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Allegra Levy Brings Her Nocturnal Reinventions to Birdland

Allegra Levy is the rare more-or-less straight-ahead jazz singer who writes her own material. It’s very good. Her latest album Looking at the Moon – streaming at youtube – is a departure for her, both musically and contentwise. It’s all covers, and the arrangements are especially intimate. What’s consistent with her previous albums is that this is a song cycle. It’s a bunch of tunes about the moon, and Levy’s vocals match the eclecticism of the selections. She’s playing Birdland tomorrow night, May 15 at 7 PM; you can get in for twenty bucks, a real steal at that joint.

The biggest shocker on the album turns out to be the best track: Nick Drake’s iconic Pink Moon reinvented as a duet with Tim Norton’s balletesque bass. The lingering dread in Levy’s delivery is only slightly more direct than the original. And Neil Young’s Harvest Moon turns out to be an apt vehicle for Levy’s minutely nuanced, somewhat misty vocals: this is her most Karrin Allyson-esque record. The comet trail from guitarist Alex Goodman as Levy eases into the third verse is sublime. Beyond those two numbers, most of the songs are familiar standards, although Levy’s approach is hardly conventional.

Her longtime collaborator, the brilliant pianist Carmen Staaf edges toward phantasmagoria with her steady,  roller rink-tinged piano throughout their take of Moon River, the nocturnal suspense enhanced by the absence of drums: that’s just Norton in back. I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night) is a tentatively content quartet piece, Goodman adding a purist solo after a jaunty, bluesy one from Staaf.

Blue Moon gets a playful, rather pointillistic treatment that brings to mind Sofia Rei, especially as the band edge their way toward bossa nova. The mutedly dancing Vegas noir of Moon Ray looks back to the Nancy King version, while Moonlight in Vermont sounds nothing like Margaret Whiting: that one’s a hushed, spare duet with Goodman.

A low-key Moonglow is the least individualistic of the tracks here, although Norton’s minimalistic solo is tasty. By contrast, Levy really nails the coy humor in Polka Dots and Moonbeams: it’s a treat to hear Staaf’s starry righthand throughout the album, particularly on this track. No Moon at All has simmer, and distant unease, and sotto-voce joy: it brings to mind Champian Fulton in a rare hushed moment.

It’s Only a Paper Moon is the album’s funniest track: it’s an unusually fast song for the somewhat ironically named bandleader. And I’ll Be Seeing You is on the record since the last line begins with “I’ll be looking at the moon” – and because Steeplechase Records honcho Nils Winther wanted it. The only miss here is an attempt to salvage a morbidly cloying AM radio hit by a 70s folksinger who went by Yusuf Islam for a time, and supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A fascist nutjob by any other name is still a fascist nutjob.

The Momenta Quartet Stage a New Classic of Classical Music for Children

How can you tell if a chamber music performance is appropriate for children? By how the kids react, for one. Yesterday morning, the Momenta Quartet’s boisterously amusing multimedia show, The Lost String Quartet – by their violist Stephanie Griffin – kept two busloads of five-year-olds engaged and for the most part equally well-behaved for over an hour. It’s one thing to keep a preschooler close to you, with the occasional reminder to sit still. Two whole posses of them, all surrounded by their fellow crazymakers, completely change the game.

The plot, based on N. M. Bodecker’s now out-of-print 1983 children’s book, concerns not a missing piece of music but a missing ensemble. The Momentas  cast themselves as the musicians, abetted by actor Fernando Villa Proal, who chewed the scenery with relish in multiple roles as emcee, truck driver, prison warden and several other personalities. The plot follows the misadventures of a quartet who have to deal with all sorts of vehicular drama on their way to a gig – late. And much as the humor is G-rated, it’s far more Carnival of the Animals than Peter and the Wolf. The group have to go down into the sewer at one point – ewwww! The kids loved that.

And like the Simpsons, the jokes have multiple levels of meaning, the musical ones especially. Adults, as well as older gradeschool children who have some familiarity with standard classical repertoire, will no doubt get a big kick out of them. In a mostly wordless performance, the group acquit themselves impressively as actors, in expressively vaudevillian roles. Are violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki really the merry prankster and space-case introvert in the group? Is cellist Michael Haas as dangerously stubborn as his role, or Griffin the quartet’s deus ex machina? That could be an inside joke.

