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Tag: guitar jazz

Guitarist Kurt Leege Reinvents Jazz Classics As Envelopingly Ambient, Richly Psychedelic Soundscapes

There’s considerable irony in that Kurt Leege, one of the most interesting guitarists in all of ambient music, first made his mark as a feral lead player, beginning with Curdlefur, then Noxes Pond and finally System Noise, New York’s best art-rock band of the zeros. Leege’s new album Sleepytime Jazz – streaming at Bandcamp – is his second solo release, a similarly celestial follow-up to his 2018 record Sleepytime Guitar, where he reinvented old folk tunes and spirituals as lullabies.

This one is calm, elegant, drifty music with a subtle, soulful edge, a mix of jazz classics from John Coltrane, to Miles Davis, to Herbie Hancock and Louis Armstrong. Leege layers these tracks meticulously, typically using his ebow to build a deep-space wash and then adding terse, thoughtful, often strikingly dynamic multitracks overhead. This may be on the quiet side, but it’s also incredibly psychedelic. Play it at low volume if you feel like drifting off; crank it and discover the beast lurking deep within.

Blue in Green has spiky, starry chords and resonant David Gilmour-like phrases fading deep into spacious, hypnotically echoing ebow vastness. Leege has always been a connoisseur of the blues, and that cuts through – literally – in At Last, his spare, gentle but incisive single-note lines over the starry resonance behind him. And Coltrane’s Spiritual is much the same, and even more starkly bluesy: shine on you distant diamond.

Georgia on My Mind comes across as opiated Wes Montgomery with distant Memphis soul echoes. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage could be a particularly immersive, atmospheric interlude by 70s art-rock cult favorites Nektar.

Leege reinvents My Funny Valentine, artfully shifting up the metrics with equal parts Pink Floyd grandeur and Bill Frisell tenderness. He hits waltz time even more head-on in his version of Naima, the fastest and most hauntingly direct of all these slow numbers.

Neferititi, appropriately, is the album’s most delicate and hypnotic piece. The echoes come in waves most noticeably throughout Tenderly, tersely layered from top to bottom. And Leege’s take of What a Wonderful World is as anthemic as it is warmly enveloping. What a gorgeous record. It’s a real find for fans of jazz, ambient music, psychedelic rock, or for that matter anyone who just wants to escape to a comforting sonic cocoon

Noir-Tinged Transcendence from Thumbscrew

Thumbscrew‘s show earlier this week at what has become an annual festival at the Provincetown Playhouse on Washington Square West was more plaintive and haunting than expected. Guitarist Mary Halvorson left her pitch pedal alone for the most part until the last couple of numbers, where she went crazy with both live loops and warpy Jabba the Hut space lounge sonics. And although she did goose the audience, and maybe her bandmates too, with wry upward swipes at the end of a couple of numbers, she went for noir, and poignancy, and angst throughout most of the rest of the show.

It was almost funny to watch bassist Michael Formanek,, the group’s spokesman this time out, matter-of-factly walking a swing interlude in a tune by drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Otherwise, Formanek punched out miminalist pedalpoint, the occasional looming chord and plenty of somber, bowed phrases, often echoing Halvorson’s lingering, chilly, reverbtoned resonance. His comedic moment was a Sisyphian series of climbs, moving further and further up the scale with a predictable but irresistible tumble at the end.

Fujiwara was his typical counterintuitive self: trios tend to have busy drums, but not this unit. He opened and closed the set with tricky, peek-a-boo polyrhythms, driving the music forward against the beat. Beyond one relatively brief, stampeding cascade toward the end of the set, he kept his cymbals flickering,  with a subtle, lithe attack on the snare and toms.

The trio opened with Snarling Joys, a Halvorson tune, the guitarist foredshadowing the gloom ahead via a pointilllistic series of icepick riffs. Many of the set’s numbers bore a close resemblance to Big Lazy at their most haunting, and exploratory, notably Formanek’s bitterly aching Cruel Heartless Bastards, a take of Jimmy Rowles’ moody classic The Peacocks and Julio De Caro’s Buen Amigo, a tango from the band’s most recent all-covers album, Theirs. The companion album, Ours – all originals, naturally- was also well represented, particularly with a strutting but wounded reinvention of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting which turned out to be a lot more of a lament than a dancefloor hit. Other material was less harrowing: a tricky, serpentine take of Fujiwara’s Saturn Way; an even more rhythmically maddening yet supertight song that sounded like 70s British rock band Wire spun through a cuisinart; and the closing tune, Things That Rhyme with Spangle (that’s a very short version of the official song title), which Halvorson bent and twisted, finally hitting her distortion pedal for some roaring punk chords.

