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No New Abnormal

Tag: Mark Helias

A Spontaneously Rapturous Duo Album by Jane Ira Bloom and Mark Helias

A low-key duo album with Jane Ira Bloom on it might seem like the last thing you’d ever expect to hear, considering that she’s arguably this era’s great master of spine-tingling soprano sax pyrotechnics. Desperate times, desperate measures. Beginning in the terrorized early days of the lockdown, she and bassist Mark Helias began jamming over the web. The two quickly realized they were on to something. By September, they’d recorded enough material for an album, Some Kind of Tomorrow, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s two veterans with huge bags of riffs and spontaneous tunesmithing ability at the peak of their game.

“The thought of a world without a live, spontaneous musical connection was too hard to imagine,” Bloom confirms. Obviously, we can’t let lockdowner totalitarianism dictate how, when, where or even if recordings are made. But just the fact that Bloom and Helias were able to create such deeply conversational, moving interludes as these under the circumstances portends even more amazing things for these two as more and more musicians return from the virtual world to reality again.

In the album’s title track, Bloom weaves bits and pieces of a ballad – some of them distant echoes of My Favorite Things – as Helias keeps a dancing pulse going and pulls together a catchy, riff-driven groove that you will be humming to yourself afterward. Keep in mind that this was completely improvised.

Bloom treats us to sprightly spirals over Helias’ suspenseful, muted rumble as Magic Carpet takes flight. Then a spacious, similarly suspenseful dialogue ensues, Helias subtly introducing a Middle Eastern-tinged mode that Bloom picks up on immediately. Bloom flits around and induces some goosebumps with her trills, Helias jabbing and then sinking an anchor of stygian sustain to the river floor.

The two pursue a similar dichotomy in the sepulchral flickers of Early Rites: Bloom throws a flourish at Helias, then he bends it back with just enough of a different spin to keep the music slowly shifting.

The bassist pursues more of a shadowy response, then takes a tantalizing, stairstepping solo in the album’s fourth number, Willing, as Bloom plays sage, wee-hours blues phrases before following him into modal mystery again.

The two switch roles in Traveling Deep, Bloom’s broodingly liquid, clarinet-like phrasing in response to Helias’ jaunty harmonics. Their big, almost ten-minute epic is titled Roughing It, the closest thing to a spontaneous, lithely swinging ballad here before the two spin and drift into the ether again before triumphantly reconvening.

Spare, spacious contemplation returns and shifts into more tentative angst in Far Satellites: Helias’ high harmonics versus Bloom’s moody trils create one of the album’s most quietly riveting moments. Listening to Bloom develop one of the more lengthy themes and variations in Pros and Cons, from wistfulness to desolate blues is a treat. Again, Helias’ chromatics are the icing on the cake.

Drift is a master class in angst-fueled melismas and sheets of sustain. Helias takes the lead with his slides and chromatics as Bloom floats and flickers in Star Talk, one of the quietest and most haunting number here. First Canvas, a miniature, closes the album on a benedictory note.

A Phenomenally Tuneful, Catchy New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Multi-Instrumentalist Gordon Grdina

There’s a consensus among many musicians that if you can play one stringed instrument, you can learn to play them all if you put in the practice time. Gordon Grdina is persuasive proof: he’s as much of a force on the guitar as he is on the oud. And these days, when he’s not on tour, he’s become a welcome addition to the New York jazz scene. He’s got a couple of very different, very enticing gigs coming up. Tonight, June 14 at 8 he’s at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with Marrow, his oud-driven Middle Eastern jazz quartet with Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass and Hamin Honari on Persian percussion. Then this Saturday night, June 16 at 8 Grdina leads his more western-inflected guitar band with Oscar Noriega on reeds, Russ Lossing on piano and Satoshi Takeishi on drums at Greenwich House Music School. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

Grdina has new albums with both bands as well. To say that one is edgier than the other is a hard call, attesting to the unhinged intensity the guitar quartet is capable of – especially live. It was pretty hair-raising to catch that latter ensemble doing what was essentially a live rehearsal in the middle of nowhere in Bed-Stuy a few weeks back. Grdina’s latest album with that group, Inroads, is streaming at Bandcamp. The latest Marrow album, Edjeha – Farsi for dragon – isn’t officially out quite yet. And it’s nothing short of extraordinary, genuinely pushing the envelope in terms of how far an artist can take both Middle Eastern maqam music and American jazz.

