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No New Abnormal

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A Spare, Edgy, Incisive Jazz Poetry Album From Brilliant Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein has to be the most fearlessly protean violinist in any style of music. Just when you think you have her sussed, she completely flips the script. Beyond her brilliance as an improviser, she’s a master of eerie microtonal music. As a result, she’s constantly in demand, most recently this past weekend at Barbes as part of thereminist Pamelia Stickney’s hypnotically haunting quartet.

But Bernstein’s best music is her own. Her previous release, Propolis was a live benefit album for Planned Parenthood with an alternately stormy and squirrelly improvisational quartet including Alexis Marcelo on keys, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Nick Podgursky on drums. Her latest release, Crazy Lights Shining – streaming at Bandcamp – is with her Unearthish duo featuring percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, a return to the acerbic jazz poetry she was exploring a few years ago. Patti Smith’s adventures in ambient music are a good comparison; Jane LeCroy’s Ohmslice project with Bradford Reed on electronics is another. Bernstein’s playing the album release show on a great triplebill on May 30 at around 10 PM at Wonders of Nature; cover is $10. Similarly edgy, eclectic loopmusic violinist Laura Ortman opens solo at 8, followed by fearlessly relevant no wave-ish songwriter Emilie Lesbros.

“Come in to feel free, no fear,” Bernstein’s echoey, disemodied voice beckons as the album’s initial soundscape, For Plants gets underway. Takeishi’s playfully twinkling bells mingle with Bernstein’s shimmery ambience and resonant, emphatic vocalese.

Bernstein has never sung as storngly as she does here, particularly in the delicately dancing, sardonic Safe:

No one can find you
No one can eat you
You’re not alive
You are safe

Is that a balafon that Takeishi’s using for that rippling, plinking tone, or is that  Bernstein’s violin through a patch?

She subtly caches her microtones in the deceptively catchy, balletesque leaps and bound of Map or Meaningless Map:

…A calm enthusiasm should suffice
The fuzziness of an empty sleep
The rush to extrovert, sure thing!
Expressing can feel like living…

Bernstein’s uneasily echoey pizzicato blends with Takeishi’s rattles in the album’s title track, which could be the metaphorically-charged account of a suicide…or just an escape narrative. In the instrumental version of The Place, the two musicians build from a spare, slowly shifting mood piece to a slowly marching crescendo. A bit later in the vocal version, Bernstein sings rather than speaks: “There are war crimes and recipes and kisses remaining,” she muses.

The acerbically brief Drastic Times starts out as a snippy cut-and-paste piece:

Drastic times require tragic measures?
We live under a system (drastic)
…Like anyplace where thought control is under physical control
..Maybe that will change when the rest has exploded
Drastic time
Maybe that is something to look forward to!

Little Drops follows an allusively twisted narrative into chaos, in the same vein as Meaghan Burke’s most assaultive work. The album’s final cut is the kinetic Four Equals Two, its catchiest and seemingly most composed number, complete with a nifty little drum solo. Count this among the most intriguingly relevant albums of 2018.

Rapturous Nightscapes From an Invisible Orchestra by Pamelia Stickney

Pamelia Stickney is arguably the world’s foremost theremin player. By any standard, she’s done more than anyone else alive to take the original electronic instrument to new places. While most musicians use the early Soviet-era contraption for horror-movie shivers or comedic whistles, Stickney plays melodies on it. At various points in her career, those have ranged from desolate deep-space tableaux to earthy symphonic extravaganzas. At her tantalizingly short set this past weekend at Barbes, she led her ironically titled Transcendental Dissonance Quartet through a similar, stylistically vast expanse of styles, from film noir themes to lowdown latin soul to elegant chamber jazz improvisation.

Stickney plays theremin as if she’s playing a magical, invisible, somewhat cranky bass. Standing perfectly still, her right hand controlling the volume, she bends her left hand at the elbow, expanding her fingers outward to hit the notes. She saves the instrument’s signature, quavery, creaky-door effects for when she really needs to make a point. This time, she opened with a low bass synth sound that George Clinton would undoubtedly love to have in his arsensal.

