New York Music Daily

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Greek Judas Bring Their Ferociously Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Metal Back to Barbes

There’s so much going on in this city that even with the ongoing gentrification-driven brain drain depleting the talent base, there’s more good music than a single blog could conceivably cover. Which creates a triage situation. Doesn’t it make the most sense to cast as wide a net as possible rather than focusing on one scene, which in this city, these days, is probably more of a micro-scene anyway? On the other hand, some bands are so much fun that you want to see them again. For example, this blog caught Greek Judas’ first-ever show at Barbes last year, which was so interesting, and so much different from anything else in town right now. Their next gig is back at Barbes at 10 PM on February 25.

The prospect of seeing the group – who do artsy metal covers of obscure, Middle Eastern-flavored gangster songs from the 1920s and 1930s Greek underground – on Lemmy’s birthday (RIP) was impossible to resist, especially since it was an early afterwork show. That made it easy to run to the G train afterward before the line went dead and hightail it over to Williamsburg to grab a couple of drinks at Duff’s. And then head up to Grand Victory, where Karla Rose & the Thorns finally hit the stage just a little before midnight, then rampaged through a murderously intense set featuring a couple of tunes by the Misfits and Buzzcocks in addition to Rose’s own misterioso minor-key noir narratives.

Greek Judas’ show that evening, as you would expect, was a lot tighter than their debut back in August. The group have been mining the crime rhymes and drugrunning anthems popular among Greek Cypriot refugees of a hundred years ago for awhile, first doing them pretty straight-up under the name Que Vlo-Ve (whose Bandcamp page has an intriguing handful of free downloads). But electrifying the songs (Judas – get it?) seemed inevitable. Guitarist Wade Ripka now switches back and forth between his six-sring and a lapsteel, which he runs through a Fender tube amp with the reverb way up for a ferocious blast of sound. His six-string counterpart Adam Good draws on his chops as A-list Middle Eastern oudist: at this show, the two traded searing, chromatically slashing minor-key verses and ended up stomping all over the end of each others’ phrases to seal the deal.

At both this show and their most recent one at the end of last month at Barbes, frontman Quince Marcum ran his vocals through the board clean without any effects rather than using the trippy, pitch-twisting pedalboard he brought the first time out. He played horn on one of the final numbers, singing in Greek in a strong, resonant baritone. From the perspective of a non-Greek speaker, it’s impossible to get what they do on more than a musical level, but Marcum offers helpful translations and has an unselfconscious passion for the songs. Crack whores, hash smugglers, henpecked husbands, busted beggars trying to outwit the cops, gangsters in jail plotting their next move (let’s get our ouds and jam!) all make appearances. The band’s usual choice of closing number sounds like the Bad Brains.

It’s hard to figure what kind of ceiling any band in town has these days: there’s more money to be made from the road than there is here, that’s for sure. But at the very least, on an artistic level anyway, Greek Judas are on the way up. If only for the cred of being able to saying you were there when it happened, if dark and assaultive sounds are your thing, now’s the time to catch them.

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered Is Hard to Forget

At its core, the myth of a happy childhood is a right-wing concept. We’re all supposed to look back nostalgically on a past that, for the majority of us, never existed, so that for old times’ sake we can allow a corrupt and outdated system that ruled back then to keep us down. If we aren’t all fondly reminiscing over hazy memories of lazy summer days, we’re somehow invalidated: we’re inferior to those who can. That’s the cornerstone of another far more evil myth, that there’s a blithely deserving class of people running the show and others less content left to do their dirty work.

The reality about childhood, from a global perspective, is something Pat Benatar sang about: Hell is for children. Then again, she also sang “Hell is for hell,” over and over again. Which, when you think about it, kind of makes sense. And is why Pat Benatar is camp, while Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s lavish double gatefold vinyl album Unremembered – streaming at Bandcamp – is a powerful and important art-rock record. It’s more of a vision of horror and terror than the personal experience of pain and torment, although those are both present in places.

With its relentless, aching atmospherics, Snider’s 2010 Penelope suite – a fearlessly feminist look at the toll war takes on the home front- earned her all sorts of high marks in the indie classical world. Her latest album is more of a rock record, like My Brightest Diamond with a slower pace and a rotating cast of singers. Which also makes sense, since MBD’s Shara Worden shares lead vocals and dazzling counterpoint with a couple of her Asthmatic Kitty housemates, songwriter DM Stith and Clogs’ Padma Newsome. Snider takes a lyric cycle by Nathaniel Bellows, chronicling a literally haunted Massachusetts upbringing, and sets it to a luminous, often otherworldly, brilliantly individualistic score played by a crack studio orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater.

