Guitarist Anders Nilsson’s “Night Guitar”

Swedish-born and New York-based experimental guitarist Anders Nilsson produces music that is at once bracingly direct and utterly unclassifiable. My review of his wonderful new album “Night Guitar” appeared in the January 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record. 

Photo: Philippe Dollo

Listening to this deeply focused and atmospheric solo performance again and again, it’s hard to escape the notion that Night Guitar is more than a little biographical in nature.

Guitarist Anders Nilsson isn’t shy about sharing the details of his musical journey. On his website, the young guitarist recounts his upbringing in Sweden, his love of — and subsequent disillusionment with — Swedish shred guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, his move to New York a decade ago, and achieving musical liberation while busking in Manhattan subway stations.

These experiences permeate the vignette-like movements of Night Guitar, often in surprisingly direct ways.

On “Meet Me In The Back Alley,” Nilsson opens with a moody bass drone that he quickly adorns with plucked scale tones and micro-tonal string bends. Transitioning to a second mini-movement, he introduces a rhythmic chordal pattern that is quickly overtaken by overdubbed, and overdrive-laden distorted guitar chords. The effect is shocking, and even comical, but it’s clear that schtick is not Nilsson’s game. He’s simply integrating the sounds of his life without the filter that limits most artist’s sonic choices.

The distortion effect — a clean, highly condensed tone that nods toward guitarists like Malmsteen and sonic experimenters like Sonny Sharrock — reappears throughout the album, almost always without warning — a reminder not to get complacent on this shape shifting and emotionally resonant music.


On “Breakfast Boogie/Nightmare Ballad,” — which can be heard above in a music video by Arrien Zinghini — Nilsson’s considerable skills as a cinematic composer are apparent from the first ostinato bass notes, which establish the foundation of a structure that remains throughout the tracks careful edits and overdubs. You can almost imagine a shadowy figure flickering across a screen as the crosshatched patterns and effects Nilsson conjures make way for pulsing, bent high note punctuations, just as the piece grows from a tangle of interconnected phrases into a sprawling and diffuse panorama that somehow never loses its tense, claustrophobic feel.

Equally foreboding is the album’s episodic closer, “The Journey Beyond,” which manages — more than any other track on Night Guitar — to blend Nilsson’s vast sonic influences into single composition. The result is an epic, and often melodramatic, performance that tests the bounds of genre bending without losing its laser-like compositional focus.

Ben Allison @ Carnegie Hall

This Friday, February 3rd, is a milestone date for Ben Allison. The free-minded bassist and composer will make his Carnegie Hall debut at 10pm, and, if the lineup is any indication, it will certainly be one of his most memorable shows.

Joining him at Zankel Hall will be his latest quintet with guitarist Steve Cardenas, saxophonist Michael Blake, guitarist and banjoist Brandon Seabrook and drummer Rudy Royston, along with newcomers — but veterans in their own right — percussionist Rogerio Boccato and vocalist Joey Arias.

I’ve been a fan of Allison’s music since discovering his album Third Eye in the early 2000s. His music linked the worlds of Ellington, Mingus and Andrew Hill with the hard-edged and worldly downtown music scene in New York City, while managing to sound utterly original. Additionally, his focus on texture and timbre as an element on equal footing with melody and harmony make for singularly compelling music.

Ben does a great job of explaining the origins of his compositional style here:

Over the last 15 years, Allison has stayed true to his M.O. as a bassist, composer, and bandleader, releasing ten studio albums that map the steady refinement of his sound and style. Since I started seeing his bands live around 2003, the bassist has largely pared down the relative harmonic complexity of his early compositions in favor of melodically, rhythmically, and texturally rich compositions that compliment the styles of his carefully selected collaborators.

Saxophonist Michael Blake, drummer Rudy Royston, and guitarist Steve Cardenas have been close compatriots of Allison for years, and know his music inside and out. Brandon Seabrook is a relative newcomer who contributed on a pair of selections on Allison’s latest album Action/Refraction, a stellar collection of crafty cover songs.

