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No New Abnormal

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Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 orchestral record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

Revisiting Kimberly Hawkey’s Swing Jazz Reinventions

Kimberly Hawkey is best known as the irrepressible, erudite frontwoman of the deviously entertaining Swingaroos, who reinvent old jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s. But back in 2016, she made an equally irreverent and captivating album of her own with a considerably larger cast including a string quartet. That record, Elvanelle & the Escape Act, is still streaming at Bandcamp, and it has an interesting backstory.

Hawkey crowdsourced the record, and one of the perks she was giving out to supporters was a collection of old sheet music she’d picked up on Ebay. Going through the scores, she noticed that she’d just acquired the personal archive of a woman named Elvanell Ellison, who was born in New Mexico in 1917. Not much is known about her other than her passion for jazz. She married a guy named John Horton, moved to California and eventually died there in the 1990s. Clearly, she and Hawkey are kindred spirits.

Hawkey opens the record with the lush, playfuly orchestrated, Gershwinesque Music That Makes the Wind Blow, the first of a couple of co-writes with Swingaroos pianist Assaf Gleizner. She and the band give a cosmopolitan 30s feel to the first of the standards, It’s You or No One, with a triumphant trumpet solo from Björn Ingelstam.

Hawkey recasts Johnny Mercer’s Dream as latin noir, driven by the snaky rhythm of bassist Ray Cetta and drummer Mark McLean, saxophonist Morgan Price’s smoky spirals completing the picture. She gets brassy in an unexpectedly carnivalesque take of Crazy Rhythm and then makes an elegantly artsy piano ballad out of the first of a couple of old folk tunes, Shall We Gather at the River. Gleizner channels McCoy Tyner at his tersest and darkest in a Coltrane-esque remake of the other, Shady Grove. 

Hawkey and the band make a diptych out of How Little We Know and I’ll See You Again, shifting from a strikingly poignant waltz to a crooner cameo by Ingelstam and then a little duet. Hawkey’s lyrics to the album’s second original, I Love a Ballad are hilarious, matched by the music: without giving away too much, tempos are part of the joke.

She veers even closer to Spike Jones territory, picking up her tenor banjo as Ingelstam switches to trombone for a goofy version of I’m in the Mood for Love. Then she gets sly and lowdown in a New Orleans-flavored reinvention of Ev’rything I’ve Got. Hawkey closes the album with a wistful, fond version of I’ll Be Seeing You. A triumph of outside-the-box ideas from a cast that also includes violinists Brendan Speltz and Lavinia Pavlish, violist Milena Pajaro van der Stadt, cellist Andrew Janss and trombonist Christopher Bill.

Dynamic Big Band Music For Transcending Troubled Times

Big band composer Daniel Hersog took the title for his album Night Devoid of Stars – streaming at Bandcamp – from a Martin Luther King quote about how love is the only power strong enough to defeat evil: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Hersog wrote most of the record in the wee hours with tv news on in the background. This was before the lockdown, and there doesn’t seem to be any specific political commentary here, but the backdrop is ugly. Clearly, music kept this guy sane – and will continue to do the same for you.

Hersog conducts a sixteen-piece orchestra throughout a dynamic, smartly spacious mix of material that only reaches gale force once in awhile. They open with Cloud Break, a cheerily marching feature for lead trumpeter Brad Turner’s judicious, occasionally feral lines, especially when the group pick it up with a racewalking swing. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger artfully echoes a similar intensity as pianist Frank Carlberg glimmers uneasily before the band swing it again: it ain’t got a thing, etc.

Carlberg gets to take a rare detour into spare gospel in the second number, Motion: big band compositions seldom get as quiet as this one does. Preminger’s meticulously voiced solo as the rhythm section takes it into funkier territory is one of the album’s high points. The orchestra finallly return in waves at the end.

Carlberg’s paraphrase of My Favorite Things to introduce Makeshift Memorial leaves the question unanswered: a solemn exchange between Preminger and the brass develops, moments of stark lustre contrasting with a tentative ebullience. Candles left for a gangster only last so long.

