Monday, September 15, 2014

Youn Sun Nah

I still haven't officially restarted this blog yet, but like last weekend I just saw a show that I have to write about:

Youn Sun Nah in action

So there I was Saturday night going through the Fall Arts Preview Section of the Washington City Paper not thinking I'd see much of interest coming over the next few months that I didn't already know about.  Then I turned to an ad for the Howard Theater and read the listing "Youn Sun Nah - Ulf Wakenius Duo, Sept. 14".

Now most people wouldn't have paused at that but I did an instant double take.  I knew the name. Youn Sun Nah is a Korean jazz vocalist well-known in Europe and her native country whose work I knew and had been listening to just a few days ago.  I had no idea she was doing a US tour, let alone stopping in DC. Once I gathered my senses I realized that the 14th was the next day, so I instantly 86'ed any other plans I had and schlepped my way to the Howard Theatre Sunday afternoon.

I thought the show might be sparsely attended since this is a singer completely unknown in the US but my aging brain overlooked a couple of facts. One,  Washington, DC is the capital of the United States and has a lot of buildings called "embassies" and  something called a State Department where a lot of folks who are from other countries or know foreign cultures work.  Two, this area has a sizable Korean population, much of it concentrated in Fairfax County where I live. Suffice it to say the theater was packed.  In fact I now count myself lucky that I was able to walk up to the box office 45 minutes before the show started and buy a ticket.

The concert itself was great.  Nah has a remarkable voice that ranges from a low growl to a roof-shaking soprano and her repertoire includes folk songs from all over the world,  rock songs, singer-songwriter tunes from the likes of Randy Newman and Jackson C. Frank and a standard or two.
Her lone accompaniment was her long time musical partner, Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius who played an amplified acoustic guitar with sensitivity,  speed and dexterity that matched the storms and calms of her singing.

On record Nah is impressive but live she's amazing.   She whispered a version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" 180 degrees different from the iconic Johnny Cash treatment but just as affecting and sang "My Favorite Things" as a lilting lullaby accompanying herself on thumb piano.  At the other extreme when the music got loud, it boiled over.  Nah went from a rapid-fire scat duet with the guitar to hair-raising banshee wails on Wakenius' flamenco-flavored "Momento Magico".  The British folk song "A Sailor's Life" was a fierce blend of rocky guitar and Nah's powerful British-style plain singing which electronic enhancement turned into a chorus of voices at one point.  "Ghost Riders In The Sky" (!) was a riot of glassy slide guitar with a touch of Ennio Morricone by Wakenius while Nah's singing went from a Joan Jett-like growl on the verses to an operatic soprano on the chorus.  After all that she ended with a simple and touching rendition of a Korean folk song that was warmly appreciated by the mostly Korean audience

Youn Sun Nah is a remarkable talent, a fearless singer who can either coo softly or raise her voice to extremes of pitch and volume, yet still sound melodic and human within that range.  She is a star in Korea and Europe with good reason. It would be nice if someday she got that kind of acclaim here among us non-Korean-Americans.

Here are a couple of videos of her work. First, "My Favorite Things"...

And Metallica after a major makeover...

Monday, September 8, 2014

My All Jazz Weekend

I'm still in the process of figuring exactly how I want to revamp this blog but in the meantime I wanted to get down my impressions of all the music I saw this weekend:

I retired from my job on August 29 and although I didn't plan it that way I ended up celebrating  after a fashion by seeing live music all this weekend, something I wouldn't have dared done while I was working.

Friday I went to a concert in  the Capitol Bop DC Jazz Loft series, something that's been going on for a couple of years but which I had never attended before at their home base in DC's Northeast market/warehouse district.  The lead performer was Todd Marcus, a bass clarinetist who plays that instrument with amazing facility and skill and led a quartet that also featured a fire-breathing saxophonist in Gregory Tardy.

The eye opener for me at that show though was the opening act, pianist Dwayne Adell who was amazing. Adell plays with astonishing speed and dexterity in a style that combines stride bass, classical ornamentation and gravity coming off like some mad cross between Art Tatum and McCoy Tyner.  His hands flew along the keyboard at 100 miles an hour with improvisations that seemed incredibly complex but always had weight, drive and logic to them.  Even more impressive he chose to do this on mostly standard fare like "Stella By Starlight" and a Jobim bossa nova from Black Orpheus. The man's playing was scary.

