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Tag: noir jazz

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.

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A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

Epic Lynchian Jazz at Barbes Last Night

Covering music as iconic as the Twin Peaks soundtrack is playing with fire. Last night at Barbes, it was as if guitarist Tom Csatari said, “Fire walk with me!” and his nine-piece band Uncivilized could’t wait to follow him into the flames. It was less an inferno than the slowly gathering menace of a prairie burn – Angelo Badalementi’s David Lynch film scores are all about suspense and distant dread. And it was an awful lot of fun to find out just where this unpredictable crew would take those themes.

They opened with the Twin Peaks title theme. From the first few lingering notes of Csatari’s guitar, it was obvious that they weren’t going to play it completely straight-up, considering that he was already staking out territory around the famous, ominous, two-note opening riff. The genius of Badalaenti’s score is that he uses very simple ideas for his variations for all the femme fatales, wolves in sheeps’ clothing and resolute boy scout detectives. If only for a second, any of them could be pure evil. In that sense, the music perfectly matches Lynch’s esthetic.

Yet as much further out as Csatari and the band took this material, they also stuck pretty closely to the melody and the changes. This was hardly generic postbop jazz with halfhearted alllusions to the tunes and solos around the horn.

And Uncivilized are the least generic jazz group in New York. One of Csatari’s favorite devices is to swing and sway his way up to a big crescendo where the four-horn frontline can shiver and flurry, more or less – sometimes a lot less – in unison. They did that here a lot, as well as messing up the rhythm a little with a couple of what sounded like momentary free interludes over drummer Rachel Housle’s floating swing.

There are some great players in this band, but she was the biggest hit with the crowd, as dynamic as she was subtle – and she’s very subtle. Starting out with a suspenseful thud with her mallets, she muted her snare with a scarf, went to sticks and then brushes, using the trebliest parts of the kit for rat-a-tat riffs and hits in all the least expected places. Can anybody say “DownBeat Critics’ Poll Rising Star, 2017?”

Bassist Nick Jozwiak bobbed and bounced like a human slinky behind his upright, playing terse, rubbery rock riffs bolstered by the occasional looming chord. Guitarist Julian Cubillos shadowed Csatari with a subtlety to rival Housle, particularly when the bandleader was playing with a slide for a hint of extra deep-woods menace. Keyboardist Dominic Mekky sent starry electric piano wafting through the mist in lieu of Badalamenti’s big-sky string synth orchestration, while the horns – flutist Tristan Cooley, alto saxophonist Levon Henry, tenor saxophonist Kyle Wilson and bass clarinetist Casey Berman – built a fluttery, gauzy sheen.

They reached toward the macabre stripper tune inside The Bookhouse Boys, played a tantalizing, single haphazardly uneasy verse of Laura  Palmer’s theme and then found unexpected grit – and a Pink Panther – in Audrey Horne’s theme.

Singer Ivy Meissner joined the band to deliver Julee Cruise’s Nightingale as well as Questions in a World of Blue, opting for soul-infused plaintiveness rather than trying to be the girl at the very bottom of the well. Meissner also sang Shelby, a noir-tinged soul ballad from her excellent debut album from last year. In between, she suddenly disappeared: it turned out that she’d taken a seat on the floor amidst the band.

Additionally, Csatari led the group through a handful of his own enigmatically careening pastoral jazz numbers, including a couple of somewhat restrained “stomps.” Most of what this band plays sounds as if it’s completely improvised, but it’s likely that most of it is actually composed, testament to how fresh Csatari’s charts are. No voicing is ever in constant, traditional harmony with the rest of the group, which enhances the suspense as much as it it opens up the floor for more interesting conversations than most bands dream of starting.

Csatari’s next gig is with Meissner on Nov 13 at 7 PM at Footlight Bar in Ridgewood. And fans of Twin Peaks and deep noir should also check out Big Lazy, who play their monthly Friday night show at Barbes on Nov 3 at 10 PM.

Vijay Iyer Brings His Dark, Breathtaking, Richly Tuneful Power to Downtown Brooklyn Friday Night

Vijay Iyer’s work with small groups over the past year or so has been transcendent. This era’s cognoscenti’s pick as the world’s best jazz pianist put out one of the most rapturously soulful, understatedly intense albums of 2016, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Iyer’s riveting, haunting trio score to a Teju Cole video program with  bassist Linda May Han Oh and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan at National Sawdust this past summer is just one more example of the kind of intimate lyricism he’s been fixated on lately. His latest album. Far From Over, with his long-running trio, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is expanded to a sextet with Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. It’s a typically translucent, often wickedly catchy and very dark in places, a vivid reflection of troubled times. Some but not all of it has made it to youtube.

