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Tag: Meg Okura

Revisiting a Lavish, Exquisitely Textured, Symphonic Big Band Album by Brian Landrus

Listening to one Brian Landrus album makes you want to hear more. It’s impossible to think of another baritone saxophonist from this era , or for that matter any other, who’s a more colorful composer. Landrus’ masterpiece so far is his titanic Generations big band album, which hit the web about four years ago and is streaming at Spotify. A grand total of 25 players go deep into its lavish, meticulously layered, completely outside-the-box charts .

It opens with The Jeru Concerto, equally inspired by the patron saint of baritone sax big band composition, Gerry Mulligan, as well as Landrus’ young son. Right off the bat, the band hit a cantering rhythm with distant echoes of hip-hop, but also symphonic lustre, the bandleader entering suavely over starry orchestration. He ripples and clusters and eventually leads the group to a catchy, soul-infused theme that could be Earth Wind and Fire at their most symphonic and organic.

A tightly spiraling solo baritone interlude introduces the second segment on the wings of the string section, Landrus’ soulful curlicues and spacious phrasing mingling with the increasingly ambered atmosphere and an unexpected, cleverly shifting pulse. The third movement calms again: watch lights fade from every room, until a more-or-less steady sway resumes. The textures, with harpist Brandee Younger and vibraphonist Joe Locke peeking up as bustling counterpoint develops throughout the group, are exquisite.

The conclusion begins with an altered latin groove, the bandleader shifting toward a more wary theme, neatly echoed in places by the orchestra, ornate yet incredibly purposeful. Landrus moves between a balmy ballad and anxious full-ensemble syncopation, cleverly intertwining the themes up to a casually triumphant final baritone solo.

Orchids, a surreal reggae tune, opens with a starry duet between Younger and Locke and rises to a big sax-fueled peak. Arise is even more playfully surreal, a haphazardly optimistic mashup of Kool and the Gang and Gershwin at his most orchestrally blustery. The Warrior has a Holst-like expanse underpinned by a subtle forward drive from the bass (that’s either Jay Anderson or Lonnie Plaxico) as well as incisive trumpet and violin solos and a triumphant march out.

Arrow in the Night is a comfortably nocturnal prelude with a dark undercurrent: things are not always as they seem. With its persistent, top-to-bottom light/dark contrasts, Human Nature comes across as a busier yet vampier take on classic Gil Evans.

Ruby, dedicated to Landrus’ daughter, has as much gentle playfulness as balminess, with puckish accents, a lyrical baritone solo and an undulating rhythm: this kid is fun, but she’s got a plan and she sticks to it. The ensemble close with Every Time I Dream, a catchy, dancingly orchestrated hip-hop theme akin to a more lavish take on Yaasin Bey’s adventures in new classical music, flurrying trumpet pulling the orchestra out of a momentary reverie.

An epic performance from a rotating cast that also includes drummers Billy Hart andJustin Brown, Jamie Baum, Tom Christensen, Darryl Harper, Michael Rabinowitz and Alden Banta among the reeds; Debbie Schmidt, Ralph Alessi, Igmar Thomas, Alan Ferber and Marcus Rojas as the brass; and a string section of Sara Caswell, Mark Feldman, Joyce Hammann, Meg Okura, Lois Martin, Nora Krohn, Jody Redhage and Maria Jeffers.

Wild, Outside-the-Box Orchestral Reinventions of Steely Dan Favorites

Guitarist Andrew Green can shred with anyone, but he’s also a first-rate, imaginative composer and arranger. About ten years ago, he put out a deliciously shadowy album of original film noir-inspired pieces titled Narrow Margin. His latest record, Dime Dancing – streaming at Bandcamp – is an orchestral take on the Steely Dan catalog, both the hits and some deeper cuts. The charts are as playful and clever as the originals, and frontwoman Miriam Waks brings Donald Fagen’s allusively sinister, druggy lyrics into crystalline focus. Suddenly these songs make a lot of sense! What a treat for fans of the Dan.

