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Thumbscrew Put Their Signature Twist on Popular Standards and Obscurities

If you count guitarist Mary Halvorson’s latest ferociously good album Code Girl, she and the Thumbscrew rhythm section – bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara – have put out three albums in about the past six months. That’s a Guided By Voices pace. It’s not likely that they’ll pass the Ohioans in terms of mammoth output, but by any standard, the trio collective are on a rare creative tear. They have two brand-new albums out – the first, a collection of originals simply titled Ours, is streaming at Cuneiform Records and got the full treatment on this page a couple of days ago. Today’s installment focuses on the second of those releases, Theirs, a covers collection also up at Cuneiform. The band will be airing out all of those tunes at their upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10ish starting on July 17.

Every good musician knows that if you’re going to cover somebody else’s song, you either have to do it completely differently, or do it better than the original. And if a song’s worth covering at all, that can be a tall order. What’s most surprising about this playlist is how trad it is. You might think that these three veterans of the New York progressive jazz scene might use an opportunity like this to bigup one of their pals like Kris Davis, or do one of Tom Rainey’s crazy charts. Nope. Instead, this is three of the most formidable players in all of jazz at the top of their game, putting a characteristically individualistic, often iconoclastic spin on a mix of well-known and somewhat more obscure material.

The main difference between the originals and covers albums is night and day – more or less. The covers are shorter and funnier, and Halvorson more often than not plays them with a cleaner tone. The first is Stablemates, by Benny Golson: both Halvorson and Formanek get their offkilter EFX going for a space lounge feel as Fujiwara gives it a low-key, peppery swing.

Halvorson plays tiptoeing serial killer, making jaunty noir out of Benzinho, a Jacob Do Bandolim samba. The guitarist lets the chromatics of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting linger a little more over the rhythm section’s muted swing: Fujiwara’s terse breaks and sardonically skipping phrasing elevate this kind of material far beyond its dancefloor origins without losing that groove.

A gazillion bands have tackled Jimmy Rowles’ brooding classic The Peacocks; Thumbscrew’s downcast dirge might be the best of all of them, Halvorson parsing the melody sparsely over Formanek’s similarly judicious accents and Fujiwara’s misty brushwork. After that masterpiece, they blow off some steam with a frantic, messy leap into a loose, highly improvised take of East of the Sun.

Their remake of the schlocky waltz Scarlet Ribbons has a brushy, straight-up 4/4 Fujiwara beat, Halvorson leaving her warpy envelope pedal on for maximum surrealism: it’s actually quite pretty despite itself. Buen Amigo, by Argentine composer Julio De Caro gets a sparse Big Lazy tango noir treatment: Fujiwara’s offcenter accents here are one of the album’s high points.

The group’s choice of Dance Cadaverous as a Wayne Shorter cover makes a lot of sense in context: it’s more expansive than the original, both rhythmically and melodically, Helvorson gently tremolo-picking her way into an increasingly thorny thicket. The album’s last two tracks are waltzes. Stanley Cowell’s Effi is the album’s most trad cut, with just enough warpy guitar sonics to add a little disquiet. Weer is een dag voorbij (Stormy Day), by the clown prince of Dutch jazz, Instant Composers Pool founder Misha Mengelberg, is the album’s enigmatic, bittersweet conclusion, Halvorson and then Formanek quietly reveling in its subtle shift into the shadows over Fujiwara’s snowy brushwork. Overall, these may not be quite as darkly magical as Thumbscrew’s new originals, but they’re pretty close.

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Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

Haunting, Serpentine Majesty with the Tomeka Reid Quartet at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, the Tomeka Reid Quartet limited their savagery to when they really needed to drive a point home. But when they unleashed their inner beasts, the results were sublime.

On one hand, the music swung like crazy, driven by the relentless pulse of bassist Jason Roebke and ever-more-ubiquitous drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who was in as trad mode as he ever gets). On the other, Reid’s compositions can be as dark, and frequently haunting, as they are kinetic and rooted in decades of swing tradition.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson brought her big hollowbody Guild. Was this going to be showcase of too-cool-for-school hardbop voicings? No way. She was a little more restrained than usual, but it wasn’t long before she worked up a murderous thicket of machete tremolo-picking. It would be several songs into the set before she hit her pedalboard and took the tonalities into Jabba the Hut’s outer space lounge. Otherwise, she anchored the songs with expansive series of chords, sparred with Reid, or let her enigmatic phrases linger during the set’s more brooding moments.

Reid also chose her spots. Conventional wisdom is that low-register instrumentalists have no fear of the dark side, and that’s certainly true of Reid, although most of  this set was pretty upbeat. She saved her menacing upward swipes, stark stygian chords and ghostly glissandos – as well as some droll theremin-like harmonics – for when she really needed them. Otherwise, her melody, whether bowed or plucked, swung close to the ground.

