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No New Abnormal

Tag: peter Hess clarinet

Art and Craft – A Deviously Entertaining Documentary with a Killer Soundtrack

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s sister blog, which frequently covers film, art and other events besides music]

The tagline for the film Art and Craft is “What’s it like to catch a fake?” The front page of the film’s promo site shows notorious art forger Mark Landis walking, dejectedly hunched, away from the camera, away from his late mother’s red Cadillac, a vehicle that’s part and parcel of the cover for his dubious activities. Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman’s delightfully devious, provocative documentary opens by following Landis as he dupes yet another one of the literally dozens of museum curators he’s been fooling for decades.

Landis operates in a grey area. The FBI elects not to prosecute, since he doesn’t sell his forgeries. Instead, he gives them away. His copies – mostly of more-or-less obscure works by regional American artists – are stashed away in the collections of dozens of museums across the country. Landis describes his work as “philanthropy,” although the gift of a fake Picasso is a gift horse at best – and puts the forger on the hot seat if the piece might be sold, or used as collateral. As becomes apparent early on, Landis is crazy – like a fox. Diagnosed as a schizophrenic and required to regularly check into his local mental health clinic – who, rather hilariously, don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of who he is – he seems content with being, as they say, “on the spectrum.”

The film is a clinic in “show, don’t tell” cinematography. Cullman and Grausman give the main participants plenty of screen time to explain themselves. Landis has a pity party going on, and it’s possible that he’s roped the filmmakers into his scheme (no spoilers here). As he explains, haltingly, he’s just a poor downtrodden weirdo whose only joy in life is the rush he gets when museum curators gush over him. To fortify himself on his expeditions, he carries jug wine in a milk of magnesia bottle: “I’m not going to drink this when I’m driving,” he sheepishly tells the camera. What everyone involved acknowledges, often grudgingly, is that Landis is a genuinely talented artist and illustrator. What’s hard to reconcile- and what everybody ends up asking him – is why he doesn’t simply do his own work. Landis weasels his way out of coming clean on that score.

His antagonist is Cincinnati curator Matthew Leininger, a tireless and rather tragic figure who ends up losing his job over his quest to put an end to Landis’ tricks – the art world seems to be united in their desire to avoid acknowledging that Landis, and others like him,  could ever puncture their airtight milieu. That might explain why the forger gets more time in the spotlight here than they do. Meanwhile, Leininger is relentless. In a stroke of incredible irony, the tug-of-war reaches an electrifying peak when Leininger becomes involved with curating the first-ever Mark Landis retrospective, probably the biggest single exhibition of fakes the art world has ever seen. Embattled but unbowed, Leininger makes for a very solitary hero. Meanwhile, the filmmakers give everybody else plenty of rope, sit back and watch the fun.

Stephen Ulrich‘s score is another reason to see the film: as purist noir theme and variations, it ranks with the best work of Bernard Herrmann, John Barry or Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch scores. It deserves a release as a stand-alone recording. It’s Lynchian in the purest sense of the word, a series of very simple, very poignant themes and variations that perfectly match the cat-and-mouse game as it unwinds. Ulrich – who leads cult favorite noir instrumental trio Big Lazy – plays guitar, backed by an ensemble of A-list downtown New York types including Mick Rossi on keys, Andrew Hall on bass, Dean Sharenow on drums, plus strings and brass. Peter Hess’ moody bass clarinet gets some of the juiciest, most noir moments as the group moves with a brooding meticulousness through jaunty if uneasy swing jazz, bittersweet pastorales, furtive highway tableaux and the occasional detour into the raw, reverbtoned horror that Ulrich has mined so effectively throughout a career as one of the most distinctive composers in film music. Ulrich never allows a sense of resolution, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions, just as the filmmakers do with their narrative.

The film is currently held over in New York and Los Angeles and is screening nationally: the complete list of theatres is here.

A Haunting Exploration of the WWII Underground Resistance from Barbez

Brooklyn instrumentalists Barbez are one of the world’s great art-rock bands. Guitarist/frontman Dan Kaufman blends reeds, strings, vibraphone and theremin into his frequently haunting, sometimes austere, sometimes frenetic, historically-informed, Old World European-influenced songs. Their previous album, Force of Light, set death-obsessed poems by Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan to music. They’ve got a new album, Bella Ciao, inspired by the unique sounds of Roman Jewish music and the bravery of the Italian underground against the Nazis in World War II. They’ve also got a show coming up on May 22 at around 10 at Trans-Pecos (the old Silent Barn space), 915 Wykoff Ave. in Ridgewood, L train to Halsey St.; cover is $10.

