New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jazz improvisation

A Darkly Conversational New Duo Album From Pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell

Pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell each have earned substantial fan bases for very different reasons. Crispell was one of the first women among the loft jazz pioneers of the 70s; Sanchez’s panorama of global influences is vast as her melodies are translucent. Stylistically speaking, you might think that a piano duo collaboration between the two would be a stretch. And that’s exactly what they do on their new album How to Turn the Moon, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the first piano duo record for both artists, an intuitive. elegantly executed, largely improvisational effort. Crispell is at her most thoughtful and melodic while Sanchez reaches for a lingering, neoromantically-inspired 70s ECM sound. Sanchez is in the left channel, Crispell in the right on this generally very serious, often rather dark album.

There are a lot of tradeoffs and role reversals here. As the album goes along, the two begin to opt for more intertwine than the sharp dynamic contrast they work earlier on. The epic Ceiba Portal is a synthesis of all those devices, from a bracing, Mompou/Satie-like weave that builds to a steady, emphatically strolling overture of sorts, then a big crescendo to a final enigmatic fugue. The moody, spacious call-and-response and uneasy, starry Messiaenic tonalities of Sullivan’s Universe – a Sullivan Fortner shout-out, maybe? – has the same conversational disquiet.

There are a couple of surreal, suspenseful inside-the-piano pieces here. Ancient Dream has Crispell brushing the strings for lute-like phrases as Sanchez flits around, then Crispell takes to the keys, pensive and minimal. Space Junk is more mysterious, both pianists going to the lowest lows to conclude on a memorably murky note. By contrast, the harried quasi-boogie that closes Rain in Web is the album’s most aggressive interlude.

The exchanges of bell-like figures and purposeful, cascading variations in Calyces of Held rise and then return to moodiness, each pianist taking a solo turn. The more broodingly resonant Windfall Light becomes a platform for exploring that dynamic more darkly. Twisted Roots has more interweave, but also suspense, Crispell’s spare, blippy phrases echoing Sanchez’s solemn precision. The opening and closing numbers could have been left on the cutting room floor, but what’s in between them often brings out the best in both musicians.

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.

Jimmy Katz’s Heroic Efforts Bring Live Jazz Back to Central Park This Month

After a year of pure hell, it is such a pleasure to be able to spread the word about concerts the general public can attend without fear of getting arrested. While at this moment it doesn’t appear that indoor shows in New York will be allowed to resume in any normal sense until Andrew Cuomo is either impeached or otherwise removed from power, good things are happening all over the place and one of those places is Central Park.

In order to help imperiled jazz musicians who’d been unable to make money on tour, photographer Jimmy Katz and his nonprofit Giant Step Arts launched a series of free weekend concerts in the park last fall in honor of fallen civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis.

Fast forward to 2021: free states from Florida to the Dakotas are experiencing an economic boom, without the mounds of dead bodies that the fearmongers at CNN and NPR shrieked would result, but New York has still not rejoined the free world. So Katz has resumed booking weekends at Summit Rock in Seneca Village in Central Park, partnering with Jazz Generation’s Keyed Up program this time around. The twinbill this Saturday, April 10 is a real change of pace. At noon, alto saxophonist Sarah Hanahan leads a trio with bassist Phil Norris and drummer Robert Lotreck. Then at 1:30 everybody gets really free with bassist William Parker, who leads a trio with Cooper-Moore – presumably on keys – and Hamid Drake on percussion. The former Seneca Village site is on the west side between about 82nd and 89th Streets; enter at 82nd St., follow the noise and look up!

There’s a new Parker bio out, which doesn’t actually say much about his music beyond the discography at the end – which stretches for more than a dozen pages. That’s because Parker is sought out as the go-to guy on the bass for free improvisation: he literally doesn’t play anything the same way twice. The most recent addition to that whopping discography is the Dopolarians‘ mighty, symphonic new album The Bond – streaming at Bandcamp – a sextet session featuring Kelley Hurt on vocals, Christopher Parker on piano, Chad Fowler on alto sax, Marc Franklin on trumpet and Brian Blade on drums.

There are three sprawling tracks on the album: the longest is about half an hour and the shortest is around ten minutes long. That’s a good indication of the esthetic if not the sound of this Saturday’s show. The group open with the title track, insistently lingering piano chords anchoring warmly floating lines from the horns as the bass moves tersely around a pedal note. The music rises with a gospel-tinged jubilation to an AACM-like wall of sound as Fowler squalls, Franklin exercising his stairstepping power in tandem with the piano. Then everybody backs away for Hurt to join with her enveloping, dynamically electric vocalese.

