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A Rare, Harrowing Gem by One of New York’s Most Riveting Voices

Erica Smith was still in her twenties when she recorded a handful of quietly shattering acoustic songs in 2003. They were meant as demos. Her electric band would later air those songs out, memorably, at venues across New York and beyond, but recordings of them haven’t seen the light of day until recently. Her ep, which she calls The Dead and the Saints, is up at Bandcamp as a free download. It’s an important piece of New York music history and you should own it.

Smith’s first album was a stark, saturnine acoustic folk record. She pulled a band together for her second record, Friend or Foe, a showcase for her ability to reach from simmering oldschool soul, to stark traditional songs and impassioned ballads.

That versatility, and her similarly eclectic songwriting, came to the forefront with her third release, Snowblind, a harrowing chronicle of tragedy, loss and eventual resurgence. More recently she’s flexed her chops as a jazz stylist.

But this riveting little record reminds how strong she already was, two decades ago. “It starts with the sound of the siren,” she sings in Jesus’s Clown, a crucifixion parable and a co-write with the late Sean Dolan that ranks with that famous Phil Ochs song. “There were more than twelve of us around, and those who stayed got their names written down,” she reminds: “I was there and I know what I saw.”

See You in the Morning might be Smith’s most haunting song, a sober waltz with childhood memories of her mother, whom she lost as a gradeschooler. The vocals will rip your face off.

As they will on All the King’s Horses, another Dolan co-write. This version is a stripped-down version of the metaphorically-loaded pilgrim’s narrative which pretty much capsulizes the ugly history of the world in a few cinematic minutes. It’s been called one of the best songs ever written:

By now He would have died six more times, been resurrected and forgiven
We watched in hiding as they rolled away the stone
Praised heaven and all that’s forbidden

It’s also missing the eventual crushing final verse. The final cut on the ep is a rare waltz version of Old Pine Box, a haunted, imagistic tale that the band played as a brisk psychedelic janglerock tune.

Smith is still active as a performer; the last time this blog was in the house was a similarly magical acoustic show upstairs at 2A in the spring of 2018.

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20-String Koto Sorceress Yumi Kurosawa Brings Her Flickering Magic to Joe’s Pub

Yumi Kurosawa got her start as a national champion koto player in her native Japan. But she hardly limits herself to traditional Japanese sounds. On her latest album Metamorphosis – which isn’t online yet – she expands her signature style, cross-pollinating with other traditions from around the globe. The result is individualistic to the nth degree and often unselfconsciously gorgeous: this is one of the most beautiful albums of 2023 so far. She’s playing the album release show on March 30 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25/$15 stud.

Here’s what it sounds like. She and the band launch into a brisk, verdant sway in the opening track, Oneday Monday, violinist Naho Parrini sailing over Kurosawa’s spiky, intricate phrasing, which sometimes resembles a harp, other times a banjo. Her flashy glissandos and cascades make a contrast with the undulating groove from Eric Phinney’s tabla. There’s a tantalizingly brief violin-koto duel before they wind it up.

She and her trio follow a suspensefully cantering pace in track two, aptly titled Journey, with more of a traditional pentatonic folk atmosphere spiced with stark violin and delicately dancing tabla, down to an elegant Britfolk-tinged waltz. By contrast, Dawn is a slow, stately processional in 6/8 time, with wistful violin over Kurosawa’s intricately churning lines. As it winds out, she moves to a more incisive rhythm while Parrini reaches to an angst-fueled peak.

The album’s big epic is Restless Daydream: first Kurosawa and Parrini follow a similar stark/resonant dynamic, then the boomy percussion kicks in, violin and and koto building a kaleidoscopic interweave. Guest alto saxophonist Zac Zinger and then Parrini add thoughtful solos: the way she blasts out of a misterioso Kurosawa break as the group reach liftoff will give you goosebumps.

The terrain changes just as vividly in New Land Found, the group shifting from a catchy, anthemic intro to a rising and falling, bracingly tense theme and then a graceful waltz. Likewise, they move from an insistent, martial pulse to more airy textures in Zealla.

