New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: political music

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

The Resistance Revival Chorus Sing a Fiery, Fearless Benefit for Immigrant Rights

When the Resistance Revival Chorus hit the stage Tuesday night for the first of their rousing, oldschool gospel-style protest songs, there seemed to be about two dozen women in the group. By the time the show ended, individual choir members and special guests treating a sold-out crowd at City Winery to a tantalizing series of cameos, it seemed that the size of the chorus had doubled. Are they New York’s largest ensemble? At the rate they’re growing, they will be, and in the current political climate it’s not going to take long.

Much as booking a group with a ton of people in it is a surefire way to pack a club, there’s never been more of an audience for protest music. The chorus had put together a short video to kick off the show, tracing the history and profound influence of protest songs on this continent from field hollers and back-to-Africa anthems thinly disguised as Christian hymns, all the way to hip-hop.

There was a little bit of that, but most of the material was songs that drew on decades of soul music. And this was as much of a populist rally as concert. Three of the group’s founding members were organizers of the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year. They’re also affiliated with many pro-democracy and advocacy groups including Communities for Change and pro-immigrant organizations working under that umbrella. A couple of group leaders took the stage midway through the show and delivered a defiant, grimly entertaining bilingual English-Spanish account of the perils of being an undocumented immigrant, even in a so-called sanctuary city.

Laurie Anderson’s cameo was the funniest, with a bit of droll, satirical faux-autotune pop and a story about narrowly sidestepping what could have been a grisly stage mishap bookending a communal scream. The artist who got the crowd to scream even louder was Amy Leon, who otherwise held everybody rapt with her fearless, individualistic, witheringly acerbic blend of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and what might be called avant garde soul. She picked up where Simone left off with a misterioso take of Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and added her own scathingly insightful commentary on coping with white supremacy: things haven’t changed all that much in half a century.

Nigerian-American songstress Ayo – who has an album release show coming up at Drom this Dec 20 at 9:30 -,led her trio through a couple of spare, withering roots reggae tunes dealing with the murder of young black men at the hands of the police, and resistance in general. Trixie Whitley reached for similarly hypnotic ambience with a single psychedelic folk-blues number, solo on electric guitar. And a smaller subset of the choir got the crowd bouncing to their intricate interweave of voices, from Sam Cooke to classic gospel.

The catchiest of all the songs might have been the two by singer Alba Ponce De Leon and her band the Mighty Lions. The latin soul diptych they opened with veered into psychedelic Chicano Batman territory, then they raised the roof with the big, funky vintage-style soul anthem Love Army, which as the bandleader said, needed no explanation.

At one point, the chorus situated themselves throughout the room, for a neat stereo effect. At the end of the show, the whole crew finally made it onto the stage for a soaring, imperturbable take of their big youtube hit Under My Feet, where the narrative starts out at the rich man’s house and ends up at the White House speaking truth to power. And as one of the chorus’ founders reminded, their next performance may be at a rally or with a flashmob if it’s not at City Winery, which has become their home base. Pick an issue, find an advocacy group and then go out and represent – how ironic that at this point in history, we’ve never had so many to choose from.

In 2017, Every Day Is Halloween

Today’s Halloween track is Mike Rimbaud’s Midnight in America. It’s a slinky, vamping, funk-tinged psychedelic broadside that throws an appreciative not back at Gil Scott-Heron. “Nuclear codes for the game-show host, got his middle finger on the trigger…no protest, no privacy, wake up America!” The reference to that famously satanic Stones riff couldn’t be more spot-on. 

Dawn Oberg’s Nothing Rhymes With Orange: 2017’s Funniest Political Album

What’s more Halloweenish than Putin’s little bitch in the Oval Office? That’s what Dawn Oberg calls him in the scathingly hilarious, Beatlesque parlor-pop title track of her new ep, Nothing Rhymes with Orange. It’s streaming at Bandcamp, and she’s making a relatively rare New York appearance at 2:45 PM at Matchless in Williamsburg on Nov 12. Similarly lyrical, unpredictable, wickedly catchy keyboard-fueled art-rockers Changing Modes eventually follow later in the evening at 5:45; cover is $10.

Oberg is unsurpasssed at sardonically funny, insightful tunesmithing. With her sharp wit, erudite gospel-inspired piano chops and quirky vocals, she’s been pursuing her distinctive, literary parlor pop and artsy rock since the early zeros. She never met a good pun she could resist, and slings one of those after another at the failed casino magnate whose unlikely ascendancy to the one public office he’ll ever hold left the world in a state of shock and horror last November. Until the slow wheels of impeachment reach their inevitable destination, we have this record to soothe the burn.

Oberg’s band here includes Roger Rocha on guitar, Shawn Miller on bass, Erik Ian Walker on organ and Andrew Laubacher on drums. They shuflfle along with with Oberg’s tumbling piano and torrents of lyrics in Information Is Your Friend, a snide response to the deluge of fake news being sent out by the “tweeting twat” in the White House:

Someone smart said a long time ago, the truth will set you free
And it sucks I even have to say it, that I have to sing and play it…

That disillusion is echoed in I’d Love to Be Wrong, which alludes to Oberg’s classic breakup-as-earthquake anthem End of the Continent:

I see four guys on horses
The sky growing dark,
I can hear the rattle of chains
They ain’t coming to help us
Their hostages already slain

Oberg is no stranger to political satire, or irresistible jokes – her 2008 album is titled Horticulture Wars – but this is the funniest thing she’s ever done. And it’s reason to look forward to what she has to say when hubris catches up with that tweeting twat. Let’s just hope he doesn’t start a real war when he finally figures out that he bit off way too much more than he could chew.

Algiers’ Enigmatic New Album Looks at Current Day Perils Through a Glass, Darkly

Algiers are one of the world’s most individualistic, relevant bands. Their 2014 debut album was a grim, confrontational mashup of oldschool soul, new wave and postrock, with a fiery populist, anti-racist sensibility. Their latest release, The Underside of Power – streaming at Spotify – is more Sandinista than London Calling . It’s a jaggedly interconnected suite that owes as much to the 80s film scores of Brad Fiedel and RZA’s lavish 90s Wu-Tang Clan sample collages than it does to rock or soul music. Informed by the Black Lives Matter movement, hip-hop, oldschool gospel and Albert Camus, it demands repeated listenings. Like Joe Strummer, frontman Franklin James Fisher is a fiery vocalist but often obscured in the mix to the point where the repeat button is required. But it’s worth the effort. 

Fisher’s fervent gospel-influenced vocals rise over a trip-hop beat and Lee Tesche’s war videogame synth on the opaquely defiant opening track, Walk Like a Panther: Rev. Sekou meets Portishead. With its watery Siouxsie guitar, loopy backdrop and dark cinematic cloudbanks, Cry of the Martyrs gives Fisher a launching pad for fire-and-brimstone imagery with current-day resonance. The equally catchy title track, a hit in camo disguise, is dark Four Tops Motown through  prism of postrock: “t’s just a question of time before we fall fall down,” is the mantra.

Death Match blends Unknown Pleasures Joy Division with Depeche Mode darkwave, building an allusively apocalyptic scenario. With its toxic post-battle ambienceA Murmur a Sigh  echoes that gloom.

Ryan Mahan’s austerelly waltzing piano in Mme. Rieux – a reference to a minor character in Camus’ novel The Plague – adds Botanica plaintiveness to its towering Pink Floyd grandeur. A mashup of dark gospel and trip-hop, Cleveland is a fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem :

In Jackson Mississippi they don’t have to hide…
We’re coming back…
The hand that finds you behind and ties the the thirteen loops…

The question is who’s making the comeback here, the Klan, or the people? The answer is far from clear.

With its brisk motorik rhythm,  Animals is Wire crossed with the Bomb Squad  The band follows that with the slow, ominously atmospheric  instrumental Plague Years and then the broodingly crescendoing A Hymn For an Average Man, its horror movie piano loops setting the stage for mighty Floyd guitar crunch.

The echoey soundscape Bury Me Standing segues into the final cut, The Cycle the Spiral Time to Go Down Slowly, a pulsing noir soul song awash in sweeping war movie sonics. Spend some time with this album in the dark and then figure out where we’re going to go from here. 

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

Rob Garcia’s Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet: State-of-the-Art Jazz, 2016

Forget for a minute how few drummer composers have as much of a gift for melody as Rob Garcia. Or for that matter what an acerbic, smart lyricist he is. It’s impossible to imagine an album that more accurately captures the state of the world in 2016 better than his new release Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet. Isn’t that the challenge that pretty much everybody, other than the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons of the world, faces right now? Garcia’s critique is crushingly vivid, catchy as hell and just as erudite. He offers a nod back to the fearlessly political Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln civil rights-era collaborations, and has an aptitude for bustling Mingus-esque 50s noir. His first-class band includes Noah Preminger, a frequent collaborator (who has a killer new album of his own just out) on tenor sax, along with Gary Versace on piano and Masa Kamaguchi on bass, with Joe Lovano and Kate McGarry guesting on a couple of tracks each.

A cover of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer opens the album, pulsing on an uneasy triplet beat until Preminger’s crafty lead-in to Versace’s spirals sends it into genunely surreal doublespeed territory, a time-warping nocturne. People Are Everything, a similarly uneasy jazz waltz, has Kate McGarry’s austere, Britfolk-tinged vocals channeling a similar angst and a hope against hope. Time and time again, Garcia’s message is that we’re all in this together, that it’s our choice to either sink or swim isn’t one that future generations will have.

Preminger’s tightly unwinding spirals sax over Versace’s insistent, acerbic piano deliver a vivid update on 50s noir postbop in the almost cruelly catchy Terror, Fear and Media: Garcia’s own artully terse propulsion so tight with the rest of the rhythm section, ramping up a practically punishing, conspiratorial ambience. Those guys are just hell-bent on scaring the bejeezus out of us, aren’t they?

Joe Lovano guests on the languidly aching ballad Precious Lives with a wide-angle vibrato, Versace following with masterfully subtle, blues-infused variations before handing back to the sax. Actor Brendan Burke narrates Garcia’s rapidfire, spot-on critique Mac N Cheese (Bank Fees, Dead Bees, Killing Trees, Shooting Sprees, War Thieves, Mac N Cheese) ) over a broodingly tight Angelo Badalamenti noir beatnik swing groove, a crushingly cynical, spot-on Twin Peaks jazz broadside.. Garcia follows this with the first of two tightly wound solo breaks, Act Local #1

The album’s title track makes plaintively shifting postbop out of a simple, direct Afro-Cuban piano rifff, then takes the whole architecture skyward, a showcase for both Preminger and Versace to sizzle and spin; it has the epic ominousness of a recent Darcy James Argue work, Versace adding a carnivalesque menace. The Journey Is the Destination makes a return to furtively stalking straight-up swing with Lovano again, McGarry rising with a determination that stops short of triumphant: where this will all end up is far from clear.

Guns Make Killing Easy opens as a surrealistically creepy, upper-register piano-bass duet and the swings morosely as Versace leaps with a clenched-teeth, macabre intensity balanced on the low end by Garcia’s coldly inevitable groove, Preminger adding nebulous suspense as the whole thing starts to go haywire and then turns into a requiem.

A tight, enigmatic two-sax chart opens Greenland Is Turning Green, both Lovano and Preminger judiciously prowling around over the hard-charging rumble underneath. The second pastorale here, Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is reinvented as pensive mood piece, while Whatever Gets You By seems to offer a degree of hope with its flashy piano, bittersweet Preminger lines and tropical heat. The album winds up with a second solo Garcia piece, Act Local #2

Throughout the suiite, Garcia’s own impactful, tersely majestic riffs and rolls color the music with an often mutedly brooding thud, as coloristic as it is propulsive. You would hardly expect the best jazz album of 2016 to be written by a drummer, and it’s awfully early in the year to make that kind of choice. On the other hand, nobody’s going to release a more relevant or important – or tuneful – jazz album this year.

And at the album release show at Smalls this past at Smalls, Leo Genovese filled in for Versace, raising the tropical heat, yet with a more lighthanded approach, while Preminger shifted in and out of feral volleys of blues. And Garcia, whose signature sound is both one of the brightest and boomiest around – he uses every inch of the available sonic spectrum – reasserted himself as one of this era’s most colorful and uncompromising players, even taking a detour into a two-handed African talking drum conversation at one point. His next gig as a bandleader is on August 5 at 7:30 PM at Prospect Range, 1226 Prospect Ave. in Ditmas Park; take the F or G to Ft. Hamilton Parkway.

Jamie Kilstein Brings His Hilarious, Spot-On Spoofs and Fearless Political Rock to the East Village

Jamie Kilstein is the Jello Biafra of jamband rock. He’s fearless, he’s funny, and he calls bullshit on just about every every corporate-sponsored lie and right-wing myth out there. On one hand, making fun of Republicans is like shooting fish in a barrel. On the other, Kilstein’s critique goes far deeper than simply the horror-stricken thought that barring the unforeseen, Donald Trump will be our next President. Together with his Citizen Radio co-founder Allison Kilkenny, Kilstein has a new book, Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will. He’s also got a LMFAO debut album, A Bit Much – with his band the Agenda, streaming at Spotify – and a weekly Wednesday 6 PM residency this month at Sidewalk.

The greatest pitfall in writing political songs is that it’s easy to let yourself get strident, or doctrinaire, to start believing your own bullshit. Preaching to the converted never did anything to change the world: it’s the people beyond the amen choir that you have to reach, and Kilstein does it with the kind of machinegunning barrage of one-liners that he honed in standup comedy. He leaves no stone unturned, no target standing: the NRA, the banksters, racists dressed in both Klan garb and business suits all get the bozack. On one hand, Kilstein hardly sugarcoats anything: his jokes can be awfully grim. On the other hand, this isn’t just the funniest album of the year, it might be the funniest album of the last few years. And is it ever relevant. And even the music is good! Kilstein distinguishes himself as as funky and fluent guitarist, with a solid band – guitarist Nick Phaneuf, bassist Greg Glasson, drummer Joe Magistro and cellist Jane Scarpantoni – behind him.

There’s an amusing video of the album’s opening track, Fuck the NRA, up on the front page of Kilstein’s site.  Over a purposeful hard funk backdrop, Kilstein speedraps both sides of a hilarious if sadly accurate dialogue about gun violence: “The Constitution didn’t say shit about your using Glocks to mow down Black teenagers ‘cause you’re afraid of anything not wearing a Klan outfit…you’re Steven Segall in real life, have you ever seen that guy run in real life, it’s terrible!”

Tiny Humans is closer to Matthew Grimm doing a spoof of early 90s open-chord indie rock. On one level, it’s a black-humor response in defense of those of us who’ve chosen not to have kids. On the other hand, the subtext is that if we don’t get global warming under control, those of us of childrearing age will be the last old people on the planet…if we make it that far.

With the next track, War, Kilstein goes back to mile-a-minute spoken word over a blisteringly noisy psych-punk-metal backdrop, akin to Jello Biafra right after the Dead Kennedys got finished off by the PMRC. It’s a spot-on, sarcastic look at American exceptionalism and the demonization of Muslims. Like the two guys who, after the Boston bombing, got fingered by some idiot and subsequently pulled off a plane for speaking Arabic, which, as Kilstein puts it, “doesn’t sound like Blake Shelton lyrics.”

Every Country Song Ever makes fun of New Nashville warmongering: “I found freedom on 9/11, when the Iraqis flew into Tower 7 – I read it!” Kilstein’s befuddled narrator crows. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell takes a shot at homophobia, from the opposition to gay marriage, to Bible-bangers quoting scripture: it’s Kilstein at his quotable best, and there’s even a good bluesmetal guitar solo at the end.

The surprisingly subtle Nerd Love takes a poke at both cliched corporate singer-songwriters and film geeks. Scared White Boy Blues is even funnier as both anti-racist broadside and parody of lame white funk: the backing vocals are priceless. Kilstein returns to rapidfire spoken word over slinky no wave guitar with This Is NYC, which connects the dots between the sweatshop economy, gentrification and homelessness, among other issues. Then, with the swaying, Hendrix-inspired JFC, he goes after the anti-choice mob.

Catcall is pretty hilarious, a funky tune that offers karmic payback for would-be macho dudes who harass women. Kilstein ramps up the jokes about male insecurity with the savagely funny How Not to Be a Dick: “Male Presidents have bombed the shit out of the Middle East and don’t have their periods as an excuse – they’re just fucking sociopaths.” The final track is the suspiciously low-key Maniac, possibly a spoof of PC hippie pop.  Most comedy albums you hear once and that’s all you really need: this one stands up to repeated listening. It’s a good bet that Kilstein is twice as funny live.

Satoko Fujii Debuts Her Harrowingly Relevant Fukushima Suite in Brooklyn Last Night

Last night in Gowanus, I-Beam was packed to the point where it was impossible to get in the door for the debut performance of Satoko Fujii’s harrowing Fukushima suite. The iconic Japanese-born pianist/conductor explained beforehand that she wrote it not as a historical narrative but as an evocation of her own reactions to the March 11, 2011 nuclear catastrophe – and that it had taken her five years to process. After the show, she added that it was also an indictment of greed. Were all the recurring, chattering saxes and trombones of her Orchestra New York an evocation of conspiratorial Tepco boardroom conversations? Possibly. Fujii and her large ensemble – one of the most distinctive and memorable New York big band jazz units of the past couple decades – are recording this haggardly wrenching, angry, aggressively haunting four-part work today. Considering how much improvisation is Fujii’s stock in trade, even in a big band setting, it will be fascinating to compare the album with last night’s white-knuckle intensity.

