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Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

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Paraguayan Harpist Silvio Solis Leads a Classy Multi-Stringed Ensemble in His Lincoln Center Debut

Paraguyan-born harpist Silvio Solis made his Lincoln Center debut this past evening leading an acoustic guitar ensemble and playing his own innovative take on traditional music from his home turf…on the harp that he’d built for himself. Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez grinned and told the crowd that it they ever needed one custom-made, he’s the man to talk to, “A master of his instrument in every way, shape and form.” She wasn’t kidding.

The music brought to mind the drama of mariachi, and the sweep of Mexican rancheras, but in this group’s hands both the songs and instrumentals in their set came across as more low-key. Solis opened with a gracefully cascading waltz, a duo with guitarist Dani Cortaza, whose harmonics and slides on the fretboard complemented the bandleader’s snazzy glissandos. A bittersweetly gorgeous, bouncy dance number followed, awash in spiky textures: the intricacy of Solis’ two-handed chords was as breathtaking as it was subtle.

Then Solis took a seat as guitarist Federico Tottil joined Cortaza for an understated, shapeshifting Paraguayan ranchera balad lit up with flamenco tinges flyiing from Cortaza’s fingers. Solis functioned essentially as both bassist and lead player on the scampering folk dance after that.

The number of strings onstage kept growing as they switched out Tottil for Paraguayan guitarists Duo Los Maqueda and a dramatically waltzing love song: the orchestral effect generated a clapalong throughout the crowd. Cortaza switched to bass for a stately shout-out to the musicians’ home country, then the guitar trio brought down the lights with a brooding ballad spiced with Cortaza’s chromatics.

The permutations of the group kept shifting, to harp, two guitars and bass, singer Fatima Burgos delivering a spacious ballad with a disarming, low-key directness, underscoring the longing in the lyrics. A couple of propulsive Paraguayan polkas contrasted with a brooding solo ballad sung by Tottil. As the trajectory of the set moved upward, the sparks generated by the strings grew even as the tunes grew simpler and more hard-hitting. The night ended ecstatically with the full sextet.

The programming at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd Street has been amazing this year. Next up: a dance party tomorrow night, Sept. 22 at 7:30 PM with vintage Nuyorican salsa crew Charanga America.

A Wickedly Catchy Weekend Show by the Mysterious Melissa & the Mannequins

Melissa & the Mannequins are New York’s most exciting new band. There’s very little about them on the web. The only one of their songs that’s made it online so far is Slip Away, the gorgeously bittersweet, propulsively jangly number they closed their deliciously catchy set with at Long Island City Bar over the Labor Day weekend. They’ve been around for about  a year, tops. Quietly and steadily, they’ve put what’s obviously been an enormous amount of work into this band, equal to their formidable chops. Up-and-coming rock acts seldom have as much command of their instruments, let alone as many styles as this group winds their way through.

In roughly an hour onstage, frontwoman/guitarist Melissa Gordon sang with a cool, collected delivery over a tight rhythm section. Lyrically, most of the songs dealt with brooding breakup scenarios, often in contrast to the tunes’ bright,upbeat quality, Stylistically, they really ran the gamut. Several numbers worked a psychedelic soul vein, bringing to mind Chicano Batman with a woman out front and a more subdued, atmospheric keyboardist: throughout the set, the Mannequin on keys kept a tight focus and added all kinds of subtle textures and washes of sound.

Midway through the set, the band switched it up with an unexpectedly funky song, like Turkuaz in a rare low-key, trippy moment. There were also a couple of detours in the direction of Jacco Gardner-ish retro 60s sunshine pop and a distant Beatles influence. The most riveting song of the set might be called I Wasn’t Listening, an uncharacteristically haunting, epic, wounded noir soul ballad in 6/8 tiime, lead guitarist Steve Flakus capping it off with a long, biting, purist blues solo.

Gordon is also an excellent guitarist (which you wouldn’t know from her Soundcloud page, something she obviously put up as she was learning the fretboard). She and Flakus took a grand total of three perfectly synchronized twin solos: it wasn’t Iron Maiden, but it was just as tight. Gordon also engaged the crowd with her deadpan sense of humor: she seems to come out of a theatre background. LIC Bar also seems to be the group’s home base these days as they build a following, an aptly cool joint for this band. They’re also at Bowery Electric at 9 on Oct 1; cover is $10.

80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!