Iyer and the group are playing night two of this year’s Bric Jazz Festival on Oct 20 at around 11:30 PM at Bric Arts, 647 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in downtown Brooklyn. The night is a mixed bag of allstars and duds: the allstars, in reverse order, include headlining violinist Regina Carter reinventing Ella Fitzgerald tunes, trumpeter Dave Douglas “Meets the Westerlies,” latin jazz trombonist Papo Vazquez‘s Mighty Pirate Troubadours, haunting Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and Sylvia Rexach interpreters Miramar, and drummer LaFrae Sci + the Groove. $25 advance tix are still available as of today. The auditorium is about equidistant from the 2/3 at Hoyt St. and the G at Fulton St., otherwise, it’s a short walk from the Atlantic Ave. station.

The first track is full of surprises. Iyer gives it a moodily crystalline intro, followed by a vampy, funky Steve Coleman-ish strut that recedes for meandering microtonalisms from Lehman and then a poignant flugelhorn statement from Haynes. By that point, Iyer has switched to Rhodes; the broodingly intertwining coda brings it full circle.

The title track opens with deliciously bustling, noir-tinged, Mingus-esque drama and low, burnished horns, whose round-robin of solos quickly introduces an unstoppable detective squad as Iyer glistens and churns with the bass and drums below before dancing on a wire with some moodily rich modalitiies. Sorey’s offhandedly savage cymbal splash at the end kills it perfectly.

Nope is a punchy, funky Rhodes tune with chattering, New Orleans-tinged horns and a droll Iyer solo on piano at the center. Hayes’ psychedelic, electronically warped oscillations mingle with Iyer’s eerily starry Rhodes in End of the Tunnel, a miniature that recalls Bob Belden’s creepily futuristic late work. Iyer builds out of leapfrogging, uneasily altered minor-key blues as Down to the Wire picks up steam, Shim adding a purposefully scampering solo over the rhythm section’s long, aching upward drive, Sorey’s solo a panther across the parade grounds before the final bristling coda.

For Amiri Baraka, a piano trio piece, opens as a spare, wistful dirge and then moves toward outright wrath: if there’s any Halloweenish track here, it’s this one – although the funky, driving  Into Action has a similarly ominous, modal intensity that backs away a bit for an unexpectedly balmy turn by Haynes. Iyer’s subtle shift from blithe music-box twinkle to Bill Mays Twin Peaks menace is the album’s most artful moment. Then Iyer moves back and forth between piano and Rhodes in Wake, a grimly atmospheric piece of Beldenesque cinematics.

Clenched-teeth piano chromatics and gritty low horns propel Good on the Ground up to a fleeting bhangra riff. Shim and Iyer punch at the shadows together up to an Iyer solo that’s vintage Keith Jarrett on steroids, then they bring back the bhangra. As the closing cut, Threnody gets underway, Iyer shifts sagely from calm reflection to a stern, elegaic, Messiaenic belltone pulse. A lot of people are going to call this this best jazz album of 2017 – check back here in December to see where it lands on the best-of lists.

Sam Bardfeld Puts on His Richard Nixon Mask Just in Time for Halloween

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month than a fearsome violinist who sometimes leads a band called Up Jumped the Devil? Or whose latest album, The Great Enthusiasms – streaming at Bandcamp – comprises songs with titles taken from Richard Nixon quotes? Sam Bardfeld lifted most of those from Nixon’s resignation speech; it’s not likely that Trump, if in fact he ends up giving one, will be nearly as quotable. “Though Dick was a paranoid, hateful crook, there’s intelligence and complexity in him that one cannot imagine existing inside our current president. During this current dark stain in our country’s history, let’s continue to make weird, joyous art,’ Bardfeld encourages. He’s playing the album release show on Oct 5 at Cornelia Street Cafe, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

Most people know Bardfeld from his work with Springsteen, but his best material is his own. Bardfeld calls this trio project with the fantastic, lyrical pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin his “weird Americana” album. Noir jazz is more like it.

How sarcastic is the opening track, Fails While Daring Greatly? The title is a Teddy Roosevelt quote that Nixon used when resigning, the song a distantly Romany swing-tinged number. Davis strolls uneasily while the bandleader swoops, shivers and scrapes with his signature, subtle, sardonic humor.

Resignation Rag is a surreal second-line march: Davis’ peevish insistence and Monkish loops are very funny, not just because they’re so far from her usual style. Bardfeld throws in a taunt or two as he takes the trio further and further outside to solo Davis contemplation, and a little twisted faux-barrelhouse.

