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The Michael Leonhart Orchestra Bring Their Epic, Ominously Cinematic Soundscapes to the Jazz Standard

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s debut album The Painted Lady Suite – streaming at Sunnyside Records – doesn’t concern a medieval femme fatale. The central seven-part suite portays the epic, over-the-North-Pole migration of painted lady butterflies from Mexico to North Africa. Even by the standards of Bernard Herrmann, whose work this album strongly resembles, its mammoth sweep and dark majesty is unrivalled in recent years. The band are bringing it to life with a two-night stand this July 17 and 18 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $30.

Along with his singer sister Carolyn, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist bandleader is the rare child of musical talent (dad is bassist Jay Leonhart) who’s also produced noteworthy material. Beyond the jazz idiom, the vastness of the music echoes an army of influences as diverse as Pink Floyd, Brad Fiedel’s film scores, Steve Reich and Antibalas (some of whose members play on this album).

The big title suite begins lush and lustrous in the Mexican desert, tectonic sheets of brass alternating with a hefty Afrobeat groove anchored by the low reeds, punctuated by Donny McCaslin’s slashingly modal phrasing. From there the swarm moves north over El Paso in a wave of symphonic Morricone southwestern gothic, Nick Movshon’s shamanistic drums and Nels Cline’s menacing psychedelic guitar interspersed amid the big swells.

North Dakota big sky country is the next destination, Sam Sadigursky’s alto sax fluttering uneasily over ambient, ambered brass ambience in a brooding, Roger Waters-esque soundscape. A couple of ferocious “let’s go!” phrases from the whole orchestra signal a move further north to the wilds of Saskatchewan: Philip Glass as played by the Alan Parsons Project, maybe.

As the migration passes through the chill air high above the Arctic Circle, Movshon’s tersely dancing, staccato bass punctuates serene orchestration, then the circling bass melody shifts to the high reeds, Erik Friedlander’s cello and Pauline Kim’s viola peering through the ether.

The suite concludes with nocturnal and then daytime Saharan skyscapes. With its ominous, repetitive siren motives and the bandleader’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern muted trumpet, the first is awash in dread and mystery. The second builds from a cheerily strutting Afrobeat tune to a blazingly brassy, triumphantly pulsing coda – but the conclusion is too apt to give away.

There are three more tracks on the album. In the Kingdom of M.Q. features dancing, loopy phrases and a little dissociative swirl beneath a bubbly McCaslin solo. The sardonically titled Music Your Grandparents Would Like has a slow, steady sway, tense close harmonies,a crime jazz interlude and a bizarrely skronky Cline guitar solo. The final cut is The Girl From Udaipur, its enveloping wave motion punctuated by allusions to bhangra.

The orchestra lineup is just as epic as the music. The rest of the trumpet section includes Dave Guy, Taylor Haskins, Andy Bush, Carter Yasutake and Andy Gathercole. Ray Mason and Mark Patterson play trombones, with John Altieri on tuba. Matt Bauder, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Aaron Heick and Cochemea Gastelum round out the sax section, with Charles Pillow on bass clarinet and alto flute. Sara Schoenbeck plays bassoon; Mauro Durante plays violin; Erik Friedlander plays cello. A revolving drum chair also features Homer Steinweiss and Daniel Freedman. In addition to the bandleader, Joe Martin also plays bass, with Mauro Refosco and Leon Michels on percussion.

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Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

Newly Unearthed John Coltrane Rarities For Your Listening Pleasure

Is the new John Coltrane album Both Directions At Once the holy grail of jazz? No. That would be the Queen’s Suite, or Mingus’ Epitaph.

Furthermore, this new Trane record isn’t a full-fledged album. Minus the seven alternate takes recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder at a marathon March 6, 1963 studio session, it’s more of an ep.

By one of the greatest bands in the history of jazz, at the top of their game, painstakingly immortalized on analog tape. More than anything else, it captures these artists completely in their element, catching magic in a bottle and then trying to sort it out. Which they never got to finish, which is why we haven’t heard it til now. And we all should. It’s streaming at Spotify.

Every track here that has a name has already seen the light of day, whether on live recordings or posthumous compilations. The big story is that there are three previously unreleased, untitled originals along with what are essentially a couple of covers. Considering the glut of dodgy field recordings and soundboard tapes from forgotten European radio broadcasts and such, this is a more significant find than it might seem.

