Friday, December 31, 2010
Echo Run Pry (Clean Feed 199) joins bassist Stephan Crump and pianist James Carney for two extended improv duets. Carney works inside the piano, adds prepared objects for a buzzing texture and also plays conventionally. Stephan Crump brings into play an approach that alternatives between a percussiveness and a flow (the latter especially when articulating arco lines) which works well with Carney's orientation.
The two twenty-minute-plus improvisations on the album cover the territory of free improvisation that lies somewhere between jazz per se and new music. It is a listen that requires attentiveness and patience as the players slowly reveal their musical thinking. Your patience is rewarded with some quite interesting and thoughtful sounds.
I would love to hear these two in a trio with a drummer. But for now they have made some very interesting music for us. Thank you. Happy New Year to all!
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Hans Otte's (1928-2007) Das Buch der Klange (The Book of Sounds) is a full-length piece (in 12 parts) for solo piano. Ralph van Raat has recorded a new version for Naxos (8.572444) and I am listening to it now as I write this.
The music is sonorous, straddling a grey area between the solo minimalist pianism of Keith Jarrett when he is in a mystically hypnotic mode and the sound of the piano music of Debussy, Ravel and Satie. That may be simplifying things too much, but those predecessors do come to mind when hearing the work.
Otte clearly revelled in the sounds of the various intervals and harmonies he brought forth on the piano. So much so that the piece strikes the hearer as a means to listen closely to the nature of those tones, set off by their sustained and repeated insistence and moments of relative silence.
Ralph van Raat gives a sensitive reading of the music, in all ways attuned to the composer's aims. But ultimately the music seems less weighty than its presentation. In other words, to me this is a marvelous performance of what seems to me a decidedly minor work of the latter half of the last century. It is quite pleasurable to listen to the music however. Like a babbling brook or the pounding of the surf, it pleases rather artlessly.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
This exact band (Ullmann, reeds; Swell, trombone; Greene, bass; Altschul, drums) recorded on Cadence in 2004, producing a rather exciting disk which I've reviewed in a posting on this site (see below). They return with a superb avant jazz set today on the Jazzwerkstatt release News? No News! (Jazzwerkstatt 068).
This is a well-matched set of players. Gebhard Ullmann plays a raucous, probing tenor and a snaky, fleet bass clarinet; Steve Swell is one of the handful of truly premier avant trombonist working today, a master of projection and color, extroversion and subtlety; Hilliard Greene plays a foundational bass that figures prominently in all that happens on this album. He is a rock. Barry Altschul has been an important innovative force in jazz-improv drumming ever since his seminal work with Paul Bley and Chick Corea, among many others. He sounds better than ever here. Whip-snap swing and a melodic approach to the full drum kit are what you expect from Mr. Altschul, and you get it here, for sure.
With my descriptions above, you might expect that this music just HAS to be good. Sometimes a group that should be really terrific on paper never seems to get it going in real time. That is not true here. This is modern improvisational avant jazz at its finest. But be careful. You may wake up your cat when you play it!
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The internet has led to various good things and some less good. Like the habit of some companies to rely on amateur writers' reviews to compensate for their lack of an editorial staff. The company pays nothing; they get highly erratic results; writers go without work. No one seems to care. That's the way it is. For example I accidentally stumbled across one such review today. It informed us that the Live at the Five Spot recordings contain lesser-known musicians. Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis and Eddie Blackwell...lesser known? Sure, they are if you don't know anything about jazz. If you do, well. . .
So. Never mind that for now. I have in my hand the jewel case of the Rudy Van Gelder Edition of Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Volume Two (Prestige PRS-31339). When CDs first hit Prestige/Fantasy issued all three volumes of the date as single CDs, which when you consider the playing time of the volumes (some 30 minutes or so), was a bit stingy in my estimation. The new Rudy Van Gelder edition remedies this. Volume Two includes the cuts from The Memorial Album (Volume Three) in addition to the two numbers originally a part of the second volume as released. So you get "Aggression," "Like Someone in Love," "Number Eight (Potsa Lotas)" and "Booker's Waltz."
The Van Gelder touch on remastering these sides is noticeable. He gets the sound of the band as they were meant to be heard--which is more or less what you got on the LPs.
The music? Totally classic. "Aggression" is a barn stormer that madly cooks from start to finish. Little and especially Dolphy (on bass clarinet) turn in some amazing solos. Waldron's piano is possessed. OK, the instrument is out-of-tune as Neil Tesser notes, but what Waldron is doing accentuates that to his advantage. At times his piano sounds like a kalimba, it is so drivingly percussive. Blackwell is on fire, as he is throughout. He and Richard Davis form one of the most exciting rhythm teams of the era. They drive!!
"Like Someone in Love" has great Dolphy flute as only Dolphy could do. "Number Eight" is a fabulous Dolphy composition that snakes and swirls through its routining (some interesting changes alternating with a riff vamp) in ways that drive the soloists into a very good place. Waldron's solo hits hard at the out-of-tune notes, getting a sound that a correctly tuned instrument just would not produce. I've found over the years of listening that the piano is just right for most of the music, which can be dissonant and tends to favor open voicings--less of the close thirds that would especially need proper tuning to properly sound. Perhaps that's the genius too of Mr. Waldron to accentuate those intervalic combinations. It works for the piano and it works for the music, which has much in the way of fire, drive, and a fully expanded tonality.
Live at the Five Spot is a one-time meeting of five masters at a peak of their considerable abilities. It turned out there wasn't much time left for the two principals--three months for Little, three years for Dolphy. But we have these wonderful sides, classics among classics. If you don't have Volumes Two and Three, here's a chance to get them in great remastered sound on one disk. Do that and you'll be happy, once you've listened a few times. Trust me.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Modern Danish composers? DaCapo brings us a bird's-eye view of some of what goes on there, as you may have noticed from previous posts on this blog.
Today, another very interesting release, Galaxy (DaCapo 8.226551), focusing on the orchestral music of Anders Brodsgaard (b. 1955). First things first: Christopher Austin and the Odense Symphony Orchestra illuminate the two works covered with bold definition and verve. The sound is quite good as well.
The two works? "Galaxy," (composed between 1990-1999), and "Monk's Mixtures" (2009). The former matches a large orchestra with an expansive, continuous sonic matrix. It is in turn consonant, dissonant, relatively quiescent or boldly dynamic. The sound universe suggests an isomorphic relation to the nearly infinite yet complexly patterned logic of a galaxy in motion. It is a finely nuanced, deeply expressive work that never seems less than inspired. His use of the orchestra shows a complete mastery of the sound-producing resources available to him, though he mostly realizes his ever-shifting sound masses without recourse to the less conventional sound-producing techniques developed by composers like Xenakis and Penderecki in their breakthrough works. Yet the overall effect is singular.
"Monk's Mixtures" is no less interesting. The music moves along more briskly, more periodically, as the movement titles ("Moving," "Walking," "Flying") suggest.
In the end one gets a sense of Brodsgaard the composer; a musical mind that is as attuned to orchestral color as it is inventively original in a melodic-harmonic sense.
This is bracing music, a jump into a cold stream. It's a good thing to hear. It gives you an open window into Brodsgaard's universe of sound. Recommended.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Cerulian Landscape (Clean Feed 198) is one beautiful recording. Lyricism is not a common thing in jazz-improv these days. Lyricism is bursting at the seams on this Jason Robinson and Anthony Davis release. It serves notice in several ways. One, Anthony Davis is a jazz composer and pianist of the highest stature. I won't say he's back, because I don't believe he's ever left the scene. But this CD should wake people up to his artistry if they have not paid enough attention to him. Secondly, it highlights the formidable compositional skills of Jason Robinson, and also puts the lyrical side of his work on tenor, soprano, alto and alto flute in bold relief. Now he also happens to have two other new releases we'll be covering on this blog in the near future. All three together show a remarkably versatile musician. But that will become more clear in the coming weeks.