They open with the radio staple Black Cow. This balmy neoclassical version picks up with the counterpoint between the oboe’s single-note lines – that’s either Dan Wieloszynski or Kenny Berger –  and the strings of violinist Meg Okura and cellist Jody Redhage. Frontwoman Miriam Waks sings it with a coy cynicism, then Green makes bluegrass out of it with some unexpectedly purist flatpicking.

Curto and Waks give Aja a hazy, languid atmosphere with rhythmic echoes of Steve Reich; is that percussionist Vince Cherico on tabla? And who knew that Any World That I’m Welcome To was such a wish song? Waks brings new depth to Fagen’s alienated hippie protagonist over jaunty, string-whipped salsa-rock, with a wry Spanish-language descarga at the end.

Green and Waks reinvent Reelin’ in the Years at what feels like quarterspeed, with enigmatic harmonies and a strikingly wounded vocal. Drummer Richie Barshay’s opening groove in Dirty Work is LMAO funny and too good to spoil – then the ensemble do the song as surprisingly straight-up, bubbly chamber pop with a spiraling, forro-inspired solo by accordionist Rob Curto..

They ease into Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, reinventing it as a stark, disquieting, baroque-tinged acoustic waltz: Waks leaves no doubt about what happened to Daddy. The most obscure and least memorable track here, Everything You Did gets a strutting vaudevillian arrangement with muted trumpet. Green and crew wind up the record with a balmy, bittersweet, slowly enveloping take of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Unquestionably one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

Violinist Meg Okura Brings Her Kaleidoscopic Melodic Sorcery to Jazz at Lincoln Center

Anne Drummond’s flute wafts over Brian Marsella’s uneasily rippling, neoromantic piano as the opening title track on violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble’s new album, Ima Ima gets underway. Then the piano gives way to Riza Printup’s spare harp melody before the rest of the orchestra waltz in elegantly. That kind of fearless eclecticism, love of unorthodox instrumentation and laserlike sense of catchy melodies have defined Okura’s work for over a decade. The new record is streaming at Bandcamp. She and the group are playing the album release show at Dizzy’s Club tomorrow night, August 20, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is steep, $35, but this is an amazing record with a brilliant band.

The lush cinematics of that first number wind up with a shift in tempo, a wistful Sam Newsome soprano sax solo and a big crescendo based on those distantly ominous opening ripples. The epic, practically eleven-minute A Summer in Jerusalem slowly coalesces with suspenseful textures from top to bottom, the high strings of the harp down to Sam Sadigursky’s bass clarinet, surrounded by ghostly flickers. As the piece gets going, it turns into a mighty, shapeshifting Middle Eastern soul tune, more or less. Marsella’s Rhodes piano bubbles enigmatically behind Tom Harrell’s stately Andalucian trumpet and Okura working every texture and microtone you could get out of a violin. Blithe ba-ba vocalese and spiky guitar against Okura’s calm, a gentle harp/trumpet duet and then a big magnificent coda fueled by the bass clarinet offer contrasting vignettes of a time that obviously left a big mark on the bandleader.

Ebullient, bluesy muted trumpet, violin and bass clarinet spice A Night Insomnia, a steady Hollywood hills boudoir funk number that finally picks up steam with a juicy chromatic riff at the end. Birth of Shakyamuni (a.k.a. Buddha) opens with a balletesque, Tschaikovskian flair, then shifts to a Rachmaninovian bolero that brightens and flies down to Bahia on the wings of the guitar and flute. Then Okura shifts gears with an achingly beautiful opening-credits theme of sorts – would it be overkill to add Rimsky-Korsakov to this litany of Russians?

The steady, majestic, velvety Blues in Jade is all about suspense, peppered by judicious violin and vocalese cadenzas, enigmatic microtones floating from individual voices as Pablo Aslan’s bass and Jared Schonig’s drums maintain a tight, muted syncopation. Marsella’s chromatically allusive piano solo leads to a mighty crescendo that falls away when least expected.

Black Rain – a shattered 3/11 reflection from this Tokyo-born composer, maybe? – opens with Okura’s stark erhu soio, then rises with a bittersweet sweep to a more optimistic Marsella piano solo before Okura pulls the music back the shadows, ending with an almost frantically angst-fueled erhu theme.