Mystical, lingering passages interchange with adrenalizing climbs and flurries throughout the next track, Mandala. While Inner Space is the only solo koto piece here, it’s arguably the high point of the album: Kurosawa is a one-woman orchestra with her thickets of circling, wavelike phrases underpinning an incisive melody that she drives to a slashing crescendo, and then gracefully downward. The band wind their way from a wistful mashup of Japanese folk and a rock ballad to a boisterously shuffling theme bookending a boomy percussion solo in the album’s final cut, Departure.

Transcendent Soul Songs From Thana Alexa, Nicole Zuraitis and Julia Adamy

When the 2020 lockdown was unleashed on New York, singers Thana Alexa and Nicole Zuraitis and bassist Julia Adamy didn’t let getting locked out of their professions stop them from making a soul album. Together, the three women call themselves Sonica: their debut release, streaming at Outside in Music, is a simmering and frequently powerful collaboration. With terse bass, colorful drums and immersive layers of electronic keys, the trio transcend what was obviously a harrowing year.

The opening number, Doyenne, is a catchy, minimalist trip-hop song with ethereally contrapuntal vocals and empowerment-themed samples from iconic feminist figures. Adamy’s catchy funk bassline propels track two, Where Ya Gonna Go, the two-woman frontline delivering an understatedly snarky soul anthem that speaks truth to power about one particularly odious lockdown divide-and-conquer scheme, with playful, extrovert drumming from Adamy’s husband Ross Pederson,

The best song on the album is Come a Long Way, Zuraitis’ spare, misty take on 90s Sade sonics, a poignant message from mother to daughter during soul-crushing lockdown isolation: “Please don’t give up the fight!” That’s her husband Dan Pugach behind the drumkit.

Adamy’s spare, understatedly gorgeous cover of Stevie Wonder’s Love’s In Need of Love Today reflects hope for transcending a different kind of divide-and-conquer during the Trump years. Change It, with Thana Alexa’s husband Antonio Sanchez on drums, is the most majestic track here, with lush, fiery multitracked vocals. They close the record by reinventing Danny Boy as an innovatively harmonized choral piece.

And shooting for hypnotically drifting rainy-day pop in a cover penned by a notoriously whiny indie rock beardo is a questionable move, but it sure beats the original. Zuraitis is at Smalls on March 29 at 7:30 with Pugach’s jazz nonet. And Thana Alexa is with Sanchez’s band at the Blue Note at 8 on April 3.

Mark Pacoe Commands the Power of the Organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Among the many reasons for guarded optimism that this city is slowly healing from the traumas inflicted over the past three years is the sudden resurgence of concert traditions that were put on ice in March of 2020. One that was badly missed was the semi-regular series of organ and choral concerts in the magnificent, reverb-heavy sonics at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mark Pacoe, who was one of the few and the brave to still be playing for audiences as late as the winter of 2020, delivered an eclectically welcome program there on the mighty Kilgen organ on Sunday afternoon

He opened with the Prelude from 20th century composer Paul Creston’s Suite for Organ, a steady, bright, unabashedly Romantic processional with a catchy, anthemic pedal melody amid a torrential swirl, to a matter-of-fact all-stops-out conclusion.

Next on the bill was a 2021 piece, Jason Roberts‘ Prelude & Fugue on the iconic Umm Kulthumm anthem Eta Omri, Pacoe quickly rising from an enigmatic introduction to a pouncing chase sequence punctuated by disquieting lulls. It’s not particularly Middle Eastern-tinged, but it’s an increasingly harried showstopper, quite possibly a reflection on our times.

Ian Farrington‘s variations on Amazing Grace, from 2017, were somewhat quieter but similarly animated, with frequent, jaunty blues riffage. Pacoe closed on a redemptively familiar note with the final two movements from Jean Langlais’ Suite Française. Pacoe played the Voix Céleste with a restless, relentless airiness, enhanced by a pace that seemed on the brisk side. That continued in the finale as he punched in with a redemptive, precise, gusty power.