The new album – recorded and mixed by dark rock maven Martin Bisi – is a suite, a brooding, wounded, cinematic theme and variations. It opens and quickly builds to a propulsive, trickily rhythmic, darkly bustling overture over Peter Lettre’s tightly looping bass and the tumbling drums of Sway Machinery’s John Bollinger (whose echoey, terse clusters throughout this album drive the menace factor through the roof). The second track juxtaposes Peter Hess’ insistent clarinet and Danny Tunick’s vibraphone within a wistful waltz that builds to a gallop and then back.

Kaufman’s creepy tremolo guitar fuels the third track, morphing out of dub-inflected noir ambience to a lushly marching sway that evokes Big Lazy with orchestration. On the following cut, Fiona Templeton narrates an English translation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini poem The Resistance and Its Light over a soaring backdrop to illustrate an angst-ridden hope-against-hope theme. Then she does the same with Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, on Mizmor Leasaf, the eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir piece that’s the high point of the album.

After a brief, austere vocal interlude, Kaufman deftly builds a Twin Peaksian theme out of Lettre’s ominous introductory chromatics on Keter Ittenu, then does the same, building to a frantic punk pulse and then pulling back, on Kamti Beashmoret. The title track, a new arrangement of the famous Italian WWII resistance anthem – sung by Templeton in its original Italian – sets a trickly rhythmic verse up against soaringly waltzing choruses fueled by Catherine McRae’s violin and Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin, then a hypnotically psychedelic interlude. The narrative reaches a peak with Umevi Goel, rising from a brooding violin/clarinet passage to an understated danse macabre, Bollinger’s ominous rumble fueling its many dynamic shifts. -The album ends with a sad, rainy-day violin-and-piano duet, a vivid after-battle scenario. This plaintive, evocative masterpiece might well be the high point of the band’s career; watching them evolve since their begininngs in the late 90s mining a stylized Tom Waits vibe has been a lot of fun. And they’re just as good live as they are on album.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes: Best Single-Band Concert of 2012

Friday night at Barbes, the back room was packed. Some of the crowd swayed, lost in the menacing grooves that echoed from Ulrich Ziegler’s amps, while other people responded with more obvious enthusiasm. This was a diverse bunch: that they were all entranced by this band’s hypnotically pulsing noir soundscapes is a welcome reminder that there still is an audience for dark sounds in a city increasingly decked out in simpering pastel shades.

Over the last five years or so in this project, Itamar Ziegler has gone from apprentice to sorcerer. The Pink Noise guitarist carried most of the lead melodies – such that there were distinct leads – digging in hard as the reverb resounded from his amp in tandem with his guitarist pal, Stephen Ulrich, the noted film composer and heir to the Bernard Herrmann noir soundtrack legacy. And who knew Ziegler was such a great bass player? The first number he played four-string on was a lickety-split, bustling tune that built to a screaming crescendo capped by one-man woodwind section Peter Hess’ shivery, shuddering, sustained clarinet lines. Ulrich delivered more softly screaming, minutely tremolo-picked lines as the organ’s funereal tones swirled and dipped over Wave Sleep Wave drummer Yuval Lion’s tense pulse. It seemed that these guys had come to kill – literally.

Ulrich had a memorable run as the leader of Big Lazy, arguably the world’s best and darkest instrumental rock band for a good ten years starting in the mid-90s. Since then, he’s collaborated with Sway Machinery’s Jeremiah Lockwood and written all sorts of film scores for PBS and others. Which put this project on the back burner, at least as far as live performance is concerned, until recently. They’ve got a new album just out and played several tracks from it. The highlight of the night was a macabre waltz driven by a cruel marionette theme, Ulrich’s spiky slashes contrasting with Hess’ pensively atmospheric flute, building to a toxic mist of organ, bass clarinet and guitars. Or, it could have been the lickety-split Tickled to Death, equal parts 4 AM urban drizzle, southwestern gothic and warped latin groove. The most morbid of all the song was another absolutely morose, haunting waltz, Ulrich’s endlessly meticulously, surgical tremolo-picking anchoring Hess’ tensely suspenseful flute and Ziegler’s menacingly direct lead lines.