The night’s darkest number was a sort of a terse Big Lazy noir cinematic theme with pedaled bass, a cello melody, martial beat and a harried crescendo that more that hinted at cello metal. Another ominous tune embodied resonant, uneasy Wadada Leo Smith blues and starkly modal Amir ElSaffar tonalities, the trio of Reid, Halvorson and Roebke following a tense rubato path.

They opened with a spiky, New Orleans-flavored shuffle and closed with a wary, serpentine piece spiced with the bandleader’s ominous, modal cello trading against Halvorson’s judicious rises and falls, which was a frequent dynamic throughout the show. In between, other highlights included a tune that came across as loopy, dark soukous, along with a staggeredly enigmatic saloon-swing mini-epic, in addition to unexpected detours toward roots reggae, dub and early 80s Pat Metheny. Notwithstanding all the gravitas, everybody in the band seemed comfortable with throwing in an occasional rhythmic swipe for levity’s sake.

Reid’s next New York show is on May 23 at 8:30 PM at the new Stone as part of guitarist Joe Morris‘ quartet. The Bang on a Can organization, who booked this show as this month’s installment of their monthly series at the Jewish Museum, are putting on their annual ten-plus-hour marathon this May 13 starting at noon at NYU’s Skirball Center at LaGuardia and Washington Square South. Admission is free, but get there early if you’re going.

Gravitas and Great Fun at Tomas Fujiwara’s Stone Residency This Week

Tomas Fujiwara isn’t just one of the most sought-after drummers in jazz; he’s also one of the most concisely tuneful drummer-composers out there. Among his fellow percussionists, the only one whose work ranks with his over the past few years is John Hollenbeck, although Fujiwara’s compositions are a lot less byzantine and more improvisationally oriented. He’s doing a stand this week at the Stone, with shows nightly at 8:30 PM through this Sunday; cover is $20. The one that everybody’s going to want to go to – and get to early – is Saturday night, April 14, with his two-guitar Triple Double sextet, which includes both Mary Halvorson and Ava Mendoza on guitars. The “Double Double” show tomorrow night – Halvorson and Bill Frisell on guitars, Fujiwara and Kendrick Scott on drums – will also obviously sell out.

Last night’s performance was a rapturous trio set with Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and Ole Mathisen on tenor sax, reflecting the musicians’ long association and camaraderie. On one hand, it was something of a reprise of their transcendent set in January of last year at the Fridman Gallery, except that ElSaffar was at the helm that time. This time out they played two numbers, the second a practically fifty-minute suite punctuated by numerous pregnant pauses. Both works gave the group plenty of space to expand on somberly terse, translucent phrases with brooding harmonies, crescendoing  judiciously through a long series of variations.

The opening tune had more of Fujiwara’s signature wit, in this case popping up in “wait-for-it” moments that weren’t quite vaudevillian, and droll flourishes leaping out of a series of altered press rolls. ElSaffar, who’s usually a cipher onstage, couldn’t keep himself from grinning. And the trumpeter’s influenced seemed to permeate the whole set, at least as far as gravitas is concerned – although his role here was to simmer and percolate when he wasn’t exchanging long tectonic phrases with Mathisen. Fujiwara built suspense with mallets on the toms, developing a slowly rising series of waves punctuated by lots of space and some wry doppler and echo effects.

His persistent, protean presence permeated the long suite, whether with muted mallet murmurs, brushy mist or finally a sober sway when he broke out his sticks. Mathisen, charged with the darker role here, lingered in the shadows or moved forward with a moody melodicism, sometimes trading off with ElSaffar or anchoring the trumpet’s increasingly complex, cellular spontaneity.

The crowd was intimate; it was akin to sharing a backstage moment with some of this era’s greatest jazz minds. “Come back tomorrow,” Fujiwara grinned; it’s a good bet some of them will. As a reminder to those who haven’t been to the Stone recently, the old Avenue C space is gone for good; the shows are now held in the comfortable ground-floor Glass Box Theatre at the New School at 55 W 13th St.

The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

The 100 Best Songs of 2017

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to stream it, click on the artist name for their webpage.

It was tempting to pick one of the segments of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s new release, Fukushima, as the best song of the year. But the single most relevant and mesmerizing album of 2017 is best heard as a contiguous suite. Taking one of its five movements out of context would spoil the experience. And it’s nowhere to be found online at the moment, anyway.

