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Beninghove’s Hangmen Release Their Most Savagely Cinematic Noir Instrumental Album

In the jazz world, Bryan Beninghove is known as a monster tenor and soprano saxophonist and a connoisseur of Romany swing. But he’s also one of this era’s great film composers. His most interesting project may be his noir instrumental band, Beninghove’s Hangmen. Their previous two original albums both ranked in the top five of the year here; their new one, Pineapples and Ashtrays – streaming at Bandcamp – is their most eclectic, twistedly picturesque and definitely their funniest. Much as Beninghove’s creepy riffage and rainswept themes make him one of the small handful of film score writers who deserve mention alongside Angelo Badalamenti, he also has a snide, deviously erudite sense of humor and that’s front and center here. The band are playing the album release show on May 26 at around 10 at the Citizen, 332 2nd St. in Jersey City, about six blocks from the Grove St. Path station.

The album opens with Astronete, arguably the most sarcastic cha-cha ever written. Beninghove distinguishes himself with a faux-bubbly Rhodes piano solo, treble turned up to the point of distortion; guitarist Dane Johnson takes it out with some gritty metallic blues.

On one hand, the title track is your basic musical dialectic: bad cop vs. good cop, Jason stalking his unsuspecting prey. On the other, it gives you pause: the band hold their sarcasm close enough in check, and dive into the menace with so much relish, that they just might be serious after all. It starts off as a menacingly altered bolero, then the scenes shift through a balmy ranchera, cornpone C&W and a twinkling Hawaiian tableau. Meanwhile, the bolero theme winds up, then winds down, Rick Parker’s looming trombone and Johnson’s clenched-teeth monster surf guitar front and center.

Lola Gotta Gun is a very clever, Lynchian dub reggae mashup of Lola and Happiness Is a Warm Gun. La Girafe is a showcase for Beninghove’s subtle side, which is ironic considering how over-the-top cartoonish this loping, happy-go-lucky theme is. The best joke is cruel, it’s in French and it’s too good to give away here

Roebuck – a shout-out to the Staples Singers’ patriarch Roebuck Staples – opens as a simmering, misterioso Quincy Jones summer night theme and builds to a methodical but very uneasy sway on the wings of Johnson’s dark blues lines and Beninghove’s shivery red-neon tenor work. The careening, self-explanatory Elephant Stampede echoes the band’s expertly buffoonish Zohove album, a collection of instrumental Led Zep covers.

The lone cover here is a pretty icky Neil Diamond ditty that other bands have tried to make noir out of. It’s not up to the level of Beninghove’s originals, although it does bring to mind a teenage, trenchcoated Diamond lingering outside the girls’ yeshiva somewhere in Midwood, staring at a nine-year-old and thinking to himself, girl, you’ll be a woman soon enough. The album winds up with Terminator, which sounds like Nine Inch Nails taking a stab at a New Orleans second-line groove, as funny as it is ugly. Much as we’re still in April, there’s no way anybody’s going to release a more cinematically entertaining album than this in 2016.

Last night, it was viscerally painful to walk out on the band as they launched into the lickety-split monster surf of H-Bomb, considering how expertly feral their set had been up to that point. Has the leader of any band ever to play Otto’s Shrunken Head ever instructed his players to pay attention to volume and dynamics? Beninghove did, and the crew – this time including bass powerhouse Ezra Gale, guitarist Sean Kiely and drummer Sean Baltazor – delivered, through a scorchingly psychedelic set including ferociously expansive takes of macabre, chromatically-charged surf classics like Surf ‘n Turk and Surfin’ Satie as well as a trippy version of Lola Gotta Gun and an amped-up roadhouse blues-infused Roebuck.

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu Evoke the Horror of Living Under Tyranny

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu debuted their harrowingly cinematic duo project last night at Spectrum. An attempt to sonically portray life under oppressive political regimes, some of the music had the icy, technopocalyptic shifts of late 80s Brad Fiedel film scores. As the series of electroacoustic themes segued into each other, the music grew somewhat more kinetic and eventually hit a horror-stricken peak, coming full circle at the end. A one-man orchestra with a Les Paul and a laptop, Helvacioglu methodically and meticulously built lingering, grey-sky atmospherics while Azmeh played simple, plaintive, elegaic modes, eventually rising to the kind of effortlessly serpentine phrasing that characterizes much of his work as a bandleader.

Woven into the music were brief snippets from speeches by the three Assads of Syria and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. It would be extreme to characterize the autocrats’ stridency and fervor as Hitlerian, but the similarity was unmistakable. Azmeh wove a lattice of uneasily leaping, chattering phrases as Helvacioglu built a somber backdrop of nebulous cumulo-nimbus washes and echoey deep-space pulses. It came across as perhaps an Anatolian take on Steve Reich. Spare, funereal, belltone guitar phrases built to a desolate echo chamber; Steven Severin’s film scores and Sava Marinkovic’s rainy-day tableaux came to mind.

As the suite went on, Helvacioglu’s lines became more incisive and less atmospheric, like a minimalist David Gilmour. Likewise, Azmeh’s phrases grew more animated and ornamented, sometimes with a lamenting wail, sometimes as a possible call to arms, with just the occasional hint of Middle Eastern microtones.Dynamics rose froma whisper to a single blast from a terrified vortex, then back down to echoing pools of sound with a lingering, ever-present menace, a symphony of sorrowful wartime songs. “That was intense,” Helvacioglu remarked to Azmeh, a little out of breath, after the show. He wasn’t kidding. Look for more duo performances by these two, as well as an upcoming National Sawduat show on April 17 at 9 PM with Azmeh leading his Middle Eastern jazz band. Tix for that one are $25.

Tom Csatari Brings His Individualistic, Tuneful Pastorales and Improvisations to Barbes

Guitarist Tom Csatari writes some of the most distinctive and thoughtfully compelling music of any composer in New York right now. With epic film soundtrack sweep, the improvisational flair of jazz and grey-sky postrock atmosphere, his work for both large and small groups transcends genre. It’s just good, and it can get dark when the band veers away from pastoral colors. Csatari is bringing his Uncivilized large ensemble to Barbes on March 16 at 8 PM. What they do is well capsulized by the epic track Escarpments (up at Soundcloud), hypnotic post-Velvets meets 70s blaxploitation soundtrack meets chamber noir.

Csatari’s most recent album is with that ensemble and shares its name with them; there are a few numbers from it up at Bandcamp. His most recent release to come over the transom here is Outro Waltz, streaming at his music page. It’s an ambitious double album, the first comprising original compositions, the second a live set of originals and covers recorded at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Csatari’s lineup on this one is only slightly less ornate: along with fellow guitarist Cam Kapoor, there’s Levon Henry on tenor sax and clarinets, Adriel Williams on violin, Ross Gallagher on bass and R.J. Miller on drums. Csatari distinguished himself from the legions of hipper-than-thou jazz guitarists out there in that he’s not afraid of melody and doesn’t feel constrained to play stereotypical jazz voicings or use complicated harmony where a simple major or minor, or a spare, gently emphatic phrase would make more of a point. Bill Frisell seems the most obvious influence, although Jimmy Giuffre and the Claudia Quintet also seems like reference points.

Guitars and percussion open the album with a gamelan-tinged, atmospheric miniature. The group follows that with New Boots, a gorgeously plaintive, trippily jangly pastorale, then Nolan, a purposeful wistful, swaying tone poem with tender sax and violin.

The epic Uncivilized playfully hints at bluegrass; Csatari’s slide guitar and the band’s tricky syncopation give it a desert rock feel transposed to the Eastern Seaboard that eventually decays into a surrealistic improvisation. The warily hazy El Morrisony opens with swirling guitars and bass clarinet over a steady pulsing shuffle spiced with stark violin.

Rawlings II veers between twinkling deep space pulsar sonics and a wistful folk theme, deconstructed. Blues for Robbie mashes up enigmatic 80s indie jangle, pensive Americana and an artfully disguised, Doorsy roadhouse groove. After Plastic shifts elegantly between a loping C&W-inspired theme and a loosely pulsing cinematic vamp. Likewise, Wharfs & Drifts, between angst-fueled guitars and jauntily shuffling violin in tandem with the rhythm section.

With Legion, the band builds fluttery unease over a slow spacerock vamp that the guitars eventually take waltzing. The last of the studio tracks is Sisters, slowly coalescing to a clustering, tensely bubbling interlude and then up toward rock anthemics before descending gracefully.