A Diverse, Smartly Lyrical New Album and a Fort Greene Release Show From Karen & the Sorrows

Karen & the Sorrows are one of New York’s most most individualistic Americana bands. For those who might think that’s like being the best cumbia band in Iceland, keep in mind that Americana, hip-hop and reggaeton are this city’s default styles of music right now. The band’s brooding first album traced the narrative of a ghost story from lead guitarist Elana Redfield’s native New Hampshire. Their new one, The Narrow Place – streaming at their music page – also covers a lot of dark territory, but it’s a lot more eclectic. It’s inspiring to see how much the group has grown musically. They’re wrapping up their current US tour, with an album release show at 10 PM on Sept 22 at C’Mon Everybody; cover is $10.

Drummer Tami Johnson keeps a stark, practically hypnotic beat as the album’s first track, Back Down to the Dirt gets underway: frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s wary, soaring voice delivers an aphoristic, metaphorically-charged cautionary tale. Producer Charles Burst plays bass; on the rest of the album, Gerard Kouwenhoven keeps the four-string groove going.

Redfield’s pedal steel mingles with Julia Read’s fiddle behind Pittleman’s precise, chirpy vocals in Can’t Miss What You Never Had. a moody tale of 99-percenter longing for something better. The Wire is an ominously swaying noir Americana rock anthem that brings to mind the Walkabouts: “J.B. Flatt” supplies the funereal Hammond organ behind Redfield’s resonantly edgy guitar lines.

Pittelman’s bittersweet vocals bring to mind Amy Allison in the brisk, backbeat-driven Nowhere:

All these bones
On the other shore
How my sister sang
But I don’t sing no more

Take Me for a Ride is a big, aching, seductive rocker: “Here comes my girl in a flatbed Ford…let me take you out on the town, don’t care what those folks say,” Pittelman insists. Then she makes it clear that “I”m just the man who loves you” in the brisk highway rock number after that.

In The Price of the Ticket, Pittelman draws inspiration from James Baldwin’s assertion that artists should always reevaluate their work. It’s a bitter but resolute anthem for anyone who’s had to make a break with the past:

Write your notes back to home
In an alphabet they can’t read
Save your change for the phone
But no line could ever reach back

The album’s best and most allusively political song is the southwestern gothic-tinged Walk Through the Desert:

When they write what has happened here
It will seem so clear,
Like they knew
All that loss, all the haze and fear
It will disappear like the truth

The band go back to the country for the sad breakup ballad Do It For Myself. I Was Just Your Fool stomps along with some bitter theatrical imagery. The album winds up with Everything We Had, an unexpectedly welcome southern soul number.

Apropos of changing gender roles, isn’t it funny how the typical chick role in this band, i.e. the bass player, is a dude, while the women in the group play the rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums? Maybe we’ve finally smashed the glass ceiling in music…or we’re just going back to an earlier era when groups like the Carter Family – or bands in villages across the world – divided up responsibilities among whoever was available to play regardless of who had the Y chromosomes.

Darkness and Revelry in Equal Measure in Tomas Fujiwara’s Brilliant New Triple Double Album

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s music is all about creating a mood, and narratives, and destinations, and all the fun a band can have with interplay and conversations and occasional jousting on the way there. For all of those reasons, he’s one of the busiest guys in jazz. The musicianship on his new album Triple Double – soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – is as deep as his address book. Just the fact that he’s got two of the most ferocious guitarists on the planet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook sparring with each other makes this a must-own for fans of dark, gritty, occasionally hilarious music.

It’s pretty high concept: in addition to the guitars, there are two horns – Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet – and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair. It’s akin to a  more improvisational, less assaultive take on percussive British guitar band Action Beat, . In an interesting stroke of fate, Seabrook also put out a ferociously good new double-drum album, wryly titled Die Trommel Fatale, earlier this year. Fujiwara and the band are playing the album release show on Sept 22 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $22.

The fun starts right ffom the first few bars of the squirrelly two-guitar conversation that opens the first track, Diving For Quarters. For the listener, it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who, especially as a long, rather grim crescendo slowly builds. Looming brass contrasts with a squall or two as Fujiwara swings with his work boots on, Alessi taking a long latin noir-infused solo up to a gleeful thunderstorm of drums and guitar swipes.

Likewise, Alessi chooses his moments in a long solo that bisects the leering storm and skronk of the two guitars and drumkits in Blueberry Eyes, Halvorson in the left channel, Seabrook in the right throwing blast after distorted blast at each other. Suddenly the sky clears and they’re following a circular, allusively New Orleans-tinged shuffle as Bynum comes to the front. Even as some sweet brass harmonies take over at the end, Halvorson can’t wait to let it trail out with a down-the-drain rattle.

