New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

The Last-Ever Orchestral Album Made in the UK?

What a creepy coincidence that two of the most harrowing British orchestral works ever written would be recorded on two of the nation’s most fateful dates in recent history. December 12, 2019 was election day. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone involved with the London Symphony Orchestra had any idea of the horrors that would take place the following year, but there’s a bristling intensity, a sense of dread and desperation in their performance of Vaughan Williams’ 1935 Symphony No. 4 at the Barbican that night.

Antonio Pappano also led the orchestra through Vaughan Williams’ much differently dark Symphony No. 6 there on March 15 of last year, the final day of freedom in that country. To date, this chilling, riveting performance – streaming at Spotify – is the last live orchestral album ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Some rock bands have recorded clandestinely since then, but it’s hard to imagine that a full orchestra could pull off such a feat. And this isn’t just a powerful, insightful interpretation of two iconic works: these performances will rip your face off.

There’s a franticness to the introduction of the first movement of Symphony No. 4, leaving no doubt that the gusting pulses afterward do not bode well. The brass is particularly strong here, enhancing the effect, especially as the chromatics grow more macabre. By contrast, the lull afterward seems more conspiratorial – or more enigmatically suspenseful – by comparison to most recordings (the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins also put out a noteworthy, grimly colorful recording of this last year).

Pappano’s dynamics are just as rich in the second movement, from the initial stalker bassline, to methodically pulsing portents, the morose flute theme overhead. a crashing coda and then the lustrously sweeping yet relentless unease afterward. The leaps and bounds of the third movement become more of a chase scene than danse macabre, notwithstanding a momentary cheery, Tschaikovskian interlude. Brisk as this may be, all hands are on deck and primed for battle.

Likewise, the faux-martial bombast of the fourth is downright Shostakovian, which becomes even more striking considering how low Pappano brings the lights down for the deep-space reverie midway through. Few ensembles allow themselves to channel the kind of sheer terror this orchestra does at the end. To call this music prophetic is an understatement: where so much of the world was oblivious, Ralph Vaughan Williams obviously had his eye on the ball.

Where Symphony No. 4 is a prelude, No. 6 is a dystopic postlude, composed in 1947. The opening movement’s bustling energy here is just as uneasy, from suspiciously overwrought staginess to the witheringly cynical, bounding, vaudevillian theme that follows, Pappano reaching for fullscale phantasmagoria. The aching, bittersweet longing that emerges immediately afterward will break your heart. When are we going to get back to normal, he asks. Will we ever get back to normal?

Movement two strongly echoes both the stalking menace of Symphony No. 4’s second movement and the vastness of the third, along with some famously bellicose Tschaikovsky. Is this the composer trying to remind us that we’d better remember our history so as not to repeat it?

What’s with that tenor sax weaving in and out of the third movement’s mashup of the work’s initial bustle and striding cynicism? Pillorying postwar optimism, it would seem: Hitler may have been toast, but the Soviet Union was as much a horror as ever and the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaigns would soon be underway. Like the third movement of Symphony No. 4, this is on the fast side, but the impact is unescapable.

As is the utterly eerie hush throughout the fourth movement: Vaughan Williams slows down his signature interweave so we can watch the gears’ fateful motion up close this time, and Pappano has the orchestra locking in their long-range sights. An oboe solo channels longing and disappointment; the shivers from the strings go on and on and bring a chill that never lifts. You could call this a musical counterpart to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins.

The London Symphony Orchestra have released a ton of live recordings since the lockdown, and most of them have been fantastic. One suspects that they have many more lined up on the runway, but so far this is the very best of them all. In fact, this may be the best album of 2021 in any style of music.

A Darkly Conversational New Duo Album From Pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell

Pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell each have earned substantial fan bases for very different reasons. Crispell was one of the first women among the loft jazz pioneers of the 70s; Sanchez’s panorama of global influences is vast as her melodies are translucent. Stylistically speaking, you might think that a piano duo collaboration between the two would be a stretch. And that’s exactly what they do on their new album How to Turn the Moon, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the first piano duo record for both artists, an intuitive. elegantly executed, largely improvisational effort. Crispell is at her most thoughtful and melodic while Sanchez reaches for a lingering, neoromantically-inspired 70s ECM sound. Sanchez is in the left channel, Crispell in the right on this generally very serious, often rather dark album.

There are a lot of tradeoffs and role reversals here. As the album goes along, the two begin to opt for more intertwine than the sharp dynamic contrast they work earlier on. The epic Ceiba Portal is a synthesis of all those devices, from a bracing, Mompou/Satie-like weave that builds to a steady, emphatically strolling overture of sorts, then a big crescendo to a final enigmatic fugue. The moody, spacious call-and-response and uneasy, starry Messiaenic tonalities of Sullivan’s Universe – a Sullivan Fortner shout-out, maybe? – has the same conversational disquiet.