A steady, uneasy violin solo opens Winner Image, Davis joining with cautious, starry chordlets, a troubled lullaby of sorts that grows more menacing as Bardfeld spins and slides and Davis takes a grimly gleaming stroll. Then they make a slow, enigmatic sway out of the Springsteen/Patti Smith hit Because the Night, which is barely recognizable, more Monk than late 70s CBGB powerpop. Davis’ eerie deep-sky solo is arguably the album’s high point, in contrast with the LMAO ending.

Listening to the album as sequenced, the title track is where it hits you that this is the great violin album that Monk never made, Davis the steady stalker as Bardfeld leaps and dances through funhouse mirror blues. Sarin’s subtle flickers and accents complete the carnivalesque tableau.

The trio do the Band’s King Harvest (Has Surely Come) as less dadrock than quasi-gospel, Bardfeld’s animated lines paired with Davis’ terse, gospel-infused groove. Bardfeld strums uneasy chords behind the funereal piano/drum atmospherics as The 37th Time I Have Spoken gets underway, interspersed with moments of sarcastic loopiness, frantic scurrying, and a burbling free interlude. One of the top ten jazz albums of the year so far, no question.

Iconic, Haunting Jazz Guitarist Bill Frisell Plays a Rare Duo Show in Brooklyn

Bill Frisell’s first album as a bandleader was just guitar and bass (and lots of overdubs). Who knew that this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist would ever revisit that format? Almost thirty-five years later, the bassist is Thomas Morgan, and the album, Small Town, is a live recording from the Village Vanguard from just a few months ago It’s hard to hear online, but you can catch the two when they make a relatively rare Brooklyn appearance at Roulette on June 30 at 8. Advance tix are just $20, and having seen Frisell in this particular borough, it’s not a safe bet to assume that the show won’t sell out.

The first track is an eleven-minute version of Paul Motian’s Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Resonant, starry, minimalist motives give way to a distantly ominous big-sky theme spiced with wispy harmonics and Morgan’s lurking presence. A wistful waltz develops and is then subsumed by  brooding pedalpoint with stark gospel allusions as Frisell builds a hypnotic web of contrapuntal loops. If this doesn’t end up in a Twin Peaks episode, that would be criminal.

The two make a briskly caravanning stroll out of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, threatening to take it down into the depths but never completely submerging. Morgan hangs back and punches in gingerly throughout most of the spacious, uneasy ballad Song for Andrew No. 1 (an Andrew Cyrille shout-out). Referneces to a famously infirm New Orleans funeral tune flicker amidst Frisell’s lingering single-note lines as he waits til the very end to go for the macabre.

He does Wildwood Flower a lot – this one offers genially blithe, bluegrassy contrast and some neatly understated counterpoint between the two musicians. 

The title track expands on the old Scottish folk tune Wild Mountain Thyme, Frisell finally flinging some noir and some wryly muted surf riffs into the purposeful, steady walk as Morgan straddles the same thin grey line. After that, the two pulse their way mutedly through Fats Domino’s What a Party; which sounds a lot more like the old folk song Shortnin’ Bread. Ironically, it’s the most pastoral track here – hearing Morgan toss off a handful of C&W guitar licks on his bass is a trip.

Poet – Pearl is a diptych. Morgan shifts around with a pensive incisiveness in the upper midrange, as he usually does throughout the set while Frisell plays a gently tremoloing lullaby of sorts. then the two follow the night’s most divergent courses, segueing into the lone Morgan composition here, a bittersweetly catchy jazz waltz where the bassist finally gets to carry the melody. The last song of the set is a spare, lowlit, increasingly desolate take of the Goldfinger theme that leaves no doubt that it’s about a spy. At the end, Frisell turns it into the old blues lament Baby Please Don’t Go.

Where does this rank in the Frisell pantheon? Maybe not on the towering, harrowing noir pinnacle with, say, 2007’s History, Mystery but it’s close. You’ll see this on a whole lot of best-of-2017 lists, not just here, at the end of the year.

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

Can Iconoclasts Be Iconic?

It’s hard to believe that it’s been thirty years since Iconoclast, one of the world’s definitive noir jazz acts, put out their first album. Since then, the duo of saxophonist/violinist Julie Joslyn and drummer/pianist Leo Ciesa have built a distinctive body of work that’s part rainswept nocturnes, part edgy downtown improvisation and part punk jazz. Their brand-new thirtieth anniversary album, aptly titled Driven to Defiance, is due out momentarily, and the duo have an album release show on April 7 at 7 PM at stage 2 at Michiko Studios, 149 W 46 St on the second floor.