Griffin’s score, some of it improvisational, is sublime, and the group sink their fangs into it, no small achievement considering the physical demands of the acting. Just the slithery, menacing, distantly Indian-tinged viola solo that opens the show, and appears later in disguise, is worth the price of admission. The deliberately educational moments, i.e. how a string quartet’s instruments differentiate from each other, are understated and flow seamlessly within the narrative.

As you would expect, a lot of the music – usually performed in configurations other than the full foursome – is pretty broad too, if hardly easy to play. Doppler effects, sirens, sad-face wah-wah riffs and the like pop up all over the place. But the rest is more carnivalesque than cartoonish There’s vastly more of a Bartok influence, or for that matter echoes of Luciano Berio or Jessica Pavone, than there is buffoonery.

What’s most impressive is that the quartet do double duty as what might, in tightlipped chamber music lingo, be called a hybrid ensemble. Who knew that Haas was such a capable percussionist, playing discernible melodies on found objects including a car door panel and oil pan? Or that Griffin could spiral around on melodica as if she was Augustus Pablo?

This is where the show’s subversive undercurrent takes centerstage What the Momenta Quartet are proposing is tthat if we expose kids to the avant garde when they’re young enough, they’ll be smart enough to laugh at any older, know-it-all Grinch who might sneer, “Oh, contemporary classical music, it’s so harsh and boring and pretentious.”

This piece has a huge upside. The quartet could tour it if they could find the time – it’s hard to imagine a cultural center in this country who wouldn’t stage it. It’s probably an overstatement to suggest that it could be a Broadway hit. Then again, kids are certainly ready for it. Be the first family on your block to see it when the Momenta Quartet’s perform it tomorrow, Dec 10, with sets at 10 and 11 AM at the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, 227 W. 29th St, Studio 4R just north of FIT. Admission is free, and reservations are highly recommended.

Palestinian Oud Virtuosos Le Trio Joubran Play a Historic Lincoln Center Concert This July

One of the most important and potentially transcendent concerts of the year is scheduled for this July 29 at 8 PM, where harrowing Middle Eastern oud ensemble Le Trio Joubran play the US premiere of their elegaic suite of settings of poems by their late collaborator Mahmoud Darwish at the Lynch Theater at John Jay College,524 W 59th St. The concert is part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 seats are still available as of today.

 For the last several years of the great Palestinian poet’s life, the three brothers accompanied him onstage while he read his incendiary, poignant explorations of exile and resistance. To get an idea of what the concert could be like, here’s a look at their 2010 live DVD In the Shadow of Words, adapted from the original review at New York Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. [To be consistent with the DVD  booklet, the French spelling,“Darwich,” is used throughout the review rather than the English transliteration, “Darwish.” This blog takes responsibility for any errors in translation].

Poets are the rock stars of the Middle East – the day the Bush regime invaded Iraq, the number one bestseller there was a book of poetry. Which is often the case. Iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich could read to a sold-out stadium crowd of 150,000. He died unexpectedly in August of 2008; forty days later, extraordinary Palestinian oudist brothers the Trio Joubran – who often served as Darwich’s backing band, touring the world with him – gave a memorial concert at the Cultural Palace in Ramallah, playing along to a recording of his words. The footage on their latest DVD A L’ombre des mots (“In the Shadow of Words,” whose audio is streaming at Bandcamp) was filmed at that concert.

It is extraordinarily moving: dark, pensive, terse yet often lushly arranged instrumentals that sometimes accompany Darwich’s recorded voice, other times providing an overture – or, more frequently, a requiem. Darwich’s powerful, insistent baritone keeps perfect time, allowing the musicians to do what they always did: if it’s possible to have onstage chemistry with a ghost, they achieve that. Shots of the band stark against a candlelit black background heighten the profound sadness that permeates this, yet the indomitability of Darwich’s metaphorically-charged words and his voice linger resonantly. Darwich speaks in Arabic with French subtitles on the DVD.

Darwich was first and foremost an artist, fiercely proud of his Palestinian identity and therefore seen as a voice for his people. But he bore that cross uneasily: once a member of the PLO’s inner circle, he quit the job. Although politically charged, Darwich’s work always sought to raise the bar, to take the state of his art to the next level: through that, his writing achieved a universality. The poems here will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever cheated death, missed their home, been outraged by an atrocity or numbed by a series of them.