Rogerio Boccato is a versatile and well-respected artist who has performed with the likes of John Patitucci and Hermeto Pascoal. This video — also from the series that Carnegie Hall produced in anticipation of the concert — gives a glimpse of the musical connection Allison and Boccato have already fostered:

To my ears, Ben is at his absolute best when writing for, and performing with, a group that includes a unique, non-traditional solo voice — 2002’s Peace Pipe, a collaboration with Malian Kora master Mamadou Diabate is a great example  — and the addition of vocalist Joey Arias is another reason this concert is a must-see.

Arias, who is probably best know for his important collaboration with the operatic performance artist Klaus Nomi, has made a name for himself as a performance artists, cabaret singer and drag artist over a career that has spanned nearly 40 years. I have never heard him perform with Allison, but given their shared penchant for blurring boundries — musical and otherwise — it’s hard to imagine the collaboration being anything but thrilling.

11th Hour Column #2 — Allan Evans, Tanosweg, Xavii, and Floco Torres

I was lucky to hear some great music around Macon in the last two weeks, but the standout event was getting a chance to meet the Macon-born and European-based opera singer Allan Evans during his holiday stop in town to visit his family.I got the opportunity to research Evans’ career and profile him at length last year, and was amazed at the story of a man who grew up at the height of Jim Crow, but managed — with the help of family and a bevy of dedicated teachers — to become an internationally known opera singer.

Evans was a classmate of Otis Redding at Ballard Hudson High School in the late 1950s, and by the time Redding was climbing the popular music charts in the early ‘60s,  Evans was studying at The Juilliard School in New York, and planning a move to Europe to pursue his career.

Since settling in Germany in the late ‘60s, Evans has established himself as one of the world’s preeminent bass-baritone singers, and in 1996 he was awarded the title of Kammersanger, or chamber singer, which is one of the highest honors the German government bestows on distinguished performers. He has performed many of the so-called “heroic baritone” roles — among them Don Giovanni, Dr. Schön in Alban Berg’s Lulu, and the Norse god Wotan in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre — that define the role of the bass-baritone singer. Evans still performs and teaches regularly in his adoptive hometown of Mannheim, Germany, but manages to visit Macon regularly to visit his family and perform.

Despite Macon’s sterling record of celebrating hometown musical heroes like Redding, Little Richard, and The Allman Brothers, Allan Evans has never received the recognition he deserves here. Granted, it’s hard to imagine an opera singer garnering the adulation that a popular rock or soul musician would in Macon, but it is certainly high time that the city officially recognized Evans’ incredible life and career.

On the 20th, I caught the ethereal trio Tanosweg along with the rhythmically progressive Xavii, at The Hangar Bar and Grill on Houston Road. The inscrutably named Tanosweg features vocalist Meghan Dowlen along with guitarists Dustin Murdock and Zack Matthews performing original compositions that often pair earthy vocal harmonies with unpredictable guitar lines, and a range of percussive effects. Stripped of the rhythmic and harmonic tumult inherent in much of their earlier work together in bands like Xavii and The Polygraph Event, Tanosweg focuses heavily on dramatic melodies building toward catharsis. I’m looking forward to hearing an album from them sometime soon.

Xavii has firmly established its reputation as the foremost purveyor of rhythmically sophisticated rock music in Macon, and their set at the Hangar Bar was typical in its unrelenting drive and carefully crafted abstraction. Murdock and Matthews lead the band as composers and musical instigators — lending a mercurial edge to the group’s sound with their veering guitar lines and effects — but the heart of the group’s rhythmic power lies in the tandem of bassist Clark Bush and drummer Steven Ledbetter.

Moments after I arrived at The Hummingbird on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening last month, a succession of short, bass-laden samples erupted from PA as Floco Torres walked to the front of the stage and delivered a series of explosive rhymes. The samples were a warm-up for Torres, but his focused delivery certainly felt like the real thing. “We’re gonna take our time,” Floco remarked as the last sample faded out and  his band joined him on the stage, “because we’re gonna be up here all night.”

