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An Incendiary Concert at a Legendary Studio Immortalized on the BC 35 Album

Martin Bisi is a legend of the New York underground  – and he’s hardly a stranger in many other worlds as well. As a young engineer in 1983, he vaulted to prominence by winning a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s hit Rockit, which would go on to be sampled by thousands of hip-hop acts over the decades. The vast list of acts Bisi has worked with at his legendary Gowanus digs BC Studios runs from Sonic Youth  to John Zorn to the Dresden Dolls. 

His new album BC 35 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded in front of a live audience there over the course of a marathon weekend in January of 2016, a historic event very enthusiastically reviewed here. True to form, Bisi also recorded it and played with many of the groups on the bill, in celebration of the studio’s 35th anniversary. Much as he’s as distinctive and darkly erudite a guitarist as he is a producer, he’s somewhere in the mix here on three tracks: characteristically, he isn’t being ostentatious. His latest gig is at El Cortez on Sept 1 at around 8 on a killer triplebill, in between the perennially sick, twisted noiserock of the Sediment Club and the headliners, no wave sax legends James Chance & the Contortions. Cover is $20.

The order of the tracks leaps back and forth between the Saturday and Sunday sessions. The album’s most notable cut is Details of the Madness, the first recording and live performance by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull (who call themselves New Old Skull here) since 1998. guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins pick up like they never left off, enigmatically catchy, icy guitar multitracks over a relentless fuzztone swing that slows with an ominous nod to Joy Division.

Some of these tracks are improvisations, including the album’s opening number, Nowhere Near the Rainbow. Original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert gives Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, Skeleton Boy from Woman and Lubricated Goat’s Stu Spasm a slinky pulse for sputters and squall punctuated by the occasional anthemic goth riff. SYNESTHESIA!  – an Alice Donut reunion, more or less – is similar but much dirtier. Denton’s Dive – with Hutchins, Skeleton Boy, Dave W, Phil Puleo and Ivan Up – is practically ten minutes of sludgecore, dissociative reverbtoned noise and swaying atrocity exhibition atmosphere.

Here’s how this blog described the Sunday session jam What a Jerk: “Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and booming low-register chords.” What’s here is a judicious edit – if noiserock jams can be judiciously edited, Bisi’s definitely the man for the job. After that, Tidal Channel’s no wave synth-and-spoken-word piece Humash Wealth Management, Inc. keeps the assault going full force.

JG Thirlwell’s characteristically creepy, southwestern gothic overture Downhill features Insect Ark’s Dana Schechter on bass and violinist Laura Ortman leading a full string section. It is probably less memorable for being this blog’s owner’s most recent appearance on album, as part of the impromptu “BC Radiophonic Choir.”

The lineup on The Animals Speak Truth includes Barbez’s Dan Kaufman on guitar, Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch on organ and keys and the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione on drums, maintaining the lingering lysergic menace in a vamping instrumental that picks up to a grimly tumbling, clustering pace.

Looking back to the weekend reportage again: “Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwoman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle.“ That’s His Word Against Mine, by JADO.

White Hills’ echoey End of the Line offers contrast as well as the weekend’s lone reference point to Brian Eno, BC Studios’ co-founder. Bolstered by Wallfisch and Viglione, noir singer/guitarist Ajda the Turkish Queen’s toweringly gorgeous, Lynchian waltz Take This Ride is the strongest track here. The album concludes with a noisy, hypnotically pulsing jam by Cinema Cinema plus David Lackner and Mikel Dos Santos, and more Tidal Channel assault. Warts and all, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year, a magical piece of history. What a treat it was to be witness to most of it.

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Live in Europe: Lyrical Piano Icon Fred Hersch’s Funnest Album Ever?

Fred Hersch’s latest album Live in Europe is the new paradigm. The pianist and his long-running trio didn’t even know that their live radio broadcast from Brussels last November had been recorded until the tour was over. When he found out that there was a recording, Hersch listened back and was validated that the band had killed it just as he’d remembered. Instant album! It’s streaming at Spotify; Hersch, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson kick off a weeklong stand at the Vanguard on July 24, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30.

This is a very fun, playful, even quirky set. Beyond the fact that these three musicians are one of the rare groups in jazz who’ve been together long enough to develop near-telepathic communication, they’re in an exceptionally good mood and the result is contagious. The fact that they were just going out and having a good time onstage rather than officially making a record probably has something to do with that.