Saturday I went to the Rosslyn Jazz Festival, an outdoor event that usually comes up with one or two acts every year that I want to see.  This year the heat was so intense I couldn't hang for the whole show but I did manage to see Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra,  a unit of New York players that plays the music of jazz bands from the 20's and 30's.  They dig deep into the repertoire unearting pieces by the likes of Tiny Parham, Fess Williams and Don Redman and play the work with modern panache and a touch of anarchy coming from banjo player Brandon Seabrook and a tuba player and violinist whose names I didn't catch.

On their most recent CD the orchestra went up the timeline a bit and played "novelty" pieces from the 30's and 40's by composers like Raymond Scott, Reginald Forsyth and Alec Wilder.  I was a little disappointed that they didn't pull out any of that work live but what they did play went down nicely.

That brings us to Sunday and a show I had been circling ever since I heard about it months ago, the
Laubrock and Rainey
Ingrid Laubrock Quintet at Bohemian Caverns.  Laubrock is a German-born player who spent a few years as part of the London scene before moving to New York.  I'd seen her twice before in groups led by Anthony Braxton and Kris Davis and was impressed both times by her mastery of all facets of the tenor saxophone.  Here she was the leader and her composing turned out to be ferocious as her playing.

The group consisted of herself on tenor sax, Tim Berne on alto sax, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Dan Peck on tuba and Tom Rainey on drums.  Laubrock's work uses a wide spectrum of sound ranging from high-pitched squeals to static low drones.  She often broke down the band into subunits of two or three with the two saxophones bubbling together or Gerstein blaring and roaring all over Rainey's endless carpet of rolling rhythms, something he created as often with his bare hands as his drum sticks.  Berne played lovely flowing lines with his usual energy,  Peck was constantly keeping the bass part going and Gerstein made hair-raising sounds, especially when he attached a reed to his trombone mouthpiece and made very un-trombone like wails,  but the most commanding figure was Laubrock herself.  She has a unqie way of playing that utilizes barks, whinnies and other wild sounds, sometimes even taking off the entire tenor mouthpiece and blowing right into the metal horn.  She particularly sounds simpatico with Rainey, who it so happens is her husband.  Their rattling and thumping sounded like a hailstorm.  Then in the middle of all that sturm und drang she laid back and played a stretch of lovely pure melody thsat sounded like the sun coming out after a downpour.

The first set was taken up completely by a suite that traveled all over the place and the second had some bits of time playing, ending up in a parade march rhythm playedjmostly straight by Rainey and the brass while the saxes flew around frantically throwing monkey wrenches into the groove.

Ingrid Laubrock is one of the most exciting composers and saxophonists around today and Tom Rainey is a criminally underrated drummer.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Public Notice



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Look On My Works, Ye Mighty..."

I haven't written about Breaking Bad in a while but I started watching the final episodes when they came to Netflix. I've just watched  the third to last show, "Ozymandias"...

I know that "binge watching" where you devour a entire season worth's of TV episodes in a day or two is the thing these days, but if anyone could watch that program and merrily race ahead to the last two episodes, they have no soul.

This series is full of gruesome and shocking scenes of violence but one of the most gut-wrenching moments just concerns a simple phone call.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Story Of ()

Let's get one thing straight. Director Lars Von Trier is completely barking mad but in a good sort of way.  You have to be out there to conceive of a three-hour version of the Brecht-Weill song "Pirate Jenny" filmed on a bare stage like his Dogville or present the end of the world as positively as he did in Melancholia.  I've just seen the first half of his latest opus, Nymph()maniac. I don't know yet if the entire thing matches up to his most audacious feats like Dogville, Breaking The Waves and Melancholia but so far it's in the ballpark.

The film opens on a woman named Joe who lies beaten and bleeding in a city alley. A man named Seligman finds her and takes her back to his small apartment to heal, rest and get something to eat. While there, she starts telling him the story of her life, which has been mostly about a quest for physical pleasure since she was a little girl that has led her to sleeping with innumerable men without having any real feelings for them. As Joe talks she keeps telling Seligman what a terrible person she is for doing these things stories but he persists in seeing the rational and positive side of her lurid tales.

The film does contain nudity and explicit sex but not as much as some of the publicity would lead you to believe.  At heart it's a conversation between two modes of living, an orderly, cultured life and one driven by natural instincts. In their discussion  they begin to realize that Joe's life of random sexual adventure does have underlying order to it and their lives have something in common.  Von Trier covers this ground while weaving in strands on nature, the Fibonacci Sequence, fly fishing, Edgar Allan Poe and Bach's organ music.