The first of the originals finds Coltrane on soprano sax,running a bitingly catchy, allusively Middle Eastern modal cluster and variations, Elvin Jones’ jubilantly decisive cymbal flares and tom-tom tumbles anchoring Jimmy Garrison’s supple swing and McCoy Tyner’s emphatically expanding web of piano chords.The bassist methodically bows the blues by himself, then leaps back in as the band dances it out. The bandleader’s bracing, woody tone and the occasional effortless whirlwind arpeggio leave no doubt which hall of famer is playing the horn here.

The second untitled original, another soprano tune, is even catchier and is the one that thousands of bands will be covering in the next couple of years. The quartet push the borders of a simple ascending progression, with a haphazardly tasty sax-and-drums interlude midway through. Tyner’s scampering righthand echoes Coltrane’s approach over what less adventurous fingers could have turned into a predictable blues resolution, and Garrison’s muted chords and syncopation add levity as Jones gets tantalizingly brief time motoring down the launching pad.

The final original, called “Slow Blues,” is neither. It’s a subtly polyrhythmic epic over a floating swing, Garrison’s muted insistence shadowing the sax as Jones holds the center. Coltrane delivers more aching overtones, squalls and squeals than anywhere else here as he searches around for a foothold: you can draw a straight line to today’s most purposeful sax voices, from JD Allen to Noah Preminger. Tyner finally takes over from the sax and that’s where the blues kicks in, at least as much as it does at all. Listening to Coltrane construct and then deconstruct his intricate latticework as the full quartet winds the piece out is a rare treat.

The brief, loose-limbed take of Nature Boy here is a fade up from a mutedly jubilant, Bahia-tinged bass-and-drums groove, Coltrane choosing his spots, riding the chromatic escalator and then sliding down with a sage effortlessness. He plays alto here, going for smoke and grit. Tyner has either decided to sit the whole thing out, or he’s done by the time the band get to this edit.

The version of Villa – a Franz Lehar number first released in 1965 – shuffles along genially. Even on this otherwise pretty generic swing tune, the chemistry between Jones’ ride cymbal and Tyner’s lefthand is stunning. The early trio version of Impressions – which Coltrane would later use later that year as an album title track- has a carefree, exploratory feel, Garrison reaching up to stab holes in the clouds as the bandleader unravels and then rips at the easygoing central theme, Jones building to a deviously vaudevillian, retro 30s attack.

The version of One Up One Down here is a real sizzler, Tyner just short of frantic while Coltrane pulls out the stops with his insistent clusters and Jones does the same with his machinegunning volleys. Tyner’s coy, charming righthand runs offer unexpected contrast. Coltrane would later release it on what album.

The seven alternate takes here all have their moments. Plenty of other artists would have seen fit to release them; this group obviously held themselves to a higher standard. A somewhat more feathery take of Villa, a hard-charging, abbreviated first take of Impressions, a similarly electric, longer second one, and a relaxed, more tropical version of the first untitled original are the highlights and transcend mere marginality.

It’ll be very interesting to see if Tyner pulls out any of this material for his shows at the Blue Note, where he’ll be on July 30 and 31 with sets at 8 and 10:30 PM. You can get in for $30.

Hungry March Band Make a Classy, Brassy New Record

Brass monsters Hungry March Band are the only group ever to play both Madison Square Garden and the Women’s March on Washington. And also on Ludlow Street – in the street itself, marching north across Houston to parts unknown late in the summer of 1999. That was typical of the band back then.

The Garden gig happened five years later, as part of a Ralph Nader benefit. By then, as one former member put it, they’d decided to “shake out the musicians from the Burning Man people.” And suddenly this ramshackle, rotating Lower East Side and Williamsburg crew, who could barely keep time, transformed themselves into a blazing, Balkan-inspired beast.

In the years since, there’s been some turnover among what’s always been a rotating cast of players. Their latest album, streaming at Bandcamp, is surprisingly title Running Through with the Sadness. Hungry March Band have a thing for edgy chromatics and minor keys, but they aren’t exactly known for depressing music. How melancholy is this record? It’s not. The songs are on the fast side, and the ban will be playing some of those tunes at one of their annual rituals on July 15 at 3 PM at the corner of Lexington Ave. and 60th St. as part of this year’s Bastille Day festival.