Darwich was both a poet of his time and one for the ages. This DVD contains four works, notably the long suite The Dice Player, his last. On the surface, it’s a question of identity; iot ends with a taunt in the face of death. Fearlessly metaphorical, it contemplates the cruelty of fate yet celebrates good fortune, by implication the fate of being Palestinian.

The concert begins with the trio onstage, closeups alternated with shots taken at a distance, a characteristically understated requiem. A stately, portentous drumbeat and then a cymbal crash signal the beginning the theme, a forest of ouds from the three brothers, Samir, Wissam and Adnan. Darwich’s images are rich with irony and unease: “I had the good fortune to be cousin to divinity and the bad fortune that the cross would be our eternal ladder to tomorrow,” he states emphatically early on in the piece. He addresses the issue of love under an occupation: “Wait for it,” he cautions, again and again, “As if you were two witnesses to what you’re saving for tomorrow, take it toward the death you desire, and wait for it.”

“I didn’t play any role in what I was or will be, such is luck and luck doesn’t have a name…Narcissus would have freed himself if he’d broken the mirror…then again he would never have become a legend,” Darwich muses sardonically. “A mirage is a guidebook in the desert – without the mirage, there’s no more searching for water.” As the poem winds up, through an ominous, swaying anthem, several subsequent themes and pregnant pauses, the bitterness is overwhelming: “I would have become an amnesiac if I’d remembered my dreams.” But in the end he’s relishing his ability to survive, even if it’s simply the survival skill of an old man who knows to call the doctor before it’s too late.

There’s also the defiant On This Land, a offhandedly searing, imagistic tribute to Palestine and the Palestinians, the somber Rhyme for the Mu-allaqat (a series of seven canonical medieval Arabic poems) and finally The Mural, its narrator bitterly cataloging things which are his, ostensibly to be grateful for. “Like Christ on the water, I’ve walked in my vision, but I came down off the cross because I’m afraid of heights,” Darwich announces early on. And as much as he has, there’s more that he doesn’t. “History laughs at its victims, she throws them a look as she passes by.” And the one thing he doesn’t have that he wants above anything else? “I don’t belong to myself,” the exile repeats again and again as the restrained anguish of the ouds rises behind him. The DVD ends with the group playing over a shot of the mourners at the vigil outside.

It’s hard to imagine a more potently effective introduction to Darwich’s work than this – longtime fans, Arabic and French speakers alike will want this in their collections. For anyone who doesn’t speak either language, it’s a somberly majestic, haunting, lushly arranged masterpiece – the three ouds and the drummer together sound like an oud orchestra.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

Jon Batiste Brings the Party to Harlem This Weekend

Jon Batiste makes a whirlwind stop in town tonight, May 1 and tomorrow night, May 2 uptown at Minton’s for a couple of rare solo shows. It’s hard to be cynical about this guy – to call him exuberant is an understatement. The jazz and soul crooner/shouter/pianist/bandleader is New Orleans to the core, and he can really bring the party. He’s the rare artist who draws on hip-hop as much as second-line marches, southern soul, gospel, funk and jazz with some unexpectedly austere classical touches and makes all of it work, in the process creating an original sound that’s hard to resist. Rousing singalong choruses, mighty vamps that make long launching pads for high-voltage solos and lots of audience participation are part and parcel of his live show. He’s just as likely to bust out his melodica and mingle with the crowd as he is to make the piano echo and roar. Which makes sense – he’s got a theatrical side and a charisma that’s scored roles in the tv series Treme as well as in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; you can score a seat at the bar for $25, where the sound is just as good as it is at the considerably more expensive tables. That’s how to do this vibewise: what Batiste plays is music for hanging and good times. This isn’t a room where the crowd is going to be silent and rapt this weekend.

