New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: susan alcorn

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

A Resonant, Dynamic, Sometimes Haunting New Album by Pedal Steel Icon Susan Alcorn

Susan Alcorn is this era’s great master of jazz pedal steel. Her music can be stark and haunting, vast and atmospheric, but also riotously funny. If Buddy Emmons was the Charlie Parker of the pedal steel, Alcorn is its Messiaen. Her new quintet album Pedernal is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the title track, the bandleader’s spare, desolate minor-key blues theme joined by bassist Michael Formanek’s looming accents and then an altered march from drummer Ryan Sawyer as guitarist Mary Halvorson shadows the melody. They pulse in and out of space bubbles, get loopy and coyly chaotic, with a fleeting break for violinist Mark Feldman before returning to an Appalachian ballad without words.

Circular Ruins, inspired by a Utah landscape, has Alcorn at the center of an acidic pool, the band around her fililng out the space with uneasy atmospherics or jagged accents. A subtly playful violin/bass conversation over Sawyer’s muted flutter finally draws Alcorn back into the picture, where she adds echoing, otherworldly, gonglike accents, Feldman fueling an austere haze. The ending will give you goosebumps: this place is haunted!

R.U.R. is Alcorn in amusing mode, with a tongue-in-cheek, quasi-cartoon theme, warpy bubbles from the guitar and steel over a floating swing that drops out as the carbonation bubbles over. The austere washes afterward only last so long before Alcorn brings the revelry back.

The album’s big epic is Night in Gdansk, keeningly atmospheric at first and then slowly coalescing: the way the whole band throw off sparks alluding to a calm folk ballad is artful to the extreme. Hints of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann filter through persistently uneasy ambience; austere resonance alternates with playful, clustering squiggles and blips.

They close the album with Northeast Rising Sun, a rousing, anthemic portrait of Alcorn’s native Baltimore that evokes early Pat Metheny without the ubiquitous chorus pedal. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the year. 

Transcendence and Trials at Winter Jazzfest 2020

One of the high points of Winter Jazzfest 2020 was a rock song.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Firing off clanging, reverb-fanged minor chords from her white Fender Jaguar, Becca Stevens sang her steadily crescendoing anthem I Will Avenge You with just enough distance to make the inevitable all the more grim. Connections to a famous hippie songwriter and steampunk Broadway show aside, it was validating to see her pack the Poisson Rouge to open last night’s Manhattan marathon of shows.

She’s lost none of the livewire intensity she had in the days when she used to front a surrealistically entertaining cover band, the Bjorkestra, ten-odd years ago. Her own material is just as artsy and outside-the-box: it’s what would have been called art-rock back in the 70s, but with a 90s trip-hop influence (Portishead at their most orchestral) instead of, say, Genesis. Drummer Jordan Perlson and bassist Chris Tordini gave a snap to the songs’ tricky metrics, lead guitarist Jan Esbra adding terse colors, keyboardist Michelle Willis bubbling and rippling and soaring with her vocal harmonies. The songs ranged from an uneasily dancing setting of a Shakespeare text from Romeo and Juliet, to a dizzyingly circling ukulele tune, to Tillery, the subtly soukous-inflected anthem that Stevens typically opens with. “Without love there is nothing,” was the singalong chorus. True enough: that’s why we do this stuff.

A few blocks east at the Zurcher Gallery, singer Sara Serpa raised the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, or so it seemed at the moment. With barely a pause between songs, she led a tightly focused lustrous quartet – longtime partner and saturnine influence Andre Matos on guitar, Dov Manski on piano and analog synth, and Jesse Simpson on drums – through a glistening, sometimes pointillistic, sometimes shatteringly plaintive set of songs without words.

Serpa didn’t sing any actual lyrics until the unexpectedly playful final song, relying instead on her signature vocalese. While she’s best known as a purveyor of misty, airy, frequently noir sonics, she’s developed stunning new power, especially on the low end – although she used that very judiciously. The most haunting song of the night came across as a mashup of Chano Dominguez and Procol Harum at their most quietly brooding, with a ghostly avenger out front. Matos’ steady, purposeful, meticulously nuanced chords and fills anchored Manski’s often otherworldly textures and eerie belltones as Simpson maintained a steady, suspenseful flutter with his bundles.