The live album opens with the band making a long, gospel-infused intro of sorts out of Lee Morgan’s Search for the New Land, gently decaying into lingering atmospherics. Thelonious Monk’s Light Blue shuffles coyly between swing and offcenter deconstruction, while Elliott Smith’s Speed Trials reverts to a wistful, swaying nocturnal vein, with an indian summer tenor sax solo by Kyle Wilson at the center. The first original here, Curationisms segues out of it with a return to jangly but purposefully strolling contemplation.

Kingsnoth blends lush sweep and amiably ambling interplay that hints at dixieland but doesn’t go there. Chris Weisman’s The Winning Blues again looks back toward Frisell, in lingering anthemic mode: by the end, it’s a straight-up rock song. Miller, who’s been giving all this a gently swaying groove, finally gets to cut loose as Water Park Rodeo slowly comes together out of starlit guitars to an ominously shivery theme and then an unexpected detour toward 70s psychedelic soul. Call this what you want – jazz, rock, film score – it’s music to get lost in.

Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy in Brooklyn: Noir Music Heaven

Considering that we’re only in March, it’s hardly safe to say that the twinbill coming up this Monday the 14th at around 9 at Manhattan Inn, with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy, is the best one of the year. The April 15, 10 PM doublebill of Desert Flower and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons, at Sidewalk, of all places, looks awfully good. And there will be others. But as far as dark and blackly amusing sounds are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than Monday’s lineup in Greenpoint.

Big Lazy’s set last Friday night at Barbes was surprisingly quirky. Gallows humor, and funny quotes from other songs are familiar tropes for the noir cinematic trio, but frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich was having an especially good time with them: Mission Impossible, My Funny Valentine, Caravan – which Ulrich has covered murderously well in the past – and a whole bunch of others. And a trio of creepy cover tunes: Girl, by the Beatles, a stabbing version of an Astor Piazzolla tango and an absolutely lurid take of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, with a savagely tremolo-picked solo midway through.

It was kind of a weird night, if a good one. The crowd wasn’t the usual mobscene that this band draws. Out front at the bar, it looked like the prom bus from Jersey or somewhere in Alabama had just disembarked. Scarier than Big Lazy’s originals – even Park Slope isn’t safe from yuppie puppy zombie apocalypse anymore. But in back, people were dancing in an oasis of reverb guitar and pitchblende basslines.

This Monday’s opening act, Beninghove’s Hangmen work the same turf: raindrenched wee hours crime jazz tableaux and more overtly humorous interludes. Like Ulrich, frontman/multi-saxophonist Bryan Beninghove gets a lot of film work, so his instrumentals can shift shape from, say, blithe to brutal in a split second and the segue doesn’t seem the least bit jarring. Case in point: the title track to their deliciously creepy upcoming album, Pineapples & Ashtrays.

And they’re more of a jamband than Big Lazy. While a lot of their material can be grim, and ghoulish, and sometimes downright morose, they can also be hilarious. The best example is Zohove, their instrumental album of Led Zep covers, streaming at Spotify.. Zep’s music can be awfully funny by itself, and Beninghove’s reimaginings are even funnier.

On the opening track, Kashmir, Rick Parker’s elephantine trombone snorts and Beninghove’s spectacularly swirling soprano sax lines over the stomp behind it elevate it to Vesuvius heights. Heavy new wave rhythm from drummer Kevin Shea (of another even funnier band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Ezra Gale (of dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi, who are also hardly strangers to funny songs) might be the last thing you might expect to work in a cover of Misty Mountain Hop, but it does. And the guitar is trippy behond belief: Eyal Maoz’s droll Spinal Tap bends over Dane Johnson’s Jabba the Hut Space Lounge electro-breakdown.

What Is and What Never Should Be is a droll mashup of quotes:You Can’t Just Get What You Want, ad infinitum. Likewise, the album’s title track, a sort of a greatest-riffs collection, cleverly disassembled in the same vein as what you find in how-to books like “Play Guitar in the Style of Tony Iommi.”