So of the seven songs on this disk, three are by Davis, three are by Robinson (there is also one by Jason Sherbundy). There are moments of free-fire but they have such strong melodic projection in them that I would have to say that there's a kind of lyricism going there too. Two very strong players in full flight; some very beautiful pieces....what more could you want? Ravishing! Really ravishing music.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
One version of the "complete composer" of the 21st century is one who is bi-musical; that is, the composer deftly incorporates the vocabulary and syntax of a great number of styles, both in and outside of contemporary classical music per se. I've been covering several such "post-modernists" on these pages, and today we turn to yet another.
Douglas J. Cuomo's chamber opera Arjuna's Dilemma (Innova 697) not only fits the bill in this regard; it gives the music lover much of interest from the listening point of view. The libretto is based on the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Kabir. The opera focuses on the principal character's quest for a deep knowledge of what is, which is in keeping with the subject matter of the B. Gita.
The libretto in turns makes it natural to incorporate and adapt South Asian musical elements to the operatic idiom, and Cuomo does that well. Those stylistic strains further combine into a unique and convincingly blended stew of Garbarekian jazz elements, a dash of minimalism, a contemporary choral idiom and chamber instrumentalities that evoke a straightforward sort of simplicity one associates with Virgil Thompson's operatic scoring. That is, they evoke it in the sense of "being in a lineage that includes" as opposed to "derives their existence from...". And there is also an oblique reference to vernacular song that also seems in the lineage of works like Robert Ashley's Atlanta. And then there's the pioneering Carla Bley work Escalator Over the Hill for a lineage of multi-stylistic operatic works that look to South Asian forms as part of the whole. (And I can't really omit Ravi Shankar's movie scores as having some relevance in the overall lineage at hand.)
A well-balanced ensemble prevails. There are two principal singers, a four-voiced chorus, and a small chamber group. The latter includes tabla master Badal Roy and tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, both of whom have some prominent roles to play in parts of the score.
The point of it all though is that the music hangs together despite the stylistic disparity, and it does so in memorable ways. It is such a rich mix in fact that as I write this I listen to the music for the fifth time, and I am still getting new insights in the process. I think perhaps another five times and I'll truly begin to digest all that is going on.
The libretto in itself contains some true wisdom. It's something one should experience for oneself. That's true of all music of course, but description does not equal the actual experience. Maestro Cuomo has fashioned a vital work that demands your attention, then rewards it with much of merit. I suspect I'll spend some number of years to fully appreciate this one.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Anthony Braxton has been so prolific over the years that I have been guilty of not keeping up with it. So especially his music of the '90s for me, partially because that was a decade where I was so absorbed in trying to make a living that much fell by the wayside.
Realizing this I searched out some of Braxton's music from that period, one being his Black Saint release Four Ensemble Compositions, 1992. Now I know some people find his classical-improvisational pieces perplexing or difficult. I think that usually that has to do with the need to hear the music a number of times. The four compositions on this recording, for example, do not yield their charms to the listener the first time around, at least not all of them.
Once you hear them three, four, five times, you start getting inside them. That is, if you have developed the close listening concentration that's necessary to appreciate all such pieces.
At any rate, I found the Four Ensemble Compositions to be some remarkable music. They combine the expressivity of avant garde improvisation a la Braxton with the kaleidoscopic play of sound colors that composed modern ensemble music offers. To me what's especially good about these pieces is how, by this point, Mr. Braxton has mastered an idiom that allows both approaches to meet on common ground. The result is not pastiche. It is pure Braxton.
Highly recommended. . .
Monday, December 20, 2010
Paul Hartsaw, Chicago avant tenor and soprano, has been making very interesting music, quietly but definitively. We've covered several of them on these pages (see below) and continue today with a trio recording he made with bassist Andrew Young and percussionist Jerome Bryerton. Matter and Memory (metastablesound 013) is dedicated to the philosopher Henri Bergson. That seems fitting because the music consistently flourishes on abstracted, conceptual grounds. It's available as a download-only album from the usual sources (Amazon, i tunes, Napster, etc.)
It was recorded in 2007 and released this year. Like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and others before them, they construct timbrally exploratory sonic worlds that envelope the listener with ever-changing densities, freely presented. All three players meld into one as they find means of expression that avoid the obvious combinations and rhythmic regularities to create a more "meta"-oriented approach. And so of course the name of the label for this release (metastable sound) seems as much descriptive and emblematic.
Each player contributes a thoroughgoingly original musical personality on these improvisations. They are deliberative in a high modernist realm; there are no mis-steps or quotations from the vernacular. This is very well-executed, rather pure music of the modern age. And it's really quite good. Don't plan to unleash it at your next dance party. It's not a music of overt pulsation. Or perhaps you SHOULD, if you have friends who have a sense of adventure. Nevertheless, this tends to be more contemplative than visceral, though generalities can be misleading, since Matter and Memory does have a highly expressive component.
Give this one a listen. It's good for your ears.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Hey, Alexander McCabe puts together some smoking nu-bop on his album Quiz (CAP 1023). It's McCabe on alto with a highly capable group of Uri Caine on piano, Ugonna Okegwo, bass, and either Greg Hutchinson or Rudy Royston on the drums. They burn through five McCabe originals and two standards. The material is played with plenty of fire. McCabe has the Bird-McLean-Woods-Cannonball lineage at his heels and he shows that he's mastered the searing virtuosity associated with such masters, and brought his own personality into the equation as well. Uri Caine makes for a strong second soloist, as you can imagine, and the band is swinging right where they should be throughout.
Everybody does a beautiful job. And it gives notice that Alexander McCabe is a heavyweight!
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Peter Evans is one of the very best of the new trumpeters in the free-avant zone. Evan Parker plays tenor sax and soprano in ways that have extended the music and he's done it for many years. The same could be said for bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton. When they came together for a live concert in Portugal last year, anticipation among the audience must have been high. The new Clean Feed (196) recording of the concert, Scenes in the House of Music gives it to you straight-up. The expectations were justified. Fully.
Here are four superb free players pulling out all the stops, exploring textural-aural intensity and movement in ways few can approximate today. This is STRONG music and it will put all avant fans in a zone that has been reserved for the very best. Music, I mean. That's what this is.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Live jazz is what jazz IS. Say what you want, a small club is still probably the best place to hear jazz at its most direct, spontaneous, and uninhibited. I don't suppose that will come as a revelation to many of my readers. Still, it is true, even if the economics of that equation are increasingly difficult to sustain, at least for the musicians. Compare what was happening in Manhattan in the '40s, especially on 52nd Street, with what is going on now. Back then, you had, just on one block alone, maybe ten clubs offering a six- or seven-night gig for as many bands. Today there are only a handful of clubs doing that regularly. Otherwise it might be one night a month for you, and maybe only for a take of "the door" or worse.
The musicans keep on as best they can. The Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan hosted the John McNeil and Bill McHenry group for a number of nights (I assume) in November of last year. Luckily, the "tapes" were rolling. You can hear what they were doing on their new record Chill Morn She Climb Jenny (Sunnyside 1268).