The film actually reminds me a bit of Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre which was similarly a conversation between someone who had led an adventurous, globe-trotting life and someone who was content with order and monotony but with a lot more nudity and genitalia. Joe's stories play out in flashback and tilit widly between wild comedy and stark drama as befits the subject matter. In one of the most intesne sequences, one of Joe's married lovers suddenly shows up at her door ready to move in but his wife (played by Uma Thurman) and their three kids come right behind him and cause a commotion that quickly goes from soap opera parody to raw drama.  The section where Joe spends time with her father in a hospital watching his mental deterioration as he dies is pretty brutal as well.

Von Trier is totally on his game here and makes this tale totally compelling.  Stellan Skasgaard is convincingly objective  and compassionate as Seligman and Charlotte Gainsbourg has a chilling matter of factness as storyteller Joe. Her younger self in this part is played by Stacy Martin who runs a broad gamut of emotions from despair to joy to numbness. This half ends with Martin screaming " I don't feel anything" as the one man she seems to love plows into her.  Then some brief scenes from the second part play alongside the credits which promise the film getting even wilder and darker. I cannot wait to see  Volume 2.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stalker (1979)

(I've been doing a lot of recalibrating in my life the past couple of weeks but I'm now back to blogging for a while...I hope.)

There was something of a kerfuffle in the movie critic world in 2011 when Dan Kois, a writer for the New York Times, did a piece about on how some films are "cultural vegetables", meaning people watch them because the critical establishment tells them they are worthwhile and enlightening, not because they are enjoyable in any sense. One of the films he criticized in his piece was Stalker, a 1979 Russian science fiction film by director Andrei Tarkovsky.  I've just seen this movie and honestly, I have no idea what the man was talking about.  Yeah, it's long and brooding  but to me it was a deep and compelling film that went by faster than its supposed 165 minutes.

It is set in an unnamed country where some years earlier something from outer space landed in an wooded area and transformed it into an overgrown wilderness full of traps and false trails that was since cordoned off by the authorities and named the Zone. In the center of this place exists a room that will grant anyone who walks in their fondest wish. The central character is a man who makes his living taking people on trips into the Zone and guiding them through all the dangers to reach that room . The film follows one particular trip he takes with a professor and a writer who have different motives for entering the Zone.

First of all the film looks beautiful.  The scenes in the everyday world are in sharp, almost tactile black and white that gives a sense of the oppresive weight and dirt in this landscape. Then when things shift to the Zone, the movie apes The Wizard Of Oz and changes to color, not overly bright but a darker, muted color that fits the overall mood of the story.

There is a constant mood of suspense through the trio's journey conveyed largely by the guide's wary demeanour. He has the haunted yet resigned look of a man who's seen dreadful things happen to others in this place and is trying not to become its next victim.  Then about two-thirds of the way through the picture, something completely unexpected happens which turns everything we've seen to tht point on its head and presents the entire story in a different light. Near the end when things seem to have settled into their new pattern, another surprise occurs which turns the tale in yet another direction and wipes away any thought of easy resolution.

Stalker is really a debate about faith and scepticism cloaked in a science fiction plot with people who believe in the fantastic set against those who don't want to dream. Its slowness presents an aura of creeping dread that really draws you in  and holds your attention without relying on dead bodies or special effects to keep the suspense going.  Heavy? Yes. Brooding? Definitely.  Dark? To a point.  When all is said Stalker is an excellent film well deserving of the exalted reputation it enjoys in the film world. Sometimes vegetables can taste pretty damn good.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio

It's always fun to go to a concert not knowing quite what to expect and being pleasantly surprised about what you hear. That was my response to seeing Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio at Bohemian Caverns last night.
     The trio consists of Crump on bass, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jamie Fox on electric guitar.  Before last night I knew Crump from Vijay Iyer's trio, had heard Ellman's name in a couple of places and didn't know Fox at all.  Together they played jazz that was flowing and rhythmic in complex lines without distortion or effects. They could be delicate or swing mercilessly. I was reminded of other modern guitar sounds like the clean chording of the late Jim Hall and the thoughtfulness of Ralph Towner. On a lazy blues called "Memphis" Fox even bent a few notes in the direction of B.B. King.
     All three men had ample chance to show what they could in solo turns and Crump particularly impressed me with his drive and imagination. Not only does he have three CDs out with this group, he's also done a duo disc with a very different sort of guitarist, Mary Halvorson. I'll love to hear how he deals with her abrasive chords and melodies.
     You don;t hear anything about the Rosetta Trio, even in modern "out" jazz circles but they are definitely worth investigating, just one great example of the infinite beauties found in the jazz world today.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Jazz World: The Cool