The album also manages to be the most polished thing the band’s ever done, without being slick. The catchy opening track, Ghost Puppy, pulses along on a loopy sousaphone riff – that’s either Tom Abbs or Ben Fausch. There’s also some neat call-and-response and a weirdly oscillating trumpet solo played through a flange, something you’d hardly expect from this analog AF group.

Tenor saxophonist Tove Langhof’s edgy, spiraling, JD Allen-esque solo kicks off Mali Mali – a briskly shuffling, Afrobeat-tinged shout-out to the late Coumba Sidibe. Baritone saxophonist and producer Jason Candler adds good-natured, smoky riffs and bursts over a streamlined pulse.

At least half of the band’s seven-person percussion section join in the intro to Shimmy, a mambo-tinged New Orleans strut packed with the droll pregnant pauses the band love so much, along with a neat alto sax conversation. mighty swells and flanged drums.

Big, bright, cinematic brass juxtaposes with droll, barking sousaphone in Zombie Dog,  a wave of terror rising through the band midway through. Whichawhicha is a wickedly anthemic ska tune with early Skatalites flair, a punchy, gruff Candler baritone solo and an even tastier one from one of the trumpeters (who include John Heyenga, Jeremy Mushlin, John Waters and Jennifer Harder).

Eclipso Calypso is another direct, catchy Caribbean joint – it’s the balmiest track on the album, with carefree solo for trombone (that’s either Sebastian Isler, Cecil Scheib or Kevin Virgilio), trumpet and saxes. The rest of that section of the band includes Emily Fairey and Phillippe Boyer on tenor, Okkon Tomohiko Yokoyama on alto and Sasha Sumner on soprano.

With its funky blend of New Orleans and Puerto Rican flavors. the album’s best track is the brisk, bustling, bluesy Off the Hook. The fiery title cut, a lickety-split merengue, is another monster – the tightness of those rat-a-tat lines will come as a shock to anybody who saw this band in the early days.

After that sprint, it only makes sense for the band to slow down with Swirling Spaceman, if only for the dubwise intro that morphs into a skanking ska groove. There’s also an expansive bonus track, Ataraxia, meaning “calm.” For this crew it might be calm, but for anybody else it would be an epic coda, a warmly anthemic, altered cha-cha with sweet, triangulated riffage, a soulful trombone solo and a clattering percussion break. 

For the record, the percussionists on the album include Kris Anton, Anders Nelson, David Rogers-Berry, Samantha Tsistinas, Adam Loudermilk, Sara Valentine and Theresa Westerdahl. Let’s also not forget the costumed, twirling “HMB Pleasure Society:” Valentine, Despina Stamos, Sarah King, Libby Sentz and Jill Woodward, in charge of motivating the crowd in case the music hasn’t already taken care of that. 

A Killer Twinbill in Prospect Park on July 12 – If They Get the Sound Right!

It was fascinating to see some of New York’s most transcendent Indian music talent onstage at Prospect Park Bandshell last year, joined by harpist Brandee Younger and other jazz artists playing austerely enveloping new arrangements of politically-fueled John Coltrane classics.

It was maddening not to be able to hear much of the music, considering how bad the sound was. To make matters worse, these concerts used to be free for everyone, but now the venue is selling the seats closest to the stage. As usual, they were mostly empty, but remained roped off to anyone who didn’t pay the cover charge but might have really wanted to hear what the group were doing. During the set afterward by sax legend Pharaoh Sanders and his quartet, the sound was just as bad, bass and drums jacked to ridiculous extremes. It didn’t take long for word to get around: the sound here sucks!

But it didn’t used to. If the organizers would axe that bozo white kid from out of town who obviously grew up on phat beatzzz and thinks that Eminem is the epitome of sonic excellence – and then replaced him with a competent sound engineer – that would be reason for Brooklyn to celebrate. Because the lineup of free shows at the bandshell this year is really excellent, as enticing as it was last year.

One excellent Brooklyn band on the schedule who really need a good sound mix are the magically swirling Combo Chimbita. If they’re amped properly, as they were while playing to a packed house at Barbes back in April, they’ll build as wildly kaleidoscopic a sound as you’ll hear this year. If they aren’t, their set there at around 8 PM on July 12 will be a muddy mess.

