Songs for Sassy

Upon hearing Dianne Reeves’s The Calling (subtitled “A Celebration of Sarah Vaughan”), I had to relisten to Vaughan’s classic 1961 bass-and-guitar album, After Hours, to remind myself that the departed Divine One could indeed be a subtle singer. It wasn’t always about excess—rewriting every melody line and throwing in five notes for every one that the composer wrote. But in her tribute to Vaughan, on the CD as well as in a special Valentine’s Day concert at Lincoln Center, Reeves chose to commemorate the more familiar side of Sassy: the exuberant, over-the-top improviser who could sink her chops into any song and wrestle it to the ground.

Even Vaughan herself would have been taken aback by Reeves’s opener, “My Funny Valentine.” In her day, singers used scat and melodic variations merely to embellish a standard. Reeves, on the other hand, spins elaborate, extended webs of improvisation that only briefly detour through the familiar words and music. (I personally embrace those Reeves recordings that consist of standards—and more recent songs that aspire to standardhood—done with straight-ahead backings.) Reeves’s voice is a sonic marvel, and no one ever sounded better amid Avery Fisher’s often murky acoustics (which nearly defeated Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1997). Reeves puts all her influences—jazz, pop, and worldbeat (mostly Afro blue and Brazilian)—at the service of a Vaughan tribute that honors the both of them; Bob Freedman’s arrangements display sufficient smarts, for instance, to incorporate the countermelody to “Lullaby of Birdland” that Sass sang in her 1954 album with Clifford Brown. More power to Reeves for that—if we didn’t love the excess, we wouldn’t be Sarah Vaughan fans. —Will Friedwald


Imagist poet, nightlife anthropologist, fearless tackler of crazed British Airways passengers, Bryan Ferry is above all a beautiful loser. So while any given incarnation of the Loser’s Lounge will offer a marvelously eclectic daisy chain of downtown luminaries paying homage to past masters, choosing Roxy Music as their latest muse crystallizes the Losers’ underdog fabulosity like none other. Because Ferry—lover of women, instigator of dance crazes—invented what one Roxy song calls the “autoerotic plea”: the lovesick unpacking of the heart, crooned into the bathroom mirror after a long night of party-time-wasting. The Losers dive through the looking glass—no more singing into a hairbrush to “The Thrill of It All” or locking the door so no one else can see you do the strand.

Their recent relocation from Fez to the Westbeth having slightly diffused the smoky nightclub situation, the Losers tore through 30-odd Roxy and Roxy-related staples on February 8 (including a cover of their cover of “Jealous Guy” and ladytronic flight attendants harmonizing on “Music for Airports”). The quick-study Kustard Kings laid down their usual taut but loose-jointed sonics (but hark, no oboe?), led by Lounge king Joe McGinty on keys (adding video-game grace notes to Nick Danger’s deranged reading of “Seven Deadly Finns”) and guitar dynamo Kris Woolsey, bedecked with Eno seraphim wings.

Best impressionist: Ed Rogers’s matter-of-fact serpentine sleekness on “Let’s Stick Together.” Best relocation of For Your Pleasure to a Weimar cabaret: Richard Barone’s poker-faced “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” replete with plastic disposable darling and punitive whip-wielder. Best hootenanny: the shakedown of “The Thrill of It All,” featuring Matthew Caws (of Nada Surf) working the wordless chorus like a dorky Dionysus. Finally, best incarnation of what Le Tigre calls the eau de bedroom dancing: Lianne Smith stomping and squawking to “Love Is the Drug,” with the ecstatic abandon of a drunk and disorderly librarian. —Jessica Winter

Lost and Found

I first heard the great flamenco cantaor Carmen Linares in an otherwise empty Granada restaurant last summer. The waiter had put on a CD of hers, and I was struck by the voice, marked by a throaty richness and a cascade of world-weary tones that hinted at ceaseless heartaches. This was a woman who had been consumed too often but never vanquished.

At Town Hall on February 10, she and Manolo Sanlúcar, the justly famed flamenco guitarist and composer, performed Sanlúcar’s compositions, based on the lyrics of Federico García Lorca (who was inspired by the Gypsy notion of duende, the creative animus). Linares is a petite, elegant woman, while Sanlúcar has the casual air of someone who’s been doing this since he was a kid (in fact, he began as a tocador at age 12). The two transformed a large venue into the intimate world of a tablao (or tavern). Sanlúcar, along with second guitarist Isidro Muñoz and two percussionists, wove fluent rhythmic lines underpinning a cante—sonorous airs to Linares’s fire. Unfortunately, amplification problems plagued the first half, forcing Sanlúcar to get up several times and ask the sound technician to adjust sound levels, disrupting the intimate mood.

