New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: musical comedy

The Tiptons Sax Quartet Release the Funnest Jazz Album of the Year So Far

Since the zeros, the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet have been making some of the most lusciously irreverent music in jazz. Their deviously entertaining latest album Wabi Sabi is streaming at Bandcamp. Joined by their longtime drummer and ringer dude Robert Kainar, the four reedwomen fire off one catchy, harmonically rich number after another, drawing on styles from Romany brass to soca to dixieland and many points in between. Their music is picturesque, upbeat and occasionally cartoonish. Everybody in the band writes, and sings – or at least vocalises. This is one of the funnest and funniest albums of the year.

The album’s opening track is December’s Dance, by baritone player Tina Richerson. It’s an acerbically pulsing blend of Ellingtonian lustre and dusky Ethiopian chromatics, Kainar pushing the song deeper toward funk as the solos around the horn peak out with a wild crescendo from alto player Amy Denio.

Similarly, Denio’s El Gran Orinador is a Balkan/latin brass band mashup with a dixieland-like horn intertwine, Richerson playing the tuba bassline on her baritone. Tenor player Jessica Lurie’s friendly ghost of a solo as Kainar squirrels around is one of the album’s high points. The title track, by tenor player Sue Orfield balances lushly triumphant harmonies with a spare, camelwalking Afrobeat groove and a soaring, carefree vocalese solo.

A Sparkley Con, by Lurie has a lithely undulating New Orleans second-line rhythm, Richerson again playing the tuba role beneath the cheer overhead before cutting loose with a tersely bluesy solo. Root Dance, a second Denio tune has Serbian flair in the horns’ biting chromatics, dramatic vocalese and tricky rhythm: the precision of Orfield and Lurie’s tenors fluttering like a trumpet section is breathtaking.

Kainar’s keening cymbal harmonics gently launch a spacey intro to Torquing of the Spheres, an especially resonant Lurie composition, goes slinking along in 10/8, the composer taking a tersely spiraling solo on soprano. The band head to Trinidad, with some New Orleans mixed into Richerson’s lively but enveloping Jouissance.

Memory Bait, by Orfield is part punchy go-go tune, part action movie theme and a launching pad for some of the album’s most ambitiously adrenalizing solos. Denio’s final composition here is Moadl Joadl, a Balkan tune with a broodingly atmospheric intro that lightens when the dancing rhythm comes in.

Lurie manages to build the album’s lushest brass band evocation in 3x Heather’s 17, maintaining the tricky Balkan rhythm around a wryly suspenseful drum break. The album winds up with Orfield’s Working Song, shifting from a rather somber oldtime gospel theme to echoes of a 19th century field holler mashed up with Afrobeat and reggae, This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Fun fact: the band take their name from Billy Tipton, a well-known saxophonist and bandleader who was born biologically female but managed to live and perform as a man for decades, at a time when it was almost as daunting to be a woman in jazz as it was to dress as a member of the opposite sex. How far we’ve come – one hopes, anyway.

An Enticing Brooklyn Gig by the Irrepressibly Amusing Sterling Strings

One of the most auspiciously entertaining shows of the summer so far happens this July 20 at noon at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where the Sterling Strings are playing their tongue-in-cheek string quartet arrangements of rap and pop hits. It would be a mistake to hear them tackling a Kanye West tune and dismiss them as a comedy band. On one hand, their shtick can be ridiculously funny. On the other, they’re serious musicians with formidable chops. Beyond that, their instrumental versions often elevate some awfully cheesy material to unexpected places, when the group aren’t punking out Broadway themes or suddenly getting serious with an unexpectedly plaintive, low-key version of an Astor Piazzolla tango.

They don’t have an album out, but they’re all over the web and their videos page reveals an immense amount of method behind the madness. They turn DH Khaled’s Wild Thoughts into a vampy, kind of creepy tune. Cellist Eric Cooper bows his bassline, cello-metal style, instead of plucking it out, and the rest of the group – violinists Frederique Gnaman and Edward W. Hardy, and violist Patrick Page – choose their spots to sliiiiiiiiide around.