Combo Chimbita are a supergroup of sorts who went through a long dormant period, so it’s good to see them playing out again. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros keeps busy leading ancient-sounding, hypnotically raucous Afro-Colombian trance-dance ensemble Bulla en el Barrio. Drummer Dilemastronauta also plays psychedelic tropicalia with his own project, Los Sabrosos Cosmicos. The rest of the group includes guitarist Niño Lento – who is neither a kid, nor is he slow – and bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens,

Their Barbes set was as hypnotic as it was short – under an hour, very brief by this band’s standards. The beats were slinky and constantly shifted, sometimes toward tango, other times toward reggae, and finally a more or less straight-up Colombian cumbia strut about 40 minutes into the set. There was a mixing desk in addition to the keys – whether the extraneous squiggles were coming from there or from the guitar pedal was impossible to tell because the room was so packed. A lot of Spanish was being spoken – it was a smart, young, energized crowd, a welcome change from the rich white kids from out of state who’ve blighted Park Slope so badly in recent years.

Niño Lento flung stinging minor-key guitar chords and chordlets into the mix, sometimes to linger and spiral around, other times to slash through the constantly shifting textural wash. Out in front of the band, swaying and scraping her guacharaca, Oliveros channeled otherworldly menace with her raw, throaty delivery. She has a background singing metal and this project really gives her a chance to go for the jugular. As a bonus, Antibalas will be playing after Combo Chimbita on the 12th in the park: the long-running Afrobeat revivalists are as strong now as during their long residency at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca 20 years ago.

Hard-Hitting, Historically Rich Guadeloupe/New Orleans Mashups with Delgres at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Delgrès guitarist Pascal Danaë opened the trio’s headlining set with a hypnotic slide guitar boogie riff as sousaphone player Rafgee played a fat, bubbly, almost subsonic groove and drummer Baptiste Brondy – who played with Danaë in French-Brazilian band Rivière Noire – thumped along with a punchy New Orleans second-line beat. Then without missing a step, the band segued into a brisk, roughhewn, major-key blues that evoked Mississippi hill country as much as it did Chicago wildman Hound Dog Taylor. Except that Danaë was singing in the creole dialect of his native Guadeloupe.

The band take their name from Louis Delgrès, the late 18th century Guadeloupian freedom fighter who is remembered as a Nathan Hale-like martyr who chose execution rather than concede to the French invaders. Since a lot of Guadeloupian refugees ended up in New Orleans, the group’s propulsive blend of growling American blues, Crescent City rhythms and circling island folk themes makes more sense than might be apparent.

Danaë dedicated the next tune, Mo Jodi – meaning “die today” – to both the band’s namesake and “everyone fighting for freedom around the world.” Brondy’s heavy, rat-a-tat tom-tons anchored the sousaphone’s catchy riffs as Rafgee slunk upward, Danaë’s chords and jangly fragments punching through the mix.

They bought it down a little after that with a simmering, syncopated minor-key sway, Danaë singing with more of a drawl, just guitar and drums for the first verse. Name another band where the sousaphone plays the big hooks so much of the time!

Their next tune, Mr. President had a defiantly emphatic drive and a refrain of “Leave, leave, leave,” that went unnoticed with the English speakers in the crowd but resonated deliciously with those who knew a little French. Maybe sensing the lack of reaction, Danaë switched to English for a driving, rhythmic breakup anthem, then took a detour into a spare, elegaic lament for a fallen hero that eventually picked up steam with a terse slide guitar solo.

They followed with a slow, quasi trip-hop ballad, winding up with a moody trumpet solo from Rafgee, then a romping R.L. Burnside-style number: “We are no different,” Danaë reminded a diverse crowd. Their creole Led Zep medley got everybody howling, but he got serious immediately afterward with an insistent antiwar anthem, the most rock-oriented of the band’s originals. 

What was most impressive about this set was that Delgres had already played a two-hour set earlier in the day – outdoors in downtown Brooklyn, as the scorching sun reached its midday peak. Basking in the Lincoln Center air conditioning, they were still sweating hard by the show’s third song. Delgres’ tour continues with shows at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on July 7 and 8, then they’re off to Europe. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is  July 19 at 7:30 PM with Afro-Colombian legends Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. Get there early if you’re going.

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.

