Welcome to Notes From New York, a monthly jazz column by Bill Milkowski that includes observations on the scene along with interview snippets, gossip and gig information.
The remarkably versatile guitarist Marc Ribot, a stalwart on the “downtown scene” since the ‘80s, has showcased his deconstructivist aesthetic with his Rootless Cosmopolitans, unleashed his shredding instincts with his avant rock trio Cermaic Dog and his Albert Ayler tribute band Spiritual Unity, and explored the music of the great Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez with his son montuno party band Los Cubanos Postizos. He has been John Zorn’s hired gun in projects like Electric Masada and The Dreamers and he’s performed the music of Haitian classical guitarist Frantz Casséus, who he studied with while growing up in Newark. But nothing comes close to the level of sheer delight that Ribot has been able to generate on gigs with The Young Philadelphians, his all-star group performing tweaked renditions of Philly soul classics from the ‘70s like Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” The Trammps’ “Love Epidemic” and Mother, Father, Sister, Brother’s “TSOP” (aka the Soul Train theme). With former Ornette Coleman Prime Time bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and former Lounge Lizards drummer G. Calvin Weston laying down a thick, irresistible groove, guitarist Mary Halvorson layering on avant textures and colors and a lush three-piece string section remaining faithful to the memorable melodies, Ribot and his post-modern soul revue recast these Philly soul classics (and other ‘70s funk-disco-groove anthems like The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” and “Fly, Robin, Fly” by the Munich-based band Silver Convention) with a touch of punk-funk-noise while retaining the essence of these groovy numbers. Their chemistry was documented on the recently released Live in Tokyo (recorded at the Club Quattro on July 28, 2014) and the band has been on a European tour this summer before returning to the States for a July 28 performance at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
Ribot coined the slogan “Where Deco Meets Disco Meets Decon” to capture what the Young Philadelphians are all about. “One of my favorite things in the world is when people get up and dance at our gigs,” said the Newark native who lives in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. “I have nothing profound to say about it, it just makes me happy. I didn’t come up through the conservatory system, so I played a lot of gigs that were in some ways regrettable…you know, weddings and lounge gigs and stuff like that. But I don’t regret at all the fact that I spent sometimes four hours a night trying to make people dance. I still dig it. And it is not for nothing that Calvin Weston and Jamaaladeen Tacuma play in this band. I wanted to reconnect players who had come out of Ornette’s Prime Time band and the harmolodic improvising training that they had been through with material that we all remember from when we were kids. The string parts are direct transcriptions from the original recordings, so they kind of hold the tunes together and trigger our memories of them. But I wanted to bring us as improvisers into confrontation or juxtaposition with the original recordings. Making people get up is still part of the agenda and always will be. But we are abstracting it a little further. As the band progresses, we’re getting further along towards the improvisatory potential of the tunes.”
Serbian-born guitarist-composer Rale Micic, who hosted the successful Guitar X 2 duet series at the Bar Thalia in Symphony Space in June, will release his Night Music this fall on Whale City Sound. There’s a delicious sense of destiny that permeates this project, which was inspired by the music of Hungarian classical composer Bela Bartok. Consider the uncanny coincidences: Micic grew up in Belgrade hearing Bartok’s music from his classical music-loving grandfather. He later studied Bartok’s String Quartets in college. But the Bartok connection grew deeper when Micic moved to New York following four years of studying jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Several years after settling into his Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx, Micic made a chilling discovery about the man he considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. “I’ve been living here in Riverdale for 12 years, and then a couple of years ago I just found out by accident that Bartok lived here in his final years, literally two blocks from where I am now.”
If that coincidence isn’t rich enough, there’s more. Upon further investigation, Micic learned that while Bartok was living in Riverdale with his wife Ditta (from 1940 to 1945), he supported himself with a research fellowship from Columbia University, working on transcribing Serbian folk songs from field recordings in Columbia’s libraries. With all the pieces of this providential puzzle finally in place, Micic followed his muse which led him to Night Music.
“There’s this style that Bartok wrote in called night music, which is where he would go out in nature and compose these nocturnal pieces,” Micic explains. “He would go out in the night and hear the sounds and try to translate that into music. And I always loved those pieces, especially his two that appear in Mikrokosmos. So I was thinking it would be great to imagine what Bartok would hear nowadays if he were out walking from dusk to dawn in New York City. I’m sure he would hear some very different sounds now than his encounters in nature back in Hungary.”
That modern day re-imagining is evident from the opening track, “”Hotel Insomnia, an intensely driving number fueled by Jonathan Blake’s adrenalized drum ‘n’ bass pulse and Corcoran Holt’s heavy groove on upright bass. “Jano” is Micic’s rearrangement of the traditional Serbian folkloric tune “A Sto Si Se Jano” while Bartok’s “Melody in a Mist” is arranged here as a sparse guitar-piano duet with Danny Grissett. Micic’s uptempo swinging “Late Night,” which sounds like it could be a rousing set-closer at the Vanguard, is the guitarist’s lone nod here to his bebop side. Micic and Grissett perform two versions of Bartok’s “Nocturnes,” one acoustic, the other electric. The electric, rhythmically charged “Afterparty” imagines Bartok walking past a dance club in the wee hours, taking in the wah-wah and distortion-laced sounds and throbbing beats on his nocturnal stroll.
Guitarist Mike Stern had to cancel a recent tour of Europe with the quartet he co-leads with saxophonist Bill Evans that also features bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Dennis Chambers. Stern was apparently waiting for a cab in the street just outside his apartment on 23rd Street in Manhattan when he misstepped and fell over a traffic barrier in the street. He broke both shoulders and was taken to the hospital. Guitarist Dean Brown replaced Stern on the tour.
Composer John Zorn has been in an especially prolific mode lately, with a very specific focus. So far this year he has released five CDs on his Tzadik label by his new powerhouse organ trio Simulacrum (John Medeski on organ, Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Kenny Grohowski on drums). Think Tony Williams’ Lifetime with a bit of Sonny Sharrock skronk thrown into the mix. The group made their NYC debut on June 28 at the Bowery Ballroom. Meanwhile, Zorn will showcase his more classically informed music from his Bagatelles book in an upcoming week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard in August.
Tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane explored “The Spiritual Side of John Coltrane” in a program at the Appel Room in Jazz at Lincoln Center. Joining the two tenor titans on exalted anthems like “Welcome,” “Lazy Bird,” “Spiritual” and passages from A Love Supreme were pianist Geri Allen, bassist Reggie Workman, trumpeter Tom Harrell and the drumming tandem of Andrew Cyrille and Brian Blade; Trumpeter Steven Bernstein led his Hot 9 horns on a second-line parade through the crowd as part of a free hot jazz performance at the Central Park Summerstage; Guitarist Vernon Reid (of Living Colour fame) joined electric autoharpist Laraaji for a set of Robert Fripp-Brian Eno-inspired ambient music at The Cloisters as part of the New York Guitar Festival; The Brooklyn-based bhangra party band Red Baraat got people up and moving on the dance floor at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg.