New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: noir jazz

Gorgeously Haunting, Surreal Cinematics From Dictaphone

Dictaphone’s distinctive, unique sound falls somewhere between film noir soundtrack music, jazz and the Middle East. Which makes sense, considering that bandleader Oliver Doerell does a lot of movie scores. The group’s often sweepingly crepuscular instrumentals are much more lush than one would expect from just three musicians, yet it’s also very minimalist: no note goes to waste here. Their new album Goats & Distortions 5 – streaming at Bandcamp – expands on their exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

The album’s opening track, simply titled O, has a loopy trip-hop beat beneath drifting ambience over that could be muted pizzicato violin, or a processed guitar riff, or a sintir at a distance: it’s often hard to isolate who’s playing what here. Clarinetist Roger Döring looms sparely and moodily as the atmospherics pulse in and out.

The second track, Island 92 quickly coalesces into a hypnotic Middle Eastern groove, Döring’s bass clarinet chromatics weaving broodingly, then suddenly dropping out for Alex Stolze’s hazy violin. From there, Doerell builds a terse, resonant web of guitar clang and atmospherics.

Döring’s sax and Stolze’s violin waft uneasily over Doerrell’s sintir loop and a lo-fi electronic click track in track three, titled 808.14.4. The album’s title track is in two parts: the first a brief, swoopy, minimalist loop pastiche and the second a trickily rhythmic, darkly surreal dub interlude, pings and blips contrasting with spare bass and morose bass clarinet.

Likewise, washes of grey noise, bass clarinet and amplified loops from an old, broken tape recorder mingle mournfully in Tempete et Stress. Il Grande Silenzio is anything but, a lament with funeral parlor organ and more of that bass clarinet, plus some creepy robotic textures.

M – which doesn’t seem to be a salute to the iconic Peter Lorre horror film – is the driftiest interlude here. Helga Raimondi takes an enigmatic cameo on the mic in Your Reign Is Over, a rainy-day Balkan reggae dub theme. They close with Griot Dub, which is not a reggae tune but a grey-sky tableau.

Fun fact: the band take their name from a lo-fi tape recorder with a variable-speed motor, invented in the late 40s and commonly used in offices as late as the 1990s. It was meant to free up secretarial staff from the slow process of taking dictation. A typist could transcribe the tape and slow the machine down if the person doing the dictating was speaking rapidly. There was also Dictaphone etiquette: to avoid mistakes in transcription, it was considered de rigeur to enunciate slowly and clearly, to spell out proper names and difficult words, and to thank the typist – almost invariably a woman working for near-minimum wage – at the end of the tape.

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Broodingly Gorgeous, Tightly Orchestrated Sounds From Organist Bence Vas’ Big Band

Large ensembles led by organists are about the rarest of any configuration of jazz musicians, yet they all seem to find this page. The 8 Cylinder Big Band, Radam Schwartz Organ Big Band, and now the stunningly mysterious Bence Vas’ Big Band, who might be the best of all of them. Their riveting, very tightly orchestrated Bartok-inspired new album Overture et. al. is streaming at Spotify. If you don’t agree that some of the best jazz in the world is coming out of Hungary, you haven’t heard this darkly elegant record. 

Vas weaves a series of stunningly memorable themes methodically and dynamically throughout this often sinister suite. It opens with a big swell from the deliciously noir overture, Vas and pianist Gábor Cseke scurrying with furtive purpose down to a precise, loopy piano solo and subtle, moody variations as the orchestra drift in and disappear just as suddenly. A detour toward comfortably clustering early 60s Prestige-style postbop sounds fueled by Cseke cedes centerstage to the bandleader’s eerily keening phrases, up and out.

The Overture at Late Afternoon takes that distantly Ethiopian-tinged chromatic riffage to even creepier new places, from a circling intro, through still, tense foreshadowing and a somber woodwind-infused sway. Cseke once again adds a convivial touch, then the requiem for what’s left of the afternoon returns. Vas’ judicious solo raises the intensity, classic gutbucket harmonies tinted with just enough menace to raise the disquiet, eventually bringing the gathering gloom full circle. As lockdown-era music goes, this really nails the zeitgeist. 

Cseke’s clusters behind a wary march recede to an ominously minimalist flute solo over the orchestra’s brooding expanse as Jedna Minuta gathers steam. Elegiacally brassy variations and  fleeting flute gleam distantly amid the remaining expanse.