Svetlana & the Delancey Five Reinvent Classic Swing at the Blue Note

The difference between Svetlana & the Delancey Five and virtually every other female-fronted vocal jazz act out there is that they’re not just a singer and a backing band. There’s more interplay and musical conversation in this group than there is in practically any other similar lineup. Case in point: the take of Lady Be Good at their Blue Note show on Saturday. “Here’s one from when we used to be a dance band,” frontwoman Svetlana Shmulyian told the crowd as the ensemble launched into a lickety-split version peppered with counterpoint and call-and-response between both singer and instrumentalists, along with a striking handful of sudden syncopated shifts.

Of the original band’s original lineup, only the bandleader, and trumpeter Charlie Caranicas remain  – if you buy the argument that there was an original one. Like another New York institution, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, this band have always had a semi-rotating cast: Shmulyian’s address book is as deep as her collection of edgy original charts.

Throughout the rest of the set, the animated jousting between bandmates was nonstop. Tenor saxophonist Christopher McBride exchanged clusters and bursts with Caranicas, whose effortlessly rapidfire descent through a biting series of chromatics during an epically shapeshifting Nothing But Blue Skies was one of the show’s high points.

Bassist Endea Owens – most recently witnessed propelling the mighty all-female Sisterhood of Swing big band at Lincoln Center – voiced terse piano lines and horn lines, and then went into some lowdown funk in a radical remake of Remember Me, from the animated film Coco. Pianist Willerm Delisfort, who’d switched to a resonant, organlike Fender Rhodes setting for that one, tossed off an especially smoochy boudoir soul riff that drew an eye-rolling “I can’t believe you just did that” from the bassist. From the side seats, it wasn’t possible to see Delisfort’s reaction, but it was probably, “There’s more where that came from.”

Drummer Henry Conerway III turned his predecessor Rob Garcia’s arrangement of the Beatles’ Because into a New Orleans funeral theme – in 6/8 time, most of the way through. Likewise, he and the bandleader pounced through more than one jaunty drum-and-vocal duet.

Shmulyian – whose interpretations depend on whatever exchanges are going on with the group – was characteristically dynamic on the mic. Her signature delivery is as clear as a bell, but this time she added an unexpectedly welcome grit to A Tisket, a Tasket, her opening number. It may have been a throwaway for Ella Fitzgerald, but Shmulyian took a carefree playground rhyme and made a fierce double-dutch anthem out of it. Contrastingly, she turned the ballad Sooner or Later – from the Madonna film Dick Tracy – into swoony wee-hours saloon blues.

For upstate fans, they’re at the Falcon,1348 Rt. 9 W in Marlboro, NY on July 29 at 8 PM. They also have a new album, Night at the Movies, in the can, whose reinvented songs from films across the ages are reputedly as eclectic as the setlist as this gig.

Grex Bring Their Irrepressibly Amusing Ersatz Psychedelia to Brooklyn and Queens This Month

Grex are a more epic, cohesive counterpart to Parlor Walls. The California band’s previous album was a screaming, guitar-fueled cover of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s true to the spirit of the original in that it’s highly improvised. Yet Karl Evangelista’s guitar, Rei Scampavia’s keys and guest Dan Clucas’ cornet channel much more angst in the face of trying to connect with some type of higher power, compared to Coltrane’s fervent reverence. In a very hubristic, punk-inspired way, it’s a twisted masterpiece. They’re on tour this month, and they’re bringing their gritty assault to a couple of New York shows. On July 11 at 7 PM, they’ll be at Holo in Ridgewood for $10; then the following night, July 12 they’ll be at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick at 10:30 PM for the tip jar.

Their new album Electric Ghost Parade – streaming at Bandcamp – is completely different. It’s a sardonically noisy psychedelic rock record with a little free jazz thrown in to keep you guessing. And it’s an awful lot of fun. It opens with Quicksilver, a cantering early 80s-style no wave vamp through the prism of Sonic Youth. By the time it’s over, the band have touched on punk soul, stoner metal and 60s psychedelia. Interestingly, the vocal harmonies bring to mind Dennis Davison of brilliant retro 60s psychedelicists the Jigsaw Seen.

Scampavia sings the grisly lyrics of the faux glamrock anthem TM26 completely deadpan, up to an irresistibly funny ending. Her vocals in Martha, sung to the last of the passenger pigeons, “caged in a past you can never appease,” are a lot warmer. Behind her, the band do a funhouse mirror take on Chicano Batman-style psychedelic soul, with a tasty, surprisingly straightforward chorus-box guitar solo from Evangelista.

