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Tag: kenny wollesen

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

Trumpeter Steph Richards Puts Out Her Most Adventurous, Challenging Album

When trumpeter Steph Richards led an animated quartet through a dynamic set full of daunting extended technique at Public Records in Brooklyn back in July of last year, rumors were already circulating that the weekly jazz night there might be over soon. And it was. But whoever thought that beyond busking – or a restaurant gig, ouch – Richards might not even have an established venue to play in New York in 2020? If the lockdowners get their way, folks, we will never get to see live jazz outside of a park, or a streetcorner, or a probably super-quiet house party.

Fortunately, in the meantime, we have Richards’ new album Supersense, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s her most adventurous release yet. Her inspired band here includes pianist Jason Moran, bassist Stomu Takeishi and Kenny Wollesen on drums plus his Wollesonics assortment of large and small gadgets to be spun and struck. The tracks here are on the short side, seemingly almost completely improvised and full of high-energy repartee rather than the calmer, more atmospheric material Richards has released lately.

Mutedly dancing prepared piano, fuzzy bass growl and percussive flickers give way to Richards’ washes and flutters in the increasingly amusing opening number, Underbelly. Swaying funk and a little frenetic swing underpin the sharply bursting riffage of the album’s title track, Moran’s majestic chords and motives anchoring Richards’ charging lines, Takeishi’s burbles ushering in a reflecting pool and then a murky stomp.

Canopy, with Moran’s glittery but understated cascades and Takeishi’s signature growl, is a launching pad for the bandleader’s high-voltage flurries. Richards and Takeishi exchange wavery echo phrases over Moran’s sober, spacious chordal series and Wollesen’s similarly judicious accents in the next number, Glass.

Everybody rumbles and scampers in the hasty improvisation Metal Mouth, followed by Bunker, where Wollesen goes through his collection of objects as Richards snorts and strains away from the center over Takeishi’s insistence. Rumbles, ripples and suddenly cut-off trumpet phrases mingle in Matter in Water, while Sleeping in the Sky is a chilly, flutelike tableau with the occasional thunderstorm motif.

Richards winds up the album with The Gentlest Insect, her fluttering accents and warmly lyrical lines awash in surreal ambience and water-instrument ripples. Fun fact: this is the only known jazz album whose credits include someone in charge of “scent design.” That person is Sean Raspet. We can only hope for the best in that regard. The electronic press kit containing the tracks didn’t smell like anything.

Phantasmagoria and Playful Jousting on Sylvie Courvoisier’s Latest Trio Album

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier’s music can be dark and pensive, but a puckish sense of humor often pops up unexpectedly. Free Hoops, her latest album with one of the few consistent, long-running trios in jazz, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums, is one of her most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums. Streaming at Bandcamp, it’s one of the high points in what’s been a long, ceaselessly creative run for her since the zeros. For jazz fans who might miss Kris Davis’ work from when she was exclusively a pianist, Courvoisier is a bracing breath of fresh air.

Marionettish, low-register scrambles alternate with saturnine, latin-inflected chords and playful, flitting exchanges throughout the album’s title track, Wollesen getting to wryly circle the perimeter. Similarly phantasmagorical, circling riffage kicks off the second number, Lulu Dance, Wollesen again volleying colorfully around the kit as Courvoisier runs the riff against Gress’ muted rhythm, up to another coy game of tag from the three musicians and then back.

Just Twisted is exactly that: crepuscular glimmers, a bit of a grim boogie, cold low accents, slashes and rattles from the whole ensemble. The three coalesce flickeringly into Requiem Pour Un Songe. imagine Bill Mays playing a vampy David Lynch set piece by Angelo Badalamenti, with a dancing bass solo followed by a slightly crazed piano break in the middle.

Courvoisier’s eerie, glittering phrases follow Gress’ clave in As We Are, before the rhythm comes apart and elbows start flying. Then in Birdies of Paradise, the bass, atmospheric cymbals and Wollesen’s tongue-in-cheek avian flickers follow Courvoisier’s poltergeist neoromantic flourishes. Finally, six songs into the record, Gress hits a tritone or two.

