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Tag: susan alcorn

Rapturous, Eclectic Creative Music This Fall in an Unexpected Chinatown Space

One of this year’s most fascinating and eclectic ongoing free concert series is happening right now at the James Cohan Gallery at 48 Walker St, west of Broadway, in Chinatown. Through mid-October, a parade of improvisers, from Middle Eastern and Indian music to postbop and the furthest reaches of free jazz, are playing solo shows in the midst of Josiah McElheny’s futuristic, outer space-themed exhibit Observations at Night. There’s not much seating but there is plenty of standing room.

Last week’s performance by pedal steel legend Susan Alcorn was rapturous, and haunting, and revealingly intimate. Although she used plenty of extended technique – plucking out flickers of harmonics up by the bridge, generating smudgy whirs by rubbing the strings and, for a couple of crescendos, getting the whole rig resonating like at the end of A Day in the Life – she didn’t use a lot of effects, just a touch of reverb from her amp.

She opened the show like a sitar player, building subtle shades off a dark blues phrase, finally flitting and pinging across the strings to contrast with the stygian buildup. Throughout the night, she talked to the crowd more than usual. She explained that the first of many epiphanies that drew her from her original style, country music, to more harmonically complex styles was when, on the way to a gig, she heard Messiaen’s requiem for war victims and was so blown away that she had to pull off the road to listen to it. She was late to that gig, and it took her over a year to tackle the mail-ordered sheet music for the piece, but it was a life-changing event.

Then she played her own original, which she’d written as a requiem in a more general sense for victims of fascism. The Messiaen influence was striking, right from the stern, chillingly chromatic series of opening chords, but from there she went from eerie close-harmonied minimalism to sudden, horrified leaps and bounds, back to mournful stillness.

She explained that she’d always tried to keep music and politics separate, but that the current climate has made that impossible. From there, she shared her horror at how the ugliness of past decades has returned, on a global scale, particularly in Trumpie xenophobia and anti-refugee hostility here at home. With that, she segued from an austere, unexpectedly rhythmic take of Victor Jara song made famous by Violeta Parra, to a brief, longing coda of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom.

On a similarly outside-the-box if less harrowing note, she made her way methodically from the old countrypolitan ballad I’m Your Toy – which Elvis Costello covered on his Almost Blue album – and then couldn’t resist a verse or two of Almost Blue itself. The man himself couldn’t have been more clever. From there she built reflecting-pool Monk echoes, reveling in the lingering tritones. She closed with an austere, guardedly hopeful take of Song  of the Birds, the moody Catalon folk tune that Pablo Casals would close his infrequent concerts with after he’d gone into exile.

The next show at the gallery is on Sept 25 at 6:30 PM with intense free jazz alto saxophonist Makoto Kawashima.

Uneasy Atmospheres and a Park Slope Gig by Trumpeter Nate Wooley

Trumpeter Nate Wooley has been on the front lines of the New York avant garde for almost twenty years. His latest album Columbia Icefield – streaming at Bandcamp – includes three tracks, two of them about twenty minutes long, a mix of the hypnoic and confrontational, the subdued and the dynamic. His next gig is an enticingly intimate one, at the Old Stone House in Park Slope tomorrow night, April 18 at 8 PM. Cover is $10

The album’s first number, Lionel Trilling begins with an overlapping series of contrastingly calm and agitated loops, spiced here and there with uneasy close harmonies. Ripsnorting textures intrude and then recede; finally a series of recognizable, spare, resonant, Wadada Leo Smith-like trumpet variations move to the center of the sonic picture. Mary Halvorson’s coldly clanging, loopy guitar, Susan Alcorn’s minutely textured pedal steel and Ryan Sawyer’s drum riffs linger and echo in the distance. From there it’s back to loops and then more rhythmic variations: just when the music seems about to drift off into the ether, something unexpected happens.

Seven in the Woods coalesces quickly into a moody dirge, desolate trumpet over lingering guitar jangle. Once the stringed instruments fade out, it grows more rhythmic and warmer, the second part with a lustrous, ambered brass interlude. Spacy bubbles from the guitar push it away; a momentary return once again is interrupted, this time by wailing, randomly shreddy fretwork as the drums tumble. The band bring it elegaically full circle at the end.

With Condolences is the album’s most spare, spacious, Wadada Leo Smith-inflected number, individual voices loosening and diverging, up to a moodily atmospheric series of tectonic shifts as the bandleader intones a nebulously regretful vocal interlude. The return to lustre and then a sense of mourning is unselfconsciously poignant: we’re in deep trouble when all the polar ice is gone. Wadada Leo Smith fans will love this record.

Harrowing Levels of Meaning in Rose Thomas Bannister’s Psychedelic Art-Rock Masterpiece

The best album of 2018 is also one of the shortest. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Rose Thomas Bannister’s third full-length release, Ambition – streaming at Bandcamp – has enormous relevance in an era of narcisssism run amok. She has never sung more subtly or written with more acerbic, sometimes venomous levels of meaning than she does here. Strings and horns in places add both orchestral lushness and smoky jazz flavor to the five constantly shapeshifting, psychedelic tracks. They rank with the A-side of any great lyrical rock record ever made: Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Hannah vs. the Many’s Ghost Stories…and for sheer musical ambition and imaginative orchestration, ELO’s Eldorado.