Mal & Luma – about a couple of pet rats – begins as a disorienting mood piece, juxtaposing Robert Lopez’s spare, echoey cymbal work with squiggly electronics, some jagged guitar flickers and low-register ominousness, then morphing into a big, sarcastically garish guitar raveup. Then Evangelista has fun with phony Hendrix and phony soul in the carefree, haphazardly kaleidoscoping Feelin’ Squiddy.

Husk sounds like Mary Halvorson covering something from Sergeant Pepper. Road Trip, a duet, veers suddenly between stoner boogie, breezy folk-rock and wry noiserock freakout – it seems to be a chronicle of a doomed relationship. Scampavia plays bad cop to Evangelista’s good one in the even more cinematic Saints, which is like Charming Disaster on acid.

The album’s most straightforwardly tuneful number is Quincy, a wistful, pastoral lament – at least until Evangelista hits his distortion pedal, Scampavia hits her electric piano patch and they make lo-fi Pink Floyd out of it. Similarly, ersatz 70s stadium bombast sits uneasily alongside 90s riot girl chirp in Transpiration, before everything falls apart. The swaying, stomping Bad Cop is an unexpectedly direct sendup of religious nutjubs: “Better to die a martyr than raise a song or daughter.”

The album’s most epic, apocalyptic number is Mango Mango – with its echoey stoner sonics, off-kilter squall and allusions to artsy metal, it’s a good synopsis for the album. The album concludes with the squirrelly miniature Old Dogs, who “die slow,” according to Scampavia. This precariously funny blend of parody, assault and oldschool rock erudition will no doubt be on a lot of best-of-2018 lists – watch this space at the end of the year.

Book of J Reinvent Classic Spiritual Sounds With a New Album and a July Barbes Residency

Book of J are Sway Machinery guitarist/bandleader Jeremiah Lockwood and singer Jewlia Eisenberg of Charming Hostess. Each have brought an impassioned, vocally-driven approach to their own projects, equally informed by classic Jewish and African-American melodies and spiritual traditions. Together they reinvent those influences, from haunting, medieval Jewish piyutim love laments, to oldtime country blues and gospel. Their debut album is streaming at youtube. They have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes this July, a venue where the two have collaborated memorably in the past.

The new album opens with a steady version of the spiritual 12 Gates to the City, Eisenberg taking the lead, Lockwood’s harmonies shadowing her as he drives the song with his shivery acoustic slide blues work. Likewise, Lockwood’s nimbly tumbling phrases propel the gorgeous Agadelkha, Eisenberg’s raw vocals out front, up to an enigmatic chordal guitar solo. The verse sounds like an acoustic Balkan predecessor of the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit: was Grace Slick into that stuff?

Lockwood switches to Telecaster for a boogie-flavored take of the country gospel tune Do Lord, Remember Me which they transform into an oldtime union anthem after a spiky Lockwood guitar solo. The duo exchange impassioned, conspiratorial vocals over Lockwood’s eerily tremoloing guitar in the Yiddish dirge Khavele; their hauntingly fluttering, sotto-voce, French/English take of Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan is much the same.

They go back to classic African-American gospel for Freedom Plow, adding unsettled indie rock chords underneath. Their call-and-response in the country blues-flavored Tell God is much more rustic. Then they do Sweet Inspiration as proto Ike & Tina Turner, with some sweet, Indian summer blues guitar riffage.

Eisenberg sings an unvarnished take of the lament Seven Sons Had Hannah over Lockwood’s spare, hypnotically Malian-influenced guitar. Tzir is the shortest, most whispery and most starkly gorgeous, bittersweet song on the album. The duo follow with Kum Mayn Kind, a distantly blues-inflected European lullaby

They do a final spiritual, My Sun Will Never Go Down as a turn-of-the-[past]-century Pete’s Candy Store number, with some starkly incisive picking from Lockwood, and close with a hushedly fervent, brooding interpretation of Fiery Love, an edgy Yiddish theme.

Lockwood always invites a whole slew of killer talent to his Barbes residencies; the July 14 edition with his sometime collaborator, Big Lazy noir guitar genius Steve Ulrich, should be particularly intense.