The series of free concerts at the Provincetown Playhouse continues into next week, resuming Monday, July 22 at 7 PM when Rolling Stones multi-saxophonist Tim Ries leads his band. Get there early, i.e. by 6:45 if you want to get in.

Edgy, Catchy, Individualistic Guitar/Cello Sounds and a Barbes Gig From Sean Moran’s Sun Tiger

Guitarist Sean Moran inhabits an uneasy netherworld between jazz, abstract rock and metal. He’s the rare six-string player in any of those idioms who doesn’t waste notes. His album with his excellent, similarly multistylistic trio, Sun Tiger with cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re opening a great twinbill at Barbes on May 21 at 7 PM; Balkan brass monsters Slavic Soul Party, who lately have been going to some even stranger mprovisational places than usual, play at 9 for a $10 cover. You may want to stay for the whole night.

The first track on the Sun Tiger album is Suns, catchy cello and then guitar riffs over a circular groove, offering absolutely no hint that the band will plunge into squalling doom metal. Finally, Roberts gets to run with the the carchy opening theme again.

One for Lacy is a twisted semi-strut with what seem to be good cop/bad cop roles (cello and guitar, respectively), some simmering slide work from Moran, a bit of a dancing bassline from Roberts, and many allusions to Monk. A Steve Lacy homage, maybe?

Without a pause, the band go straight into the album’s most epic track, Arc, skronk and sunbaked psychedelic guitar resonance contrasting with a little tongue-in-cheek metal frenzy. Sperrazza’s anvil snare – talk about a distinctive sound! – keeps the monster on the rails until everybody calmly and gently diverges, up to a hazy slight return.

Roberts’ droll Indian campfire licks over Sperrazza’s cymbal pointillisms open the slowly loping pastoral jazz theme Cheyenne, the album’s most sparse and arguably catchiest number. Roberts takes a turn at a little squealing metal over a quasi-qawwali beat as Big Shoes gets underway; then Moran puts the hammer down with a series of crunchy, syncopated riffs and all hell eventually breaks loose. A sailing Roberts pulls it together as Moran snipes and squiggles a little, then gets dirty again.

The surreal, rather morose ballad Eye Eye sounds like deconstructed Big Lazy, veering between purist postbop and more than a hint of noir: it’s the album’s most memorable track. Likewise, the final number, Percival, crawls like a scorpion and then hits a resolute stomp, Moran and Roberts both shifting in a split second between relative calm and distorted grit. Yet another example of the kind of casual magic that happens when translucent tunesmithing ends up in the hands of great improvisers.

Catchy, Thoughtful, Purposeful Guitar Instrumentals and a Bed-Stuy Gig by Guitarist Ryan Dugre

Do you ever wonder what the few competent musicians who play indie rock actually do on their own time, when they’re not jumping from one hired-gun gig to the next? Guitarist Ryan Dugre’s gently captivating, tersely tuneful new album The Humors – streaming at Bandcamp – is one answer to that question. Dugre plays much of it solo, both electric and acoustic, varying his textures, using a lot of loops. He has a pastoral streak as well as a penchant for rainy-day pensiveness. A lot of this you could call Bil Frisell Junior. Dugre is playing C’Mon Everybody on April 15 at 8 PM; cover is $10.

For a minute – and that’s about it – the album’s opening track, irts Tide, sounds like it’s going to linger in careful, mannered, peevishly unresolved indie territory…then Dugre introduces a disarmingly pretty, wistful theme, and ends up completely flipping the script with it. It’s a song without words worthy of Frisell.

Tasty, watery, tremoloing chorus-box sonics contrast with a spiky, Americana-tinged, fingerpicked melody in Mateo Alone. Dugre picks out a hushed, calmly steady, baroque-tinged tune over orchestral washes in Bali, up to a moody, feathery arrangement for strings. New June is a tantalizing miniature: Dugre could have taken this shift from hints of psychedelic majesty to jazz exploration much further than he does..

