New York Music Daily

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Tag: peter hess sax

Surreal, Entertaining, Strangely Cinematic Themes on Curtis Hasselbring’s New Album

Curtis Hasselbring may be best known as one of the mostly highly sought-after trombonists in the New York jazz scene, but he also plays a lot of other instruments. As a guitarist, he has a very distinctive, jagged style and impeccable taste in late 70s/early 80s postpunk and new wave. He’s been involved with innumerable projects over the years, but his most psychedelic one is Curha, his mostly one-man band. Hasselbring’s music has always been defined by his sense of humor, but this is where you’ll find some of his funniest songs. The brand-new Curha II album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Casa Grande is a tongue-in-cheek surf tune with neatly intertwining guitars and keening funeral organ, Dan Reiser supplying a low-key beach-party beat. He sticks around for the second track, Togar, an outer-space Motown theme, guest guitarist Brandon Seabrook mimicking the squiggle of the keys.

Hasselbring keeps the sci-fi sonics going in Sick of Ants!: listen closely to the watery guitar and you’ll catch his appreciation for the late, great John McGeoch of Siouxsie & the Banshees and PiL. How airy is Blimp Enthusiast, a rare vocal number? Not particularly, but this quasi trip-hop song is very funny.

The blippy Blaster comes across as a motorik tv theme on whippits. With its loopy low-register piano and clip-clop beats, Soap makes even less sense until Peter Hess’ bass clarinet ushers in a somber mood for a second. Hasselbring’s trombone appears distinctly for the first time in Murgatroid, a clever mashup of 70s disco, outer-space theme and early new wave.

With its intricately dancing web of guitar multitracks, the rather disquieting MMS has echoes of early 80s Robert Fripp; then Hasselbring takes it further toward acid jazz. He goes back to lo-fi motorik minimalism with Totally Hired, then shifts toward spare, 90s electro-lounge with History of Vistas.

He closes the album with the coyly tiptoeing Her Pebble Fusion and then Blown Bubble Blues, which is kind of obvious but irresistibly fun. Hip-hop artists in need of far-out samples need look no further. You don’t have to be high to enjoy this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Big Lazy Bring Their Sinister, Slinky Noir Grooves Back to Barbes

Noir instrumental trio Big Lazy‘s two sold-out album release shows at the American Can Company building in Gowanus late last year were completely different. For a group whose usual sonic palette is a magically detailed but typically grim greyscale, that was unexpected – and obviously influenced by some devastatingly sad circumstances.

Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the previous night. Only a few hours before the first show, he’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her at her bedside – and the group, who typically don’t play many covers, reprised that with a gently starry, expansive instrumental take featuring Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein on trumpet. As far as emotional ironman performances go, this was right up there with Exene Cervenka’s gig the night her sister was killed in a car crash. Word spread throughout the venue; nobody knew how to react. Yet the pall over the space lifted as the band went on and played two long sets, the crowd hanging on every creepy chromatic and wry bent note. If there ever was proof of love being stronger than death, this was it.

The second night’s two sets were more boisterous. The Onliest, the desolately loping theme that opens the band’s latest album Dear Trouble, was especially dusky and spare the first time, but the group gave it a more sinisterly windswept take the second time around. There were unexpected treats from deep in the band’s catalog: the hammering Human Sacrifice, like Link Wray doing the Mission Impossible theme, on night two, and the gleefully macabre Skinless Boneless on night one. Bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion also dug in and cut loose more, the former finally indulging the crowd with a slap-happy rockabilly solo late Saturday night during a full-throttle, rat-a-tat take of Princess Nicotine.

The special guests fit seamlessly with the music: it was as if they were a regular part of the band. Miramar organist Marlysse Rose Simmons, with her funereal tremolo and murderously slinky riffs, completely gets this music. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess, of Slavic Soul Party, added extra smoke on the low end. Bernstein provided disquieting animation on the highs, particularly when he picked up his slide trumpet for all sorts of bloody slashes and smears. And the guitar interplay between Ulrich and Marc Ribot, particularly on Ramona, a brooding quasi-bolero, had an especially bittersweet, saturnine depth.

Big Lazy return to their monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Jan 24 at 10 PM on the year’s best twinbill so far: ageless. Rapturous Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his amazing band with Adam Good on oud open the night at 8. If you’re on the fence, you should know that this will be Big Lazy’s last Barbes gig for a couple of months. Although they’ve been playing around town more lately, they’re at their peak at what has been their home turf for the last six years.