A Bill Frisell-ish grey-sky tableau quickly got dragged deeper into the shadows, cleverly concealing its simple, innocent, underlying 60s pop riff. Then they got quieter and more jazzy, swinging into 7/4 time. They closed their first set with a hypnotic, bitterly sad vamp that Ulrich sardonically predicted would clear the room. But it didn’t, and those who stayed were rewarded with brooding close harmonies, murky bass clarinet and a theme that morphed into a Russian dirge of sorts before retreating to its earlier angst and alienation. And for all the darkness, there were all sorts of deviously humorous touches. The organist delivered quietly bone-rattling percussion on woodblock and syndrums on a handful of songs, Hess swooped and dove when least expected, and Ulrich tuned down his Les Paul a la Alvin Lee at the end of the Frisell-ish number. Other than Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin a couple of weeks ago, there hasn’t been such a darkly engrossing show in this town in a long time.

Slavic Soul Party’s New York Underground Tapes: Intense As Always

As usual, the corporate media gets it all wrong. Brooklyn isn’t about Bushwick blog-rock. That’s a tiny clique of one-percenters who don’t really care much about music, anyway: their thing is all about fashion, and memes, and pseudo-celebrity. And much as music in Brooklyn may have become completely balkanized, there are innumerable small, self-sustaining scenes that continue to flourish just under the radar: country music, oldtime string bands, hip-hop, bachata and not ironically, Balkan music. Brooklyn’s best-loved Balkan export, Slavic Soul Party continue their Tuesday night 9 PM residency at Barbes when they’re not playing much larger clubs around the world. For those who might take this mighty, funky, genre-smashing nine-man brass band for granted, they’ve got a new album out appropriately titled The New York Underground Tapes. A little earlier this year their fellow Brooklynites Raya Brass Band put out a phenomenal album, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders and this is just as good.

How is it that this music, with its tricky tempos and frequently menacing microtonalities, has become so popular? Maybe because it’s so good! It’s about time the rest of the world caught up with what the Serbians and Macedonians and the rest of the people in the former Eastern Bloc have known for centuries. But what Slavic Soul Party does isn’t just traditional songs. Over the last couple of years, they’ve been mixing Balkan brass music with James Brown, adding hip-hop flavor and poking fun at techno; this new album is just as eclectic. The opening track, Jackson, is typical: punchy, bluesy soul trumpet over a Balkan hook, a mesh of biting close harmonies, a blazing bop jazz trumpet solo and finally Peter Stan switching from his accordion to organ to add subtle, staccato textures on the way out. And it gets better from there.

Ominous low swells anchor the rapidfire microtones of the horns on Sing Sing Cocek, with an unexpected thematic change mid-song. Brasslands – a pun on Glasslands, the unairconditioned Williamsburg sweatbox venue, maybe? – sounds like a Serbian brass band taking a stab at a Mexican folk song, while the aptly titled Romp begins with fast waves of accordion over a suspensefully stalking tune and then goes into brisk gypsy swing. Bass drummer Matt Moran’s arrangement of Draganin Cocek is one of the best songs of the year: it’s looser and more dangerous than anything else here, with dark, Arabic-tinged hooks, a tensely smoldering Matt Musselman trombone solo and a lushly delicious crescendo. It’s a song without words, basically – where is their sometime frontwoman Eva Salina Primack when they need her?

Who is Walter Hurley? There’s a band director at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland with that name, and if this song is about that guy, he’s kind of funny – the tune begins as a caricature and almost imperceptibly shifts back to the minor-key intensity of the rest of the album. Clarinetist Peter Hess kicks off his composition Ahmet Gankino, jamming out the highs over suspensefully pulsing lows, eventually building to a shivery, pulsing call-and-response with joyous syncopated low brass, followed eventually by a machine-gun accordion solo. It’s a bigtime party anthem – as are all these songs, for that matter, no surprise considering that what they’re playing is dance music.

There are three more tracks here. The brief Alcohol to Arms, by Moran, has fun with an action movie theme. Underneath all the stabbing, there’s a balmy ballad underneath Moran’s arrangement of the traditional tune Zvonce. The whole band – besides Stan, Moran, Musselman and Hess, there’s John Carlson and Kenny Warren on trumpet and truba, Tim Vaughn on trombone, Chris Stomquist on snare and percussion and Ron Caswell on tuba – tackles a brutally difficult, pinpoint-precise staccato arrangement and makes it seem effortless. The album closes with Jonas Muller’s clever Last Man Standing, the whole band having fun portraying a drunk guy as he staggers and slurs and tries to keep up with the tune. Beside the usual digital formats, the band also recorded a song on a wax cylinder in case you have ten grand to burn. Calling all Bushwick bloggers!

Slavic Soul Party are at the Jewish Museum this Wednesday, July 19 at 7:30 PM; $15 ($12 for students) gets you in plus open wine/beer bar plus free kosher ice cream.