The Birth Of The Cool

In the 1950's there was continued investigation into the idea of exploring advanced harmonies and textures in jazz music. The most significant attempt at this came from a group of young musicians who met together repeatedly at the New York apartment of arranger and composer Gil Evans in the late 1940's.  These men, who included Miles Davis, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan, looked at bringing in instruments not used in jazz often like French horn and tuba to create a larger unified sound and took cues from the work of French impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy.  What emerged was a style of jazz that worked at a lower intensity than bebop but was still sophisticated and swinging, a style that came to be known as "Cool Jazz".  The results of this work were recorded by a nine piece group under the leadership of Miles Davis, sessions that eventually came out as an album entitled Birth Of The Cool.

This is a sample of that wotrk, a Gerry Mulligan composition called "Jeru":

Gerry Mulligan

I'll talk about Miles Davis and Gil Evans in later posts but for now I want to concenrtnate on Gerry Mulligan.  Mulligan was known first as an arranger but he later gained fame for his effortless way with the unwieldy baritone sax.  He took the Birth of the Cool ideas to the West Coast where an entire movement of cerebral, easy-swinging players would emerge, men like Shorty Rogers, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, and Jim Hall.

Mulligan's biggest innovation was in putting together a small group without a piano, just two horns and a rhythm section. Jazz without the harmonic bridge of a piano was virtually unheard of at the time but Mulligan pitting the low sound of his baritone against the trumpets of either Baker or Farmer or the valve trombone of Bob Brookmeyer gave his band's sound a flowing freedom that would resonate in different forms through later years. Here is a 1957 Mulligan quartet with Brookmeyer playing "Open Country":

Jimmy Giuffre

Jimmy Giuffre was not part of the "Birth of the Cool" sessions but he had ideas along the same lines. Adept at a number of reed instruments, he first played and wrote for big bands, most famously composing the saxophone section workout "Four Brothers" for the Woody Herman Orchestra but he soon developed his own concept of quiet, unusual instrumental combinations, working in trios with bass and either (again) Bob Brookmeyer's trombone or Jim Hall's guitar.  He did a lot of work with simple blues and folk forms in the Fifties before eventually going more abstract in the mid-60's. Here he is on various reeds with Hall and Jim Atlas on bass in 1957 doing his composition "The Train and The River".

The Modern Jazz Quartet

John Lewis was part of the "Cool" sessions but his main interests turned out to come from the past, the baroque music of Bach and his contemporaries. Lewis had been pianist in Dizzy Gillespie's big band and during their concerts, he and the rest of the rhythm section, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, would play a few numbers to give the horn players a break. Eventually that quartet would go out on its own as the Modern Jazz Quartet with Percy Heath replacing Brown and Connie Kay replacing Clarke. The group was originally co-led by Lewis and Jackson but eventually Lewis took over the sole reigns and began to explore in depth merging classical music and jazz. The polite elegance of his piano and the bluesy gravity of Jackson's vibes made a stark but sexy contrast, distinctive enough to make the Modern Jazz Quartet last through five decades, playing all over the world, collaborating with symphony orchestras and in their own way,  presenting an image of the black jazz musician as a dignified serious artist, something that looking back was a powerful statement for its time.  This is a studio recording of one of their most popular tunes, Lewis' "Django",  a piece that strongly states their classics/jazz dichotomy.

Dave Brubeck

I wrote a post about Brubeck when he passed away but I can't leave him out here. He was another musician who brought classical influences to jazz, experimenting with advanced harmonies and unusual time signatures.  After trying out an octet in the late 40's, he began a partnership with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond that lasted over twenty years. Brubeck's driving, angular playing mixed with Desmond's sighing, liquid sax was a perfectly balanced combination and with Eugene Wright and Joe Morello in the rhythm section they were the most popular jazz group of their day, even managing a Top 10 pop hit in "Take Five". After the quartet broke up in 1967 Brubeck continued to work with other quartets as well as composing extended orchestral works and played almost up until his death in 2012. Some people in the old days complained that Brubeck's music didn't swing enough but by the time he died he was universally regarded as one of the finest musicians in the music's history. Here is the classic Brubeck quartet doing "Blue Rondo A La Turk" on one of Hugh Hefner's Playboy TV shows. Cecil Taylor has always cited Brubeck as a favorite player. His solo here clues you in as to why.