A gloomy rainy-day ambience, astringent guitars over spare drums and cymbals, pervades Hurry Home, a psychedelic tone poem of sorts. Pocket Pass makes a flailing contrast, packed with blazing trumpet spirals, snarky kiss-off guitars, Halvorson’s bad cop against Seabrook’s deadpan good cop. All of a sudden it straightens out (as much as anything straightens out on this album) in a dark latin direction.

For Alan opens with a droll spoken-word sample of a ten-year-old Fujiwara in conversation with his mentor Alan Dawson, who encourages him to have a good time within the parameters. “If a cymbal falls in, if the pedal breaks, whatever.” This matter-of-factly rising Cleaver-Fujiwara duel stays on the rails even as flurries in each channel diverge: the chase is on! Eight-minute pieces for drums alone are rarely this entertaining.

An elegaic, mournful horn melody rises over the drums’ tumble and crush as Love and Protest coalesces, bolstered by Seabrook’s eerie, reverberating belltones and echo effects as the menacing cloud darkens. It’s finally punctured by Alessi, but even he’s eventually subsumed in the vortex. Halvorson artfully takes over the slasher role as the dirge returns.

Notwithstanding all the uneasy close harmonies, Decisive Shadow is awfully catchy, especially when the horns kick in, up to a trickily shifting, insistent vamp with a contrastingly ebullient Alessi solo. Halvorson’s shears and sputters signal the drums, and everybody else, to tunnel down into the darkness.

The group returns to the Hurry Home theme with gingerly tremoloing guitars amid the sleet of the percussion: it’s the album’s creepiest number. Sarcastic cornet opens Toasting the Mart, a twisted march, Halvfrson thinking about horror surf, the horns peeping in through respective windows. Seabrook flickers and then the whole thing dissolves in a toxic heap only to reemerge unexpectedly.

To Hours (a pun?) makes an apt concluding statement, from a loosely congealing free-improv interlude to an uneasily cantering vamp, Alessi battling the murky backdrop. This isn’t just one of the most gripping jazz albums of the year: it’s on the level of anything any of the cast here have released as leaders recently. One of the ten best, maybe five best albums of the year, to be more precise. Press play, hit repeat, you’ll get used to it.

Entertainment and Formidable Piano Chops at an Unexpectedly Contemplative Spot with Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton brings a rare blend of daunting piano and vocal chops to the final nights of her indian summer Radegast Hall residency this Sept 18 at 8 PM. She’s also here on the 25th. Either way, it’s Monday, and it’s professional night, and while you might not expect people to come to listen, they do. Remember, every bar on a Monday could be the best bar in town.

Fulton’s latest album is The Things We Did Last Summer, a collaboration with suave tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton recorded live onstage in Spain last year and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers, and despite the fact that it’s mostly standards, it’s arguably the high point of Fulton’s career so far. She makes solid studio albums – her all-instrumental collection, Speechless, is a party in a box – but both co-leaders do their best work onstage. More artists – particularly players who can improvise at the level the band reaches here – should be making live records.

Fulton’s subtle, tantalizingly melismatic vocals and entertaining stage presence are what she’s best known for, but she’s also a hell of a pianist. To open the album, she brings a moody been-there, done-that, know-your-pain feel to When Your Lover Has Gone, contrasting with a spacious, playfully jaunty, ragtime-tinged piano solo. Hamilton brings in the mist from there; Fulton really works the blue notes at the end.

The ten-plus minute take of Basie’s Black Velvet is a classic example of the kind of extended excursion Fulton excels at when the night is winding down, but she’s not ready to call it quits. Bassist Ignasi Gonzalez and drummer Esteve Pi settle into a comfortable midtempo stroll as Fulton winds her way up from gimlet-eye glimmer toward jubilation, Hamilton echoing her as he takes the long way in through the fog.

Fulton gets back on the mic with a barely restrained vengefulness for I Cried for You, which the band takes scampering, Gonzalez’ wry, brisk bass ballet contrasting with Fulton’s clenched-teeth attack on the keys. There’s a Sarah Vaughan-ish told-your-so quality to the vocals, but it’s not derivative.

The album’s instrumental title track brings back the wee-hours serenity, Hamilton plush and balmy over Fulton’s lingering phrases. Then the two offer contrast, floating sax against Fulton’s lowdown bluesy vocals and joyous staccato piano in Too Marvelous For Words.

Allusive, understated bluesy angst pervades an expansive vocal take of My Future Just Passed, this one closer to the Shirley Horn version. Then the band picks up the pace with the hot jazz standard Running Wild before going back to the “Great American Songbook” for a lush excursion through The Very Thought of You, Fulton ending the night with misty suspense that Hamilton works for all it’s worth before her fingers finally bust it through the clouds. It’s a good bet she’ll do something a lot like this during the Williamsburg stand.

For those in Jersey, she’s also at the Gruin Center for the Arts on College Drive on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River on Sept 19 at 8; tix are $24/$20 srs.

Smart, Innovative, Unpredictably Brilliant Newgrass Guitarist Jon Stickley and His Trio Hit Williamsburg This Weekend

Guitarist Jon Stickley gets major props for his daunting chops, mashing up bluegrass with jazz, Romany and south-of-the-border sounds. His instrumentals follow unexpected tangents through all those styles and more, with a bright, cinematic effect. He and his trio’s 2016 ep, Triangular is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the Knitting Factory on Sept 17 on a strange but solid triplebill. Skronky Chicago guitar improvisers Tacoma Narrows open the night at 8, followed by Stickley and then Minneapolis newgrassers the Last Revel headlining at 10: $12 adv tix are available.

The album’s opening track, Blackburn Brothers gives you a good idea of where Stickley’s coming from. It opens as a shuffling, moody, minor-key bluegrass tune but then Stickley throws some fluid Romany jazz phrases in, echoed by violinist Lyndsay Pruett as drummer Patrick Armitage keeps a steady, swaying beat. They make straight-ahead, emphatic rock out of it at the end.

Plain Sight has a wary, dancing, insistent pulse – with different instrumentation and a heavier beat, this cinematic theme could be metal, at least until the trio hit a warmly windswept big-sky interlude midway through.

Palm Tree is a jaunty tropical number set to a tricky beat: as Stickey flatpicks and spirals around, Brazilian psychedelic rainforest jammers Forro in the Dark come to mind. With its constantly shifting chords,Echolocation is the killer track here, Stickley’s fluttery tremolo-picking adding border-rock ambience to a brisk, gorgeously bittersweet, Lynchian theme. Stickley even sticks a baroque fugue in toward the end!

Manzanita, the final cut, blends verdant Britfolk, bluegrass and a little Doorsy latin noir over a propulsive, steady beat. No doubt this album and the rest of Stickley’s innovative catalog  will be available at the show: Punch Brothers, eat your heart out.

This Year’s Noguchi Museum Concert Series Winds Up With Enchantingly Hypnotic, Vivid Indian Music

Sunday afternoon at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu coiled and spun and wound their way through an intricate, cinematic, constantly shifting series of themes anchored in thousands of years of Indian classical music. Both violinists have formidable chops to match the eclectic range of their compositions. Without watching closely, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what, their harmonies were so seamless. Supposedly, couples grow to resemble each other, and while there’s no mistaking her for him, their styles are similar. Ramamurthy is probably the more likely of the two to pull an epic crescendo out of thin air, which he did with a slithery cadenza about midway through the show. Basu often infuses her work with a puckish sense of humor, and there were a couple of points at this show where she playfully goosed her husband through a couple of almost ridiculously amusing exchanges of pizzicato,

The two began the show with a raga, immediately introducing the suspense as the sparse phrases of their opening alap slowly came together. Often Basu would ground the music with austerely resonant, viola-like washes, but then the two violins would exchange roles and she’d go soaring while Ramamurthy held down the lows, often with a wary, melismatic edge. Meanwhile, percussionist Rich Stein, who’d first joined the fun with a precise, tabla-like rhythm, went to his cymbals for a lush mist and by the show’s midpoint was getting all sorts of wry snowflake effects out of his shakers and rattles.

All the compositions were based on classic raga themes. A melodic minor number brought a storm theme to life, but this was no ordinary monsoon! The group worked endless permutations on the theme of a boat rocking on the waves, then suddenly there was a sparse after-the-rain idyll. Just when it seemed they’d reached a calm, the storm came back…and it wasn’t going to leave until everybody was drenched! Of all the trick endings, false starts and stops, this was the least expected one of the afternoon, long with an even more invigorating, glissandoing detour toward free jazz before Ramamurthy steered it back toward shore.

