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A Feast of Catchy Tunesmithing, Big Ideas and Picturesque Themes on Annie Chen’s New Album

Composer/singe Annie Chen’s imagination knows no bounds. By any standard, her music is richly layered and often lavishly orchestrated. There’s an unusual majesty and cinematic sweep to much of her work, especially for a vocalist. The dream world is a recurrent reference point, as are several striking musical themes woven throughout her songs, some of them drawing on traditional Chinese melodies.

Chen’s writing is extremely clever, and a lot of fun, often infused with an irrepressible sense of humor. Sara Serpa is a viable comparison, another rare jazz singer who doesn’t shy away from big. sometimes nebulous ideas; interestingly, both have roots outside the US, Serpa hailing from Portugal and Chen from China. Chen’s new album Secret Treetop, a jazz sonata of sorts, is streaming at Bandcamp; she and her group are playing the release show on Dec 9 at 8:15 PM at Shapeshifter Lab. Cover is $15.

It opens auspiciously with Ozledim Seni,Matthew Muntz’s stygian solo bowed bass intro over drummer Jerad Lippi’s rattles rising tensely with Chen’s melismatic, looming vocals…suddenly she hits a big flourish and the band is bouncing along with a distant Balkan tinge, spiced with Glenn Zaleski’s rippling piano and Rafal Sarnecki’s spare, emphatic guitar. Alto saxophonist Alex LoRe takes it down to a suspenseful, modal pulse, then rises with chirpy determination to where Chen leaps back in with her vocalese.

Majo Kiki in12 Days opens with a dramatic flight scenario and plenty of suspense, too; as usual, Chen flips the script, segueing without warning into a glittering nocturnal theme before bringing back the A-section An enigmatic, insistent, staccato bass-and-guitar conversation gives way to Tomoko Omura’s acerbically dancing violin solo and then a catchy descent beneath the stars.

Chen begins the ten-minute Chinese classical epic Ao Bao Xiang Hui stately and cool, Sarnecki’s sparsely circling guitar and LoRe’s alto expanding and pulling back. David Smith’s trumpet is a herald in the forest; spikily dancing piano fuels majestically ominous horn riffage. Buzzy guitar takes the song further out on a postbop tangent; this trip ends suddenly and counterintuitively.

The title track is a more direct variation on that same circular theme and variations, this time with expansive piano rivulets and a long, emphatic, pouncingly rhythmic crescendo. Orange Tears Lullaby has a darkly elegant, spiky guitar-and-piano intro and rises to a jubilant, precisely undulating theme spiced with stark violin. ‘Never doubt me under the covers,” Chen asserts.

The diptych Mr.Wind-Up Bird, Strange Yearning circles upward to a jaunty groove that’s part samba, part Chinese anthem and part mighty urban bustle. LoRe gets a long launching pad to sail and spiral from; Sarnecki plays it closer to the vest.

Leaving Sonnet is one of the many studies in contrasts here, a breathless yet precisely articulated travelogue over a lustrous backdrop lit up with a trumpet solo that grows from wistful to frenetic and back as the band shift in and out of a lush waltz. Chen weaves the album’s main circling theme into her syncopated reinvention of the 1980s Taiwanese pop hit Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree): the pairing of piano ripple and guitar clang is absolutely luscious. The final track, My Ocean Is Blue in White, a pensive tale of a thwarted seduction, has a surreal hint of bluegrass. There is no one in the world who sounds like Annie Chen.

Vocally speaking, sometimes it’s hard to tell where Chen’s English – still a work in progress – leaves off and the vocalese kicks in. But that’s not a big deal. These colorful songs speak for themselves.

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Fearlessly Individualistic, Poignant Singer Sara Serpa Brings Her Catchy, Intimate New Album to Deep Brooklyn

That Sara Serpa’s voice is able to convey such a frequently harrowing depth of feeling is all the more remarkable considering that she doesn’t usually sing lyrics. But that doesn’t stop her music from addressing a wide range of relevant and sometimes controversial topics, from the disastrous effects of western imperialism in Africa, to philosopher Luce Iragaray’s radical proposals for how to eliminate sexist bias in language. Serpa’s latest album Close Up is due out momentarily, with three tracks streaming at her audio page. Serpa titled it after the Abbas Kiarostami film and the layers of meta created when non-actors played actors in a movie about themselves. She and her trio, who recorded it in a single June day last year, are playing the album release show on April 4 at around 8 at the Owl. Suggested donation is $10.