From there subgroups engage the rest of the crew. Chris Parker’s McCoy Tyner-esque, drivingly rhythmic interlude over Blade’s hammering toms; William Parker’s coy echoes of that over spare, moody piano; Hurt’s haunting quasi-operatics over similarly eerie, Messiaenic piano, with the bass calm at the center. The stroll that results is genuinely funny, getting funnier and looser as it goes along. regal trumpet and piano trying to pull everybody back on the rails with mixed results. Moments like this are what fans of free improvisation live for.

Track two, The Emergence, is the whopper. Crazed flurries quickly recede for Chris Parker’s moody, minimalist modal chords as individual voices filter in and out overhead, William Parker adding carbonation and spice this time while Hurt and the horns linger. There’s a momentary dip to pensive vocals, bass and piano; desolate noir from sax and bass with a shivery crescendo; and resolute, anthemic yet restless and enigmatic themes from Chris Parker. The blues slowly makes its way in from the shadows via a darkly acerbic piano theme and variations. William Parker conjures up a bristling, chromatic oldtime gospel tune with his bow; the band eventually find their dancing shoes.

They close with The Release, its shifting overlays of brooding piano, airy sax and calm, resonant trumpet giving way to a careeningly summery oldschool soul vamp. Fowler and Franklin pair off as bad cop and good cop, the music crystallizing around a triumphant trumpet solo. There’s obviously a lot more than this going on: dive in and get lost. You can do that this weekend in Central Park too.

Ocelot Creates Spacious, Relentlessly Uneasy Improvisational Ambience

The new album by Ocelot – pianist Cat Toren, saxophonist Yuma Uesaka and drummer Colin Hinton – is streaming at Bandcamp. For the most part, this beast spends its time stalking its prey, not flexing its claws. The music is on the minimal side; much of it is still and sometimes rapturous, and when it gets aggressive, a central rhythm often disappears.  The repartee between the trio is thoughtfully conversational, and as usual Hinton is as much if not more of a colorist here as he is motive force.

The trio build the opening track, Daimon II, around an icy, looping series of simple stalactite piano licks in the upper righthand, echoed somberly in the lows, Hinton adding subtle shades on the perimeter as Uesaka provides hazy ambience. Factum, the second number, is a mini-suite. Hinton’s muted rustles on the toms contrasting with Uesaka’s airy, eerie microtonalities over Toren’s Rhodes loops to bookend the piece, with a dip into spare, mystical Japanese temple ambience, and then a triumphantly crashing, cascading tableau.

Likewise, in Iterations I, the band expand outward, upward, into the wild, and then back to tightly focused twin riffage from piano and sax. Hammering, hypnotic, Louis Andriessen-esque piledriver rhythms permeate the next track, Post, with a recurrent joke that’s too good to give away.

The sparse, crepuscular undersea landscape of Anemone slowly becomes more animated, with flitting presences crawling around Toren’s low lefthand murk and eventually, her broodingly circling modalities.

How much contempt is there in Contemptuality? Toren’s chilly, Messiaenic belltones give way to a solemn, dessicated quasi-stroll, Uesaka uneasily hanging overhead, Hinton further icing the scene with his glockenspiel and hardware. As a storm gains momentum, Toren circles soberly, Uesaka kicking up a modal frenzy, Hinton holding the center.

Chilly desolation reaches its vastest expanse here in the haunting, subtly crescendoing calls and responses of Sequestration. Toren’s sparse, Mompou-esque chiming melody and Uesaka’s guarded triumph over Hinton’s slow sway in the album’s concluding track, Crocus offer more than a hint of brighter days to come. May this be an omen for us all.

Dynamic, Tuneful, Playful Outside-the-Box Solo Bass From Daniel Barbiero

Those of us who play low-register instruments tend to think of them as complementary, which in most styles of music they almost always are.

But inevitability theories of anything, whether history or music, are not healthy, and they don’t hold water. Maybe it’s high time we got past them.

With its sheer catchiness, playful sense of humor and dynamic range, bassist Daniel Barbiero‘s solo album of graphic scores, In/Completion – streaming at Bandcamp – will get you thinking outside the box, whether you’re a player or a listener. “At their best, graphic compositions are both beautiful and provocative. Beautiful in that they can, when artfully done, stand as independent works of visual art,” Barbiero asserts in his liner notes.

