Thursday, December 31, 2009

Folkways' Anthology of Traditional Indonesian Music I

The traditional music of Indonesia is multifaceted. There are the Gamelan Orchestras of Java and Bali, sure, but then there are widely diverse local musics from all the various regions, all worthwhile. Folkways Records began producing recordings covering virtually every region early on.

Released in 1961, Music of Indonesia, Volume 1 provides an interesting assortment of Gamelan from Bali and Java, a Balinese Ketchak excerpt, plus some more obscure music from Celebes and Ambon.

It's available at the Smithsonian Folkways website (Google it) as a download or CD-Rom. I'll be covering Volume 2 in the near future, and will go into more detail at that point. In the meantime, Happy New Year and much thanks to all my readers. You are why I am doing this!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marion Brown's "Why Not?" Reissued

Marion Brown has not exactly been forgotten in the last 10 years or so, but neither has he been given a great deal of attention as one of the more important alto sax stylists in the "new thing" era of improvisatory music. So when his ESP album Why Not? is again available in a careful reissue with a restoration of the original pristine sound, it is a good opportunity for more listeners to get to know him.

Why Not? belongs in the handful of his very best recordings. It was his second for the label and, along with Three for Shepp (Impulse), reflects a heightened burst of creativity following upon his appearance on John Coltrane's seminal Ascension.

In fact Why Not? reflects the later Coltrane influence in a number of ways. First off in Marion's choice of sidemen: the explosively free drummer Rashied Ali, a member of Trane's last group, pianist Stanley Cowell, who sounds like nobody else but functions in the free-flowing manner of McCoy Tyner's last work with Trane as well as Alice Coltrane's style in those days--rubato, loosely building cascades of notes and chords. Sirone on bass doesn't sound like Jimmy Garrison, but he functions as a punctuator here much as Jimmy did in the later Trane configuration.

The tunes are effective vehicles for the band and often reflect a modal, pedal-based Trane-derived style.

Marion's playing is lyrically rhapsodic as Coltrane's playing certainly was in later years. But all similarity ends there. This is creative, original, vital free music and Marion shows he was no imitator. Stanley Cowell sounds as inspired as he ever did. And the rhythm section jabs, punches, feints and dances with perfectly calculated abandon.

If you want to know why you need to appreciate the contributions of Mr. Brown and his music, this is essential listening.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens and "Two Cities"

There is a very healthy trend in much of the new jazz coming out of Chicago, as I see it. There is a loose confederation of musicians who place equal emphasis on both the warp and woof of jazz, and they do it quite well. Fast Citizens is one such unit. Josh Berman's group in Old Idea (see earlier review on this blog) is another. Lucky 7s still another. I'm sure I'm leaving out others but the point is that Keefe Jackson's tenor and Josh Berman's trumpet are a part of all three ensembles, and that all three groups have a more or less similar approach, and most importantly, they are doing some considerably absorbing music.

The Fast Citizens Unit has a rotating leadership position. For this second album it is alto man Aram Shelton, who writes much of the material on Two Cities (Delmark), though Keefe Jackson, cellist Fred Longberg-Holm and bassist Anton Hatwich also contribute one or two numbers each. Like Eric Dolphy's most engaging later groups and any of the ensembles of Henry Threadgill, this music has a very listenable balance between freedom and discipline, solo and ensemble, composition and improvisation. The group has strong soloists in Aram Shelton on alto and clarinet as well as Jackson and Berman. The two-man string sub-group of Lonberg-Holm and Hatwich provide contrasting solo and ensemble resources that give the band additional resonance and punch. Drummer Frank Rosaly has a sensitive touch but can drive when the music calls for it.

Two Cities rolls through nine diversely substantial pieces and provides one of the most interesting and ingenious offerings I've heard in this rapidly waning year. Fast Citizens makes vital music.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Perry Robinson and Burton Greene Explore Jewish Roots