In lieu of that, the single best song of 2017, Kitten, by Dennis Davison, is still in the embryonic stage. It wasn’t released by a record label, or even recorded in a studio. It reached this blog as a voice memo, just vocals and guitar in a practice space. The frontman of cult favorite psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen has written a lot of great songs over the years, but this one is the most harrowing. On the surface, it’s about a homeless guy who finds a kitten. He’s in trouble: he lives by the exit sign. And this is not a sweet love-conquers-all narrative. It’s a wish song – and a portrait of terminal depression as vivid and chilling as anything Phil Ochs or Ian Curtis ever wrote. And it’s as catchy as it is depressed.

Rather than trying to rank the other 99 songs here, they’re listed in rough chronological order of when they were either received or witnessed onstage. Rather than regurgitating the Best Albums of 2017 list, this one has a lot of songs that either haven’t been officially released, or were just so amazing to see live over the past year that it wouldn’t be fair to exclude them. Same rules as last year: one song per band or artist. Otherwise, half this list would be Ward White and Amir ElSaffar, and that would be counterproductive. You can go down the rabbit hole with any of the hundred artists on this list all by yourself without any further help from this blog.

Ward WhiteCoffee Maker
A pair of accomplices grow more desperate by the hour in this catchy yet characteristically enigmatic, Charming Disaster-esque post-murder narrative. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless. From the even more inscrutable As Consolation, best rock album of 2017.

Jack GraceGet Out of Brooklyn
The baritone Americana crooner’s somber, heartbreaking requiem for a pre-real estate bubble New York. “The place held its own ground, the rivers separated where you bothered to go – really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in.” From the album Everything I Say Is a Lie.

The Dream Syndicate  – Like Mary
The most harrowing track on Steve Wynn’s recently regrouped, legendary 80s band’s new album How Did I Find Myself Here is a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)
A vast, oceanic Iraqi-flavored lament from the paradigm-shifting trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s Middle Eastern orchestral jazz group’s latest album Not Two. 

The Sadies – The Good Years
A brisk shuffle beat beneath hypnotically lingering guitars in this chilling Nashville gothic elegy for a disastrous marriage: “She couldn’t wait to clean out the place he occupied.” From the album Northern Passages.

Alice Lee – Your Blues
A savagely lyrical, spot-on soul anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner from the ex-New York singer/multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new album The Wheel.

Charming Disaster – What Remains
The New York noir supergroup– led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – slink their way through this chillingly allusive post-murder narrative inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s The River. From the album Cautionary Tales.

Los WemblersSonido Amazonico
A brand-new version of the eerie, slinky national anthem of psychedelic cumbia, which the Peruvian band wrote and first recorded almost fifty years ago. This one’s a lot longer and more psychedelic than any other version in existence, Chicha Libre’s included. From their unlikely and amazing comeback album Ikaro Del Amor.

 Sofia TalvikLullaby
Catchy, anthemic and resolutely optimistic on the surface: “Still you wish you were dead.” When the Nordic Americana songwriter played this at the American Folk Art Museum this past spring, you could have heard a pin drop. From the album Big Sky Country.

Castle Black – Broken Bright Star
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s evil, spare icepick intro kicks off this slowly marauding anthem that eventually explodes in a fireball of reverb. From the album Trapped Under All You Know.

Morricone YouthClunes Town
Del Shannon mashed up with Ennio Morricone – makes sense, right? – with distantly ghostly multitracked Karla Rose vocals. From the band’s Mad Max soundtrack

LusterlitCeremony
Frontwoman/drummer Susan Hwang gives this long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Cormac McCarthy-inspired anthem her most luridly Lynchian vocal ever. From the album List of Equipment.

Lorraine LeckieAmerica Weeping
Leonard Cohen died the day before the fateful 2016 Presidential election. This careening psychedelic riff-rocker is the eclectic bandleader’s anguished response. Free download!

Son of SkooshnyUntold History
With Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, this is one of the band’s harder-rocking numbers, Mark Breyer’s chillingly autobiographical account of growing up amid all sorts of familial and social Cold War-era dysfunction. From the album Matchless Gifts.

Aimee MannLies of Summer
Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, this mutedly depressed orchestral rock tale doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end. From the album Mental Illness.

Brian Carpenter & the ConfessionsCity on Fire
The Ghost Train Orchestra trumpeter/bandleader plays keys and guitar and lends his baritone voice to this brilliantly Lynchian band, duetting with chanteuse Jen Kenneally in this slinky, bolero-tinged smash. They managed to steal the spotlight from Big Lazy on a Friday night in the East Village last month, no joke. 

Changing ModesDust
Awash in orchestral keys and troubled close harmonies from the band’s two frontwomen, this slowly crescendoing apocalypse anthem makes an apt coda to the New York art-rock band’s brilliant album Goodbye Theodora.

