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No New Abnormal

Tag: sara mcdonald

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.

An Auspicious Mashup of Art-Rock and Big Band Jazz and a Lincoln Center Show by the NYChillharmonic

Rare as it is for a woman to lead a large jazz ensemble, it’s rarer still for a big band to be led by the singer. Sara McDonald, composer and leader of the NYChillharmonic, blurs the line between art-rock, chamber pop and big band jazz. She sings in a tersely modulated alto and writes lustrous, slowly shapeshifting, moodily lyric-driven songs. The group’s debut album, credited to McDonald herself, is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the Lincoln Center Atrium this Thursday, December 17 at 7:30 PM. The echoey space ought to be hospitable to this group’s methodically rising, often epic swells, slow tempos and cinematic sweep. As always, getting there early is a good idea if you want a seat, or for that matter, if you want to get in at all since management never lets the place fill to capacity.

Based around looping Darcy James Argue-esque phrases, the album’s opening track, Dead the Trees is a gently lush, lavishly orchestrated, global warming-era apocalyptic waltz. “No one was thinking, no one intervened…smitten with greed,” McDonald intones understatedly, letting the message speak for itself. Guitarist Martin Wessalowski’s lingering, brooding phrases mingle with the increasingly majestic tectonics of the orchestra as the second track, Plans – also a waltz – rises toward peak elevation. Grounded by Lukas Voith’s elegant piano, another gracefully grandiose waltz, Isobel, has a soaring catchiness and enigmatic mix of tense drama and wistfulness that brings to mind Greta Gertler’s similarly lush art-rock band the Universal Thump. It isn’t til the final cut, the evocatively balmy, clave-fueled Sand Castles, that McDonald airs out her torchy side, vocally or otherwise, and it’s worth waiting for, in fact all the way through an amped-up but ultimately misguided cover of a pointless Grizzly Bear bossa ripoff. It’ll be fun to find out what else McDonald has come up with in the roughly year-and-a-half since this album came out.