He returns to spare, casually strolling, brooding Frisellian territory with Smoke From Above, the strings once again adding wary ambience. The alternately pulsing and resonant Wild Common is assembled around coy echo effects, as is High Cloud, the album’s most hypnotically loopy number.

Tonight is a Lynchian, Britfolk-tinged ballad without words, a clinic in implied melody and arguably the album’s most impactful track. In a lot of ways, the stately title cut is an apt summation of the album, part baroque, part Beatles. The concluding number, In Tall Grass, is aptly titled, a summery, vintage soul-tinged tableau. Whether you call this pastoral jazz, soundtrack music or Americana, it’s a breath of fresh, woodsy air.

The Alex Levine Quartet in Motion Throughout Their New Album The World of Real Things

by Aakash Mittal

While listening to guitarist Alex Levine’s latest album, The World of Real Things (streaming at Bandcamp), I was struck by how the interpersonal dynamic of the band is evident in their sound. Half of the tracks are inspired by the relationships Levine has with the other artists on and off the bandstand. The other half of the recording draws from specific influences and experiences in Levine’s life.

In the album notes, Levine offers a nod to composers Geri Allen and Henry Threadgill, both of whom are cited as inspiration for individual tracks here. The recording seems to amplify the intersection of relationships, influences, and life events through a shared periodicity that can be found across the compositions, the improvisations, and the larger arc of this nine-part suite. Rather than providing a track-by-track summary, this article explores several broader questions that surfaced as I listened to the album. How do these young artists move together?

How does that movement involve both the physical playing of instruments and the conceptual movements of the band’s improvisations? What imagined universe does Levine construct for us in this latest offering?

Levine and his collaborators – tenor saxophonist Marcus Elliott, bassist Ben Rolston and drummer Stephen Boegehlod – have generated a sonic world that may be experienced as three levels of motion. The first level is the individual musician. Throughout the recording, each artist frequently contributes a sonic gesture followed by a brief silence, as they improvise through the score. As these phrases interlock at the silences, they create the effect of overlapping cadences across the ensemble. This shared approach to rhythm distinguishes the quartet’s sound and establishes a feel that tends to be more grounded than ethereal.

The second level of motion exists across the structure of each composition. Levine utilizes moments of communal movement through collective rhythmic phrases and harmonic gravity. These follow an aesthetic similar to the individual level. Brief ebbs in the forward momentum of the composite rhythm follow the transitions in and out of rhythmic and harmonic unisons. The time span of these periods in the second level of motion is considerably longer than the individual gestures they contain.

The individual phrasing of level one, combined with the structure of each composition, forges densities that increase and decrease over the span of the entire nine-movement work. In this third level, we are offered a gradient experience as each section transitions to the next. The entwined phrases and silences of the first and second levels of motion culminate in pockets of swirling activity and moments of sparse melodic improvisation.

When experiencing all three levels of motion together, it becomes evident that The World of Real Things contributes to a number of musical continuums. The quartet’s improvisational aesthetic expresses the Detroit and New York City jazz communities they create with(in). Levine’s relationship to bassist Henry Grimes and guitarist Miles Okazaki is embedded in the rhythmic vocabulary and form of each composition. Impressively, Levine has synthesized these influences into a distinct sound world and, throughout the album, his artistic voice is his own. This work is a unique portrait of Levine’s journey with the members of his quartet, the guidance of his mentors, the communities he inhabits, and how these elements move when brought together. The sonic universe that emerges is rich territory for any curious listener to explore.

Hailed as “A fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer” by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis), Aakash Mittal is sculpting a dynamic voice that mines the intersection of improvisation, composition, sonified movement, and noise. The colorful dissonances, meditative silences, and angular rhythms that emerge invite the listener to enter a sonic landscape. Mittal’s work explores universal designs while being rooted in both South Asian and American musical traditions. His latest project is a series of nocturnes written for his Awaz Trio that abstract and deconstruct five Hindustani evening and night ragas. Mittal is a recipient of the Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming, the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award, and the American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Performing and Creative Arts Fellowship.