Well, you might mumble to yourself, "so what?" The so-what is that this is a terrific example of the combined looseness and inspiration that a live jazz recording should have. It's a pianoless quartet in the classic mode with John McNeil and Bill McHenry as the front-line soloists, on trumpet and tenor, respectively. They both are totally on it for this date and the rhythm team swings the whole gig with the open-ended feel a classic open-middle quartet has done so well in the right hands.
They tackle some of the more obscure numbers from the jazz songbook--like a couple of Russ Freeman tunes and Wilbur Harden's "Wells Fargo," which was first performed by Wilbur with Coltrane on an old Savoy release.
The point though is that this takes the late coolbop style and loosens it up, contemporizes it, and lets it breathe. It's a glorious looking-back-by-looking-ahead action and it just sounds great no matter what you want to call it. These guys need to be heard. . . today. Chill Morning He Climb Jenny gives you that--with irresistible charm and conviction.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Tenor-man Rich Halley has recently released a new recording of a lively quartet featuring himself and the legendary Bobby Bradford as the two-horn front line, with Clyde Reed and Carson Hailey ably taking care of the rhythm section roles on bass and drums, respectively. Specifics: the CD is matter-of-factly titled Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival (Pine Eagle 001)
This is post-Ornettian jazz. It can swing or go into looser free-time, and it conceives of the solo-ensemble interactions as subject to implied and/or overtly stated linear harmonic-melodic continuity. That doesn't necessarily mean that there are changes that are played over all of the time, but implies a relation to the changes-bop that went before it.
Now I happen to be quite attracted to that sort of thing, as many are. What's nice about this one is that it puts it all together with worthy head-structures, strongly personal blowing from the two principals, and a good dynamic from the ensemble. Rich and Bobby sound especially good together, and Mr. Halley is right up there as a soloist worth checking out.
This is a great way to spend some listening time. Recommended.
Monday, December 13, 2010
From the very first listen to Mark Applebaum's CD Sock Monkey (Innova 706) it is clear that there is a stylistic restlessness somewhere lurking in the depths of the composer's being, and he makes very creative and credible use of it to cover a great deal of ground. There are some intriguing chamber ensemble and orchestral pieces in the modern classical mode, pieces for solo instruments, electro-acoustic ensembles, a solo for 18 prepared pianos (apparently one at a time in succession) based on a Mozart theme, there's a piece for several soloists plus live electronics, and on from there.
However it's not only that he isn't afraid to construct music for very varied resources, it's his success at doing so. There is an Applebaum sensibility, an original voice in operation throughout. So it's beyond eclectic and more in the realm of sonically extended original music. And it is indeed a hoot.
Applebaum manages humor, pathos, revelry, expressionism and parody all in various combinations in these works. Listening is a thorough pleasure. His is an avant garde that wears its approach lightly, yet quite seriously. It is a knockout disk.
Friday, December 10, 2010
The Art Ensemble of Chicago have transformed the jazz world from their beginnings in the later sixties through to today. There is the thorough integration of percussion doubling and the little instruments; there is the humor; there are the intelligent free improvisations; there is the injection of stylistic elements that cover everything from rock to reggae and classical music; there is the traditional African influence; the compositional originality; there are five very distinctive musical personalities; there are the costumes; there is the dynamic flow of each and every set. I could go on. With the sad, successive losses of trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors, and the departure of reedman Joseph Jarman, there were natural concerns about whether the group would continue.
The answer on the most impressive 2-CD set Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City: Live at Irridium (Pi 20) is a resounding "yes!"
This is a terrific piece of phonography. The Ensemble welcomes the return of Joseph Jarman and fills out the ranks with Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Jaribu Shahid on bass. When you add to this Roscoe Mitchell's and Don Moye's continued essential presence in the band, the expectations were high (for me).
Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City confirms those expectations in every way. Sure, there are no true replacements for Lester and Malachi, but Corey and Jaribu do their own take on their roles, putting themselves into the mix.
The two-CD gives you a judicious selection of some of their seminal compositions redone, like "Erika," "Song for Charles," and "Odwalla." There are newer pieces too and some very wonderful collective and solo improvisations.
This is the AEC on a very good night. A new band within the old band. It is sublime. It is a cornerstone of their work in the last 10 years. May they continue to thrive and prosper.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
I'll admit I missed Richard Sussman's Free Fall album when it came out 30-some-odd years ago. But no matter. Mr. Sussman has resurrected the quintet from that date and presents them to great advantage on Live at Sweet Rhythm (Origin 82563).
The moment I took the CD out of its mailer I knew that something special could be happening. It's Richard on piano, Jerry Bergonzi, tenor, Tom Harrell, trumpet, Mike Richmond, bass, and Jeff Williams, drums. There are originals, there are standards, but most importantly, there are fine performances from all. It's everything that the lineup promises. They stretch out with plenty of solo time and they get the flames fired up in ways that bring you the joy of improvising well.
The term "straight-ahead" is too tame sounding for this music. "Good music" might be better. Listen!
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
From 2005 comes a fully engaged avant improv offering by the collective ensemble Desiring Machines. Is Heaven Secret? (Metastablesound 010) brings together Chicago's Paul Hartsaw on tenor and soprano, Jim Baker on ARP synthesizer and piano, Anton Hatwich on bass and Brahm Fetterman on percussion-drums.
This is their first go-round and it's a no nonsense excursion into the outer realms. The group works together as a seamless whole, with Jim Baker's synthesizer work jagged and incisive, his piano full-fisted in a post-Cecil Taylor manner. Paul Hartsaw turns in a spirited and hard-hitting performance on tenor and soprano, and the Hatwich-Fetterman rhythm team plunges the band into the maelstrom with conviction and sensitivity.
The music can be thickly enveloping or more open and exploratory, alternately.
As you listen a number of times the conviction of the players in the avant style and their careful abandon convinces. This is improvisation of a high level. It is another great example of what's happening in and around Chicago today. Check it out.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Heliocentric Worlds was a breakthrough project for Sun Ra and his big-band Arkestra. Recorded in two session in 1965, it was the first chance to hear an extended foray into a-thematic free improvisation-composition-conduction by the band and constitutes a milestone in the avant garde jazz of the period. Two volumes were released back then; an additional third volume surfaced much later. And now all three volumes are available as a box set (ESP 4062).
The band goes through a spectrum of moods, densities and ensemble textures. The constantly shifting combinations of players and modes of attack reflect Sun Ra's careful concern with a freedom that has a conversational logic.
This was extraordinarily advanced music for the time it was made. It's a prime example of just how pioneering Sun Ra's music was, and IS. The box set includes a 20 minute documentary made around that time, which is certainly of interest, and some other nice extras. No doubt the new box is the best way to experience the full impact of Heliocentric Worlds. It's a must for those seeking to measure Sun Ra's importance, and for any student of the rise of the "new thing." It's also very provocative listening!
Monday, December 6, 2010
I ordinarily give the first one or two listens to a new CD for review without reading the liners or other written descriptions of the musicians and the music. So it was with Joe Gilman’s new Americanvas (Capri 74105-2). This way the music speaks to me directly and I get a more or less pure first experience of what’s going on.
As I listened I started realizing that there was something original happening. Hard-swinging soloing, a very good band
. . . but the writing was unusual. Some repetition in a quasi-minimalist sense, some unusual phrasings. When I finally went to the reading material I found that pianist-composer Gilman was devoting each composition-improvisation sequence to a particular American painter and one of his works. So you get one on Haring, on Rockwell, Rothko, etc.
Gilman sounds great on piano and the rest of the band, largely made up of up-and-coming younger players, has fire and facility.