Hersog reaches for early 70s Morricone-esque cinematics as the album’s title track gets underway, rising quickly to a punchy, grim urban funk tableau that the band decide to take swinging all of a sudden, Preminger in the catbird seat with a slit-eyed grin, Turner choosing his spots as the dancing pulse reaches toward redline.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a great song just about all the time no matter who plays it, and Hersog makes a lustously horizontal epic out of it, from Carlberg’s casually cruel, Ran Blake-inflected lines, to hypnotically swirling orchestration and a swaying piano interlude that stops thisshort of jaunty. It’s a song about being haunted, and this is.

Indelible begins as a warmly swaying nocturne, and rises to a gritty peak on the wings of Michael Braverman’s soprano sax, Preminger offering calm over the increasingly acidic, spiky, funky pulse behind him. The ensemble close with Song for Henrique, Carlberg shifting with jaunty latinisms and a more unsettled Middle Eastern chormaticism as the bass and drums pulse tightly behind him. A vividly eclectic performance from an ensemble that also includes Chris Startup on alto sax; Tom Keenlyside on tenor; Ben Henriques on baritone; Michael Kim, Derry Byrne and Jocelyn Waugh on trumpets; Rod Murray, Jim Hopson and Brian Harding on trombones; Sherman King on bass trombone; James Meger on bass and Michael Sarin on drums.

Dark, Pensive Two-Bass Soundscapes From Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci

Bassists Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci have just released their starkly evocative, immersive new duo album Now/Here on the reliably adventurous Acustronica label, where it’s streaming. The former also plays the Korean geomumgo bass lute on the album’s second track; the latter plays six-string electric bass and handles the electronic component. Like the best ambient music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, although the playing is more animated and considerably less reliant on drones than usual in this genre.

The first track is Nowhere, Barbiero beginning it by bowing a somber, Pink Floyd-like riff over the icy swirl behind him. Bocci eventually echoes him over down-the-drainpipe sonics. The second track, Paths (A Winter Day in a Seaside Town) features Barbiero bowing starkly, adding wispy high harmonics, Asian pentatonics and squirrelly accents over samples of waves and shorebirds.

Ten Lines for Nowhere is much the same but focused in the low registers with a more hypnotic, loopy backdrop. The two bassists switch roles for the first part of the diptych Elegy For Time and Space, Bocci’s spare plucks over dark, overtone-rich washes from Barbiero, then the textures grow denser and a simple, anthemic theme sneaks into the picture. Similarly, Bocci rumbles and adds bell-like accents as Barbiero supplies atmosphere as the second half begins; then there’s another role reversal. It’s both the catchiest and most hypnotic interlude on the album.

Green Over Grey is the most subtly shifting, drone-oriented and most haunting piece here. The two wind up the album with the title cut, which follows the same pattern, but more minimalistically.

Jordi Savall Unearths a Vault of Secret Beethoven

As both a musician and conductor, Jordi Savall has made a career of rediscovering lost treasures from the Americas to the Middle East. When he finally turned his attention to recording works by the best-known composer in the history of the western world, the treasures he found were hidden in plain sight. If you think you know Beethoven, the level of detail in Savall’s latest recording with the orchestra Le Concert Des Nations will take your breath away. It’ll make you laugh, and give you chills.

Savall’s modus operandi for the massive six-disc set Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5 – streaming at Spotify – was to play the composer’s first five symphonies as they would have been performed contemporaneously, with period instruments and a considerably smaller ensemble compared to today’s orchestras, just sixty players. Yet the music is no less vigorous, and there are elements that will jump out at you for the first time because unless you’ve played this music with a chamber orchestra this closely attuned to the score, you simply haven’t heard them before. Even in concert, more often than not they get subsumed in the bluster. This is not Beethoven as relaxing wine-hour music, or innocuous background for multitasking. This is headphone music.

A lot of the hidden details that Savall brings to the foreground are jokes. Other than the violinists who play it, who noticed how frequently Beethoven uses glissandos as a punchline, especially in Symphonies 4 and 5? Or, for that matter, in Symphony No. 1? All that leaps out, not to mention the jagged flurries in the fourth movement of No. 1 – or, for that matter, how that movement foreshadows the introduction to No. 2? We now know that Beethoven wrote No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 – and obviously liked that gusty riffage to the point where he thought it was worth recycling. After all, only those who’d seen the scores at the time, or played them, could have picked up on that.

