New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: msuic

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

Rajasthani Caravan Bring Their Ecstatic Punjabi Party Spectacle to This Year’s Cutting-Edge Drive East Festival

As the lights went down for Rajasthani Cavavan’s wild, ecstatic performance at this year’s Drive East Festival at Dixon Place last night, the sound of bagpipes filtered in from outside. Was there a Scottish theatre piece going on in an adjacent room? As it turned out, no. Dressed in a traditional North Indian outfit and a bright red-and-green-patterned turban, Taga Ram Bheel walked in playing surreal, austere close harmonies on a wooden double-reed instrument, the murali. For about twenty seconds, it was exotic sonic bliss. Then he calmly turned around and walked out.

The audience laughed nervously. Was this it? Meanwhile, a sharp sword and what looked like a giant candleholder sat in the middle of the floor. What kind of mayhem had there been in the night’s previous dance perrformance…or was about to happen?

Group leader Katrina Ji answered that question about half an hour into the spectacle. Backed by the four-piece Ustad Arba Music Group alternating between several high and low register percussion instruments plus drony twin flutes and harmonium, she put the sword between her teeth – blade side out –  and crowned herself with the metal object. And then slowly, in one seamless motion,  slunk to the floor on her stomach and grabbed her ankles from behind. And then wiggled her eyebrows at the crowd.

That magical murali finally made a second appearance much later in the show, during a catchy, swaying, bouncy traditional dance number. Concerts earlier in the week at this vast annual showcase for classical sounds from across the Hindustani subcontinent  were about transcendence and emotional intensity: this was a party. Percussionists, Imamddin and Firoze Khan made that clear right from the start with a droll, irresistibly funny rhythmic conversation between clickety-clack castanets and boomy dholak double-headed drum. Harmonium player Jalal Khan drew the crowd in with his rapidfire lefthand phrases and expansive, dynamic vocal range, finally hitting some high notes at the end that you wouldn’t expect a dramatic, powerful baritone to be able to reach. His colleague in the dholak was his shout man on the vocals  – if you buy that hip-hop reference – holding down the lows, the two indulging in a lot of jousting.

The group peppered the mix of swaying, bouncy songs from both northern India and Pakistan with a balmy love ballad and a big dramatic anthem. Most of the lyrics illustrated a series of amusing battle-of-the-sexes scenarios. The lilting tunes had an irrepressible cheer: the Punjab, at least as these guys depict it, is a party place. The only thing that felt strange was to be sitting and swaying rather than being out on a dancefloor.

Meanwhile, Ji went through several costume changes, including one with a series of bells down her left leg, and played jaunty, tinkling melodies on them with a couple of bells slung around her wrists. Midway through the set, the group explained how they’d convinced the American-born Ji – a longtime devotee of Rajasthani music – to enlist them as her backing band. Since then the group has become more of a collaborative effort.

For the final part of the performance, they brought up Pakisani crooner Junaid Younus for what he said was the first collaboration between a star of Coke Studio (the Pakistani counterpart to Soul Train) and a Rajasthani group. Despite having never performed together, they sparred and traded riffs through a mix of languages and styles ranging from Punjabi Indian to Pakistani qawwali and finally wound up the night with an ecstatic singalong: even the non-Punjabi speakers got involved after Younus egged them on.

The Drive East Festival comes to a close today, August 27, with a marathon series of music and dance performances starting this afternoon at 2 PM with the riveting, lavish sounds of the only Indian carnatic choir in this hemisphere, the Navatman Music Collective; $20 tix are still available as of this hour. There are also two ambitious, stylistically cross-pollinated performances afterward for those who know something about or take an interest in Indian dance traditions. And Rajasthani Caravan’s next stop on their current tour is tonight at 7:45 PM at the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival at Baratiya Temple, 1612 County Line Road in Chalfont, Pennsylvania; admission is free with a wristband, so get there early.

A Playfully Rapturous Duo Performance by Bora Yoon and Florent Ghys

While enigmatic, surrealistic multi-instrumentalist and singer Bora Yoon is known for her eclectic improvisations, it’s obvious that she puts a great deal of thought into how she stages them. It could be said that she personifies Stravinsky’s old comment about composition simply being improvisation written down. So the funniest moment at her duo performance last week at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village with bassist Florent Ghys might well have been scripted. But maybe it wasn’t. Midway through an atmospheric, magically otherworldly number, Ghys – who had been supplying wispy atmospherics – playfully took a couple of steps over to Yoon’s mixing board and fiddled with it. If this was a joke, she took it in stride. If it wasn’t, she deserves an Oscar for her split-second “Don’t. You. Dare. Do. That. Again.” glance in Ghys’ direction. It’s the kind of moment you can expect at the venue’s currently weekly Uncharted festival of avant garde sounds. The installment this Thursday, May 5 at 7:30 PM features deviously fun cabaret/chamber pop chanteuse Grace McLean singing selections from her forthcoming Hildegard Von Bingen opera In the Green. $15 cover includes open bar – which last week amounted to a couple of beers before the show, although McLean draws a boisterous young crowd who might indulge more than they did at the raptly ethereal performance by Yoon and Ghys.

The bassist had the good sense to leave centerstage to his counterpart. His signature trope is loopmusic, a very difficult act to pull off live. Ghys displayed great timing and a perfect memory, deftly layering his usual blend of atmospheric washes and balletesque pulse, employing lots of effects and extended technique. Yoon debuted a lot of new material, spicing it with a couple of ethereal, celestial Hildegard choral works from her magical 2015 album Sunken Cathedral. Methodically and mysteriously, she moved from violin, to Stroh violin, piano, and eventually her eerily keening collection of singing bowls, which she used to recreate the haunting microtonal ambience of an earlier work from about fifteen years ago.

