One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Wade sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.
Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.
The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McKay on drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s crooner dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.
The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.
Wade letting her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!
No less august a figure than ELO’s Jeff Lynne had asked the Attacca Quartet to open his sold-out weekend stand at Radio City this past weekend. The string quartet responded with an ecstatic, robust performance that, while tantalizingly brief, threatened to upstage the headliners. It was as much a testament to the group’s ability to connect with an audience most likely unfamiliar with their repertoire as it was Lynne’s confidence in his thirteen-piece band’s ability to pull off a similarly electric set of ambitious, iconic chamber pop and art-rock hits.
The foursome – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – spiced their set with codas by Haydn and Beethoven, practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing to such a vast audience. Beyond that, they impressed with their choice of material, opening with John Adams’ acerbically percussive miniature Toot Nipple, then a bit later slinking up his Alligator Escalator with its steady, apprehensive drive out of a rondo of sepulchral high harmonics. It was arguably the high point of the night. While the group could have taken the easy route with standard Romantic repertoire, or the ostentatious one with, say, Bartok, they cemented their cred by showcasing material from their pals, emerging composers Paul Wiancko and Michael Ippolito. Stark low-midrange washes and enigmatically lively exchanges held the crowd’s focus before the headliners hit the stage.
Opening with a low, ominously swirling vortex of sound – one of several recurrent tropes this evening – Lynne and company launched into the stark, misterioso intro to Tightrope, the uneasily dynamic, Dvorak-influenced first cut on the group’s platinum-selling 1976 New World Record. The only remaining member from the band’s several chart-topping 70s lineups is keyboardist Richard Tandy; the rest of Lynne’s merry band is on the young side, and they were stoked to the nines to be able to share the stage with one of the greatest rock tunesmiths of alltime.
They didn’t play Do Ya – the cult favorite by Lynne’s previous band the Move that ELO reprised much more ornately for an American audience – but they also didn’t segue into it like they used to do back in the day, when they’d cut off the galumphing, phantasmagorical outro to 10538 Overture, the alienation anthem that opens the band’s 1972 debut album. This time out they played that all the way through. Other than that and Tightrope, the night’s only other deep cut – an epically pulsing take of Secret Messages, title track to the band’s 1983 album – also rose out of a stygian reflecting pool.
The crowd saved their most heartfelt ovation for a particularly gorgeous, majestic take of the 1974 ballad Can’t Get It Out of My Head, lit up with terse Tandy keyboard flourishes that held very closely to the kind of fun the band would have with it onstage forty years ago. Otherwise, the band’s two additional keyboardists, as many as four guitarists at once and a couple of backup singers over a hard-hitting but swinging rock rhythm section brought new energy to Lynne’s already hefty studio arrangements.
The one new song in the set, from the late 2015 release Alone in the Universe, was the Lennonesque, autobiographical piano ballad When I Was a Boy. Otherwise, this was a clapalong show. The band followed an inspired version of the bluesy, minor-key 1976 kiss-off hit Evil Woman with a similarly terse performance of their 1973 British hit, Showdown. Their late-70s disco era was represented by the bouncy Shine a Little Love and All Over the World as well as a hypnotically spiraling run through Turn to Stone, from the 1977 double album Out of the Blue.
The rest of the set drew on fun, imaginatively orchestrated arrangements of radio hits including Livin’ Thing, with its spiraling violin solo; a boisterously strummed Sweet Talking Woman; and the stately, angst-drenched ballad Telephone Line, shimmering with surreallistic, melancholy keyboard textures. They closed with the crescendoing pastorale Wild West Hero and then a full-length version of Mr. Blue Sky – a nod to a well-known jazz standard – and encored with an expansive cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a popular FM radio staple from 1972. Throughout the set, Lynne sang strongly, from the bottom of his formidable baritone, to the falsetto he used with such frequency in the late 70s. It would have been a treat to hear Eldorado, or Kuiama, or similar early material voicing his visionary; dystopic worldview. Guess we’ll have to wait til next tour for that.
The Attacca Quartet’s’ next New York performance is on October 21 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 3 W 65th St. where they’ll be performing works by Beethoven and Caroline Shaw. General admission is $20.
Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra
What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.
Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.
On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.
Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.
As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission
“There are more piano competitions than there are pianists,” a snarky singer in the crowd observed at last night’s performance at Steinway Hall by five finalists in this year’s American Pianists Awards. But this contest champions artists worth following: Aaron Diehl is probably the most prominent of recent winners. Was there a champion among Steven Lin, Sam Hong, Drew Petersen, Henry Kramer and Alex Beyer?
Considering how vastly different each’s choice of repertoire was, any kind of verdict would be subjective to the extreme. In terms of fluid, nuanced and often strenuous command of the kind of keyboard acrobatics required for the showstopping dramatics of La Legierezza from Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, Petersen was flawless. For that matter, so was Kramer, whose bravely quirky choice of a relatively less demanding trio of Ligeti miniatures from the Musica Ricercara was a platform for a triumph over cruelly brain-warping lefthand-versus-righthand polyrhythms and cramp-inducing circular motives.