You could say that the album’s opening number, Root Music by Makoto Nomura, was written by nature itself, a vegetable patch that the composer planted in shallow soil whose roots turned out to be visible. Barbiero chose to interpret it as a series of catchy, hypnotically circling phrases in the high midrange.

Traces, by Silvia Corda, offers many choices of riffs and how to arrange them: Barbiero uses a generous amount of space for his emphatic, vigorously minimal plucks and washes. His solo arrangement of Alexis Porfiriadis‘ string quartet piece Spotting Nowhere makes a good segue and is considerably more spacious and often sepulchral, with its muted flurries and spiky pizzicato.

Barbiero recorded Paths (An Autumn Day in a Seaside Town), by his four-string compadre Cristiano Bocci on their recent duo album. The terse theme and variations of this solo version are more starkly sustained and expansive, yet whispery and sparkling with high harmonics in places, minus the found sounds from the shoreline which appear on the duo recording.

Barbiero employs a lot of extended technique on this record, especially in his deviously slithery, harmonically bristling lines in Bruce Friedman’s fleeting OPTIONS No. 3. Wilhelm Matthies’s GC 1 (2-9-17), a partita, is rather somberly bowed, yet Barbiero also incorporates some subtly wry conversational phrasing.

5 Paths 4 Directions, by Patrick Brennan comes across as contrasts between purposefulness and anxiety. Barbiero winds up the record with a stark, allusively chromatic interpretation of Morton Feldman’s Projection 1, originally devised for solo cello.

Devious Humor and Poignancy on Violinist Mark Feldman’s New Solo Album

Violinist Mark Feldman has been a staple of the downtown New York jazz scene since the 90s, notably in his long-running duo with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. Like innumerable artists during the lockdown, he’s put out a solo album, Sounding Point, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s incisive, purposeful and sometimes haunting, everything the artists he’s played with have sought him out for. But there are just as many moments here that border on hilarious. Feldman’s sense of humor has seldom come across so deviously as it does on this album.

Some of these pieces are built around a single melody line, others are judiciously multitracked. The opening number, As We Are features varations on a coy “here we go!” theme, Feldman building to his usual erudite mix of extended technique and economical melodicism, laced with harmonics, swells and delicate pizzicato. The album’s title track has plaintive, spacious phrases over delicately fluttering sustained lines.

Warriors is an amusingly ornamented multitracked piece including but not limited to swirly glissandos, a plucky march, pregnant pauses, hints of darkly rustic blues and Appalachia: it could be completely improvised. Unbound has a bit of a scramble, calmly whistling buffoonery, and a sly classical quote or two.

The album’s big, almost ten-minute epic is Viciously, which is aptly titled, horrified cadenzas emerging and suddenly giving way to spare, pensive variations on a blues riff, surreal glissandos and strangely muted echoes. Rebound is arguably the album’s funniest number, a mashup of echoey extended technique and all sorts of cartoonish japes.

Maniac is more dissociative than frantic, a playful pastiche of concise riffs. Feldman’s final number is titled New Normal: other than being more ghostly and disturbingly furtive than the other tracks here, it’s impossible to read any references to totalitarianism, surveillance or death by lethal injection into it. Violin jazz fans, and anyone with a sense of humor, should check this out.

A Spontaneously Rapturous Duo Album by Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias

A low-key duo album with Jane Ira Bloom on it might seem like the last thing you’d ever expect to hear, considering that she’s arguably this era’s great master of spine-tingling soprano sax pyrotechnics. Desperate times, desperate measures. Beginning in the terrorized early days of the lockdown, she and bassist Mark Helias began jamming over the web. The two quickly realized they were on to something. By September, they’d recorded enough material for an album, Some Kind of Tomorrow, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s two veterans with huge bags of riffs and spontaneous tunesmithing ability at the peak of their game.

“The thought of a world without a live, spontaneous musical connection was too hard to imagine,” Bloom confirms. Obviously, we can’t let lockdowner totalitarianism dictate how, when, where or even if recordings are made. But just the fact that Bloom and Helias were able to create such deeply conversational, moving interludes as these under the circumstances portends even more amazing things for these two as more and more musicians return from the virtual world to reality again.

In the album’s title track, Bloom weaves bits and pieces of a ballad – some of them distant echoes of My Favorite Things – as Helias keeps a dancing pulse going and pulls together a catchy, riff-driven groove that you will be humming to yourself afterward. Keep in mind that this was completely improvised.