The group’s version of Immigrant Song substitutes Bennghove’s sax and Parker’s trombone for Robert Plant’s bleat – and it’s priceless. A shivery twin guitar solo decays toward the noir the band’s known for, over dancing bass to match Beninghove’s bluesy tenor spirals

It’s amazing how they reinvent D’yer Maker as uneasy, metrically tricky noir ska, and then an Afrobeat epic, And the Specials quote at the end is LMFAO too. The album ends with a slinking, incendiary take of When the Levee Breaks fueled by blue-flame slide guitar worthy of Jimmy Page himself. It’s the one place on the album where the band actually seems to take the material seriously, and it might be the best track of all. Get this and get a roomful of Zep fans laughing their collective asses off. Beninghove’s Hangmen usually play at least one Zep cover at most of their shows, so we’re likely to get some of this buffoonery Monday night in Brooklyn.

Film Noir Instrumentalists Big Lazy and Italian Singer Julia Patinella Haunt the Crowd at Barbes

As the story goes, Julia Patinella‘s first live appearance at Barbes lasted for about two bars.worth of music “But what two bars!” said Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich, as he introduced the singer early in the band’s set there last month. The two first met in the wee hours there. She’d done what a lot of musicians do when it’s past midnight and the bands are finished: she broke out her guitar and took a stab at entertaining her friends with a couple of Italian folk songs, completely unplugged.

Uh uh. Like a lot of venues, Barbes has a strict curfew on music, and they enforce it. But unlike the bartender who did the enforcing, Ulrich was entranced. Being a devotee of Italian music and heavily influenced by both Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, Ulrich asked Patinella if she’d sing with the band. The result turned out to be a couple of hauntingly affecting, nocturnally lilting numbers, the first with Romany tinges, the second a playful commentary on how women deserve just as much fun in the sack as guys do, complete with sardonically low-key orgasmic vocalese. And as comfortable as she was with this material, maybe considering her Sicilian heritage, this was something of a departure for her since she’s focused mostly on flamenco lately. Years from now, when Patinella is playing big stages around the globe, she can tell the world that she was discovered by Big Lazy.

For their part, the iconic noir instrumental trio hung back with a moody jangle to match Patinella’s nuance. Their own material was just as dynamic, and considerably darker, as you would expect from this creepy crew. Their show on New Year’s Day here featured a lot of highway themes and big-sky ambience: this set was a particularly murderous one. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow more than usual, painting pitchblend swaths underneath Ulrich’s lurid chromatics, lingering blues phrases drenched in reverb, and the occasional savage flurry of tremolo-picking. It’s a mystery how this guy manages not to break strings.

Mystery was the theme for the rest of the show, part horror surf, part crime jazz, part shapeshifting cinematic sweep. Drummer Yuval Lion seemed more amped than usual as the band stabbed and pulsed through a cover of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion #5, then later the surrealistic sprint Princess Nicotine – a new theme for an old silent short from the 20s. Otherwise, the menace was relentless, through the slinky shadows of Don’t Cross Myrtle, Swampesque and one of the creepiest songs of the night, Influenza, which Ulrich wryly pondered about renaming. If dark sounds are your thing, Big Lazy are your band. Their monthly Friday night Barbes residency continues this Friday, March 4 at 10. T’hey’re also at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint on March 14 at around 9 on what might be the years’s best twinbill, with similarly macabre, surfy, shapeshifting soundtrack instrumentalists Beninghove’s Hangmen.

Tim Kuhl’s St. Helena Build a Sound to Get Lost In at the Ace Hotel

Drummer Tim Kuhl‘s group St. Helena play some of the trippiest, most cinematic music of any band in New York. Current-day film composers from Angelo Badalamenti to Johann Johannsson seem to be an influence, as are minimalism, indie classical and jazz. The band are wrapping up their weekly February residency with a show at around 10 PM on February 28 in the comfortably spacious, lowlit lobby at the Ace Hotel (the old Breslin apartments building) at 20 W 29th St. just east of Broadway. There’s no cover, and there’s a laid-back bar just to the right of the elevators if you’d like a drink.

Their show this past Sunday was hypnotic, and enveloping, and absolutely entrancing in places. Kuhl is your typical elite drummer, with his fingers in a million pies – he’s also a jazz bandleader, when he’s not on tour with any number of rock bands, or playing a Manhattan residency as a member of folk noir crew Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons. This time out, Kuhl led the band from behind the kit, bolstered by Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on syndrums, Jesske Hume on bass, Ryan Mackstaller on guitar and keys and Rick Parker on trombone, keys and mixer. There were also a couple of guest vocalists, one who did a surreallistically insistent spoken word cameo, working in tandem with the band to create a Lynchian newschool beat-jazz atmosphere.