Clarinetist Perry Robinson and pianist Burton Greene came up as some of the most important "new thing" jazzmen of the sixties. They played together on a number of projects, but never as a duet. Until now, and their very lucid Two Voices in the Desert (Tzadik). This is an installment in Tzadik's provocative series of recordings that re-establishes Jewish music as a living, breathing contemporary art that, like Klezmer before it, opens a window onto a horizon of musical innovation, that brings old, even ancient tonalities into the vocabulary and syntax of today's sounds--modern jazz, rock, avant garde and you-name-it styles of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Like Steve Lacy did for the soprano sax at the time, Perry Robinson took the clarinet, an instrument that had become somewhat moribund and passe in the most modern of jazz endeavors, and remade the instrument into a thing rife with a personal sound and note choice. Perry's, that is. It established him at the forefront of the new free scene and made the clarinet an instrument to be taken seriously once again. Similarly the functioning of Ornette Coleman's classic two horn, bass and drums lineup and other developments made the pianoforte less desirable in the most advanced circles of improvisatory music. Its function to lay down the harmonic foundations of changes-based improvising, as a kind of musical traffic cop, was a hindrance to players who sought to follow the freed up melodic-harmonic contours of their muse. Burton Greene along with of course Cecil Taylor and a handful of other pianists redefined the pianists' role in terms of an exploration of percussive, coloristic and post-changes capabilities, to rejoin the front line as a soloist that did not need to hammer down the structure of the music as it was defined.

Years later, Perry and Burton have not so much mellowed as they have embraced and incorporated into their music what was part of their early informal ear training, something we all get without necessarily consciously seeking it out, the sound and content of the music around them that was imbibed like the air they breathed, from the cradle on. That doesn't mean that they are about to break into 28 choruses of "I'll Remember April," but it does mean that they can now come to grips with that which helped define them musically. In the case of this CD, the Jewish heritage that was so much a part of the New York aural world.

So we have a CD filled with music composed by Burton Greene, John Zorn and others, that takes a musical imprint of how those roots work for today. So Perry's clarinet shows some Klezmer-like inflections here, not surprisingly, but this series of duets subtly transforms and reworks the tradition to something that bears the personal stamp of these highly individual stylists.

The artistic fruition is most fortuitous--not in some accidental sense, but in the sense of fortunate, auspiciously impacted artistry. This is from first to last captivating music. Masterful music. And a true pleasure to hear. Anyone who thinks they know what these two artists are likely to sound like in some predictable sense would do best to hear Two Voices in the Desert. It will probably defy your expectations as well as redefine your sense of the reach and grasp of what Perry and Burton can and have accomplished. For this is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Papajo Trio Offers European Improvisational Abstractions

The European improvisational scene has been flourishing for many years. Avant Europe improv differs from its American counterpart in that it tends to be more abstract, less blues-based and rhythmically more consistently anarchic. This is of course a gross generalization. It does hold true for the CD at hand today.

Papajo is a trio of Paul Hubweber on trombone, Paul Lovens, drums, and John Edwards on bass. Their new release Simple Game (Cadence Jazz) freewheels through five improvisational pieces in ways that should intrigue the serious listener.

Hubweber has been based around Moers and has been a part of the Euro improv scene for many years. His musical mind seems to have a direct relationship to his technical abilities on the trombone; he seems to deftly and swiftly execute what he imagines and hears. Now I can't know that but it comes out in the ease of his articulations and confidence in his phrasing. Paul Lovens is well known as a rambunctious but abstracted drummer. He is so here. John Edwards is new to me but plays plenty of bass and fits into the open-ended dialog well. The late Peter Kowald had the bass chair in this group before his death so Edwards has some serious shoes to fill. He does fine.

Simple Game covers a lot of ground. Moods range from quietly somber to boisterously elated. Hubweber gets much out of his trombone and might be considered the logical successor to the late Paul Rutherford for Euro-Bonemaster, if such a position exists.

It's all good music and a definite addition of worth for those who wish to keep up with what's going on in Europe.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What About Haitian Piano from 1952?

Fabre Duroseau will not be a name you know. He recorded an EP of Haitian piano music that ended up on a 10-inch Folkways LP in 1952. It also came out on one or two 78s, because I found one of then at my local junk shop in 1967. I was a kid trying to open my musical horizons as widely as I could. This one took a while to appreciate fully. Not because it isn't good, it just was so different to what I had heard.

That music can still be found at the Smithsonian Institute's Folkways site, either as a download or a cd-rom. In fact the entire Folkways catalog is available.

