Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cruel Sister: Music for String Orchestra by Bang-On-A-Can's Julia Wolfe

For all my exposure to the marvelous Downtown New York institution Bang-on-a Can, I have not had the pleasure of hearing much of the music of co-founder-composer Julia Wolfe. There is no good reason for this. It simply is an omission on my part. The situation has been rectified by listening to her new release of compositions for the string orchestra Ensemble Resonanz, Cruel Sister (Cantaloupe 21069).

The album contains two longish works: "Cruel Sister" (2004), based on the story line of an Old English ballad, and "Fuel" (2007), which expresses the very pressing concerns of energy procurement and consumption in our world today.

Ensemble Resonanz performs these works with a beautiful sonority, great animation and spirit.

Both works reflect a kind of post-minimalism, where there is repetition at times but it serves more as a structural element among other structural elements, just as some kinds of passage-work, ostinatos, and sonata form involved repetitions in traditional classical music. In Ms. Wolfe's music the repetition elements are sometimes more forgrounded than in, say, an 18th century work, and the sonority is more pronoucedly constitutive as well. The sound of the music is in no way neo-anything. It is the modernity of the present that Wolfe's compositions express.

Beyond that this is music of movement and repose, of personal expression and extra-personal sound sculpture. It does not particularly resemble anything either Bang-on-a-Can would typically do or the work of other composers that follow a post-before path. It manages to synthesize high-modernism with post-modernism, and so creates a sound (thanks to Ms. Wolfe's own singular inventiveness) that stands apart.

Multiple-listens are a must, as is always the case with very new music.

I now know that Julia Wolfe has something major to say in the new music arena. I recommend you listen too!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Palmer, Garramone and Fisher's Organ Trio: Permutations

Organist Jeff Palmer and his sidekicks Devin Garramone (alto) and John Fisher (drums) demonstrate that to do a good thing in jazz doesn't always involve taking a long leap into the future of music. On Permutation (Rank 604) they take the organ trio format and place it in a contemporary funk-jazz context.

Jeff Palmer plays a compelling modern Hammond style that owes something to Larry Young, Charles Earland and John Medeski in that he has advanced harmonic line development going on within the funky pacemaking that the band convincingly lays down.

Combine Jeff's richly wide attack with Devin Garramone's fiery alto and the deep grooves established by John Fisher, and you have something that grabs you and does not let go until the last track. All eleven tracks were penned by Palmer. They put the groove within a modern context and give you melodies to remember and enjoy.

Organ trio fans who want something up-to-date will do well to listen to this one. It's quite nicely put together!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Richard Danielpour's Preludes for Piano: The Enchanted Garden

Composer Richard Danielpour writes solo piano music that evokes the magic of Debussy's pastoral eloquence in one breath and the drive of a Scott Joplin piano rag in another, yet transposes it all with a very considerable ear and pen, channeled by a man living in the world of 1992, or 2009. Danielpour's two books of preludes, written in the years just mentioned, have an up-to-the-minute contemporary quality, yet also a timelessness that transcends all time.

The Naxos recording of these pieces, The Enchanted Garden (Naxos 8.559669), brings out the implications of the music brilliantly, thanks to the superb interpretations given by Xiayin Wang. She brings life into each phrase as if she wrote it herself. Her pianism is extraordinary and I would go so far as to say breathtaking.

It is the virtually ideal meld between composer and pianist that underscores the extraordinary nature of this music. It has all the poetic qualities that great solo piano works have given us from the time of Schubert through to today. There are reveries, moods of tranquility and enchantment, followed by contrasting turbulence and motility. There is balance, poise and expression in these pieces taken as a whole that invite comparision with Debussy's Preludes; yet they are works that could only have been written in our time, that bear the considerably singular watermark of the composer, Maestro Danielpour.

The Enchanted Garden makes a bid to be one of the 21st century's pianistic wonders of the world, in my opinion. And I can hardly imagine at this point a better performance than that given by the very gifted Xiayin Wang. Need I say more?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sirone's Last American Recording: Oluyemi Thomas, Sirone and Michael Wimberly's "Beneath Tones Floor"

Bassist Sirone's recent passing was a sad event. He has been a mainstay of avant bass playing in the free jazz field since he first came to notice in the '60s. Beneath Tones Floor (No Business CD 20) finds him in good form and in excellent company on what is believed to be his last recording in the USA.

It's a fully three-way trio session with the loquacious Oluyemi Thomas on bass clarinet, soprano, musette, etc., and Michael Wimberly on drums, recorded live in NYC's Brecht Forum in 2008.

What we have, simply, is excellent free trio music. Sirone alternates between the percussive attack for which he is known and a free unfolding of melodic-textural ideas. Thomas plays good snaky bass clarinet and impassioned reeds in general while Michael Wimberly plies a very dynamic and very musically phrased set of drums.