What was most striking was how much fun Yoon was having. While much of her material has a puckish sense of humor, her larger-scale, site-specific performances tend to be heavy on the gravitas. Empowerment, and an uneasy relationship with the more traditional aspects of her roots as a Korean-American woman artist, are recurrent themes in her work. Left to her instruments and mixer in a relatively unfamiliar space, without working its nooks and crannies to max out the reverb and resonance and decay, she concentrated on tunes, tersely and somewhat minimalistically, rising to a final cathedral-like coda She’d finally brought the mighty edifice above the surface.

A Tortured Lyrical Masterpiece and a Friday Night Album Release Show by Jagged Leaves

Back in 2004, hauntingly lyrical punk/metal group the Larval Organs were one of New York’s hottest bands. They’d just released their second brilliant ep and frontman Dan Penta – who seemed to change his stage name every month or so – was at the top of his unhinged game as avatar for a million alienated, tortured souls. Then the band’s lead guitarist moved away. After that, they played a few shows and then pretty much disintegrated. Since that time, Penta has become more and more elusive a presence here but has remained one of the world’s most criminally underappreciated songwriters. No one mines the darkest corners of the human psyche with more insight, and gallows humor, and surrealistic expertise.

After the Larval Organs, he led an austerely elegant chamber pop unit called Hearth, when he wasn’t playing solo as Cockroach Bernstein or collaborating with his wife Erin Regan, who shares an avid cult following for her similarly brilliant, troubled songs. Happily, Penta has a new band, Jagged Leaves, and a new album, Nightmare Afternoon – streaming online – sort of a greatest hits collection from the past fifteen years or so. In a real stroke of serendipity, it reprises all but one of the tracks from that long out-of-print Larval Organs ep, although the best one, Mansion of Your Skull, is conspicuously absent. The band play the album release show on a rare good twinbill at Sidewalk on February 26 at around 9:30. Darkly gritty guitarist/singer Mallory Feuer’s power trio, the Grasping Straws, open the night beforehand at around 8:30.

Penta’s voice has deepened over the years, but he still basically just puts it out there, a caterwauling assault that draws a line straight back to grunge – expect honesty rather than polish here. The music here is acoustic-electric, a synthesis of pretty much everywhere he’s been. The album’s opening track is Low and Wet, Penta’s steady strums over a lush bed of strings; Regan’s high harmonies add subtlety and poignancy. They bring in a tremoloing funeral organ on the second chorus, setting the stage for the rest of the record.

City Parks, with its stark cello and Americana tinges, works familiar terrain: solitude and despondency in an urban milieu akin to “Grey skin like the hue of rotting meat that is cooking itself in the heat of its disease…I know that love is not some sort of prize, and that I am all alone on this ride…”

“Pack the ornaments and unstring the lights, we’ll be hanging ourselves from the tree tonight.” Penta wails in the broodingly waltzing Moth in the Sand – formerly titled Ziploc Torso. The cynicism is crushing in Sewn in the Seam, built around a Shoah metaphor: “In this winter holocaust, we warm ourselves around a burning cross…” The careening, horn-spiced Wizard Gardenia takes its title from a brand of air freshener:

With a Bible belt he stole her grace
That a rusted truckbed won’t erase
But drives the witches out of town
And they won’t come back to the judge’s crown…
If I never woke up for a thousand years
Would you still be blowing those Pyrex tears?

The centerpiece here is John Brown’s Grave. It’s one of the most harrowing rock songs ever written, end of story. The organ looms ominously under Penta’s drugged-out despondency

I want to break myself into my room
Pretend the lighting fixture is the moon
Pretend that we are not sketched on a page…
So let’s sleep late and drive all night
Into the diffused grey light
The pain inside, the scorching heat
I’m on the outside and I’ve been beat
And we go on to John Brown’s Grave
I’ve got a heartache the size of a Great Lake
She’s so faraway
I’m on the outside either way.

Fueled by a searing slide guitar hook, Devil Come Madness, the final Larval Organs track here, opens with twisted images of a psych ward:

In the padded room where I was born
With a million thorns to a black-eyed boy
From a cotton amnion with a cheap vinyl lining
How could I compete with the ancient gloom?
The choir shrieks, “Motherfucker, shoot!”
I did
They locked me up for being crazy

Images of disease, drunken sickness and sorcery gone awry flit through Never Been Born, the most Nirvana-influenced track here. The reverb guitar bounce of Home thinly masks Penta’s usual cynicism,. He shifts the hopeless wish-I’d-never-been-born point of view to an only slightly depressed fling from younger days over the hypnotic ambience of Powderkeg. And they reinvent the stomping Larval Organs tune Calm Me Down Penta intoning his grisly images over a Jesus & Mary Chain-style fuzztone waltz. The final cut, Death Is a Charm seems to be a stab at something approaching optimism. Much as the idea of a single best album of the year isn’t meant to imply that there’s any kind of competition between artists, or that there should be, there hasn’t been any collection of songs this good released this year. While it’s still early in the year, it looks like this is the cult classic of 2016. For Penta, it’s about time.

Les Nubians Charm the Kids and Their Parents Too at the French Alliance

What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.

French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.

Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.

Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.

Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.

The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.