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Brilliant, Sometimes Haunting Lapsteel Player Brings His Genre-Smashing Instrumentals to Freddy’sTo 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.” - delarue

Lucid Culture

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.” - Geoffrey Himes

Paste Magazine

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. ” - Dave Sumner

Bird is the Worm

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. ” - delarue

New York Music Daily