It's a fitting farewell to Mr. Sirone, doing what he did so well in the company of two very articulate free masters. This release is available in limited edition as a CD or LP.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Bud Shank's Last Recording: Jake Fryer's "In Good Company"

If there is still a west coast kind of jazz it's because players associated with the west coast still play music. That's obvious, of course, but even in its heyday the west coast style covered a broad group of stylistic tendencies, from the cool of a Chet Baker to the heat of Hamp Hawes. Bud Shank leaned toward the cooler alto style in his first years, making some marvelous records. Sometime in the '70s his style changed and he began heating it up. He changed his sound.

Shoot forward to April 1st, 2009. Upcoming altoist Jake Fryer has convinced Bud to get together as a two-alto team and do a session populated by some of the very best rhythm men--Mike Wofford on piano, an intelligent swinger who had a productive tenure in Shelly Manne's last bands, Bob Magnusson on bass, a stalwart, and Joe LaBarbera on drums, who will of course always be remembered for his work with Bill Evans' final group, though he's gone on to many other productive associations.

So you put all these heavy cats in the studio and they approach the session like a gig--with the accent on blowing, communication, spirit. The result is In Good Company (Capri 74103-2). As the liner notes spell out for us, if it were your last day on earth and you were Bud Shank, what better way to spend it than jamming with some heavy cats?

The recorded evidence shows that Bud was flowing with good ideas and Jake Fryer was inspired to lock horns with him in congenial collegiality. They both play well. Bud's tone by then is half-way between Bird's pre-Camarillo "Gypsy", early Ornette, and, surprisingly enough, Pete Brown, for those that remember him. And that's to say that there is painfully soulful expression in the tone, a lot of feeling. Mike Wofford sounds beautiful here too and Magnusson and LaBarbera do their swinging best. Three standards and some bopping Fryer originals make up the song list.

It's a document of the last solos, a final chapter in the legacy of Bud Shank's long career. But it also introduces Jake Fryer to us, who sounds like he might be going places. And it's good, solid mainstream jazz.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet at Molde, 2007: Ten Years

Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet combines some of the finest avant improvisers from the Chicago area (and the USA in general) with a select crew of European out virtuosi. The Chicago Tentet has been a kind of smaller outside big band that continues to thrive (they are touring Europe this April) through the over-the-top excellence of its members and the well-executed routines that keep textural variety and energy levels high.

In 2007 the Tentet appeared at Molde. The recording of that performance came out a few years ago appropriately titled 10 Years: The Chicago Tentet at Molde (Okkadisk 12072), in honor of their 10th anniversary. The all-star cast included Brotzmann, McPhee, Kessler, Johannes Bauer, Vandermark, and Nilssen-Love, among the others.

What this album represents is a typical outing for the group, which means that it has a dynamic thrust and full-out capability that is matched by few bands of its type. For contrast and dramatic sequencing they wisely choose their moments to evoke the band in full-blastoff mode, taking the time to explore various instrumental combinations and textures along the way.

10 Years gives you an excellent example of the band at a peak. It's a must-have for any serious student of modern "free" improvisation.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Noah Preminger Plays Ballads on Tenor: "Before the Rain"

Coltrane's Ballad album gave much credence to the idea that a cutting-edge player could still say something important within the ballad form. Since then there have been others. Young tenor saxman Noah Preminger weighs in with his own Before the Rain (Palmetto) and he does it with style.

He has picked the right players for this quartet date. Frank Kimbrough, piano, John Hebert, bass, and Matt Wilson, drums, are seasoned professionals, each major players who can be expected to render ballads sensitively, in ways that are musically rich and interesting. They do that.

It's a jazz cliche to say that the hardest thing to play is the ballad. There's truth to that nonetheless. The soloist is naked with a melody line and what he can do with it. Simplifying initially helps the feel of the music. Then the challenge is to go someplace interesting, without necessarily blowing one's top. Mr. Preminger and Mr. Kimbrough, the principal solo voices here, do that and they do that very well.

There are occasions when the band sounds like the early Jarrett quartet (the one with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian), especially on Kimbrough's "Quickening," which has a Jarrett-filtering-Ornette sound to it. And Noah can have that pure yet impassioned sound that Dewey favored in his balladry, which owes something to Trane in turn. Other times Preminger goes his own way. His is a voice that promises much if he can continue to develop as he has.

The whole band sounds quite excellent on this one. There is mood, taste, musicality, freedom and direction. This is modern music. It glances backward only to resolutely set its sights on the road ahead. The original songs are challenging yet lyrical; the playing tender yet robust on the few standards. Noah Preminger is someone to watch. And the quartet is superior throughout.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

John Medeski and Lee Shaw "Together Again" Live

Lee Shaw gets into her 84th year with a flair. Her live European CD we covered several days ago (see below). Today it's a CD of her trio (Rich Syracuse, Jeff "Siege" Siegel) plus her former student John Medeski live at the Egg in Albany, Together Again (ARC 2222).

Lee sticks to her piano while John goes from piano to melodica to Hammond. The new edition of the Smithsonian jazz anthology includes a Medeski, Martin and Wood cut, so in many ways John has arrived. Fully.

