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Tag: Shai Maestro

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Camila Meza Brings Her Disarmingly Direct Voice, Guitar and Unflinching Political Sensibility to the West Village

Camila Meza’s lustrous, wondrous, disarmingly clear vocals mirror the way she plays guitar. For that reason, she’s highly sought after. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in trombonist Ryan Keberle’s group, and also plays a central role in Fabian Almazan’s large ensemble. She’s as vivid a lyricist in English as in her native Spanish; when she sings vocalese, she’s more likely to harmonize with a guitar line than to imitate a postbop horn solo.

That often shatteirngly direct sensibility serves her songwriting well. Her work has a fearless political relevance, inspired by decades of populist songwrirting from throughout Latin America. Her most recent album Traces is streaming at Sunnyside Records. She’s playing a characteristically politically-fueled show with pianist Aaron Goldberg on May 10 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15/$10 stud.

The album opens with Para Volar, a bright, gently churning melody underneath her Spanish-language lyrics, an allusively triumphant shout-out to freedom and escape, a common theme in the Chilean-born Meza’s music. Her guitar bubbles and leaps over the lithe rhythm section of bassist Matt Penman and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Shai Maestro kicking into his driving low register as Meza’s solo peaks out. She revisits that optimism a little later in the album’s kinetic title track, where she turns up her guitar and cuts loose, more gritty and lowdown.

Jody Redhage’s spare cello and Maestro’s sparkly Rhodes mingle with Meza’s gentle fingerpicking in Away, a wistful, hypnotic duet with Sachal Vasandani. Meza’s precise, clipped vocals leave no doubt as to the deadly consequences in Djavan’s bitter eco-disaster narrative Amazon Farewell, Maestro adding a richly incisive, darkly rippling solo.

Mar Elastico is an enigmatically hazy, summery reminiscence of Meza’s childhood adventures with her sisters, Maestro’s Rhodes front and center; Scott’s distant-tornado cymbals behind Meza’s delicate jangle is one of the album’s high points. She switches to acoustic for a spare solo take of the Victor Jara classic Luchin. an allusively harrowing tale of resilience amidst crushing childhood poverty. 

The uneasy piano-guitar harmonies in Steven Sondheim’s Greenfinch and Linnet Bird give the selfconsciously fussy ballad a welcome gravitas. Meza returns to the expectantly circling, distant yet optimistic intensity of the early part of the album in Emerald: the mantra is “There’s no need to hide now.”

The album’s most elusive yet arguably strongest track is the lush, sweeping Mangata, a metaphorically-charged refugee’s escape anthem, Meza’s stark, emphatic chords against Maestro’s neoromantic glimmer. The album ends with the self-effacingly modest Little Person – the spare, rather trad closing theme from the Philip Seymour Hoffman film Synecdoche New York-  projecting the hope of “finding another little person,” as Meza puts it. What Meza has found here in the US is a fertile crucible for her many talents, all of which are still in their formative stages. Catch her on the way up.

A Darkly Majestic, Sweepingly Cinematic, Often Haunting Trio Album from Pianist Guy Mintus

Pianist Guy Mintus’ music has depth, and gravitas, and glimmer, and an often cinematic sweep. Israeli pianists tend to embrace both western classical music as well as the edgy minor keys and chromatics common to Jewish and  Middle Eastern music, and Mintus is no exception. His sound is very distinctive: there’s no real comparison, although from time to time he evokes the nocturnal majesty of Shai Maestro, the phantasmagorical side of Frank Kimbrough and the counterintuitively dark explorations of Danny Fox. Mintus’s new album, A Home In Between, with his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm – bits and pieces of which are online at Mintus’ music page and at Soundcloud – is due out tomorrow. The trio are playing the album release show on June 20 at 7:30 PM at the big room at the Rockwood. Cover is $12.

The album opens with an ambitious diptych of sorts, Our Journey Together, a bittersweet, neoomantic waltz spiced with the occasional striking, menacing chromatic. As the theme diverges, Mintus takes a couple of breathtakingly precise cascades, then everything falls apart. The band pulls it together again slowly, up to a long, broodingly triumphant coda lit up with uneasy Lennie Tristano close harmonies and a big drum hailstorm.

Lemm anchors Mibifnim, a disquietingly altered bolero, as a shuffle drag while Shmerling adds elegantly fugal counterpoint, Mintus quoting Rachmaninoff and spinning wryly leapfrogging flourishes around the moody melody. Background shifts dissociatively between stride, Chopin and hard bop before Lemm cracks the whip and takes everybody swinging up to a big, rumbling drum solo.

Shmerling plays the role of percussionist, then takes a morosely microtonal solo to open the Levantine dirge Zeybekiko for the Brave, echoing both the Golan Heights and the Greek isles, Mintus’ incisive passing tones reaching a red-sunset crescendo over the walls of Jerusalem.

A spare trouble-in-deep-space conversation between bass and piano opens In the Moment, which goes in a more playful, funky direction reminiscent of Fox. Smile is a journey rather than a destination, opening with a very artfully implied, latin-tinged menace, then slowly brightens, up to a cheerily circling piano riff and neoromantic variations, wryly interpolating the old standard.

Desert Song begins as a hushed, plaintive, slow ballad against Lemm’s shadowy cymbals, glittering with chromatics, Mintus then building a distantly troubled anthem in the same vein as the album’s opening track. A dip where the band pulls apart gingerly contrasts with Mintus’ big, spiraling crescendo: sounds like they finally made it to the oasis.