Fabre Duroseau's solo-trio piano record is perhaps like nothing else you have been hearing. It's basically meringues as were done in Haiti at the time, only transposed to a very animated and hot piano style. Half the songs are done solo, the other half with two equally lively violinists. Stride and boogie-woogie have some influence. It's like what Meade Lux Lewis or Jelly Roll Morton might have played had they been born and raised in Haiti. It's delightful! If you seek something different, this is most definitely that.

Google Smithsonian Folkways to find their site.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Salim Washington Live at St. Nicks

For the CIMP label's new live series CIMPoL, tenor sax contemporary Salim Washington gets his group rolling at New York City's St. Nick's Pub. The resultant recording Live at St. Nick's (CIMPoL) comprises the best of several sets of music and it comes across with all the verve that good jazz should have on a good live date.

Salim plays a hard driving tenor in the post-Trane, post-bop, freebop mode, but also a very limber flute and decent oboe. His band features a front line of strong players. In addition to Washington himself, there is the relatively unknown violist Melani Dyer, who gives the ensemble a unique sound and puts in solid solo time. Trombonist and fluegelhorn journeyman Frank Lacy adds a distinctively fluid presence on both his instruments and pianist Donald Smith shows his well-known abilities in deftly juggling both in and outside style elements in any given moment. And in many ways that is what this band does very well. For example, the Joe Henderson-penned opener "Shades of Jade," starts in a hard bop mode and branches out from there.

The rhythm section of Aaron James on bass and Mark Johnson, drums, does much to make this live date exciting. They push the band from underneath in ways best suited to drive the soloist to a heated statement. And that's what happens consistently.

This recording has that special band-audience rapport that a small club can give rise to on the right night. This is exciting, hard driving music, well captured. It has that special fire that modern jazz recordings too often seem to lack these days. Bask in it and let yourself experience the in-the-moment joy of improvisation!

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Music from Ensemble Contemporaine de Montreal

It is quite obvious that the "new" new music isn't exactly like the "old" new music in the field of contemporary classical. It isn't afraid to incorporate influences from rock and jazz; it can be more tonal that its 20th century predecessors, or alternatively, not. The rhythmic qualities of any given piece are not predictable. Again, all sorts of influences from world and popular sources can be involved. It also does not draw a distinct line between electronic and acoustical music.

This can all be experienced first hand in the new release by the Ensemble Contemporaine de Montreal, Nouveaux Territoires 03 (ATMA Classique). The CD makes available four new pieces by composers with whom most will not be familiar: Andre Ristic, Michel Gonneville, Michael Desterle and Nicole Lizee.

Four new works, four composers of today. Ristic gives us a sonically advanced world for violin and chamber orchestra. Michel Bonnevile creates very compelling music for mezzo-soprano Michele Motard and ensemble. Ms. Motard does not sing entirely in an operatic mode which is refreshing, and her voice is subject to an electronic alteration that extends and reinforces the musical impact of the work. Michael Desterle provides our ears with a sonic landscape that combines spacial sprawl with unusual pairings of instrumental colors. Finally Nicole Lizee dazzles ones senses with very vibrant chamber orchestrating.

These are works that show the influences of the musical and cultural worlds we all experience right now. All four composers transform those experiences into music that is very contemporary, yet also very listenable, compelling, even quite pleasurable. If you want another take on the chamber orchestra today, this is an excellent place to look!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day: Preparation and Spontaneity

With a couple of years of rehearsals and gigs under their belt, drummer Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day shows in their new recording that persistence pays off if talent is not lacking. The sort of modern jazz produced on the Clean Feed release has a group cohesion that comes after hard work and time have ripened and matured the initial group idea and concept.

It is no accident or whim that Canada reminds me a little of Albert and Bishop's group Lucky 7s. Both have horns, vibes and rhythm as the starting components, both have strong compositions and arrangements and equally strong soloists, and both have a free-wheeling loosely propulsive vibes-and-rhythm team. This to me is an indication of a healthy trend in the modern jazz produced today.

The similarities between the two groups are not superficial; however the personalities of the players and the nature of the compositions and arrangements distinguish the two groups as unique entities, not surprisingly.

