Monthly Archives: October 2010

Sunny Jain’s “Taboo” and Asphalt Orchestra

This double album review will appear in the November issue of All About Jazz-NY. Both feature young ensembles of first-rate improvisors.

Percussionist, composer Sunny Jain has always had a knack for incorporating elements of his Punjabi heritage into the framework of his modern, melodically driven compositions. Jain, along with musicians like saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and pianist Vijay Iyer, has helped to codify Indo Jazz into a recognized – and rigorously compelling – jazz genre through his work as a musician, and as a musical ambassador around the world.

On “Taboo,” his latest release on BJU Records, Jain embraces both roles, shedding light on issues of religion, violence, and gender through the ancient prism of Indian classical music, and centuries old poetic forms, and challenging musical taboos by blending ancient forms together with jazz, Bollywood sounds and rock with postmodern abandon.

The fact that he pulls off such an ambitious concept is a testament to Jain’s musicianship, his skills as a bandleader, and his equally talented band mates. Pianist Marc Carey, guitarist Nir Felder, and bassist Gary Wang round out the quartet that effortlessly performs Jain’s propulsive, polyrhythmic compositions. Joining them are six vocalists of South Asian decent whose contributions figure prominently in the Indian raga-based compositions.

“Jack And Jill” opens the album with a syncopated melodic fragment that bounces between instruments, delineating the meter, and acting as a foil to the lilting spoken-word part performed by the Sri Lankan interdisciplinary artist Yalindream. The lyric is a tongue-in-cheek meditation on sexual identity, an issue that Jain highlights in the liner notes as particularly pressing in the South Asian community. “In the strict ranks of gay and straight,” Yalindream opens, before a weighty pause, “what is my status?” The delivery borders on silly, but makes clear the leader’s M.O. Throughout “Taboo,” Jain confronts politically fraught issues through the lens of his globally-informed, yet joyous music. From the shuffling, odd meter blues of “Two Ladies,” to the emotionally complex, and episodic “We Sinful Women,” the leader and his band seem pretty confidant that music can transcend the taboos that hold us back.

Similarly ebullient is “Asphalt Orchestra,” the twelve-piece, NYC-based marching band that bears little resemblance to the halftime entertainment from high school. On their eponymous release on Cantaloupe Music, the ensemble tackles a repertoire of skillfully arranged covers ranging from Bjork to Zappa to Mingus, as well as a pair of commissioned originals that cover vast stylistic ground, from the Balkan wedding music, to Sousa, and the newest sounds of contemporary classical music.

The Orchestra caused more than a few stirs this summer, performing at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and were able to bring the same energy and immediacy to the studio recording, where the band performed live. Tenor saxophonist Peter Hess arrangement of Frank Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” is a fitting opener, and polyrhythmic tour de force for the entire group. Equally arresting is the arrangement of Charles Mingus’ “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slipper,” which hews closely to the lushly impressionistic arrangement on Mingus’ “Let My Children Hear Music,” but adds extra elements of rhythmic and harmonic intrigue that make it worth revisiting.

The commissioned piece “Pulse March,” ends the album with a perfect blend of marching band bravado, precise classical technique, and an open invitation to genre obliteration.

The Noise Explosion & Mother C*nt @ Golden Bough

It seems like everyone in Macon agrees that attracting outsiders to our small city is the only way to create a sustainable culture scene. The Music and Sports Halls of Fame stand as massive, endangered monuments to that ideal, but in small, important ways, Macon is moving toward its goal.

I was amazed to read in the 3rd edition of the Macon Noise Fanzine that in 2010, over 100 touring bands stopped in Macon under the auspices of, and Macon Noise. I’ve been to nearly all the shows those organizations have put on since my arrival in August, and have noticed that those touring bands tend to bring fans from outside the city with them. People meet in person, connections are made, and a community gets stronger. The term grassroots gets thrown around a great deal these days, but it’s hard to think of a more appropriate description of what’s going on here, and everyone benefits. We hear new music, and touring bands have a place to play on a Tuesday night in the deep south.