It is music that hits you as not at all beholden to the formulas of the past. It’s a straight-ahead jazz date with a ballsy countenance and a definite twist on how one can do a contemporary date and also avoid the typical.
Highly recommended music. Thank you Mr. Gilman.
Chicago vibist Jason Adasiewicz has been making important contributions to some landmark record dates in the past several years. His work with the Lucky ‘7s comes to mind, among others.
Now he makes his debut as a leader on Sun Rooms (Delmark 593). It’s a nicely manned trio with Jason plus Nate McBride on bass and Mike Reed on the drums, both of the latter important participants in the latest wave of great Chicagoland modern jazzmaking.
Adasiewicz in larger ensembles (at least on records) tends to excel at the staccato jab phrases that come out of the lineage of Bobby Hutcherson, though Jason has his own musical sensibility. In a smaller group such as this one, unencumbered by the need to accommodate one or more solo voices, he stretches out his phrasing and allows the vibes to ring a little bit more than he might do in a larger ensemble. In that sense the great Walt Dickerson comes to mind, if only as a referent. The music sometimes tends toward the contemplative side, with some wonderfully laid back neo-balladic playing. But there are also numbers that have forward-moving momentum and plenty of energy in reserve.
There are some excellent originals here plus an affectionate, legato look at Ellington’s lyrical "Warm Valley". Everyone is on his “A” Game, not the least Mr. Adasiewicz. Sun Rooms is a superb outing and probably the vibes album of the year. It is chamber jazz at its finest.
First off, pardon the silence of several days. My internet connection disappeared in a windstorm on Wednesday and I could not get it repaired until Saturday. It was a sober reminder of how dependent we all have become on technology. No matter. I am back.
Today, a good one from a group that calls itself The Black Butterflies. Said unit is a seven-person outfit playing an appealing mix of Latin and modern contemporary jazz.It has moments of freedom and moments of groove. Never does it sound slick or contrived.
1 de Mayo (self release TBB001) is their first. A dual horn front line of Mercedes Figueras (soprano, alto, tenor) and Tony Larokko (same) can fan flames (as in their version of "Afro Blue") or run the melodic variations against a Latin groove. There are two originals each by Mercedes and Tony. The tunes are not without interest and each sets up a good blowing scenario. Dan Tepfer plays appropriately idiomatic keyboards with some push.
What I like about The Black Butterflies is their refusal to take the polite road. This is jazz with the Latin and post-bop fire that gives you plenty to like. Oh, and the rhythm section (two Latin percussion, acoustic bass, drums) kicks some tail too. Recommended.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
The so-called Darmstadt School (Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen) dominated European avant garde classical composition from sometime in the mid- to late-fifties through to the early seventies. But of course not all composers followed in the wake.
Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) was one who didn't. Hindsight has allowed new music lovers to re-appreciate the originality of his musical vision. The Naxos release (8.572450) of the last concert that Lutoslawski conducted gives us a fine opportunity to experience some of his best later compositions at a great price.
The logistical details are that Lutoslawski conducted the New Music Concerts Ensemble in a program of his works in a concert in Toronto on October 1993. It was most fortunate that tapes were rolling that day because the performances are excellent; and the compositions are late Lutoslawski at his best.
Basically there are three major works for violin and orchestra represented on the program: "Partita," Chain 1" and "Chain 2", plus the song cycle "Chantefleurs et Chantefables" for soprano and orchestra. Fujiko Imajishi shines forth as the violin soloist for the former works; Valdine Anderson sings with great attention to detail and sensuous beauty on the song cycle.
In the end the compositions show that Lutoslawski handles the orchestral sections in ways that show a continuity with the past: winds, strings, percussion, etc., have a sectional resonance for the most part. Don't expect him to divide up the orchestra in unprecedented ways, with 52 different parts for the strings, for example. Similarly this is less a music of a pointillistic nature, nor is it much given to contrapuntal passagework. If Boulez's orchestral music may be likened to the painting stipples of Cignac, or the drips of Pollock, Lutoslawski might be likened to the blocks of stain associated with the Color Field painters (Frankenthaler, etc.) The point may be slightly strained but the idea is that there are less "blips and bloops" with Lutoslawski, and more block-like sound events. (Though "Chain 1" is a bit of an exception.)
What you CAN expect is that Lutoslawski has an extremely keen ear to develop orchestral atmospheres and textures that have brilliance, movement and a certain luminescence. He's a master of the forces at hand. He chooses to exercise that mastery in his own way. The important part, the musical result, is consistently singular and stimulating to the aural senses and the musical imagination of the listener.
This is an essential disk for lovers of the Eastern European contemporary concert scene. And it makes a great introduction to a composer with whom you may not be familiar. This one is a winner.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
A revolution in early music practice took place beginning some time in the later '60s. A renewed attention to the character of the instruments used and in what numbers and combinations in any era became increasingly of concern. Similarly greater attention began to be paid to reconstructing more accurate and/or more adventurous realizations of what posterity left for us to bring back to life.
The three-CD set of Troubadour Songs (Warner Classics and Jazz/Erato 256467986-4) from the middle ages as performed by Camerata Mediterranea is a product of that performance revolution. The psaltery, recorder, medieval fiddle and harp are used to create an atmosphere far removed from the Romantic Era's sound and outlook.
The body of Troubadour Songs that survive are a treasure trove and a high point of the repertoire available to us today. These were the sophisticated pop songs of the day and give us a valuable glimpse into the outside-the-church aspect of medieval music making. As with anything from those ages, the secularity of secularism was thoroughly shot through with a religious cosmology that pervaded all. It is in part this kind of dualistic outlook that provides much of the wonder and feeling of "otherness" you may get when experiencing a great performance of those surviving masterpieces of the age. When done properly the Troubadour Songs have a charm that transcends time and space.
The three disks recorded by Camerata Mediterranea in the '90s on Erato and now available to us again in this box set certainly bring out the melodic lyricism of the vocal parts vividly and, as I've implied, bring that together with a very sonorous and otherworldly instrumental realization of the accompaniment. To fall under the spell of this music and the excellent performances here is to enter a world you find is not one as familiar as you may have thought.
This is music to while away an afternoon, lost in the magic of a past that we are no longer so sure we understand completely, but we resonate with its mysterious beauty. It's a very captivating set of performances. Heartily recommended.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Music lovers of my generation, mostly, came across the music of Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955) as the B-side of the highly acclaimed Ravi Shankar-Yehudi Menuhin album East Meets West. On the second side was a marvelous performance of Enescu's "Sonata for Violin and Piano," a work that reveled in an Eastern European tonality that made it a fitting example of the eastern-western half of the equation (the raga side of the record exemplifying the western-eastern, as it were). That record encouraged me to seek out more music by Enescu, and I found some wonderful recordings. The end of the LP era marked the end of further Enescu collecting for me. No reason, except perhaps there was less of it around on CD for a time.
With the Naxos (8.572120) release of Piano Music, performed in lovely fashion by Matei Varga, we get another side of the composer. This is more the Enescu as international stylist than it is Enescu the nationalist composer. The "Piano Sonata No. 1," "Pieces Impromptues, Op. 18," and the "Suite No. 2, Op. 10" are worthy examples of Enescu's art. There is a Ravellian glimmer in much of this music. It is delightful, as are the performances by Matei Varga.
Enescu needs to be heard more often. You can do that with this one and be assured that it is good Enescu music, not just any old Enescu music.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Michael Pagan is a prolific composer. That's what I read. Before hearing his new recording of the 12 Preludes and Fugues (Tapestry 76014-2) I was not aware of him at all, I must admit. However a number of listens to this one makes me want to hear more of his oeuvre.
It's a lengthy work, well performed by the Colorado Saxophone Quartet. This is not exactly the sort of music you may have become familiar with via the Rova and World Saxophone Quartets, but no less interesting.
It's written, modern classical music that skillfully and appealingly combines neo-baroque counterpoint, jazz inflected lines and contemporary classical from the more conservative to the more advanced garde.
The point though is that the music has appealing memorability. And it is lovingly performed. Very much recommended.
Friday, November 26, 2010
We backtrack again today, so-called Black Friday (don't get me started on that boondoggle), to an earlier album by the duo Erosonic (David Mott, baritone, and Joseph Petric, accordion), Mystery Theatre (Victo 085).
This is what used to be known as "Third Stream" music, a combination of modern classical and jazz elements. The former comes out with the set of weighty and lucid compositions on the disk, most by David Mott, two by both musicians, and one by David Keane. These are harmonic-rhythmic workouts and the jazz element comes out in the drive and sound of the music, especially in David's baritone sound with its timbral and improvisational originality (see the other reviews of David's music on these pages), and in the places allocated for improvisation.
I'll admit I am not always an accordion fan, but what Joseph Petric does on Mystery Theatre makes me forget all of that. He is a real virtuoso and interacts with David on a high level.
This is music that has compositional thrust and brilliant performances.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
If you are the sort of person who needs a decent pile of Christmas music to hear over the holidays, yet balk at the same old songs done the usual way, there are alternatives. I have been listening to a review copy of something that might just be the thing.
It's singer Irene Nachreiner and her CD A Hot and Spicy Christmas (Turquoise Water 3657). The arrangements have a Latin flavor--nylon-stringed guitar, marimba, light Latin percussion, etc. I especially like the violinist-fiddler here. The arrangements are quite simple, earnestly lively and non-cliche. Irene has a kind of deadpan vocal delivery, unpretentious, artless. That works on Hot and Spicy for the songs are some of the older ones out of the European corpus. For a few she has altered the melody lines, there are a few originals, and otherwise you get some of the venerable carols like "Fum, Fum, Fum," "Patapan," "What Child is This?"
It's so straightforward and direct that it put me in a good mindset, which for the holidays is so important. This is music to counteract the revulsion you may be experiencing with all the goody-grabbing greed that a Black Friday promotion blast encourages. And we need to get through that. Irene's music helps. Very much so.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
I have little doubt that Chicago is resurging as an important center for the new improvised music (known as jazz or simply improvisation). It never disappeared from the world scene, of course, but there is so much great new jazz coming out of there lately that there is a special feeling I get after listening to what's been forthcoming and when I weigh it mentally-musically as a whole.
One of those wonderful things that has emerged is cornetist-composer-bandleader Rob Mazurek and his avant big band, Exploding Star Orchestra. Their new CD/LP Stars Have Shapes (Delmark 595) illustrates all that's good in Chicagoland. It's a Chicago all-star lineup--14 stellar improvisers in Rob, Nicole Mitchell, Jeb Bishop, Jason Stein, Greg Ward, Jason Adasiewicz, Mike Reed, and so on.
The compositions have flow and density. And Maestro Mazurek makes use of electronics at certain points to alter the sounds and add to the color of the performance. The band improvises collectively in a beautiful way, the compositions give contrast between drone, avant smear, sound poetry and full-blast-off power in ways that further distinguish this effort.
Stars Have Shapes is a fruitful meeting of Chicago titans, and Mazurek's compositional and conceptual direction puts them in a very attractive and important place in the new jazz today. Yes, it's that good, I think.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Bobby Zankel is older than I am. A little. Just a few years. This may not seem especially important to you, the reader, but it does have some effect on how I view him and his music. It means that his history encompasses a few years that mine has not, and from a musical point of view that formative period seems like a very critical one, culturally and developmentally.
I'll admit that heretofore I have not heard him. The liner notes to his Many in Body, One in Mind (CIMP 365) notes that Bob Rusch first recorded him in 1992 for the Cadence release Seeking Spirit (Cadence 1050). Where have I been? That's a long story. Suffice to say that where I was (and it wasn't jail, unless you think of particularly demanding work situations in that sense), I am there no longer and so have the chance to catch up on what I missed in the '90s.
And it turns out that Bobby Zankel is someplace that I am glad to have visited via this CD. It's a trio date with Mr. Zankel on alto, Dylan Taylor on bass (and cello) and Edgar Bateman on the drums. This is the advanced sort of free-improv kind of music and my first impression is that it comes out of and goes beyond the sort of thing Ornette and his followers were doing a while ago. Yet that is only a reference point. Zankel plays his own tune(s), both literally and figuratively. And once things get rolling, he sounds like he is footed firmly in the new age we live in, in a way that shows a fully developed improviser excelling at his art for our appreciation.
In the CIMP tradition of recording procedures, all of this is done live with two mikes placed strategically to capture the group in the full acoustic flush of their organicism. It works and works well, especially here, where all three seem to find a natural balance.
The compositional part of the date is filled with good blowing vehicles. As vehicles go these set up the improvisations to come with the right mood, the right rhythmic feel, the proper melodic-harmonic universe. Needless to say that's critical with a trio that does not include a piano or other harmonically oriented instrument.
What you have on Many in Body is a generous set of performances that highlight the three players in a relaxed yet intensive form. Zankel is a personal singularity. Now I know. You should check this one out too if you want to experience a lucid and eloquent voice in the music.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Territory Band is/was an 11-piece avant jazz collective with an all-star line up of musicians from Chicago and Europe. New Horse for the White House (Okka 2006) is a generous 3-CD set of the band at a peak period, and it's at a great price. Two of the disks were recorded in the studio, one was recorded live, all in 2005.
Personnel highlights include Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis on reeds, Johannes Bauer, trombone, Kent Kessler, bass, and Paul Lytton and Paal Nilssen-Love on percussion.
Ken Vandermark wrote the compositions and in many ways serves as the guiding light. The pieces combine idiomatic written sections and collective improvisations spiked by an out-front soloist or two when it seems right.
It's a marvelously varied sound they get. There is tightness, looseness and a sense of structure and direction that comes out of a clear vision and talented players logging in a good deal of playing time/rehearsal. At least that's how it sounds.
There is so much good music here that demands your attention. It may make a handsome adornment to your shelves but it was meant to be heard. It is worth the effort. This is another important disk from one of the seminal cats to come out of Chicagoland.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Harold Meltzer, born in Brooklyn New York in 1966, has a lyrical logic to his music. He notes that he has been influenced by Stravinsky's Agon, and when you listen to his music you understand how. There are melodic cells that occur and recur in his pieces and they can be contrasting or similar, depending. And like middle-late Stravinsky those cells can vary stylistically. Meltzer's cells are lyrically memorable and the music flows with an ordered logic that pleases the aural mind's eye.
This is what I have gleaned from listening to a new Naxos (8.559660) release of four chamber works he composed in the past decade: "Brion," "Two Songs from Silas Marner," "Sindbad," and "Exiles."
"Brion" is a chamber gem, with vivid writing for guitar, mandolin, winds and strings. It's 18 minutes of musical bliss, well worth the price of admission. In fact it is all worthwhile.