Canada Day showcases the strong writing of its leader, Harris Eisenstadt. There are composed sections intertwined with the work of players with well developed identities. Nate Wooley has trumpet polish and finesse yet can articulate both as emphatically and as colorfully as the need or the inner urge dictates. This album shows why he has rapidly become a characteristic presence on the New York scene. His tenor mate Matt Bauder may be lesser known, but he turns in some fine performances here, solidly compact, lucid improvisational statements. Then of course the vibes-bass-drums team of Chris Dingman, Eivind Opsvik (who impresses me), and Mr. Eisenstadt, repectively, have much to do with the identity of the group sound. They drive and harmonically construct the foundation for what transpires. And they do it in ways that are creative and loosely flowing. Harris has a terrific sense of what to play and what not to play. He can be busy without in any way disrupting to totality of what's going on at any moment.

This is a CD that keeps getting better with every listen. There is enough there that you hear some of the more subtle aspects only after long exposure. Now that's a trait only the very best music has, to my mind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Satoko Fujii, Japanese Free Piano Powerhouse

Music aficionados in the United States don't always pay enough attention to what's happening in the rest of the world. Take Japan as an example. There is much going on over there, yet many of us don't really know much about it. Tzadik Records' New Japan series begins to rectify that lack, and we've covered a few of those releases in the various blogs in the last year or so.

Today we look at another one: Satoko Fujii's piano trio-duo-solo record Kitsume-bi. Fujii has magnificent ideas, a huge ear for the possibilities in free piano improvisation, and a style that does not have a derivative foundation. She goes her own way.

For the date she is joined by the always interesting Mark Dresser on bass and the explosive Jim Black on drums. For several cuts Sachi Hayasaka appears on soprano sax, and it's clear from those numbers that Sachi needs to be heard more over here.

But this is Satoko's show. There are some really compelling group presentations to be heard. Like the straight-eight motor-manic section of "Past Life," where a Pandora's Box of eighth notes spin wildly from Fujii's piano while bass and drums provide counter ballasts of sound parcels that contrast as well as complement.

Ms. Fujii has a sureness of execution and a confidence in her own stylistic parameters that translate into controlled yet at times wildly exuberant music, other times (especially in tandem with Ms. Hayasaka) ponderously reflective.

One ignores Satko Fujii at one's own peril. If you miss this CD, you miss a music making document that can be your personal blueprint for what's good about the improvised world today.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Operas by Michael Nyman

British composer Michael Nyman got my attention several years ago with his music.

So when I had the chance to review two later Nyman operas, I was filled with anticipation. I refer to the new 4-CD set just released on Michael Nyman Recordings, providing full versions of Man and Boy: Dada and Love Counts.

Man and Boy centers around the moving story of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who in real life was persecuted by the Nazis for his "anti-Aryan" Merzbow art and escaped Germany in the early '40s. The story of Man and Boy picks up when he has entered England as a refugee. He strikes up a friendship with a young boy he meets at a bus stop. The boy collects discarded bus tickets, a rather pointless hobby. Schwitters too is interested in gathering these particular castoffs of everyday life for a new Merzbow collage. Schwitter's eventually courts the boy's mother, a widow as a result of the Nazi V-Rocket "Sputterbug" bombings. That's the basic premise of the plot. An underlying theme is the contrast between the monstrous cultural unreason of the Nazis versus the benign unreason of Schwitter's art. The fragility and tenuous nature of existence in the face of Nazi savagery and the need to try to continue on with life in spite of its utter disintegration also provide important thematic elements.

The music and libretto conjoin quite nicely. The cast and orchestra are totally convincing in their realization of the work. The music combines a kind of '40s dance hall quality with restless passage work and melodic cells that repeat and develop in time. It all works very well and reaffirms that Nyman has gone his own way to produce a music that is accessible yet movingly "post-modern," a term I use with reluctance but in the sense of a combination of disparate elements to achieve a new synthesis. There is the music-dance hall element, some of the minimalist tendencies, conventional tonality, orchestration that touches on a sort of neo-classicism, and some old-time jazz and pop references. The end result is most assuredly Nyman Music, just as Charles Ives' various juxtapositions produced music that bore the inimitable stamp of his musical personality.

The second opera, Love Counts, has similar qualities. It too has the various combinations of "high" and "low" musics Nyman-style. It may not be quite as compelling as Man and Boy: Dada, but it certainly has plenty of redeeming qualities and a quirky plot typical, it would seem, of Nyman's preferred subject matter. Space does not really permit a long discussion of the virtues of this work. It doesn't quite strike me as reaching the level of Man and Boy, but it is nonetheless nice that it is included as a companion piece in this set.