Call-and-response is another device that Beethoven loved to have fun with, and nobody has fun with it like this crew. The fugal moments between strings and winds, or strings and brass, are in particularly high definition throughout the entire set of symphonies, notably in the opening movement of No. 2 and the third movement of No. 4. And when’s the last time you heard an orchestra working contrasting loud/soft conversational dynamics in No. 4? Beethoven was writing  the so-called Razumovsky string quartets around the same time and was obviously having a jolly good time with that trope.

In lieu of timpani, there’s a single bass drum played with sticks rather than mallets. Who knew how prominent, or how deviously funny, the percussion in No. 5 actually is? This crew does.

And the details bristle as much as they tickle. Fleeting words of warning that go rubato and then hint at a complete stop in the first movement of No. 3; the starkness of the cellos introducing that iconic descending progression in the second movement of No. 4; and the sheer beefiness of the second movement of No. 5, which most orchestras play as a straightforwardly courtly dance. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to all of this in a single setting is overwhelming: stream these one a night for a week and your perspective on other recordings will be changed for life.

Celebrate the End of an Ugly World with Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s Protest Songs

Everybody’s favorite tongue-in-cheek baritone C&W crooner, Brent Amaker, has a new ep Ugly World, with his band the Rodeo streaming at Spotify. His protest songs speak for billions of people around the globe. How do you write a hit song? Make it a broadside about everybody’s least favorite bully.

You probably know the big hit, Dump Trump:

He has his head up his own butt…
Dude loves himself so much he’ll take us down for a buck
This tv star is a hack
I want my country back

It’s a solid piece of retro tunesmithing, too – that machete-chord guitar outro is spot-on.

The rest of the record is just as relevant. The title track is a spaghetti western tune with a bunch of amusing musical quotes and a long, incendiary guitar solo. Amaker would love a beer, but the bars are closed: things just get uglier and uglier in this lockdown hell!

He sticks with a loping southwestern gothic groove for Soldier, an unexpectedly subtle number that manages to be sympathetic to the battlescarred dude while not missing the implications of what people this damaged do if they’re running the show. Amaker closes with  New Rodeo Anthem. a stadium-friendly (or corral-friendly) singalong. You know that when the lockdown is over and Amaker is back on the road, he and the band are going to break this one out for the encores.

Now, some of you regular readers might be wondering why, after salivating over the prospect of a Trump impeachment week after week a year ago, this blog went totally silent on the Presidential election. Did New York Music Daily secretly go over to the dark side and endorse Trump?

No. But if anybody thinks Biden is an improvement, they’re living in a dream world. In many respects Biden is Trump with a smiley face – or wearing a muzzle with a smiley face on it. Trump was surrounded by a bunch of cheap snatch-and-grab thugs, but Biden’s people are far more sinister. The Trump crowd simply wanted to loot the treasury and make a quick getaway. Biden’s people have an agenda: permanent lockdown. The New Abnormal. We are going to have to be twice as dedicated to noncompliance as we’ve been the past year in order to get rid of it. And this blog believes we can. Stay strong because the next four years are going to be hell. But we’re going to win this thing.

The Webber/Morris Big Band Deliver a Smartly Thematic, Unique, Entertaining Sound

The Webber/Morris Big Band‘s album Both Are True – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is a treat for anyone who likes meticulously crafted new big band jazz. It’s unusual in that most of it is remarkably delicate for such a big ensemble. Bandleaders and saxophonists Anna Webber and Angela Morris gravitate toward the upper registers in the compositions here. Although much of this music is persistently unsettled, it’s not particularly heavy and has a welcome, sardonic sense of humor. Not everyone plays on every track: some include Dustin Carlson’s guitar, others have Marc Hannaford’s spare piano.