Throughout their focused set, Floco and his band — featuring new members Shawn Williamson on guitar and Justin Cutway on bass, along with drummer Travis Reeves and D.J. Montalban who have been with the group for over a year — covered pieces from their latest album, Floco’s Modern Life with a freshness and intensity that is often absent when a group has been covering the same material for months. It has been a milestone year for Torres on a number of professional fronts — the release of his album and an important collaboration with the organization Gateway Macon stand out — and that has only added to his confidence and ability as a bandleader and performer. These factors, and the cohesion of his new and improved band, made for a riveting set of music.

Immersed – 11th Hour Column #1

This column is the first installment of a bi-weekly column that I have been asked to write for the 11th Hour in Macon. I am really happy to be reaching new readers with this series, and I look forward to many more columns.
A lesson I learned shortly after moving to Macon from New York City a year and a half ago was to never miss an important show. In New York, I could step back — take a short hiatus from seeing live music — and confidently assume that I could play catch-up.  Here in Macon, the touring bands swing through infrequently, and the local acts need the support now — not next week or next month.

This idea took a little time to get used to, but it has paid off in a number of ways.

I have heard beautiful music in Macon that I would have never sought out elsewhere. I’ve seen arresting art work on the walls of The 567, and the Contemporary Arts Exchange, and have witnessed wonderful theater and dance performances at Macon State College and Mercer.

Granted, I have also seen some performances and works that I would just as soon forget, but they are the exception, and a small price to pay to participate in a fledgling, unpredictable, but excitingly diverse artistic scene.

As an 11th Hour reader, you most likely share similar views on the importance of supporting artists, and the bars, performance spaces, galleries, and theaters that host them, and in this column I will make every effort to avoid preaching to the choir. Instead, I will report on the performances and exhibits, artists and club owners, fans and  — ocasionally — detractors in the hope of inspiring conversation and — more importantly — participation.

In the past two weeks, my efforts to be present have been truly tested by a hectic work schedule and the frantic lead-up to the holidays, but I was able to catch some great performances around town.

On First Friday at Roasted — the coffee shop by day, bar and performance space by night — I caught ClarkAfterDark a.k.a Clark Bush coaxing jazz and pop loops from a paperback-sized sampler, patching in beats and fragments of song with a touch of the finger to perfect a groove. The diverse and appreciative audience took in Clark’s ethereal blend of Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and Joanna Newsom while sipping beer and perusing artist William Dantzler’s mixed-media works hanging on the walls.

DJ Roger Riddle closed out the night with a supremely soulful set that mixed nineties staples by the Fugees and a sample of an Eminem tune with classic soul strains from James Brown and Bill Withers. By the time Withers’ soaring, ecstatic final chorus on “Lovely Day” came across the speakers everyone was on their on their feet.

Last week, I also got a chance to hear the David Milligan trio perform an inspired set of jazz and Christmas standards at the Vineville home of Edward and Priscilla Esser as part of the Jazz Association of Macon’s annual Holiday Jam. Since the mid-1980’s the Jazz Association has fostered the appreciation of jazz in middle Georgia through concerts, classes and community outreach. Their holiday party was low-key — especially in comparison to their annual Jazz and Arts on Riverdale festival — but was a great opportunity to hear swinging music and meet some fellow music lovers.

Sam Rivers – 9/25/23 – 12/26/11

“I play the history of Jazz, because I’ve been through it all.” – Sam Rivers in an interview for NPR’s Jazz Profiles.

Word is trickling out this morning that the great multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers passed away yesterday. I have been a lover of his singular music since I first heard his 1964 masterwork Fuchsia Swing Song in high school, and I have followed his career with great interest as he continued to perform blistering, uncompromising music well into his 80s. Rivers’ incredible career spanned more than sixty years, and his remarkable tenor technique embodied the hard-swinging but luxurious approach of players like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, along with the technical breakthroughs of Charlie Parker, but always remained wholly original.