These are superlative performances that will undoubtedly not be rivalled for a long time to come. Nyman should not be ignored. He is an important composer and these two works are quite excellent examples of why that is so.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patty Waters on Tour, 1966

The radically free vocal stylings of Patty Waters wasn't (and isn't) an acquired taste. You either came to grips with her low hums, breathy legato chanteusery and highly emotional peaks of primal intensity or you left it alone. When her second album appeared on ESP in 1966, plenty of people did the latter. As time went on, however, there were those who heard something there. She was a pioneer for the free jazz vocalisms that others that came after didn't precisely imitate, but did tacitly acknowledge. Abbey Lincoln occasionally precursed her but little else was on hand when she burst upon the scene.

The On Tour album was made at various points in the ESP NY State College concert series of 1966. (I suspect some minds were blown during those gigs.)

There are three performing units, Patty with the pianist Ran Blake, with the Burton Greene trio, and with a Giuseppe Logan group that included pianist Dave Burrell. Three important pianists in the new thing, then, are an integral part of the performances and their presence is felt in varying degrees. In the course of the album she takes on some standards as launching points; otherwise there is her own material involved. A high point is the Waters-Blake version of "It Never Entered My Mind." Moody, dissonant, sultry. . . it brings out the pain of the lyrics in a direct way and may convince you that her artistry is quite real.

What can one say about Patty Waters? The first album is essential for those who want to grasp the history and aesthetics of the free vocalists and where it all started. The second album is a continuation of what she was doing on the first and has its own trajectory.

This music still has the capacity to excite the listener, or alternately, divert him or her to other recordings. In short some may hate this. Other's will like it intensely. Either way Ms. Waters was a vocal artist of unique sensibility.

A limited edition audiophile vinyl pressing of this record is now available through ESP. Check their site for details.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trombonist David Taylor in A Most Unusual Recording

David Taylor has played his bass trombone with all kinds of people, from Sinatra to Boulez. He has his own virtuoso approach to the instrument and has made a number of interesting albums under his own name and in the company of fellow trombonist Steve Swell. His Tzadik album Red Sea breaks with a conventional jazz improvisational approach to enter uncharted territory. It's an exploration of Jewish roots, most particularly the cantorial vocal style of Pierre Pinchik. What he does with that is not what one might expect.

The CD is filled with all kinds of unusual musical colors, instrument combinations and moods. There are soundscapes, klezmer-like interjections and so much in between that description almost cannot do the music justice. It is most unusual, most interesting and highly absorbing music with Taylor's trombone expressions the center of it all, but with the surrounding drapery of musical discourse taking the entire project into a rather new realm. It's orchestrally rich without there being an orchestra involved. It's thematically Semitic without having much in the way of the traditional trappings or the instrumentation one might expect. It doesn't groove so much as sprawl. It's almost indescribable. But it's good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Britten and The Beggars Opera, A New Recording

I've admired the operas of Benjamin Britten on a number of levels for many years. I particularly like how the music translates dramatic moments of the plot in ingenious ways. An example, The Turn of the Screw has a scene where the young lad who is being haunted and endangered by a malevolent ghost is practicing scales upon the piano. Britten uses this opportunity to create a mini-concerto for piano and orchestra, with the scalular passages and orchestral accompaniment going increasingly off the tonality. It underscores the unsettled, latently venomous atmosphere present and the increasingly evident psychological instability of the boy. But it does so in a way that puts the compellingly personal stamp of Britten's musical mind upon it.

Of all the Britten works, however, his adaptation of Gay's The Beggars Opera may be the least characteristic. The original version of the work was a great success in London from the moment of its debut in 1728. It enjoyed a long run, with numerous performances both in England and America throughout the century. Gay wrote the libretto and cobbled the music from popular song and a number of borrowed melodies by composers of the time. The subject matter dealt in a sometimes bawdy manner with what used to be termed the lumpen proletariat, pickpockets, thieves, corrupt lawyers and "loose wenches," as the phrase went then. Britten's revival took the music more or less as it was presented in the original but recomposed, reorchestrated, and rescored the instrumental parts.

We have a new recording of the Britten adaptation, with soloists and Christian Curnyn conducting the City of London Sinfonia (Chandos). The two CDs comprise the complete opera, including the somewhat lengthy spoken dialog.