As the opening Prelude gets underway, swooping reverb-drenched vocal harmonies rise, introducing a tensely trilling suspense theme. “They circled round my head,” Worden intones coolly and enigmatically underneath. The voices diverge in counterpoint and then return, setting the stage for the rest of the record.

The ensemble segues into The Estate’s shivery, reverbtoned woodwind cadenzas beneath stately vocals and acoustic guitar. It has Snider’s trademark allusiveness but also an anthemic sensibility within the vertiginous swirl of orchestra and disembodied voices.

As The Barn opens, Worden whispers, “You are not alone, not alone, not yet,” then the orchestral stormclouds burst. It has a tumbling, percussive drive and a narrative that might involve an abduction. The Guest has more of a nebulous atmosphere and baroque vocal interplay: ‘She left our house in the dead of night, my sister went to find her, we did not know why she left, “ Worden explains, and the story grows more ominous from there.

The Slaughterhouse is surprisingly allusive as well: Snider waits til halfway through the song to develop a hypnotically circling piano motif to raise the horror level to the rafters. The menace rises higher with The Girl, an Elizabethan waltz with klezmer chromatics and echoey ascending motives filtering through the mix: it’s one of the most nonchalantly chilling, Lynchian pieces here. As is The Swan, with its blend of shifting sheets of sound and eerily minimalist Satie-esque piano, another vision of dread and death that’s bloodcurdling in its nonchalance. The Witch, the album’s most epic and gothically stylized track, circles around a creepy music-box horror riff.

The River is a surrealistically enveloping mashup of Portishead trip-hop,. broodingly offcenter cinematic ambience and coldly playful vocalese straight out of John Zorn. The Speakers, with its roomful of menacingly anthropomorphosed objects, is even more surreal, even as it’s one of the most straightforward anthems here.

For all the ambitious, Carl Nielsen-class orchestration bursting in from every corner of the sonic picture, The Orchard capsulizes how Snider works: artfully lavish arrangements, simple and catchy rock hooks. The circular variations of The Song make it the most indie classical-oriented track here. The album winds up in a wintry whirl of voices, woodwinds and reverb with The Past. something Newsome’s gracefully mannered character clearly has not made peace with, and all indications are he probably won’t. It’s the most extreme memories, for better or worse, that we carry with us.

Love Slays Multitasking Yesterday Evening

If there was ever a symphony for our time, it’s Sibelius’ No. 7. And it’s practically a hundred years old:  completed in 1924, to be precise. Before leading the Greenwich Village Orchestra through it yesterday, conductor Barbara Yahr cautioned the audience that it would be as challenging to hear as it is to play. “But it’s one of my alltime favorite pieces,” she smiled. “What Sibelius says in a phrase would take twenty minutes in Mahler.”

As usual, she was right on the money. She’d always intuited that the symphony’s central theme is love: “It grows more human,” she explained, pointing to how the first movement coalesces and brightens out of ambiguous, restlessly shifting cell-like phrases. She pointed out that the program notes validated that understanding: the scherzo in the second movement is a lively dedication to one of the composer’s daughters, and the warm major-key theme in the third refers to his wife.

The notes also dismissively characterized the work as domestic. Domestic, shmomestic! It’s a relentlessly harried, sometimes haggard piece, and although more optimistic themes take centerstage as it goes on, it ends more enigmatically than anyone would probably expect given the triumph that comes before. Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for us. On an intellectual level, this is the late Romantic Sibelius listening to Modernism and thinking, “Hmmm, maybe there’s something to be said for this twelve-tone stuff.” This performance focused on the emotional content, “I know we’re crazy busy, but I still love you.” And if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. The barrage of ideas and motives flies by like a fast-forward film until at last the sun comes out – and what a warm sun that was, how funny that Nordic music has so many memorable “it’s finally not dark anymore” moments, huh? Yahr managed to bring her signature precision and attention to minute, revelatory detail to this vexing but ultimately rewarding work, one that nobody’s about to conduct from memory, let alone play without the music in front of them.

She and the ensemble bookended it with two considerably more accessible pieces about love: love for freedom, and pure undiluted passion and joie de vivre. The concert opened with a fervent, insistent take of Sibelius’ Finlandia, leaving no question that this was no mere national anthem: it was about giving Russian invaders a swift kick. That spirit brought to mind the similarly unleashed version that Dorrit Matson and the New York Scandia Symphony played at Symphony Space last year.