This is a high-concept album, commissioned for a dance production of Macbeth. Reduced to simplest terms – a dangerous thing to do with Bannister’s work – it’s about violence and understanding its motivations, and its perpetrators. She quotes liberally from Shakespeare, but neither the songs nor the suite as a whole follow the narrative of the play. Betrayal is an ever-present, seething undercurrent.

The title track opens as ominous waltz, with a creepy flurry of guitars – Bob Bannister’s distantly wary Strat along with the bandleader’s steady acoustic:

Star fires
Don’t look at my desires
Bright eye
Don’t look at my hands
Sharp knives
See not the wound it makes
Until i get what’s mine

As the song shifts into a slow, hypnotic 5/4 groove, Greg Talenfeld’s grimacing, contorted lead guitar moves to the forefront, in contrast to the vitriolic elegance of the vocals.

Gary Foster’s drums and Matthew Stein’s bass shift from a wary stroll to tensely circling triplets as Banquo’s Book picks up steam. Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel adds big-sky ambience to this metaphorically loaded saga of birdwatching and then escape:

The moon is getting burnt out
It looks like rain
I stated my opinion
I was never afraid
What time is it my son
Why don’t you hang onto this gun
I don’t believe in fate
But if you can get away I’ll guard the gate

William for the Witches is the album’s most overtly Shakespearean and psychedelic track, opening with sinister theatricality and closing with a surreal exchange of voices, echoing X as much as Arthur Lee:

It’s so easy to make them go crazy
So fun to watch them go to town
So much fun to watch them mow each other down

The jaunty As Birds Do is not about what you might imagine, this being inspired by the Bard and his dirty mind Alcorn’s steel adds surreal Tex-Mex flavor, Erik Lawrence’s gruff sax paired against Steven Levi’s bright cornet for extra sarcasm:

All is the fear, nothing is the love
Little is the wisdom when he fires away
Go back to school yourself
Tell me what is noble, tell me what’s judicious
In these faceless days

The coda, and key to the story is Lady M. which begins broodingly and then rises to another faux-mariachi interlude. The symbolism is murderous:

Have you eaten of the root?
My mother
That takes reason prisoner
Have you swallowed
The bitter pages?
You spurred them on

When Bob Bannister’s sotto-voce vocals loom in low on the next line, “Your children will be kings,” the vengeful sarcasm reaches new levels. Don’t ever, ever mess with a songwriter. You can brutalize them, fight them in court, even steal their children, but they always get even in the end. Rose Thomas Bannister’s next gig is January 19 at 8 PM on a a twinbill at the Jalopy with Americana songstress Erin Durant and Philly Goat

The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show

Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.

Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is. Credit Great Plains gothic songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister for bringing the two together: they first performed in Bannister’s Fort Greene living room.

And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.

Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.

Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.

Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.

Mary Halvorson’s Away With You – Her Biggest Hit

The Mary Halvorson Octet‘s new album Away with You – streaming at Bandcamp – is the latest and most epically entertaining chapter in the career of arguably the most important, and inarguably most individualistic guitarist in jazz since Bill Frisell. As dark and enigmatic as Ilusionary Sea, her previous release with this unit was, this one is 180 degrees the opposite. Halvorson has a devastating sense of humor, and this is the funniest album she’s ever made. She unleashes the most vaudevillian stuff right off the bat. Much of the rest of this suite is as cruelly cynical or subtle as anything she’s ever recorded. Even drummer Ches Smith gets some – in fact, a lot more than drummers get, and drummers are sometimes funny despite themselves.

The opening number could be described as Mostly Other People Do the Killing mashed up with an Anthony Braxton large ensemble, a tongue-in-cheek, snidely blithe theme rather cruelly dissected midway through before the bandleader slings off one of her signature, sardonic punchlines…and then the snarky fun begins all over again. The presence of the irrepressible Jon Irabagon on tenor sax might have something to do with all this levity. Likewise, the title track – which opens as an upbeat new wave rock anthem of sorts before morphing into an uneasily pointillistic march – is a clinic in how to twist a cheery theme inside out, winding up with a desolate Jonathan Finlayson trumpet solo and then Smith’s misterioso solo passage.

The Absolute Almost is the most desolate thing Halvorson has ever recorded – Susan Alcorn’s lapsteel is every bit as woundedly beautiful as anything Big Lazy has ever released. When the band comes in, the circusy. cinematic theme and variations are priceless – and venomous, at least until the end where the devious web of counterpoint unravels elegantly, a sense of calm and closure after the storm.