James Williamson and Deniz TekNo Sense of Crime
The best and most death-obsessed track from the Stooges’ immortal Kill City album, reinvented as lush, poignant, similarly opiated acoustic parlor rock. Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy adds plaintive high harmonies, with violin from Petra Haden. From the killer, wryly titled ep Acoustic K.O.

Miramar  – Sin Ti
A psychedelically Lynchian, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged bolero, the highlight of the Virginia group’s show at Drom back in January.

Joshua GarciaThat’s the Way You Drop a Bomb
Oldschool first-wave-style folk revival narrative as one of the crew of the Enola Gay might have heard it. Chililng beyond belief, and a staple of the New York songwriter’s live show.

Greek JudasKontrabandistas
A drug-smuggling anthem from the 1930s Greek underworld reinvented as searing, menacing, twin guitar-fueled metal. From the band’s brand-new debut album. 

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions
Motorik Pulp-style new wave satire of yuppie status-grubbing. Llittle do they know how much corporations are taking advantage of them. From the album Whiteout Conditions.

Kerem Guney – Sicak Bir Sevda
Is it fair to put a haunting Turkish psychedelic rock anthem from the late 70s – like the Doors with an electric saz – on a list of 2017 songs? It hasn’t been released outside Turkey until the Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation came out earlier this year. 

MeszecsinkaHajnalban (At Dawn) – fifteen minutes of evil shamanic post-Velvets Balkan crash and wail from this phantasmagorical female-fronted Balkan group. Another band who killed it back in January at Drom.

Jaye BartellSwim Colleen
With his deadpan baritone and reverb-drenched, spare guitar hooks, nobody’s better at allusive macabre narratives than this guy. From his album In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exaltation.

Carol LipnikMy Piano
Stately, graceful art-rock eco-disaster parable: after all, pianos are made from trees. Her vocal crescendo will give you goosebumps. She and pianist Matt Kanelos held the crowd rapt with this at Pangea back in January.

The Jigsaw SeenMy Name Is Tom
A rare successful mashup of dark Indian raga theme and American psychedelic rock, and one of the LA band’s most iconic songs. They ripped the roof off with this at Bowery Electric back in March.. From their latest album For the Discriminating Completist.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The iconic noir pianist and the brilliant jazz singer outdo Dylan’s original. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in this exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk. From their album Town & Country.

Rev. Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir End of the World
The fearless environmental activist and his mighty, roughly sixty-member choir opened their towering Prospect Park Bandshell set this past summer with this ominous original gospel tune: “Only so many beautiful days on earth!”

The Robert Sabin Dectet – Ghost
A portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space and moody horns. From the bassist’s album Humanity Part II with his lushly cinematic large ensemble

Gacaltooyo Band – Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know)
Never before released outside of Somalia, this late 70s jam is a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here. From the compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

The Mehmet Polat TrioEverything Is in You
Joined by kora and ney flute, the brilliant Turkish oudist shifts between otherworldly Middle Eastern modes, Asia and Africa in this pensive epic. From the album Ask Your Heart

Black Lesbian FishermenRagged Ritual
This trippy, practically fifteen-minute drone-rock dirge has subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestically macabre, resonant swirl of organ and guitar. From the album Ectopic Apiary.

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A mashup of growling go-go funk, horror surf, Middle Eastern music and the Doors, it’s a staple of Brooklyn’s funnest band’s live show.

NO ICELeave Her Alone
Musically, it’s a bitter, fiery soul-rock anthem. Lyrically, it’s one of the year’s classiest numbers: cool guys don’t harass women. From the Brooklyn band’s amazingly multistylistic, fun debut full-length album Come On Feel the NO ICE.

Orkesta MendozaContra La Marea
The  briskly strutting noir centerpiece of the slinky psychedelic mambo/cumbia band’s latest album ¡Vamos A Guarachar!, brooding baritone sax and clarinet alongside bandleader Sergio Mendoza’s reverberating guitar multitracks.

The Trio JoubranLaytaka
The gorgeously fluttering, understatedly elegaic intro to the oud-playing brothers’ album and DVD A’Lombre Des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), their tribute to their longtime collaborator, iconic Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. They mesmerized the crowd with this at their Lincoln Center show this past June.

Doug Wieselman’s Trio S  Dreambox
A cello drone and flickers from the drums underpin the bandleader’s moody Balkan melismas. building to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – the high point of their new album Somewhere Glimmer.

Money Chicha – Tamborcita
The most epic number on the debut album by the Austin psychedelic cumbia monsters (a spinoff of the slightly less psychedelic Grupo Fantasma), simmering and swooshing with ominous chromatics, reverb guitar and dub tinges.

Ella AtlasLeave Me in Blue
The most darkly lingering, epically sweeping track on 2017’s best debut album, The Road to Now, the Lynchian first release by enigmatic singer Tarrah Maria and Lost Patrol guitarist Steven Masucci.