The album’s concluding number is Tomiya, a wildly surreal mashup of Russian romanticism, vintage swing, Japanese folk themes and samba. This isn’t just one of the best jazz albums of the year – it’s one of the best albums of any kind of music released this year. Who do we have to thank for starting the meme that resulted in so many women of Japanese heritage creating such a vast body of amazing, outside-the-box big band jazz like this? Satoko Fujii, maybe?

A Richly Tuneful, Darkly Majestic Twinbill in Gowanus on the 22nd

In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band jazz than the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra. They’re playing Brooklyn’s home of big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab on Feb 22 at 9 PM. Another excellent ensemble, violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, opens the night at 8. Cover here is usually in the $10-15 range and has yet to be determined by the venue, at least according to their concert calendar.

The most recent (full disclosure: only) time this blog was in the house at one of the jazz orchestra’s shows was on a muggy night in September of 2015 at Shrine up in Harlem. Since that was a long time ago, it’s reasonable to expect their set to be somewhat different. While it’s overly reductionistic to characterize Baker’s work as marked by tectonically shifts and Seguine’s by picturesque narratives and sardonic, sometimes dark humor, those qualities factor heavily into their respective writing. Here’s what happened at that show many months ago.

An uneasily steady, insistent piano melody gave way to lustrous atmospherics with wordless womens’ voices sailing overhead. As the piece went on, it shifted further toward the macabre: Darcy James Argue seems to be a big influence on this one. A trumpet fluttered and finally flared as the enigmatic lustre grew and the rhythmic drive rose, then the piece finally went down an echoey rabbit hole into fullscale terror as the piano anvilled sardonically through the mist.

The next number on the bill began by building a stately, steady, similarly enigmatic atmosphere that went in just as much of an ominous direction as the first, an apprehensively bending tenor sax solo over grimly massed sustain from the orchestra; then they pounced along, sax going full steam, over a beat that was practically ska. They ended it quietly and suddenly with more of that insistent piano riffage.

A stormy brass-and-vocalese intro kicked off the tune after that, but then the band pulled back quickly in favor of a hypnotic, resonantly pedaled piano melody, vocalese hovering overhead. A cascading piano melody over moody modal changes kicked off the next lush series of waves, up to a mighty crescendo, a surreal drums-and-vocals interlude, a stuck car horn-like passage, a bit of a pause and then a return to calm moodiness. Looking back, this was a pretty dark set!

From there the group took a slow, relentless series of upward climbs in the next piece, punctuated by a fluttering and eventually wailing tenor sax solo, then a slowly strolling, saturnine lustre that made a long launching pad for a trombone solo that eventually fell away mournfully. The carnivalesque, latin-tinged theme that followed had to be a Seguine composition: nobody writes like her, and this was a blazing good time spiced with wry, evil cartoon trombone, a pirate’s-boot strut, twisted nickelodeon piano and more than one peek-a-boo ending. And that was just the first set.

Considering how much time has passed since this show, it’s hard to picture just who, out of a handful of familiar faces, was in the group, other than Baker on reeds and Seguine conducting out in front of the group with a confident grace. The ubiquitous Ben Kono on alto sax, probably, and Scott Reeves on valve trombone, maybe. Seguine and Baker’s compositions are so much fun to play that they always get top-tier talent for their infrequent gigs: if big band jazz is your thing, miss this one and be sorry later.

A Brilliant Valentine’s Afternoon Big Band Show in Gowanus With Miho Hazama’s Darkly Amusing, Cutting-Edge Epics

What’s the likelihood that five of the world’s most happening composers in big band and chamber jazz would be Japanese-American women from New York? And what’s the chance that they would all converge for an afternoon in the middle of Gowanus, Brooklyn? Believe it, it’s happening on February 14 at 4 PM when the 17-piece Sakura Jazz Orchestra plays material by Miho Hazama, Asuka Kakitani, Migiwa Miyajima, Meg Okura, and Noriko Ueda at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15, and there are other more expensive options with perks for those with the means of supporting the artists on a patronage level. A night out on Valentine’s Day may be a no-fly zone for both those of us with sweethearts and those without, but this show’s early start time enables you to get home in time for snuggling…or to get away from the weirdos.