The cast captures well the roguish tenor of the characters and the common folkway roots of much of the music. The real hero of this opera to me is Britten himself. His orchestrations and rearrangements are spiced by modernistic dissonances and chamber orchestral touches worthy of repeated listening. Maestro Curnyn does a fine job bringing out the various nuances of the score.

If you love Britten this will give you more of it to enjoy. On another level the opera itself has much historical interest. Those not familiar with Britten might best look elsewhere for an introduction, such as his best known work Peter Grimes. Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy in this new version and the adaptation itself.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Volume Two of Sun Ra's Heliocentric Worlds

The second volume of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (ESP) takes off where volume one ended. This is more of the essential exploratory Ra with its percussive sound universes, improvisational collages of horns, individual solos against an orchestral backdrop, and various freely articulated pairings, such as electronic keyboard and bowed bass or a horn or two and percussion.

The key members John Gilmore, Marshall Allen (who currently directs the revived Arkestra), Pat Patrick and Ronnie Boykins all make their presence felt. What strikes me of these mid-'60s sides is that there were really at least two Sun Ra Arkestra identities in those early days. One was especially geared toward the live shows, the sort of campy cosmic astro-men from another planet bag and the visual carnival that went along with that. Chants, songs, and rocket thrust Ra keyboard antics were a large part of the public face of the band. And they did that quite well, of course. Then there was the second side of the Arkestra, something they did for themselves and, while inviting audiences to appreciate it, did not build their live identity around it. It was frankly experimental free jazz from the big band. And it was in the studio that Sun Ra could concentrate more of his efforts on these kinds of pieces, without the need to draw a particular audience into the picture.

Heliocentric Worlds concentrates on that latter side of the band. As mentioned in my review of volume one (see below) the band under Ra's direction was quite in advance of what any larger bands even approached in those days. Volume two is simply another installment of that music. While volume one may be the stronger of the two, both volumes should be heard together to give you a full picture of the intended effect.

Like the first volume, this one is now available in a limited collectors' audiophile vinyl edition. See the ESP website for details.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A New Version of Riley's "In C," with Remixes

When Terry Riley's concert piece In C was first rather quietly unveiled in the later '60s (as a Columbia recording under the direction of the composer), it did not seem a likely candidate for 40 years of continued recognition. Yet that is the case as we look back today. It was rather experimental in nature and revolutionary in structure. Riley wrote a series of melodic cells, deceptively simple figures in the key of C, modulating into another key, then back again to the original C tonality. The piece was to be performed by any combination of instrumentalists and vocalists, a practice that hearkened back to the earlier music performance ways of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There was a continual pulse played in octaves of C on the piano, and the instrumentalists were to repeat each music cell in sequence, going from one to the next as they saw fit, so that at any given point in the performance there were overlaps between the cells. The piece ended when all musicians had progressed to the last cell and played it a number of times.

Each performance could differ somewhat dramatically in its length, instrumental color and combinations of cells. A good performance involved keen listening from all participants, so that the patterns of overlapping cells remained interesting and varied.

In C proved to be enormously influential in the development of what later was dubbed minimalism. Its organically evolving patterns of repetition and the sound produced became blueprint guidelines for later composers in the idiom. The trance producing effect looked back to Africa and Indonesia while pointing forward to what became electronica. Progressive rockers and avant jazzmen were significantly influenced as well.

There have been around ten different recordings over the years, all different. Plus In C has been performed countless times all over the world. Its rather frequent presence on concert programs and audio disks gives credence to its continued relevancy for the modern listener.

And now we have the latest version, a 2-CD set (Innova) that includes a complete performance of the piece by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble under the direction of Bill Ryan, plus 16 remixes by, among others, Phil Kline, Todd Reynolds, David Lang and DJ Spooky.

First, a look at the Grand Valley performance of the piece. It is a pretty middle-of-the-road version, which is only to say that it captures the essence of the piece well. There is good spirit and a lively interplay between the musicians. The ensemble is a little light in the area of mallet instruments, which perhaps I have come to expect from listening repeatedly to the original version and those minimalist works (especially those of Steve Reich) that came after. Really though, this is only to say that the Grand Valley version is different, which is the point and part of the beauty of the composition.