Rivers belongs in that rarified group of musical polymaths whose style remains deeply rooted in tradition, while constantly incorporating, and often anticipating, the innovations of younger generations. Rivers played free jazz before that loaded term even entered the lexicon.

My favorite Sam will always be his Blue Note masterworks from the mid-1960s — notably Fuchsia and Contours — followed closely by his mind-blowing contribution to Miles Davis’ live in Tokyo LP, his ecstatic collaborations with Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, Thurman Barker and others in the 1970s Loft era in NYC, his rewarding later-life work with young innovators like the Danish drummer Kreston Osgood, and, of course, Rivers’ long-time iconoclastic work with his Orlando-based big band.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Sam backstage at The Iridium in NYC around 2006 where he signed my well worn copy of Fuchsia Swing Song. We didn’t talk long, but it was clear that the warmth that radiates from his often thorny music was also an inherent part of his personality. Moments later, he took the stage with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille blew us all away with a gorgeous rendition of his signature piece, Beatrice.

You will be sorely missed, Sam.

In 2007, I covered one of Sam’s performances at Columbia University for Jazz Notes. You can read my review of that show here.

Also around that time, I was hired to write a biographical piece on Rivers for the site You can read that piece here.

First Friday

ImageDowntown Macon was awash in holiday lights tonight. There was a chill in the air — which kept the drunk frat partiers off the streets — and the music at Roasted Cafe on 2nd Street — where I spent most of the evening — was spot on: my idea of a perfect first Friday.

While I couldn’t stay for the later acts at Roasted, I got to hear — and thoroughly enjoy — Clark Bush and DJ Roger Riddle’s sets while sipping craft beer, and taking in Willie Dantzler’s expressive, mixed-media works hanging on the walls.

I’ve loved Clark’s savvy reworkings of eclectic tunes and original compositions since I first heard them nearly two years ago, but this was the first time that I got to hear them performed in live. If you don’t live in Macon, it’s impossible to overstate Clark’s importance to the creative music scene. To the touring bands that he brings through, the bands he mixes at shows around town, and even to some musicians in Macon, Clark is probably best known as a sound engineer and promoter, but his skills as a musician, and his impeccable taste as an arranger are top notch, and never cease to amaze me.

Clark spent most of the set hovering over paperback-sized sampler, patching in beats and fragments of song with a touch of the finger, while twisting volume and tempo knobs to perfect a groove. I love his cleaver re-workings of songs by artists as divergent as Joanna Newsom, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders, but my favorite track of the evening seemed to blend all of these elements together along with a ’90s hip-hop sample and a sped-up vocal freestyle by the very talented Macon artist, Ben Vance. Most of the music he covered can be found on his great album from 2010: An History of the Album. If you haven’t heard it, I highly suggest that you download it for free here.

After strolling down for a bite at Greek Corner deli, and checking out a hip-hop vocal group performing on the corner of Cherry Street and 2nd, I headed back in time to catch Roger Riddle’s great set of music. Roger has awesome taste, and the ability that great DJs have to perfectly pace a set of music to get and keep people on their feet and dancing. Mixing nineties staples by the Fugees  and even a sample of an Eminem tune with classic soul strains from James Brown and Bill Withers, Roger kept the multi-generational crowd smiling and on their feet.

Check out Roger’s great website with downloadable playlists here.

Allan Evans Profile

An edited version of this article can be found in the current issue of Macon Magazine. This version is complete and unedited. 

Throughout his storied career, Macon native Allan Evans has performed many of what he calls “the monumental roles of operatic repertory.” From the brash Don Giovanni, to the jealous and violent Dr. Schön in Alban Berg’s Lulu, and the Norse god Wotan in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Evans’ stentorian bass-baritone and commanding acting skills have won him universal praise in his adopted home of Mannheim, Germany, and hero status in his hometown. “I have many favorites,” Evans remarked of his varied stage personas, “because I have always had the good fortune to sing only the roles that I liked.”

In many ways, the details of Evans’ biography read like one of the heroic dramas staged at Mannheim’s historic National Theater. Born in Macon in 1941, Evans is the oldest of eight children born to Will and Mildred Evans, and a standout in a family of over achievers. “I attended Bibb County public schools, and graduated as an honors student from Ballard-Hudson Senior High in 1959,” recalled Evans before adding, “neither of these schools exist any more, as if my childhood in Macon never existed.”

The de facto racial segregation of Evans’ childhood is – thankfully – a memory today, but it was a harsh and undeniable reality for the Evans of Jackson Street Lane. “Jim Crow was created to serve a purpose, and to have defeated that monster has been my greatest accomplishment,” wrote Evans in an e-mail message. His brother, Dr. Billy Joe Evans, reiterated this point, but added a lesson that loomed large for the Evans’, “(the segregation) was pretty solid and rigid, but for us, we weren’t looking at what was going on in the other half of Macon.” Indeed, Will and Mildred Evans instilled an ethic of hard work and humility in their children that left a lasting impression, as did the vibrant and thriving African-American community that their children were a part of, especially in the schools.

“My sister Lillian!” Evans’ exclaimed when asked about his mentor, and older half-sister (from his father’s previous marriage), Lillian Roundtree Ford. Living across the street from the Evans’, and teaching at Unionville Elementary School, Ford was, as Evans describes it, “the greatest influence on my academic life.” As it turned out, she would be the first of many.

After our initial interview, Evans sent an e-mail with treasured photo attached: a decades-old group portrait of the beaming singer seated among a group of his former teachers from elementary, junior, and senior high schools. Seated next to Evans – and smiling broadly – is Ford, and standing behind him is Bernice Blount, Evans’ 5th grade teacher who “took me to what seemed to be every black church in Macon to sing.” Ballard-Hudson music teacher Aquilla Jones Thompson, who introduced her star pupil to the works of Handel, and, as the singer explained, “(taught me) the classic arrangements of Negro Spirituals, which have remained with me to this day,” sits to Evans’ right, her smile registering the pride that radiates from the photo.

Despite the unwavering support of his community – or arguably because of it – Evans knew that he would have to leave Macon in order to pursue his career. “It was taken for granted that we would leave;” explained Dr. Billy Joe Evans, who also left to pursue an academic career, “that we would not be able to realize our aspirations easily if we stayed in Macon.”

Evans’ path led due north after a year at Knoxville College in Tennessee. The young singer’s days at The College of St. Thomas, then Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota were filled with music, and it wasn’t long before influential Twin Cities residents took note of Evans’ singular talent. Foremost among them were DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the founders of Reader’s Digest and namesake of what would become the Wallace Foundation. Evans met Mrs. Wallace on one of her many visits to Macalester, and the two bonded immediately. “I was later invited to Pleasantville, NJ to sing for the staff of Reader’s Digest, and from then on, Mrs. Wallace was my benefactor,” Evans explained. The Wallace’s support enabled Evans to settle in New York City to study at The Juilliard School, where he had already been accepted with a full tuition scholarship.

After completing his studies at Juilliard, Evans’ made his next unequivocal career choice. “The decision to move to Europe was settled as a student at Juilliard,” he recalled. “An opera house in literally every town meant more opportunities, and theater is managed by the minister of education, which shows you how highly-rated the profession of an opera singer is.” By the late 1960’s, Evans was gaining a reputation as a formidable bass-baritone singer, and an equally powerful actor. Studying at Bayreuth in Germany (the epicenter for the study of Richard Wagner’s celebrated works), The Munich College of Music, and the Salzburg Mozarteum in Vienna, Austria, the young singer was immersed in the so-called “heroic baritone” roles that could very well have been written for him.

Evans first major engagement was with the Viennese chamber opera, but his growing reputation quickly led to prominent roles in Basle and St. Gallen, Switzerland, Copenhagen, Luxembourg, and nearly every small city in Germany. In 1987, he joined the ensemble of Mannheim’s historic National Theater, and began one of the most rewarding phases of his career. “Allan was a treasured stalwart fixture in the ensemble,” recalled James Moellenhoff, a colleague of Evans, and a celebrated bass singer based in Europe. “(He was) a mentor for the younger singers, (and) I consider myself fortunate to have sung with him and learned much from watching him perform.”