A Tantalizingly Enigmatic Trio Album From Ambitious Keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch

Multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch is the not-so-secret weapon in psychedelic noir surf band Hearing Things, who are playing a welcome return gig at Barbes on March 1 at 10 PM. Previously, he distinguished himself as the only pianist to record an album of solo transcriptions of Bill Frisell works. His latest release, Visitors – streaming at Bandcamp – is an intriguingly uncategorizable trio record with guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and drummer Jim Black. The three don’t have any gigs coming up together, but Schlegelmilch is playing with psychedelic lapsteel monster Myk Freedman‘s band at Barbes on Jan 30 at 8. Goldberger will be leading one of his groups at Pete’s on Feb 2 at 5 PM followed by drummer Tim Kuhl, whose pointillistic soundscapes shift from Claudia Quintet tableaux to trippier, more hypnotic vistas.

The not-so-secret weapon in Schlegelmilch’s trio is a vintage Yamaha organ, popular with 70s bands and a favorite of Sun Ra. Here, it’s used more for atmosphere and as an anchor rather than as a lead instrument. Schlegelmilch’s eerily keening, Morricone-esque textures don’t come to the forefront of the first song, the title track, until Goldberger has done some enigmatic scenery-chewing over Black’s cascading waltz beat.

Goldberger introduces the second track, Chiseler with a gritty, syncopated pedalpoint as Schlegelmilch and Black build rhythmically shifting variations, part Sonic Youth, part Raybeats, part downtown 80s guitar skronk, up to a neat squirrelly/atmospheric contrast. The album’s most transparent track, Ether Sun has a slow, anthemic Frisellian bittersweetness, with lingering spacerock ambience. Corvus hints at mathrock and then Big Lazy noir cinematics, Goldberger finally cutting loose with some jagged tremolo-picking over the organ’s waves as Schlegelmilch builds increasingly icy textures.

Lake Oblivion is a diptych. Imagine a more rhythmically challenging, Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth with an organ: that’s the first part, decaying to a grim drone and then back. The second has an altered motorik drive, Goldberger’s lingering phrases and dying stompbox flares and flickers beneath the organ’s steady, blippy riffs until it coalesces as a postrock anthem.

The album’s most epic track, Terminal Waves has a vast windsweptness punctuated by a bell-like dirge melody, Goldberger’s resonant lines building to a frenetic, metallic scream. The closing miniature shows how versatile the Yamaha can be, in this case both a mellotron and a vibraphone. Whether you consider this jazz, postrock, psychedelia or film music, it’s all good.

Single of the Day 11/4/18 – BEER! 

Spoiler alert – iconic guitarist and fearlessly political songwriter Marc Ribot wears a Brett Kavanaugh mask throughout this sardonically careening number with his Ceramic Dog ensemble. Aptly titled Beer (via youtube), it was actually recorded before the Supreme Court officially became a home for sexual predators.

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

A Clinic in Tunesmithing and Improvisation From This Era’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist

Albums that combine state-of-the-art tunesmithing with similarly rapturous improvisation are rare. That’s what Bill Frisell does on his latest release, Music IS, a solo recording streaming at Spotify. His previous album, Small Town, was a similarly spare, low-key set, recorded live at the Village Vanguard with bassist Thomas Morgan. This one’s even more intimate, a master class from this era’s greatest jazz guitarist. Or maybe, considering that Frisell has never limited himself to jazz, it’s time to consider him as this era’s greatest guitarist, period. Americana has been an important part of his catalog for decades, but on this album it really comes to the foreground. He’s in the midst of a long stand at the Vanguard this month, with sets at 8:30 and 11. Today and tomorrow, he leads a trio with Morgan and the great Rudy Royston on drums. Then on the 20th, the three add add violist Eyvind Kang.

At a time where every six-string player with fast fingers and absolutely nothing to say seems to be going into jazz, Frisell stands out even more. He can play lickety-split when he wants, but throughout his career, his songs tend to be on the slow side. This album is a clinic in how he does it, just guitars and Frisell’s trustly loop pedal.

The songs are a mix of new ones and stripped-down versions of older material. The standout among the album’s sixteen tracks is Change in the Air, a somber, plaintive, Britfolk-tinged pavane, Frisell methodically building lingering rainy-day ambience around a simple one-five bass figure. Like most of the other tracks, it’s over in less than three minutes.

Go Happy Lucky comes across as a minimalist collage based on the old blues standard Since I Met You Baby. In Line, which could be an electrified John Fahey tune, begins with a lusciously chiming vintage soul progression, then Frisell deconstructs it using every wryly oscillating, floating or echoing patch in his pedal: is that a twelve-string effect, or the real thing? Likewise, is that an acoustic that Frisell’s playing on the subdued, spare oldtime folk-style ballads The Pioneers, or just his Tele through a pedal?