King Gizzard & the Lizard WizardOpen Water
A hash-smuggling Red Sea speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks. From the album Flying Microtonal Banana.

Timatim FitfitLiving in the City
A stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family from the menacing, carnivalesque solo album The Sugar Man, a creepy side project by Orphan Jane accordionist Tim Cluff.

Omar SouleymanMawal
An uncharacteristically slow, hauntingly violin-driven refugee’s lament from the gruff Syrian-born crooner’s album To Syria With Love.

Clint Mansell – Wheatfield With Crows
With its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes, this is where the film composer’s score to the Van Gogh movie Loving Vincent breaks into a scream.

 What Cheer? Brigade Black Cannon
Sort of a swaying Balkan brass Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the East Coast’s largest brass band’s album You Can’t See Inside of Me.

The Legendary Shack Shakers  – White Devil
“White is the color of hipsters,” frontman JD Wilkes snarls as this noir blues stomps along, flickering with out-of-tune piano and Rod Hamdallah’s screaming distorted guitar. From the album After You’ve Gone.

BobtownMagilla Lee
New York’s best folk noir band blend their charming voices for this blithely bouncy narrative about “true meditation through medication” with dire consequences. They slayed with this at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival.

Nicole Atkins  I Love Living Here
A slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem set in 2017 Brooklyn gentrifier hell. From the noir soul singer’s latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee.

Anbessa OrchestraNagatti Si Jedha
The Israeli-American Ethio-jazz band jam the hell out of this uneasily catchy, slinky, reverb guitar-driven anthem, a mashup of vintage soul and ancient African riffs, when they play it live. From their most recent ep.

Red Baraat – Gaadi of Truth
Fiery, chromatic horn-driven live bhangra with a little hip-hop flavor: like an Indian Slavic Soul Party. From the album Bhangra Pirates.

The Sirius QuartetSpidey Falls!
This high-voltage microtonal string epic is part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann, part Piazzolla and part turbocharged tarantella.

Rahim AlHajChant
The Iraqi-born oudist and his trio entertained the crowd at Lincoln Center this past spring with an intimate version of this uneasily bouncy, subtly sardonic theme inspired by his mom trying to keep her kids out of trouble. This video link above is the full orchestrated version

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta – Red
Slinky, luridly organ-driven psychedelic cumbia mixed up withChicano Batman-style psychedelic soul. From the album Fonografic.

Nina Diaz – Star
Towering, angst-fueled noir punk cabaret, like a mashup of Vera Beren and Nicole Atkins. From the Girl in a Coma’s excellent debut album The Beat Is Dead.

Kalyani SinghEllis
An allusively grisly Ellis Island scenario set to a soaring Indian carnatic melody recast as gothic Americana – told from the point of view of a ghost. Or is she? You could have heard a pin drop when Singh sang this at the American Folk Art Museum last year. 

The NYChillharmonicBlumen
A lush, hypnotic, uneasily circling Radiohead-inflected epic from singer Sara McDonald’s mighty 22-piece New York band, who mash up big band jazz and symphonic rock. They raised the roof with this at Joe’s Pub last spring.

Dalava – The Bloody Wall
A murder victim haunts the crime scene over almost imperceptibly crescendoing art-rock in guitarist Aram Bajakian and singer Julia Ulehla’s reinvention of this old Moravian folk tune from their latest album The Book of Transfigurations.

Electric YouthIt’s Them
The Canadian duo’s enveloping, slowly crescendoing take on a classic Lynch film theme – in this case, for a movie that never came out. From the album Breathing.

Mulatu AstatkeYekatit
The godfather of Ethio-jazz, backed by an impressively tight pickup band including keyboardist Jason Lindner and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, kept the uneasy, brassy groove going for almost fifteen minutes with this classic in Central Park back in August.

Los Crema Paraiso – Shine On You Crazy Diablo
The cinematic Venezuelan psychedelic trio have been playing their deadpan version of the Pink Floyd epic all the way through in concert. for more than a year now. They didn’t extend it all the way through at Barbes back in July, but it was still amazing how they can recreate it while adding wry dub tinges. This is a similar, relatively brief eight-minute studio version.

Melissa & the MannequinsCan’t Let Go
The latest deliciously catchy, jangly single from New York’s best new band of 2017; bittersweetly coy vocals, ringing guitars and a little vintage soul too. 

BrigaBela Sum
Mesmerizing singer Eva Salina and Balkan accordionist Sergiu Popa join the Quebecoise violinist on this broodingly gorgeous ballad from the album Femme.

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
The title track, and most distinctively chromatic, Balkan-flavored anthem from the debut album by New York’s largest and most explosive brass band.