Lately Serpa has been exploring unorthodox lineups; here she’s joined by Ingrid Laubrock on tenor and soprano sax and Erik Friedlander on cello. Although he sometimes plays basslines here, the absence of drums and traditional chordal instrumentation enhance the music’s intimacy. In her liner notes, Serpa explains that the configuration creates “a vulnerability that sometimes verges on discomfort,” a consistent theme throughout her work, from Camera Obscura, her cult favorite noir jazz duo album with iconic pianist Ran Blake, to her role as a member of John Zorn’s Mycale vocal quartet.

Throughout the album, Serpa’s crystalline, starkly direct voice is calm yet often anything but serene. The opening cut, Object is as arresting as a canon for scat singing, soprano sax and cello could possibly be: Friedlander’s rhythmic riffs, Laubrock’s Balkanic trills and Serpa’s steady ba-do-ah keep the suspense going despite the catchiness of the melody.

Pássaros (Birds), with lyrics by her late Portuguese compatriot Ruy Bello, examines Messieanically and rhythmically how our feathered friends can turn trees into a forest of playful call-and-response. A catchy yet wary pavane, Sol Enganador has Friedlander plucking out a catchy, baroque-tinged backdrop for Serpa’s nebulous vocalese, Laubrock finally floating into the picture – then things get crazy!

The Future is a chillingly rhythmic duo piece for vocals and cello, Serpa drawing on Virginia Woolf as an update on the Sex Pistols; historical mashups have never been so apt. The next track, Listening is even more sparse, Serpa and Laubrock rising to the top of their ranges for austere harmonies as Friedlander holds down a sparse rhythm.

The trio develop Storm Coming from Laubrock’s terse, overtone-spiced intro to a series of hypnotic cloudbank phrases, in an Anna Thorvaldsottir vein. Then Serpa returns to neo-baroque for Woman, singing a text by Irigaray that “exposes the invisibility of motherhood, the lack of support women artists receive as mothers,” as she puts it. And she’s right: how many women artists do you know whose careers went on ice the moment the kid was born?

Quiet Riot is not a tribute to a headbanging one-hit-wonder rock band from the 80s, but a coyly bubbly, minimalist, briskly strolling exercise in counterpoint. The trio close with Cantar Ao Fim, whose intro Serpa came up with singing by herself in the mountains one evening: its starkly circling, distantly Andalucian modalities make a gorgeous coda. It’s rare to find three artists who can so seamlessly merge classical, jazz improvisation and new music.

The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

Singer Sara Serpa’s New Multimedia Project Examines the Aftereffects of Imperialism

Sara Serpa is one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. She got her big break collaborating with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake – their  2010 album Camera Obscura is a masterpiece of menacing nocturnal music across all genres. Since then, her work has encompassed her own cinematic, often lush compositions, her role in John Zorn’s otherworldly Mycale chorale and an endless series of rewarding new projects and collaborations: there’s a restlessness in most everything she does. Her latest project was springboarded when she discovered a family archive of material relating to her native Portugal and its former colony, Angola, in the 1960s. You want uneasy? Serpa’s bringing that to a multimedia performance this Saturday night, Sept 16 at 7:30 PM in a trio show with harpist Zeena Parkins and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner at the Drawing Center at 35 Wooster St. in SoHo. This is one of the increasingly frequent series booked by Zorn around town; cover is $20.

Like every other major jazz artist, Serpa has to spend a lot of time on the road. Her most recent New York concert was a beguiling and unexpectedly amusing duo performance with her Mycale bandmate and longtime vocal sparring partner Sofia Rei in the West Village back in June. Completely a-cappella, the two made their way methodically through constant dynamic shifts, in a mix of originals, a handful of south-of-the-border folk tunes and several numbers from Rei’s album of radical reinventions of Violeta Parra classics, El Gavilan.

