New York Music Daily

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Tag: Joanna Mattrey

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

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Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances.