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Tag: nels cline

Adam Rudolph Brings an Improvisational Army to Central Park on the 10th

Drummer Adam Rudolph takes the title for his new live album Resonant Bodies – streaming at Bandcamp – from the premise that the greater the space, the greater the resonance. He astutely observes that the principle applies as much to our minds as our physical location. Rudolph is bringing an especially mind-expanding version of his largescale improvisational ensemble the Go Organic Orchestra to an outdoor show at the Rumsey Playfield, south of the 72nd St. entrance on the east side of Central Park on Sept 10 at around 9. A pickup band of Moroccan trance and American jazz players who call themselves Gift of Gnawa open the night at 7 with a Don Cherry tribute, followed by what promises to be an especially massive set by many of the rotating cast in the Brooklyn Raga Massive, who push the envelope with traditional Indian sounds.

Rudolph’s new record, recorded in concert at Roulette in November 2015, reveals what was a completely new direction for him since it’s so guitar-centric. The eight-guitar frontline – Nels Cline, Liberty Ellman, Joel Harrison, Jerome Harris, Miles Okazaki, Marco Cappelli, David Gilmore and Kenny Wessel – approaches Glenn Branca scope. Beyond Harrison’s occasional contributions on National steel guitar, Cappelli is the lone acoustic player here. Damon Banks plays bass, sparingly, with Harris contributing on the four strings as well. Rudolph – who also conducts the ensemble – goes behind the kit to rustle around on the final cut.

The esthetic here is more 70s spacerock: the gleefully psychedelic roman-candle reverb-tank pings echoing out into the nebula that opens the record is straight out of the Nektar playbook circa 1970 – or the Grateful Dead in deep, deep space mode, 1983. It’s pretty much impossible to tell who’s playing electric here. Cappelli engages one of the plugged-in crew in a wryly squiggly conversation early on; otherwise, there are echoes of everything from fleeting Eddie Van Halen grotesquerie, to Jim Campilongo noir, Taylor Levine avant-garde grit and Dave Tronzo slither as well as Branca cyclotron swirl.

The second interlude seems based on Caravan, stripped to its most skeletal frame. As the night goes on, delicate picking contrasts with vast, nebulous washes; eerie; lingering modalities give way to a brief southern-fried lapsteel break from Harris. Much of this seems a gentle tug-of-war between clean, uncluttered traditionalism and a disquieting atmosphere that borders on the dystopic. Little did Rudolph or anyone else realize how that dynamic would play out in the years to come.

A Dusky Jewel and a Lower East Side Park Gig From Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck

Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck has pushed the envelope with what can be done on one of the world’s most soulful, expressive instruments for more than two decades. She loves extended technique, writes terse and translucent melodies and has no fear of darkness. Her latest, self-titled album – streaming at youtube – dates from the dark days of the 2021 lockdown, a series of rapturous and often plaintive duets with like-minded performers. Schoenbeck’s next show is a prime opportunity to watch her work a similarly intimate magic on Sept 5 at around 2:30 PM in the community garden at 129 Stanton St near Essex, where she’s playing as part of a trio with drummer TA Thompson and bassist Ken Filiano. Soprano sax wizard Sam Newsome opens the afternoon at 1:30 with flutist Laura Cocks and multi-wind icon Daniel Carter; reedman Andrew Lamb and his trio close out the afternoon starting at 4. Take the F or J/M to Delancey St.

The album’s opening track is O’Saris, Schoenbeck building distorted duotones and then a fond nocturne over drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s distant, mystical rumbles and what could be a gong, She provides a solid foundation, playing good cop to Nicole Mitchell’s rather coy responses until the flutist lures her into an increasingly dynamic conversation in the ten-minute Sand Dune Trilogy. Although there are moments of wry humor in places, the duo focus on creating a steely, modal poignancy as they move along.

Schoenbeck’s cover of Lullaby, by Low, with Nels Cline on guitar, is a dystopic dirge: the instant where his acidic spirals launch Schoenbeck’s introductory phrasing will take your breath away. Rising from from minimalist arpeggios, the du0 give you danger before any promise of a new dawn fades to a mechanical chill. It’s impossible to think of a more poignant or spot-on musical reflection of the past thirty months than this.