It’s easy to see why Rei and Serpa are friends. Rei is a cutup and will go way outside the box without any prompting, to the remote fringes of extended vocal technique. And she can sing anything. Serpa is serious, focused, purposeful to the nth degree: she doesn’t waste notes and has an instantly recognizable sound. Yet she’s always pushing herself. “Welcome to our crazy project,” she told the crowd with a wry grin. And at one moment late in the set, while Rei swooped and dove and shifted into what could have been birdsong, Serpa rolled her eyes, echoing the melody further down the scale, as if to say, “I can’t believe I just sang that.”

Unlik what they do in Mycale, the two didn’t harmonize much. Instead, they took contrasting roles, often exchanging rhythmic blips and bounces, a funhouse mirror of gentle, emphatic, wordless notes. Without Marc Ribot’s guitar, the material from El Gavilan often took on more gravitas: for example, a less rhythmic, more stately take of Casamiento de Negros, and a considerably condensed, airy version of the title track. And when there were harmonies, they were acerbic, and bracingly astringent, and warily rapturous. At the end of the set, another of Mycale’s brilliant voices, Aubrey Johnson joined them and added her signature lustre to the mix. Not having seen Johnson sing her own material in a long time, it would have been an awful lot of fun to stick around to see her lead her own band. But by then it was time to head to Brooklyn.

Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; guitarist Marc Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.

Mesmerizing Lynchian Nocturnes from Sara Serpa and Andre Matos

Sara Serpa and Andre Matos‘ latest album, All the Dreams – streaming in full at Sunnyside Records – is the great Lynchian record of 2016. For those who might not get that reference, the familiar David Lynch film noir soundtrack formula pairs a coolly enigmatic torch singer with a tersely atmospheric jazz band, and this one fits that description, but with a distinctive edge that transcends the Julee Cruise/Angelo Badelamenti prototype. The songs are short, arrangements terse and purposeful, tunes front and center, awash in atmospheric natural reverb. It’s this blog’s pick for best vocal jazz album of the year (check NPR this week for their final critics poll as well as the rest of the list). The two’s next gig is at Shapeshifter Lab on Dec 16 at around 8, backed by their her magically picturesque City Fragments Band with Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson on vocals, Erik Friedlander-on cello and Tyshawn Sorey on drums

While singer/pianist Serpa and guitarist/bassist Matos both come out of the New England Conservatory’s prestigious jazz program – Serpa being a protegee and collaborator of iconic noir jazz pianist Ran Blake – this album transcends genre. The opening theme, Calma – coyly reprised at the end of the album – sets the scene, Serpa’s signature, disarmingly direct, unadorned vocalese soaring over Matos’ spare, belltone guitar, drummer Billy Mintz’s steady shuffle beat and Pete Rende’s synthesized ambience. There’s plenty of irony in the angst and regret implied as Serpa reaches resolutely and confidentl for the rafters – yet with inescapable sadness lurking underneath. It’s easy to imagine the opening credits of the new Twin Peaks series floating overhead.

It’s hard to think of a guitarist in any style, especially jazz, who makes more masterful use of space than Matos: his melodies are minamlistic yet rich at the same time. That laser-like sense of melody – up to now, best represnted on his excellent 2012 trio album Lagarto – resonates in the purposefully circling jangle of A La Montagne as Serpa provides stairstepping, practically sung-spoken harmonies overhead. She sings the steady, starry, hypnotic Estado De Graça in her native Portuguese – it wouldn’t be out of place in the far pschedelic reaches of the Jenifer Jackson catalog.

Story of a Horse builds from a gently cantering Americana theme to uneasy big-sky cinematics: imagine Big Lazy with keys instead of guitar. The spare, intertwining piano/guitar melody of the tenderly crescendoing Programa echoes the misty elegance of Serpa’s earlier work

Matos’ bass and Serpa’s vocalese deliver a ballesque duet over enigmatic guitar jangle throughout Água; then the duo return to pensively twilit spaciousness with Nada, Serpa singing an Alvaro de Campos poem with calm assurance. The album’s most expansive track, Night is also its darkest, furtive bass paired with increasingly ominous guitar as Serpa plays Twin Peaks ingenue.

The lingering, wistful Hino comes across as hybrid of Badalementi and Bill Frisell in an especially thoughtful moment. Lisboa, a shout-out to the duo’s old stomping ground, begins with purposeful unease and expands to airier but similarly enigmatic territory, Serpa’s atmospherics over Matos’ spare phrasing and minimalist hand-drum percussion bringing to life a flood of shadowy memories triggered by a fond homecoming.

Serpa takes a calmy rhythmic good-cop role, Matos playing the bad guy with his darkly hypnotic, circular hooks throughout Espelho, while the sparser Os Outros offers something of a break in the clouds. Before that funny ending, there’s a hypnotic, twinkling Postlude. It’s a mesmerizing step to yet another level of mystery and magic from two of the most quietly brilliant composers in any style of music – and ought to get them plenty of film work as well.

Mycale’s Sara Serpa Enchants the Stone

If Sara Serpa quit right now, her body of work would still leave her a major figure in the history of early 21st century jazz and beyond-category vocal music. As one small example, consider the influence of the addition of Serpa’s otherworldly vocalese on Asuka Kakitani‘s landmark Bloom album a couple years ago. Yet, one suspects that Serpa’s best years are still ahead of her. This week through September 20, the individual members of Mycale – the vocal quartet John Zorn assembled, with Serpa, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei and Malika Zarra – are booking the Stone, an audience-friendly way to discover the eclectic and distinctive work of each of these singer/composers. With two sets a night, 8 and 10 PM, there are plenty of enticing shows, especially the album release show for Mycale’s new one at 8 PM this Saturday the 19th.

Last night the late set was Serpa’s, leading her City Fragments sextet. As the group made their way gently, pointillistically and hypnotically into the opening Andre Matos composition, listening to Serpa blend voices with the similarly lustrous-timbred Aubrey Johnson conjured such resonant radiance that it didn’t seem fair. Sofia Rei, who has the powerful low register that those two do not, perfectly completed the vocal frontline.

And yet, as unselfconsciously mesmerizing as those voices were, the number belonged to Matos, Serpa’s longtime collaborator. It’s so rare to see a guitarist with the depth of vision that he brought into play, being able to see this music from five thousand feet and realize it for all its uneasily majestic heights without cluttering it. This number had elements of 70s Morricone crime jazz and David Gilmour angst, but with neither the busyness of the former nor the bluster of the latter. Matos’ lingering, austere lines were like a distillation of both, reduced to most impactful terms. Underneath it all, bassist Matt Brewer supplied a bubbling tar-trap low end while drummer Tyshawn Sorey shuffled and spun an intricate web of cymbals, adding the occasional, stark, emphatic hit when least expected.

Serpa’s long suite after that again featured a similarly intricate, steady lattice of three-way vocal counterpoint, in the same vein as the new Mycale album. The three womens’ gentle bell-tone harmonies often gave way to mysterious, almost inaudible, fragmentary segues, Matos’s stiletto guitar often joining as a fourth voice in the choir, building to an unexpected, knifes-edge, sometimes darkly bluesy apprehension as it went on. Serpa’s spoken-word segments contemplated the human race’s alienation from nature, and a possible return to it, imbuing the work with a defiant, mid-80s punk-jazz edge. It was a characteristically ambitious move for Serpa, oldschool European intellectual to the core, constantly finding new ways to ground her ethereal sonic explorations in relevant concrete terms. The three women brought the night full circle with a radically reinvented, gently lilting take of an old fado hit. Serpa next performs with Mycale at the Stone this week on September 17 at 8, with Ikue Mori sitting in with her trusty laptop and its bottomless well of percussion samples. Cover is $15.

Magical Vocal Quartet Mycale Sings the Fun Side of John Zorn at the Stone This Week

John Zorn assembled vocal quartet Mycale in 2009 to create new arrangements from his exhaustive magnum opus Book of Angels – Volume 2. The group’s debut, Mycale: Book of Angels, Vol 13 (hard to keep track of all of this, isn’t it?), came out a year later. Now the quartet – Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa and Malika Zarra – have a brand new release, Gomory, and a weeklong stand at the Stone starting on September 15 and continuing through the 20th with sets at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $15. Two choice options among many standout lineups include the late set opening night at 10 PM with Serpa’s City Fragments Ensemble – Serpa, Sofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson (voices); Andre Matos (guitar); Matt Brewer (bass); and Tyshawn Sorey (drums), and then the official album release shows with the full Mycale quartet at 8 on Saturday the 19th.