Over at Zinc Bar, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack led a New York version of her Seismic Belt septet, playing shapeshiftingly emphatic, anthemic, eco-disaster themed material from her fantastic 2019 album of the same name. The music seemed to still be coalescing, but that observation might be colored by the situation where the bar wasn’t letting people stand in the inner room close to the band, as they had in the past, and what was being piped into the front area through a couple of tinny speakers wasn’t enough to compete with a chatty crowd. The bandleader’s soulful, cantabile tone rose and fell gracefully and mingled with the sometimes stark, occasionally lush textures of violinist Sarah Bernstein, violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Lisa Hoppe, expansively dynamic baritone saxophonist Chris Credit, pianist Kai Ono and drummer Jacob Shandling. Boshnack’s voice is full of color and sparkle, just like her horn: she should sing more. Chet Baker may have left us, but Boshnack would be a welcome addition to the trumpeter/singer demimonde.

That there would be such a packed house in the basement of a snooty new Lafayette Street tourist bar, gathered to see the debut of pedal steel paradigm-shifter Susan Alcorn‘s new quintet, speaks to the exponential increase in interest in improvisation at the highest level. That the band had such potent material to work with didn’t hurt. Alcorn’s tunesmithing can be as devastatingly sad as her stage presence and banter is devastatingly funny.

Drummer Ryan Sawyer – most recently witnessed swinging the hell out of a set by Rev. Vince Anderson a couple of weeks ago – sank his sticks into a diving bell of a press roll that Alcorn pulled shivering to the surface in a trail of sparks. Violinist Mark Feldman’s searingly precise downward cadenza out of a long, matter-of-factly circling Michael Formanek bass crescendo was just as much of a thrill. Guitarist Mary Halvorson echoed the bandleader’s sudden swells and sharply disappearing vistas with her volume pedal.

There was a lot of sublime new material in the set. They began with a poignant, 19th century gospel-infused minor-key number that disintegrated into a surreal reflecting pool before returning, austere and darkly ambered. An even more angst-fueled, lingering diptych began as a refection on a battle with food poisoning, Alcorn deadpanned: from the sound of that, it could have killed her. Later portraits of New Mexico mountain terrain and a Utah “circular ruin” gave the band plenty of room to expand on similarly stark themes. The coyly galloping romp out at the end of the catchy, concluding pastoral jazz number offered irresistibly amusing relief.

Winter Jazzfest has expanded to the point where it seems it’s now a lot easier to get in to see pretty much whoever you want to see – at least this year, from this point of view. Even so, there’s always triage. Matthew Shipp at the Nuyorican, what a serendipitous match…but the Nuyorican is a good fifteen-minute shlep from the Bleecker Street strip, just on the cusp of where a taxi driver would think you’re really lame for not hoofing it over to Alphabet City.

Cuban-born pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his irrepressible quartet at Subculture were much closer. There’s always been a fine line between salsa and jazz and for this show, this crew – with Mayquel Gonzalez on trumpet, Gaston Joya on five-string bass and the bandleader’s brother Ruy on drums – sided with bringing the first kind of party. In a spirited duet, it turned out that the bandleader’s bro is a more than competent and equally extrovert pianist, when he wasn’t riffing expertly on his snare like a timbalero. The group shifted from long, vampy, percussive cascades to classically-flavored interludes, including a catchy Leo Brouwer ballad that Lopez-Nussa used as a rollercoaster to engage the crowd. What a beautiful, sonically pristine venue, and what a shame that, beyond a weekly Sunday morning classical concert series, the space isn’t used for music anymore. They probably couldn’t put the Poisson Rouge out of business – who would want that bar’s cheesy Jersey cover bands, anyway – but they could steal all their classical and jazz acts.

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.