Yet Another Brilliant, Shadowy Album and a Gowanus Release Show From Noir Instrumental Icons Big Lazy

Big Lazy are the world’s most menacingly cinematic instrumental trio. They’re also the world’s darkest jamband, one of Brooklyn’s most popular dance bands…and they keep putting out brilliant albums. The cover of their long-awaited new one, Dear Trouble (streaming at youtube) has a 1972 Ford Country Squire station wagon off to the side of a desolate road somewhere in the midwest, facing a tower along the powerline as the clouds linger and the sun sets. That says a lot. They’re playing the album release show this Nov 8-9 at 8 PM at the old American Can Company building at 232 3rd St. in Gowanus. Night one is sold out, but night two isn’t yet; you can get in for $20. They’ll be joined by three of the special guests on the record: Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Slavic Soul Party’s Peter Hess on saxes and Miramar’s Farfisa sorceress Marlysse Rose Simmons. Take the F or the R to 4th Ave/9th St.

Interestingly, this turns out to be the band’s quietest, most desolate album. It begins with The Onliest, a loping, skeletal theme slinking along on Andrew Hall’s hypnotically bluesy bassline. They hit an interlude bristling with bandleader/guitarist Steve Ulrich’s signature, macabre chromatics, then eventually a false ending. It’s a good introduction to where the band are at now: there are echoes of horror surf, Angelo Badalementi David Lynch soundtracks, Thelonious Monk and Booker T. & the MGs in the rhythm, although Big Lazy’s sound is inimitably their own.

The album’s title track has Ulrich’s melancholy, resonant lead over a sardonically strutting blend of Nino Rota tinged with early 60s pop: if Tredici Bacci wanted to get really dark, they might sound like this. As is the case with so much of Ulrich’s catalog, the song takes on many different shapes, textures and guitar timbres and winds up far from where it started.

Ramona, with dubby accents from Simmons organ, is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well. Cardboard Man features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet.

Sizzle & Pops – referring to the imaginary roadhouse that Ulrich and his wife would be running in an alternate universe – is a rare moment of straight-up levity for this band, part Booker T, part pseudo Bill Black Combo 50s cheese. Bernstein adds distantly muted New Orleans flavor, both jaundiced and jubilant, on the group’s cover of the Beatles’ Girl: who knew what an ineffably sad song this was!

Drummer Yuval Lion takes the loose-limbed slink of the opening number and raises it several notches with his flurries in Dream Factory as Hall runs another trancey blues bassline, Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows. Consider how the title of Cheap Crude could mean many things, and its sardonic rockabilly makes even more sense.

Exit Tucson, another tense, morose quasi-bolero, has all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and long, forlornly shuffling solo. The arguably even more gloomy Fly Paper has a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel and furtive guitar multitracks: with its trick ending, it’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs here.

Ribot returns for Mr. Wrong, a disquietingly syncopted stroll: it’s amazingly how chameleonic yet grimly on task both he and Ulrich are here. The album’s final cut is Sing Sing, Peter Hess’ baritone sax adding extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones.

Ulrich and Big Lazy are no strangers to the best albums of the year page here. He took first place back in 2012 for the Ulrich Ziegler record, a quasi-Big Lazy album with guitarist/bassist Itamar Ziegler, which turned out to be a one-off project before he reformed the group.. And Big Lazy’s big comeback album, Don’t Cross Myrtle, was #1 with a bullet for 2014. As far as 2019 is concerned, no spoilers, check back here at the end of December…

A Fourth of July Show Worth Celebrating at Barbes

This was not a year to celebrate the Fourth of July with any kind of American pageantry. There were a few people in the crowd at Barbes who’d deliberately decided to opt out of visual fireworks for musical ones, but otherwise there was no political subtext to a wildly energetic triplebill of New Orleans swing and Balkan brass sounds that ran the gamut from the most trad to the craziest avant garde.

Saxophonist Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses had played Central Park over the weekend with a couple of popular New York acts: from this performance, putting them first on that bill must have raised the bar impossibly high. Much as the hurricane and the forced exodus  out afterward did a number on the Crescent City’s indigenous jazz population – developers have been scheming to depopulate New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods for years – it’s still a hotbed for jazz, if a lot less creole than it used to be. The Royal Roses represented that tradition and schooled us all, through two deliriously swinging sets.

Barbes tends to draw a lot of bands who are used to much bigger venues, and this group was no exception: it was impossible to get into the music room until very late in the second set. A lot of what they played could be called dixieland noir. There was volley after volley of soprano sax/trombone interplay and counterpoint, but it was dark and edgy, and tight beyond belief. Piano and guitar made spiky appearances out in front on a handful of numbers, and it wasn’t all just lickety-split dance music, either. As the band built steam in the second set, there were also a handful of clenched-teeth massed climbs up the scale, part Anthony Braxton largescale improvisation and part horror film soundtrack. This contrasted with Nealand’s close-to-the-vest charm on the mic: as much as she’s a pyrotechnic reed player, she sings with a lot of nuance.

