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Tag: NYChillharmonic review

Epic Bustle and Thump and Entertainment From the Uncategorizably Fun NYChillharmonic at Joe’s Pub

Was it worth leaving this year’s Charlie Parker Festival early to catch the NYChillharmonic last night at Joe’s Pub? Absolutely. Who knows, maybe someday singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s lavish eighteen-piece big band will play the festival – although the lineup that day will have to be a lot more forward-looking than it was yesterday evening.

McDonald’s music is easy to trace back to the wildly syncopated early 70s art-rock of bands like Genesis, although her compositions also draw on classical music, big band jazz, Radiohead and lately, classic soul music and even disco. Huddled together on the cabaret-sized stage, the mighty group were tight as a drum throughout a pummeling, nonstop performance heavy on the beat.

The staggered, staccato pulse of the opening number set the tone and was the most evocative of 70s psychedelia. Like the rest of the songs on the bill, it was pretty much through-composed, reaching a white-knuckle intensity with a series of rhythmic shrieks toward the end. McDonald typically finds more surprising places to take an audience – and her bandmates – than simply coming back to land on a verse or a chorus. Often but not always, the band would bring starkly moody intros full circle to close a tune, whether voice and keys, voice and guitar, or even voice and tuba.

With a vocal delivery that came across as more chirpy and biting than it’s been in recent months, McDonald sang resonantly while spiraling through tightly wound arpeggios on a mini-synth. Then she’d spin and conduct the ensemble, then return to the mic and keys, and made it look easy.

She explained that she’d written the night’s second number, Living Room, after quitting her shitty dayjob. Maybe some organization like Chamber Music America can step in and help her stay away from shitty dayjobs so she can concentrate on what she does best.

That particular number began as a restlessly propulsive soul anthem bulked up to orchestral proportions, with unexpectedly hushed, halfspeed interludes and a similarly sepulcutral outro, flitting out on the wings of the group’s string section. With the next tune, Ambedo, the band mashed up classic 70s disco and 50s Mingus urban noir bustle, punctuated by a series of almost vexing interruptions and a wry, woozy, Bernie Worrell-style bass synth solo.

The night’s darkest and most bracing song, Wicker – which McDonald dedicated to “Ugly patio furniture everywhere” – had looming, ominous chromatics and 21st century Balkan jazz allusions, along with a deliciously jagged guitar solo and more P-Funk keyboard buffoonery. Zephyr has been considerably beefed up since the last time the group played the piece here, its chattering, uneasy intro more of a contrast with its relentlessly syncopated upward drive. It was the closest thing to orchestral Radiohead on the bill.

Easy Comes the Ghost began with circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold. The group closed the show with another mashup of Radiohead, dancefloor thud and Darcy James Argue-style big band minimalism. Like Missy Mazzoli, McDonald manages to write torrential melodies without cluttering them.

Time was short, so there were no band intros. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for brass quartet the Westerlies with crooner Theo Bleckmann, but sometimes life takes you elsewhere…humming riffs from this shapeshifting crew which this time included Alden Helmuth on alto sax, Jasper Dutz and Jared Yee on tenor, Drew Vanderwinckel on baritone, Ben Seacrist and Michael Sarian on trumpets, Nick Grinder and Nathan Wood on trombones, Jennifer Wharton on tuba, Kiho Yutaka and Dorothy Kim on violin, Will Marshall on viola, Sasha Ono on cello, Eitan Kenner on electric piano, Steven Rogers on guitar, Adam Neely on bass and Dani Danor on drums.

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.

The NYChillharmonic Bring Their Mighty, Lush Sound to Gowanus

The NYChillharmonic are one of this city’s most massive-sounding, original, deliciously uncategorizable groups. They’re basically a rock band, but with a seventeen-piece big band jazz lineup including brass, reeds and a string section along with the usual rock instrumentation. You could also call them a jazz band playing rock, which is true at least in the sense that everybody in the group comes from a jazz background, and that their leader, singer/composer/multi-keyboardist Sara McDonald got her start in the New School’s jazz program. They connect the dots between My Brightest Diamond, Missy Mazzoli and Gil Evans, and they’re playing Littlefield tonight at around 11, with exuberant, New Orleans-tinged soul/gospel/jazz crew Sammy Miller and the Congregation opening at around 10. Cover is $10.

Their most recent show here was their Lincoln Center debut, back in December. They opened their set with a leaping, looping hook that quickly gave way to a mighty, stalking Vegas tango-tinged verse and then slunk toward reggae. The song eventually wound down to a blue-flame suspense. McDonald began the next number with a suspenseful, allusively minimalist Radiohead-inflected piano/vocal intro around one of those circling riffs she love so much, the band working their way into a brooding soul-tinged atmosphere, low brass rising ominously beneath lithely dancing orchestration.

They picked up the pace with a brisk staccato pulse, once again building the suspense as the lush, balmy sonics rose behind McDonald’s cool, nuanced, somewhat enigmatic delivery. The slinky ba-ba, BUMP minor-key groove of the achingly catchy number after that took the group back in a noir soul direction, echoes of both Amy Winehouse and Abbey Road-era Beatles mingling with majestic harmonies that spanned the entire sonic spectrum – and then a droll trick ending from the string section.

Rippling, rapidfire piano opened the next number, the orchestra rising to a blustery, uneasy intensity and then falling back to McDonald’s low-key, distantly soul-infused vocals over a groove that seemed to want to cut loose from trip-hop to a fullscale gallop and then finally went dancing. After that, the group mashed up misterioso Blonde Redhead nocturnalisms with a woozy hip-hop/stoner neosoul vibe, a punchy tenor sax solo giving way to twinkling starlit ambience, then McDonald took it up again. The group wound up the show with bittersweet, dynamically shifting update on artsy 60s Burt Bacharach pop and then a bone-jarring dancefloor stomp. Much as the atrium’s boomy sonics are hardly suited to a mighty ensemble like this, it was impossible not to be swept up in the expanse of sound.

Out in front of the band, Illinois transplant McDonald was in particularly gregarious mode. Her lyrics channel the kind of pervasive restlessness you would expect from someone in her twenties in this city in this decade: buildings keep coming down, neighborhoods keep getting wiped out and the hours keep getting longer just to pay the rent. She didn’t address any of those topics, but she might as well have.