They sneak a couple of devious classical quotes into Despacito; their murky version of Eleanor Rigby is pure chamber metal, raising the song’s menace by a factor of ten. Work, the Rihanna hit, is a lot more spare and stark than you would expect – maybe even poignant. Who would have thought.

Same with the Cristina Perri weeper A Thousand Years, which the group reinvent as a faux-baroque canon. Speaking of canons, they also turn in a very expressive take of the famous Pachelbel tune, underscoring the group’s classical cred. If you’re in the area on lunch break or otherwise, this show could be an awful lot of fun. Take the F to Jay St., exit at the front of the Manhattan-bound side.

Angela’s Ring: A Witheringly Funny, Unexpectedly Prophetic Satire of EU Political Skulduggery

One of the most original and savagely insightful new albums to come out since the fateful days of March, 2020 is Angela’s Ring, a large-ensemble jazz opera written by bassist Kabir Sehgal and pianist Marie Incontrera, streaming at Spotify. Premiered before the lockdown, it’s a meticulously researched, venomously satirical look at the inner workings of the European Union, focusing on the admission of Greece and the nation’s precipitous decline afterward. As context for the lockdowners’ almost complete takedown of democracy around the world, it’s eye-opening to the extreme.

It’s more a story of political corruption gone haywire than any kind of examination of the sinister International Monetary Fund scheme to cripple the Greek economy with debt and devastate its citizenry. And it’s ridiculously funny. EU heads of state come across as decadent fratboys and sorority girls who never grew up and live in a bubble. If there’s anything that’s missing here – Sehgal has obviously done his homework – it’s the point of view of the average European. For instance, we only get a single number about the Greeks who’ve lost their property, their jobs and in some cases, their lives, to satisfy speculator greed.

The Leveraged Jazz Orchestra spoof Beethoven right off the bat in the suspiciously blithe overture, launching a Western European alternative to nationalist strife that left “a hundred million dead” over the centuries, as German dictator Angela Merkel (Lucy Schaufer) puts it. She is, after all, prone to exaggeration. And then she seduces the wary but bibulous George Papandreou (David Gordon) on a waterbed over a sultry, altered tango groove. Meanwhile, he frets how long it’s going to take the rest of the EU to find out that he’s cooked the books.

It takes IMF honcho Christine Lagarde (a hair-raising Marnie Breckinridge) to rescue him…but this deus ex machina comes with a hefty pricetag. A shady, crude Silvio Berlusconi (Brandon Snook) tells him not to worry, that Italy is in over its head even deeper, so…party time! With a monumental Napoleon complex, France’s subservient Nicolas Sarkozy (Erik Bagger) gets skewered just as deliciously. “Democracy isn’t your natural state,” he tells Merkel at a pivotal moment.

A hedge fund manager suggests a joust between Merkel and Papandreou, with Lagarde as referee. Who wins? No spoilers.

The music is inventive and imaginative, a mashup of styles from across the Continent, from folk to classical to jazz. Who would have ever imagined a celebratory Greek ballad played on Edmar Castaneda’s harp? That’s one of the more cynical interludes here. There’s also a slinky, smoky baritone sax break after Greece’s debt gets downgraded to junk by traders hell-bent on shorting it. Tenor sax player Grace Kelly adds suspicious exuberance; trombonist Papo Vazquez takes a moody break in a salsa-jazz number where Merkel’s treachery finally comes out into the open. Clarinetist Oran Etkin’s agitatedly sailing solo in an even darker latin-tinged number is one of the record’s high points, as is pianist Aaron Diehl’s similar interlude a couple of tracks later.

Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale. If you think this is outrageous and revealing – and it is – just wait til the collapse of the lockdown, the Nuremberg trials afterward, and the likely dissolution of the EU. Maybe Sehgal can write a sequel.