Pianist Ko-Eun Yi brought equal parts fire and luminosity to Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Together, she and the orchestra made it swing, made it rock, at the end threatening to crush the piano keys with her savage, fortissimo chords as the coda swung in like a construction crane run amok. No wonder its themes have been plundered by so many rock acts – for example, ELO, who made surf rock out of it, and the Fugs, who would have made it x-rated had their 1967 record label let them. From that bristling, wickedly anthemic six-chord hook that Yi really took her time with, making it resound for all it was worth, through gleaming cascades and dazzling sunset-on-the-waves ripples, she had come to bring the party, and Yahr and the group behind her were only too glad to raise a sturdy foundation and a wide-angle backdrop for all the Romany and flamenco-tinged festivities.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next performance is on April 10 at 3 PM at Irving Auditorium, 17th and Irving Place (cattycorner from Irving Plaza), featuring the Mozart Adagio and Rondo, the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. Suggested donation is $20, reception to follow.

A Radically Successful New Interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

What was it like to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the umpteenth time? Seated within the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony last night at the DiMenna Center, unlike any other. Placing musicians on the perimeter of an audience is both an old theatrical trick and an experience common to anyone who’s ever seen a marching band or a drum corps competition. But placing a crowd within various sections of a symphony orchestra is something new and exciting.

Conductor David Bernard was candid about the challenges posed by working with such an unorthodox configuration. “I found myself looking for people and not finding them,” he grinned during a lively Q&A with the crowd after the performance. “And you looked back at me,” he told the audience, “And said, ‘Don’t look at me, I don’t come in yet.’”

This audience was a particularly sophisticated and engaged one. Concertgoers marveled at the difficulty of sustaining vibrato, especially in unison with an entire string section; that the players, many of them estranged from the usual stage plot, had to be especially on their toes for cues; and the simple fact that a symphony orchestra performance requires several dozen musicians to be simultaneously at the top of their game, in sync. Compounding the basic challenge of pulling off a famous Beethoven symphony that pretty much every classical fan knows well, if not by heart, was the slight doppler effect created by having musicians separated so far from each other – an aspect that the audience was aware of. That the orchestra was sensitive to such minute rhythmic shifts and responded as well as they did speaks to the quality of this ensemble’s musicianship.

Bernard has boundless enthusiasm and can’t resist sharing it, a useful quality considering that he was wearing his impresario’s hat as well as his conductor’s one. Getting to watch him from the perspective of an orchestra member reinforced earlier perceptions: his relationship to the musicians was a constant push-pull, a friendly but firm “Gimme!” and then a beaming “yessss” when the orchestra delivered. Playing music is like acting; you have to trust the people you’re onstage with, and Bernard’s unassailable confidence has obviously filtered down to this crew.

What was the experience like? Those in the audience who were willing to cop to not having seen much classical music (a lot wouldn’t admit it), unsurprisingly, seemed the most thrilled, as people tend to be after their first exposure to this symphony. From the perspective of having grown up with it – first a comfortable friend wafting in from WQXR atop the family fridge, then later being transfixed by it both in concert and by close, uninterrupted listening on a Sony walkman (remember those?) – this was still a revelation.

First of all, depending on where audience members were situated, certain voices would be elevated or would even drown out others. One element that came into stunning focus was how subtly yet stunningly Beethoven shifts meters. Another was the sophistication of the counterpoint (many in the crowd marveled at that). Bernard addressed the grimness and black humor of the opening movement by explaining that he saw it as a relentless tug-of-war between energy and restraint, one that should leave both performers and listeners spent by the time it’s over. But the rest of the symphony is often uproariously funny. That buffoonish faux-patriotic march in the second movement, the point where an elegant waltz suddenly becomes a stilted Punch-and-Judy theme, and the shlemiel sentry of a bassoon on the perimeter, crying wolf…or maybe not? It was hard to resist laughing out loud, and disrupting the musicians. What was more impressive was how the orchestra managed to get through those passages, and similar LMAO moments, with a straight face.

Taking the audience out of their element and challenging them to watch, and listen, literally immersed in the music, could become this orchestra’s shtick…or at least one among many. It could make them very, very popular. One older gentleman in the crowd explained that at last he understood the thrill his son experienced onstage with his rock band. This was like being in that band, multiplied a dozen times over. After all, who wouldn’t want to be onstage performing Beethoven’s Fifth?