The album has a more contemporary, somewhat more adventurous program than the companion Shaw album Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen mentioned above. That one bopped and got into some standards; this one has more progressive pieces, with writing duties divided equally between Ms. Shaw and Mr. Medeski. The approach is looser, free-er, and the two keyboard interplay is quite involved and very pleasurable to hear. Jeff Seigel's drums are out front and quietly burning in ways one comes to expect from him; Rich S. lays down a very fundamental and swinging bass. But it's the dialog of keyboard and keyboard, student and teacher together again, this time as equals, that unfolds very productively.

It's the piano and Hammond combination that to me has the most interesting sound world going on, especially on Lee Shaw's very memorable piece "Blues 11." It stands out both as a composition and as a great showcase for Rich S.'s solo bass, then John's advanced Hammondizing. Jazz radio should play it. I would.

Together Again has much going for it. Intricate two-key interplay, great material, a cohesive, excellent quartet feeling, and a loving reunion between two masters. It's some beautiful Lee Shaw; it's some great John Medeski. Seek and find.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Jazz Gawronski Plays Jaruzelski's Dream

A free alto-bass-drums trio comes out of a Venice-ian studio with Jaruzelski's Dream (Clean Feed 211). And what is the result? A long, most energetic set of improvisations with rock, swing and freetime flow. Franceso Cusa makes an impact with his energy drumming. Stefano Senni plies his bass with a sure sense of phrase and form. Piero Bittolo Bon often falls into repetitive phrases played with heat. That's what it is about. Mr. Bon's alto has insistency, consistency and focused variational persistency. It is his sense of structure that structures the freedom.

Now how he does that may lead some people to search for the emergency fire exit. But I suspect those sorts of people would not care for this music in any event.

It is singular, determined and overt in its overall thrust. It burns the candle at both ends and everywhere in the middle. It worries and exhausts melodic phrases and then just as willfully abandons them to move on to something new. And that's what saves the music from itself, as it were. It harps on something and then moves on, never overstaying its welcome like an overly emphatic conversatonalist at a cocktail clatch. Bon makes his point emphatically and moves on to the next station of party goers before he makes himself a bore. That's good.

This is music of interest. It is not typical of the free things out there right now. And it is controversial in how it goes about its freedom. Hey, why not shake things up a bit?

Friday, March 18, 2011

A New Recording of Schumann's Scenes From Faust

Classical music acolytes will know that Robert Schumann (1810-1856) fashioned a cornerstone of the romantic era repertoire primarily via his four symphonies, his concerto for piano and the one for cello, his lieder, his solo piano music and his chamber works. Compositions for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra are rather few and for the most part underperformed. So when a new recording of his Scenes from Goethe's Faust (2-CD Naxos 8.572430-31) becomes available, it is an occasion. The version at hand involves the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, the Warsaw Boy's Choir and soloists, all under the direction of Antoni Wit.

This is a work that is typically Schumannesque in its melodic grandeur. There is a pronounced Beethovian influence in the opening of Part Two (specifically a rousing choral-soloist-orchestral anthemic huzzah related to the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth), as filtered by RS's own musical instincts and inspiration. The rest is more directly idiomatic to Schumann's music. It is also only natural that comparisons be drawn between Schumann's work and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Scenes prefigures and precurses Berlioz in the nature of its overall thrust and, of course, the Faustian theme.

It may not be among the absolute top-tier masterpieces of its era. But it most certainly deserves reconsideration. The Wit-Warsaw recording seems a fit way to give the work a fair hearing. Orchestral sinuousness combines with balance, clarity and passion throughout. The soloists do a good job, and the amassed choirs are especially excellent. It is a fine performance.

At the Naxos budget price this one is hard to resist. Schumannites take heed!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Toots Thielemans' Harmonica Live with His European Quartet

Everybody knows that Toots Thielemans IS jazz harmonica. He is the man. He phrases like a horn. Others have followed in his wake but he continues to lead the way. If you listen to the late George Shearing's Quintet in the early 50s, when Toots was the guitarist, you can hear in the few features for the Thielemans harmonica that he had gotten his style pretty much together by then. And he's kept going for the many years that have followed, refining and perfecting his technique but pretty much working out the game plan established in those days.

He is a bop and after cat, with a lyrical side that pronounces with eloquence. The CD European Quartet Live (Challenge Jazz 70160) gives you plenty of undiluted Toots in later years, as vital as ever. The European Quartet benefits from a long tenure working together. It's Toots with Karel Boehlee (piano, synth), Hein Van de Geyn (acoustic bass), and Hans Van Oosterhout (drums). They're a first-rate jazz outfit. Mr. Boehlee's piano shows a nice touch, lush harmonies and a lyricism that complements Toot's way of going about it.