The opening epic, Climbing on Mirrors is a real roller-coaster ride. Delicate staccatto upper-register textures join the gently circling, distantly Afrobeat-inflected milieu one by one until a terse, plaintive Charlotte Greve sax solo slows the song as the ensemble recedes to just the rhythm section. The big crescendo brings everybody back with a joyously syncopated pulse. The way the brass bracingly shadow the reeds really ramps up the suspense, toward a lush chorale that brings the opening theme full circle – in more ways than one. Darcy James Argue seems to be the obvious influence.

The album’s title track has a similar but heavier syncopation that contrasts with a much more improvisational element, pairs of instruments seemingly choosing their own material to converse with, and moments of uneasy massed resonance where the rhythm drops out. Again, a sax solo pulls the music together; the pianp mingles with Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone, but not to the point of any big reveal. Is the sleekness that follows a signal that all is finally clear? No spoilers!

In Rebonds, the band shift from spacious rhythmic riffs and uneasy, dirty resonance,  guitar skronk front and center. They begin Coral with a Brian Eno-esque haze and then gradually move en masse to break it up with increasingly flickering textures, lingering, spacious Adam O’Farrill trumpet solos and a groove that could be Isaac Hayes on mushrooms.

And It Rolled Right Down is an amusingly cuisinarted mix of New Orleans-flavored riffs, with an ending that’s too funny to give away. With its echoey/blippy dichotomy, the massed improvisation Foggy Valley is aptly titled. The group close with the album’s longest epic, Reverses, a close-harmonied march from the horns over a spare, wary three-chord piano figure. Then the band echo it as a slowly syncopated pulse returns in the background, down to a moody Adam O’Farrill break and then up to an irresistibly stampeding payoff: it’s the most intricate and beefiest of all the tracks here.

The record also includes a couple of casual, playful two-sax conversations to break up the tracks. An original and judicious triumph for a group who also include saxophonists Jay Rattman, Adam Schneit and Lisa Parrott:; trumpeters John Lake, Jake Henry and Kenny Warren: trombonists Tim Vaughn, Nick Grinder. Jen Baker anad Reginald Chapman; bassist Adam Hopkins and drummer Jeff Davis.

A Hilarious Powerpop Party Record From the Airport 77s

The Airport 77s write very funny, very catchy, perfectly retro late 70s style powerpop songs. If this was the year that the cheesy movie the band took their name from came out, they would rule the airwaves – and that’s a compliment. And their jokes extend beyond the lyrics to the music as well. In a year where so few rock acts have been releasing records, their debut album Rotation – streaming at Bandcamp – is a blast of fresh air.

The first track is Christine’s Coming Over, about a girl who won’t settle for scrubs – so the dude in the song has to frantically borrow a vacuum cleaner. And his choice of makeout music is spot-on for 1977! The band – frontman/bassist Chuck Dolan, guitarist Andy Sullivan and drummer John Kelly – nail all the requisite late 70s tropes. Brisk 2/4 beat, muted guitar downstrokes keeping time, twin guitar solo, the works.

When You’re Kissing On Me (Do You Think of James McAvoy) is a snidely funny scenario we all know too well: your crush just can’t get over theirs, with embarrassing results. The band hit a burning, minor-key, reggae-inflected groove with Shannon Speaks – it seems to be about a girl in a coma who has some kind of secret.

With its “whiskey/frisky” rhymes and devious innuendos, Wild Love comes across as the Romantics on steroids. The guitar quotes in All the Way, beginning with a smartly chosen Pink Floyd riff, are priceless, and match the lyrics. Their cover of Girl of My Dreams is more four-on-the-floor than the Bram Tchaikovsky original.

Strutting along on Dolan’s catchy bassline, Bad Mom! is the funniest track on the album: this horrible parent lets her kids play with water pistols! And she’s been known to sneak a smoke every now and then! The group make you wait til the second verse of the final cut, Make It Happen before they drop a couple of their best jokes on you. Killer party record all the way through.