In contrast, the second half felt as smooth as baby skin, featuring more of Sanlúcar’s guitar works. His most moving number was “Oración,” from his Tauromagia suite—about a matador visiting a chapel prior to a bullfight. With its somber melodic lines, nimble phrasing, and tonally precise riffs, the work captured the tension between the meditative calm of prayer and the tumultuous feelings of a man about to face death. Linares came back on, singing her own arrangements of two traditional cantes, confident and majestic in her abandon as the evening drew too quickly to a close—leaving me bereft, though deliciously so. —Luis H. Francia

Unforgettable Fires

Much as Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf denied it, Wynton Marsalis was in enemy territory for his two sold-out shows there on February 1. As the Pulitzer-winning Lincoln Center director has lambasted free and fusion music for years, some wondered if this unlikely engagement might be a détente between him and the downtown crowd (or a high-profile gig to help the beleaguered Knit). As one staffer noted, the well-dressed audience seemed too curious to be W’s regular uptown crowd: “What’s he playing?” wondered a patron about the face of jazz today. Most of the Ken Burns-educated audience disappeared directly after the show.

They were rightfully hyped by W’s two-hour expert history lesson: a séance for the ghosts of jazz past, conjuring Jelly Roll, Dizzy, Trane, and Duke. W’s septet sailed through a kaleidoscopic, Art Ensemble-like journey, embracing marches, swing, samba, and bop. Dialogues were engaged by an embarrassment of expert soloists, especially W, zooming from Miles’s cool economy to Satchmo’s screaming highs through a six-song set, including two Monk covers.

Like the Burns film, the group shunned postbop innovations. The downtown sect surely regretted this, but W embracing the modern dance would be as probable as finding humility in U2: It ain’t gonna happen and it’s beside the point. Like the Irish superstars, he’s a great showman who soaks up the past. Still, you’d have wished that W and the bridge-and-tunnel crowd had wandered downstairs for a tonic. At the same time (and the same moment in jazz lore), Aum Fidelity supergroup Other Dimensions in Music were pushing some serious envelopes—and every cubic inch of air out of their bodies. What a dialogue and détente that would have been. —Jason Gross

Massive Attack

If you’ve entered a Manhattan dance store recently, you’ll have noticed swaths of wall space swallowed up by something called “progressive.” Trance without cheese, house purged of disco, techno stripped of black feel, “progressive” is defined almost by its in-between-ness. The genre’s tantric ideal is the long set sustained at the brink of climax. DJs like John Digweed deliberately select characterless tracks rather than orgasmic anthems, because they work better as mixscape components. Progressive tends to be a rather level, peakless experience—mild and middling.

It’s certainly the last genre I thought would generate anything exciting, until a chubby-cheeked German called Timo Maas came along. At his least, he’s Sasha with balls; at his best, he makes progressive’s indistinctness seem like the promise of a new genre. “Big room,” a term DJs often drop when reviewing records, might be a good name. Site-specific rather than musically defined, it refers to colossal-sounding tracks that exploit the surround-sound systems at Twilo-style superclubs. Maas’s music is sculpted in four dimensions: huge blocks of sound-in-motion, glittering tracer-trails of filtered noise panning overhead. Sound becomes spectacular. Size counts, not just in quadraphonic dimensions but along the frequency spectrum: A sudden kick-drum will open up a hidden plateau of sub-bass below what you believed was the nether threshold.

With his Twilo residency shifted to Saturdays (warming up for Junior Vasquez), Maas now has twice as much time on the decks. Unfortunately, a six-hour set means he can slow-build, Digweed-style. After much gritless throb and sub-euphoric pummel, Maas finally reached full throttle around 4 a.m. on February 10, sending the crowd apeshit with his re-remix of “Dooms Night,” his scene-crossing smash of 2000. Still, a curious blankness lingers. Eliminating the aspects of rave that harked back to youth movements like hippie and punk, progressive achieves a kind of purity. There’s no humor or sexuality, just a vague urgency, semi-articulated through the occasional vocal sample: “It’s in your reach . . . concentrate . . . find the space inside.” Even in the hands of such a consummate pyrotechnician, the “big room” sound shows how rave’s explosive energies have been corralled by the superclub industry. Sound becomes spectacle. And that’s not progressive in any sense of the word. —Simon Reynolds