Concert review: Jessica Lurie Ensemble…skillfully wove elements of jazz, soul, folk, rock, and world music into a constantly surprising musical tapestry

Date: February 18, 2012
Venue: 92nd Street Y Tribeca (NY)

Review by Jeremy Siskind

Jessica Lurie‘s set at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, which previewed her upcoming CD, Megaphone Heart, skillfully wove elements of jazz, soul, folk, rock, and world music into a constantly surprising musical tapestry. Lurie, a virtuosic saxophonist, flautist, and vocalist, boasted an equally rich and personal tone on all three instruments. Her band, whose members’ backgrounds include both jazz and non-jazz experience, was anchored by a dynamic rhythm section of rising-star drummer Allison Miller and broad-toned bassist Todd Sickafoose, who also co-produced her album.

Lurie’s melodies often utilized Eastern scales, but without the aggression, stridency, or boldness of other saxophonists (most notably Rudresh Mahanthappa). Her piece, “The Hidden One” combined a windy snake-charming melody with a clavichord keyboard vamp and a simple Balkan rhythm, highlighted by Ms. Miller’s brisk drumming. Many of the pieces allowed for multiple solos, which – although often high energy – didn’t explore the intricacies of the harmony or invent new melodies with the mastery as today’s top jazz players. Another piece, “Why?” featured an added string section and sighing melodies, frequently including Lurie’s clear-speaking alto in tight voicings with the strings.

The band seemed most comfortable and most engaged on the tunes that featured Lurie’s voice, whose pitch-perfect intonation was often accompanied by a dose of syrupy soul. “A Million Pieces” was a light, staccato piece utilizing banjo that featured a solo for Lurie to spit out bursts of arpeggios on the flute. “Once,” a nostalgic ballad, paired unusual harmonic twists and turns with the moodiness of the alt-folk genre. Much of Lurie’s music seemed influenced some swirl of folk, rock, indie, and country influences that might include Wilco, Ani DiFranco, Tom Waits, and/or Sufjan Stevens.

Watching Ms. Lurie and her band, one revels in the mystery of what might come next. With an array of instruments, special guests (Tina on bari seemed to be a fan favorite), and song-writing ability spanning genres and cultures, she provided a little taste of many delectable dishes.