Mannheim’s National Theater was the perfect venue for Evans to take on the most rigorous operatic roles, and in his twelve years there he won widespread acclaim for his virtuosic interpretations of roles by Wagner, Strauss, Stravinsky, and many others. Evans demurred when asked to name his favorite role, instead saying “when one has been successful singing the truly monumental roles of operatic repertory, one can only be grateful and humble for the chance.” His colleagues, on the other hand, have no problem naming favorites. “My favorite, although tough to single one out, would be his Amfortas,” Moellenhoff said, referring to the demanding baritone role in Wagner’s opera Parsifal. “The one I like best would probably be in Die Walkure,” Dr. Billy Joe Evans remarked after a short pause, referring to Evans’ role as Wotan in the second of Wagner’s four Der Ring des Nibelungen or Ring cycle operas.

Although favorites vary, Evans’ colleagues and family all agree on what another of Evans’ colleagues, the celebrated opera director Olivier Tambosi mentioned in a recent interview: “What distinguishes Allan as a complete artist is not just his musicianship, and the vocal power and beauty he brings to his roles, but also his meticulous preparation, and the intensity of acting he brings to his roles, and his larger-than-life presence on the stage.” In 1996, the German government followed the lead of Evans’ fans and colleagues by awarding him the title of “Kammersänger,” which translates to “chamber singer,” and is one of the highest honors the country bestows on distinguished singers.

While he was reaching career highs in Mannheim, Evans regularly took time to return to Macon to perform with the Macon Symphony Orchestra, at Wesleyan College, and at the Douglass Theater, and established a scholarship in his mother’s name that was given annually to a talented Macon student. “He had a great care for Macon musicians, and he wanted to support them” remarked Nancy Brown Cornet, a co-founder of The Macon Arts Alliance, and a close friend of Evans. “The scholarship was to demonstrate the importance in my life of a mother who did not enjoy an extended education, but understood the importance of such an education for her children,” Evans explained. “It was my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the first singer in my life,” he continued.

Evans’ pilgrimages to his hometown continue to this day, despite his busy performance schedule. In the last three years, the veteran singer has taken on challenging ensemble roles with the state theater in Kassel, Germany, performed in Olivier Tambosi’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Bregenz Festival in Austria, and has worked as a professor at The International Theater Akademie in Gottingen, Germany, but it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of him walking down Cherry Street, or perusing the galleries at The Macon Arts Alliance. “I think he feels it’s important to return to Macon,” Dr. Billy Joe Evans remarked, before bringing it back to his family and community: “It came from our parents, and also our teachers. If we got a big head, our teachers would call us down, so Macon is still very important to us.” For Evans, it’s simply in keeping with the profound humility that has always kept him grounded. “In the time of great hardships,” the singer intoned, “Macon was home. It is still home, and will always be home.”

© 2010

Curtis Macdonald’s Community Immunity

This article appears in the August issue of The New York City Jazz Record. 

From the opening notes of the labyrinthine title track, it’s clear that Community Immunity is much more than your average modern jazz album by a group of gifted young musicians. The 30-second piano intro — performed flawlessly by the remarkable pianist David Virelles – – is a brilliant encapsulation of the tune itself — an intricately crafted study in polytonality that saxophonist Curtis Macdonald’s quintet imbues with an effortless groove.

The piece — and the entire album — is a study in compression and expansion, compositional detail and improvisational freedom, and both the composer and band deliver on all counts.

Following the serpentine melody, Macdonald delivers a beautifully concise statement on alto that manages to speak volumes without rising above a bell-like whisper, after which Virelles enters with an exuberant statement that tests the limits of the piece’s rhythmic and harmonic bounds with long brushstrokes of arpeggiated color.

Throughout the disc, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Greg Ritchie provide flexible yet rock- solid backing, navigating often-treacherous rhythmic terrain with ease while maintaining an unfailing groove and momentum. The rhythmic tandem sound equally assured on dreamy ballads like “The Imagineer” — which features Ritchie’s supple brush work along with Tordini’s gorgeous tone and harmonic imagination — to the hurtling flag waver “The Living Well.”

Macdonald’s deep interest and grasp of topics as seemingly diverse as mathematics, linguistics, sound and graphic design and philosophy, and his irrepressible interest in tracing those pursuits to a common origin with music and all creative endeavors, play a vital role in his compositional technique. The saxophonist examines these ideas at length on his blog, but leaves it to his meticulously beautiful compositions and gifted band-mates to pose answers in the form of infinitely more questions.

Compositions like “Second Guessing” — a rhythmic and improvisational tour-de-force — speak to the nature of creativity and imagination as Macdonald describes on his blog, as a process of using the imagination as an “empirical, scientific” foundation for exploration. The piece’s melody sounds like a series of spontaneous ideas worked and refined through a meticulous creative process, but still retaining their freshness. Pianist Michal Vanoucek solos memorably on the tune’s brisk, synchopated form, but it is MacDonald’s spirited back-and-forth with tenor saxophonist Jeremy Viner’s muscular, emotive lines that is the high point — one of many on this important album.

Karl Berger – Strangely Familiar

This review will appear in the July edition of The New York City Jazz Record.

“These days we live under the accelerating spell of being short on time, not having time, having to find time, making time,” writes Karl Berger in the notes to this masterful performance of seventeen miniature piano compositions. “So, please, hold that space for a moment. Just relax and listen. Let yourself go there — find your Music Mind.”

Berger’s invitation to enter what he describes as “a rare, quiet, natural state” where a listener can not only appreciate, but actually “participate in the spaces where I’m not playing,” is impossible to refuse from the opening notes of “miniature 1,” an elegiac and startlingly beautiful exploration of melody through a shifting landscape of rhythmic and harmonic color. Berger’s insistently focused right hand keeps the focus on the melodic line, while he continually recontextualizes with light bass notes and tone clusters from the left, skirting the boundaries of traditional harmony and fixed tempo, but never getting in the way of the listener filling in the blanks.

Berger’s remarkable ability to blend spontaneous ideas into an intricate, but nearly always diaphanous, musical structure is what makes Strangely Familiar such an engaging listen from beginning to end. The melodies throughout the performances sound almost familiar in their utter simplicity and directness —  “They are simply statements that want to happen,” the composer explains in his notes — but it is Berger’s commitment to them, and his meticulous integration of them into a larger piece that throws them into striking relief.

“miniature 8” finds the pianist running down an unfurling melodic line that keeps burbling up and over expected resting points. The selection — perhaps more than any other — is a striking distillation of Berger’s method as a composer and performer. The measured, but unpredictably meandering, melody is featured with the bare minimum of left hand accompaniment, pausing in mid-stride before blooming once again, only to halt on an unexpected note of consonance. The performance sounds more spontaneous the further you get into it, until the subtlest of themes reappears and a crystalline structure emerges right before a whispered ending.

In addition to Berger’s mastery as both a composer and pianist, a great deal of credit to the success of this album has to go to recording engineer and sound editor Ted Orr — a former student of Berger’s at the pianist’s famous Creative Music Studio in the late 1970’s, and a great musician in his own right — who manages to capture every nuance of Berger’s sound in a remarkably balanced and full recording. Recorded over two nights at the Kleinert/James Gallery in Berger’s longtime home of Woodstock, NY on a gorgeously resonant Steinway, the audio quality is stunning.

Spurred on, no doubt, by these felicitous factors, and his own limitless imagination as both a composer and a performer, Karl Berger has succeeded in producing a remarkable album. Strangely Familiar quietly demands an engaged listener, but it also richly rewards it in a way that only the best creative music can.