A Box of Fresh Takeout From 2012

Of all the offbeat off-off-Broadway productions of the last decade, In Appetizing Proportions has to be one of the most original. Premiered at the now-defunct Tank in 2012, it parodied foodie memes and obsessions. Taking the meaning of slow food to new levels of deceleration, over the next eight years the musical members of the cast sporadically worked on a five-song ep of tracks from the show. Finally, this strangely compelling music is out and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The press release for the album describes it as “surreal scenes plucked from the thoughts of an Upper East Side woman attempting to cook her way into her mother-in-law’s good graces.” Guitarist Fritz Myers’ elegant, incisive compositions don’t seem to reference any specific kind of cuisine, or ingredients: you won’t hear anything that sounds remotely like Back at the Chicken Shack, or Rev. Vince Anderson’s tribute to fried lettuce, or the Cramps’ Don’t Eat Stuff Off the Sidewalk here. Clare Drobot’s lyrics are very straightforward, with surprisingly subtle humor.

The album begins with an austerely circling art-song in 6/8 time, Myers’ steady fingerpicking over Andie Tanning’s resonant violin. It’s probably the only song in history to have a lyric soprano (Samantha Britt, in an impressively focused, dramatic role) singing “chicken paillard.” Jay Vilnai‘s work for small ensemble comes to mind in places here.

Tanning’s violin sails on a sea of reverb in A Caloric Devotion, which is even more hypnotic and psychedelic beneath Britt’s unshakeable optimism and spine-tingling upper register: come hell or high water, she’s going to get this recipe right. Track three, Dumplings has even greater determination, if that’s possible.

Britt’s angst reaches fever pitch over contrastingly muted guitar and violin in Moral Obligation. The final track is I Float, a bittersweet, lemon-and-herb-flavored waltz of sorts.

2012: those were the days, weren’t they? Funny how the global death rate that year was practically identical to what it was in 2020. Yet back then, for some mysterious reason, we thought people who walked around wearing surgical masks were paranoid and creepy. And there were black-box theatres like the Tank where crowds of people would squeeze in to see strange, individualistic performances like this, and if anybody asked you for your phone number, you told them to go to hell. Freedom was so much fun!

Ride the Cyclone: Funniest Album of the Year So Far

If Weird Al Yankovic, Boots Riley and Mel Brooks got together to write a musical, it might sound something like Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s Ride the Cyclone. In the original soundtrack’s twenty-two tracks, streaming at Spotify, no style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire. American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop, macho Russian crooner balladry, cabaret, emo and EDM all get a good thrashing at the hands of an eclectically talented cast of singers and players.

In one typical number, the amazingly versatile band here chew up ELO, Zapp and Roger, Huey Lewis bar-band rock, 1970s top 40 ersatz soul music and then spit them out, hard. Another song starts by spoofing phony-sensitive Conor Oberst sweaterboy sounds and ends making fun of the Osmonds. The jokes are too good to give away and are not limited to lyrics. This is the rare comedy record that stands up to repeated listening because the snark and savagery comes at you so fast that if you try to multitask, you’ll miss the best parts.

The musical’s Greek chorus is Coney Island character The Amazing Karmack, whose job it is to predict the hour of a person’s death. Adding an amusing level of meta, he gets to deliver some of the most corrosively hilarious punchlines. The story begins as the St. Cassian Chamber Choir, of Uranium City, Saskatchewan arrive at the end of the train line for a roller coaster ride. As you might imagine, considering Karmack’s involvement, things are not going to be quite so carefree as the cheery Canadians expect. A headless body is involved.

The characters are straight out of central casting, with several twists: this is also a parody of musicals in general. The dorky boy dreaming of louche life in the big city; a whiny Veruca Salt type; an operatic piano-thumping wannabe Sylvia Plath; and an oligarch’s kid posing as hip-hop star all get what they deserve, right down to the minute details. Where does Misha Bachinsky, “the best Ukrainian rapper in northeast Saskatchewan,” take his entourage to drink Cristal and roll blunts? No spoilers.