His most recent album, Social Music, came out in 2013 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a showcase for pretty much everything Batiste does. The opening number, D Flat Movement, has a neoromantic gravitas that contrasts with its silly title. The big concert favorite is Let God Lead, propelled by Ibanda Ruhumbika’s tersely funky tuba. The best number is the brooding, crescendoing, bolero-tinged anthem, San Spirito. There’s also reinvented Scott Joplin ragtime; oldtime blues (St. James Infirmary); a pensive wee-hours Manhattan street scene by alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash; and the ecstatic crowd-pleasers that have made the guy a hit on the jamband circuit as well as within the jazz community. Party uptown tonight, people.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

Some Shows That Worked and Some That Didn’t

To follow up the piece here a few days ago about catching up on concerts from the past few months, there’ve been some shows this year that were slated for coverage here but fell off the agenda for various reasons. Pensive Norwegian cellist/chanteuse Linnea Olsson got so little time onstage at her most recent solo show at Highline Ballroom that there wasn’t a lot to say about her. “Anna Paquin does Edgar Allan Poe,” was the reaction from one of New York’s best songwriters, referring to Paquin’s film debut in The Piano. Olsson did one thing and did it well: simple, catchy vocal melodies over long, moody, minimalist washes of cello punctuated by rhythmic accents amplified with tons of slapback reverb. She began with a long, swaying instrumental, brought the energy up with a lilting, dancing number and went in a more anthemic direction from there.

Likewise, it was good to catch some of Isle of Klezbos‘ afterwork show at Bryant Park right after Memorial Day. Deborah Kreisberg’s alternatingly haunting and wildly robust clarinet (and alto sax) fueled the mostly-female klezmer jamband’s dynamic set alongside accordionist Shoko Nagai, who added austere, otherworldly washes that alluded to her background at the far frontiers of jazz and the avant garde. Bassist Dave Hofstra was the ringer, anchoring the music in tandem with drummer Eve Sicular, who is a lot of fun to watch and was having a great, vaudeville-tinged time behind the kit when she wasn’t bursting out from behind it to breathlessly explain the music and its origins from across the decades and the global Jewish diaspora. Singer Melissa Fogarty shares Sicular’s taste for subtle irony, and brought that to the forefront through a couple of numbers including a winking take of the old Molly Picon film tune Abi Gezunt.

A couple weeks after that, energetic Moscow-based Russian folk quartet Russkaya Krasa made a New York stop at the American Folk Art Museum. Like Olsson, they played a very short set (actually two of them, one for early arrivals and one for latecomers). With three and sometimes four female singers, they were joined by a guitarist/singer named Ilya who added his resonant baritone to the mix of eerie close harmonies that some Russian folk music shares with its Balkan neighbors. They began with a couple of hypnotic numbers dating from the 14th and 15th century, the first supposedly a call used by women who in the spring would strip naked, run off into the woods and then entice the village men in to share the fun. Then they worked their way from the 19th to the 20th century with a handful of dancing minor-key tunes (and one that sounded Mexican – the La Bamba chord progression is a pretty universal thing). Tatiana, their alto singer, raised the roof with a wailing, intense a-cappella song, magnified by the natural reverb of the museum atrium.

Cheetah Chrome and Paul Burch made a swing through town in May for what were supposed to be three shows. Given the choice of seeing the punk guitar icon and his Nashville gothic pal at Manitoba’s – which with its punk roots was probably packed (Richie from the Dictators owns the place) – or, upstairs at 2A on a Sunday night, which one would you choose? Picking Sunday turned out to be a mistake since Cheetah and pal didn’t play til much later than advertised – and the Irish Americana girl who opened didn’t do anything that rose above the level of generic. Sorry to miss this show, guys – hopefully next time!

The noir-inclined downtown guitarslinger from a postpunk cult band that also dates from the CB’s era has been doing gigs at a bunch of midtown bars. On one level, this is punk to the core: it’s a free rehearsal. But inviting the public to gigs like that can be a mistake, which this turned out to be. Playing through a facsimile of a PA to a handful of homeless guys can’t really be much fun, can it? In this guy’s case it didn’t sound like it.

There was also a drummer-led group whose recent shot at reviving the sound of early Can onstage missed the mark – it wasn’t that the musicians were bad, but they were definitely underrehearsed. And if you’ve read this far, you deserve some comic relief. You’d go see this singer, right? She sounds like she’d be really good live. Well, she was supposedly playing a restaurant in the garment district. The band that showed up to back her was decent, in a generically bluesy way – but as it turned out, the singer wasn’t her. It was somebody with a similar name, and this particular vocalist (to call her a singer wouldn’t be accurate) turned out to have missed her exit at Bleecker Street, rasping and braying her way through a Janis Joplin cover or two and a couple of even more floridly campy originals. After wasting half an hour and being harrassed by the bartendress to buy expensive drinks (this is after being invited to review the show by the venue’s publicist, mind you), it was obvious that this was a big mistake. No mistake about this – you’ll never have to read about any more restaurant gigs here. And as the summer goes on, there’ll be a lot more on the live front, starting here. Guess which ones!