There are a couple of surreal, suspenseful inside-the-piano pieces here. Ancient Dream has Crispell brushing the strings for lute-like phrases as Sanchez flits around, then Crispell takes to the keys, pensive and minimal. Space Junk is more mysterious, both pianists going to the lowest lows to conclude on a memorably murky note. By contrast, the harried quasi-boogie that closes Rain in Web is the album’s most aggressive interlude.

The exchanges of bell-like figures and purposeful, cascading variations in Calyces of Held rise and then return to moodiness, each pianist taking a solo turn. The more broodingly resonant Windfall Light becomes a platform for exploring that dynamic more darkly. Twisted Roots has more interweave, but also suspense, Crispell’s spare, blippy phrases echoing Sanchez’s solemn precision. The opening and closing numbers could have been left on the cutting room floor, but what’s in between them often brings out the best in both musicians.

Organist Yuri McCoy’s Symphonic Roar: Truth in Advertising

A cynic would say that the title of organist Yuri McCoy‘s new album Symphonic Roar: An Odyssey of Sound from the Paris Conservatoire – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is redundant. After all, epic grandeur and volume are what bring out the faithful in the organ demimonde and keep them coming back. On the other hand, as explosive and adrenalizing as this album is, it’s also remarkably subtle.

McCoy discovered that he had a couple of organs in his native Houston which were especially well suited to the wide expanse of characteristically French colors in this program, a mix of popular repertoire, a dazzling rarity and a brand-new arrangement of a strange relic from the Paris Surrealist movement.

He opens on the spectacular 1997 Fisk-Rosales organ at Rice University with Jean-Louis Florentz’s showstopper La Croix Du Sud. If you’ve ever wondered what Malian psychedelic rock would sound like on a pipe organ, this is it, rising from a hypnotically assertive Tuareg riff to an increasingly wild swirl of variations meant to evoke the dizzying ecstasy of Sufi dance. Florentz was a student of Messiaen, so that influence is apparent, especially in the piece’s starriest moments; Jehan Alain is another one, along with another piece that will follow later on the program here. The frenetic polyrhythms camouflaging an anthemic, Alainesque theme early on, the sudden flares over a brooding pedal note and the series of long climbs afterward will give you goosebumps. What a way to kick off an album.

McCoy follows with an increasingly blistering, breathtakingly dynamic take of the famous allegro vivace movement from Guilmant’s Sonata No. 2. He mines burbling phantasmagoria and finds a creepy anthem in Joseph Bonnet’s brief Will O’the Wisp. Then he concocts a bracing blend of icy, wafting and majestic registrations for Saint-Saens’ Fantaisie in D Flat, rising from an unexpectedly wistful introduction, to stately, airy angst, an anthemic hymn of sorts, and back.

McCoy moves to the 2017 Nichols & Simpson organ at his home base, Houston’s South Main Baptist Church to play a particularly expansive, deep-sky take of Louis Vierne’s iconic Clair de Lune. He winds up the record with his own brand-new arrangement of Edgar Varese’s sprawling 1926 symphonic work Ameriques. Varese had left France behind for the US by then: there’s a classic European wonder at American energy and vitality here, as well as a dissociatively shifting, one might say schizophrenic expanse of remarkably forward-looking ideas that sometimes edge over into the macabre. Percussion plays every bit as much a part as the organ: Brady Spitz and his “assistants,” Colin Boothby and Grant Wareham have just as much fun with their sirens and castanets and assorted implements as McCoy has in the console.

Ensemble Fanaa Bring Their Magical, Mysterious Middle Eastern Grooves to Prospect Park

It was a pleasantly cool Wednesday night in the late summer of 2016. The evening had gotten off to a disappointing start with an album release event in the dingy basement room at the Rockwood, where a talented tunesmith’s pickup band pretty much phoned in what could have been an electrifying set. As it turned out, the electricity that night would happen a little later in another basement room, at Rye Bar on the south side of Williamsburg, where Ensemble Fanaa played two rapt, mysterious, genuinely transcendent sets of Middle Eastern-flavored jazz.

This blog had given a big thumbs-up to their debut performance at Barbes earlier that year. This show was arguably even better. Tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi spun a web of otherworldly microtones, slithery chromatic melody, hypnotic resonance and the occasional ferocious burst as drummer Dan Kurfirst switched between his kit and a boomy dumbek for intricate polyrhythms as well as slinky snakecharmer grooves. Bassist John Murchison held the center, often playing subtle, sometimes haunting variations on a pedal line. If memory serves right – this was a long time ago – he switched to the magical, incisive Moroccan sintir bass lute for a handful of trance-inducing, gnawa-inspired numbers.