The trio closed with Migration, a new composition that seemed to portray a very complicated flock of birds making their way to a new destination, scattered with tense, fluttery clusters, calmly sailing interludes and finally a long, hypnotic percussion interlude. Ramamurthy and Basu’s next show is on Oct 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga extravaganza; $30 tix are available for three-hour time slots for those who aren’t planning on making the museum their hotel for the entire night.

This was the final concert in the annual senes here in the museum’s back garden booked by the Bang on a Can organization. For a Sunday when the trains were completely FUBAR, there was a surprisingly good crowd, the audience squeezing themselves onto a few wooden benches, others seated on the garden’s rough gravel on bamboo mats supplied by the museum staff.

The museum itself, just down the block from the Socrates Sculpture Garden, is also worth a trip whether or not there’s music. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s a comfortable walk from the Broadway N train station. Isamu Noguchi was an interesting character: his stone and metal sculptures blend cubism, Eastern Island iconography and desert mesas. He seems to have been caught between several worlds. After Pearl Harbor, he interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp for his fellow Japanese-Americans, hoping to provide some art therapy, but quickly grew disillusioned…and then had a hard time getting released. The current exhibit there documents those struggles during an especially ugly moment in American history.

Vocal Sensation Camille Bertault Brings Her Wit and Eclectic Chops to the Jazz Standard

Conservatory-trained as a pianist, Camille Bertault became a social media sensation a couple of years ago for her vocal versions of classic jazz solos. It turns out that she’s not only an inventive singer but a clever, playful songwriter as well. The title of her debut album En Vie – streaming at her music page – is a pun which translates essentially as ‘lust for life.” Although she can do all sorts of things with her voice, Bertault sing with restraint and a sharp sense of irony here: she doesn’t overemote and lets the lyrics speak for themselves. She and her combo are bringing that French charm to the Jazz Standard tomorrow night, Sept 14, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album’s cynical opening track, Quoi de Plus Anodin (Nothing More Harmless: we’re sticking to English title style here for consistency’s sake, ok?) is fueled by pianist Olivier Hutman’s terse, insistent phrasing over the briskly shuffling drive of bassist Gildas Boclé and drummer Antoine Paganotti. The cheery tune contrasts with Bertault’s lyrics for an age of austerité:

Pas de dimanche
Pour les paluches qui s’épanchent
Plutôt crever que d’ faire la manche
Meme si y’a pas de fric en avalanche

[No day off for these poor sods; better to kick the bucket than put your hand out, even if there isn’t exactly an avalanche of dough on the way…]

Gritty, bustling bass, scrambling piano and bracing doubletracked vocalese harmonies percolate through the second cut, Course. Then Bertault hints at a cornet in the distance, then offers a bittersweet look at seeing through a child’s eyes in her lustrous, resonant soul-jazz reinterpretation of the Wayne Shorter ballad Enfant Eyes.

The album’s title track, another vocalese number, shifts between a balletesque grace, clenched-teeth intensity and syncopated swing behind Hutman’s crushing chordal attack. Cette Nuit, Bertault’s version of the Jimmy Rowles epic The Peacocks, offers contrasting, starry ambience, a lingering tone poem that springs into action when the bass and drums kick in and Bertault takes a purposefully scatting solo. Hutman’s cascades and  Paganotti’s elegant tumbles top it off expertly.

The steady, expansively moody ballad A la Mer Tume (an oceanic pun on “bitterness”) provides a launching pad for a balletesque bass solo. The band reaches toward a scamper but then pulls back throughout the catchy, vamping, latin-tinged Double Face, the last of the vocalese numbers

Bertault kicks off Tatie Cardie with a coy spoken word and drum duet and then relates a hilarious, Spike Jones-style account of unexpected events at a prim and proper aunt’s tea party, the whole band getting in on the joke. She opens her take of Prelude to A Kiss a-cappella, then the band take their moody time with it, Boclé adding a melancholy bowed solo. The final cut is Satiesque, a title that should have been taken long ago. It’s a syncopated, lyrical salute to the great surrealist composer:

Satie, est-ce que les fous ne sont pas
Plus sages qu’ils n’en ont l’air?
L’endroit est peut-être l’envers?

[Satie, are crazy people smarter than the ones who don’t let it show? Or is it the other way around?]

Lots of flavors here, all of them worth savoring. Few other artists can make phrases like “ba da da” as consistently surprising and interesting as Bertault.