The music was recorded at various venues between 2006-2008 and it catches the group in good form. There are some exquisite renditions of standards like "I Loves You Porgy," "The Days of Wine and Roses," and the "Theme from Midnight Cowboy," plus some more directly jazz-oriented numbers. They swing along or get into ballad mode as needed.

It's a good one. If you don't have any Toots this would bear up nicely in your collection. Definitely pure Toots.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rautavaara's Opera "Kavos (The Mine)" Engages Early High-Modernism

Rautavaara, I am discovering, is a composer of some depth and breadth. His 1962 opera Kaivos (The Mine) (Ondine 1174-2) illustrates this to me. It involves a dramatic story set "somewhere in Europe" in the '50s. A group of miners engage in an illegal strike. They are directed by outside forces but find that while those forces have managed to set things in motion, they cannot give the miners support to see the action through. The leaders of the strike are left at the crossroads. Give up, fight on to a probable death? As Rautavaara states in the liner notes, the universal theme of human choice in the midst of crisis is dramatically played out.

The performance on this disk is the first on CD and follows the first and only staging of the work thus far.

Musically there is a definite early high-modernist feel to this music. Think of Berg's masterpiece Wozzeck and you wont be far from the expressionistic aspects of the drama as it unfolds vocally and orchestrally. Soloists, chorus and the Tampere Philharmonic do a fine job realizing the score.

It gives you another take on the music of Rautavaara. I don't know at this point in my exploration of his music quite where this one fits in within the overall trajectory of his complete opus. I must say I found the music compelling, the orchestral score quite moving, the vocal roles maximally dramatic. It is a work of some complexity and I will need to experience it a number of times more to get a full grasp of it. Those who favor Rautavaara's music will probably find it indispensable. Modern opera buffs will find it worthy. Others must listen and decide for themselves.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Szilard Mezei and his Szabad Quartet, "Februari Fadontes"

Szilard Mezei, Hungarian violist-composer-bandleader has been as prolific as he has been interestingly progressive. A look on his website reveals quite a few albums released under his leadership. I've only heard and reviewed a few for Cadence, but what I heard on those convinced me he was someone to watch.

The new one, a limited-edition LP release, features his Szabad Quartet and is titled Februari Fadontes (No Business NBLP 28). The several previous albums I have reviewed tended to have a dark palette, with the lower register holding a very active place in the mix. In contrast Szilard's Szabad Quartet has a bit more of the full range, thanks in part to the instrumentation of viola plus the tenor sax and clarinet of Peter Bede, the bass of Erno Hock, and the somewhat bright drumming of Hunor G. Szabado.

This is a free-form date with plenty of room for four-way interplay between the band members. Mezei has his own way with the viola, and Bede plays a tenor and clarinet in ways that aren't typical--free-form but mostly pure-toned. Hock and Szabado (bass and drums) have an important presence and give depth to the floating suspensions and brooding meditations of Mezei's music.

This is music that does not wear influences on its sleeve, so to say. It's quite out of the norm and holds a musical interest that only increases with increasing familiarity. Mezei is fast-proving himself to be one of Europe's unique avant jazz voices. This is a good one to check out to find out why. I'll leave it to you. With only 300 copies pressed in this limited vinyl offering, you may want to grab it quickly.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Matt Blostein, Vinnie Sperrazza and their Second, "Paraphrase"

Music changes over time. What was mainstream in jazz circa 1965 is more retro now, 46 years later. So Al Cohn and Zoot Sims are long gone, their music still great, but people coming up with that take on the jazz sound are really not mainstream anymore; they are revivalists.

So what then IS mainstream? Perhaps some of the things Dave Holland has been doing form one part of it. There's a looseness that isn't quite "free" in the definition of the music by that name. It has a swinging or rocking pulse, it features soloists more or less out of a post-Trane sensibility, the songs have unifying ostinatos, tonally centered themes that embrace bop and what came after, and they break up the ensemble into varying combinations in ways that Zoot and Al didn't normally deem fit.

The Matt Blostein-Vinnie Sperrazza Quartet and their second CD Paraphrase (Yeah-Yeah 0006) is mainstream in this way, partially, it seems to me. There are strong soloists in Mr. Blostein and his alto, and Jacob Garchik and his trombone; strong anchorage from Geoff Kraly on electric bass; and well executed swinging drumming from co-leader Vinnie Sperrazza.

What's more the two leaders provide compositional material that has weight, is much more involved than the series of head arrangements that mainstream was mostly about in 1965. There are interesting written interludes before, during and after the soloing. And some of the soloing is related thematically to the compositional passagework in ways that go beyond "playing the changes."

All that is fine, you might think, but what about Paraphrase taken on its own. How does it stand up? Very well. Just because I can elaborate on the various traits that put it into a "new mainstream" development does not imply that the music is generic. It is not. In fact the quartet would seem to be well on the way to defining itself as a singular example within the space it operates. Both the lack of a piano or other chording instrument and the treatment of the routines leaves plenty of room for each individual to develop his solo style and the collective sound of the band as well.

