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A Paradigm-Shifting Mashup of Mesmerizing Haitian Drumming and Jazz on Ches Smith’s New Album

Every nation from the Caribbean and points further south with a diasporic African population has a vibrant tradition of communal drumming. Of all those countries, it’s arguably Haiti which has the most otherworldly, shamanic style. Some might debate that: Ras Michael and whichever Sons of Negus are still with us, and no doubt some Spanish Harlem salseros, just for starters. While there’s been a vital Haitian jazz and traditional music scene in New York for decades, we have drummer Ches Smith to thank for helping bring those hypnotically booming sounds to a wider audience.

Smith has a fascinating new album, Path of Seven Colors streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a logical follow-up to his similarly magical 2015 record We All Break (which is included as a twofer along with the new one). What’s new is that he’s expanded the original quartet – which also includes pianist Matt Mitchell plus tanbou drummers Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz. Haitian singer Sirene Dantor Rene, alto sax brujo Miguel Zenón, bassist Nick Dunston and third tanbou master Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene complete an inspired, innovative lineup.

While the group’s game plan is to break new ground, make no mistake, this music is meant to summon the spirits. Beyond the improvisation, this is a very collective effort, Smith bringing in the instrumental parts, Brevil contributing both original and traditional songs. They open the album with an understatedly joyous call-and-response over Mitchell’s hypnotically rhythmic drive in Woule Pou Mwen. Zenon adds balletesque flutter and exuberant wails in Here’s the Light, Rene and Brevil engaging in a punchy call-and-response that goes straight back to Africa as the drums do the same on the low end. The subtle shifts in syncopation behind Mitchell’s brightly cascading solo are artful: Dizzy Gillespie may have started all this a long time ago, but this is a brand-new variant.

Rene’s shivery, brittle vibrato contrasts with the calm of the guys in the band in Leaves Arrive, a diptych. The first part is a seemingly festive invocation, Zenon working increasingly electrifying variations on the cheery central riff as Mitchell’s dark, circling chords and Smith’s cymbals crash underneath. Likewise, Zenon’s spirals and graceful, precise articulation take centerstage over hypnotic, hard-hitting teamwork in Women of Iron, Mitchell taking giant steps to meet the spirits as the song peaks out.

The album’s big epic is Lord of Healing, Mitchell building warmly glistening nocturnal ambience as Dunston hovers sepulchrally on the fringe. A long ceremonial call-and-response gives way to a rapidfire Mitchell solo while the bass and drums run the vocal riff, then subtly go doublespeed while Zenon bounces and chooses his spots. The band punctuate the briskly undulating drum circle, piano and sax eventually pushing the beat toward a swaying coda.

With Raw Urbane, Smith works the pattern backwards. The drums get an incantatory triplet rhythm going below Mitchell’s animated ripples and chromatic runs. With Zenon’s solo bobbing and scampering, it’s the closest thing here to straight-up postbop, until the triumphant chorus of vocals kicks in.

The ghostly insistence of the piano-and-bass intro to the album’s title track is unexpectedly stunning; the looping, loping groove (sounds like an implied halfspeed triplet thing) is also very cool. Zenon shifts around like the late, great Marvelous Marvin Hagler as Mitchell crushes in tandem with the drums, then it’s the saxophonist’s turn. It’s the real piece de resistance on the record.

They close with The Vulgar Cycle, Rene and Brevil taking turns over a briskly galloping groove, Mitchell sprinting through a nimble series of cascades before Zenon takes over with a steely, rapidfire focus.

The piano has seldom been employed as a percussion instrument as much as it is on the 2015 album, which is considerably darker. Mitchell (and the band’s) resolve to play everything live without a loop pedal is all the more impressive considering the amount of relentless, icepick pedalpoint and how many drum breaks there are. Its many highlights include a trance-inducing chorus straight out of Moroccan gnawa music. There’s also a tantalizing, McCoy Tyner-ish crescendo where the band really make you wait for the expected drum solo; hints of salsa and Cuban son montuno; and a cuisinarted folk tune which turns from blithe to sinister when interrupted or syncopated, Mitchell’s eerie modal solo coming as a big surprise.

An Electrifying, Entertaining, Amusing Magnum Opus From Multi-Reedwoman Anna Webber

Damn, this is a funny record. Multi-reedwoman Anna Webber‘s mammoth new double album Idiom – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious yet. She’s no stranger to large-ensemble work, most memorably with her Webber/Morris Big Band album from a couple of years ago. The loosely connecting thread here is extended technique, something Webber has plenty of and uses liberally but not gratuitously. The jokes are relentless and irresistible. Webber gets extra props for having the nerve – and the optimism – to put out another big band record at a time when big band performances in New York have been criminalized. Hopefully for no longer than it takes for a Cuomo impeachment!