The remixes cover much ground. Each one of them takes a number of aspects of the performance piece and filters, alters, and adds instrumental or electronically modified parts not originally elements of the piece. We end up with a set of variations on the themes (the cells) to be found in the score/performance. We come full circle in some ways on those remixes that do sound quite like electronica, but there are as many different sound worlds evoked as there are remixers.

This is a fascinating set of sound events. You get a respectable version of Riley's piece itself and some quite interesting remixes in one package. I think all interested should also hear Riley's original performance (if you can find it). That and this set give you a pretty keen insight into the work and it's open-ended possibilities. By all means listen if you have any interest in where music has been going, and where it might be in 100 years!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pianist David Arner's Trio and Their Rechanneling of Porgy and Bess

David Arner has a pianistic fulminosity (it's a kind of abundance) that comes across with the substantial release Porgy/Bess Act 1 (CIMP). He is joined by the first-rank bass virtuoso Michael Bisio and the lightly subtle yet freely engaging drummer Jay Rosen.

In what will be a two-volume release, Mr. Arner takes inspiration from the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess as well as the Miles Davis-Gil Evans rearrangement from the exceptional 1958 Columbia recording by that name. David Arner does not get involved with a literal rehashing of the score, nor does he take Gershwin themes as head-solo-head arrangements. Rather he and the trio react to the music as a springboard for four free improvisations. You will hear thematic interjections, sometimes in the whole cloth, sometimes as quilted fragments and chordal reminiscences, but all in the context of spontaneous recomposition.

Arner-Bisio-Rosen interact in quite subtle ways and the melodic-kinetic energies of Arner and Bisio are palpable. This is not as much an energy-surging exercise as a varied expressive dialogue. In David Arner we hear the techniques of modern improv piano as well as the harmonic-melodic tradition of the Gershwin and Davis-Evans eras but contextualized to his own ends. And he opens up a space that Michael Bisio and Jay Rosen enter into with open ears and inventive musical discourse.

This is music that takes attentive listening to assimilate. It is not entertaining; it is enlightening.

I would put this among the best piano trio recordings I've heard in this waning year. Arner is an artist of subtlety and depth. The trio is a multi-faceted musical force that gains newfound inspiration from classic sources without repeating the obvious. If only some of the repertoire-oriented aggregations were this creative!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is "Nixon in China" A Masterpiece?

When John Adams' Nixon in China premiered in 1987, it caused a sensation unusual in the annals of 20th century opera. And yet there were sceptics, myself included. Nixon? In China? It seemed a bit cheeky to center the subject matter on America's most discredited President.

The recording came out. I bought the excerpts edition and listened carefully. And still I could not make up my mind. What was the music all about? There were moments of questionable dramatico-musical taste, such as the aria that involved a rather banal repetition of the obvious. "I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung," Madame Mao sang a few times. Well yes. That you are.

Adam's score was in the minimalist camp, but that minimalism was different than Reich, Glass, Riley. It was less trancy, less driving rhythmically and more of a series of shifting ostinatos and repetitions of motives that were not always very interesting in isolation but more in the way of development figures that never found their way back to some sort of recapitulation. Or so it seemed. Was the banality deliberate? I think it might have been.

And after all, Nixon in China was and is a grand opera for the modern era, complete with historical tableaux. Yes, OK, history. It dramatized a signal event in the life of American-Chinese diplomacy and was one of the most important signs of thaw in the long, weary Cold War that enveloped the globe in 1972.

Twenty-two years later we have a new recording of the complete opera, conducted by Marin Alsop in a live setting with soloists, chorus and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Naxos).

It is a fine interpretation, filled with energy. Robert Orth's Nixon role is well sung, though perhaps not as dramatically Nixon-like as the original performance from James Maddalena. But the singing is all quite good and the orchestra under Alsop brings a spirited enthusiasm to the table that the original version may have had in less abundance.

But what about the opera itself? I find myself gravitating toward the first and third acts, both musically and dramatically. In both instances, but especially in Act Three, there is the theme of reflection in the midst of what all participants know is a media event, but ultimately capital H history. The reminiscing of Nixon and Mao on their pasts, Mao in a revolution that had not always gone as he would have wished, Nixon lost in the memories of his war years, facing death on one hand and flipping burgers for the servicemen on the other, have a poignancy. The actors on the historical stage have a frailty that is belied by all the pomp and puffery that surrounds them. The earlier, simpler days were better. This feels empty to them.