Game plan at the time was to write up this show to plug whatever the trio’s next gig was. But they were all busy in other bands at the time, and if they actually played somewhere else within the next couple of months, it was so far under the radar that this blog missed it. The good news is that Ensemble Fanaa are doing an outdoor gig on April 20 at 5:30 PM in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance off 7th Ave. Considering that this band’s music is on the serious side: haunting, and rapturous, and mystical, nobody in the group seems like a weedhead. But if that’s your thing, there is no other 4/20 show that can match this one for psychedelic ambience. And it that’s not your thing, this still promises to be the best concert of the month.

Tuneful, Purposeful, Unorthodox Jukebox Jazz From Cellist Christopher Hoffman

Christopher Hoffman‘s new Asp Nimbus – streaming at Bandcamp – might well be the first-ever jazz quartet album to feature a lineup of cello, vibraphone, bass and drums. That’s typical of Hoffman, who continues to push the envelope for what an improvising cellist can do. Interestingly, this is an album of jukebox jazz. Most everything here is under the four minute mark, and highly composed, as traditional as this dedicated nontraditionalist will probably ever get. This texturally enticing and often unselfconsciously beautiful album is one of the best of 2021 so far.

The opening number, Discretionary dances in on drummer Craig Weinrib’s fluttery beat and bassist Rashaan Carter’s elastic pulse, the bandleader entering with a bluesy, martially-tinged, thoughtfully spacious solo, then handing off to vibraphonist Bryan Carrott’s soaring, clustering lines.

Dylan George, a dedication to the bandleader’s late brother, is an energetic, ebullient theme spiced with guest David Virelles’ steady, enigmatic piano, Hoffman again choosing his spots, Carrott leading the band down to hazy unease and then back toward a funky sway before a macabre, tinkling outro. Clearly, we lost a forceful presence way too soon.

The album’s title track has moments of ridiculous levity over a lithe quasi-shuffle fueled by a twin bassline: Hoffman’s solo is more tongue-in-cheek. With its brooding klezmer inflections over a contrastingly nimble pulse, Angles of Influence is just plain gorgeous; Carter’s clustering solo raises the temperature several degrees.

The album’s fifth track, Orb, comes across as an interlude from something more expansive, centered around Carrott’s bittersweet gleam as the rhythm section fidgets. Set to a spring-loaded, slow stroll, Non-Submersible seems to allude to both a famous ballad and the Cure, Hoffman slyly shadowing Carter’s scrambling solo, Carrott pushing even further into anthemic territory.

For You comes across as a stormy latin ballad, from a distance, a catchy, acerbic theme that Carrott edges toward balmier territory until the bandleader pulls it back, almost exasperatedly. A slinky implied clave contrasts with the rustling of the strings in the album’s closing number, The Heights of Spectacle, Hoffman tightly unwinding a mutedly plucky solo: sarcasm could be running high here. You’ll be humming this one afterward.

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.

Nation Beat Bring Carnaval to Mardi Gras, and Vice Versa

Before the lockdown, Brooklyn group Nation Beat had a long run as one of New York’s top party bands, mixing up Brazilian sounds with New Orleans second-line shuffles, Americana, and in the early days, even surf rock. Happily, this rotating cast of musicians from around the world is are still together and releasing records. Their new album The Royal Chase – streaming at Bandcamp – is their most New Orleans-flavored and best release yet.

The opening number, Forró de Dois Amigo has Joe Correa’s sousaphone pulsing behind drummer’bandleader Scott Kettner’s surprisingly subtle mashup of Brazilian and Mardi Gras shuffle beats, reggae-tinged, bronzed horns, and solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and tenor sax player Paul Carlon. That sets the stage for the rest of the album.

Morô Omim Má has a more hypnotic groove, with resonant horns and spare guitar, Rob Curto’s organ anchoring a pensive Mark Collins trumpet solo. The album’s title track has a brisk strut: it’s practically ska, a mashup of rustic 19th century marching band music and a little dub.

They follow with a muscular, brassy reinventino of the Meters’ Hey Pocky Way with impassioned vocals and a slinky tuba solo. The group edge back toward reggae with the moodily vamping, minor-key Paper Heart, a brooding trombone solo at the center.

Forró no Escuro is a playful blend of Brazilian forro rainforest folk with bright frevo brass band flavor and more than a hint of calypso: down in the tropics, sounds get around fast. Ciranda for Lia is the album’s most lyrical number, a syncopated, pulsing ballad: it’s a song Grover Washington Jr. could have heard back in the 80s and thought to himself, “I’ve got to cover that.”