Hersch is one of the greatest – maybe the greatest – current interpreter of Monk on the piano, and the way he takes the opening number, We See’s riffs dancing further and further outside, up to a series of ridiculously good jokes, makes for a hell of an opening. Jousting, deadpan straight-up swing and some clever rhythmic shifts beneath the pianist’s increasingly marionettish pulse take it out.

The group work their way animatedly into Snape Matings with hints of a ballad that never coalesces – the fun is leaving that carrot in front of the audience. McPherson’s subtle vaudevillian touches and Hebert’s suggestion of dropping everything for a mighty charge are the icing on the cake. Scuttlers, which follows, is more of an improvisation on a similarly carnivalesque, Frank Carlberg-ish theme, followed by the aptly titled Skipping and its rhythmic shifts, the group reaching toward a jaunty, ragtime-tinged swing.

Bristol Fog – a shout-out to the late British pianist John Taylor – is a plaintively elegaic, lustrous rainy-day jazz waltz and arguably the album’s most affecting track, with a long, mutedly clustering bass solo at the center. Then the group pulse into Newklypso – a Sonny Rollins dedication – Hersch’s lithe righthand and McPherson’s irrepressible offbeat accents held together by Hebert’s funky elasticity.

The Big Easy, a balmy, slowly swaying nocturne, has Ellingtonian gravitas but also the flickering playfulness of the beginning of the show. There’s also a little wry Donald Fagen in there too, which comes further to the forefront and then recedes in favor of fondly regal yet relaxed phrasing in Herbie Hancock’s Miyako.

The group take their time giving Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile a similarly considered launch and then swing it by the tail. Hersch brings the concert full circle with a solo take of Blue Monk as the encore, pulling strings all the way. Bands who have as much sheer fun onstage rarely have this much tightness, let alone the kind of chops these three guys were showing off in Belgium that night.

Sandaraa Build a Magical Bridge with Pakistani and Jewish Sounds

You want esoteric…and way fun? How about a mashup of Pakistani and klezmer sounds? Meet south Asian/Jewish jamband Sandaraa (Pashto for “song”). While they have some rock instrumentation, they’re not a rock band. They sound more Middle Eastern than anything else, which makes sense since Jewish music has roots there, and those exotic modes filtered east centuries, even millennia ago. The brainchild of star Pakistani chanteuse Zebunnisa Bangash and klezmer clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd, the band also includes Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi, Klezmatics/Herbie Hancock drummer Richie Barshay, bassist David Lizmi (of bewitchingly noir cinematic band Karla Rose & the Thorns and Moroccan trance group Innov Gnawa), supersonic accordionist Patrick Farrell, and Israeli surf/metal/jazz guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Their debut album is streaming at Storyamp, and they’ve got an album release show on May 11 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $12. After that, they’re at Barbes on May 16 at 7 PM where they debut their new Urdu poetry-inspired project The Pomegranate of Sistan, addressing “religious orthodoxy and nationalism across cultural divides.”

.While a lot of westerners may associate Pakistan with ghazals and qawwali, Sandaraa incorporate more rustic styles from remote regions of the country. The album’s opening track, Jegi Jegi Lailajan opens with an edgy Middle Eastern freygish riff and then slinks along on an undulating, syncopated groove, Bangash’s suspensefully enticing, air-conditioned delivery rising to warmer heights and then back to more pensive terrain. Who knew Barshay could play clip-clop south Asian percussion, or how effortlessly Fruchter would gravitate to the spiky phrasing of Pakistani rubab music?

Surrealistically blippy Their Majesties Satanic Request organ underscores Bangash’s expressive delivery as the band opens Mana Nele, then they ride Farrell’s pulsing, Qawwali-esque accordion waves, Basaldi and Winograd delivering achingly melancholy, Middle Eastern modal riffage in tandem.

Winograd opens Bibi Sanem Janem with a brief, starkly cantorially-inspired clarinet taqsim, then Fruchter pushes it along with his moody oud until Barshay’s tumbling qawwali groove and Farrell’s steady pulse take over. Winograd takes it out with a long, vividly austere, low-register solo.