The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is at 8 PM on May 21 at All Saints Church on 60th St. just west of First Ave. featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the fantastic Inbal Segev as soloist, plus Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.. It’s not known how traditionally or untraditionally Bernard might stage it. That prospect alone makes it enticing.

Hauntingly Stark Armenian Sounds from Arsen Petrosyan

One of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of recent months is Arsen Petrosyan‘s Charentsavan: Music for Armenian Duduk, streaming at Storyamp. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern music, the duduk is the world’s smallest low-register instrument, smaller even than the bass ukulele made famous by the Handsome Family‘s Rennie Sparks. With its ancient, otherworldly, resonantly woody tone, the duduk has been a staple of Armenian music for thousands of years. Over the past several decades, it’s also insinuated itself into the arsenal of many reed players around the world: Matt Darriau, for one, played it on a few numbers at his most recent couple of Barbes shows.

Petrosyan’s album is spare and relentlessly intense, played in minor keys, typically with very sparse percussion, lute or drone accompaniment. The instrumentals mix originals with ancient themes, many of them rescued from dusty archives where the music had been hidden away under Soviet occupation. On the opening track, Eshkhemet, he establishes a meticulously ornamented, woundedly expressive approach, in this case subtly embellishing a minimalist minor-key melody played over a single-note drone. The second track, Hazar Ernek follows the slow, funereally swaying pulse of a dombek goblet drun. On Naz Par, Petrosyan sails up into the instrument’s clarinet-like upper range, this time employing both percussion and what sounds like a harmonium lingering in the background.

In an imaginative piece of orchestration, Tapna Kervan Prtav sets Petrosyan’s imploring upper-register melody over tersely pulsing concert harp. He plays over a stately lute-and-guitar arrangement on Lullaby for the Sun, by contemporary oud mastermind Ara Dinkjian, finally rising out of an opaque, jazz-tinged pulse with an almost horror-stricken intensity. Javakhki Shoror opens with simple, doubletracked duduk, warily flurrying melismatics over a steady high drone until the drums and a full string orchesra kick in and then all of a sudden it’s an uneasy dance.

The gentle, lush, catchy pastorale Kessabi Oror features flurrying tar lutes: it’s the most distinctly modern piece here, contarsting with the 1100-year-old folk tune Havik, an austere, desolate tableau. The final cut, Hairenik is a plaintively airy, medieval-sounding ballad for duduk and harp.

The press material for the album compares Petrosyan to the instrument’s most prominent 20th century virtuoso, Jivan Gasparyan, whose transcendent and reputedly final New York concert this blog was privileged to cover in 2014. Those are titanic shoes to fill, but Petrosyan is clearly up to the challenge. Fans of Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music shouldn’t pass up the chance to give this a spin, and anyone inclined to low-key, melancholy sounds should do so as well. The album is available in the US from Pomegranate Music.

Gato Loco Play Explosive, Cinematic Noir Latin Sounds at Joe’s Pub

When a trio of smart, stylish, resourceful women – Nicole (a.k.a. Coley), Lindsay and her vivacious mom Sue – conspire to take over the best table in the house, and then ask you to join them, do you resist? That would have been impossible. Things like that happen at a Gato Loco show.

It’s hard to imagine a set of more explosively dynamic noir music anywhere in New York this year than the “psycho mambo” group’s show at Joe’s Pub a week ago Friday. The energy was Gogol Bordello-level – and they did it without lyrics, and with a pair of frontmen who played bass sax and trombone, respectively. Bandleader/multi-reedman Stefan Zeniuk’s expansively cinematic, toweringly crescendoing latin themes smoldered and slunk and scampered and often blazed for minutes on end, carried at gale force by an amazing band.

Zeniuk started out uncharacteristically on tenor sax but was soon back on his usual bass model, switching back and forth several times, often in the same song, at least when he wasn’t playing bass clarinet – this guy lives for the lows. Teaming with him to anchor them  were “Tuba Joe” Exley and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen (leader of exciting new ska band Pangari & the Socialites). Trombonist Tim Vaughn spent the duration of the show centerstage, literally, and made the most of it, whether looming, blasting or negotiating Zeniuk’s haripin-turn changes with soulful, resonant aplomb. Drummer Kevin Garcia – also of the similarly menacing Karla Rose & the Thorns – teamed with percussionist Matt Hurley as the grooves rose from lowdown to frenetic and everywhere in between while the trumpets of Jackie Coleman and Evan Honse, Rachel Drehmann’s french horn and Lily Maase’s eclectically virtuosic guitar blazed overhead.