The next free organ concert at St. Pat’s is on April 16 at 3:15 PM (these shows start right on time) with Ken Corneille playing his own songs plus works by 18th century French composer Médéric Corneille, and contemporary American composer and improviser McNeil Robinson

Novus NY Deliver an Auspicious Performance of New and 20th Century Classical Works

Back in the spring of 2017, there was a fantastic series of concerts of new classical music staged by Trinity Church at their smaller and older sister edifice, St. Paul’s Chapel a couple of blocks to the north. This blog covered several of those performances. Why would events from so far in the past be newsworthy now?

Considering that we lost three years of our lives in the time since, everything in the mirror seems closer than it is. But in keeping with what seems to be a very auspicious trend, there’s a similar and arguably even more ambitious festival going on at the chapel, with lunchtime shows continuing through May 4. At 1 PM, there’s jazz on Mondays, organ music on Tuesdays, Bach choral and instrumental works on Wednesdays and contemporary classical on Thursdays. This past Thursday, a subset of Novus NY treated a tiny audience to a diverse, sometimes spellbinding program that bodes well for what’s in store for the rest of the spring.

Flutist and ensemble leader Melissa Baker explained to the crowd that this year’s theme is empathy, something that the powers that be in this city did their best to crush beginning in March of 2020. It wasn’t clear how this was reflected in the music on the bill, which ranged from wary and harrowing to thoughtfully drifting.

The ensemble opened with the world premiere of Brad Balliett‘s Quintet For Piano and Winds. Gershwinesque swing with dissociative microtones from the lower reeds – the composer himself on bassoon, Benjamin Fingland on clarinet and Stuart Breczinski on oboe – quickly gave way to a tense muddle and then a rise from spacious floating motives to some jaunty pageantry where Baker and horn player Laura Weiner could flurry a little. There was a welcome payoff at the end of a long, anthemically swaying crescendo where pianist Daniel Schlosberg relished the chance to pounce on some icy, glittering, microtonally-tuned upper-register chords and nonchalantly breathtaking downward cascades. From there he continued with an disquieting, emphatic attack, the winds wafting a distant unease.

The quintet marched through persistently troubled trills to a lull punctuated by icepick piano accents and then a rather stern drive out that left no easy answers. What a breathtaking piece of music! As enjoyable as the rest of the program was, it was anticlimactic.

But there were plenty of rewarding moments. Two more contiguous partitas provided opportunities for the group to flex very diverse skillsets. In a small handful of Valerie Coleman‘s Portraits of Langston suite, for flute, clarinet and piano, Baker and Fingland playing dynamically shifting blues-inflected phrases over Schlosberg’s assertive chords and accents. The slow tectonic shifts and gentle Scheherezade whirls of Joan Tower’s Island Prelude made a moody contrast, at least until the wind-and-horn quartet kicked in with a series of animated flights and pulses.

And Louise Farrenc’s expansive, warmly Beethovenesque Sextet in C minor, Op. 40, with Schlosberg’s invitingly consonant melody rippling through nocturnal swells and the winds’ countermelodies, wound up the concert with a cocooning elegance.

Epic, Vivid Spanish-Tinged Big Band Jazz and a Joe’s Pub Show From Emilio Solla

Pianist Emilio Solla writes picturesque, symphonic, state-of-the-art big band jazz that draws on both tango and Spanish Caribbean traditions but transcends both. For those who might be interested in how this chorizo is made, Solla and flamenco-jazz saxophonist/singer Antonio Lizana are launching their upcoming tour with their new quartet at Joe’s Pub on March 25 at 9. Cover is on the steep side, $30 for a bill which four years ago might have been better staged at the late and badly missed Jazz Standard. Good luck dodging the waitstaff, who may or may not be enforcing a minimum at tables.

Solla’s most recent album with his Tango Jazz Orchestra is Puertas: Music from International Waters, streaming at Bandcamp. He dedicates each track to a different city around the world; the result is as cosmopolitan and majestic as you could possibly want. The loose connecting thread is patterns of global immigration and its challenges. Beyond inspired solos, Solla’s compositions have a dynamism and element of surprise beyond most of the other composers in his demimonde.