Then Schoenbeck pairs with Roscoe Mitchell for Chordata, a spacious moment of comic revelry. If you make videos, this makes a great soundtrack for the goofiest meme you can find.

She picks up the pace with pianist Matt Mitchell in Augur Strokes, exchanging enigmatic clusters equally informed by Messiaen and the baroque, punctuated by judicious use of space (a major theme in Schoenbeck’s work). Exploring brooding portents and puckish poltergeist motives, the duo rise to turbulence and then bring everything full circle.

She pairs with Mark Dresser for the aptly titled Absence, a warily expanding, distantly blues-tinged tableau, shadowed by the bassist’s sparse, broodingly bowed washes and flickers. Anaphoria, with Wayne Horvitz, never breaks free from a moody, Armenian-tinged undercurrent despite the pianist’s leaps and bounds.

Cellist Peggy Lee’s muted slashes contrast with Schoenbeck’s haunted explorations, then the two coalesce with their keening, resonant harmonics in Suspend a Bridge. Pianist/songwriter Robin Holcomb sings the allusively portentous final cut, Sugar as Schoenbeck floats elegically overhead:

What’s for certain no one can tell
It’s a low day
Sniper raven in the air
Stealing silver from my hair
Carve initials on the stairs
Then fly away
Your shadow feels the same as you
I wear it as you want me to
Now there’s so much more to do
Until it’s over .

Count this as one of the half-dozen most darkly gorgeous albums of the past year.

Revisiting One of the World’s Most Intriguing Guitarists in an Intimate Space

For more than two decades, guitarist Jim Campilongo has carved out a distinctive, erudite, energetic niche somewhere between jazz, surf rock and film noir music. For almost as long, he’s had an on-and-off residency at the various Rockwood rooms. In 2017, he finally got around to making a live album there with his long-running trio of Chris Morrissey on bass and Josh Dion on drums. That album is still streaming at Bandcamp, and Campilongo has returned to his old haunt. His next appearance there is April 25 at 7 PM in the big room; cover is $15

Obviously, considering how Campilongo’s music continues to evolve, a listen to the live record doesn’t necessarily reflect what his live show is about these days. His most recent album is even more intimate, an intricate, sometimes spare duo record with fellow six-stringer and Morricone fan Luca Bendedetti. It’s full of surprises: their quarterspeed version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz is a hoot. Much as Campilongo’s studio material is all worth hearing – his 2006 album Heaven Is Creepy is this blog’s favorite – live is where he excels most.

Is that a vintage repeaterbox he’s using on the intro to the live record’s first song, I’m Helen Keller and You’re a Waffle Iron? Maybe. It comes across as a more restless, ornamented take on Big Lazy noir skronk. The way he builds up to a scorching, circling series of sus chords is a clinic in tunesmithing – or creating a melody out of thin air.

The second number, Big Bill is a squiggly strut, Dion kicking up the dust as Morrissey shadows the bandleader and eventually gets his amp burning with a long, emphatic series of chords. Imagine Mary Halvorson playing a John Zorn noir surf tune and you wouldn’t be far off.

Dion sings the spare, sophisticated, angst-fueled blues ballad Here I Am, Campilongo defying gravity on the long ladder upwards. In what’s titled the “Jimi Jam,” he detunes his Telecaster, indulges in some of his signature neck-bending, fires off a handful of foghorn slide riffs and keening harmonics among his gritty chords. There are no distinguishable Hendrix licks.

Nels Cline guests on the album’s big epic, Cock and Bull Story, adding incisive Middle Eastern riffs and noisy haze against Campilongo’s biting, chromatic theme, the rhythm section keeping a tense pulse. The duel that follows, Cline first trailing and then engaging with the bandleader’s unhinged vintage Velvets squall is blissfully adrenalizing.

There are echoes of styles as different as Jerry Garcia spacescapes and Tal Farlow Americana swing in Sal’s Waltz, a more-or-less rubato tableau with Morrissey and Dion hanging on the fringes.

Cline returns for There You Are, a wistfully wafting theme that foreshadows where Campilongo would go with Benedetti almost five years later. The final number is Jim’s Blues, a loosely expansive launching pad for erudite Chicago and western swing-influenced clusters, a searing, machete coda and even a little Link Wray. Campilongo has so many ideas up his sleeve that it’s always a wild guess where he’s going to go next.

