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Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

Otherworldly Pan-Asian Transcendence From Jen Shyu

Over the span of less than a year, Jen Shyu lost two dear friends: Taiwanese nuclear scientist and poet Edward Cheng, and Javanese wayang (gamelan shadow puppetry) master Joko Raharjo, known as Cilik. The latter died along with his wife and infant daughter in a car crash; their other daughter, Naja, age six, survived. Shyu’s latest suite, Song of Silver Geese – streaming at Pi Recordings – is dedicated to those friends, and imagines Naja encountering a series of spirit guides from throughout Asian mythology, who give her strength.

The result is a hypnotic, otherworldly, sometimes harrowing  narrative. Shyu is performing her characteristically theatrical, solo Nine Doors suite at the Jazz Gallery on Jan 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $25. She’s also at the Stone the following night, Jan 25 at 8:30 PM as part of pianist Kris Davis’ weeklong stand there; the band also includes Ikue Mori on laptop percussion samples, Trevor Dunn on bass, Mat Maneri on viola and Ches Smith on drums. Cover is $20.

The suite is divided into nine “doors” – portals into  other worlds. Shyu plays Taiwanese moon lute, piano and the magically warpy Korean gayageum, singing in both English and several Asian vernaculars. She’s joined by the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss, percussionist Satoshi Takeishi and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opens solo on moon lute, with a stark, direct vocal:

I am no longer able to recount
In the tale, the story of my life…
When now it is twilight
And there is so much silence…
From the east to west
All you see in between
That deep black sky
Is everything…

Door 2, World of Java is a hauntingly suspenseful nightscape, cautious flute underscored by a low rumble of percussion. Door 3, Dark Road, Silent Moon rises methodically from pensive, allusively Asian solo flute to an astringent string quartet interlude that reaches toward frenzy.

Shyu’s stark, plaintively melismatic vocals slowly build and then soar over spare gayageum and moon lute in Door 4, Simon Semarangam, the suite’s epic centerpiece. The flute flutters and spirals as the strings gain force and then recede for cellist Victor Lowrie’s brooding, cautious solo against sparse piano and percussion. Dingman and Morgan interchange quietly within Shyu’s plucks as the she segues into Door 5, World of Hengchun, her dreamy vocals contrasting with gritty lute, striking melismatic cello, an acidic string canon and the lush sweep of the full ensemble.

Door 6, World of Wehali (a mythical Timorese warrior maiden) begins with a furtive percussion-and-gong passage and crescendos uneasily, with flitting accents from throughout the band: it’s the suite’s most straightforwardly rhythmic segment. The segue into Door 7, World of Ati Batik arrives suddenly, an insistently syncopated chant shifting to a thicket of sound with scurrying piano at the center

Door 8, World of Baridegi (a Korean princess who made a legendary journey to the underworld) is the dancingly explosive, almost tortuously shamanistic coda where Shyu imagines that Cilik’a family is saved. Her narration and then her singing offer a closing message of hope and renewal over spare accents in Door 9, Contemplation. Nocturnes don’t get any more surrealistically haunting than this. 

Jen Shyu Debuts Her Spellbinding, Relevant New Suite at Roulette

Ultimately, Jen Shyu‘s mission is to break down cultural barriers and unite people. In her own work, the singer/multi-instrumentalist has assimilated an astonishing number of styles, both from her heritage – Taiwan and East Timor – as well as from Korea, Indonesia, China and the United States, among other places around the world. Last night at Roulette she celebrated her birthday by unveiling a bracingly dynamic, otherworldly surrealistic, envelopingly beautiful new suite, Song of Silver Geese, a characteristically multilingual work combining the strings of the Mivos Quartet as well as vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble with violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Dan Weiss and flutist Anna Webber.

Shyu opened with a series of judicious plucks on her Korean gayageum lute, then switched to piano, Taiwanese moon lute and eventually a small Indonesian gong. Throughout the roughly hourlong piece, dancer Satoshi Haga struck dramatic poses when he wasn’t moving furtively or tiptoeing in the background when the music reached a lull.

The storyline, according to the program notes, involves the interaction between two characters from Timorese and Korean folklore, both known for their disguises, in addition to an iconic Taiwanese freedom fighter and a Javanese schoolgirl who was tragically orphaned at age six in a car accident.

Spare exchanges between the strings and the gayageum grew to an uneasy lustre evocative of 80s serialism, Cellist Mariel Roberts’ wounded, ambered lines eventually giving way to sinister microtones from Maneri. Shyu’s switch to the moon lute signaled a long upward climb through a dreamlike sequence punctuated by Weiss’ increasingly agitated rumble and the flutter of the strings, texturally ravishing yet troubled.

Shyu’s uncluttered vocals were just as dynamic, ranging from a whisper, to an imploring, angst-fueled Carol Lipnik-like delivery, to an insistent, earthy, shamanistic growl and pretty much everywhere in between. The big coda, seemingly meant to illustrate the fatal crash, built to a pandemonium that came as a real shock in view of the lustre and glistening atmospherics that had been lingering up to that point.

The performance ended with the ensemble members performing a candle ceremony of sorts and then walking out through the audience as Shyu sang a mantra: “I am alone, but not lonely; Life has no boundaries when every place can be home.” Something for everybody in the audience to take home.

Shyu’s next performance features another premiere,of a dance piece at 7 PM on April 21 at the Czech Center, 321 E 73rd St. Those who were lucky enough to catch this performance would probably also enjoy the concert of rare, delicately haunting folk music from Amami Island, Japan, played by Anna Sato and Shogo Yashi at Roulette on May 14 at 8. Tix are $25/$21 stud/srs.