A tenderly catchy, shapeshifting lullaby, Dilbarake Nazinim opens with an expansively rustic, pensive solo from Fruchter. The album winds up with the slinky, upbeat Haatera Tayiga, a jaunty mashup that best capsulizes the joyous stylistic brew this band manages to conjure: it’s amazing how much they manage to pack into a single song. As musical hybrids go, there hasn’t been an album this fun or full of surprises released this year.

New Documentary Film Chronicles Martin Bisi’s Legendary and Endangered Gowanus Recording Studio

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which from time to time covers film and theatre along with jazz and classical music]

When Martin Bisi signed the $500-a-month lease for what would become BC Studio, it’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted that the Gowanus basement space would become one of the world’s most revered places to record, to rival Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland and Rockfield Studios in Wales. Sara Leavitt and Ryan C. Douglass‘ gracefully insightful and poignant new documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio chronicles Bisi’s individualistic rise to underground music icon, via talking heads, candid conversation with Bisi himself and tantalizing archival footage of bands throughout the studio’s thirty-three year history.

Bisi recorded Herbie Hancock’s Rockit while still in his teens, winning a Grammy in the process, which brought in a deluge of work. Beginning in the mid-80s, Bisi became the go-to guy in New York for bands that went for a dark, assaultive, experimentally-inclined sound. A short list of his best-known production gigs includes John Zorn’s Spy vs. Spy album, multiple projects for Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls’ debut as well as more recent work with Serena-Maneesh, Black Fortress of Opium, Ten Pound Heads and Woman, to name just a few.

In the late 70s, when he wasn’t doing sound and stage work for Bill Laswell’s Material, Bisi could be found hanging out at CBGB and offering to do do sound for bands. “I like to be around things that are happening and this was one way to do that,” he explains early in the narrative. The Material connection led to Brian Eno putting up the seed money for the studio – although after some initial ambient experiments there, the composer pretty much backed out of the picture, something the film doesn’t address. Perhaps the space was grittier than what he’d envisioned for his more outside adventures in ambient sounds.

The film vividly captures Bisi’s sardonic humor and surprising humility but also a fierce pride of workmanship and sense of place in New York history. All of these qualities inform the grimness that underscores the story. Bisi’s “blood is fifty percent coffee,” as Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, one of the more colorful interviewees, puts it, and that intensity fuels plenty of the film’s more memorably twisted moments. As the story goes, Bisi kills a rodent with a dumbbell during a Swans session and gets credit for it in the cd liner notes. Thurston Moore pulls a rather cruel practical joke on Lee Ranaldo during a particularly tough Sonic Youth take that ends up immortalized on vinyl. Fast forward about twenty years, and Viglione takes a ball peen hammer to the wrought iron stairs on the way down to the main room, the results of which can be heard on the recording of the Dresden Dolls’ Miss Me. Plenty of time is also devoted to the studio’s role as a focal point in the formative years of hip-hop in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The film winds out on a rather elegaic note, as Bisi and the rest of the Gowanus artistic community uneasily await the opening of a branch of an expensive organic supermarket, anticipating a deluge of evictions and gentrification as the neighborhood’s buildings are sold off to crowds of yuppies and trendoids. The talented drummer Sarah Blust, of Rude Mechanical Orchestra and Marmalade, eloquently speaks for her fellow musicians in the neighborhood, with a resigned anger. In the film’s climax, Bisi goes out into a snowstorm to pay his first visit to the new store: the scene is priceless. In addition to its aisles and aisles of pricy artisanal food, this particular branch of the chain is especially twee: it sells used vinyl. Bisi’s reaction after thumbing through the bins there drew howls from the audience at the film’s premiere at Anthology Film Archives.

There’s a long wishlist of stuff that’s not in the movie. Admittedly, a lot of it is soundguy arcana: how Bisi EQ’d the room; his trick for mic placements in the different spaces for various instruments; or the magic formula for how he achieves such a rich high midrange sound, his signature throughout his career, in what appears to be a boomy, barewall basement milieu. What’s also strangely and very conspicuously absent is even a single mention of Bisi’s career as a solo artist. A distinctive songwriter, composer and guitarist, his work as a musician has the same blend of old-world craftsmanship and outside-the-box adventure that marks his career behind the board. Other than a playful few bars behind the drum kit – which he appears simply to be setting up for a session – there’s not a hint that he even plays an instrument. But Bisi seems ok with that. Maybe that’s the sequel.