They do that and do it well. If fact the CD is excellent, no matter what category you would care to invoke. This is first-rate music, as worthy a second album as I've heard from a young group in the last several years. Get it and you'll be getting something to give your ears much pleasure and your mind much to ponder.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Presents World Premiere Recordings of Higdon and Gandolfi

A number of years ago one of my local classical radio stations ran a syndicated show that presented live concert recordings of modern American classical compositions. These were generally of works not yet available on commercial releases. The quality of the presentations and the performances themselves were always of a high standard. One of the ensembles most frequently featured was the Atlanta Symphony, then under the late Robert Shaw. At that point and a bit later when I and my writing team covered the ASO concert season for the monthly Delta Airlines publication MDG Atlanta, I realized that the ASO had evolved into one of America's great orchestras, with adventurous programming and a genuine commitment to the performance of new works.

So when I found out that the ASO had formed their own label dedicated to the presentation of such new works, I jumped eagerly at the chance to get a review copy of release number one. ASO Media CD 1001 reaffirms what I already know: that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, now under the very capable direction of Robert Spano, is an organization that excels in well-nuanced performances of modern works. For this recording the acclaimed chamber sextet Eight Blackbirds is an important part of the proceedings.

The disk at hand features two world premiere recordings of new compositions--Jennifer Higdon's "On A Wire" and Michael Gandolfi's "Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman."

"On A Wire" is a very evocative and lively piece, featuring wonderful, colorful concerto writing for six soloists: winds, violin/viola, cello, piano and marimba. It is a work that has at times an almost eastern flavor, with muted and bowed piano almost koto-like, marimba passage work adding to that flavor, but also with a great variety of imaginatively orchestrated elements entering into the overall scheme. It engages virtuosic brilliance-subtlety in a six-way give and take, along with the traditional soloists-versus-full-orchestra dialog. However Ms. Higdon most definitely makes her own way within the concerto form. The work is delightful; the performance excitingly bracing.

"Q.E.D." has a very nicely contrasting presence on the disk. It is Michael Gandolfi's meditation on the beloved late physicist Richard Feynman's BBC talk on quantum electrodynamics, the latter given in vivid form to illuminate the intricacies of the body of knowledge in ways comprehensible to the layman. The dialogic text is set to music for the very engaged ASO Chorus. A rather full orchestra surrounds, reinforces, and provides musical commentary and contrast to the choral parts. The music is quite tonal and at times (perhaps this is just a personal listening quirk on my part) reminds me of Vaughan William's "Sea Symphony" and Hindemith's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Now these happen to be two of my favorite "modern" works for orchestra and chorus. (And interestingly, the Hindemith piece was commissioned by Robert Shaw, so there is a connection somehow!) The main point though is that, like those two masterpieces, the amassed sounds of full orchestra and chorus are used selectively and inventively by Maestro Gandolfi to create a many-faceted expressive matrix. It is a moving work, sonorously rapturous.

In short the first ASO Media release is a knockout. Those who want to be exposed to some captivating modern American classical music would do well to savor this one.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lee Shaw Holds Forth Swingingly in Reutlingen

When you review upwards of 550 CDs a year (on my two main blogs), plus quite a few for Cadence and my third blog, you can find yourself struggling to avoid the generic sorts of descriptions one can easily fall into. Take today's selection, the Lee Shaw Trio plus guests Live at Art Gallery Reutlingen (Artists Recording Collective 2239). It's a perfectly nice date, exceptional for the rapport that pianist Shaw develops with guest baritonist Michael Lutzeier and tenorman Johannes Enders. It's a live straightahead jazz date with standards (like "Falling in Love Again") jazz classics (like Ornette's "Turnaround"), an original or two....On the surface of things it's like hundreds of releases I get for review every year.

So what to say? More bop and beyond? Yes it is. Hard swinging by Shaw and her seasoned trio of Rich Syracuse (bass) and Siege Siegel (drums)? Yes, true. Some hard bopping baritone by Lutzeier? True. Exceptionally so. Solid mainstream tenor from Johannes Ender? Yes. Well recorded with the live you-are-there excitement that a club can generate? No doubt. Shaw is a driving force? She is. Drummer Siegel kicks butt in his own way, like some of the masters Philly Joe and Art? That's true.

ALL of that is true. If I ended the review there you would say, "OK another one of those sorts of CDs." And you would be right. So why should you care, with hundreds upon hundreds of similar CDs coming out every year that are like this? Are they doing the old style any better or even as well as the masters of the music who did this 40 years ago? I don't know. They aren't cloning and copying solos. It's still a case of pure improvisation.