Slavic Soul Party, who’ve mashed up Balkan brass music with everything from hip-hop to Ellington jazz suites over the years, weren’t available for their usual Tuesday night 9 PM residency, but there were members in the house. And it was awfully cool to be able to catch a rare appearance by Veveritse Brass Band. “I saw them on some random night at the Jalopy, years ago, and they blew me away,” enthused a brunette beauty at the bar.

She wasn’t kidding. An eight-piece version of the band shook off the rust and a rocky start to bring back fond memories of a Serbia of the mind circa 2009 or thereabouts, when the band was a regular draw on the Barbes/Jalopy circuit. Tricky tempos? Minor keys? Chromatics and microtones to rival seasoned Serbian or Egyptian brass players? Check, check, check. Alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie whirled in, unpacked her horn and fired off the most deliciously slithery solo of the night, not missing a beat. Finally, de facto bandleader and baritone horn player Quince Marcum took a similarly valve-twisting microtonal solo of his own.

The night came full circle with an enveloping, otherworldly and eventually feral set by the Mountain Lions, billed originally as the duo of baritone saxophonist Peter Hess and standup drummer Matt Moran. Maybe this was planned, maybe not, but it ended up with Hess playing achingly intense, minutely fluctuating melody over a slow, funereal beat, several horns massed behind him and playing a drone. The result was as psychedelic as anything played on any stage in New York this year – and a pretty spectacular display of circular breathing and extended technique. Then the group loosened up, Raya Brass Band’s Greg Squared lit into one of his supersonically precise, pyrotechnic solos and the band got their feet planted back in Sarajevo or Guca or somewhere like that, in the here and now.

Word on the street is that Slavic Soul Party will have everybody back in town by August for their Tuesday night Barbes residency. In the meantime, this month, their absence opens up the late slot for a lot of great music- check the Barbes calendar or just stop by the bar if you’re in the hood. This coming Tuesday, July 11 at 7 PM lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club open the night at 7, playing songs inspired by Steve Martin.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Unmasking Steve Ulrich’s Mysterious, Murderously Fun Barbes Residency This Month

An icy, lingering tritone reverberated from Steve Ulrich’s 1955 Gretsch. “We end everything with this chord,” this era’s most esteemed noir guitarist joked. His long-running trio Big Lazy have been his main vehicle for suspense film themes, uneasy big-sky pastorales and menacing crime jazz narratives, but this month he’s playing a weekly 6 PM Saturday evening residency at Barbes to air out some of his more recent and also more obscure film work from over the years. This past Saturday he was joined by Peter Hess of Balkan Beat Box (who have a characteristically fun new album due out soon) on baritone sax and flute as well as a rhythm section. The final installment of this month’s residency is at 6 on March 25 and will feature Ulrich’s frequent collaborator, guitarist Mamie Minch, who will be playing her own scores to accompany a screening of Russell Scholl’s edgy experimental films.

At this past Saturday’s show, the quartet opened with Dusk, by Sandcatchers, “One of those tunes I’d wished I’d written the moment I heard it,” Ulrich revealed. Lonesome trainwhistle lapsteel bookended a melancholy, aptly saturnine waltz with exchanges of steel and baritone sax. They followed with an enigmatically chromatic, reggaeish new Ulrich original, just guitar, bass and drums. Echoes of 70s Peruvian psychedelic cumbia filtered through the mix, leading to a wry, descending solo by bassist Michael Bates. It was sort of the reverse image of the popular early zeros Big Lazy single Mysteries of the Deep.

From there the rhythm section launched into an altered bolero sway, Ulrich making his way through spikily strolling phrases and elegant descending clusters of jazz chords, down to an exploratory sax solo. Then Hess raised the energy to just short of redline: the dynamic wallop was visceral.

The one Big Lazy tune in the set turned out to have been inspired by Raymond Scott’s madcap Loony Tunes cartoon scores: “It’s pretty crazy,” Ulrich admitted. At its innermost core, it was a creepy bolero, but with a practically hardcore beat and a relentlessly tense interweave of sax and guitar, Ulrich and Hess a pair of snipers dueling at a distance.