ZEBU!, Savant, Rat Babies and Sugar Virus @ The Golden Bough

Talking to Steve D’Agostino — 1/2 of the manically experimental duo ZEBU! and a fellow NYC expat — last Tuesday night at the Golden Bough, he said something along the lines of: “wow, Macon is a really cool town.”

Speak to nearly any of the startlingly diverse array of touring bands who come through the Bough on a weekly basis, and you’ll probably hear something similar. Anyone who lives in Macon day in and day out will undoubtedly have a more complicated opinion on the matter, but on Tuesday night, everything seems to fall into place. Macon is indeed a cool town, a destination for left-of-center touring bands, and the epicenter of a growing, gloriously uncorrupted underground music scene.

Turning the corner onto Cotton Avenue at around 9:30 I was startled to see the street filled with people. The streets of downtown Macon are almost always uniformly quiet on weekday nights, so it is always a nice surprise to see the crowd of regulars and visitors chatting outside the Bough on Tuesdays, but last night was something else. With four bands on the bill — three of them touring outfits — the street teemed with unfamiliar faces. Bands and groupies gathered around touring vans sipping beers and trading stories, a group strummed guitars at the entrance to a parking garage, and raucous music from inside the bookstore echoed through a back alley and out onto the street.

Inside, ZEBU!, a duo of D’Agostino and drummer, vocalist Ted Lee, were in the middle of a frantic original. Lee pounded an insistent drum beat as he half-sang, half-shouted lines into his mic, while D’Agostino added power chords, distorted lines, and the occasional harmonized vocal part. ZEBU!’s music — mainly the lyrics and titles — are unabashedly tounge-in-cheek, but the underlying beats and structure are deeply musical, and delivered with focused intensity.

The duo ended their set by completely succumbing to their comic tendencies. Sweat dripping from his brow, Lee stood atop his drum stool after a particularly heated tune, and stripped down to his boxers. He then launched into a cover of an Elvis Presely tune — anyone remember which one it was? — and preceeded to lurch around the room and into the audience while delivering the song’s pleading lyrics. This sounds bad, I know, but it was actually a great, if ridiculous, ending to a great set of music. I picked up two of ZEBU!’s albums — Chainsaws & Cheerleaders, and Bloody Lips — on the way out, and have really enjoyed them both.

The Atlanta-based band Savant was next, and its members did away with pretense almost immediately by stripping down to their underwear and shorts. At that point of the night, I couldn’t blame them at all. The Bough has been without AC for the last month or so, and this night the humidity and the intensity of the performances were adding up to some uncomfortable conditions.

The quartet leapt into their driving opener with abandon. Blending elements of punk, metal and bracing atonality, Savant has it’s own sound, and an uncommon commitment to performance. The group’s compositions vary widely — check out their Bandcamp site for a sampling of this — but their intensity never wavered throughout their extended, sweaty set at the Bough.

Macon favorites Rat Babies and the Macon-based band Sugar Virus finished out the night. I’m sorry to say that I had to cut out before hearing Sugar Virus — though I have seen them in the past; if you are into unapologetic, bracing hardcore: this is the band for you — but I was able to hear Rat Babies’ blistering set.

There are a lot of names thrown around to describe Rat Babies — sludge, swamp, doom — but nothing seems to come close to capturing the bass-and-drum duo’s singular approach. The band opened with a new composition that Clark Bush described to me as a “slow punk song,” or what I thought could be the sound of a punk song decelerated to the point where every jagged note and gutteral scream comes into sharp relief. While this certainly doesn’t describe all of Rat Babies’ music — tempos and approaches vary widely — I do think it comes close to describing the band’s M.O. Taking a somewhat familiar sound — doom metal, sludge rock, etc — the band often slows things down, and opens them up to create a new and compelling sound, one that is in turns atmospheric, meditative, violent and suffocating.

Singer and bassist Mux Blank’s spittle-inflected screams and thunderous bass lines create a stasis that seem immovable until drummer Chod enters with a flexible and mobile beat. That tension between motion and excruciating immobility was certainly a hallmark of their performance at the Golden Bough, and is what — to my ears, at least — makes Rat Babies so compelling and unique.