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No New Abnormal

Tag: Homer Steinweiss

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

Oldschool and Newschool Soul at Lincoln Center Out of Doors This July 27

There’s an intriguing triplebill this July 27 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors exploring the glorious past and trippy future of soul music. British band the Black Pumas, who open the night at 7:30 out back in Damrosch Park, represent the dark, psychedelic side, as does headlining Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada, who’s joined by a parade of singers from his Texas home turf. In between, there’s veteran singer and bandleader Lee Fields, a James Brown contemporary who got his start in the late 60s.

For an idea of what the night’s second set is going to sound like, you can stream Fields’ arguably best album Special Night at Bandcamp. For a more cynical appraisal of a Fields show, playing to a crowd of entitled yuppie puppies in Williamsburg almost a decade ago, you can visit this blog’s predecessor. On the album, Fields’ six-piece band the Expressions does a good job replicating the gritty analog sound of the late 60s and early 70s when Fields was working overtime on the small club circuit.

The catchy, swaying, midtempo title track starts out with Adam Scone’s organ over the rhythm section: bassist Quincy Bright and drummer Homer Steinweiss, Then Thomas Brenneck’s guitar and the horns make their way in judiciously, on a long, satisfying upward tangent capped off by a brooding spoken word interlude over lush strings. “Loneliness is dangerous and should be avoided if possible,” Fields cautions. His voice holds up well throughout the record, hitting all the high notes with passion and a little growl in places.

In keeping with the oldschool vibe, there’s reverb on everything here: the drums, the trebly bass and even the backing vocals. I’m Coming Home has coyly punchy call-and-response between lead and backup singers, tumbling drums and hi-beam horns. An unselfconsciously gorgeous 6/8 ballad, Work to Do paints a picture of a party animal trying to pull his act together. Does he ditch work to go to the therapist, or did his nocturnal ways cost him his job? Fields doesn’t specify.

Never Be Another You comes across as a sober (i.e. less psychedelically woozy) take on what Timmy Thomas did with Why Can’t We Live Together. Fields picks up the pace with the funkier Lover Man, then tackles issues of eco-disaster over the insistent, fuzztone Isleys pulse of Make This World.

Lingering jazz chords and jagged tremolo-picking from the guitar permeate Let Him In, along with a blaze of brass: it’s an uneasy look at a relationship that may be too damaged to resuscitate. The whole band add very unexpectedly subtle flavors in the stomping sex joint How I Like It. Where Is the Love – an original, not the 70s pop hit – has stiletto guitar chords paired with acidic, airy organ and horn incisions.

Fields wraps up the album with the bouncy, minor-key syncopation of Precious Love. Suddenly spycams and Instagram disappear, the internet is just a dialup connection for the Pentagon, gas is thirty-five cents a gallon, people make eye contact in conversation, and it’s 1970 again.

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies,a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.