There’s also an opening disc, Webber joined by her long-running Simple Trio. The first number is a creepy, circling flute and piano theme and variations, with sudden dynamic and rhythmic shifts. It’s closer to Terry Riley than jazz. Drummer John Hollenbeck adds flickering color to the steady sway, pianist Matt Mitchell setting off a lake of ripples from the lows upward. Furtiveness becomes spritely, then the hypnotic spiral returns.

The second of these Idiom pieces has even more of an air of mystery in the beginning, its spaciously wispy minimalism growing more herky-jerky, up to a clever piano-sax conversation over Hollenbeck’s funky drive. Forgotten Best is a great track, beginning as a very allusive, rhythmically resistant take on hauntingly majestic Civil Rights Coltrane, then hitting a triumphant, quasi-anthemic drive. The trio follow with a coyly comedic, hypnotically circular, flute-driven march.

Webber subtly employs her pitch pedal for sax duotones and microtones in the third of the Idiom series over Hollenbeck’s straight-ahead funk and Mitchell’s surgical staccato, then clusters wildly over the pianist’s various vortices. The drummer’s persistent gremlin at the door signals a shivery shift.

The twelve-piece large ensemble play an epic, largely improvisational seven-track suite on the second disc. Emphatic swats over a murmuring background, with a wryly funny low/high exchange, pervade the opening movement. One assume that’s the bandleader’s distant squall that sets off a racewalking pace. Sounds like somebody’s using a EWI for those Marshall Allen-style blips and squiggles.

An airy, increasingly suspenseful interlude introduces movement two, Webber back on flute, fluttering in tandem with Yuma Uesaka’s clarinet over the tiptoeing Frankenstein of the rhythm section – Nick Dunston on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. A swinging fugue follows, the rest of the horns – Nathaniel Morgan on alto sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, David Byrd-Marrow on horn and Jacob Garchik on trombone joined by the string trio of violinist Erica Dicker, violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts. Webber’s mealy-mouthed meandering, picked off by the trombone, is another deviously amusing moment.

O’Farrill punctures the mist of the second interlude and then wafts optimistically, a goofy faux-takadimi duel between horn and trumpet finally disappearing into a chuffing shuffle; ersatz qawwali has seldom been so amusing. Everybody gets to make a Casper the Friendly Ghost episode out of the fourth movement. Movement five slowly coalesces out of looming mystery, O’Farrill playfully nudging everybody up, Webber’s acidic multiphonics over a slinky quasi-tropical syncopation and an ending that’s predictably ridiculous.

The group rise out of the ether a final time to impersonate a gamelan for awhile the string section leading the ramshackle parade this time. It’s as if Webber is daring us to go out and have half as much fun as she did making this album.

Imani Uzuri Brings Her Gospel-Inspired Gravitas and Historical Insight to Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, singer Imani Uzuri put on a mesmerizing show that was part joyous gospel revival and part hushed, rapt classical concert, with a little Showtime at the Apollo during the early part. Uzuri stands with Fanon in asserting that the damned of the earth keep things running, and someday will inherit it. She wasted no time in dedicating the performance to the marginalized, the oppressed and those trapped in the prison-industrial complex.

That set the tone for what she had in store: the way she expressed those ideas was much more poetic and succinct. Her most recent show here was a stark, otherworldly duo set of improvisations on old African-American spiritual themes. This show was much more lavish, Uzuri flanked by a trio of singers – Joshuah B. Campbell, Ann McCormack and Carami Hilaire in addition to Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Kaoru Watanabe on flute, and Dana Lyn and Trina Basu on strings. And yet, Uzuri’s themes were just as hypnotic, emphatically grounded in dark, wounded, ancient-sounding minor-key blues riffs.

She took special care to send a shout-out to Vera Hall, one of the songwriters she covered, since her song, Troubles So Hard, had been sampled from a rare Smithsonian recording by a corporate radio meme – and apparently had been left uncredited. That long, allusively tormented number finally took an unexpected turn into a final verse with a message of hope against hope even in the most troubled times. As she did in several other numbers, Uzuri gave the other singers onstage plenty of room to add soaring, achingly melismatic solos. She also tried engaging the audience, with mixed results. Much as there were some very inspired, gospelly-informed voices in the house, the general afterwork lethargy absolutely bedeviled her. But that’s to be expected; Uzuri is used to energizing late-night crowds.

