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Brilliant, Sometimes Haunting Lapsteel Player Brings His Genre-Smashing Instrumentals to Freddy’s

To New York audiences, lapsteel virtuoso Raphael McGregor might be best known as a key ingredient in Brain Cloud, Dennis Lichtman’s western swing band. Before that, McGregor served as the source of the vintage country flavor in Nation Beat‘s driving mashup of Brazilian maracatu and Americana sounds. But he’s also a first-rate, eclectic composer and bandleader in his own right. In addiiton to his more-or-less weekly Monday 7 PM Barbes residency with Brain Cloud, he has a monthly residency at Freddy’s, where he’ll be on Nov 20 at 8 PM.

His most recent show at Barbes leading a band was a quartet gig with with Larry Eagle on drums, Jim Whitney on bass and Rob Hecht on violin. They opened with a moody oldschool noir soul vamp and quickly built it into a brooding rainy-day theme over Eagle’s tense shuffle beat. Hecht took his time and then went spiraling and sailing upwards. Why is it that blues riffs inevitably sound so cool when played by strings? McGregor had a hard act to follow so he walked the line between Lynchian atmosphere and an express-track scurry, then handed off to Whitney who picked up his bow and took the song all the way into the shadows.

McGregor began the night’s second number with a mournful solo lapsteel intro that moved slowly toward C&W and then shifted uneasily into moody swing. It was like a more animated take on the Friends of Dean Martinez doing oldtime string band music. After that, they put a swinging southwestern gothic spin on a Django Reinhardt tune.

They also did a couple of straight-up western swing numbers, a brisk trainwhistle romp and a fetching version of Waltz Across Texas With You: much as they were a lot of fun, McGregor was pleasantly surprised to find that the crowd was more interested in hearing his originals. They opened their second set with a piece that began as an Indian-inflected one-chord jam that morphed into a bluesy duel between violin and bass, followed by a Frisellian pastoral interlude and then back to trip-hop Indian funk – all that in under ten minutes. All this is just a small sampling of what McGregor could pull off at Freddy’s.

A nice review of a record I played on, Queen Esther's "The Other Side:"

The most exciting Afro-American release of the year, however, is Queen Esther’sThe Other Side. Born and raised in South Carolina and Georgia, she too absorbed every kind of Southern music, rural and urban, before moving to New York to focus on blues, jazz and theater. On this new album, however, she unveils her obvious affection for and mastery of country music.

She sings Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” (by the Creole songwriter Paul Pena) and original gospel and rockabilly tunes, but the bulk of the album is devoted to hard-country numbers that could have been taken from a Connie Smith or Lee Ann Womack record but were in fact composed by Queen Esther herself. These are ballads and two steps about romantic crises, and the strategic unsteadiness in her glowing voice suggests not the cool self-assurance of an urban sophisticate but the heart-on-a-sleeve transparency of a small-town innocent. Her songs are so sturdily constructed that her powerful delivery of Wanda Jackson’s “My Big Iron Skillet” and Charlie Rich’s “I Feel Like Going Home” sounds like more of the same.

Backed by two of Cassandra Wilson’s best musicians—guitarist Marvin Sewell and fiddler Charles Burnham—as well as Raphael McGregor’s steel guitar, Queen Esther ties the loose strands of black and white churches, juke joints and honky tonks, blue notes and twang into knots too tangled to be untied. She reminds us that each half of the phrase, Afro-Americana, helps the other.

Raphael McGregor Quintet – “Fretless”

 

One of the more intriguing under-the-radar recordings discovered during my weekly sweep of the new arrivals lists comes courtesy of guitarist Raphael McGregor and his debut recording Fretless.

It’s not easy incorporating a lap steel guitar into a jazz session.  I’ve documented a handful of attempts on this site, and most of them either fall under the Nordic Jazz subgenre… an approach that allows plenty of space for a lap steel (or pedal steel) to slot its warped notes in between the beats.  For instance, Mónókróm by guitarist Andrés Þór, Einar Scheving‘s Land Mins Fodur, and Mathias Eick‘s The Door.

There was also Ellery Eskelin‘s Mirage, an avant-garde recording masked as a love song, from an artist whose innovative approach doesn’t seem out of line for incorporating unconventional instruments into the mix.  Other notable recordings surround the Americana Jazz of Bill Frisell, the nu-jazz of Brian Blade, and the indie-jazz sound of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey… all of them musicians who have gone a long way to establishing their particular individualistic sounds.

So, I find it interesting to stumble upon the debut of Raphael McGregor, an artist who is still, relatively, at the outset of his creative development, and who sets off on that path with lap steel guitar as his method of putting voice to all of the ideas and dreams and experiences bouncing around inside an artist’s head.