Finally I am left with this. Shaw and her cohorts still show the passion and drive, the love and concern for this music when so many others seem to be going through the motions. In the end it is NOT a typical outing. It is bop with b_lls, mainstream with a mania to express, straight-ahead music that has not gotten stuck, that moves ahead with sincere and honest playing at a high level. If it weren't for that I would not have covered it. It's damned fine music. That's all I can say.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Julia Wedman in A Fine New Recording of Biber's Mystery Sonatas

When I was first coming of age as a classical music listener I had the good fortune to stumble upon a three-record Voxbox recording of the Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704). It opened another world to me. Susanne Lautenbacher was the violin soloist. The continuo of organ or harpsichord plus cello reinforced the exotic sound of the scordatura (non-standard tuning) violin. As I continued to expand my listening to a fuller spectrum of music from the Baroque era I came to realize that Biber's work virtually stood alone in the repertoire, in that though it followed the more or less typical part writing of the era, the overall sound of the music had an otherworldly aura fitting to the Mystery theme. There are sometimes drones (on the organ), a savoring of the intervalic relationships of the various instruments and a revelling in ensemble color that looked back at times to earlier Renaissance and Medieval forms as it adapted the sound to the more sophisticated long-form developments of Biber's era.

The violin part was movingly beautiful; the various sonatas contrasted in mood; and the mystical aspects of the music introduced a hard-to-define element I had experienced listening to the Indian classical music of Ravi Shankar that was so much a part of the world I was in then. (I also got that feeling in a slightly different way when listening to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but that's a story for another day.)

I later found much to appreciate and similarities in sound when I started listening to some of the viola da gamba repertoire from the era, thanks especially to the original instrument performance practice movement that began to be widely recorded in the '70s. But the Biber sonatas still had a special place in my musical mind. Many years later I do not feel differently. I still have the Voxbox set I bought for $4.99 back then. I know where every skip will occur. I've internalized the music the way Lautenbacher and her colleagues put it forward.

The beauty of the recorded era is that every recorded version of a work is preserved for us as a slice of frozen time. When newer versions come along we can more clearly grasp the details of difference as well as the larger picture.

This long preamble, then, leads us to the topic at hand. Namely Julia Wedman's new recording of Biber's sonatas (Sono Luminous 92127, 2-CDs). The first thing that strikes one is the more sonorous continuo. Charlotte Nediger's organ and harpsichord are front-and-center as one expects. But then there is Felix Deak on the cello and on the more resonant viola da gamba, Lucas Harris on the theorbo and archlute, and Julia Seager Scon on harp. All this results in a more richly spacious sonance and an even more exotic feel to the music, helped along by state-of-the-art sound-stage imaging. It gives Biber's sonatas an even deeper mystique, something that the Voxbox didn't capture quite as fully. Then there is Julia Wedman as the violin soloist. She is unsentimentally tender in the largo passages, and she gets a fire of brilliance blazing on the more intricate virtuoso passages. She does a remarkable job projecting some of the passionate abandon AND the mystically meditative moments of the solo part. She is a marvel here.

So after 40 years of the Lautenbacher Voxbox, I am happy to supplement my listening with (one hopes) another 40 years. . . with the Wedman version living alongside the Lautenbacher version. There is no question in my mind that Julia Wedman's version is the new standard by which other versions should be judged. It is the one to get for someone not familiar with Biber's wondrous music. My only trouble is that I instinctively rise from my seat to push the stylus forward when I come to the parts that skip on the Voxbox. Only. . . no skips!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dave Liebman Plays the Blues a la Trane

With a long and exceptional career already behind him Dave Liebman shows no sign of flagging. Quite the opposite. His latest, Lieb Plays the Blues a la Trane (DayBreak 75978), is a sax-bass-drums trio in a live setting, an ideal way to hear Lieb. And of course he returns to his roots on this album to re-examine his debt to the Master, John Coltrane, and the blues in-and-out that Trane pioneered.

The bass and drums are handled well by two players with whom I am not familiar: Marius Beets provides the deftly executed bass underpinning and Eric Ineke puts the swing on solid footing with an assertive post-Elvin drumming style.

The program touches on some key pieces with which Trane was intrinsically linked. You get Miles' "All Blues," Duke Ellington's "Take the Coltrane," plus Tranes' own "Up Against the Wall," "Mr. P.C.," and the less-often-played "Village Blues."

As has thankfully been the case in the last few years, Lieb is back on tenor as well as soprano. In both he shows his own great mastery. It is a fitting tribute to one of the major forces in music of the past 100 years. It is also a tribute to Mr. Liebman himself--who has so vibrantly created his own exceptional improvisational brilliance over the edifice that Trane built for all of us.

Beautiful listening to you!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Kronos Quartet Performs "Uniko" with Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen

There are musical works that come along now and then that go beyond what categorical pigeonholing comfortably handles. Such music is all-the-more welcome in the sense that it expands the boundaries of possibility for music as we understand it in the present tense.

Such is most assuredly the case with the new Kronos Quartet offering Uniko (Ondine 1185-2), featuring the music of Kimmo Pohjonin and Samuli Kosminen. First of all, this neither sounds like or is a typical string quartet-chamber music suite (there are seven contrasting movements or segments involved). That is because the quartet is augmented by Pohjonen's accordion and voice and Kosminen's string & accordion sampling and electronic manipulation. What you end up with is something that sounds orchestral in texture, though with a quartet component that is central to the music.