Brilliant, Haunting New Works From Iranian Composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi

Teheran-based composers Soheil Shirangi and Shervin Abbasi have released an aptly titled, haunting new album Maelstrom, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a diverse but persistently dark collection of works for both solo instruments and small ensembles. The two draw on influences as vast as European minimalism and horizontal music as well as traditional Iranian sounds. In a year of one horror after another – especially in Iran, which was one of the first countries crippled by prppaganda and hysteria – this is indelibly an album for our time. Yet the music here also offers considerable hope and even devious humor.

The first work is Trauma, a Shirangi trio composition played by cellists Ella Bokor and Mircea Marian with accordionist Fernando Mihalache. The strings enter with a syncopated, mutedly shamanic drive that quickly rises to an insistent pedalpoint. The accordion first serves as a wary chordal anchor while the cellos diverge and then return with an increasingly stricken intensity, then wind out with plaintive washes.

Violinist Mykola Havyuk, clarinetist Yaroslav Zhovnirych and pianist Nataliya Martynova play Abbasi’s The Rebellion, beginning more hauntingly microtonal, its austere resonance punctuated by simple, forlorn piano incisions. Eerie, circling chromatics from the piano underscore troubled, anthemic phrases. A couple of vigorous flicks under the lid signals a wounded call-and-response: slowly but resolutely, a revolution flickers and eventually leaps from the desolation. The obvious comparison is the livelier moments in Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time.

By contrast, To Lose Hope – another Abbasi piece, featuring clarinetist Mykola Havyuk and a string quartet comprising violinists Marko Komonko and Petro Titiaiev, violist Ustym Zhuk and cellist Denys Lytvynenke – first takes shape as a hazy cavatina, Havyuk’s crystalline leads balanced by brooding cello and shivery vibrato from the rest of the strings. It’s the most distinctly Iranian piece here. The jauntiness, acerbity and suspense that follow are unexpectedly welcome. The point seems to be that hope is where you find it.

Afrooch, an Abbasi solo work played by violinist Farmehr Beyglou, requires daunting extended technique, shifting back and forth between ghostly harmonics, moody atmosphere, insistently hammering riffs, shivery crescendos and a call-and-response that grows from enigmatic to puckish. The ending is too funny to give away.

The closing composition, Shirangi’s The Common Motivations is a solo piano piece, Sahel Ebae’s low murk contrasting with muted inside-the-gestures, expanding with spacious minimalist accents and eventually forlorn, Messiaenic belltone chords. If this is characteristic of the new music coming out of Iran these days, the world needs to hear more of it.

A Fascinating Album of New Music From the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Home Turf

One of the most consistently interesting and richly diverse albums of symphonic music released in the last couple of years is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording, Contemporary Colours, a collection of new works by Maltese composers streaming at Spotify. Malta may be a relatively small place, but the country clearly has no shortage of orchestral or compositional talent. Many of these pieces reflect an edgy Arabic influence; the rest run the gamut from neoromanticism to horizontal music.

Led with striking attention to detail by maestro Sergey Smbatyan, they open with a triptych by Euchar Gravina inspired by the manufacture and then the deployment of fireworks. The first two segments are a a microtonal study in slowly rising, occasionally crushing wave motion against a recording of a brass band playing a much smaller-scale arrangement; most of the third is much more low-key.

Waiting, by Mariella Cassar-Cordina is exactly that, still horizontality from the high strings with a pensively minimalist, increasingly troubled cello solo floating overhead. Christopher Muscat’s magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key Mesogeios – a portrait of the Mediterranean – features soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance.

Veronique Vella’s colorful, artfully orchestrated, Romantically tinged Fine Line has a Rimsky-Korsakov sonic expanse and triumphant bustle. Alexander Vella Gregory’s short, Tschaikovskian five-part suite Riħ (Wind) evokes everything from calm sea breezes to winter storms, via pulsing counterpoint, disquieting close harmonies, percussive drama and whispers from the strings.

The orchestra close with Albert Garzia’s Xamm (Scent), a largescale arrangement of a dance piece about a murder mystery. The orchestra have fun with all the classic Bernard Herrmann-ish tropes: sharp tritones over stillness, sudden furtive swells, chase scenes and a surprising amount of Dvorakian windswept calm. Classical music as entertainment doesn’t get any better than this in 2021. Now if we could only see this live!