"Sindbad," for violin, cello, piano, and John Shirley-Quirk as narrator, is an exception however, for reasons that have nothing to do with the music per se. It runs almost 30 minutes and the actual instrumental music parts are quite interesting. Now I suppose I should say straight off that recitation rather leaves me cold. If it's part of an opera and moves the plot along I can understand; otherwise I find very few things that can be said are worth saying rather than singing. Shakespeare, fine. The Gettysburg Address, again fine. "Sindbad" is a rather amusing story, but it does not hold its own as worth declaiming in its own right. Now that's not to take away from the text itself, or the music that goes along with it. I'll admit it is a personal prejudice I have. I didn't like it.
But the songs and the chamber pieces are very engaging, well crafted, inspired. And the performances sound quite good. Hearing this CD, I want to hear more from Harold Meltzer. He has something going.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Vincent Bergeron composes electro-acoustic music. He takes orchestral and other found musical sounds, chops them up into sound bits and puts them together to create avant garde but somewhat disturbingly familiar, "normal" sound worlds (as in a dream where you are not sure where you've heard the music before but it sounds somehow changed). There's just enough ordinary-music--gone-haywire in his musical phrases to grab your ears and direct them to the music. These oddly weird-yet-normal melodies are often then completed by a vocal part (Bergeron) sung overtop the phrases. Listen a little, and it sounds as if you were in a musical hall on Mars. It's pretty incredible.
He's been for several years offering free downloads of his music on the internet, a great example of which is the longer work Casse-tête de l'Existence. You can go grab it in FLAC format at www.archive.org. It's from 2004 and gives you a full take on his wonderfully different sound worlds. He has a website and you can purchase an anthology and newly remixed versions of some of his other work if you rummage around there and elsewhere.
If you are looking for something profoundly different, try the Archive piece. Bergeron is an original.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Henry Threadgill is back (though he didn't exactly go anywhere). Mosaic just released a box set of his earlier work, his Zooid group is making records again and he just played a well-received series of engagements at Roulette in New York City.
To commemorate all this and to show my appreciation for his music I turn to what I do have to review, Up Popped the Two Lips (PI 02), which came out in 2001. A friend gave me the CD as a gift last year and I have been digging it. The Zooid group as represented on this recording is a sextet with the unusual but well-utilized instrumentation of Henry on alto and flute plus acoustic guitar, oud, tuba, cello and drums.
The music of the mature Mr. Threadgill is a wonderful combination of contrapuntal lines, both composed and improvised. There are often three, four, five and six-way dialogs among the instrumentalists, with for example a principal soloist (like Threadgill on alto) supported by multi-dimensional lines. There is no mistaking the results as coming from someone else. Threadgill is a master and fully original.
Get this one, get the box set, get the new ones and go see him play. He's that important. You should not miss the chance.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Olivier Messiaen composed Livre du Saint-Sacrement in 1984 on a commission for the American Guild of Organists. It is his last work for solo organ, and it is the longest, running nearly two hours. Since Messiaen's collected work in this medium is without a doubt at the pinnacle of 20th century classical milestones, it seems imperative that one experiences such a substantial final contribution to his oeuvre. I regret to say that I had not done so until now. With the recent Naxos (8.572436-37) 2-CD release of Paul Jacobs performing the work, I finally have gotten the change to linger in its spacious aural caverns. I am back on these pages to report in on what I have heard.
This is music both massive and delicate, alternatingly. Livre du Saint-Sacrement is both mystical and triumphant. Widor and especially Tournemire lurk somewhere on the side aisles. Messiaen had fully absorbed the coloristic pathways the two composers had staked out for the solo organ, and it seems that Messiaen's position as the logical successor and innovator in their school is quite clearly shown in this last, great work. The musical language is Messiaen's at its most original, but the great swells and contrasting meditative quietude found in the 18 movements come out of his great familiarity with his recent forebears.
That is to take nothing away from Messiaen's boldly moving poeticism, only to recognize that he fits into a continuum. This is music of incredible power, played masterfully by Maestro Jacobs on the Organ of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City. The sound is ravishing. This is not something you'll be whistling on the way home from work. It's abstract, mystical and expressive of Messiaen's strong Catholic faith. It's also some mind-blowing sound!
Monday, November 15, 2010
Eli Keszler has a new LP of his music. It's on ESP and sounds like it should be (in the positive sense). Keszler plays drums, percussion, prepared piano, guitar and a number of prepared found objects. He is joined by a brassman, a clarinetist and a second prepared pianist for the two longish pieces featured on Oxtirn (ESP 4061). The LP is a limited edition; a digital download includes one bonus track.
And what of the music? It is a blast of sound, thickly textured. The first piece sounds like an acoustic version of one of Xenakis' classic electro-acoustic pieces. Dense, rapidly articulated metallic percussion sounds contrast with long, bowed-sheet metal envelopes.
The second piece is less dense but once again creates the impression of altered sounds even though this is music made "live."
It's a fascinating set of sound poems. If you like MEV and AMM, this one will give you something similar yet distinctive.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Some music hits you from the moment you first hear it. Then it holds up under repeated scrutiny. That is my experience with the latest from alto saxophonist Michael Attias and his Twines of Colesion (Clean Feed 188).
This is a live recording in the best sense. When it comes to free jazz/improvisation, the live setting can bring out energies and inspirations that might otherwise not be engaged in a studio setting. That is very much so here.
It's a quintet that seems perfectly matched in its outlook and trajectory. Attias on alto mixes it up deftly with tenor-soprano Tony Malaby, and they both do some of their very best playing. Pianist Russ Lossing plays the ultra-modern piano in ensemble and solo with exactly the right concentration of heft and space. John Hebert, bass, and Satoshi Takeishi, drums, throttle any possibility of indifference on the listener's part by pasting, smearing and cracking through the barriers to any higher plane of collective rapport and substance.
The compositional frameworks are by Attias. They create precisely the right stylistic backdrop for serious space walking.
The results are near monumental. Huzzah to this one!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
We have come quite a distance from the early days of electronic music and musique concrete. In the early fifties, unless you were working on the mainframe computers programmed for synthesized sound, you had a couple of mono tape recorders, an oscillator or two, a microphone to sample sounds and a splicing block where the composer painstakingly and slowly assembled a work from the bits and pieces of magnetic tape he or she had created.
The personal computer, sequencers, MIDI and all the rest have revolutionized electronic music, and of course the innovations that seemed so startling back in 1958 have been readily absorbed into modern day pop, rock and hip-hop music.
Thankfully though there is still vitally creative composition happening in the electronic field.
With that in mind we turn to a recent release of a composite electronic work by Marina Rosenfield and George Lewis, Sour Mash (Innova 228). This is a collaborative effort by the two. Marina is a sound artist of growing reputation; George made his name originally as a trombonist in the avant improvisational area, one of the most important trombonists of his generation, and has increasingly turned to electronics.
Sour Mash consists of one short and one longer construction by each composer. The pieces are then combined together in a second, double version. Sour Mash is being made available as an LP and as a CD. Marina and George think of the recorded result as something open-ended. For example, turntablists are welcome to work with the music and remix it in whatever way they see fit.
There are processed sounds and electronic sounds in the works. The sound events tend to flow more than punctuate. They are noise and tone soundscapes, as it were. I have listened a fair number of times to the music and I must say that I found myself only gradually entering the insular sound world at hand. The first few listens left a rather neutral impression, then I began to grasp what was happening. The music doesn't so much articulate memorable motifs as it creates an ambiance. I find it a fascinating listen.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
It seems like with so many interesting releases coming out of Clean Feed records lately that it might be easy to miss a few. The Eldorado Trio (Clean Feed 193) CD could be one of those, but it really shouldn't be. The disk features studio and live cuts captured last year in Porto, Portugal. Of the eight pieces featured on the release, five are by Louis Sclavis, who plays a very together soprano sax and bass clarinet throughout; the rest are collective group compositions.