Kołysanka opens with balmy/moody contrasts fueled by guitar and flute until the bandleader lets the sunshine in with a gently gospel-infused, soulful groove that’s not quite a strut. They bring the chromatic menace back, the murk looms in and suddenly it’s over. The group close with One Last Attempt, Vas’ funeral-parlor atmosphere ushering in Cseke spirals, hovering brass and a brightly enigmatic Kristóf Bacsó alto sax solo in contrast with the darker flurries all around. That blustery false ending is a neat touch. It’s awfully early in the year to be thinking of the best jazz album of 2021 but right now the choice is between Satoko Fujii’s new vibraphone duo record and this one.

A Long Overdue New Live Album From Tom Csatari’s Drifting, Haunting, Maddening, Defiantly Individualistic Uncivilized Big Band

Back in 2016, this blog characterized guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized as a “tectonically shifting ten-piece ‘drone-jazz orchestra.’“ They earned a glowing New York Times review for a show at a short-lived Bushwick strip club. That gig also earned them a listing here on what was then a monthly concert calendar. Nobody from this blog ended up going.

The prolific bandleader’s compositions fall into a netherworld of film noir themes, bittersweet Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, the Grateful Dead at their dark early 80s peak and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. During the band’s long, mostly-monthly Barbes residency, they played several cover nights. Chico Hamilton night was shockingly trad and tight. It would have been fun to see what they did with John Fahey. The best of them all was Twin Peaks night in October 2017, where they played Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film scores. The group’s transcendently haphazard take on that iconic noir repertoire was captured on the live album Uncivilized Plays Peaks.

They also released another, considerably shorter record as a salute to five separate music venues which were shuttered during the pandemic of gentrification that devastated this city right up until the lockdown. Their latest live album, Garden, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The title seems to stem (sorry, awful pun) from the fact that the tracklist matches the setlist they played at another killer show, outdoors at Pioneer Works in late summer 2018 with guest Jaimie Branch being her usual extrovert self on trumpet. There’s some of that show here along with material captured at various venues, including the Barbes residency.

Csatari’s arrangements span the sonic spectrum in a vast Gil Evans vein, Tristan Cooley’s upwardsly fluttering flute often engaged on the low end by Nick Jozwiak’s slinky bass and Casey Berman’s solid bass clarinet. A series of fleeting modal interludes separate the individual themes here, many of which are barely a minute long: fades and splices are usually subtle but inevitably obvious. Colorful, imperturbable drummer Rachel Housle is the Casey Jones who manages to keep this ramshackle train on the rails – barely.

Levon Henry’s alto sax bubbles and sails alongside Luther Wong’s trumpet, Dominick Mekky’s transistor organ ranging from spacy ambience to ripples and washes. Csatari tends to fling low-key but persistently uneasy chordlets and jangly riffs into the ether, Julian Cubillos typically carrying the harder-edged guitar lines, although the two sometimes switch roles.

Henry provides shivery ambience in a brief portion of Pink Room, from the Twin Peaks soundtrack. They segue into a starry, pulsing take of Csatari’s Melted Candy and soon edge their way to a slowly coalescing, genuinely joyous crescendo in the Twin Peaks title theme. You might think that joy would be completely out of place in that context but it isn’t.

Csatari’s Rowlings – in several parts – makes an optimistic, soul-infused segue. Likewise, the take of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock rises from a brief, broodingly sway to a triumphant country-soul anthem. The coda is Evil, deviously quoting at length from Paul McCartney: if we ever get out of here!

If this is the last album the band ever release – and it could be, since the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying music and the arts – they went out with a bang. On the other hand, if we destroy the lockdowners, music like this will flourish. It’s a no-brainer: Microsoft, or Tom Csatari’s Unciviiized. At this point in history, we can’t have both.

Be aware that you need to make a playlist out of this to enjoy it as a full-length album. Otherwise, constantly having to reach for the play button in between these often very short tracks is like driving a loaded tractor-trailer along a steep mountain road, distracted by the need to double-clutch and downshift.

Haunting New Sounds From an American Transcendentalist and a Mumbai-Born Jazz Chanteuse

You probably wouldn’t think that one of the world’s most unpredictable pianists would be the first choice for a lot of singers. Au contraire – Ran Blake loves playing with singers and has made many albums with them. Blake personifies the film noir esthetic. His most noir-centric album in this century with a vocalist remains the 2012 cult classic Camera Obscura record with Sara Serpa. He’s also done spine-tingling work with Dominique Eade. And he’s worked with Christine Correa before: their new duo album, When Soft Rains Fall – streaming at Spotify – really brings out the best in both artists , a high point in their long-running collaboration.