A tricky circling sax riff kicks off the jubilantly strutting, bluesy Big Chief, a launching pad for bright trumpet and suave trombone solos. With its rapidfire, icepick rhythm, Feira de Mangaio is the most specifically Brazilian tune here, although the sousaphone adds beefy flavor from further north.

Algunas Cantan has gentle Portuguese lead vocals from “Carolina Mama” over what sounds like an African balafon. The band wind up the record with Roseira do Norte, its pounding maracatu beat, jubilant brassiness and hints of vintage Burning Spear.

The Berlin Mallet Group Ring In a Unique, Imaginative, Colorful Debut Album

One of the most imaginative and unique albums to reach the front page here in recent months is the Berlin Mallet Group‘s debut album Sogni D’oro, streaming at Spotify. It rings, and pings, and whirs, and whooshes and bubbles in ways few other groups ever have, no surprise considering the instrumentation. Bandleaders David Friedman and Taiko Saito play vibraphone and marimba, respectively, along with Julius Heise and Hauke Renken, who alternate between those two instruments, and Raphael Meinhart, who sticks with the marimba here. The world is full of percussion ensembles and vibraphone jazz groups, but this crew sound like no other band in the world, part precise orchestra, part outside-the-box jazz ensemble. This is very lively, colorful music.

The opening number, Friedman’s Penta e Uno, is a mini-suite full of playful twists and turns, from a rapturous, minimalist ballad, to tantalizingly brief, bouncy swing and bossa themes and fleeting moments of Lynchian suspense. What’s most fascinating about it is the group’s meticulously orchestral intertwine. There’s a thicket of tremolo and ripples, but also a steady bassline, and circling low midrange.

The second number, by Saito, is Komodo No Kodomo, a vampy, distantly Asian, cleverly polyrhythmic web anchoring a series of terse vibraphone solos that finally mingle down into hypnotic rivulets. The group reinvent Kenny Wheeler’s Sea Lady as an epic bell choir: Saito’s evocative arrangement gets the group bowing oceanic ambience, right down to coy shorebirds and waves leisurely washing onshore. From there they take turns drifting and ringing out a summery tropical tableau.

Carousel, another Friedman tune, shifts from warmly hypnotic to emphatically assertive, with both motorik and west African balafon flavors and catchy solos from the vibes. The group dedicate this album to the late composer and percussionist Rupert Stamm and follow with two of his compositions. Friedman’s spare phrases resonate broodingly over suspenseful marimbas as Xylon 1 gets underway, the group maintaining a tight but mysterious pulse as a more tropical rhythm picks up. Xylon 4 is the album’s most anthemic track, with some breathtaking interplay in the highs as it peaks out.

Friedman’s title track shifts between summery atmosphere, a puffing pulse and a casual, shuffling bounce, with lushly expanding textures as it goes on. Scharfenberg, a fond ballad by Heise, concludes the album, the ensemble’s keening, pinging layers rising to a cheery series of waves that underscore the song’s sly resemblance to an old Elvis hit.

Funny and Troubling Songs For a Funny and Troubling Time

Good things come in fours today: here’s a mini-playlist of videos and streams to get your synapses firing on all cylinders

The woman who brought you the devious Tina Turner parody What’s Math Got to Do With It, singer/sax player Stephanie Chou has a provocatively philosophical new single, Continuum Hypothesis. It’s sort of art-rock, sort of jazz – a catchy, dancing, anthemic duo with pianist Jason Yeager, dedicated to mathematician Paul Cohen. According to this hypothesis, there is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers. This seems self-evident, but, based on Cohen’s work in set theory, Chou sees it as essentially unknowable, at least with what we know now. Snag a free download at Lions with Wings’ Bandcamp page while you can.

Here’s Erik Della Penna – the guitar half of erudite, lyrical superduo Kill Henry Sugar with drummer Dean Sharenow – doing a very, very subtle, rustically shuffling, Dylanesque acoustic protest song, Change the Weather:

I’m gonna make predictions
I’m gonna make it rain
I’m gonna put restrictions
On hearing you complain…
I’m gonna change the language
To make you change your mind
I’m gonna make predictions
That you can get behind

Swedish songwriter Moneira a.k.a. Daniela Dahl has a new single, The Bird (Interesting to See) It’s almost eight minutes of minimalist, anthemic art-rock piano and mellotron vibes, an oblique memoir of a troubled childhood, “a bird trapped in an open cage.” Sound familiar?

Natalia Lafourcade sings a slow, plush, epic take of the brooding Argentine suicide ballad Alfonsina y El Mar with Ljova orchestrating himself as a one-man string ensemble with his fadolin multitracks. You’d never know it was just one guy.