The opening number, Sol La, Al Sol has subtle tango allusions in the big splashes of color from the orchestra, setting up a bright, assertive Tim Armacost tenor sax solo. The bustle grows to a blaze before trombonist Mike Fahie takes a judicious, spacious solo of his own. The band have fun with Solla’s punchy countermelodies on the way out. Lots going on here.

Guest Arturo O’Farrill takes over on piano as the epic second track, Llegara, Llegara, Llegara begins. The orchestra answers him and then rises with an early-morning suspense as he cascades. Julien Labro’s accordion weaves in and out, over a determined charge down the runway fueled by bassist Pablo Aslan and drummer Ferenc Nemeth. Tenor saxophonist John Ellis takes charge of the lull that follows, choosing his spots over a long, increasingly lush crescendo. The twin piano coda with O’Farrill and Solla trading off is decadently delicious.

In Chacafrik, dedicated to the Angolan city of Benguela, the orchestra shift from a cheery, retro brassiness to a rumble and then sleekness before hitting a circling qawalli groove, Todd Bashore’s alto sax at the center.

Terry Goss’ wistful baritone sax adds a wistful undercurrent as La Novena, a dedication to Solla’s hometown Buenos Aires, gets underway; it’s an otoño porteño, Labro’s bandoneon solo signaling a sober, steady rise at the end. The trumpets – Alex Norris, Jim Seeley, Brad Mason and Jonathan Powell – figure lyrically and sparely in Four for Miles, a pulsing tango-jazz mini-epic with a tantalizingly brief lattice by the first and last on that list at the end.

Edmar Castañeda’s harp introduces Allegron in tandem with Solla’s piano over tricky, punchy Venezuelan rhythms. Once again, Solla brings in towering grandeur in between the moments where Castañeda isn’t threatening to break several strings, Ellis adding a triumphantly balletesque solo on soprano.

Solla draws his inspiration for Andan Luces from Cadiz, a baroque-tinged counterpoint from the high reeds ceding to a pensively incisive solo from Aslan and cheerier flights from the bandleader’s piano. Stormy low brass anchors contrasting highs to kick off the final number, Buenos Aires Blues. Trombonist Noah Bless bobs and weaves over Solla’s kinetic syncopation, with Norris, Goss and Labro riding the waves in turn.

The album also benefits from the collective talents of soprano saxophonist Alejandro Aviles, trombonist Eric Miller and bass trombonist James Rodgers.

Holy Hand Grenade Bring Their Dynamic, Catchy Afrobeat Grooves to Bushwick

More and more good New York bands who were around before the totalitarian hammer fell in March of 2020 are reemerging intact, and one of the most smartly danceable ones is Holy Hand Grenade. The Afrobeat group, led by tenor saxophonist Lynn Ligammari and featuring a cast of horn players alongside keyboardist Chris Doyle, guitarist Timothy James, bassist Ronald Lanzilotta, percussionist Marcus Farrar and drummer David Palazola have a show coming up on March 24 at 9 at Alphaville. The Bushwick venue seems stuck in one of those goofy dollars-and-cents cover charge schemes, meaning that it’ll cost you $14 cash if you round it up a quarter or so.

The band’s latest single is The Chase, with rapidfire Ethiopian-flavored horns over a brisk latin-flavored shuffle beat, spare lingering guitar and punchy organ. With all the lulls and swells, it could be a Mulatu Astatke cover. Speaking of which, the single before that, from the fall of 2020, is the band’s otherworldly, psychedelic version of his classic Yekermo Sew, which rises from a floating suspense to a darkly majestic peak.

In 2019, the band released their debut album, Celebrate Not Separate, which is also up at Bandcamp along with their other releases. It’s a fantastic record: the riffs are catchy, the solos are succinct and you can dance to everything on it.

They blend cumulus-cloud keys, skeletal guitar and bright horn bursts in the vampy first cut, This Life. Warm brass, understated soul/funk guitar and starry keys percolate through the trickily rhythmic second track, The Follow Through. Bumping Into Strangers – a thought that would generate endless paranoia just months after the song was released – has a tight, brisk pulse, Doyle’s psychedelic cumbia-flavored keyboard solo at the center.