Darkness, Light and in Between 10/25/21

Been awhile since the last playlist on this page. Some iutrigningly dark stuff, in keeping with this month’s Halloween esthetic; some lighter stuff to vary the mood. Each song title is a streaming link. Charming Disaster, Coloratura and Marianne Dissard are guaranteed ad-free; the rest are at youtube so you might want to mute your sound before clicking in order to avoid the ads.

Charming Disaster‘s Ourobouros is arguably the noir rock superduo’s hardest-rocking song. A phoenix in the making, or just a pile of bones? “Is this annihilation or metamorphosis?”

Lola Kirke‘s Monster is a pensive, slowly swaying, moody janglerocker with slide guitar.

Colatura‘s The Met is bright, shiny stuff. Imagine walking alone through the Metropolitan Museum of Art when it wasn’t an apartheid place. Then imagine if Happy Mondays hadn’t been addled by all those powder drugs and had a woman out front

Frankie & the Witch FingersMepem is a heavy, dark psychedelic soul jam with wah guitar and organ. Like Nektar covering War, with a surprise ending

Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and guitarist Nels Cline cover Lullaby, by iconic 90s/zeros rock band Low, in eight-plus minutes of sonic magic. Cline plays very subtle, somber variations on a low-register riff as Schoenbeck looms in ominously and then reaches for angst. The mix of clangy chords and plaintive, spare leads from the bassoon is tasty to the extreme

And Marianne Dissard‘s ongoing series of interesting covers – the goal being her first-ever covers record – continues with a bittersweet duet cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ahead-of-its-time 1972 ballad If I Needed You with multi-instrumentalist Raphael Mann

A Playful, Entertaining, Expertly Choreographed Change of Pace for the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York

This is not to suggest that there could possibly be any upside to the coronavirus scare for anyone other than a criminal – but at least it’s been a chance to catch up on what one of this era’s most distinctively prolific composers and pianists, Satoko Fujii, has been up to lately. She records pretty much everywhere she plays: the ratio of greatness to mere goodness in her work is superhuman. Her latest album – at least last time anybody here checked – is Entity, with her Orchestra New York, whose 2017 Fukushima Suite ranks with any other big band jazz album released this century.

In general, this one is either more sardonically funny or soberly shamanistic, without the outright rage and terror invoked by that landmark work. As usual, it’s packed with tightly choreographed moments for collective improvisation: it careens and sways, but it doesn’t swing in the usual sense of the word. These are long songs, going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip.

The album opens with the title track, a diptych, kickking off with hints of a shamanic beat, squiggly guitar effects, and finally a massed, microtonal march that drummer Ches Smith tumbles around until six-string guy Nels Cline hits a mighty boom and the music falls away. Cline’s roars and toxically bubbling trails bring the orchestra back in, rising up this time, as the drums go completely hardcore: this music has a very 80s downtown New York feel. The second part is much more ominously airy until Fujii signals a return to that twistedly, stairstepping march.

Flashback begins with a less pronounced martial beat: with its surreal volleys of microtonal triplets from the horns, it’s an action movie theme in disguise. A wry good cop/bad cop conversation between bassist Stomu Takeishi and trombonist Joe Fiedler falls away for a playfully glissandoing alto sax solo by Oscar Noriega, setting up a spaciously chattering rise by the whole band. Then it’s trumpeter Herb Robertson who gets to tickle the rhythm section, up to a series of tongue-in-cheek false endings.

Hypnotic sheets of sound from the reeds shift slowly through the sonic picture as Gounkaiku takes shape. A stately, syncopated, characteristically catchy processional follows, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother through a funhouse mirror. Trumpeter Dave Ballou’s jaunty, straightforward solo finally falls apart into squiggliness just as the orchestra decide to stop messing around and get serious. Fujii being a Libra, she knows a good dialectic when she hears one, underscored by how she brings the music full circle.

