New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: rza

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Mash Up Cutting-Edge HIp-Hop With Classical Drama

There’s been more of a connection between classical music and rap than a lot of people realize. RZA is an imaginative keyboardist and may have played as much as he sampled on all those classic Wu-Tang Clan joints. Bushwick Bill is a big opera fan and did a loosely conceptual album based on it. And Yasiin Bey has been working with orchestras for more than a decade. Ensemble Mik Nawooj‘s album Death Become Life – streaming at Bandcamp – continues in that cutting-edge vein.

Bandleader/pianist JooWan Kim comes from the classical side: he had an epiphany when he first heard NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. On this album, MC Sandman fronts the group as they swirl and leap around, in a mix of original music and variations on well-known classical themes. The music here is closer to Bushwick Bill’s bombast than RZA’s looming, bellicose ambience, enhanced by the dramatic presence of soprano Anne Hepburn Smith. And the beats – all of them live and organic – are on the fast side, pushing Sandman to the peak of his lyrical skills.

Doesn’t it kill you when you hear a riff and you can’t place it? Is that Dvorak that the piano and then the strings echo on the title track? Meanwhile, Sandman’s torrential lyrics build a futuristic scenario and contemplate the possibility of reincarnation, through an unexpected, suspenseful lull on the bridge. It’s the first part of a trilogy: this is definitely as ambitious as any classical-rap hybrid ever devised.

There’s dramatic menace in the chromatics, string cascades, emphatic piano, tense calm and uneasy gusts in May Good Conquer Evil, Sandman firing off a long list of evils but also ways to beat them. That familiar piano riff and variations return in the suite’s conclusion, May Death Become Life, a swaying, understatedly operatic piece: big up to Kim for doing this live instead of sampling the piano intro from ELO’s Evil Woman.

With a mix of the baroque and brooding, cinematic lustre, Everything Ends relates the sudden loss of a dear friend. The band follow that with a low-key, sweeping instrumental aptly titled Hymn: is that a reference to the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

The optimistic Everything Returns to One is the closest thing to a catchy, vintage 90s hip-hop joint here. The heroic, anthemically pulsing orchestration of Who Would Be Born takes centerstage over Sandman’s tersely provocative lyricism.

The album winds up with three energetically reflective numbers based on classical works. Mozart on Joy is a clever mix of famous riffs, Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics here. Beethoven on Struggle fuses variations on the Coriolan Overture and other big hits, a majestic salute to the world’s rugged individualists. The album’s coda is Bach on Transcendence, with a deliciously new orchestration of the Toccata in D: it’s as funny and formidable as the composer ever could have imagined. The group turning in this inspired performance includes both original and new members:  Joyce Lee on flute; Liam Boisset on oboe; Davis Hampton on clarinet; Jamael Smith on bassoon; Craig James Hansen on horn; violinists Philip Brezina, Clare Armenante and Laura Keller; violist Ivo Bokulić; cellist Evan Kahn; bassist Michel Taddei and drummer Lyman Jerome Alexander II.

There’s also a matching series of videos scheduled. And Ensemble Mik Nawooj are a great live act: in their New York debut four years ago, they transcended a hideous sound mix at a ramshackle Manhattan space to deliver an irresistibly fun set. As the world slowly returns to normal, it might be overly optimistic to expect to be able to see them in their native Oakland. But people are flocking to free states like Texas and Florida for live music; maybe the band can hit the road this summer.

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Opens With a Kung Fu Movie and a Hip-Hop Icon

This past evening’s opening concert at this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival was a score to a kung-fu movie.

It was a really good one, too. One can only imagine the kind of synchronicity involved in the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA just being back from a national tour performing (and mixing) his lush, eclectic electroacoustic soundtrack to the 1978 Shaw Brothers martial arts classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s populist to the core, a vengeful tale of citizens brutalized and massacred by the shock troops of a psychotic tyrant. The villain and his minions round up innocent shopkeepers, massacre students en masse and maintain a stranglehold on civil rights. How little the world changes, huh?

Beyond the flick’s sudden and sometimes bewildering jump cuts, what’s most memorable is the training the Shaolin monks go through on their way to kung fu dharma. They strengthen their arms with a water bucket drill, swords attached to their waist and pointed upward lest they let their arms waver. Likewise, a spin-the-wheel training installation delivers the same bloody slash to anyone who isn’t twirling his spear in perfect circular motion. The hero’s teachers never fail to be awed and offer praise, but the bloodstains remain. Is this a message that sadism from the top down pervades the most remote corners of society? Or were the filmmakers simply rolling with a series of gory thrills?

At the Wu-Tang Clan’s peak, it was always a mystery how much of RZA’s signature stormy cinematic backdrops were simply clever sampling, and how much was actually live. Opening the show, his old Staten Island pals John Lugo and Tom Shannon joined him, each man methodically working a laptop full of beats and loops which ranged from thunderous to funky, to spare, sometimes disintegrating into the mist. Much as there are plenty of grim scenes in the movie, RZA’s score seized on the occasionally sardonic moments, whenever they occurred, if only to lighten the overcast atmospherics.

The most relevatory moment was when RZA left his laptop and moved to a keyboard in the midde of the stage. Nonchalant and workmanlike, he began with steady, spare piano chords and took his time building a cumulo-nimbus backdrop, switching to a series of symphonic string synthesizer patches. Anyone who assumed back in the 90s that RZA was simply patchworking snippets from old soul and funk recordings might be dead wrong. Moving from behind the studio curtain, RZA affirmed his status as a major cinematic composer and a more than competent keyboardist.

There was a special guest, too: Raekwon motored in from the wings to rap the final verse of the classic Wu-Tang anthem C.R.E.A.M. about midway through the movie. A previous attempt at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to stage symphonic hip-hop – with West Coast material, last year –  fell flat. With that in mind, it was even more rewarding to see a lifelong New Yorker getting credit for a mighty success on his home turf.

The next cinema-related Lincoln Center Out of Doors show is this Friday, July 27 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with the New York premiere of Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota, a mix of jazz talent reimagining classic Fellini  film scores from the 50s and 60s. Security is very brisk and efficient as in years past, but it still couldn’t hurt to get there early if you want a seat.