Secondly, the music itself. It has some of the drive of rock, a minimalist element that does not rest on repetition so much as it makes use of it in passing as a way to flesh out structural moments (again sometimes in the manner of progressive rock, but also sometimes in the way of the more traditional classical use of ostinato). The variations that appear in parts of the work have a kind of fusionoid thrust meets dance-folk ornateness that gives the listener a new plane on which to hear the music. There are also (as implied above) Northern Euro-vernacular strains very much a part of the music--allusions to dance forms, folk melodies, etc. This is especially apparent in the accordion parts, but generally permeates the entire work on a number of levels. Thirdly there is a deeply resonant sound achieved in the electronic processing of the initial live signal and a sometimes attractively horizontal soundscaping that comes into play--not, though, in a consistently obvious or formulaic sense. That brings us to point four: the music most definitely eschews the formula as standard operating procedure. They throw out the book on what constitutes the expected way to do things today. Pohjonen and Kosminen meld all the various aspects together in ways that in no way sound rote or programmatic.

Finally, then, it is a musical experience that delights with unexpected juxtapositions, invigorates with the excitement and drive of the powerfully virtual ensemble in tutti overdrive, and brings in a wealth of musical content and continually varying sound color.

This is one of the most interesting and unusual bodies of music I've heard yet this year. It is like the Kronos Quartet to come up with unexpected syntheses that help define the 21st Century musically. They've done it once again, thanks of course to the considerable compositional and arranging talents of Pohjonen and Kosminen. It's one of Kronos's very best! That is indeed something.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mark Applebaum and The Metaphysics of Notation

Mark Applebaum has entered a new world of his own making with his The Metaphysics of Notation project. It is documented on a recent DVD of the same name (Innova 787). Only a DVD could begin to cover the scope of the project with justice, because the work combines visual art, installation, performance art and musical execution as a totality.

The central raison d'etre for the work was the creation of a 70-foot linear pictographic "score" (w/several hanging mobiles) that Applebaum created on paper by hand, black symbols proceeding from left to right as in a conventional music manuscript. The "score" is without the usual staves, and the notations Applebaum has made are in the form of a varied and elaborate series of pictographic images meant to flow from one to another as would standard notation. The symbols and graphic images sometimes approximate musical notation in the sense that they utilize note symbols on occasion, but graphically enhanced and without the staves as context. For the rest the score is filled with images that suggest a visual representation of an open-ended musical sound-world. Some of the images are abstract, some representational, but all sequence together in ways that suggest a series of musical events. The score is as much a work of visual art as it is a quasi-prescriptive set of abstract visual analogs to guide and direct individual content decisions made by musicians in any given performance.

The score was installed as a number of large horizontal panels (plus mobiles), on view for a year at the Cantor Arts Center Museum of Stanford University.

The DVD addressing Applebaum's work is in three parts. The first is a documentary about the project, with commentary from the composer and a number of composer-musician-musicologists either involved in the project's realization or familiar with the work's parameters. The documentary also introduces you to the score itself and its installation context.

The second part consists of recorded one-minute excerpts from the 45 performances held at the museum on a weekly basis, accompanied by stills of each particular performance. The musicians involved vary from a single soloist to a moderate sized ensemble. Each performance group was left entirely free to make whatever musical sounds they deemed appropriate in realizing the musical implications of the score.

The third part of the DVD consists of two slowly scrolling panoramas of the score itself, one lasting eight minutes, the other sixteen.

In the end I was left with an appreciation of the imaginative scope of Applebaum's project. The documentary raises questions about the borders of legitimacy or even intelligibility when it comes to such work. Is it music? Art? Installation? Improvisation? Performance art? It is all of that. The difficulty perhaps in this is that, since there is no right or wrong way to realize the musical potential contained in the score, since Maestro Applebaum does not provide anything in the way of specific musical directives or suggestions, anything goes in a given performance. There is no "proper" or "improper" performance, no "good" or "bad" version. That is problematic only in the sense that the status of the work remains completely open and ultimately neutral. It does not exist in some tangible sense aurally. This will bother some people. Essentially though, at least the way the project is set up, it is the interaction of visual stimulus of score as visual art, the natural reverberant ambiance of the museum setting, and the free improvisations of the respective musicians that work in tandem to create a kind of totalized art-music gestalt. The 45-minute series of excerpts of the various musicians at work affirm how different any given performance can be from another. It's fascinating to hear and see.

I find the DVD quite illuminating, Applebaum's project thought-provokingly beautiful visually and conceptually, and the music absorbing. I recommend this one very much. By the way you probably don't want to miss the one-minute excerpt of the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra tackling the music!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Swing Revival Chicago-Style: John Burnett Orchestra

John Burnett's Orchestra (big band) has been holding forth in and around Chicago for a number of years. Their new, third album Down For Double (Delmark 596) comes out of two live and one studio session from 2000 through 2010. It's subtitled "Saluting the Best Bandleaders of Swing" and that's what it does. That doesn't mean that every important bandleader is represented, but Miller, Duke, Count, Goodman, Rich, Krupa and Slide Hampton (?) are each honored by one or more of their best-known charts. The last three cuts (and chronologically the first session) brings in clarinet powerhouse Buddy DeFranco. Otherwise, the soloists do their best but it's really about the ensemble giving the chestnuts the full sound that the early 78s lacked.