This is some very impressive music of the avant-free improvisation sort. Sclavis holds forth with articulate poise and confidence; Craig Taborn is loose and inventive on the acoustic and electric piano; and Tom Rainey plays inspired drums. It is the band as a total unit, though, that makes for the most impressive impact. All three players are contributing in a direct way to the outcome of the performances. It's not a solo and accompaniment situation for the most part.
And what an outcome. This one gives you the art of improvisation at its most modern and advanced. It's not so much an energy honk-out sort of date as much as it is a reshaping of what is modern about modernity. But whew just hear this one and you'll get what my words only point to. The Eldorado Trio is a kicking ensemble!
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
When I was the managing-contributing editor for a series of cultural publications in the '90s, I used to give prospective writer-researchers a proofreading test as part of their interview. In it I had Brahms' name spelled wrong. I was a little shocked at how few candidates corrected that one. And quite pleased when there were those that DID. I came to realize that Brahms' music was not frequently a part of the educated young person's background by then. And of course I don't suppose it is now, either.
But I love Brahms. I have for some time. At this point, I've repeatedly appreciated and basked in the sublimity of most of his music and I am far the greater for the experience. For whatever reason, though, his Horn Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 40, has not been in my listening cycle. There's no good reason why that is so, except perhaps the piece demands a good French horn soloist and so there have been over the years fewer recordings of it. So I missed out. Until now, that is, with the release of a performance of same by Canadian Brass horn virtuoso Jeff Nelsen with Ik-Hwan Bae on violin and Naomi Kudo, piano (Opening Day 7384).
First off I found that the Trio is an exceptionally lyrical work. The opening Andante is ravishing, and played by the trio at hand with a gentle passion that seems totally fitting. The following Scherzo has plenty of stately brio on this recording and, I might add, some royal-hunting-horn-style panache emerges from Maestro Nelsen with an unbridled joy. At least that's what I hear. The Adagio has a lovely cantabile quality that the trio brings out quite well. And then the spirited Finale has exceptional brio and the kind of spirit that might remind one of the opening movement of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a wonderful piece of music, wonderfully played. Jeff Nelsen sounds especially wonderful, too.
As an added bonus the group performs a trio adaptation of Mozart's Horn Quintet, K. 407. It tops off the program on another bright note.
So, dear readers, I now have a world-class performance of Brahms' Horn Trio. It is a very happy confluence of circumstances that enables me now to pull out this CD at will and play it when the mood strikes. And the mood will strike pretty often, I should think. Highly recommended.
Monday, November 8, 2010
We turn back the clocks today as those who follow the US time schedule did this past Sunday morning. Today we go back to 1996 and an album by the Steve Swell Quartet, Out and About (CIMP 116). It's a trombone summit of sorts between the leaders of two generations of avant expression. Steve Swell heads up the quartet and provides the blowing vehicles and Roswell Rudd joins that band as a key fellow front-liner. The unit is rounded out in effective fashion by bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi.
Maestros Swell and Rudd top the list of important players who work with the extroverted free approach to the horn. Mr. Rudd was one of the pioneers of the new thing and remains vital today; Mr. Swell has extended and built upon the over-and-out trombone approach that Rudd helped establish.
Out and About brings out the best in both. They seem to feel completely at home musically in one another's presence; they come through with excellent avant solos and double solos throughout. It's all of course serious but there is some humor there as well. Like on the number "Start Up," in which Steve has worked out a head melody using the rhythmic structure of "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," but decidedly not the pitches!
Out may not have been the first recorded meeting of the two bonemasters and they continue to get together musically, so it isn't the last. But is no doubt one of the best. It's a recording no adherent to out bonedome should forgo. A modern classic! See the Cadence link to find out more.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Let's face it. We approach any new work of music with a set of predispositions that comes out of our experiences with music we have heard and familiarized ourselves with throughout our lives. When a new work comes along that does not fit in with what we know, difficulties can arise. That explains in part the hostile reactions that historically occurred at the premiers of works that defied the expectations of listeners in that local-historical time and place. So The Rites of Spring, the Eroica, nearly all of Mahler's symphonies, as examples, met with incomprehension and hostility in their first performances. It was only as audiences began to become familiar with the music that they came to appreciate what seemed so jarring at first.
I had that reaction as I first listened to Morten S. Danielsen's opera Donalds 09 (DaCapo 8.226563).
The sequence of reactions went something like the following.
First listen: Oh, yeah? Who told you you could make music like that? Second: Hmm...there's something to all this craziness. Third: I LIKE this but I don't understand what it is. Fourth and Fifth: I think I understand what the composer is doing and see the unique musical-dramatic logic involved, as much as it is clearly articulated. I have come to be drawn, odd as some of it is, to the recurring motifs and emotional-structural arch of the piece taken as a whole.
There are plenty of "crazily avant" CDs out there but Danielsen has a particular flair to his avantness that is ultimately appealing. But we need to start over at the beginning. Danish composer Morten S. Danielsen did not live to complete this opera, presumably his last work. It is a work with a certain sort of punk cockiness to it, which seems to be one of his trademark stances. It revels in the flippantly outrageous/funny-deadly serious edge of expression. This is one of the factors that makes it especially unusual and interesting, at least to me. Apparently Danielsen was a sort of Kurt Cobain-ish tortured and self-destructive soul. His music seems to reflect that.
The plot/libretto to Donalds 09 is disjointed and somewhat opaque. There are three Donald's, one a woman. The opera is a kind of bildungsroman of them trying to articulate who they are or are not. And ultimately the three Donalds seem to be three personalities contained in one person. Rather than a "coming of age" journey, though, the characters seem more to be in the process of "coming apart." Ultimately it is the sound worlds which bring these struggles alive that make the work so intriguing to me.
The unusual combinations of distinct musical sound colors and their masterly repetition-development-appearance-disappearance truly set Donald 09 apart from other avant works of its type. Some of the salient sound events that weave in and out of the work: an ensemble of what sounds like bell ringers, concrete and pure electronics, an electric punk-rock band, two distinctive electronically altered vocals, conventional operatic vocals, small-group chamber or solo piano accompaniment, baritone sax obligatto passages, choral ensemble, recitation, a child's squeaking rubber duck (?), vocal duets with altered and unaltered voices, and the climactic sequence that I wont even attempt to describe, except to say that it seems to prefigure the composer's own death and it haunts the aural memory long after it is played.
I don't know what the future holds for Donalds 09 in terms of its reception. I do know that it is a profoundly moving, even disturbing work that presents a sound world and libretto so idiosyncratic unprecedented yet so compelling that it surely should not be ignored by anyone who wants to embrace what is new and interesting today. It may be a milestone. Or a madman's self-indulgent ravings. Or both. We've seen that before. Don't miss this one if you want to overturn your preconceptions of what opera can and should be.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Sometimes it seems that Arnold Schoenberg's music is talked about more than it is performed. He of course revolutionized modern music with his 12-tone composing practices, but the body of music he created transcends the merely technical and approaches the sublime.
His last two string quartets give the listener luminously brilliant examples of the composer's mature artistry. And the versions recently recorded by the Fred Sherry String Quartet (Naxos 8.557533) are quite nearly definitive.
The quartet's attention to detail and nuance, and their crisply precise yet spirited phrasings of the contrasting sections bring out the poetically expressive qualities of both works.