Your album personnel:  Raphael McGregor (lap steel guitar), Oran Etkin(alto sax, clarinet), Nick Russo (guitar), Jason Sypher (bass), andVinnie Sperrazza (drums).

McGregor is clearly searching here.  The album varies from song to song in terms of how the lap steel is presented.

The interludes of “Cornflower,” “Alice,” and “Lapocalypse” recall the eerie beauty of Bill Frisell’s Americana Jazz sound.  A peaceful ambling cadence, notes refracted like a setting sun through an evening haze, and a glimpse of the darkness about to descend… a prowling nature and a haunting beauty.  But it’s not just Frisell’s serene personality this music bumps up against.  “Staircase” is a country-fied version of the jazz-rock hyperfusion of the 70s.  Etkin has a nifty part on alto sax right after some electric guitar burn.

Some of the other tracks take more to a roadhouse display of unrestrained ferocity.  On “TVM,” Russo unleashes a high voltage attack on guitar, straining the balance of the jazz-rock blend way to side of the latter element, but his contribution is sandwiched between statements of melody offered with a dance floor sway.

There’s also the strangely amorphous “Southern Border,” which hints at the eerie Tuscon-based music of Howe Gelb and Giant Steps, but then goes through two unlikely transformations… first launching into a Klezmer influenced section, led by Etikin’s clarinet, and then sliding seamlessly into a catchy post-jazz cadence, with Sypher’s bass steering the quintet into territory with scenery that looks a lot less like that of Tuscon desert and more akin to that of Chicago’s Tortoise… before ending back with a brief return to the eerie alt-country of the Southwest.  It goes a long way to illustrating how McGregor is experimenting with his instrument, in a genre that doesn’t come with a lot of rules of engagement for lap steel guitar.  These are intriguing glimpses of what may come to be if McGregor keeps up his search.

What has to be the most promising of the tracks is the one which comes closest to a proper jazz tune.  “Orangerie,” is a slowly swaying ballad, with Etkin’s clarinet flickering like candlelight and Sperrazza’s brush work creating an environment in which lap steel’s strange flight patterns sound right at home.  The song moves at an unhurried pace, and the patience with which the melody is expressed brims with confidence and lands it solid.

It’s a very nice sign of things to come, on an album that provides some very intriguing views of the present.  An auspicious debut.

The album is Self-Produced.

Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.


Surreal, Eclectic, Psychedelic Steel Guitar Instrumentals from Raphael McGregor

by delarue

Raphael McGregor plays steel guitar, both the six and eight-string kinds, and there is no one else who sounds like him. Some of the instrumentals on his new album Fretless have a dusky, hallucinatory southwestern gothic feel, but he’s a lot more diverse than that, venturing as far afield as Greek-flavored psychedelic rock, southern-fried Allman Brothers sonics, klezmer and jazz. His supporting cast here has the same kind of outside-the-box imagination:Nick Russo on guitar, Jason Sypher on bass, Oran Etkin on alto sax and clarinet and Vinnie Sperazza on drums. McGregor likes very long songs – a couple here clock in at over ten minutes – and also very short songs, like the brief nocturnal interludes that open and close the album. Some of them you could call post-rock – Austin instrumental crew My Education come to mind – while others literally run the gamut. If you like dark psychedelic music, this is for you: the whole thing is streaming at McGregor’s Bandcamp page. He and the band are playing the album release show on Sat Feb 16 at 10 at Spike Hill.

The first of the long songs is TVM, the closest thing here to My Education – orFriends of Dean Martinez on steroids. Catchy, terse bass and Sperazza’s brilliantly nonchalant yet colorful brushwork keep the groove going, Russo growing more agitated against the warm swells of McGregor’s steel and then going completely unhinged. Etkin’s alto follows much more calmly; the song eventually winds out with an edgy three-way conversation and then a long, rising drum solo as the other instruments go in the opposite direction.

Southern Border works its way stealthfully from a ghostly desert theme to a  biting klezmer clarinet interlude that McGregor and Russo eventually ambush from both sides, then shift to a dark, intense, psychedelic Greek surf rock interlude that reminds a lot of the Byzan-Tones. By contrast, McGregor builds the long, hypnotic Lapocalypse methodically into a thousand-layer cake of loops, some ethereal, some savage, evoking the great British steel guitar virtuoso BJ Cole. A big-sky soundscape, Orangerie also works a slow groove, but with a distantly gypsyish flavor: pretty as it is, with Etkin’s carefree clarinet, there’s an inescapable undercurrent of unease. The last of the big numbers is Staircase, juxtaposing Dickie Betts-style southern boogie with more of that deliciously mysterious Mediterranean surf rock. Then the band takes it in a funky direction with nimble bass and circling sax and finally goes out on a joyously jazzy note.