The night’s opening number, The Big Sleep, began with Hurley’s rumbling digeridoo, then Maase led them into an ominous stroll with hints of mariachi and swing jazz, Zeniuk’s sirening solo kicking off a twisted New Orleans theme that they finally wound down from, slowly and elegantly. Die, You Sucka! – the first of a trio of sureral, darkly frantic Keystone Kops themes – sounded like the Bad Brains taking a stab at scoring a Mack Sennett film, then Garcia wound it down with a misterioso rimshot groove, Maase’s savage chords bringing it back to redline as the trumpets punched at the ceiling.

The Sound & The Fury rode a slow sway, an Isaac Hayes soul criminnal theme with a John Zorn punk jazz edge giving way to a cruel parody of a patriotic march, interchanging with oldschool disco and a bit of beefed-up, brassy lowrider funk. The best number of the night, counterintuitively, was the quiest and most morose one, Orphans of the Storm, a hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged dirge: Zeniuk’s edgily chromatic bass solo, going way into the depths, was both the low point – in a sonic sense – and high point of the show.

From there they sprinted through another Keystone Kops number: as over-the-top as it was, the low/high contrasts in Zeniuk’s chart, and how the band edged it almost imperceptibly into creepier territory were artful to the extreme, and Zeniuk’s phony go-go interlude was just plain funny. A lingering, Cuban-tinged waterside nocturne, a lustrously melancholy, gospel-tinged interlude for the horns and a pretty straight-up salsa number that suddenly morphed into a frantic circus rock narrative were next on the bill.

They reprised Die You Sucka! even more wildly then they played it the first time around, Maase’s jagged riffage underneath the night’s most far-out free jazz-influenced passage, then hitting a vaudevillian pulse on the outro. They closed with Caridad, which sounded like a Cuban version of a moody mid-70s Burning Spear reggae theme, Maase finally getting a solo and a big round of applause for her sunbaked, psychedelic funk explosion. They took it out doublespeed with a series of irresistibly funny false endings. And a terrorist baritone sax quartet – Kevin Danenberg, Jessica Lurie, Josh Sinton and Maria Eisen – stormed in and made a surprise appearance midway through the show before joining onstage at the end. All this, except maybe for the terrorists, is immortalized on Gato Loco’s album The Enchanted Messa.

An Obscure Treasure, a Vivid Premiere and a Pair of Haunters from the Chelsea Symphony

The New York Philharmonic may get more press than the other orchestras in town, and a lot of that is deserved. But many of those other orchestras are doing great things as well. The Greenwich Village Orchestra plays tremendous theme programs, are family-friendly and don’t shy away from relevant issues beyond the music. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony have a towering Philadelphia Orchestra-like presence and sweep. The Queensboro Symphony are drawing musicians out to the middle of nowhere in Flushing because everybody wants to play for their conductor. And it’s hard to believe that the Chelsea Symphony are only ten years old; they’ve become an institution on the West Side. They distinguish themselves with their consistent support of new music, constantly premiering one thing or another. They also have a fondness for theatrics, a sense of humor that goes with that, and a penchant for very distinct, articulate playing. You don’t go to the Chelsea Symphony to get lost in a haze of sound: you go for the excitement of hearing an assembly of clear, individual voices working together.

Friday night’s program was typical. They opened with the world premiere of Hope for Two Voices and Orchestra, by their first-chair bassist Tim Kiah, who’s been more or less a composer in residence for the last few years. Beginning as a lustrous, more or less horizontal tone poem, soprano Emily Eagen and her baritone counterpart joined the ensemble in taking it almost imperceptibly to warmer, more Romantic territory, bringing the title to life. Obviously a reflection on current events, it resonated strongly.

Overcast low-midrange sonics lingered and soared throughout an equally vivid performance of Max Bruch’s famous Kol Nidre variations. Based on somber medieval Jewish themes, cellist Susan Mandel evoked a wounded, almost-imploring, cantabile quality above the strings’ grey-sky ambience.

That the next piece on the bill would upstage a genuinely picturesque performance of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition speaks to the orchestra’s sense of adventure. Conductor Matt Aubin explained that mid-20th century composer Fernande Breilh-Decruck lived a block away in the London Towers complex with her husband, who played with the Philharmonic. Her Sonata in C# Minor for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, with Rob Wilkerson in the role of dynamic soloist, turned out to be parade-ready. Part blustery late Romanticism replete with all sorts of innovative voicings and playful yet purposeful, Nielsenesque orchestration, part jauntily bustling, cinematic theme and variations, it foreshadowed Leonard Bernstein. Was Bernstein aware or, or influenced by the composer? Hearing this music, you have to wonder. Why is she not better known?