In Elementary Particle, Takeishi’s Briggs and Stratton engine burble mingles with alto saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s shivery lines, orchestral atmospherics punching in and out: we get a redemptively crazy coda. The final cut, Everlasting, has symphonic majesty, Cline’s stratospheric flute-like melody anchored by growly bass and a Japanese folk-tinged theme. Then buffoonery ensues: first trumpeter Natsuki Tamura irresistibly antagonizing trombonist Curtis Hassellbring, then alto player Briggan Krauss and baritonist Andy Laster playing tag like a couple of of four-year-olds.

This isn’t Fujii’s most accessible work, but it’s very entertaining, another triumph for a band which also includes reedman Tony Malaby. Like many other albums released during this spring’s crisis, it hasn’t hit the web yet.

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

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.

Satoko Fujii’s Fukushima Suite: A Harrowing Milestone in Jazz History

A misty haze of white noise – reed and brass players breathing through their instruments – opens  the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s harrowing new Fukushima Suite. As a black cloud looms closer and closer on the horizon, Nels Cline’s guitar and effects squiggle, writhe and eventually deliver acidic, distantly lingering chords. That’s just a prelude to shock, and horror, and savage contempt that follow in response to the global attempts to cover up the worst manmade disaster in world history. The album hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet – stay tuned.

Hauntingly majestic, elegaic themes stand side by side with litanies of cognitive dissonance in Fujii’s magnum opus, which ranks with the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies or Charles Mingus’ jazz broadsides. As a historical document, it’s one of the most important of our time, especially considering that there’s been as relatively little music has written in response to Fukushima as there has been serious scientific inquiry into its lasting effects.

The ensemble’s conductor and leader wrote the five-part, contiguous suite not as a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011 but as a chronicle of terror and panic in the wake of the catastrophe. Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, were in Tokyo at the time, roughly a hundred miles from the site of the four reactor meltdowns. Their old stomping ground is now so contaminated with nuclear fallout that if Tokyo was in the United States, it would be a ghost town: off limits not only to human habitation, but also to human traffic. Consider: the most toxic items discovered in the Fairewinds Energy Education study of Japan beyond the Fukushima exclusion zone turned out to be car tires.

Fujii and her highly improvisational large ensemble recorded the five-part suite the day after they debuted it in Brooklyn in May of last year. She said at the time that it had taken her five years to process her reactions in the wake of the disaster. It took the band just a single day to record it, live in the studio.

What’s different about the recorded version? It’s a lot longer, and tighter rhythmically. Amid the cumulo-nimbus sonics of the second movement, Cline’s guitar and Andy Laster’s baritone sax sputter off to the side, but it doesn’t take long before the music coalesces into a steady, relentless sway, propelled by Ches Smith’s elegant but emphatically syncopated drums and Stomu Takeishi’s growling bass. The whole ensemble eventually join in a an ominously ineluctable, distantly Asian-tinged, utterly Lynchian theme, ironically one of the catchiest Fujii has ever written after more than eighty albums.

Much as Fujii equates the sound of breath to hope and health, it’s hard not to imagine the millions of Japanese and Americans on the west coast who were exposed to the lethal clouds that burned for at least a month at the disaster site. So the subtlest touches here, like Smith’s whispery waterfalling and temple-bell effects behind Herb Robertson’s cautious, microtonally nuanced trumpet, stand out even more. That’s amplified by the chilling, chattering cabal of horns  that develops later on, Fujii casting an unforgiving spotlight on greed and duplicity.

Plaintive pairings – sax and drums, bass and guitar – are interspersed amid the towering angst. There’s even gallows humor, notably Tamura’s panting, furtively conspiratorial trumpet. And Fujii finds closure, if very uneasily, at the end. The tightness and tension among the ensemble – also comprising saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Ellery Eskelin, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joey Sellers, Joe Fiedler and Curtis Hasselbring on trombones – is relentless.

Six years after the catastrophe, what do we know about Fukushima? Not a lot. The Japanese government, fully aware that it was Chernobyl that bankrupted and brought down the Soviet Union, privatized the disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Company stuck a canopy over the remains of reactor number one – the one that exploded – and later, during a monsoon in late 2015, either allowed millions of gallons of highly radioactive cooling water to pour into the Pacific, or deliberately dumped it. Either way, the one kind of damage control that TEPCO continues to manage very successfully is one of information.