What this band does live is what most other atmospheric acts would use electronics for – which is a big reason why they’re so interesting to watch. Midway through the set, Kuhl matched precision with raw power as he built a polar vortex of white noise with his cymbals, later employing a scrap heap worth of iron shakers for a creepy, ghostly effect. Rather than using a loop pedal, Hume took a tricky repetitive riff in 5/4 and played it slowly, over and over, with a precision to match the drums: no easy task.

The show followed a dynamic arc, slowly rising and then descending. Mackstaller built toward a twinkling fanfare with his echoey, minimalist lines as Kuhl slowly rolled out of a quasi-trip-hop groove toward a shuffling march beat. From there they worked a steady, slowly strolling 10/4 rhythm colored with warmly resonant, pastoral washes from Mackstaller’s guitar and looming, distantly ominous foghorn phrases from Parker’s trombone. Once again, Kuhl shifted meters so subtly that it wasn’t noticeable til it actually happened.

They picked things up with a dreampop-tinged postrock mood piece, again alluding to trip-hop but not quite going there. Then they brought things down with a surrealistically tremoloing sci-fi waltz of sorts before picking up the pace with what seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek, rhythmically shifting take on a New Orleans second-line bounce. Clanking prison-cell sonics contrasted with ghostly stairstepping bass amid the swirl as the show went on. They closed with a broodingly wistful, Lynchian theme and then a nebulously crescendoing motorik groove. No doubt there will be just as many trance-inducing flavors flickering in the shadows here this coming weekend.

Gato Loco Play Explosive, Cinematic Noir Latin Sounds at Joe’s Pub

When a trio of smart, stylish, resourceful women – Nicole (a.k.a. Coley), Lindsay and her vivacious mom Sue – conspire to take over the best table in the house, and then ask you to join them, do you resist? That would have been impossible. Things like that happen at a Gato Loco show.

It’s hard to imagine a set of more explosively dynamic noir music anywhere in New York this year than the “psycho mambo” group’s show at Joe’s Pub a week ago Friday. The energy was Gogol Bordello-level – and they did it without lyrics, and with a pair of frontmen who played bass sax and trombone, respectively. Bandleader/multi-reedman Stefan Zeniuk’s expansively cinematic, toweringly crescendoing latin themes smoldered and slunk and scampered and often blazed for minutes on end, carried at gale force by an amazing band.

Zeniuk started out uncharacteristically on tenor sax but was soon back on his usual bass model, switching back and forth several times, often in the same song, at least when he wasn’t playing bass clarinet – this guy lives for the lows. Teaming with him to anchor them  were “Tuba Joe” Exley and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen (leader of exciting new ska band Pangari & the Socialites). Trombonist Tim Vaughn spent the duration of the show centerstage, literally, and made the most of it, whether looming, blasting or negotiating Zeniuk’s haripin-turn changes with soulful, resonant aplomb. Drummer Kevin Garcia – also of the similarly menacing Karla Rose & the Thorns – teamed with percussionist Matt Hurley as the grooves rose from lowdown to frenetic and everywhere in between while the trumpets of Jackie Coleman and Evan Honse, Rachel Drehmann’s french horn and Lily Maase’s eclectically virtuosic guitar blazed overhead.

The night’s opening number, The Big Sleep, began with Hurley’s rumbling digeridoo, then Maase led them into an ominous stroll with hints of mariachi and swing jazz, Zeniuk’s sirening solo kicking off a twisted New Orleans theme that they finally wound down from, slowly and elegantly. Die, You Sucka! – the first of a trio of sureral, darkly frantic Keystone Kops themes – sounded like the Bad Brains taking a stab at scoring a Mack Sennett film, then Garcia wound it down with a misterioso rimshot groove, Maase’s savage chords bringing it back to redline as the trumpets punched at the ceiling.

The Sound & The Fury rode a slow sway, an Isaac Hayes soul criminnal theme with a John Zorn punk jazz edge giving way to a cruel parody of a patriotic march, interchanging with oldschool disco and a bit of beefed-up, brassy lowrider funk. The best number of the night, counterintuitively, was the quiest and most morose one, Orphans of the Storm, a hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged dirge: Zeniuk’s edgily chromatic bass solo, going way into the depths, was both the low point – in a sonic sense – and high point of the show.