That much of Zorn’s more recent oeuvre has been thorny and challenging has somewhat overshadowed the sheer fun and liveliness of much of his previous output, and this album is a prime example. All the singers here are composers and bandleaders, and offer their individual lyrics and arrangements to the album’s eleven tracks, each of then named for a specific angel. The choir members also bring their own strongly distinctive vocal styles. Here, Gottlieb is the most plush and powerful, Serpa the most individualistic: she is unsurpassed in the world for awestuck reflecting-pool clarity. Zarra is the most down-to-earth and gives Gottlieb a run for her money in the power department. Sofia Rei is the most versatile and hardest to pin down: she hasn’t yet settled on a style that’s distinctively her own, maybe because she’s so good at so many things.

The album opens with her ticklishly polyrhythmic chart (a theme that develops into many subsequent variations) for the opening track, Huzia, equally informed by tango and takadimi drum music, with a numerological Spanish lyric by Lindy Giacomán Canavati that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavy metal record. In the same vein, Sofia Rei also provides the arrangement for the Renaissance-tinged, austerely angst-laden Yofiel, as well as an ominous lyric for Peliel (translated from the Spanish):

Pouring your soul into a paper river
You broke the silence and its accomplices.
Afternoon charm, dawn betrayal,
The feeble knife quenched your thirst

Zarra provides Arabic lyrics and an boisterously crescendoing arrangement for Tzadkiel, a mashup of Veracruz folk and West African traditions. In Grial, she switches to French to illuminate an playfully dancing atmosphere that’s “Seductive as a sign…magical, ephemeral, that we cannot keep in a corner or hold in our hands.” Gottlieb’s contributions include arrangements for Mumiah – with text by Almog Behar – as well as the swinging Qaddisin – a blend of Bulgarian and klezmer tonalities – and Shahariel, a canon that turns hilariously goofy in a split-second.

Serpa – who seems to be the ringleader of this merry band – provides the architecture for Achuston, a primordial ocean tableau, akin to the Swingle Singers covering an uneasily creeping Procol Harum song, maybe. She also gets credit for the distant, ominously circling arrangement for Belial, and also Paschar, the starkest track here. For whatever reason, at least from this small sample, she seems the most at home with Zorn’s signature Orientalisms.

Musical mystery fans will have a field day trying to figure out who’s singing what – for purposes of enjoyment, it’s best just to let these four singers draw you into their alternate universe. If the angels had a party, this is what it would sound like. There’s tantalizingly little of this online right now, but you can get a taste at Gottlieb’s music page.

Bassist Rufus Reid Brings His Stunningly Intense Big Band to the Jazz Standard

One of the most exciting and highly anticipated stands by any jazz group in recent months is coming up at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, Feb 26 when venerable bassist Rufus Reid and his big band air out the songs on his magnificent latest album, Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (streaming at Spotify). They’re at the club through March 1, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; cover is $30 ($35 on the weekend). Even more auspiciously, pretty much everybody among the album’s all-star cast will be onstage for all the shows.

The album is a lush, ambitious suite inspired by the striking, historically and politically-themed sculptures of Elizabeth Catlett. An inspiration to the civil rights movement, Catlett’s work embodies traditions and themes from both Africa and the west: her images are uncluttered, often very stark and while often optimistic, also have a withering subtext. Like Catlett’s sculptures, Reid’s music here – which draws directly on six of them – has a frequently persistent unease. The sophistication and acerbic colors of his compositions and arrangements are all the more impressive considering that this is his first adventure in writing for large ensemble – and that he is still best known as a sideman. That perception has definitely changed in the past year!