Sword Barrel kicks off as an enigmatically attractive, distantly twinkling, Hawaiian-tinged march, but a wistful, pastoral Irabagon solo goes haywire and pulls everyone toward chaos before Finlayson emerges as the voice of reason. Old King Misfit opens with Halvorson and bassist John Hebert kicking the ball around amiably before the band brings that offcenter march theme back, the bandleader playing steady, eerie, watery chords that eventually fly off into the recesses of her pedalboard while everybody else falls away, like one of those blooming onions you find at street fairs.

Halvorson’s moodily terse guitar and Hebert’s bass stroll behind Jacob Garchik’s similarly pensive trombone as Fog Bank gets underway; then Halvorson spirals and flits away, a forest of sprites emerging from the mist! When the march returns, by now it’s unmistakable that Halvorson has a clear view of the direction all this is going in, and it’s not going to be an easy ride. The album’s final number is Safety Orange – the siren motif in the early going makes an apt centerpiece in the post-9/11 era, eventually bringing back the march in an allusively shambling Tom Csatari vein. Be grateful that you’re around to witness this music as it’s coming out: future generations will be jealous.

Other than at the insanely overpriced Bleecker Street festival coming up, Halvorson doesn’t have any octet shows listed on her gig page, but she is playing tonight, Jan 3 at around 9 PM at I-Beam as one third of the Out Louds with drummer Tomas Fujiwara and multi-reedman Ben Goldberg, improvising music inspired by plant species at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Cover is $15.

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

Two of New York’s Best Psychedelic Acts and an Indie Stalwart at Cake Shop on the 13th

The headliner of the triplebill this Sunday night, Sept 13 at Cake Shop will most likely draw an older, 90s indie crowd. Hamish Kilgour, who plays at 11, is best known for his work with aptly named New Zealand indie rockers the Clean, whose coolly nebulous sonics influenced a ton of bands back in the day. But that crowd will be balanced, demographically at least, by the two acts who open the night. Ember Schrag, who began her career as a “great plains gothic” tour warrior in the late zeros, has gone deeper and deeper into psychedelia lately: her shows this year with her band have been transcendent. She kicks off the evening at 9 in a rare duo acoustic show with her similarly superb lead guitarist, Bob Bannister. Then she’s leaving Monday morning to go on tour as the organist for another dark psychedelic outfit, the Balkan-infused Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores.

Schrag’s latest album, a live recording and free download in the Folkadelphia Sessions series, offers a look at what Schrag does with a band: it capturs them at the peak of their subtle powers. The opening track, Lady M sets the stage, the guitar interweave between Schrag and Bannister so tight that it seems like a single, otherworldly, rippling twelve-stirng – until he cuts loose with a wry Tex-Mex-flavored solo. Meanwhile, Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel soars elegantly in the background. Schrag has a Macbeth fixation: the chorus of “your children will be kings” cuts both ways, in true Shakespearean fashion.

Iowa, an older song, has been a live showstopper lately, a slowly swaying ballad heavy as stormclouds over the Midwest. Schrag takes a series of three metaphorically-charged roadside images, weaves them into one of the most menacing, apocalyptic songs released this year, and sings the hell out of it. Schrag has a thing for taking biblical imagery and turning it inside out, and this is a prime example.

Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe packs the iconoclastic wallop of PiL’s Religion, but a thousand times more subtly, with its spiky, psychedelic sway. The final cut, The Real Penelope, works a misty, opaque groove fueled by drummer Gary Foster’s masterful malletwork: it’s the most hypnotic and enigmatic track here, capped off with a slowly spiraling, acid-wah Bannister solo. You’ll see this album on the best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year if we all last that long.

Another album that’ll be on that page is the latest release from the 10 PM act,  Goddess – the full review is here. It was also great fun to catch the band play a rare house concert in south Brooklyn a couple of months back.That phantasmatorical, tragicomic psychedelic suite opened with singer Fran Pado soaring over a a mashup of jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Abbey Road Beatles, introducing the tale of “Grinny,” a witchy figure who takes over a New Jersey family, who then struggle to break free of the evil spell that paralyzes them.

As the tale unwound, Andy Newman’s enveloping, shapeshifting keyboard textures took centerstage, then receded, then returned, in an early Genesis vein. An eerily twinkling, strummy folk-rock number followed: “Grinny was great on Halloween,” Pado revealed as the mellotron oscillated in the background. The band took a twisted bit of neo-plainchant and made a mantra-like groove out of it as Newman let his flute settings resonate above while the narrative grew grimmer. After a bit of a waltz, a spacious, minimalist intro grew slowly into a march, with hauntingly echoey vocal counterpart between Pado and one-string violinist Tamalyn Miler, who then took the creepiest solo of the night as the song built to a horrified peak. The band worked that suspensefully lustrous/macabre dynamic for the rest of the show, capped off by Miller’s shivery glissandos: it wouldn’t be fair to give away the ending.

Goddess will also be on WFMU at midnight on 9/15, joined by Bannister, Leah Coloff, and Peter Zummo, who will also be part of the festivities at the Cake Shop gig. Cover is $10.