Reuben Blundell took over the podium for Moussorgsky’s venerable blockbuster, reveling in its Ravel arrangement. To early 21st century ears, it evokes dozens of old horror films and dramas as much as it does the composer’s friend’s eerie tableaux of tormented gnomes, menacing witches, ghostly catacombs, and a concluding megalith that brings to mind a giant prison door rather than the gateway to a bustling metropolis. It’s easy to find cartoonish ideas in this music, but, true to form, the orchestra parsed it for portraiture and restless angst. Standout soloists included but were not limited to horn player Adam Schommer, oboeist Phil Rashkin, tuba player Ben Stapp and the entire high string section, who when required – and this happened a lot – were seamless to the point of being a single voice.

The Chelsea Symphony’s next performance is their family concert on February 21 at the Brooklyn Music School, 126 St Felix St in the Atlantic Yards area (any train to Atlantic Ave; the closest is actually the G at Fulton), repeating on February 27 at the orchestra’s usual stomping ground, St. Paul’s German Church at 315 W 22nd St. in Chelsea with a program including Peter & the Wolf, Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals and a Seth Bedford world premiere for kids. Both start at 2 PM; suggested donation is $20.

A Current-Day Roots Reggae Masterpiece From Taj Weekes & Adowa

Most reggae fans, if they didn’t know the band, would never guess that Taj Weekes & Adowa aren’t one of the golden-age bands of the 70s, contemporaries of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and the rest. Those familiar with studio recording from across the ages would notice the cleaner production quality, as opposed to what was coming out of cramped, dingy Jamdown analog rooms throughout that time (and what that stuff sounds like as overcompressed mp3s from the web). Weekes has an individualistic sound, setting his aphoristic, socially conscious lyrics to slinky, artfully orchestrated organic grooves with low-key guitar multitracks, flowing organ, incisive piano, and a tight, fat rhythm section. What sets Weekes apart is that he doesn’t just vamp out on a couple of chords – his melodies are anthemic and shapeshifting, as equally informed by psychedelic rock and the 60s as by Bob Marley. His expressive voice sails up to the rafters on occasion when he wants to really drive a point home or match the music. Weekes and the band are playing the album release show for their new one Love Herb & Reggae at the Knitting Factory on Feb 12 at around 10 for $12 in advance. Popular 90s artist Mighty Mystic opens at around 8.

The album – streaming at Storyamp – kicks off with Let Your Voice, as in “let your voice be as loud as your silence.” In an age where so much of what’s left of reggae is ditsy good-vibes hippie bs, this allusive revolutionary anthem is a caustic blast of Caribbean heat. Weekes follows that with the similarly catchy, subtly dub-tinged Life in the Red. It’s an unselfconsciously poetic look at breaking free…but for a price. “Traded my desk for convenience of life…caught dead fighting fire with a feather,’ he warns.

The sad rocksteady ballad Full Sight is another example of how Weekes’ songwriting looks back to far more sophisticated era in reggae, both musically and lyrically. Giant Beast is a vengeful anti-tyranny anthem with a mighty intro – “One day her name no longer spoken, one day her ruins to my right,” Weekes nonchalantly intones. The album has a couple of version of the single Here I Stand, a brave choice of song in the world where Boom Bye Bye still tends to be the norm rather than the exception.

You don’t need no wings to fly,” is the mantra of the soaring, sunny title track. Bullet for a Gun casts Weekes’ antiviolence message into a elegant soul-jazz influenced ballad with some hints of vintage dub. Mediocrity is an especially defiant number: “I won’t wallow in self-pity and I won’t make peace with mediocrity …I shun the comfort of compromise,” Weekes insists. More songwriters ought to make that promise.

Rebels to the Street adds gospel vocals to what could be a vintage Brixton Riots-era Aswad song. The Laws, the most Marley-esque track here, revisits age-old logic for legalizing the herb – what are we watiing for, in New York it’s impossible to walk down the street or ride the train without at least catching a whiff of the wisdom weed. The album winds up with Was It You, a love song with some sweet melodica that reminds of Augustus Pablo; the acoustic Rebel, which attests to how oppression creates “criminals;” and St. Lucia on My Mind, a fond shout-out to Weekes’ home turf in the islands. It’s hard to think of another roots reggae album this purist and smart and original released in the last few years.

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 Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

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