Although ostensibly divided into individual pieces, the album is best appreciated as a whole: a jazz symphony, essentially. A big, ominous, cinematically sweeping theme that will recur throughout the suite kicks it off, gives way to a broodingly vamping jazz waltz that picks up with a turbulently funky groove and blustery brass, then down to the rhythm section, Freddie Hendrix’ muted trumpet bringing it full circle. Reid utilizes Charenee Wade’s lustrous vocalese much like Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her album a couple of years ago; the addition of two french horns adds both brightness and heft.

Throughout the rest of the album, Reid himself adds the occasional soberly dancing interlude. Guitarist Vic Juris plays both incisive flamenco lines on acoustic as well as adding bubbly electric textures. The brass section rises dramatically with a majestically ambered, blues-infused gravitas, Wade often changed with hitting the top of the peaks as well as supplying nebulous washes to the quieter sections. Reid allows for animated free interludes, pairing brass and piano or drums, then swings his way back to a precise theme. Trumpeter Tim Hagans and trombonist Ryan Keberle get to take it to the top of the mountain as a triumphant coda develops. It’s everything big band jazz can be: towering, majestic, unselfconsciously powerful and cutting-edge. Catlett, who died three years ago, would no doubt be proud.

Matt Ulery Brings His Cinematically Sweeping, Richly Melodic Art-Rock and Instrumentals to Littlefield

If bassist/composer Matt Ulery‘s lavishly cinematic new album, In the Ivory was in fact the soundtrack to a film – which it really ought to be – it would be an Orson Welles epic. That, or a Victorian horror film. Devil in the White City, maybe? Ulery’s elegantly aching theme and variations draw on both neoromanticism and mimimalism – Philip Glass in particular – as well as the ripe rises and falls of Hollywood film music from the 30s and 40s. It’s an unselfconsciously beautiful, poignant, lavish double-cd suite – streaming at Bandcamp – and one of the best albums of the year. Ulery and the ensemble from the album are playing the release show on Oct 14 at 8 PM at Littlefield; cover is $12, dirt-cheap for music this meticulously composed and played.

The initial theme, Gave Proof pretty much capsulizes what’s in store the rest of the way: a rippling piano tune that more than alludes to Glass’s Dracula soundtrack; velvety strings; acerbic woodwinds, and a pervasive angst amidst the sweep and grandeur. Ulery is also a solid lyricist: Grazyna Augusczik sings his allusively imagistic, sometimes crushingly embittered songs with wounded clarity that at its most affecting evokes Sara Serpa. The ensemble plays with grace and sensitivity: the core group includes Rob Clearfield on piano; Zach Brock and Yvonne Lamb on violins; Dominic Johnson on viola; Nicholas Photinos on cello; Timothy Munro on alto flute; Michael Maccaferri on clarinets; Gregory Beyer on vibraphone, marimba and percussion and Jon Deietemyer on drums.

The second track, There’s a Reason and a Thousand Ways brings to mind My Brightest Diamond in low-key ballad mode, then morphs into a pensive pastorale. Ulery works nimbly dancing permutations throughout the ensemble, from tense pizzicato strings to big rises and falls and finally a hint of jazz from the piano.

From there the bittersweetness builds to a peak: lush strings, a moody waltz, washes of jazz and a purposeful, swinging, hard-hitting stroll. The hero, or heroine hit their stride. Singer Sarah Marie Young joins Auguszik to deliver the first disc’s concluding chamber pop number, The Farm, with a lively flair, understating its corrosive portrayal of rural hell:

Faintly qualified
Restituted rise
Lapidary interlay
Confident decry
All for nothing nearly by…

The second disc contemplates mortality and the hope for something better in the interim. The Dracula-like theme returns and picks up with a dancing intensity. Augusczik sings the mutedly kinetic but hypnotically circular When Everything Is Just the Same, her distant angst matching its tightly wound ache to break free. A big, crescendoing overture and another waltz eventually wind their way to Visceral, where Ulery manages to mash up the horror movie cinematics, balletesque minimalism and an unexpectedly bubbly parade theme from the winds.

The drums fuel a Chopinesque piano concerto interlude; after a suspenseful lull, Brock and Deietemyer hit a biting, dancing peak. The group winds its way out with a blend of towering, anthemic orchestration, switching up creepy Glassine circularity and stark strings. The sonics at Littlefield are especially suited to this kind of thing.