The NYChillharmonic are one of this city’s most massive-sounding, original, deliciously uncategorizable groups. They’re basically a rock band, but with a seventeen-piece big band jazz lineup including brass, reeds and a string section along with the usual rock instrumentation. You could also call them a jazz band playing rock, which is true at least in the sense that everybody in the group comes from a jazz background, and that their leader, singer/composer/multi-keyboardist Sara McDonald got her start in the New School’s jazz program. They connect the dots between My Brightest Diamond, Missy Mazzoli and Gil Evans, and they’re playing Littlefield tonight at around 11, with exuberant, New Orleans-tinged soul/gospel/jazz crew Sammy Miller and the Congregation opening at around 10. Cover is $10.
Their most recent show here was their Lincoln Center debut, back in December. They opened their set with a leaping, looping hook that quickly gave way to a mighty, stalking Vegas tango-tinged verse and then slunk toward reggae. The song eventually wound down to a blue-flame suspense. McDonald began the next number with a suspenseful, allusively minimalist Radiohead-inflected piano/vocal intro around one of those circling riffs she love so much, the band working their way into a brooding soul-tinged atmosphere, low brass rising ominously beneath lithely dancing orchestration.
They picked up the pace with a brisk staccato pulse, once again building the suspense as the lush, balmy sonics rose behind McDonald’s cool, nuanced, somewhat enigmatic delivery. The slinky ba-ba, BUMP minor-key groove of the achingly catchy number after that took the group back in a noir soul direction, echoes of both Amy Winehouse and Abbey Road-era Beatles mingling with majestic harmonies that spanned the entire sonic spectrum – and then a droll trick ending from the string section.
Rippling, rapidfire piano opened the next number, the orchestra rising to a blustery, uneasy intensity and then falling back to McDonald’s low-key, distantly soul-infused vocals over a groove that seemed to want to cut loose from trip-hop to a fullscale gallop and then finally went dancing. After that, the group mashed up misterioso Blonde Redhead nocturnalisms with a woozy hip-hop/stoner neosoul vibe, a punchy tenor sax solo giving way to twinkling starlit ambience, then McDonald took it up again. The group wound up the show with bittersweet, dynamically shifting update on artsy 60s Burt Bacharach pop and then a bone-jarring dancefloor stomp. Much as the atrium’s boomy sonics are hardly suited to a mighty ensemble like this, it was impossible not to be swept up in the expanse of sound.
Out in front of the band, Illinois transplant McDonald was in particularly gregarious mode. Her lyrics channel the kind of pervasive restlessness you would expect from someone in her twenties in this city in this decade: buildings keep coming down, neighborhoods keep getting wiped out and the hours keep getting longer just to pay the rent. She didn’t address any of those topics, but she might as well have.