Sometimes Frisell’s loops are very brief; other times he’ll run a whole verse or chorus. Kentucky Derby has one of the longer ones, a very funny juxtaposition of distorted roar and flitting upper-register accents. He expands very subtly on a stately oldtime folk theme in Made to Shine, then artfully makes a forlorn, abandoned, Lynchian ballad out of a purist Jim Hall-like tune in Miss You.

Another ballad, Monica Jane is more spare and lingering, Frisell turning up the tremolo and spicing it with the occasional tritone or chromatic riff for distant menace in a Steve Ulrich vein. There’s also a punchline, a long one.

In Pretty Stars, Frisell stashes a simple, twinkling two-note riff in the pedal, then makes soulful country gospel out of it – lots of history and a little mystery at the end. Rambler follows the same formula, in this case a surreal wah-wah figure that completely changes the mood from pensive to bemused, compared to the alternate take included as a bonus track at the end of the album.

Frisell salutes iconic bassist Ron Carter with a stark, saturnine theme, part 19th century spiritual, part Wayfaring Stranger, with a little Wes Montgomery at the end. The album’s most anthemic track is Thankful: methodically crescendoing with burning, distorted, bluesy leads. it’s the closest to rocking the hell out that Frisell does here. Although the simmering miniature Think About It is pretty loud too.

The album’s most wintry number is What Do You Want, again bringing to mind Steve Ulrich and Big Lazy in pensive mode. A blues with uneasy ornamentation, Winslow Homer has a similarly surreal cinematic feel. All this is another notch on the belt for a guy who might have made more good albums than anybody else over the past thirty-five years.

Innovative, Intriguing New Guitar Sounds From Lucas Brode

Lucas Brode is one of New York’s most individualistic guitarists. Rather than picking or strumming, he typically taps the strings. Because he uses a lot of pedals, the sound is a lot more varied and dynamic than you would think. Most of the compositions on his new solo album I Lick the Kerosene of Progress – streaming at Bandcamp – are on the short and cinematic side. He’s got an intriguing gig tomorrow night, Nov 19 at around 9 with brilliant drummer Kevin Shea (of Mostly Other People Do the Killing) at the Glove, 885 Lexington Ave. just off Broadway in Bushwick. Sepulchral string band Whispers of Night follow at around 10; violist Jessica Pavone, who’s as iconic as you can get in improvised music circles, headlines. Cover is $8; be aware that there are no J or M trains this weekend, but if you can find a way to get to Broadway, maybe you can catch a bus.

Train whistle effects and echoey Lynchian sonics pervade the brief prelude that opens the album: it’s impossible to tell how Brode is working the strings. On Ankles & Elbows, the technique is obvious – at least until he hits his backward-masking pedal. It’s an interesting new spin on what would otherwise be a bluesy stroll.

Brode segues from there into We’ll Burn that Bridge When We Cross It, an upbeat, loopy lattice of bluegrass-tinged riffs that grow more mininal as it goes on. Dedicated to the Memory of Lilith Fair turns out not to be a nostalgic lesbian folk-pop song but an Eno-esque railyard soundscape – or at least something that evokes early morning in the switching yard.

Brode’s fingers get busy again in All is Based in Basic Truths, an airy, echoey rainy-day web of sound. The World Is Strip Malls & Parking Lots – Brode is awfully good with titles – shifts abruptly from spare and spacious to frenetic and allusively bluegrass-inflected, until it starts to go haywire. A metaphor for McMansion devastation, maybe?

Brode sets skronk and disquietly swooping Jeff Beck-style slide work over loopy mechanical ambience in Recession, followed by Intermission, a surreal miniature. He builds raindrop-like variations on an insistent, echoey theme in the album’s title track and then gets busy again in Today is a Long Uphill Battle I Will Stalemate at Best.

Sudden Subtle Shift is sort of a mashup of early 80s Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell. Git is a rapidfire fret-tapping take on blues and boogie-blues riffage, while Either Hemisphere (In Two Dimensions) is  the simplest and maybe catchiest set of variations here.The album comes full circle with the industrial ambience of Epilogue. Dare you to make something this trippy and interesting alone at night in your bedroom with your guitar and Protools.