The insistent intro to Galore is the album’s most overtly macabre interlude, then the trio hit a slow, stark, funky, swing: this Frankenstein walks on tiptoe. Bits of Lynchian stripper swing and icy Messiaenic climbs mingle in Nicotine Sarcoline, Wollesen luring Courvoisier to a vengeful crescendo. They close the record with Highway 1, rising out of an ominously rumbling, shivering nightscape to a grimly minimalist, ghostly analogue of a Rachmaninoff prelude and then back, sinister waves gently eroding the coastline. A strong contender for best jazz album of 2020.

Emi Makabe’s Fearless Individualistic Debut Album Blends Jazz, Japanese Folk and the Tropics

The first time anybody from this blog was in the house at an Emi Makabe show, it was a rapt, often otherworldly, early midweek gig in the fall of 2017 at 55 Bar in the West Village. That evening she mixed up vocal and instrumental numbers, joined by Vitor Goncalves on accordion, Thomas Morgan (fresh off Bill Frisell tour) on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

Fast forward to 2020: the bar is closed, but Makabe has just released her debut album, Anniversary, a similarly magical, fearlessly individualistic blend of jazz, Japanese folk music and tropicalia streaming at youtube. Makabe is a singer whose axe is the shamisen, a lute with a somewhat banjo-like timbre which is ubiquitous in Japan but not particularly well known here. If all goes well it will be more familiar to American jazz fans by the time she makes her next album…or plays 55 Bar again, assuming it survives.

The album’s first track is Treeing, a briskly surreal but verdant bossa nova tune which Makabe introduces with spiky shamisen, Goncalves’ piano following an incisive upward drive

Her expressive mezzo-soprano shifts from a resonant presence to soaring intensity in the aptly titled Joy, Goncalves’ bristling lines matched by Morgan’s bubbling pulse and Wollesen’s colorful, counterintuitive cymbals: at this point in his career, he might have the most interesting plates in all of jazz.

Chimney Sweeper, a setting of a William Blake poem about a homeless boy, engages the bass and drums just a hair ahead or behind the piano, and vice versa, a neat effect: Makabe’s point seems to be that we naturallly reach out to the less fortunate, no matter what century we’re in.

Makabe breaks out the shamisen again for Moon & I – an original, not the Karla Rose psychedelic soul ballad – and hits a gorgeously nocturnal, dizzyingly polyrhythmic drive. Goncalves’ glittering upper-register modalities are literally out of this world.

The hazy, rubato-ish changes of Something Love offer tantalizing omens: the close-miking on Wollesen’s drums, in tandem with Morgan’s spare pulse and Goncalves’ lyricism pays off mightily. The spiky interweave of Makabe’s shamisen with the piano in the hypnotic yet anthemic Flash is texturally delicious, capped off with her disquietingly captivating vocalese.

I Saw the Light – another original, not the gospel standard – makes a great segue with Goncalves’ Lynchian modes and Makabe’s guardedly hopeful, ambered vocals over an increasingly busy rhythmic drive. Goncalves switches to accordion, Wollesen to vibes for Mielcke, a bittersweetly enveloping, tableau and one of the album’s high points.

Makabe returns to uneasy, rainswept, vividly bittersweet modes for O Street, a jazz waltz. She goes back to a lilting tropical milieu for the deceptively catchy, matter-of-fact Rino and closes the album with the plainspoken title track, her pensive vocals and Morgan’s churning bass bringing to mind the classic Sarah Vaughan/Joe Comfort duets of the early 60s.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmly lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

Irrepressible Trumpeter Steven Bernstein Brings His Two Hottest Bands to the Jazz Standard This Week

Sexmob – trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen – have been making magically surreal, darkly cinematic sounds since the late 90s. As you will see below, good things happen when they turn up. They’re at the Jazz Standard tomorrow, March 8 and Friday, March 9 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; $30 cover isn’t too bad considering that the club has no minimums (but good food, incidentally).

Then Bernstein leads his historically-infused, hard-swinging Millennial Territory Orchestra – whose reinventions of Sly Stone songs are a real trip –  there on the 10th and 11th. Check out this lineup: Charlie Burnham on violin; Curtis Fowlkes on trombone; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax; Erik Lawrence on baritone sax; Matt Munisteri on guitar; Ben Allison on bass; and Ben Perowsky on drums. It’s as if legendary Lower East Side hotspot Tonic – where an empty “luxury” condo now stands – was still open.

Here’s what Sexmob sounded like last July in Prospect Park:

“…a wickedly amusing, entertaining score to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno…it’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet…part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.”

They’re saving the fire for the Jazz Standard gigs.