The Puppeteers Take Their Excitement Uptown

You could call the Puppeteers a latin jazz band, but they’re a lot more than that. Pianist Arturo O’Farrill brings everything he does in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (who have a phenomenal new album, The Offense of the Drum, coming out): Afro-Cuban grooves, symphonic gravitas and a biting edge that sometimes slinks off into noir. Vibraphonist Bill Ware also brings some of the noir he does so memorably in the Jazz Passengers, but his duels with O’Farrill on the band’s debut album make it one of the most flat-out exciting jazz albums released in the past several months. Thursday night at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, the two were wise to put bassist Alex Blake out front: with his terse but frenetically hammering solos on both bass and bass guitar along with his nonchalantly animated scatting, he was a big hit with the crowd. And he did all that sitting down for practically the whole show. With a fullsize bass, to call that a stretch is no joke, but Blake reached way up for the low notes – surreal, huh? – and made it look effortless.

Drummer Jaime Affoumado played mostly with brushes, deftly shifting from one Spanish Caribbean beat to another and then to straight-up funk from time to time. His purposeful drive kept one of the early numbers from drifting into Mad Men soundtrack territory. During a solo later on, he wryly impersonated a salsa percussion section, first with timbale riffage on the bell of the ride cymbal, then tapping out a bomba beat on the snare.

This gig was more about friendly camaraderie and exploration than megawatt solos. O’Farrill brought an unexpected and very effective wariness to a tempo-shifting, dynamic take of Resolutions, Ware and then Blake maintaining the mood throughout expansive solos. Ware’s jazz waltz Peaceful Moment gave the vibraphonist a chance go to deep into lushly lingering, nocturnal Milt Jackson territory before picking up the pace. Later the band looked back to Coltrane for a take of Soul Eyes that began with a resonant tenderness and then went on a methodical trajectory upward.

On this particular night, the version of Ware’s Bio Diesel was a lot more warmly straight-up and funky than the surrealistically bubbly album track – Ware revealed that he’d written it for his girlfriend, who works in alternative energy. Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now got the night’s most acerbic, hard-hitting crescendos from both O’Farrill and Ware, but the night’s most memorable number, by O’Farrill, was arguably its most pensive one. Opening with a poignant neoromantic glimmer, the pianist then brought his trumpeter son Adam up to contribute an almost minimalistically wired solo, carefully and methodically crafting an uneasy mood that the rest of the band kept close to the vest and never deviated from.

Dana Lyn Plays an Ocean of Melody at the Firehouse Space

[republished from New York Music Daily’s older and more sophisticated sister blog Lucid Culture]

Violinist Dana Lyn is as adept at Bach and Celtic dances as she is at searchingly acerbic string music. There’s a lot of the the latter on her latest album Aqualude. The night of 4/20 at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, she and her shapeshifting band from that album – Clara Kennedy on cello, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – aired out some of the spiraling, entrancing pieces on it as well as a number of even more intriguing new compositions. One of those Lyn had just finished earlier in the day, but the group approached it with relish, Kennedy’s stark solo intro giving way to a lively balletesque theme that worked back and forth through all kinds of permutations, Goldberger hinting at skronk against an uneasy wash of strings.

Another began with an elegant eight-note clarinet hook that Lyn and Goldberger used as a springboard for lilting, dancing harmonies. One of Lyn’s main tropes is to loop a phrase and then use that to anchor an intricate interweave of voices. and the band did that often throughout an expansive set that went well over an hour. Lyn also has a fascination with the ocean and its creatures, carefully and wryly explaining how those often very strange beings influence her music. The guardedly explosive centerpiece of the Aqualude album, she said, was inspired by the hairy crabs who frequent the volcanic vents on the seabed. Another piece drew on the plight of the octopus, whose male and female basically go insane and die after they mate (does that remind you of another species?).