Not everything on this CD is in the realm of institutionally bonafide classics. "Cottontail," yes, but also Buddy Rich's "West Side Story" suite; "In the Mood." but also Slide Hampton's "The Blues."

Everything has the sparkle of a well-drilled and pretty polished unit. This no doubt is a band especially to appreciate live. If they don't really seem to be contributing much beyond the revival stage, it has to be understood that their objective is not to be "the new big band," but more "the revival band," much as, let's say, a doo-wop revival group is not expected to carve new territory in that genre.

They sound lively and they swing. What they do is what they do! Put me in a club with John Burnett holding forth, give me a drink or two and I'll be having a good time.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dottie Grossman and Michael Vlatkovich Collaborate on Word and Music Project

Dottie Grossman puts together short prosaic poems dealing with Zen-like slices of everyday life, friendships and day-to-day reflections on it all. Michael Vlatkovich is a noted trombonist-bandleader in the avant improvisation realm. The two have collaborated on a CD project that alternates Dottie's short poems with equally short improvisations by Michael's quintet. Call and Response and Friends (pfMentum 060) is the intriguing result.

Each segment lasts from one to two minutes, Dottie then quintet in alternation. The constantly refocused, straightforward yet cognitively labyrinthine prose-poetry recitations set up an expectation that is realized in equally varied musical comments by the group. There is freedom; there is focus.

It works completely because Ms. Grossman and the Vlatkovich conflagration are well attuned to one another. Something like this could quickly become pretentious, over-reaching, self-affirming in a kind of conceited aren't-we-artists sort of way. The fact that it all is most certainly NOT has to do with the unprepossessing and almost casual (deceptively perhaps) image-weaving that takes place between the two creative forces.

It is NOT an uneasy melding of prose-poem and jazz. It is an EASY one. Very much recommended.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What is the Next Big Thing in Jazz?

The music scene changes and at what point do we wake up and say, “things are different?” Probably a few years ago. In strictly musical terms however, the hundreds of jazz releases coming out every month, some produced in quantities of 300 or less, make for an almost impossible task for one person to evaluate. None of us can hear all of them, nor I suppose would we want to. The possibility of missing something seminally important is real, but there is also no real trend if you take everything as your compass. Imagine being here back in 1958, let’s say? Hundreds of jazz releases every month like now, yet looking back, there were really important trends in the music—but those were exemplified in only perhaps 30 albums that year--of the 5,000 give or take--or even less. For the most part certain labels were where you best looked for the breakthroughs. You wouldn’t have expected Jubilee or ABC Paramount to be the ones, and they weren’t.

So many more almost non-label releases today though, so many more players spread out over the world, so decentralized a means to disseminate the music, so many gigs gone, so many teaching, it IS a different world. It’s hard to be totally certain where the “new thing” will come from, if it is coming.

And maybe it will stay where it is for a while, many styles existing side-by-side, nothing and nobody taking over the reigns of control. Perhaps that’s better anyway?

Mingus called jazz a folk music. Really, ALL music is folk music. What does that mean? Lots of contributions from lots of people making a music what it is, not some over-towering genius calling all the shots. Does jazz need its next Wagner? I don’t know if I am sure it does. Of course it’s nice from a marketing standpoint if people can say, “Right. So and so is the next big thing. Buy the person’s music and make money for us.” Is that a good thing? It is for that label. For the music? I don’t know.

Dan Block Plays the Music of Duke Ellington

Reedman Dan Block is cool with me. His Plays the Music of Duke Ellington, From His World to Mine (Miles High 8612) is cool too. It's not just another Duke tribute. For this one Dan obviously spent some time with the song list. It's not the well-worn blockbusters on display here, but instead some of the relatively under-recorded gems like the WWII era "Kissing Bug," the New Orleans Suite movement "Second Line," the Bigard-not-canard "Are You Sticking?" (he wasn't) and eleven other goodies. They are all arranged skillfully for an intimate small-group setting (reeds, vibes, piano, guitar, bass, drums, etc., in a shifting configuration) and approached from a modern mainstream point of view.

And Dan gets a chance to shine on tenor, clarinet, alto, bass clarinet, even the basset horn.

It is a definite treat to hear this one. Block sounds great, the band swings, the compositions and arrangements are excellent. A kind of swing-bop nirvana, a rare experience with today's confluence of styles, is something that is very possible, though hard to find. You can experience it by listening to this engaging and hip Dan Block album. It's an excellent tip of the cap to Ellington's music and to Dan Block as well. Enjoy it.