It’s amazing how they completely reinvent a bunch of old standards: the two improvise at such a high level that everything on the record might as well be called an original. Correa’s bittersweet, weathered approach to I’m a Fool to Want You, the album’s opening track, is a perfect foil for Blake’s sudden yet sagacious shifts from minimalist blues, to furtive Messiaenesque ice, to his own saturnine gleam.

The two open For Heaven’s Sake as anything but a love song, but they warm it up quickly, even if Blake remains more gremlin than imp. Correa narrates The Day Lady Died as Blake takes this grimly imagistic 1959 Manhattan tableau into a cold, revealing Weegee light with shadows just outside.

The two reverse roles in You’ve Changed, Blake’s steadiness in contrast to Correa’s stricken vulnerability. She matches the shift between Blake’s insistent chimes and muted murk im You Don’t Know What Love Is, then the duo bring an apt phantasmagoria to The End of a Love Affair: breakups are the creepiest thing in the world!

They remake For All We Know with circling, Saties-esque menace: tomorrow truly may never come for all we know. Blake is unsurpassed at lowlit, close-harmonied miniatures, Big Stuff being the latest in a long series.

The bitter quasi-Rachmaninoff chords that open Get Along Without You Very Well – the key to the album – speak volumes, as does Correa’s cynical delivery. Blake plays a clinic in implied melody in Violets For Your Furs – he really makes you think you’re hearing a bluesy ballad – then goes under the lid, literally, behind Correa’s haggard angst in Lady Sings the Blues.

Blake’s insistence contrasts with Correa’s guarded hope against hope in But Beautiful, a dynamic they revisit to an extent in Glad to Be Unhappy, although she’s more vividly cynical in the latter.

Their take of I’ll Be Around – not the Howlin’ Wolf classic – is the album’s most spaciously brief number. They close it with It’s Easy to Remember, where Correa takes centerstage with an a-cappella intro. After all these years, Blake remains best known for his shattering, classic collaboration with the late, great Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around, but he hasn’t stopped finding newer ones. And there’s more where this came from, including a collaboration with another darkly cinematic pianist, Frank Carlberg.

Two Masters of Menacing Piano Jazz at the Peak of Their Powers

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque.  Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.

Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.

The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.

They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.

Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.

The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.

JD Allen Puts Out His Most Intense, Powerful Album in Close to a Decade

JD Allen is this century’s most powerful, relevant tenor saxophonist. He probably has a more intuitive understanding of both chromatics and the blues than any composer alive. His technique is scary, and unsurpassed when he feels like pulling out all the stops, something he always does when playing his own material. His latest album Toys/Die Dreaming is streaming at youtube. How ironic that he would win a poll for “rising star composer” when his star rose a long time ago, and never went down, even before his landmark I Am I Am album in 2008. It’s time we put this guy in the hall of fame alongside Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Pharaoh Sanders.

Recorded in a marathon one-day session in Queens this past January, this is an expansive and often searing recording with Allen’s current trio, which these days includes bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo. Until recently, Allen was best known for crystallizing a sharply purposeful style he called “jukebox jazz,” three-minute songs loaded with one slashing hook after another. His last three albums have been more expansive: this one blends the concise, relentless intensity of records like Victory with his more recent, longscale adventures. What’s consistent is is the almost absurdly hummable, singable quality of his tunes.

The trio open with the standard You’re My Thrill, the rhythm section doing a solid impression of a flamenco band with their flurrying beats as Allen’s darkly bracing phrases shift through emphatic, intense riffage, that signature rugged, gritty tone never wavering. Kenselaar has obviously taken a cue from his predecessor in the Allen trio, Gregg August, his solos leaping between slinky melody and stirring chords.

Allen’s first original is The G Thing, a dark, bluesy minor-key song without words, with a tentative swing where August and Allen’s original drummer, Rudy Royston, would have thrashed the shit out of this. Allen’s lusciously Lynchian smokiness right before the end perfectly capsulizes his appeal over the years.

Die Dreaming comes across as a Moisturizer song with tenor sax in place of Paula Henderson’s baritone, along with savagely erudite register shifts and the Arabic modes that  have become Allen’s signature trope when he wants to make a point. You want catchy? Purposeful? A bassist who’ll dig in for a chord if it’s needed?