Kennedy opened the show with a stark intro that grew into a metrically tricky loop in tandem with the guitar, McGinnis adding counterrythmic staccato accents as Lyn’s violin wafted overhead. Sperrazza – who felt the room’s sonics instantly, keeping his masterfully counterintuitive accents and colors low-key with his brushes and sometimes just his hands – kicked off the next one as loudly as he’d go, with an almost baroque counterpoint from the clarinet and strings.

Along with the web of melodies, there’s a lot of contrast in Lyn’s music, and the band worked those dynamics with a comfortable chemistry: hazy atmospherics versus a kinetic drive, loud/soft and calm/agitated dichotomies, Goldberger hitting his pedals for an unexpected roar or McGinnis leaping from the murk of the bass clarinet to the top of his register. Lyn also counters the pensiveness and gravitas of her music with a surreal sense of humor. It was her birthday, so she supplied paper and pens so that everyone in the crowd could draw a cadavre exquis. Some of the audience came up with intriguing or amusing stuff; from an artistically-challenged point of view, it was impossible to concentrate on drawing for very long because it was such a distraction – and a lot more fun – to watch Lyn’s magical sonic tableaux unfold.

Mohsen Namjoo: The Iranian Tom Waits?

Saturday night at the Asia Society Iranian crooner and songwriter Mohsen Namjoo played a show that was just as entertaining as it was cutting-edge. Namjoo has been compared to Bob Dylan, which makes sense to a degree: both draw on their respective nations’ folk traditions, have a sardonic lyrical side and have been a thorn in the side of the political status quo. Another comparison that came to mind strongly during the early part of Namjoo’s duo set with innovative drummer Yahya Alkhansa was Leonard Cohen, as Namjoo – a powerful, dynamic vocalist – aired out his ominous low range, giving voice to angst-ridden classical Persian poetry by Hafez.

There’s another American artist that Namjoo resembles, in spirit if not exactly musically, and that’s Tom Waits. Both have a vivid sense of the surreal, are purists in their own musical traditions and rely on dark wit to put a point across. Namjoo’s vocals and lyrics were often as funny as his playing, on setar lute and acoustic guitar, were plaintive. One of the most amusing moments was during the metaphorically-charged Sanama (“Idol,” or “Beloved,” in Farsi) where he abandoned his somber, classical intonation and began wailing, teasing, imploring and then simply goofing on this mystical woman. Persian poetry is rich with subtext, and Namjoo worked every angle and every nuance in this entreaty to “stop the pain,” before turning it into a sarcastically comedic soul song of sorts, Jimmy Castor or Cee-Lo Green taken back in time a thousand years.

Namjoo’s playing was as distinctive, individualistic and eclectic as his vocals. On the setar, he used droning, Velvet Underground-style vamps, dark, minor-key American blues riffs and during one of the evening’s most surrealisticallly amusing numbers, the shuffling melody of ZZ Top’s La Grange, over which he sang a brooding, lovestruck, metaphorical Hafez lyric. Alkhansa made it even more surreal by accenting not the two and the four, but the opposite of that beat, which turned out to be more disquieting than it was outright amusing. There can be times when one culture appropriating another’s tropes can be nails-down-the-blackboard grating or ridiculously awkward: this managed to avoid both of those traps even as it added a bizarrely comedic aspect. When Alkhansa wasn’t doing that, he was coloring the songs with a richly terse, counterintuitive verve, adding unexpected shades with the occasional tom-tom rumble, insistently pinging sequence at the top of the ride cymbal or flicker of brushes on his snare.

As the evening wore on, the two veered between dark severity and an almost punk humor: Namjoo, trained in the nuances of classical Persian singing, has an insider’s view of what that tradition takes too seriously, and doesn’t hesitate to hang it out to dry, which drew plenty of chuckles from the sold-out crowd. One of the most unselfconsciously intense moments came when Namjoo launched into the intro to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and then made Persian art-rock of it. Another was at the end of a skeletal setting of another Hafez poem, Namjoo murmuring “Damn this desert and this endless road” and all that implied. The evening’s biggest crowd-pleaser was the increasingly over-the-top, vaudevillian number that closed the show. And yet, when it came time for the big drum solo, Alkhansa responded with a lingering suspenseful “whoosh” from the drum heads, in keeping with unpredictability of the night. That trait can pay dividends for a nonconformist artist living under a repressive regime. The Asia Society’s celebration of the art and music of Iran is ongoing, with a very highly recommended show by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard coming up on November 16 at 8 PM.