Bloom treats us to sprightly spirals over Helias’ suspenseful, muted rumble as Magic Carpet takes flight. Then a spacious, similarly suspenseful dialogue ensues, Helias subtly introducing a Middle Eastern-tinged mode that Bloom picks up on immediately. Bloom flits around and induces some goosebumps with her trills, Helias jabbing and then sinking an anchor of stygian sustain to the river floor.

The two pursue a similar dichotomy in the sepulchral flickers of Early Rites: Bloom throws a flourish at Helias, then he bends it back with just enough of a different spin to keep the music slowly shifting.

The bassist pursues more of a shadowy response, then takes a tantalizing, stairstepping solo in the album’s fourth number, Willing, as Bloom plays sage, wee-hours blues phrases before following him into modal mystery again.

The two switch roles in Traveling Deep, Bloom’s broodingly liquid, clarinet-like phrasing in response to Helias’ jaunty harmonics. Their big, almost ten-minute epic is titled Roughing It, the closest thing to a spontaneous, lithely swinging ballad here before the two spin and drift into the ether again before triumphantly reconvening.

Spare, spacious contemplation returns and shifts into more tentative angst in Far Satellites: Helias’ high harmonics versus Bloom’s moody trils create one of the album’s most quietly riveting moments. Listening to Bloom develop one of the more lengthy themes and variations in Pros and Cons, from wistfulness to desolate blues is a treat. Again, Helias’ chromatics are the icing on the cake.

Drift is a master class in angst-fueled melismas and sheets of sustain. Helias takes the lead with his slides and chromatics as Bloom floats and flickers in Star Talk, one of the quietest and most haunting number here. First Canvas, a miniature, closes the album on a benedictory note.

Two Violins + Two Violas = Bliss From Jessica Pavone’s String Ensemble

A ubiquitous presence in the New York improvisational community before the lockdown, violist Jessica Pavone has been making alternately lyrical and bracingly acerbic music since the zeros. Her previous album with her String Ensemble was one of her her most minimalist releases to date: her new one, Lost Found – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of her most atmospheric. The lineup is slightly altered this time out, with Erica Dicker and Angela Morris on violins, Joanna Mattrey switched out for Abby Swidler on viola here alongside the bandleader.

The aptly titled first number, Rise & Fall is a spectral anthem, if such a thing can exist: a warmly shifting series of sustained tones and harmonies that move slowly from comfortable consonance, to more acerbic, and then back. With its almost imperceptibly rising and falling microtones, Nice and Easy is as enveloping as it is otherworldly: Pavone adds rhythmic gestures in places to shake things up.

Those long, sustained, bending tones shift a just a hair faster in Pros & Cons, for more of a siren or doppler effect, the quartet’s elegantly executed, glissandoing harmonies followed by a deliciously slashing interlude. They close the record with the hypnotic title track, violins and violas exchanging roles as the austere haze of microtones rises and eventually loops into a lullaby. Cocoon with this and bliss out.

A Magical, Mysterious Masterpiece by Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito

Pianist Satoko Fujii has made more good albums than just about anyone alive. Part of that is because she’s made more albums than just about anyone alive – over ninety as a bandleader or co-leader. There is no one with more infinite gravitas livened by a surprisingly devious sense of humor. Her latest album, Beyond is one of her most rivetingly evocative and marks the debut of yet another new project, Futari, a duo with vibraphonist Taiko Saito streaming at Bandcamp.

These songs are on the long, quiet and extremely spacious side. Fujii typically takes centerstage but not always. Her sound world has expanded considerably, to an otherworldly rapture in the last couple of years. The one here is akin to an eclipse, equal parts dark and celestial. Often it’s hard to tell who’s playing what, enhancing the mystery.

The opening number, Molecular has a subtly tremoloing vibraphone drone punctuated by whispery rustles and eerily microtonal, rhythmically chiming prepared piano, like a mobile in the breeze wafting from the great beyond. In the second track, Proliferation, a murky drone filters in and then gives way to squirrelly noises and surreal hints of a boogie before Saito fires off liltingly Lynchian phrases over Fujii’s gathering storm.

Echoey long-tone vibraphone drifts through the mix in Todokani Tegami as Fujii colors it with a haunting austerity, leading up to an absolutely macabre music-box theme. The album’s title track rises from barely perceptible whispers to spare bell-like piano accents, Saito’s microtones a chill little breeze under the door.

