Big Band Music from Clazz Ensemble and Frank Carlberg

Nobody writes more viscerally creepy, carnivalesque music than jazz pianist Frank Carlberg. Dutch new music group Clazz Ensemble has a new live album with Carlberg just out, titled Federico on Broadway. It’s more Lynchian than Felliniesque, and features Carlberg conducting the 12-piece band as well as leading them from the piano on the album’s final three tracks. This isn’t quite as phantasmagorically chilling as his 2010 Tivoli Trio album, but it’s close.

One of the main themes here is a Simpsons-style carnivalesque motif: if this was a Simpsons episode, it would be the one where the tsunami comes upriver and knocks out Homer’s nuke plant while everybody’s at the circus. Individual voices in the band converse in an wryly animated “what are we doing here?” vein as the group shifts from one surreal, often disquieting interlude to another. Variations on an eerie march appear in several places, strange music box themes take centerstage and then disappear, most vividly on a surreal marionette dance titled Tricks. They evoke a frenetic, urban Mingus bustle on the aptly titled Rat Race and maintain the out-of-breath tension with The Chase, Carlberg’s glittering cascades setting up alto saxophonist Paul van der Feen’s almost crushingly morose lines.

As dark as this music is, it’s not without its amusing moments: the moment where bandleader/tenor saxophonist Dick de Graaf tells trumpeter Gerard Kleijn to shut up midway through the shapeshifting title track is priceless. The twisted circus theme also serves as a launching pad for several deadpan cameos by individual members. As modern big band jazz, it’s artfully arranged and played with a smart balance of classical precision and unhinged ferocity from saxophonists Arno Bornkamp and Nils van Haften, trumpeters Frank Anepool and Charlie Biggs, trombonist Vincent Veneman and Koen Kaptijn, pianist Kris Goessens, bassist Guus Bakker and drummer Joost Kesselaar. As vivid, cinematic music, it packs a wallop, just as you would expect from this composer with a band this size.