Meanwhile, the government passed a state secrets act that could subject Fukushima whistleblowers to the death penalty. From radioactivity readings on the mainland and in the Pacific, we know that contamination is increasing. The problem in Japan is that after the disaster, a lot of toxic topsoil from the Fukushima area was dug up and left uncovered in roadside piles which continue to leach into the water table. More catastrophically, the 3/11 meltdown burned a hole in the containment vessel of reactor number three, which has been leaking into the Pacific for more than six years now. Radioactivity levels are currently about six to eight becquerels per cubic yard at the California shoreline, increasing to about thirty becquerels thirty miles off the coast.

Human skin protects against low levels of radiation, so brief exposure to California beach water won’t kill you – if it doesn’t get under the skin or in your eyes, that is. And Pacific contaminants aren’t distributed evenly. There are plumes of water that are relatively clean and others that are far more lethal, as evidenced by the massive die-offs of Pacific birds and fish since the disaster. But the bosses at TEPCO obviously don’t care about that – or about Americans in San Diego County, whose main water supply since 2016 has come from a seawater desalinization plant on the Pacific coast.

Satoko Fujii Debuts Her Harrowingly Relevant Fukushima Suite in Brooklyn Last Night

Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.

The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.

The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”

Uncategorizable Noir Jazz Sounds from Ben Goldberg

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind is one of those deliciously dark albums that defies description. Is it punk jazz? Noir cinematics? Free improvisation? It’s all of the above, which makes it unique, and a lot of fun. Imagine guitarist Jack Martin’s Dimestore Dance Band with a three-horn frontline and you’re on the right track. Goldberg writes catchy, uneasy themes which the band – Ellery Eskelin on alto sax, Rob Sudduth on tenor sax, Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar and Ches Smith on drums – defiantly resist allowing to resolve or settle comfortably into a groove or for that matter any kind of safe place for very long except at the very end. Since there is no bass on the album, Smith drives the music with a more lumbering approach than usual, although Goldberg plays catchy basslines on the contra-alto clarinet – lower than a bass clarinet – on several of the tracks.

Throughout most of the album, Goldberg’s approach is to tease the listener with something gentle and attractive and then slash at it, give it fangs and turn it loose in the opposite direction. So when the opening track, Elliptical, opens as a pretty pastorale, that’s not to be trusted: within a couple of minutes, the band has taken it down the back alley into smirkingly noir early John Zorn/Sexmob/Lounge Lizards territory, Cline’s clenched-teeth, gritty wailing taking it out on a macabre note. Parallelogram hints that it’s going in a klezmer rock direction and then introduces a gorgeous oldschool soul turnaround that the band absolutely refuses to hit head on, an incessant interchange of horns backed by Cline’s red-neon, tremoloing guitar (that’s got to be an old tremolo tube amp with the effect turned up all the way). The guitarist is at the absolute top of his creepy game, echoing Otis Rush as well as Marc Ribot.

XCPF follows the same tangent, an oldschool soul groove that the band won’t play straight, Cline taking it out with a swirling, psychedelic forest of loops and finally a nasty growl. Goldberg then leads the horns through a pensive series of phrases before they launch into I Miss the SLA. Could that be a reference to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the inept group of wannabe terrorists who took socialite heiress Patty Hearst prisoner back in the 70s? And is Eskelin’s gentle phrasing in the midst of the grime and Balkan-tinged grit the heiress getting Stockholm Syndrome, as she eventually did, which got her some time in the joint for her role in the caper?

The trope reappears on Stemwinder, which begins as a warm, nostalgic wee-hours ballad before Cline comes spiraling down like a bird of prey with his talons out, then they vamp it out like a punk version of a 60s Quincy Jones soundtrack piece before jamming on the changes to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy. Only on the last track, a baroque-tinged pastorale, does Goldberg refrain from killing the lights and leading the crew into the shadows.

Goldberg also has another album out, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which has an all-star cast including Ron Miles on trumpet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Devin Hoff on bass and Smith again on drums, and is sort of the reverse image of this one, expanding on the pretty pastoral Americana vein in more vivid depth than this one hints at. And as a bonus, this cd also comes with a poster, a Molly Barker painting of wolves following horses. Who said you can’t have vinyl production values in the digital era?