Another musical pioneer Uzuri covered was Elizabeth Cotten, who in her sixties worked as a maid for Pete Seeger until he found out that she was a songwriter, and the rest is history. Since then, her signature three-finger guitar technique has become a popular device throughout the worlds of folk music and acoustic blues. Uzuri and the group delivered that particular number with somewhat more of an upbeat vibe than they did with Hall’s resolute, relentless epic.

Throughout the show, Uzuri’s powerful voice ranged from looming, defiantly resonant lows to a stratospheric falsetto that sent microtones bleeding from the atrium’s bare walls. Ikawa rose from minimalist atmospherics, to nonchalantly loungey phrasing, to a sudden, white-knuckle intensity with a series of achingly gorgeous gospel-infused, chromatic solos. Sewell’s stamina in running the same leaping acoustic blues phrase over and over during one of the later numbers was impressive, not to mention the erudite, intricate Chicago blues, and little later the plaintive, elegaic slide work he he played on Telecaster.

Watanabe gave the opening and closing numbers a charanga-like brightness, balanced by a broodingly slashing blues solo from Lyn along with Basu, whose glimmering, nocturnal solo early on literally sent shivers through the PA system. And with  Dunston holding close to the ground with his terse, propulsive, woody lines, who said a band has to have a drummer?

Uzuri closed with a world premiere commissioned by Chamber Music America, who spent their money well. In this pensively immersive suite, questioning where the human spirit has disappeared to, the group opened with a suspensefully circling string interlude and then went deeper in a gospel direction, winding down to a whisper. The ensemble brought the show full circle with a summery, vamping, latin-tinged psychedelic soul tableau.

The Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. has arguably the best and most eclectic mostly-weekly series of free concerts anywhere in New York. You can get your classical on this coming week when the Argus Quartet play there on March 5 at 7:30 PM. Then on March 12 there’s a shamanistic Korean dance-and-percussion performance.

A Gorgeously Kinetic, Restless New Album by Haunting, Dynamic Violinist Layale Chaker

It may be early in the year, but the leading contender for best album of 2019 so far is Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker’s hauntingly kinetic Inner Rhyme, which hasn’t hit her music page yet but is due out momentarily. Chaker is equally at home in the worlds of Middle Eastern and western classical music. A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late, great pianist Edward Said – she’s also the only composer ever commissioned by the Bayreuther Philharmonike Orchestra, who premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 last year. Bayreuth: Beirut – makes sense right? She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Jan 22 at 8 PM at the Stone (now located in the Glass Box Theatre on the first floor at the New School at 55 W 13th St). Cover is $20.

The album’s premise is ambitious: to create a purely musical suite encompassing the rhythmic cycles of classical Arabic poetry, in the process developing a new instrumental style incorporating the lyrical accents of the words which have been part and parcel of classical Middle Eastern music for the better part of the past thousand years.

Return to Jaykur, the album’s opening track, has a brooding sway, pianist Phillip Golub and bassist Nick Dunston building a tersely dancing interchange beneath Chaker’s imploring upward circles as cellist Jake Charkey scorches the lows. After the fire, the music recedes to a resonant but propulsive elegance in the same vein as Marcel Khalife’s orchestral works.

Ushaq is a stark, intense, chromatically haunting number set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone. Relentless, true to its title, gets a stabbing, insistently catchy,  minor-key pulse, its restlessness as much a function of percussionist Adam Maalouf’s rhythm, which hints at bolero but never quite goes there. Dunston’s pitchblende melismas signal a spare, plaintive Chaker solo.

A bracing, suspenseful early-morning miniature for violin, bass and percussion sets the stage for the Mikhammas Suite, rising from a strikingly minimalist, emphatic syncopation to an energetic dance. The second part follows the same path, fueled by Charkey’s slashing low-register riffs. The conclusion is much slower, just short of a dirge, opening with Golub’s gleaming chords, then gaining momentum as Chaker develops moody variations on a biting chromatic melody.

The picturesque Alight Here has wry humor – why can’t this bird make up its mind? – before a flamenco-ish drive kicks in, Golub’s spare piano contrasting with persistent staccato from the bass. The album’s most epic number, On the Trunk of an Olive Tree is the one place where the band expand into jazz: the lush yet highly rhythmic work of Tarek Yamani comes to mind. The group conclude with a brief, hazy postlude.

Chaker explains her mission with characteristic eloquence: “Much like our free-spirited Bedouins, our music does not know of the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into several little states, nor of the dividing of land and history. It does not know anything either about the birth of crisis and striving for existence, identity and domination in between those freshly pencil-drawn frontiers. It testifies of the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil and water, every soul living in the different lines of that newly-decided map. From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”