Another new number, In the Bones was originally titled Lost Luggage, Ulrich revealed. A slowly unwinding, shapeshifting theme, it followed an emotional trajectory that slowly shifted from stunned shock to mournful acceptance. From there, the four made their way through a creepy cover of the Beatles’ Girl, packed with tongue-in-cheek Ellington quotes, then a murderously slinky instrumental take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me

Awash in a long series of bittersweet Americana riffs, a new ballad, Sister, was dedicated to Minch. Her music is more overtly blues based, but it’s as dark and deep as Ulrich’s: this was an insightful portrait. Ulrich sent the band offstage and then played a solo take of Latin Quarter, from Big Lazy’s 1996 debut ep. He explained that it was originally conceived as a mashup of salsa jazz and ghoulabilly – and that the gorgeous gold Gretsch he was playing it on had been a gift many years ago from a fellow swimmer at the Greenpoint YMCA. The guitarist’s shock at his poolmate’s generosity was mitigated somewhat when he discovered that its serial number had been sanded off.

Hess switched to flute for the title theme from Ulrich’s latest film score, a slyly surreal Asian-flavored 60s psychedelic rock tune, part Morricone, part Dengue Fever and part Ventures spacerock. He wound up the set with a single, droll verse of Sizzle and Pops, the name of the imaginary lounge duo with his wife. “You can guess who’s who,” Ulrich told the crowd. Charming 1930s/40s French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins played after – more about that one a little later. Good news for film music fans from outside the neighborhood who want to catch the final night of Ulrich’s residency: both the F and G trains are running to Park Slope this coming weekend

The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

This Saturday, January 24: A Great Night for Noir

This Saturday night, Jan 24 is a good one for noir music. At 7 PM LJ Murphy and his band the Accomplices are slumming at Sidewalk, bringing the nattily dressed, charismatic songwriter’s menacing urban narratives to life over careening, darkly bluesy rock. Then at 10 Big Lazy, New York’s preeminent noir instrumentalists for the past couple of decades, are headlining at Barbes. What’s the likelihood of being able to see two band this good on the same evening? Nights like this are why we live in New York. This blog’s covering both shows. No need to sign up or meet up or anything, just come along for the ride.

Big Lazy’s latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle (a cautionary deep-Brooklyn reference) was ranked best album of 2014 here: it’s an absolute masterpiece of noir. Bandleader/guitarist Stephen Ulrich hit a high point with his soundtrack to the documentary film Art & Craft last year, then kept going with this one. At the album release show late in the year at the Manderley Bar in the Sleep No More building in Chelsea, the band was a little low in the mix, something that won’t be a problem at Barbes. But they didn’t let it phase them, turning in a performance that matched the haunted mood they created in the studio. Bassist Andrew Hall (who also happens to be first chair bass in the Greenwich Village Orchestra) opened the stygian waltz Swampesque with pitchblende bowing before Ulrich entered with a wash of shivery, ultraviolet reverb. Deep in its black heart, the song’s a blues, a twisted, monstrous one.

Drummer Yuval Lion kicked off the frantic Just Plain Scared, a big crowd-pleaser from right around the turn of the century, with a suspensefully tense gallop until Ulrich came in with his lingering, ominous phrasing, part downtown jazz skronk, part Bernard Herrmann. Then Hall took a verse and took it even further into the depths before Ulrich wrenched the band onto the express track for a harrowing ride to the end of the line. In much the same vein as Marc Ribot‘s noir soundtrack pieces, the band built Black Sheep out of a seemingly innocuous phrase of the utmost simplicity, then took it on a stroll through uneasily pastoral, Bill Frisell-ish territory.

They staggered through the tricky tempos of Avenue X, a shadowy, chromatically menacing original that Ulrich took his time with, finally reaching for the rafters with some hacksaw tremolo-picking. He went off on a more digressive, rather sardonic tangent on the loping highway theme The Low Way, then led the band through the mysterious improvabilly of Night Must Fall with his clusterbombing, reverb-drenched attack.

Charlie Giordano of Bruce Springsteen’s band guested on accordion on a plaintively swirling take of Unswerving, a slowly swaying lament. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess – of Slavic Soul Party, and a frequent Big Lazy collaborator – joined them on the sepulchrally dubby Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin. Then the band’s original drummer Willie Martinez took a turn on creepy congas on the new album’s opening track, Minor Problem. They closed with arguably the most menacing, slowly stalking number of the night, Skinless Boneless, followed by the Link Wray-tinged Human Sacrifice. It’ll be interesting to see who they might pull out of the woodwork for a guest appearance at the Barbes show – last time here it was Mamie Minch, putting a twisted spin on Patsy Cline.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.