ROCKING WITH DENNIS LICHTMAN’S BRAIN CLOUD (at the Jalopy Theatre, March 25, 2011)

Dennis Lichtman’s Brain Cloud is a hot band.

Never mind that its guiding star is Bob Wills rather than King Oliver: don’t let it bother you.

There was a time in American popular music where these “genres” overlapped so happily that Western Swing recordings looked back to Lang and Venuti, sideways to Bennie Moten and later to Charlie Christian. . . and often swung as hard as the Condon Commodores.  Is that sufficient recommendation?

The Brain Cloud takes its name from a Wills song — where having a “cloudy” brain is related to the deep blues — but there’s nothing particularly foggy or ambiguous about the band.

Nice unison arrangements, intense (and not overlong) solos for everyone, and wonderfully on-target singing and impromptu choreography from Miz Tamar Korn.  Dennis plays electric mandolin, clarinet, and fiddle — and chooses the good-natured tempos; he’s joined by Andrew Hall, bass, and one of my dear friends, drummer Kevin Dorn.  Raphael McGregor plays the pedal steel guitar, and Skip Krevens the electric guitar — and sings a few.

At the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn — where the Brain Cloud had their CD release party on March 25, 2011, Dennis had a few special guests — and I don’t use that term lightly: Noam Pikelny on banjo; Scott Kettner on snare drum and triangle; Matt Munisteri on guitar; Pete Martinez on clarinet.  I was there on camera and tripod, along with JAZZ LIVES’ pal Doug Pomeroy, recording engineer extraordinaire.

Here’s what we saw.

As if to welcome the most finicky of JAZZ LIVES readers into the Brain Cloud tent, Dennis began with Mel Powell’s 1942 MISSION TO MOSCOW — a most interesting chart / composition for the Benny Goodman band.  Hear how it blends what the critics would later call “pre-bop” with sections coming straight from the Ellington “doo-wah, doo-wah” of IT DON’T MEAN A THING:

Then, the moody Wills song the band was named for, BRAIN CLOUDY BLUES:

Another piece of “crossover” music — HAVE YOU EVER BEEN LONELY?  I have the 1931 sheet music which has the face of that famous Western swingster, Harry Lillis Crosby, on the cover:

The mournful BLUES FOR DIXIE, which has neat lyrics:

I may have the title wrong, but I believe this is DARK AS THE NIGHT (BLUE AS THE DAY):

Courtesy of the well-versed Matt Munisteri (who sat in), HONEY FINGERS:

I learned MY WINDOW FACES THE SOUTH from another famous Western swing star, Thomas “Grits” Waller:

Dennis’ story of playing PEACOCK RAG in Hawaii is a rare piece of narrative plumage in itself:

RHYTHM IN MY SOUL is an apt title for this band’s efforts:

A 1939 Broadway song (from a production called YOKEL BOY, no kidding) that became a favorite with Billie Holiday and Summit Reunion, among others — it’s COMES LOVE:

Florists take note!  Here’s WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP (a song I associate with New Orleans bands and — perhaps oddly? — Judy Garland and Gene Kelly):

The sweet Jimmie Rodgers lament, MISS THE MISSISSIPPI AND YOU:

A different variety of sweetness, SUGAR MOON:

The very funny up-tempo narrative of love unfulfilled: girls, don’t ever hang out with a fiddler if he won’t put his instrument in the case for you — HE FIDDLED WHILE I BURNED:

And a closing rouser with all the guests — James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE (with the Western Swing changes, you’ll hear):

.

What a wonderfully spirited band!  And now you know what band to engage for your daughter’s graduation, your son’s bris, your husband’s retirement, the mutual celebration of someone’s divorce coming through . . .

The only problem with these videos (of which I am quite proud) is that you can’t watch them in the car — except, of course, if you’re a passenger.  May I offer a safer solution?

Clock here: https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/braincloud to purchase the BRAIN CLOUD debut CD — which has the same band (Dennis, Tamar, Kevin, Skip, Andrew, and Raphael) performing ten selections: MISSION TO MOSCOW / BLUES FOR DIXIE / BRAIN CLOUDY BLUES / MY WINDOW FACES THE SOUTH / PEACOCK RAG / HE FIDDLED WHILE I BURNED / COMES LOVE / SWEET CHORUS / SUGAR MOON / SITTIN’ ALONE IN THE MOONLIGHT — beautifully recorded, so that you will hear things that the videos can’t capture.