 Sofia Rei – Arriba Quemando El Sol
The stark Violeta Parra peasant’s lament reinvented as relentless, marching art-rock fueled by Marc Ribot’s unhinged guitar. From the album El Gavilan.

Kelly GreenCulture Shock
A bustling, epic noir jazz theme that eventually descends into dissociative Sketches of Spain allusions, flutters loosely and then jumps back into the rat race again. Centerpiece of the album  Life Rearranged.

David Smooke & the Peabody Wind Ensemble – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The epic, sixteen-minute title track to the toy pianist’s new album is a real cinematic showstopper. Horrified tritone cadenzas, thunderous swells, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and then toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

Mike Neer’s Steelonious – Off Minor
Smoking steel guitar, organ and a rhythm section take Thelonious Monk’s classic to the next Lynchian level. From the band’s debut album.

Vigen HovsepyanGulo
The most haunting track on the powerful Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist’s new album Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music is this slowly swaying 6/8 piano ballad.

La Mar EnfortunaAman Minush
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and singer Jennifer Charles’ Sephardic art-rock side project made entrancing psychedelic rock out this darkly bouncy old tune at their November show at the Jewish Museum

Noura Mint SeymaliSoub Hanak
A microtonal duskcore anthem, the most straight-up rock number from the fearless jamband leader’s album Arbina.

Hilary DownesSecrets of Birds
The art-rock songwriter’s band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,”…yet, “I am not afraid of the  darkness in my way.”

Trina Basu & Arun RamamurthySindhu Bhairavi
Haunting, edgy, hypnoticallly dueling Indian violins – since this live recording from their amazing Noguchi Museum show in September is an audio-only clip, it’s tantalizingly hard to figure out who’s playing what.

The Hooten Hollers – Scrapper’s Lament
An amusing, amped-up oldschool country ballad about the joys of scrounging for scrap metal – a perfect job in these new depression times. From the band’s 2017 album.

Borbely Mihaly Polygon2/1
A bouncy, uneasy, staccato Hungarian bass clarinet/cimbalom/drums theme, one of the highlights of the trio’s amazing show at Drom back in January.

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple DoubleLove & Protest
Mournful, spacious blues trumpet over a twin-drum stampede spiced with burns and scrapes from guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook: Wadada Leo Smith clarity and Amir ElSaffar majesty. From the group’s debut album.

River CultShadow Out of Time
Epic Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth slides into galloping post-Sabbath in this careening live track from the heavy psych band’s latest ep Live at WFMU.

Bridget KibbeyToccata in D
This is the famous J.S. Bach organ piece that’s been used in a million horror movies…played solo, matter-of-factly and celestially, on the harp. It’s as funny as it is subversive, but ultimately it’s still arguably the creepiest piece of music ever written. A downtown crowd at the Times Arrow Festival earlier this year didn’t know what to make of it. 

Dawn ObergNothing Rhymes With Orange
The most bleakly hilarious song of the year is this sharp, literary middle finger raised at “Putin’s little bitch” in the Oval Office. Title track from the parlor pop pianist’s latest ep.

Kacy & Clayton – A Certain Kind of Memory
A dead ringer for Jenifer Jackson in wounded dark country mode circa 2007, down to the slow, lingering, Richard Thompson-esque arrangement. From the album The Siren’s Song.

Super Yamba BandControl Per Capita (C.P.C.)
One of the Brooklyn psychedelic Afrobeat band’s most lavish, funky jams. They got a packed house at Barbes boiling over with this last summer. 

 Chicano BatmanThe Taker Story
A anti-imperialist broadside, part Isaac Hayes hot butter, part Gil Scott-Heron, with a hazy latin tint from the psychedelic latin soul stars’ latest album Freedom Is Free.

Marcellus HallStill in Range
The ex-White Hassle frontman treated a Williamsburg crowd to an unexpectedly slashing take of this deviously allusive, pouncingly catchy, sardonic social media-era critique last spring. From the album Afterglow.

The Klezmatics – The Yoke
A crushingly bitter Catalan dirge told from a slave’s point of view, the highlight of NYC’s original klezmer punks’ latest album Apikorsom/Heretics. They held a Central Park crowd rapt with this last summer. 

Agnes ObelTrojan Horses
Creepy horror-movie piano and dark low strings anchor the evil, whispery harmonies of this moody Nordic art-rock waltz from the album Citizen of Glass.

 Pokey LaFargeSilent Movies
An offhandedly stinging, sarcastically swinging oldschool soul anthem for an era of selfie overkill. He and his band motored through this at Bowery Ballroom back in July. From the album Manic Revelations.

Algiers – Cleveland
A fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem, part noir gospel, part postrock, part postapocalyptic film theme from the band’s second album The Underside of Power.