On the Road is not a jazz poetry piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) – it’s a moody, modal tableau with a tight, steady interweave of allusively Arabic tonalities and an ending tacked on that’s way too good to spoil. To steal a title from the John Cale book, the calmer moments of Mizube could be called Fragments of a Rainy Season.

A shockingly straightforward, Lynchian waltz quickly gives way to Messiaenic insistence and eventual fullscale freakout, then back, in Ame No Ato. Saito’s chromatics lingering above Fujii’s steady, phantasmagorical chords in Mobius Loop are a red-neon treat; thunder and an after-the-rain chill ensue.

The two return to ambience punctuated by bell-like accents to close the record on a vast, meditative note with Spectrum. Saito’s strengths as a listener and an elegant orchestrator deserve a bandmate as focused as Fujii, whose extemporaneous tunesmithing gets pushed to new levels here. It’s awfully early in the year to be speculating about the best album of 2021, but there’s nothing that’s been released so far that can touch the sheer magic of this one.

Big Band Jazz Has Never Been So Much Fun As It Is on Satoko Fujii’s Ninety-Nine Years Album

Satoko Fujii did a second album with her Orchestra Berlin because, she says, “These guys are total goofballs. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much ridiculous fun in the studio as I had with these clowns.”

That’s not really what she said. The official quote from the press release for the album, Ninety-Nine Years (streaming at Bandcamp) is “I think they bring out some part of me that the other bands don’t.” Like crazed, insane fun. Over the epic course of about ninety albums with umpteen ensembles since the mid-90s, Fujii’s own sense of humor tends to be much more subtle, and her music is almost always on the serious side. This is her cartoon soundtrack, an album for jazz fans with long attention spans who need a good laugh. And yet, there’s plenty of signature Fujii gravitas here as well.

Everything here but the closing number – which begins like Lunar New Year on East Broadway in Chinatown – clocks in at well over ten minutes, sometimes closer to fifteen. The first number, which seems extremely satirical, is Unexpected Incident, as the Japanese government euphemistically termed the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Fujii did a whole Fukushima-inspired album with her Orchestra New York, which this blog chose as best album of 2017).

Fujii’s main axe is the piano, which she plays here; she’s also an excellent accordionist.Tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann shrieks and squalls over the group early on, bassist Jan Roder tirelessly running a loop. There’s a din of a trombone/tenor duel between Matthias Schubert and Matthias Müller, the orchestra picking up a loop of their own. Roder returns more syncopatedly behind an increasingly agitated Natsuki Tamura trumpet solo; the way Fujii sneaks a secondary theme in before Ullmann’s shrill solo coda is artful, and typical of her.

Roder opens the title track, a dedication to Fujii’s late mother-in-law, with an increasingly scrambling solo, eventually joined in wisps and flickers by drummers Peter Orins and Michael Griener and baritone saxophonist Paulina Owczarek, who works her way to a fond, lyrical upper-register solo. They bring it down to just the drums and Ullmann, who chews the scenery until Fujii signals a steady, bittersweet, chordally brassy theme while Ullmann keeps doing his bad cop in contrast with Owczarek. They end together, warmly.

The funniest number here is On the Way, from its suspenseful, shamanistic twin-drum intro, to brassy hints of reggae, a bit of the rudiments from the drummers, and a grumpily cartoonish solo from Tamura which somebody in the band tries to lure away – the joke is too good to spoil. The faux New Orleans outro will also make you smile.

Oops is a showcase for both vaudevillian absurdity and some very sobering interludes. A triickily rhythmic, circular massed theme gives way to Schubert’s unbridled exuberance, but that’s when Fujii signals for a dirge behind his revelry: there’s no escaping this dark undercurrent. Tamura goes to the Middle East, the bass bubbles tensely, until finally the band erupt in a Keystone Kops charge. A dirge and another charge return along with spacious, bright pulses in between.

They close with Follow the Idea, from crazed New Years festivities, to goofy conversational blips, droll low spitballs and all-stops-out squalling over a thump and a LMAO false ending, Fujii has never made another album like this before – it was one of a dozen she put out in 2018 to celebrate her sixtieth birthday year – and she probably never will again. Enjoy. Big up to the rest of the cast, which includes trumpeters Richard Koch and Lina Allemano; trombonist Matthias Müller; and guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi.