New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: protest music

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

A Hauntingly Relevant New Shostakovich Concert Recording From the London Philharmonic

Dmitri Shostakovich would find no small irony in that one of the most chilling recent recordings of his Symphony No. 11 would be released by a British orchestra during the (hopefully short) reign of the most brutally repressive regime in that nation’s history. The composer titled the symphony 1905, to commemorate the massacre of over two hundred unarmed Russian protestors by Tsarist militia in the St. Petersburg city square that year. In reality, it’s a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s genocide and possibly the martyrs of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary The gold standard for recent recordings remains the Mariinsky Orchestra’s 2012 performance under Valery Gergiev. But this one – by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and streaming at Spotify – is also stunningly vivid.

This undated live performance from London’s now-shuttered Royal Festival Hall doesn’t have quite the dynamic range of the Mariinsky recording, and if anything, it’s more hushed in places. But it’s hardly any less haunting. In Jurowski’s hands, this comes across as more of a series of grisly memories than any kind of linear narrative.

As the morose first movement slowly rises from a doomed predawn ambience, the foreshadowing leaves no doubt that these brave souls don’t have a prayer. Faintly hopeful twin flutes and a solemn solitary oboe give voice to variations on a sturdy worker’s song, which immediately grows more and more defeated over a grimly looming backdrop. Could this be an indictment of Stalin’s bastardization of Marxist ideology, maybe? Meanwhile, the sentries’ trumpets are lurking and don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Jurowski’s resoluteness in maintaining a vast, distant expanse behind them enhances the impact considerably.

Forces mass on each side as a standoff develops in the second movement, lustrously drifting and swirling strings against marching brass hitting a cruelly heroic peak. Are those furtive, muted pizzicato strings going to succeed? Or is the bronzed return of the suicidal opening theme the real portent here? By now, we know where all this is going. Shostakovich doesn’t even acknowledge Stalin by giving him as much as a simple tune: the massacre itself is all drums and cymbal crashes.

But this isn’t half over yet. The contrast between the almost inaudible, massed basses and violins behind the funereal chimes as the smoke clears (and those sentries with their trumpets, who just refuse to shut up) is viscerally intense. The third movement’s long dirge of a folk song, its muted, syncopated bassline and macabre low brass quietly remind the listener to grasp the consequences of this horror. Shostakovich wants us never to forget that fascists don’t just kill once: they do it again and again until we get rid of them.

A slightly different view emerges in the conclusion: amid its richly grim textures, some of these freedom fighters seem considerably more adrenalized and disciplined than what we’ve seen earlier on. In 2021, we will need such energy and discipline as we resist the enticements behind the lockdowners’ genocidal agenda: we can have our orchestras and concerts again, if only we take their needle of death. Obviously, if we do, there won’t be any orchestras left by then anyway.

Like many symphonic ensembles these days in parts of the world which haven’t yet broken free of the lockdown, the London Philharmonic have been releasing a steady stream of archival live recordings and this is one of their very best, reason to keep a close eye on what else they may have in the vault for us.

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

A West Village Gig and an Dark, Underrated Gem from Guitarist Cameron Mizell

This blog once called Cameron Mizell the best pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. But aside from last names that rhyme, the two musicians’ talents extend far beyond that demimonde. Quietly and efficiently, Mizell has put together a remarkably tuneful, eclectic, understatedly cinematic body of work. In a world overpopulated by guys who play a million notes where one would do, Mizell’s economical, purposeful style stands out even more. He’s got a new duo album with fellow six-stringer Charlie Rauh and a show coming up at Greenwich House Music School at 7:30 PM on Sept 20. Harvey Valdes, who works a more traditional postbop vein, plays the album release show for his new solo record afterward; cover is $15.

Mizell’s arguably best, most Lynchian and most relevant album so far might be Memory/Imagination (streaming at Bandcamp), a brooding, multitracked deep-sky solo record he put out about a year after the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It opens with the distantly uneasy, lingering title cut, a tone poem awash in reverb and backward masking effects: imagine Big Lazy‘s Steve Ulrich making a 1970s style ECM record.

As puckishly picturesque and Pink Floydian as the second cut, Melting is, it’s also a surreal acoustic-electric portrait of global warming. A Toast is meant to evoke a boardroom full of corporate robber barons congratulating themselves: is the loopiness a snide poke at their groupthink, maybe? Interestingly, the song has a visceral, Indian-tinged sense of longing: maybe even those who destroy the world will also miss it when it’s gone.

The Wind Will Never Blow Us Out, a more minimalist take on pensive Jim Hall-style postbop, offers a somewhat more resilient perspective. A haunting, spikily fingerpicked waltz, Vulnerabilities was inspired by a chance meeting with a homeless vet searching in vain for a power outlet to juice his electric wheelchair. Mizell’s inspiration for the hypnotically echoing The View From Above came from a NASA photo of the earth from space, which had been deleted by the time Mizell went back to try to find it again. “Maybe it made America look too small for the new administration,” he relates.

We’ll Find Our Way Out of This Mess begins as a wry study in how to construct a pretty, folksy melody out of backward masking but then takes on epic, ominous proportions. Mizell, a natire Missourian, reflects on the murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests in A Turning Point, an echoey, edgy, bluesy number akin to what David Gilmour could have done if he’d played on Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack. The album comes full circle with Decisions, a brighter, more optimistic series of variations on the opening theme. It’s a great late-night listen.

Celebrating Resistance and Triumph Over Tyranny at Lincoln Center

For three years now, Lincoln Center has been partnering with Manhattan’s  Maxine Greene High School for Imaginative Inquiry in an annual celebration of freedom fighters from across the decades. Inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Thursday night’s annual performance featured “a stellar cast,” as Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez put it, playing some powerfully relevant music and reading insightful, inspiring, sometimes incendiary works by activists and authors from the sixteenth century to the present day.

Brianna Thomas raised the bar dauntingly high with the Civil Rights-era Sam Cooke hit A Change Is Gonna Come, guitarist Marvin Sewell playing bottleneck style on the intro for a ringing, rustic, deep blues feel. “I go downtown, and somebody’s always telling me, don’t hang around,” Thomas intoned somberly over Sewell’s terse icepick soul chords. In an era when Eric Garner was murdered because he got too close to a new luxury condo building, that resounded just as mightily as it did in Birmingham in 1964. She picked it up again with a ferociously gritty insistence, the audience adding a final, spontaneous “Yeah!” at the very end.

Later in the performance the duo played a hauntingly hazy, utterly Lynchian take of Strange Fruit. Thomas’ slow, surreal swoops and dives raised the macabre factor through the roof: If there’s any one song for Halloween month, 2017, this was it.

In between, a parade of speakers brought to life a series of fiery condemnations of tyrants and oppression, and widely diverse opinions on how to get rid of them. Staceyann Chin bookended all this with an understatedly sardonic excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas’ grisly account of early conquistadorial genocide, closing with a rousing Marge Piercy piece on how to build a grassroots movement.

Shantel French matter-of-factly voiced Henry George’s insight into how poverty is criminalized, but is actually a form of discrimination. Michael Ealy’s most memorable moment onstage was his emphatic delivery of the irony and ironclad logic in Jermain Wesley Loguen’s famous letter to the slaveowner he escaped during the Civil War: ‘You say you raised me as you raised your own children…did you raise them for the whipping post?”

Geoffrey Arend read Eugene Debs’ address for his 1918 sedition sentencing, optimism in the face of a prison sentence and a corrupt system doomed to collapse  Laura Gomez voiced the anguish and indignity of a longtime resident of Vieques, Puerto Rico who’d seen his neighbors harassed and killed by drunken marines and errant bombs dropped in practice runs (this was in 1979, before the island was rendered uninhabitable by the same depleted uranium dropped on Afghanistan and Iraq). Considering that the President of the United States has castigated the people of this disaster-stricken part of the world for being a drain on the Federal budget, this packed a real wallop. We can only hope this latest incident helps the wheels of impeachment move a little faster.

Brian Jones read from a witheringly cynical pre-Emancipation Frederick Douglass speech on what the Fourth of July means to a slave, and also Martin Luther King’s emphatically commonsensical analysis of the racism and injustice inherent in the Vietnam War draft. Aasif Mandvi brought out all the black humor in Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s account of being besieged by off-campus rightwing nutjobs. And joined by incisive, puristically bluesy guitarist Giancarlo Castillo, songwriter Ani Cordero sang a venomous take of Dylan’s Masters of War and an understatedly passionate, articulate version of Lydia Mendoza’s 1934 border ballad Mal Hombre, sad testimony to the fact that Mexican immigrants have been demonized long before Trump.

The next free performance at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is on Oct 19 at 7:30 PM featuring artsy Mexican trip-hop band Ampsersan. Getting to the space a little early is a good way to make sure you get a seat, since these events tend to sell out.

Ryan Keberle Releases His Potent, Relevant New Protest Jazz Album at the Jazz Standard

A moody Fender Rhodes melody echoes as the title track to trombonist/keyboardist Ryan Keberle’s new protest jazz album, Find the Common Shine a Light – streaming at Bandcamp – begins. Guitarist Camila Meza sings poet Mantsa Miro’s lyrics.with an understated, insistent clarity:

Our weakest link is fear of losing races
Get home before the curtain falls…
We are here to elevate the greater
Find the common, shine a light
Become the water
Put up a fight

Trumpet and trombone spar as Meza’s one-woman choir soars in the background, all the way down to a stadium-worthy singalong at the end. In times like these we need more music like this. Keberle and his band are playing the album release show on July 5 at the Jazz Standard, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $20.

As one of the world’s electrifying jazz trombonists (longstanding member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Mingus bands, yadda yadda yadda), Keberle has few peers. This album is his quantum leap, a fearless, eclectic, politically charged collection that ought to go a long way in reaffirming his status as an elite bandleader as well. The theme connecting this mix of vocal and instrumental numbers is that struggle has been a constant through American history, and throughout the world: the Trump era may have its own unique and twisted challenges, but ultimately, we’ve triumphed over worse.

The album’s second track is Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler’s Al Otro Lado del Rio (On the Other Side of the River), Meza’s voice and spare, lingering guitar channeling a poignant unease, a bittersweet and troubled immigrant’s narrative set to similarly moody trumpet/trombone harmonies over drummer Eric Doob’s elegant, low-key pulse. A trick ending drives the point home, hard.

That same distant angst echoes through the pensive trumpet-trombone conversation that opens Empathy, a tone poem of sorts, Meza’s gentle vocalese adding lustre; its steady, tectonic sheets slowly winding out. The rhythmic riffage and matter-of-fact stairstepping of Ancient Theory draws a straight line back to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time period, all the way through the bass solo, Keberle’s melodica airy overhead. Michael Rodriguez’s judicious trumpet sets up Keberle’s towering crescendo.

Their cover of Fool on the Hill outdoes the Beatles: credit to Meza for getting McCartney’s cynicism, and props to the bandleader for grounding the song in enigmatic trumpet/trombone exchanges instead of taking it off into flurries of bop like so many others would do. The group follows a triumphant trajectory as Mindfulness rises from hopeful trumpet over a murky backdrop, segueing into a portentously atmospheric cover of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, Meza playing funereal guitar belltones behind her vocals. The Nobel laureate’s lyrics have aged well:

Senators, Congressmen, please head the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he that gets stalled
There’s a battle outside raging
Who’ll shake your windows and rattle your walls…

The way Keberle triangulates trumpet, trombone and Meza’s voice, a common trope throughout the record, is especially impactful here.

The miniature Strength is the album’s scruffiest interlude, trombone and trumpet brothers in arms over the bass/drums rumble. Bassist Jorge Roeder’s stark bowing opens the concluding cut, I Am a Stranger, Meza’s wary vocals set to similarly, tensely energized exchanges between Keberle and Rodriguez. “What I desire I can’t obtain from what I hate,” Meza laments. More artists across all genres, not just jazz, should be making music this relevant.