Paris ComboBonne Nouvelle
Big bustling noir swing tune with a bitter undercurrent from a darker, more lyrically hilarious French counterpart to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. From the album Tako Tsubo.

Bridget KearneyLiving in a Cave
Orbison noir through the prism of 2017 new wave revival. From the Lake Street Dive bassist’s excellent, catchy debut album Won’t Let You Down.

Gold DimeDisinterested
The side project by Talk Normal’s Andrya Ambro punctuates this surreal drone-rock epic with all kinds of delicious, darkly explosive riffage. From the band’s debut album Nerves.

The Dirty Bourbon River ShowPoor Boy, Rich Girl
A sly steamboat-soul slap upside the head of an easy target – but some targets deserve to be hit upside the head. From the album The Flying Musical Circus.

 Meaghan BurkeGowanus
A swirling, theatrical orchestrated rock lament from the charismatic cello rock songwriter’s new album Creature Comforts.

The Ed Palermo Big BandOpen Up Said the World At the Door
A wry big band jazz cover of the haphazardly careening Jeff Lynne cult favorite from the Move’s 1970 Looking On album that perfectly crystalizes the angst-fueled bustle the original was shooting for. From the album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2.

Touched By GhoulMurder Circus
The title track from the darkly enigmatic, female-fronted Chicago punk/postrock band’s debut album works artfully cynical variations on a familiar carnival theme. 

 Marta SanchezScillar
The jazz pianist and her band artfully shift roles in this broodingly modal, looping, haunting elegy of sorts. From her new quintet album Danza Imposible.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80African Dreams
“Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist,” the torchbearer of the original Nigerian Afrobeat legacy remarked at his Central Park show this past summer before launching into this pouncing, undulating cautionary tale for those who might want to play that game.  

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Gin & Juice
A deadpan, operatic orchestral cover of the Snoop Dogg driving-while-wasted classic. For real. They killed with this in Harlem back in March.

NehedarThe Grudge
Broodingly punchy 60s psych pop with coy 80s new wave tinges and a deliciously vengeful lyric. “Wanna step on me so you can rise to a better pedigree?…Put the claws back in your kitty paws.”

 Ani Cordero – Culebra
Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in this kinetic number from the fearless protest song specialist. From the album Querido Mundo.

Maximo ParkWork and Then Wait
A defiant 99-percenter singalong anthem, sort of a cross between mid-90s Blur and an artsy dance act like the Cat Empire. From the album Risk to Exist.

The PorchistasMr. Chump
Which raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin. This orange-wigged creep is a “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in: “Eats shit!” From the album Axis & Allies.

GalanosFeel Good
Echoey and surreal, this macabre, whispery, reverb-drenched noir theme slowly coalesces out of a Lynchian spoken word interlude laced with evil guitar flickers. From the album Deceiver Receiver.

Darkness and Revelry in Equal Measure in Tomas Fujiwara’s Brilliant New Triple Double Album

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s music is all about creating a mood, and narratives, and destinations, and all the fun a band can have with interplay and conversations and occasional jousting on the way there. For all of those reasons, he’s one of the busiest guys in jazz. The musicianship on his new album Triple Double – soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – is as deep as his address book. Just the fact that he’s got two of the most ferocious guitarists on the planet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook sparring with each other makes this a must-own for fans of dark, gritty, occasionally hilarious music.

It’s pretty high concept: in addition to the guitars, there are two horns – Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet – and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair. It’s akin to a  more improvisational, less assaultive take on percussive British guitar band Action Beat, . In an interesting stroke of fate, Seabrook also put out a ferociously good new double-drum album, wryly titled Die Trommel Fatale, earlier this year. Fujiwara and the band are playing the album release show on Sept 22 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $22.

The fun starts right ffom the first few bars of the squirrelly two-guitar conversation that opens the first track, Diving For Quarters. For the listener, it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who, especially as a long, rather grim crescendo slowly builds. Looming brass contrasts with a squall or two as Fujiwara swings with his work boots on, Alessi taking a long latin noir-infused solo up to a gleeful thunderstorm of drums and guitar swipes.

Likewise, Alessi chooses his moments in a long solo that bisects the leering storm and skronk of the two guitars and drumkits in Blueberry Eyes, Halvorson in the left channel, Seabrook in the right throwing blast after distorted blast at each other. Suddenly the sky clears and they’re following a circular, allusively New Orleans-tinged shuffle as Bynum comes to the front. Even as some sweet brass harmonies take over at the end, Halvorson can’t wait to let it trail out with a down-the-drain rattle.