Red Label, which the rhythm section brought with them after recording it with trombonist Peter Lin, gets elevated above (or maybe those of us on the low end should say below) generic slinky stripper territory into starkly smoky blues. Kenselaar and Allen team up in the F clef before the bandleader expands into what becomes more expansively lurid territory.

Toys, another original, is a classic Allen study in irony: predictably lyrical, bluesy sax, spare who knows what cutting loose from the rhythm. I Should Care, a familiar ballad from other projects, gets stripped to the bone, a stark portrait of white-knuckle, chilling angst. The three close the album with Allen’s blues-infused Elegua (The Trickster), Cacioppo shifting nimbly from a Royston Rumble to suspenseful swing behind Allen’s dark, increasingly sardonic runs, channeling a Yoruba god who won’t sit still. It’s a deliciously haphazard frontrunner for best jazz album of 2020, something Allen has definitely gotten used to over the years.

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

An Epic, Darkly Profound New Solo Live Album and a Rare Brooklyn Gig by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

Pianist Satoko Fujii’s epic new solo live album Invisible Hand – streaming at Spotify – is dark and dead serious. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. If historical accounts are accurate, that puts her on the level of Bach and Schubert, along with Monk, and Brubeck, and Ellington. Those comparisons are deliberate – the astonishingly prolific Fujii’s work combines brooding classical intensity with in-the-moment jazz fearlessness. Her latest project is to release an album a month this year, a promise she’s fulfilled so far. She’s making one of her increasingly rare New York appearances this Aug 29 at 8:30 PM at I-Beam, leading a trio with husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Yoshi Shutto on drums. Cover is $15; be aware that she routinely sells out this venue.

The new album is the debut release on Cortez Records, a new label that’s just as impromptu as Fujii’s music can be. Teruhiko Ito, proprietor of the intimate venue Cortez in the small city of Mito, Japan, essentially launched it to release Fujii’s epic solo concert there from the winter of 2016. In the midst of a snowstorm, a crowd nevertheless came out and responded rapturously.

“Recently I have been hearing that people everywhere in the world are losing interest in music and culture, and the situation is getting worse and worse,” Fujii relates in the liner notes.. “However, around Cortez, there are no signs of that.”

Here are a few reasons why. While Fujii has made scores of albums, almost all of them are with other players. Surprisingly, while perhaps best known as an improviser, she virtually never plays a full set of solo improvisation. The first of this double-cd collection captures only the fourth time in a 25-plus year career that she’s done that.

Which is a paradox, for many reasons, not the least because her improvisation here can sound meticulously composed, while the compositions are spiked with off-the-cuff flourishes and some occasionally pretty wild displays of extended technique. Fujii opened that wintry night with a piece titled Thought, rising through frequent allusions to Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, to an intense but judicious crescendo and an ominously quiet, chromatically bristling conclusion. From there she did some scampering and some leapfrogging, but also built a methodical thematic variation and a crashing coda

The album’s towering, thirteen-minute title cut has spare, somber, low-mid register melody and some absolutely macabre moments, set to a autoharp-like rainy-day wash of sound that Fujii resonates on the strings inside the piano. In almost sixteen minutes of Floating, she creates a mystical ambience with spare, serioso phrasing and then a muted temple bell-like melody, again played with inside the piano. It sounds practically like a koto.

Fujii’s shift toward a steady anthemic drive that’s practically a stadium rock ballad is striking – how much is she messing with the audience, and how much just with herself? Yet, she ends it with her signature gravitas. She concludes the set with Hayase, working a rather grimly percussive raga-like melody against a central tone.

The second cd opens with a somber single chord, then Fujii makes her way into the ineluctably uneasy, spacious I Know You Don’t Know, leaving her phrases and spare clusters to linger. Flickers of Charles Ives contemplation contrast with waves of Cecil Taylor agitation

Summer Storm juxtaposes cascading, neoromantically-tinged phrasing with circular, Glass-ine melody. The subtle syncopation and ever-present angst of Inori bring the Satie echoes into even closer focus, with a cell-like Reichian precision. After the tumbling bustle of Green Cab, seemingly the most improvisational piece here, Fujii closes with a gospel-infused take of Gen Himmel, the title track to her hushed, rapturous 2013 album.

Fujii is no stranger to a magnum opus. Her densely orchestrated, harrowing 2017 Fukushima suite is her darkest masterpiece to date and was ranked best album of the year here. Her 2008 double cd Minamo, a duo with violist Karla Kihlstedt, is almost as shattering. This one is close behind, another notch in the hall of fame credentials of a rugged individualist who is as consistently interesting and relevant as she is prolific.