Delicate surf guitar and balmy tropicalia waft through track four, Look, as the Ethiopian ambience drifts in from the distance. The horns get brighter and the percussion rumbles further to the forefront along with the chugging bass and guitar in the album’s title cut. Then Ligammari cuts loose with her sax in the aptly titled Summer Joy, up to a fiery, insistent Ethiopian peak and then back down.

The band get whispery and spare but then take a suspenseful upward trajectory in Projections, with a thoughtful, smoky Ligammari solo. They close the record with Be Easy, a surprisingly cohesive mashup of edgy Ethiopiques and balmy Brazilian flavors.

Revisiting New York Jamband Legends at a Familiar Haunt

Hazmat Modine are one of the world’s edgiest and most enduring jambands. They got their start a couple of decades ago as a darkly oldtimey-flavored New Orleans blues unit which sometimes featured instruments as diverse as the Chinese sheng – a sort of hybrid harmonica/tuba – and the lowest of all low reed instruments, the contrabass clarinet. Charismatic belter and frontman Wade Schuman plays a mean chromatic harp, but he’s also a hell of an oldtime resonator blues guitarist. In the early days, the group’s signature sound was dueling blues harps; as the years went by, they went deeper into reggae, klezmer and more electric rock sounds. They also enjoyed a more-or-less biweekly residency at Terra Blues, which lasted from the early zeros until the 2020 plandemic. The good news is that they’re back, with a gig there at a little after 7 PM on March 18. Cover is $20.

Hazmat Modine had the misfortune to release their most recent album, Box of Breath – streaming at Bandcamp – barely a couple of months before the lockdown. The big new development for the band here was the detour they’d taken into African music: Balla Kouyate’s rippling balafon is a frequent, rippling presence.

On the first track, Crust of Bread, guitarist Erik Della Penna starts out on banjitar, playing a circling Malian riff and then switches to a tantalizingly brief, careening electric solo over tuba player Joseph Daley’s energetic riffage. At the end, saxophonist Steve Elson, trumpeter Pam Fleming and trombonist Reut Regev whip up a little dixieland over drummer Tim Keiper’s spare forward drive.

The album’s title track is an older concert favorite, Schuman making his way through a litany of period-perfect 1920s blues aphorisms that start out sly and allusive and grow more somber as the band move in a more brassy direction behind him. Then they make an oldtimey, brass-fueled sway out of a Memphis soul tune in Be There, Schuman and Della Penna getting into an animated duel midway through.

Hoarder, one of Schuman’s more colorful character studies, is a launching pad for some of the band’s more vivid Rube Goldberg exchanges: somewhere there’s a great silent cartoon that deserves this music. Della Penna moves to the mic for Lonely Man, a starkly swaying Charley Patton-flavored oldtime blues tune that would fit perfectly with his other band, Kill Henry Sugar: the brass and Schuman’s expressive wah-wah harp add a brighter edge.

They slink their way into hi-de-ho tango territory dotted with vintage soul horn riffs in Get Get Out. Once again, the band built a wry lattice of riffs, this time alongside guest on Mark Stewart on idiophone, Schuman running his harp through an octave pedal for extra surreal, squiggly textures.

From there they sway into Lazy Time, another oldschool soul tune taken back to its increasingly boisterous hot 20s roots. Della Penna returns to the mic for In Our Home, a metaphorically loaded, elegantly arranged blues cautionary tale, Charlie Burnham’s viola sailing amid the spiky mix of guitar, banjitar, tuba and the horns.

Ain´t Goin That Way is the closest thing to the band’s original sound, a chromatically bristling, reverb-iced Schuman harp solo over an icepick strut, and some terse, bluesy lines from Regev. Della Pena takes to the banjitar and the mic again in Dark River, a waltz that’s the darkest and most rustic track here.