Adam's score manages to convey both the pomp and the individual reflection in interestingly contrasting orchestral textures. In the end history dissolves into the dreams of the principal participants. This may be the climax of their political fortunes. They seem to know it and have a certain feeling that their lives have taken on the very dream quality that their early dreams and aspirations only prefigured.

Ultimately whether Nixon in China is a masterpiece with a capital em will be the verdict of those 100 years from now. We don't entirely matter. For me, twenty-two years from the first performances, I feel that the opera is much better than we had any right to expect of it then. It has its flaws, true. But it has musico-dramatic moments of great power. History is not for the participants what it is for the spectators. The big circus, when all is said and done, has as its pivotal events the actions of a few key figures who aren't quite sure what they have been brought to do or why. Nixon never shows his hand, but he is not really sure what the cards are for in the first place.

Alsop's interpretation captures that mood very well. I'm not sure the original de Waart recording was quite as successful in that regard.

Masterpiece? Who knows. Does it matter just yet? Enjoy the opera now and leave posterity for the future.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Eddie Allen's Jazzy Brass for the Christmas Holidays

A brass choir of two trumpets, French horn and trombone team up with a good rhythm section to play trumpeter Eddie Allen's jazzed-up arrangements of Christmas music on Jazzy Brass for the Holidays (DBC). These are good players (Cecil Bridgewater is one of the trumpet men) sounding together and hitting out with decent solos. It's classic fare like "We Three Kings," "The Little Drummer Boy," and "Jingle Bells."

It will give you a jazzed break from choral ensembles, crooners, rockers or whatever else usually gets on your CD player during the holidays. Sounds like a good one for the Christmas party.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Marty Ehrlich's Dark Winds Ensemble

Marty Ehrlich should never be taken for granted. With a track record that includes associations and recordings with some of the finest musicians out there, and a series of excellent recordings under his own name, he has been somewhat quietly making music of the first rank. That does not mean he is now settling comfortably into a style niche and repeating past successes. Not at all.

The 1999 recording Sojourn (Tzadik) with his Dark Woods Ensemble can serve as an example. It cannot be easily classified. It has Marty on clarinet and soprano, Erik Friedlander, cello, Mark Helias, bass, and Marc Ribot on guitar. You would think such a lineup would produce a chamber jazz date, and it is in many ways that. But it is much more. It is first and foremost MUSIC, call it what you will. There are jazz elements, folk-Jewish, middle-eastern elements, rather classical sounding aspects, and just simply Marty-music in the end.

The music is deeply evocative, deeply moving and, ten years down the road, music that still needs to be heard. "Is is said that the only home we have is in a song," Ehrlich remarks in the liner notes. If that is the case, the music of Sojourn opens up a home we can all live in with great pleasure and comfort.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Extraordinary Vocal Music of Baird Hersey II: Prana with Krishna Das

The cultural heritage of chant and devotion song in South Asia is rich and has a long history. Vedic chant goes back many centuries. The qawwali of the Pakistan region and bhajan of India are art musics with exceptional melodic and vocal interest. All this has something to do with the CD on the changer his morning, Baird Hersey and Parana with Krishna Das performing Gathering in the Light (Satsang).

First of all, the principal melody lines, sung with feeling and style by Krishna Das, are straightforward devotional chant sorts of things, something like what the Krishna devotees here in the US used to sing in airports, malls and just about anywhere a few years ago, only these are musically more varied and substantial. They are set off and vitalized by the wordless vocal accompaniment of Prana and various percussionists working mostly with South Indian instruments, such as the tabla.

What Baird Hersey and Prana do is meld with Krishna Das's vocals and extend the music through drones, primal intervalic harmonies and the incorporation of overtone singing to the choral sound tapestry.

The music is beautiful--elemental, yet deeply expressive. It is the sort of thing that will uplift your mood, I would think, regardless of what it might be on any particular day or hour. Baird's vocal overtone instrument has a fullness and resonance that brings much to the overall sound.

It is music that is of the world. It has ambiance, contemporary classical color, South Asian depth, and manages to take steps beyond any or all of these stylistic categories. Give this one a serious listen and I believe you will find you will want to hear it again. And perhaps again. And perhaps. . .