The group opened not with a bang but with a whisper. A mist of white noise through reeds and valves becamed labored, suddenly anguished, then back again. up to a long, shrieking, terrified crescendo. As discernable melodies emerged, a handful of themes – a faux fanfare of sorts, a wistful Japanese folk tune and a couple of rather sardonic marches – recurred with variations, in between solo passages and a handful of artful pairings of instruments a la Darcy James Argue. Individual spots from saxes, trumpets and trombones were often tormented, sometimes frantic, juxtaposed with intermittent flashes of warmth and calm – and a couple of macabre Japanese heavy metal interludes fueled by Stomu Takeishi’s looming bass and Nels Cline’s savagely graceful, kinetically looped guitar riffage. In a couple of early moments, Ches Smith’s tersely slinking groove gave way to light electroacoustic percussive touches that seemed as sarcastic as they were comic relief.

The plaintive clarinet melody at the end seemed to offer closure, and a degree of hope. Asked afterward if this was meant to portray relief at seeing that the initial phase of the crisis, with its nightmarish plumes of smoke, was over, Fujii’s eyes widened. “Over?” she asked incredulously. “It’s NOT over!” Like the rest of the Japanese intelligentsia, she’s kept a close watch on what reliable information has leaked out about Fukushima – and she’s since relocated to Berlin. The official line about Fukushima is that the disaster is over and the lethal by-products have been more or less contained. The reality is that the containment vessel in reactor three – the most toxic, plutonium-fueled one – continues to leak cooling water and what’s left of the reactor core into the Pacific. The same may be true of the others, but either way, there’s been no definitive answer forthcoming, something that might be expected when a nuclear disaster is privatized.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, San Diego County in California is now getting its drinking water supply from desalinated Pacific seawater – which, in turns, goes back into the continental US water table. Suddenly Americans and Japanese alike face an identical, deadly nuclear contamination crisis. Can anybody other than the courageous Satoko Fujii say “global extinction event?”

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu Evoke the Horror of Living Under Tyranny

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu debuted their harrowingly cinematic duo project last night at Spectrum. An attempt to sonically portray life under oppressive political regimes, some of the music had the icy, technopocalyptic shifts of late 80s Brad Fiedel film scores. As the series of electroacoustic themes segued into each other, the music grew somewhat more kinetic and eventually hit a horror-stricken peak, coming full circle at the end. A one-man orchestra with a Les Paul and a laptop, Helvacioglu methodically and meticulously built lingering, grey-sky atmospherics while Azmeh played simple, plaintive, elegaic modes, eventually rising to the kind of effortlessly serpentine phrasing that characterizes much of his work as a bandleader.

Woven into the music were brief snippets from speeches by the three Assads of Syria and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. It would be extreme to characterize the autocrats’ stridency and fervor as Hitlerian, but the similarity was unmistakable. Azmeh wove a lattice of uneasily leaping, chattering phrases as Helvacioglu built a somber backdrop of nebulous cumulo-nimbus washes and echoey deep-space pulses. It came across as perhaps an Anatolian take on Steve Reich. Spare, funereal, belltone guitar phrases built to a desolate echo chamber; Steven Severin’s film scores and Sava Marinkovic’s rainy-day tableaux came to mind.

As the suite went on, Helvacioglu’s lines became more incisive and less atmospheric, like a minimalist David Gilmour. Likewise, Azmeh’s phrases grew more animated and ornamented, sometimes with a lamenting wail, sometimes as a possible call to arms, with just the occasional hint of Middle Eastern microtones.Dynamics rose froma whisper to a single blast from a terrified vortex, then back down to echoing pools of sound with a lingering, ever-present menace, a symphony of sorrowful wartime songs. “That was intense,” Helvacioglu remarked to Azmeh, a little out of breath, after the show. He wasn’t kidding. Look for more duo performances by these two, as well as an upcoming National Sawduat show on April 17 at 9 PM with Azmeh leading his Middle Eastern jazz band. Tix for that one are $25.