This release includes as a bonus a rendering of Schoenberg's "Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment," very ably performed by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather on violin and piano, respectively.
This is volume 12 of Robert Craft's Schoenberg series. It is highly recommended.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Burton Greene to me is always interesting. He was a pioneer of the avant jazz scene in the early sixties and he keeps it strong. I've taken the liberty (as I do sometimes) of covering something that is not the flavor of the month here, since it was recorded in 2005. Good music should not be subject to the demands of clock time. Ins and Outs (CIMP 345) certainly should not be.
It's a trio date that came at the end of a larger group session and so has a relaxed loose quality. Burton Greene's piano is joined by the Schuller brothers--Ed on bass, George on drums. The three together make for excellent chemistry.
Half the pieces performed by the trio are covers of lesser known songs; the other half are Greene originals. In all cases there is a loosely outbop approach. Heads are stated, usually with a regular rhythmic thrust, and then the music can get freely loose and out of strict time, with all three implying the song structure but most definitely on the outside track. Ins and Outs makes for an apt title, then.
Ed Schuller has developed into a bass player that can have great presence in an ensemble and also solo with musically substantive flair. George's drumming is the right combination of pulse and freedom. And Burton is in his element. He is utterly distinct and has been for years,
You may have missed this album but if you like Burton Greene you should definitely check it out. It also would interest anyone who wants to get into modern piano trio jazz that melds the avant with the directly accessible. It's a nice combination and deserves a hearing. Check the Cadence link on this page for the CIMP site.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
I was exiting a concert by a prominent orchestra a few years ago when I overheard an elderly woman remark to her companion, "Shostakovich is all well and good, but he's no Beethoven." I was momentarily taken aback. These things are going on in that listener's mind despite the years that separate the two composers, and now despite the years that separate us from either of their worlds. How can you come to appreciate any modern composer if you have to filter their music through one of the masters of a much different era and style? One answer might be found in the music of Zwilich.
Right, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. She belongs to that rather rare category of modern composers who have gained acceptance and even popularity for a pretty large group of otherwise possibly indisposed concert music listeners. And yet there is nothing condescendingly ingratiating to be found in her music. What there is about her music, though, can be seen pretty clearly in her Millennium Fantasy (Naxos 8.559656), which features three substantial works for piano and orchestra, one each from the last three preceding decades.
The music, as in the cases of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (and of course George Gershwin), has a genuinely "American" feel to it. And it's a shade on the populist side of things. The "Millennium Fantasy," for example, is based on a folk song Ellen's grandmother sang to her, "Wayfaring Stranger" if I am not mistaken. Zwilich interweaves the folk theme in the dialog between piano and orchestra like a recurring memory intrudes at various points when, say, one is drifting off to sleep. It testifies to her fertile inventiveness and total mastery of the compositional mode that the folk melody fits right in with other more modern sounding motifs.
Another example is the "Peanuts Gallery for Piano and Orchestra" from 1996. Each movement portrays a particular character from the popular comic series, in a lighthearted but musically enriched way.
Even her most "serious" work on the program, "Images for Two Pianos and Orchestra" (1986), devotes each movement to a particular painting, in each case by a woman artist. So there is a literal program to reassure a sometimes wary audience that all these modern sounds "mean" something.
Regardless of all that, it is Zwilich's music that wins the day. There is a fluency and ease of expression to her music that encourages acceptance of the modern idiom in which she works. So as I listen to this very enjoyable Naxos release, I am thinking that this music should find an even larger audience. The Naxos budget price, the fine performances by the Florida State University Orchestra and the three piano soloists, the substantial yet accessible Zwilich scores, all this should be well-received out there in musicland. And for me, someone who can ride with pleasure to the nether worlds of the most modern utterances that could be conceived, I do not find her populistic tendencies in the least off-putting. That is in part because she is such a gifted composer. The music wins out, no matter where you stand on modernism. It's too good to be subjected to factionalism. And this recording is a delight to hear. Repeatedly without a doubt.
Monday, November 1, 2010
I try to listen with open ears to anything I am sent. In the case of players with whom I am not very familiar, I never know what to expect. Pleasant surprises are not especially frequent, but gratifying when they come. One such surprise came with a new CD by Matt Garrison, a young tenor-baritone player. Familiar Places (D Clef 152) shows his compositional and playing abilities to good advantage. It's a large group with seven horns (Matt plus, among others, Claudio Roditi on trumpet/flugel, Michael Dease, trombone, and Sharel Cassity, here on flute). Then there's a rhythm section/second line of guitar, piano etc.
Everybody sounds good here, but it is the quasi-Blue-Note-like arrangements of the horns and Matt's playing that grab me especially. These are mostly Garrison originals. He writes for horns quite well. It's that lush cushion of voicings that you may be familiar with from some of the choice early-mid-sixties albums by guys like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Hank Mobley and such, but updated with some contemporary wrinkles so that it sounds fresh.
Matt Garrison plays a slightly cool, clean sax line that impresses me as being not entirely capable of pigeonholing. That's very good, of course.
All in all the music has that contemporary-meets-classic-Blue-Note-mainstream feel that Amina Figarova also is working within (see this blog for some of her music). Both do it very well.
More than nice, this is a very coherent and enjoyable disk. Matt Garrison has a voice that I hope will continue to be heard in the years to come. I am quite impressed with his music.
Friday, October 29, 2010
You know something hip is up from the opening of the first track, where drummer Jacob Melchior plays the head melody of Johnny Hodges' "Squatty Roo" on the traps to a walking bass underpinning. And It's About Time (Self Released C2010) turns out to live up to that promising beginning. It's a straight-ahead date with a piano trio that integrates the three contributors and at the same time creates interesting group arrangements that accentuate the rhythmic and melodic-chordal aspects for a kind of little-big-band sound. In that they are like the classic Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal trios.
This trio is Tadataka Unno at the piano, Hassan JJ Shakur on acoustic bass, and of course Mr. Melchior at the drums. Frank Senior jumps in for a gorgeous vocal rendition of "For All We Know."
There is a more or less even split between band originals and standards in the widest sense of the term (like with a samba version of Stevie Wonder's "Bird of Beauty," which goes quite well). The trio has been together for a while and it shows in the tight-loose approach. It's a showcase for the subtle yet swinging Melchior. But all three players are doing some fine swinging work here. It exudes the sincere commitment to a traditional bop-and-after style of playing that makes such traditionalism enjoyable and moving. This is the music they want to be doing and it's clear they live it every day.
It might be easy to miss this one. If you love the piano trio thing you might want to make a point of hearing "It's About Time." It is an excellent example of how, with the right players, the older style is far from dead. It is vitally alive in the hands of Melchior's trio.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
From Engine Records (019) comes New Orleans Suite by the Andrew Lamb Trio. We are talking about Warren Smith on drums and recitation, Tom Abbs, bass, and Andrew Lamb working the tenor, flute. clarinet and harmonica.
There is a long narrative in the first part of the recording where Warren Smith expresses sardonic outrage at the handling of the Katrina event. I still feel that sense of outrage myself and so I cannot say I did not respond to the words.
The rest of the program centers on some fine free oriented improvisation from the potent trio. There are times where the direction reminds a little of AACM/Art Ensemble excursions of the looser sort, with Warren Smith taking a major role in producing the little sounds, but all joining in from time to time. This is not music of a technical tour de force sort. It is an expression of heartfelt anguish at the Katrina disaster and ultimately love, affection and hope for NOLA and its rebirth.