The album opens with the title track, rising from Ciesa’s spare, ominously crescendoing, echoey drum intro, then Joslyn’s similarly spare, bittersweet late-night streetcorner sax takes over. It’s been a pretty desolate journey, but not an unrewarding one.

Fueled by Joslyn’s violin, One Hundred Verticals builds from horizontal Americana, through a bracingly microtonal dance to gleefully marauding shred. Too Late to Worry, with its catchy, mantra-like sax hook and artfully shifting polyrhythms, comes across as a mashup of Raya Brass Band and legendary downtown punk-sax band Moisturizer. Likewise, More of Plenty is awash in biting Balkan tonalities, from a tongue-in-cheek, icily dripping Ciesa solo piano intro to Joslyn’s airy sax multitracks.

The two follow Ciesa’s judiciously strolling, Schoenbergian piano piece Thinking Thoughts with You Are So Very Touchable, his muted stalker drums eerily anchoring Joslyn’s gentle, lyrical sax. Spheres of Influence is Iconoclast at their sardonic, epically assaultive best, a cackling, chattering, often hilarious Tower of Babel that would make an apt theme for Donald Trump’s next reality tv show, assuming he’s around to do one.

The Flat Magnetic Girl is a jaunty, honking strut, and the catchiest tune on the album…with a trick ending. Although nine minutes long and awash in moody resonance, the mini-suite Part of the Hour, with its menacing jazz-poetry interlude, is no less tuneful.

Ciesa’s intricately tuned snare and toms develop a countermelody under Joslyn’s somber sax in The Customary Slip. He does the same thing throughout the neat clave-funk-punk of Luck is Relative. There’s also a bonus track, wryly titled Take 18 (Live at Funkadelic), a playfully plucky, shrieky violin-and-drums theme that sounds like it was recorded at the legendary, labarynthine rehearsal space’s old Flower District location. Perennially fresh and always with a dark undercurrent, Iconoclast have more than earned themselves iconic status.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

One of 2016’s Best Albums: Klazz-Ma-Tazz’s Epically Haunting Lynchian Klezmer Jazz

Violinist Ben Sutin‘s Klazz-Ma-Tazz are one of those fantastic bands that defy categorization. Their new album Tangibility – streaming at Bandcamp – is part noir jazz, part klezmer, part Balkan and Middle Eastern music. Any way you look at it, it’s one of the year’s best.

The album’s opening diptych has two spine-tingling, shivery cascades, one from the violin and one from alto saxophonist Elijah Shiffer, bookending a gorgeously lush, bittersweetly swaying, cinematically suspenseful theme from Ben Rosenblum’s darkly crushing piano, Grant Goldstein’s languid Lynchian jazz guitar and a hypnotic groove from bassist Mat Muntz and drummer Matt Scarano. This has got to be one of the three or four best songs released this year – what a richly cinematic way to draw in a listener, right off the bat! That the rest of the album isn’t anticlimactic testifies to the consistently cinematic quality of the tunes and the musicianship.

The funky, syncopated Thank You is driven by a circular piano hook; Sutin’s chromatic violin takes it into more acerbic, haunted Balkan flavored territory, followed by a steady slowly crscendoing sax solo overhead, spikily clustering piano and then Muntz’s bass running the riff as the piece grows more uneasy.

The title track slides toward jazz waltz territory out of an uneasily syncopated piano intro fueled by Sutin’s enigmatic, allusively chromatic lines, with expansive, carefully allusive, crescendoing solos form piano and then sax. Then he bandleader goes leaping and spiraling; if Jean-Luc Ponty had a thing for the Middle East, it might sound something like this.

Icy, uneasy violin and sax rise and dance over an icepick piano-and-drums backdrop as Tbilisi gets underway, a mashup of Bahian jazz with a jauntily triumphant sax-violin conversation midway through, the band artfully hinting at straight-up swing but not quite going there. Sutin takes a piercing, suspenseful solo over a murky, turbulent piano backdrop to open the groups cover of Miserlou, which they first parse as practically a dirge: it’s arguably the most original take of the song anybody’s recorded in recent years, and at well over eleven minutes, it’s probably the longest too. Even when the guitar comes in, it’s a lot more Balkan psychedelia than surf, an explosive vamp midway through packed with searing violin and sax work.

Listen closely and you can hear echoes of Ellington’s Caravan in the unsettled tumble of Speak the Truth. A brief, austere guitar-and-accordion passage introduces Kluez, the album’s elegaically pulsing, mysterious final cut, an ominously twinkling Twin Peaks set theme with hints of blues and late 50s Miles Davis amidst the nocturnal glimmer. An extraordinary effort from a truly extraordinary, inimitable group who deserve to be vastly better known than they are.