Edgy violinist Okura, leader of the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, is the senior member of the composer contingent. Bassist Ueda has lately split her time between playing big band gigs and leading her own purposeful, tuneful trio, while pianist Miyajima focuses more specifically on big, powerful, enveloping compositions. While it might seem farfetched to imagine an album any more lustrous or rhythmically shapeshifting than Kakitani’s magnificent 2012 debut album Bloom with her Big Band, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that about Hazama’s debut from the same year, Journey to Journey, streaming at Spotify and recorded with her 13-piece ensemble M-Unit.

It’s a landmark of largescale composition, one of the most counterintuitively and imaginatively arranged releases of this decade. It’s as ambitious a debut big band jazz album as anyone’s ever recorded. It instantly put Hazama on the map alongside Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue and Erica Seguine. Hazama’s erudition across many, many idioms is astonishing even in this era when you can youtube pretty much anything. And she can be hilarious, often with a sarcastic or occasionally cruel streak.

Hazama is a wild storyteller, and in those epic narratives she does pretty much everything you can do with, or would want from a large jazz ensemble. Instruments are paired and arranged unexpectedly, and hardly anything ever repeats. Drama and surprise are where you least expect them. Hazama engages a string quartet for melody and color as much as she employs the brass and reeds. She loves textures, particularly strange and unnerving ones, fueling the impression that she has even more of a dark side than she lets on. And the musicians, a cast of allstar and rising star talent, have a ball with this music.

The opening cut, Mr. O portrays a garrulous amusement park owner, with all kinds of droll conversation between various band members, and sections, plus plenty of neat echo phrases, chattering between voices and a bit of unexpectedly woozy surrealism. Tokyo Confidencial shifts from bustling, airconditioned clave to hints of a classic by the Doors, diverges toward reggae and eventually emerges as a rather beautiful neoromantically-tinged anthem. Blue Forest beefs up genially bluesy Nat King Cole phrasing with ambitoiusly expansive Gil Evans colors.

The title track never settles in groovewise even while it shifts in many directions, as Kakutani likes to do. Droll solo spots contrast with underlying, toweringly cinematic unease; there’s a charmingly coy, marionettish exchange, hints of Afro-Cuban melody and a very intense, agitated coda, the kind that you seldom hear in jazz. Paparazzi, which is just as sweeping and even funnier, opens hilariously as it mimics the “this won’t play” sound from a computer. Furtive stalkers too easily pleased do not get off well on this track, at all, and Hazama is very specific and articulate about thas. Hazama returns to fullscale angst bordering on horror with Believing in Myself, which should come with a question mark, a harrowing chamber-jazz number with a relentless ache and inner turmoil, her own Monk-tinged piano rippling moodily through it up the least expected cartoonish interlude ever written. Does she go as far over the top with you think she might? If you haven’t heard it, no spoilers.

She follows the simply titled Ballad – a fragmentary tone poem of sorts – with What Will You See, which mingles allusions to funk and Jim McNeely newschool swing with devious permutations on a chattering horn theme. That and the easygoing final cut, Hidamari are the closest things to the kind of large-ensemble stuff you typically hear at the Vanguard or Jazz at Lincoln Center, but even here, Hazama can’t resist pulling away from contentment as her divergent voicings take centerstage when she winds it up.

By contrast, the album’s followup, last year’s Time River – which doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, at least in English – seems like a grab bag, if a grab bag from a really good party. It seems aimed at a more trad jazz audience, the arrangements are simpler and there’s an interlude which what sound like set pieces from films – good ones, admittedly. And there are still plenty of the kind of delicious moments that pepper Hazama’s work. Muted Brazilian-flavored drums add unexpected color to the rather trad postbop of The Urban Legend. The tremolo effect on James Shipp’s vibraphone and a gritty soul detective theme give Cityscape as vast a panorama as the title calls for. Hazama employs Gil Golstein’s accordion for a lengthy, harmonically edgy excursion to rival Astor Piazzolla at his most avant garde in the tango-inspired Under the Same Moon, while the ensemble gallops over an altered qawwali beat with all kinds of playful handoffs up to a tricky false ending and explosive coda on Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower.