Meanwhile, Stuart Popejoy – playing piano instead of his usual bass here – delivered tersely incisive, moody variations on a stark, Lynchian theme while Danny Tunick’s vibraphone sprinkled stardust throughout the tableau, violinist Sarah Bernstein completing the picture with airy washes and spare, plaintive  countermelodies. They would stick with this eerie, surreal thousand-layer cake of textures throughout their roughly fifty minutes onstage while Stickney channeled the sound of massed voices, a cello (which she also plays, among many other instruments), and various kinds of brass. Her m.o. is simple: a theremin takes up a lot less space when you’re on tour.

Midway through the set, she moved to the piano for a slowly unfolding, hushed duet with Bernstein, who finally got the chance to move through the magical microtones that have become her stock in trade over the last few years. Then the whole group reconfigured for a final nightscape.

Stickney is back in New York this September, where she’s doing a week at the Stone with a series of ensembles. In the meantime, she’s back on her home turf in Vienna this week, with gigs on May 24 at the Ruprechtskirche at Ruprechtspl. 1 – where she’s playing cello alongside the carnivalesque Hans Tschiritsch & NoMaden – and then on May 25 with her Scrambolage trio with pianist Monika Lang and cellist Melissa Coleman at Roter Salon, Wipplingerstr. 2 at 8 PM; cover is 15€/10€ stud.  And for New Yorkers, Bernstein is playing the album release show for her most lyrically-driven album yet this May 30 at 9ish at Wonders of Nature.

Violinist Sarah Bernstein Brings Her Focused, Sometimes Haunting Improvisation to the West Village

Violinist Sarah Bernstein plays some of the most thoughtfully compelling music of any New York artist. Blending fearless jazz improvisation, indie classical acerbity and the occasional detour in the direction of performance art, her sound is distinctly her own. She’s the rare musician who can shift in a split-second between standard western harmony and microtonal scales and not sound out of tune, in the same vein as Mat Maneri if somewhat less feral. She’s also got a fantastic new album, Still/Free with her quartet – Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Ches Smith on drums – streaming at Bandcamp, and a show on July 31 at 6 (six) PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. The similarly tuneful Jacob Sacks and somewhat less potentially combustible Tomas Fujiwara step in on piano and drums, respectively, for that gig. Cover is $10 plus a $10 food/drink minimum.

The album’s tempos are on the slow side, the mood pensive and exploratory but tightly focused on mood and purpose. For a listener, it’s music to get lost in. Popejoy’s coy peek-a-boo bass riff opens the album and its title track, Bernstein adding an enigmatic edge at the bottom of her register before spiraling her way skyward as Smith builds a sepulchral mist with his cymbals. Davis’ spacious Satie-esque unease anchors’ the rest of the band from there as they venture out, then Bernstein and Davis trade roles. By the end, it’s 180 degrees from where it started.

Likewise, Davis’s lingering, reflecting-pool phrases ground Bernstein’s similarly judicious, deftly microtonal lines in Paper Eyes, which may have been a slow swing ballad in a past life. The band opens Cede with a sardonically marching theme that brings to mind Zach Brock, Bernstein stairstepping with hints of exasperation as the rhythm section hits a brisk stroll, Davis echoing her uncenteredness.

Similar contrasts play out in Nightmorning: Bernstein’s searchingly rising violin over bass and drums that hint at a steady clave; Popejoy’s minimalism versus Davis’ eerie ripples, Bernstein balancing both sides of a conversation at one point. As it unwinds, it brings to mind Jean-Luc Ponty in a particularly brooding moment.

The album’s fifth track, titled 4=, is its most epic, Bernstein’s playfully ghostly riffs over Davis’ glistening gravitas, the whole band working a push-pull dichotomy against the center, up to a pesky mosquitoey Bernstein solo, After taking a carnivalesque march, they hit a vamp which ironically is the album’s most trad, or at least distinctively 21st century jazz interlude.

The only slightly shorter Jazz Camp feels suspiciously like a parody as its circling central hook goes on, and on, and on, the bandleader adding droll spoken-word passages that do double duty as conduction and get funnier as the track keeps going The album winds up with Wind Chime and its echoey, minimalist atmospherics. As she does with this album, it’s a good bet that Bernstein will get both her smile and her rapture on for the show on the 31st.