From there they sprinted through another Keystone Kops number: as over-the-top as it was, the low/high contrasts in Zeniuk’s chart, and how the band edged it almost imperceptibly into creepier territory were artful to the extreme, and Zeniuk’s phony go-go interlude was just plain funny. A lingering, Cuban-tinged waterside nocturne, a lustrously melancholy, gospel-tinged interlude for the horns and a pretty straight-up salsa number that suddenly morphed into a frantic circus rock narrative were next on the bill.

They reprised Die You Sucka! even more wildly then they played it the first time around, Maase’s jagged riffage underneath the night’s most far-out free jazz-influenced passage, then hitting a vaudevillian pulse on the outro. They closed with Caridad, which sounded like a Cuban version of a moody mid-70s Burning Spear reggae theme, Maase finally getting a solo and a big round of applause for her sunbaked, psychedelic funk explosion. They took it out doublespeed with a series of irresistibly funny false endings. And a terrorist baritone sax quartet – Kevin Danenberg, Jessica Lurie, Josh Sinton and Maria Eisen – stormed in and made a surprise appearance midway through the show before joining onstage at the end. All this, except maybe for the terrorists, is immortalized on Gato Loco’s album The Enchanted Messa.

A Surreal, Paradigm-Shifting Night of Music and Film at the Asia Society

On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities

The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.

The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.

The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.

Darkly Cinematic Pianist Romain Collin’s New Album Transcends Category

Pianist Romain Collin is one of those rare artists who can’t be pigeonholed. His music defies description. Much of it has the epic sweep and picturesque quality of film music, although his noir-tinged new album, Press Enter is not connected, at least at the moment, to any visual component other than your imagination. Some of it you could call indie classical, since there are echoes of contemporary composers throughout all but one of its ten tracks. And while it’s not jazz per se, it ends with a muted, wee hours solo piano street scene take of Thelonious Monk’s Round About Midnight. For those of you who might be in town over the Thanksgiving holiday, Collin and his long-running trio, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott are playing a three-night stand, November 27-29 at Iridium at 8:30 PM.Cover is $27.50.

The opening track, 99 (alternate title, at least from the mp3s this blog received: Bales of Pot). Is it a reggae number? Nope. It’s a brief series of variations on a tersely circling, Philip Glass-inspired theme. If Rick Wakeman could have figured out how to stay within himself after, say, 1973, he might have sounded something like this. Like Clockwork, true to its title, takes that motorik riff and then expands on it, with echoes of both Glass and Keith Jarrett, slowing it down for more of an anthemic sweep. It sets the stage for how Collin will use his trademark textures – acoustic piano echoed by very subtle electroacoustic textures, from simple reverb, to doubletracking on electric keys, to light ambient touches.

Raw, Scorched & Untethered actually comes across as anything but those things: it’s a stately, brooding quasi horror film theme that picks up with a jackhammer insistence, in the same vein as Clint Mansell might do. Cellist Laura Metcalf adds elegantly austere textures as she does in places here. Holocene hints that it’s going to simply follow a rather effete series of indie rock changes but then edges toward pensive pastoral jazz before rising with a catchy main-title gravitas and then moving lower into the reflecting pool again. The Kids circles back toward the opening track, but with a wry, Monkish sensibility (although that whistling is awful and really disrupts the kind of subtly amusing narrative Collin could build here without it).

The darkest, creepiest and most epic track is Webs, alternating between stormy menace and more morose foreshadowing over stygian, bell-like low lefthand accents. Another menacing knockout is Event Horizon, which eerily commenorates the eventual exoneration – courtesy of the Innocence Project – of seven wrongfully convicted men. Separating them, San Luis Obispo is an unexpected and pretty straight-up take of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Color. Collin then reverts to no-nonsense macabre staccato sonics with The Line (Dividing Good and Evil). The album isn’t up at the usual places on the web, although there are three tracks streaming at ACT Records’ site, and Collin has an immense amount of eclectic material up at his Soundcloud page.

Iconic Noir Pianist Ran Blake Offers a Dark Salute to the Great George Russell

It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.

Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.

Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.

Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.

The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.

One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.

There’ll be a best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year, and this will be on it. On the other hand, this album deserves a page all its own: there’s nothing in its category released this year that can compare. Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.