Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Camerata Mediterranea Captivate with their Realization of Troubadour Songs From the Middle Ages

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

George Enescu's Solo Piano Music

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's Preludes and Fugues for Saxophone Quartet

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

Erosonic is David Mott and Joseph Petric; "Mystery Theatre" is an Aural Example of Why That Matters

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

Irene Nachreiner Sings Some Very Old Christmas Songs with a Laid Back-Latin Flavor

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

A New One From Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra

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, "Many in Body, One in Mind"

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 and "New Horse for the White House"

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

Three Modern Works by Harold Meltzer

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, Canadian Original

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-tĂȘte 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's Zooid in a 2001 Release: Up Popped the Two Lips

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

A Major, Later Messiaen Solo Organ Work Performed by Paul Jacobs

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 Combines Improv and the Compositional on "Oxtirn"

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

"Twines of Colesion:" Michael Attias and Associates Play Inspired Improvisations

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

George Lewis & Marina Rosenfeld's "Sour Mash:" Modern Electronic Music

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

The Eldorado Trio (Sclavis, Taborn, Rainey) Takes No Prisoners

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

A New Recording of Brahms' Horn Trio with Nelsen, Bae and Kudo

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

Steve Swell with Roswell Rudd, 1996

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

Morten S. Danielsen's "Donalds 09:" Punk Opera?

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

A New Recording of Schoenberg's String Quartets Three & Four

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 Trio "Ins and Outs," 2005

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

Zwilich, Three Decades of Music for Piano and Orchestra

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

Tenor-Bari Matt Garrison Scores with "Familiar Places"

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.