If Bill Withers and Jeff Lynne had teamed up to write the worst song of their lives, it would be It’s Not a Game, It’s Just a Ride. One of the soundtrack’s funniest interludes, Be Safe, Be Good, has sobering resonance in an era of 24/7 fearmongering from the corporate media. The cruel punchline at the end comes in the form of an American Idol-style New Nashville singalong. In a year of relentless gloom and a likely holocaust looming on the horizon, we desperately need albums like this.

The Susan Krebs Chamber Band Play Imaginative, Deviously Funny Jazz and Other Styles

It was impossible to resist cueing up the final track on the Susan Krebs Chamber Band’s album Spring: Light Out of Darkness before listening to the others. It’s hilarious, a quiet, completely deadpan, roughly seven-minute chamber arrangement of the most famous themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s no whirling, aching release from cabin fever and no virgins being sacrificed here: pianist Rich Eames plays the percussion parts. This seems closer in spirit to Bridget Kibbey romping through the Bach Toccata in D on the concert harp than, say, Richard Cheese doing lounge versions of Nirvana songs.

The rest of the record – which came out in 2018 and is still streaming at Bandcamp – is just as imaginative and entertaining. The group ease their way playfully and atmospherically into a lithe jazz version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez playbook, spiced with Luis Mascaro’s violin and Rob Lockart’s bass clarinet  over Eames’ piano and Scott Breadman’s drums.

Likewise, the band coyly edge their way toward oldtimey-flavored swing in their take of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass, Krebs’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery underscoring its message of how loose lips sink ships. She looks back to the cabaret origins of Some Other Time in a slow, lingering version with piano, bluesy violin and sailing clarinet.

Spring is another ridiculously funny interlude, the famous Vivaldi theme from the Four Seasons reinvented as a jaunty soul-gospel tune. You Must Believe in Spring has a steady implied clave bounce and cheerily lyrical piano, then Krebs shifts to a wee-hours saloon blues ambience for the album’s title track. It’s been a rough year: this album will lift your spirits.

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.

Joel Hoekstra’s 13 Reanimate an Extinct Breed of Dinosaur Metal

In olden days, before Odin delivered the runes which ordered the gods of metal to fixate on Viking regalia, pagan myths and the apocalypse, there was a strain of heavy rock that was pretty goofy. It was party music: catchy pop melodies played with loud guitars and a lot of winkingly comedic flourishes. Joel Hoekstra’s 13 come out of that late 70s school. He’s a great pop tunesmith, he loves volume and he knows this music inside out. His latest album Running Games – streaming at Spotify – is a prime example.

It’s a concept album about – gasp – a breakup. Who knew these leather-clad rogues had hearts that might not have been totally blackened, whether in a deal with the devil or by flying too close to the sun? The central metaphor is a race: themes of escape and the sobering possibility of a crushing loss permeate these otherwise very upbeat and adrenalizing tunes.

Guitars play ridiculously fast tapping solos over the steady gallop of the bass and drums. Divebomb effects, the occasional acoustic passage or grandiose keyboard break pop up in places. Hoekstra’s vocals have the requisite bombast, sometimes edging toward fullscale operatic drama. Don’t take this the wrong way, but the choruses on this album are straight out of Blondie, Bachman-Turner Overdrive or…Abba. No joke. Meanwhile, you half expect David Lee Roth to come swinging down to the stage on a couple of guidewires, wAAAAAAAAoooooh, wearing a yellow jumpsuit.

Serious fans will dismiss this as a parody, self- or otherwise, or 7-11 parking lot music for the under-15 crowd who haven’t discovered Sabbath or Led Zep yet. Yes, this is comic-book rock…but it’s a well-drawn comic book. Dare you to spin the tenth track, Cried Enough For You, without laughing at the faux-Floyd and faux-Zep touches…and then when Hoekstra takes a solo, he takes your breath away. And makes you laugh again. In the grimmest year in human history, we still need to smile sometimes.

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.

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.