Mintus’ allusively Middle Eastern solo improvisation introduces Coban Sirto, a whirlingly carnivalesque Balkan dance fueled by Lemm’s rat-a-tat on the toms, Mintus’ twistedly swaying circus riffs and Shmerling’s leaping, bounding insistence. The final cut is My Ideal, Mintus solo, slicing and dicing with Errol Garner-ish flair and a playful spaciousness. The best piano trio album of 2017 by a mile, so far.

Petros Klampanis Debuts His Hauntingly Sweeping New Chamber Jazz Project

Bassist Petros Klampanis is one of New York’s most eclectic sidemen, equally sought after for straight-up jazz, Middle Eastern and Greek music. But his greatest strength is as a composer and bandleader. His compositions draw on all of those influences as well as classical music. As you might expect from someone who grew up on a Greek island, he likes minor keys and chromatics, but also lush strings: his arrangements, awash in eerie close harmonies, are unique in jazz and something he’s clearly proud of, if the merch section on the front of his webpage is any indication. His most recent album, Minor Dispute blends broodingly cinematic themes with Greek folk-influenced material and some lively postbop. But his greatest achievement yet is his work with his new chamber jazz ensemble Chroma. This past evening at the Onassis Center in midtown, Klampanis the big band – Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Shai Maestro on piano, John Hadfield and Keita Ogawa on percussion and a hefty string section – through a dynamic set of mostly new material.

Klampanis explained to the sold-out crowd that the inspiration for the group name, and the title of their forthconing album – the Greek word for “color” – draw on the kaleidoscopoic nature of individual experience. Several of the early numbers in the set built from moody, neoromantically nocturnal Maestro piano intros, the first up to a maze of polyrhythms that came together as the piano and twin percussion spiraled with an almost frantic bustle while Hekselman sailed overhead, choosing his spots. Klampanis sang anthemic, distantly angst-tinged vocalese over the cinematic sweep of the strings as the piano grew more intense and emphatic on what was the catchiest and possibly best number of the evening. The bandleader’s one bass solo of the night bubbled and contrasted with the eerily rising strings behind him, returning to crepuscular ambience that receded down to a series of ghostly, austere washes.

The night’s most kinetic number hinted at the Mission Impossible theme with its polyrhythms, highwire piano and blippy staccato guitar, opening with and later and returning to Philip Glass-like circular riffage and a mighty, crashing crescendo at the end. Likewise, Monkey Business vamped along with a darkly jaunty pulse and wryly effects-laden guitar, again bringing back those ominously opaque strings with a descent into the shadows.

Soulful, expressively melismatic baritone crooner Mavrothi Kontanis sang the night’s big audience hit, a lively jazzed-up take on a cheery Greek bouzouki folk tune. The aptly titled, rhythmically shapeshifting Shadows, by Klampanis’ island-mate Spyros Manesis, rose and fell in quick waves over Maestro’s precise, gravely balletesque piano and the clip-clop rhythm of the two percussionists. Cosmic Patience, a Hekselman tune, began with glistening, black-confetti strewn guitar and quickly hits a suspenseful groove, Klampanis pedaling his syncopation as the tension grows, then the rhythm relaxed and Hekselman took the most trad postbop solo of the night, the strings’ austerity at the end ushering in what by now had become an inevitable, haunting, austere return. For those who had the misfortune to miss this show, Klampanis is reprising it with pretty much the same crew on December 26 at Cornelia St. Cafe with sets at 9 and 10:30; cover is 10 + $10 min.

Avishai Cohen Brings His Pensive, Mysterious Middle Eastern Jazz to Highline Ballroom

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s jazz and classical annex]

Avishai Cohen is on a roll. The Israeli jazz bassist specializes in moody, often haunting compositions which draw equally on Middle Eastern and western classical music as well as jazz. Like another brilliant Israeli jazz bassist, Omer Avital, Cohen has gone deeper into the Middle East lately, although Cohen takes less of the spotlight than Avital typically does, and tends to be more compositionally than improvisationally-inclined. His most recent album, Almah is a blend of Middle Eastern and contemporary classical music and features both oboe and a string quartet. Like Cohen’s two previous efforts, Duende and Aurora, the lineup also includes brilliant third-stream pianist Nitai Hershkovits, who’s joining Cohen along with drummer Daniel Dor for a trio show at Highline Ballroom on June 22 at 8 PM; tix are $30.

Over Cohen’s past three albums, you can see a trajectory unfold and a distinctive, individualistic style continue to evolve. Cohen’s intimate, straightforward, emotionally direct songs without words often take on a Spanish tinge throughout Aurora, which is basically a trio album featuring Shai Maestro on piano with occasional oud from Amos Hoffman and vocalese from Karen Malka. There are plenty of tricky time signatures, generous amounts of rubato, and dynamics galore. Duende, a duo album with Hershkovits, is more rhythmic, swings more and relies more on blues-based tradition rather than the apprehensive chromatics of Aurora – other than the gorgeous theme-and-variations that comprise the former’s opening tracks. Almah has a starkly orchestrated overture, a little minimalist indie classical, austerely rhythmic Arabic melodies, an uneasy lullaby, a couple of bracingly acerbic, chromatically-fueled waltzes, and a bitingly rhythmic, rather ferocious piano feature for Hershkovits that might be its strongest track.

Since Cohen is playing this show with the trio, you can most likely expect lots of stuff from the two older albums and maybe material from even earlier. Settle in, wait for the lights to go down and let the suspense begin.