A gloomy rainy-day ambience, astringent guitars over spare drums and cymbals, pervades Hurry Home, a psychedelic tone poem of sorts. Pocket Pass makes a flailing contrast, packed with blazing trumpet spirals, snarky kiss-off guitars, Halvorson’s bad cop against Seabrook’s deadpan good cop. All of a sudden it straightens out (as much as anything straightens out on this album) in a dark latin direction.

For Alan opens with a droll spoken-word sample of a ten-year-old Fujiwara in conversation with his mentor Alan Dawson, who encourages him to have a good time within the parameters. “If a cymbal falls in, if the pedal breaks, whatever.” This matter-of-factly rising Cleaver-Fujiwara duel stays on the rails even as flurries in each channel diverge: the chase is on! Eight-minute pieces for drums alone are rarely this entertaining.

An elegaic, mournful horn melody rises over the drums’ tumble and crush as Love and Protest coalesces, bolstered by Seabrook’s eerie, reverberating belltones and echo effects as the menacing cloud darkens. It’s finally punctured by Alessi, but even he’s eventually subsumed in the vortex. Halvorson artfully takes over the slasher role as the dirge returns.

Notwithstanding all the uneasy close harmonies, Decisive Shadow is awfully catchy, especially when the horns kick in, up to a trickily shifting, insistent vamp with a contrastingly ebullient Alessi solo. Halvorson’s shears and sputters signal the drums, and everybody else, to tunnel down into the darkness.

The group returns to the Hurry Home theme with gingerly tremoloing guitars amid the sleet of the percussion: it’s the album’s creepiest number. Sarcastic cornet opens Toasting the Mart, a twisted march, Halvfrson thinking about horror surf, the horns peeping in through respective windows. Seabrook flickers and then the whole thing dissolves in a toxic heap only to reemerge unexpectedly.

To Hours (a pun?) makes an apt concluding statement, from a loosely congealing free-improv interlude to an uneasily cantering vamp, Alessi battling the murky backdrop. This isn’t just one of the most gripping jazz albums of the year: it’s on the level of anything any of the cast here have released as leaders recently. One of the ten best, maybe five best albums of the year, to be more precise. Press play, hit repeat, you’ll get used to it.

Resonant Music For Troubled Times: Amir ElSaffar at the Fridman Gallery

Last night at the Fridman Gallery in Soho, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar opened the night solo with a series of sweepingly concise, panoramic phrases that came across more as a call to arms than to prayer. Or maybe just a calm, resolute series of wake-up calls. In between, he left some of the most pregnant pauses hanging in the air anywhere in this city. Maybe the effects of a Pauline Oliveros retrospective here the previous night lingered as well. In between notes, the hushed, high harmonies of the ventilation system – a ninth interval, if you were there to hear it – became part of the music, along with the occasional random footfall from an adjacent room. The effect was as suspenseful and cinematic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. There would be a lot of deep listening this evening, matched by the depth of the music onstage.

As ElSaffar went on, the images on this vast canvas became more distinct, the occasional moody, graceful riff appearing amid the desolation. A series of slow, matter-of-fact crescendos gave way to a brief series of doppler effects – a calm before a storm, or planes hovering high over the fields and plains of northern Iraq? While ElSaffar is best known for his ornate and often harrowing blend of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds from that country to Syria, if there was any specific genre he brought to mind, it was austere 19th century blues.

Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined him for the second half of the show, a series of interconnected themes and variations that echoed ElSaffar’s mighty, turbulent 2015 large-ensemble Crisis suite. Trumpeter Peter Evans, the sonic curator for this ongoing series of shows at the gallery, is known for his extended technique, pushing the limits of what his instrument can do. ElSaffar’s own ability to conjure images, from a diesel engine at peak RPM, to sepulchral microtones and keening, overtone-fueled polytonalities, proved every bit as daunting and inspiring.

Fujiwara grounded the music with majesty and gravitas on his toms, delivering a coy doppler of his own from the bell of his ride cymbal outwards, later riding the rims with a moody, mutedly syncopated suspense. ElSaffar and Mathisen locked harmonies, whether in the western scale or outside of it as the music finally rose into magically Middle Eastern microtones. The themes were sturdy, and emphatic, and hardly at ease. A stately, regal movement gave way to a troubled fanfare, a march and variations that more than hinted at sarcasm, then a wary, practically furtive passage that made for a gently resonant crescendo before the horns finally took the music toward the region where the Chicago-born trumpeter has found his greatest inspiration over the past fifteen years or so. There will be a “best concerts of 2017” page at the end of the year here, if we’re all still here, and this will be on it.

The series of shows at the Fridman Gallery, 287 Spring St. between Vandam and Hudson, continues tonight, Jan 10 at 8 PM with jazz/hip-hop drummer/lyricist Kassa Overall. Cover is $20.

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.

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.