As Edjeha gets underway, Grdina takes a sparse, incisive approach to the misterioso opening cut, Telesm, almost imperceptibly building to a series of scrambling clusters as Honari keeps a muted, funereal frame drum beat going. Then Roberts builds a plaintive solo as Helias and Honari run a hypnotic groove that eventually hits a triumphant scamper. It’s closer to Levantine classical music than is it to postbop swing.

Helias takes a turn in deliciously suspenseful mode to introduce Idiolect, an insistent, anthemic Middle Eastern jazz epic that veers into waltz time for a bit, both the bassist and cellist having unselfsconscious fun mining the microtones for all the unsettled intensity they’re worth, up to a joyously otherworldly Roberts solo.

Grdina rises out of a broodingly exploratory taqsim to a circling, stabbing theme in the album’s title track, Roberts taking an emphatic, steady solo as the group spin the central riff behind him. The deceptively catchy Bordeaux Bender juxtaposes Grdina’s spare oud against similarly terse bowed strings, intimating at a casual stroll but never quite going there.

The wyrly titled Wayward begins with a darkly haphazard improvisatory interlude before Honari leads the band through a series of grinningly machinegunning motives; then they bustle along with a devious, marionettish pulse, Roberts again jumping at the chance to give it a coda. Grdina’s plaintive intro to Full Circle is a pretty radical contrast, echoed by Roberts; then Grdina completely flips the script with his genial ballad phrasing. The album’s final number is Boubacar, a surrealistic mashup of Mali, boogie and stark 19th century country blues, a shout-out to the great Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore.

Whether you consider all this jazz, Middle Eastern music, both, or a brand-new style that Grdina’s just invented, this is one of New York’s best bands, bar none. And this is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year so far in any style of music.

David Krakauer Reinvents Oldschool New York Movie Music Downtown

David Krakauer is one of the most exhilarating clarinetists in town. His career spans the worlds of klezmer, classical music and jazz. His shows fronting the band Klezmer Madness in the 90s are legendary. He’s also New York to the core. His forthcoming album The Big Picture celebrates New York-centric film music from across the ages, a mix of well-known and obscure treasures, recorded with a killer band. He also has an intriguing residency coming up at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown at 36 Battery Place (just north and west of Battery Park) beginning on Jan 29 and continuing on Wednesdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM through the month of February. Krakauer and a characteristically diverse lineup including Rob Schwimmer on keyboards, Sara Caswell on violin, Sheryl Bailey on guitar, Mark Helias on bass and John Hadfield on drums will be backed by original films by Light of Day and Cutting Room Films, turning the musicians-play-to-the-celluloid paradigm on its head. Tix are very pricy – $35, or $30 for students and seniors – but Krakauer’s preview of the program last month with a trio was characteristically and auspiciously invigorating.

One of the new album’s high points is Krakauer’s austerely waltzing, nocturnal take of the Ralph Burns interlude titled The Family, from the 1974 Lenny Bruce biopic, Lenny. Another is Honeycomb, the psychedelically funky, early 70s Herbie Hancock-style theme from Barry Levinson’s Avalon, written by Randy Newman. How do you do Body and Soul and make it fresh? Turn it into a slinky noir clarinet feature and swing it from a hint of a waltz to a Lynchian sway over the pulse of Jim Black’s cymbals.

Among the other tracks on the album, there’s also a nonchlalant Parisian accordion waltz titled Keep It Gay that goes doublespeed with a droll lickety-split vaudevillian flair. La Vita E Bella begins airily and moves to a warmly bossa-flavored groove lowlit by Adam Rogers’ guitar. Krakauer, Rogers and violinist Jenny Scheinman make a surprisingly upbeat, anthemic, Celtic-tinged dance out of the Love Theme from Sophie’s Choice.

Moving to the Ghetto starts as a grudging solo clarinet theme over a muted accordion backdrop and builds to an aching dance, then turns the haunting melody over to Scheinman and Rogers, who make lingering art-rock out of it. The band creates nonchalant wah funk out of Si Tu Vois Ma Mere, takes a tongue-in-cheek, sotto vocce march through a familiar Prokofiev theme, makes surf rock out of an even more familiar Fiddler on the Roof vamp and ends the album with Wilkommen, which moves from a nocturne into a swinging romp in seconds flat.

Everything here serves more or less as a launching pad for Krakauer’s swirling, crescendoing, sometimes achingly intense, sometimes subtly witty clarinet solos. The only dud here is a turd from the Barbra Streisand catalog that even this all-star cast can’t polish. These album tracks are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of where Krakauer can take them. You’ve got more than a month to check all this out in a spacious, sonically superb auditorium.