Quantifying the effect the artistic influx has had on Macon-based musicians is difficult, but I think most everyone can agree that it has been an incredibly positive development. It certainly felt that way last Tuesday, when the locals converged on The Golden Bough bookstore for a much-anticipated show featuring The Noise Explosion, a raucous trio led by multi-instrumentalist Mary Katherine Dunwody and Mother Cunt, the controversially named, punk-informed trio comprised of Esther Lee, Lacey Hortman and Shawn Williamson’s blonde alter ego.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but part of my excitement to see the show was the fact that I had seen mostly touring bands for the last week. We had all seen what bands from around the southeast had to offer, and Tuesday was a chance to root for the home team; the excitement was palpable.

The Noise Explosion stayed true to its name, opening with a blast of distorted guitar, and feedback. Mary Katherine beat insistent rhythms on snare and ride, in tandem with Davis Wells’ electric bass lines, providing a foil to the more spastic role of guitarist Arjun Kulharya. The two opening songs were similarly constructed, with a solid rhythm in the bass and drums providing a foundation for wild guitar passages. Arjun cycled through guitar tricks, picking distorted passages, lifting his instrument to his mouth and plucking lines with his teeth, before finally settling on a hardcover book as a sort of makeshift bow. The technique paid off, as Arjun managed to coax eerie lines from his instrument by sliding the book’s spine along the strings, before pounding out buoyantly throbbing lines by bouncing it above the pickup.

As the crowd began to heat up and move, Arjun lurched into the audience, and was shoved back toward his amp. Falling, he landed on his amp, which came tumbling down with him, and marked an abrupt end to the song. When he fell, the output jack on Arjun’s telecaster fell out, and after a few attempts to fix it, he put it down, in favor of sitar that he would play for the rest of the set. The band transitioned nicely into the more serene, acoustic portion of their set. Mary Katherine switched to playing tabla, and  Davis mimicked the tamboura — a stringed instrument that provides the insistent drone at the heart of the Indian classical music — with his cello, while Arjun led on sitar. After a lengthy improvisation, Dustin Murdock took over on tabla, and the trio took it out with another improvisation led by Arjun.

There was a great deal of anticipation leading up to Mother Cunt’s performance, and the trio did not disappoint. Lacey Hortman and Esther Lee strike the perfect balance as leaders, lacing the puckish humor of their lyrics with blasts of hard rock, and bracing screams. Imagine a cross between Sonic Youth and the seminal punk band Bikini Kill, and you’ll get an the idea of MC’s galvanic sound; better yet, buy their newly minted EP by contacting them directly (I’ll try to get some info on how to get it soon).

So much of the music I hear in Macon has a distinctly hard edge to it, and in MC, Shawn Williamson is the one supplying it. If you know Shawn from Macon bands like Citizen Insane, and Truffleina, it might take you a minute to recognize him in MC. On Tuesday night, he sported a black bra and bleached blonde wig that bounced on his head as he pounded out fills behind songs like “Pussy On Fire” and “Tough As Nails.” If you haven’t had a chance to hear MC, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Just don’t expect to see their name emblazoned on a marquee in Macon anytime soon.

One thing I’ve learned living in Macon is to make sure I hang around before and especially after shows. Interesting conversations abound, friendships are formed, and some of the most interesting and spontaneous musical events occur when you least expect them. After Mother Cunt’s set, I, along with most of the audience, walk out to the street where people lit up cigarettes and recounted the night’s music. I missed how it started, but within ten minutes, snippets of noise and distorted guitar lines began to emanate from the bookstore, and gradually, people began to file back into The Golden Bough’s back room. Before long, an intense, spontaneous jam began that included whoever was willing to pick up an instrument, or bellow into a microphone.

The performance ebbed and flowed without predictable climaxes, but it’s aim of raucous catharsis was pretty easily discernible. When I spoke to Clark Bush afterward, he compared the jam to the pandemonium that took place at a performance by the Athens, GA based band Rat Babies a few weeks earlier; a sort of music version of the moshing and physicality of that show. I couldn’t agree more. Here’s hoping that raw energy can be channeled into even more creative outlets for more people.