New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: loren dempster

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. 


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. 

Salons and Suspects

This blog’s raison d’etre extends beyond publicizing the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin. But while the Salon was created to provide a forum for the best rock and rock-related songwriters in town to work up new material, it’s also designed to be a show that, if all the performers are on their game, is as fun to watch as it is to play. The last few weeks have been pretty amazing, with steady contributions from art-rock cellist Serena Jost (who’s got a brand-new album coming out next month, and a gig here on the 17th at 7); barroom sage John Hodel, who brought out an understated and absolutely haunting elegy for the Newtown massacre; Walter Ego (more about him a little later on this page), Chris Fuller, who held the crowd rapt with his edgy gypsy and bluesy sounds; and LJ Murphy, who with his band the Accomplices scorched through one of the hardest-rocking, intense sets the club has ever seen, to wind up Salon #14.

Chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos headlined Salon #15: both are pushing the envelope harder than ever toward the avant garde, with a spacious, pillowy, psychedelic yet often clenched-teeth intensity. The high points of their show were their hypnotic, apprehensively trance-inducing originals, although their covers were just as interesting. A few of the highlights were a nocturnal, enveloping version of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line; a jaggedly stunning, percussive version of Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog with some cruelly difficult crosshanded work by Kanelos; and a tale of Richard Thompson’s The Great Valerio so intense that you could hear a pin drop between chords, They’re playing Joe’s Pub on an excellent doublebill with historically-informed, theatrical Poor Baby Bree this Sunday the 17th.

The joke going around the club afterward was that this was the coldest night of the year, yet Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain packed the place. It makes you wonder how much crazier the crowd would have been if this was a summer evening. Frontman/guitarist Robert Greer sang with a soulful twang over Jesse Langlais’ rippling banjo, Bobby Britt’s fiddle and John Stickley’s bass. They did the first instrumental that Britt ever wrote, a killer tune with lots of unexpected changes, along with a mix of originals and covers that ran the gamut from the moody moonshine anthem Midnight Road, to a version of John Anderson’s Wild and Blue that gave new meaning to the song’s half-crazed drunken menace, to a couple of lickety-split romps including what seemed like a bluegrass update on the old Irish ballad Whiskey, Oh Whiskey. “Now for the doxology,” Greer announced to no one in particular, and then launched into the pensive drinking ballad Leave the Bottle, the shapeshifting title track to their excellent new album. It was a fun show, a cool reminder of how much good new bluegrass there is pushing up through the weeds not only here but everywhere.

The following night, former Dog Show bandleader Jerome O’Brien took the stage with that group’s lead guitarist Jack Martin for the first time since a Kid Congo Powers show sometime in the mid-90s. Both musicians share a wry sense of humor, Martin’s biting slide work and emphatic, hard-hitting phrases complementing O’Brien’s sardonic lyrical torrents. As underground NYC rock nostalgia, this was just about as good as catching the band at their peak at the C-Note or Tonic about ten years ago. As low-key as the show was – just two guys with guitars – the positive energy was through the roof, through the nonchalantly cruel Saturday Nights Are for Amateurs, a bouncy reinvention of If I Laugh Anymore I’ll Break – a slyly exuberant celebration of pre-gentrification nocturnal entertainment – and a knowing take of the big audience hit This One Thing. O’Brien has a monthly residency here and if all goes according to plan will be back at Zirzamin on April 8 at 7 PM.

Beninghove’s Hangmen played afterward. They’re another band with a residency here, Mondays at around 9:30, and as usual they rampaged through an assaultively psychedelic set of noir jazz and original film themes as well as the macabre surf rock of Surf n’ Turk and Surfin’ Satie. Frontman/saxophonist Bryan Beninghove likes Middle Eastern sounds, finds the missing link between Ethiopian melody and Erik Satie and knows his way around a latin tune. Guitarist Dane Johnson led them in a surprisingly low-key, oldschool version of Tequila before they got rolling, through a moody reggae vamp and a creepy new waltz. A little later they took Quatro Loko, a salsa groove that’s so cheery it just begs to be ripped to shreds, and did exactly that, with high-voltage soprano sax from Beninghove and a careening, tumbling Rick Parker trombone solo. They closed with a cover of Led Zep’s Kashmir that did justice to the original, right down to the bassline, while turning loose the stoned monster inside.

Salon #16 was one of the best ones so far, featuring an absolutely sizzling set by Trio Tritticali, who did double duty as the house string section, most notably in providing a lush, haunting backdrop for a couple of creepy Lorraine Leckie chamber pop songs. Who says classically trained players can’t improvise? Violist Leanne Darling, cellist Loren Dempster and violinist Helen Yee are brilliant composer-performers, “daring to go where no string trio has gone before,” as Darling made clear early on. They gave a raw nonchalant intensity to Osvaldo Pugliese’s tango La Yumba, Yee’s arrangement of Mark Orton’s Helium also spiced with brooding Argentinian flavor. Was the best song of the night Darling’s artful new arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab bellydance classic Zeima, or her ingenious baroque ska take on A Message to You Rudie, or Yee’s powerfully crescendoing Candles in the Windows, or Dempster’s haunting, chromatically-fueled anthem Who Knows Yet? It’s impossible to choose. The three wrapped up the show with Darling’s funky, Bowie-esque Issue No. 1 (title track to their most recent album) in an explosive flurry of chamber metal. They’re at Freddy’s on March 22 at 8.