Illustration by Jillian Johnson

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Music & Arts

Nation Beat weds Brazil and the American South

SATURDAY, JULY 19, 2008, 4:17 PM
 
 
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Brooklyn's Nation Beat, with Brazilian singer Liliana Araujo

Brooklyn's Nation Beat, with Brazilian singer Liliana Araujo

What do the urban sprawl of northeast Brazil and the rural expanse of the American South have in common?

Most people wouldn't have a clue. But to Scott Kettner, the connection couldn't be more obvious: it's in the music.

"I was playing a lot of jazz and bluegrass and New Orleans records, and then I played a lot of maracatu and forro from Brazil," says Kettner. "I came to realize that these sounds really do have a lot in common."

Yet before the work of Kettner and his band, Nation Beat, no one thought to make those parallels clear. On Nation Beat's new CD, "Legends of the Preacher," the roiling rhythms of maracatu (indigenous to the Brazilian city of Recife) flail around country fiddles that sound like they came straight out of Nashville.

At the same time, undulating accordions, born from traditional Brazilian forro, fuse with the lap steel guitars of blues-rock. Meanwhile, new Portuguese lyrics trade places with ones penned half a century ago by Hank Williams.

The weirdest part? It makes for a blissful mix.

Perhaps only a band brewed in the cultural polyglot that is Brooklyn could hit upon it. The seven-person Nation Beat formed in our city's largest borough five years ago, though they include two members who originally hail from Recife (including singer Liliana Araujo). They also recorded their latest CD down there.

The germ of the idea began back in 2000 when drummer Kettner was studying percussion at the New School. His teacher, Billy Hart, introduced him to the beauty of Brazilian bossa nova and the energy of samba, which sparked a hunger for more.

"I asked Billy, 'Is there any other Brazilian rhythm I should check out?' He told me, 'There's this style of maracatu from the northeast.'"

Hart demonstrated the hyper-rhythmic style, which overwhelms the listener with scores of percussive devices, from pandeiro to alfaia to triangle. Kettner became so entranced he decided to travel to Brazil for what turned out to be a five-week stay, despite knowing not a word of Portuguese at the time.

Once in the city, he met future Nation Beat member Jorge Martins, who schooled him in the culture, sound and history of Recife. It's a creatively rich, but financially poor place, once voted by an American population study group as the fourth worst city in the world to live in.

Despite this, Kettner wound up moving to Recife for a full year in 2001. During that time he started brainstorming the band, which he formed back in Brooklyn. A few incarnations of the group led to the final lineup. The guys didn't settle on key singer Araujo until they were already recording their debut CD, 2007's "Maracatuniversal."

Originally, Araujo came in just to sing backup. "But when we heard her in the studio, all our jaws dropped to the floor," Kettner says.

As Kettner studied more history he found that the connections between Brazil's northeast and the American South extend far beyond both sounds' mutual roots in Africa.

"Both the [American] South and the northeast of Brazil have always been associated with farming and have also gone through economic problems," he explains. "And in both areas, the inflection of how people speak has always been associated with uneducated people. People from the northeast have an accent everybody in Brazil makes fun of."


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Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/nation-beat-weds-brazil-american-south-article-1.350737#ixzz2RQ2NPw8h

Raphael McGregor, Fretless: Well, this is right up my alley. Maybe yours too. Not really a jazz album per se, but it does have lap steel guitarist McGregor leading a jazz outfit in a series of tunes that touch on some jazz work (a la John Abercrombie and Steve Tibbetts, some of the other ECM crowd). Lap steel, reeds, guitar, bass, and drums. Hypnotic at times, grinding at others. Lap steel in an unconventional setting, performing music that doesn’t quite sound like anything else. Very cool. Find of the Week.

Raphael McGregor – “TVM”

 

Since I published a different article on Sunday, what is traditionally a video day, I’m posting what would’ve been yesterday’s video today, and so you won’t have to do without your Bird is the Worm video fix.

Today’s video is from a live performance by Raphael McGregor‘s quartet.  I recently named his recent release Fretless as one of my eMusic Jazz Picks, and I’ll be publishing a standard album review on Bird is the Worm pretty soon.  Right away you’ll notice the lap steel, which isn’t typically used in a Jazz environment.  I can think of a few other artists who use it often/occasionally, but it’s a pretty rare thing.  And the album, unsurprisingly, is full of nifty surprises and interesting music.

I was amused to learn that this song is based off of the melody that the New Jersey Transit ticket vending machines used to make as it printed a passenger’s ticket.

Performance is from a CD release show on Feb. 16th at Spike Hill in Brooklyn.

Your video personnel:  Raphael McGregor (lap steel), Oran Etkin (sax),Jason Sypher (bass), and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums).

That review of Fretless should get pubbed sometime later this week or next.

Cheers.