New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jon irabagon

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

A Killer Edgy Jazz Triplebill This Thursday at Shapeshifter Lab

Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.

As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then regroups, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the idea that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?

Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.

And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard  to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir. 

Edgy Guitarist Jon Lundbom’s New Album – Sweet Home Y’all?

Guitarist Jon Lundbom is one of the Hot Cup Records crew, associated with notorious/uproarious jazz parodists Mostly Other People Do the Killing. As you might expect, his music shares that group’s corrosive sarcasm, but that’s only part of the picture. For Jeremiah, his seventh album with his long-running band Big Five Chord, he’s brought back  the usual suspects – Jon Irabagon on soprano sax, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto (hybrid baritone/alto) saxes, Moppa Elliott on bass and Dan Monaghan on drums along with Sam Kulik on trombone and Justin Wood on alto sax and flute. They’re playing the album release show next Wednesday, Feb 4 at 10 PM at Cornelia Street Café; cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

As the title implies, the album is an instrumental jeremiad, more or less. The bustling energy and keenly focused improvisation of Lundbom’s previous live album, Liverevil, take a backseat here to disquiet, anger and cynicism. In a city where the elite jazz players who still remain are often forced to take cheesy folk club gigs backing wannabe American Idol girls just to be able to make rent for another month, that anger shouldn’t come as any surprise.

And yet, the horn charts throughout the album have an unselfconscious, understated poignancy and bittersweet beauty. The opening track, The Bottle is not the Gil Scott-Heron classic but a Lundbom original named after a town in Alabama (he stole the concept from Elliott, whose repertoire is littered with Pennsylvania place names). And it’s full of sarcasm – although Alabama doesn’t seem to factor into it. It sways and shuffles, with snide, offcenter horns, a busily bubbling, more-or-less atonal solo from Lundbom and some neat contrasts between Murray’s squall and the rhythm section’s hypnotically waterfalling drive.

The next Alabama song (these compositions are about as Alabaman as Kurt Weill) is Frog Eye, with its lustrous, majestic if uneasy horn arrangement punctuated by chirpy pairings between Irabagon and Elliott, Lundbom lurking in the shadows before emerging with a smirk. The third one, Scratch Ankle opens somewhat the same before conversations between the horns go their separate ways.

Lick Skillet, which may or may not be a Tennnessee reference, pairs an irresistibly funny, Spike Jones-ish intro from Kulik with another astigmatically glistening horn chart and a spoof on latin flute funk. First Harvest, a wiccan song recorded on Lundbom’s previous album, gets a morosely terse new arrangement by Wood that Murray and Irabagon take up a notch. By contrast, W.P.S.M. takes a jauntily shuffling New Orleans-inspired strut outward, agitatedly..but then Elliott rescues it with some classic comic relief. The album winds up with Screamer, a loose, easygoing jam that seems tacked on for the hell of it. Who is the audience for this? People who like edgy sounds, and jazz with a vernacular that relies less on tunesmithing than creating and maintaining mood. This isn’t an album to lull you to sleep or dull your hangover but it sure as hell will make you feel something. It’s not officially out yet, although the first tune is up at Soundcloud.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing Massacre Decades of Hot Jazz

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest release on their Hot Cup label, Red Hot, is the great lost Spike Jones instrumental album. It’s the New York band’s most cartoonish, and also most accessible album: punk jazz doesn’t get any better, or more caustically funny than this. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott insists that this is the best thing the group has ever done, and he’s right. Over the past few years, MOPDtK have parodied everything from post-Ornette sounds to 70s and 80s elevator jazz. But with 20s hot jazz trending hard with the one-percenters, it became obvious that the time was right for the Spinal Tap of jazz to give this genre a vigorous twist to put it out of its misery. This is one sick record. This time out, the core of the band, including Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans is bolstered by bass trombone legend David Taylor, pianist Ron Stabinsky and banjo shredder Brandon Seabrook.

Underneath the incessant jokes, there’s a method to the madness. They bedevil each other with the uneven meters common in hot jazz. Seabrook adds an ever-present mosquito buzz as he tremolo-picks his strings, ad nauseum: even if you love the banjo, you will get sick of hearing from him. That’s part of the plan. Taylor, the first and probably only bass trombonist to ever play a solo show at Carnegie Hall, is in his eighth decade and has never tired of taking on a challenge, and fits in perfectly: he’s one of the funniest members of the cast.

As usual, most of the song titles refer to Pennsylvania towns. The Shickshinny Shimmy works a vaudevillian swing with droll comedic japes from the banjo and bass trombone,  morphing into a vaguely latin vamp and then back; a simplistic three-chord cliche gets in the way. Zelionople opens with a ridiculously long drum solo and then shuffles along with repeated breaks for tomfoolery every time the bass and drums drop out, a trope that repeats throughout the album with surprisingly interesting results. Taylor’s silly downsliding hands off to Evans, who disappears with a clam in his throat, then reappears as Irabagon shadows him with his tongue stuck out.

The title track,  a tongue-in-cheek march, goes doublespeed a la Spike Jones, Irabagon having a field day, mealymouthed and psyched to halfheartedly spoof dixieland along with the rest of the band. King of Prussia has a priceless ADD piano intro and solo from Stabinsky, spitball-in-waiting suspense from Seabrook and dorky acents from Evans. Turkey Foot Corner has Elliott imitating a tabla and introducing a barnyard scenario, Taylor aptly quoting a familar Wizard of Oz lick, Evans’ not-quite-there solo over Seabrook’s omnipresent deadpan woodpecker banjo.

Seabrook, Power, Plant explores the Romany influence on hot jazz, working its way down to a Nino Rota-on-acid bolero. Orange Is the Name of the Town jams out a faux sentimental waltz with weepy muted trumpet accents and a long interlude that Stabinsky slowly and hilariously unravels, lefthand and righthand oblivious to each other.

There are two more tracks. Gum Stump makes fun of blues cliches, Shea’s refusal to stay on track one of the album’s best jokes, Seabrook and Taylor muttering their disapproval. The last track, a hi-de-ho Cab Calloway shuffle, is a mess by the time they hit the second turnaround, Irabagon mealymouthing his first solo and practically regurgitating his second one, going out on a deadpan serious note. Don’t count on that next time around. The album comes complete with liner notes by “Leonardo Featheweight,” this time taking the story of a smoldering Pennsylvania ghost town to its logical conclusion.