Daley hits a reggae groove in Delivery Man, a cynical political broadside with some of the album’s most memorably snarling guitar and harp work. Schuman channels his inner Louis Jordan in Extra-Deluxe-Supreme, an innuendo-laden chronicle of a late-night trip to his local bodega. They wind up the album with the loosely vamping Sound Check in China, which could be exactly that. Good to see this familiar presence still at the top of their surreal, shapeshifting game after all these years.

The Elgin Marbles Bring Their Wickedly Catchy, Psychedelic Jangle and Clang to Bushwick

What is up with this week? Suddenly it’s 2019 again. There are more great multiple-band bills around New York than there have been in, um, years. Wonder why that is?

The best of the bunch is at Gold Sounds on March 18 and starts anticlimactically at 8 with psychedelic janglerock guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band Girls on Grass, followed by cult supergroup the Elgin Marbles, who play the wickedly catchy, serpentine songs of bandleader/guitarist Dann Baker’s previous outfit, Love Camp 7. Up next are Canadian country crew the Pickups and then Cementhead, who enjoyed a good run (and a revolving door of band members) as one of the few memorable indie bands in New York in the late 90s and zeros. Cover is $12, dirt cheap for a lineup of this caliber.

This blog was in the house for one of the Elgin Marbles’ first shows, at Troost in Greenpoint in August of 2019. It was a psychedelic janglefest. Bassist Dave Mandl did his usual swoop-and-dive routine where Love Camp 7’s late, great Bruce Hathaway would have punched in with his judicious, melodic lines (Hathaway was also a first-rate composer of new classical music: let’s hope his orchestral scores will someday resurface somewhere).

Drummer Heather Wagner had the hardest job of all. Negotiating the late, great Dave Campbell’s labyrinthine lines with any similar kind of flair would have been a steep learning curve under any circumstances, but she was up to the challenge and was relentless about it. The addition of Greek/Cypriot surf band the Byzan-tones‘ guitarist and bandleader George Sempepos added to the intricate, starry lattice of sound. Baker balanced his erudite jangle and chime with the occasional, unexpectedly buzzy blast of noise to keep the crowd on their toes, when they weren’t hanging on his winkingly sly lit-rock lyrics and cat-ate-the-canary vocals. There seems to be only one video from the show that’s made it to the web, but it’s a good one, Sempepos’ jagged, spiky slide guitar over Baker’s slinky sway.

Leather Lung Open a Scorching Night in Greenpoint on the 18th

This week is a great one for heavy rock. There’s a primo triplebill at St. Vitus on March 18 for $20, which as you may have noticed is cheap for what they’ve been charging since emerging (conspicuously late) from the lockdown insanity of the last three years. That’s most likely due to online ticket price-gouging. Just as Grubhub screws your local falafel place, the Silicon Valley scum are grifting off an already stressed and increasingly depleted music venue clientele.

And of course we know that the whole UN2030 agenda is to get rid of live performance altogether.

But this show’s worth it and more. Leather Lung, who are all over the place, from doom to heavy psych and a post-Pantera vibe that they sludge it up and strip down to the iron frame, are on first at around 7. High Reeper, whose fuzzed-out Black Sabbath emulation is spot-on, are up next. The increasingly diverse Ruby the Hatchet, whose haunting lockdown reflection Fear Is a Cruel Master was one of the ten best rock records of 2022, headline sometime after 9.

Full disclosure: this piece was originally supposed to be a run-through of the most recent High Reeper record, which is as darkly tuneful (some would say predictable) as you could possibly want. But Leather Lung’s latest ep Dive Bar Devil – streaming at Bandcamp – was too good to resist. The Boston band have a sense of humor to match their chops: the inbetween-songs bar skit, and the one with the poor guy at the tollbooth, are pretty spot-on.

Otherwise, they put some thrash into the slow-raging, distantly doom-infused first track, Pissing Gasoline. Track two, Road Soda is built around a serpentine heavy blues riff, with a wall of distortion for extra hypnotic factor. The best cut of all of them is Far Too Familiar, with its eerie delta blues slide riffs and echoey, drowning-pool calm before the buzzsaw guitars kick in – the (uncredited) second guitarist is a welcome addition.