After the surrealistically warping, oscillating string piece Alternate Universe, Was That Real? Hazama’s furtive piano introduces her chamber-jazz Fugue – an early composition n that already showcases her irrepressible wit as well as her penchant for stormy intensity. The epic title track is the only one that really reaches for the debut album’s titanic majesty, building out of an uneasily circling, Philip Glass-tinged riff, through brashly charging swing passages to the unease that Hazama so often confronts, ending unresolved after a frantically sailing peak. After that, making swing out of an 80s goth-pop hit by A Perfect Circle seems an afterthought, tacked on to end the album on an upbeat note. It’ll be interesting to see how much of this demanding but richly rewarding material the orchestra can handle on the 14th.

A Lively, Richly Arranged New Big Band Album and a Smalls Show from Emilio Solla

Pianist Emilio Solla writes colorful, rhythmic, ambitiously orchestrated music that could be called latin jazz, but it’s a lot more eclectic and global in scope than your basic salsa vamp with long horn solos. Like his music, Solla is well-traveled: born in Argentina and now in New York for the past decade after a long stopover in Spain. His new album Second Half with his brilliant nine-piece ensemble La Inestable de Brooklyn – streaming at Spotify– draws equally on Piazzolla-inspired nuevo tango, Brazilian, Spanish Caribbean and American jazz sounds. Solla and his mighty group have a show this Sunday, May 7 at 4:30 PM at Smalls; cover is $20, and you get a drink with that.

The band comprises some of the more adventurous jazz players in New York: Tim Armacost on saxophones and alto flute; John Ellis on tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet; Alex Norris on trumpet, Ryan Keberle on trombone; Meg Okura on violin; Victor Prieto on accordion; Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums. Much as the title of the opening track, Llegará, Llegará, Llegará, implies that there’s something just around the corner, it’s a nonstop series of bright, incisive, alternating voices over a galloping, samba-tinged groove, a real roller-coaster ride, as lush as it is protean.It’s especially interesting to hear Solla’s original here, compared to the blistering cover by bagpiper Cristina Pato, which is practically punk rock by comparison.

The second track, Chakafrik has a brass-fueled Afro-Cuban flavor subtly spiced with accordion and violin and more of those intricately intertwining, polyrhythmic exchanges of riffs from throughout the group. The Piazzolla-inspired Para La Paz brings the volume and tempo down somewhat, but not the energy, lit up by warmly lyrical solos from tenor sax and trumpet up to a big, lush crescendo.

The first part of Solla’s epic Suite Piazzollana (his Spanish group Afines did the second) takes a bouncy folk theme in all sorts of directions: how do you say dixieland in Spanish? Tierra del sur? From there, Solla builds a long, exploratory piano solo, then the band take a judicious, rather tender interlude, Norris’ resonant trumpet paired against Okura’s uneasy staccato violin. The long build out from there makes the group sound twice as large as it is, with their constant exchanges of riffage.

Esencia sets bright, hefty newschool big band textures over an altered clave beat, Solla’s rather droll, vamping second solo kicking off a big, rapidfire, bustling coda. American Patrol is a jovial blend of Mexican folk and New Orleans swing – when the quote from the cartoon comes in, it’s impossible not to laugh. Raro, a bustling, cinematically swinging number, edges toward the noir, with more tasty trumpet-violin jousting and a very clever switch from dancing, staccato brass to brooding nuevo tango orchestration. The last track is Rhythm Changed, another very clever arrangement, with its understated polyrhythms and uneasy harmonies from throughout the band circulating through a pretty standard midtempo swing tune. Throughout the album, the performance is tight and driving but also comfortable: this crew obviously has a good time playing this material, and it’s contagious. Not what you might expect from a group who call themselves “The Brooklyn Unstable.”