The way Lin artfully let the few lingering phrases of Bach’s Echo from the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 – a harpsichord piece – resonate to a minute but vivid degree was particularly striking, and intuitive. Hong’s confident, vigorous virtuosity shone through two Schumann Fantasiestucke selections. And perhaps partly because of his choice of his material – here is where things get very subjective – Beyer channeled soul, and gravitas, and historically-informed programmatic savvy in addition to formidable technique through Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The pianist made it easy for a listener to take it in with eyes closed, to imagine a young Rachmaninoff having every bit as much fun as he was, finding counterpoint and fugal roots in a piece that drew both a straight line back to Bach as well as the ironic dichotomies that would take root in the Russian composer’s own music.
May the best man win when, after a rigorous program of solo, chamber and symphonic performances, a new champion is chosen in the spring of 2017 in Indianapolis.
One of the most richly fascinating and historically important releases of recent months is the Gowanus Arts Ensemble‘s new album American Romantics: Premiere Recordings of Turn of the Century Works for String Orchestra. Reuben Blundell, who has enjoyed a productive association with the Chelsea Symphony, one of New York’s most enterprising, consistently entertaining orchestras, conducts this similarly enterprising group of Brooklyn string players, with meticulous attention to detail. On one hand, this album – streaming at Spotify – has immense value for rescuing these works, all by American composers, from obscurity. It’s every bit as enjoyable as a collection of lush, low-key, often moody Romantic nocturnes.
Eighteenth century Danish immigrant Karl Busch’s Omaha Indian Love Song, from his Four North American Legends suite, opens the album on a soberly waltzing, rather plaintive note. As stark as the music is, its colors are especially vivid, the low strings evoking a horn section. Later on, the ensemble makes precise work of his fascinatingly Asian-tinged Chippewa Lullaby, and finally his achingly understated Elegie. Fans of the Barber Adagio will especially enjoy discovering that one.
Julian Schwarz’ elegant cello takes centerstage along with some playful pizzicato high strings in German-born Paul Friedrich Theodor Miersch’s Pleasant Memories, which is far more dynamic than its blithe title would suggest. Best remembered in the organ demimonde, early 20th century composer Ludwig Bonvin is represented by his gently balmy Christmas Night’s Dream. A lullaby by German-born Karl Hillman, who enjoyed an unusually versatile career as a Chicago Symphony Orchestra multi-string player, takes a striking detour toward the somber before returning with a delicate triumph. Horatio Parker, another composer best known for his works for organ, is remembered with a lively rendition of his uneasily waltzing, Italian baroque-tinged Scherzo for Strings.
The ensemble takes graceful flight on the wings of prolific New Orleans creole composer Eugène Dédé’s picturesque waltz Abeilles et Bourdons (Bees and Bumblebees). Yet another esteemed American organist and composer, Arthur Foote, is immortalized here with his lush, enigmatic, canonic Air & Gavotte for Strings
Boston composer Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Serenade, yet another waltz, contrasts poignancy alongside the most lighthearted piece here, a scherzo by Milwaukee-born Henry Schoenefeld. What a fantastic album, with seamless and lustrous playing from violinists Hiroko Taguchi, Orlando Wells,Yuiko Kamakari, Elizabeth Nielsen and Sarah Zun; violists Entela Barci and Carla Fabiani; cellists Julian Schwarz and Alisa Horn; and bassist Rick Ostrovsky. It makes a valuable companion piece to organist Gail Archer‘s An American Idyll, a similarly historic collection of works by American composers working the “organ highway” from New York to Washington in the past century.
And the Chelsea Symphony – under the direction of Blundell and Matthew Aubin – play two concerts this weekend at their home base at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The centerpiece of both programs, Friday, Sept 9 at 8:30 PM and then the following night, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM is Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Friday’s bill is especially enticing, with Zhou Long’s orchestral arrangements of Chinese folk songs plus the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with soloist Rachel Seiden. Saturday night’s program switches out the Strauss for the Elgar Cello Concerto; suggested donation is $20.
Every string quartet worth their salt eventually get around to the Bartok cycle,Chiara String Quartet cellist Gregory Beaver hastened to remind the sold-out crowd at National Sawdust this past evening. “Because we’re crazy,” he added sheepishly. This extremely ambitious, relatively young (mid/late 20s) ensemble’s take on Bartok’s string quartets stands apart from what the rest of their colleagues are doing in that they’ve been playing all six of these iconic works from memory. A fluke of rehearsal became a lightning bolt of inspiration. – the group discovered by accident that the most difficult passages, which they’d had to shed until they had them in their fingers, enabled more chemistry than the parts they were reading off the page. And much as the quartet’s new album, Bartok By Heart, bristles with all sorts of electric moments, watching this group play Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 was even more transcendent.
There’s an argument that every civilized home should have at least a few recordings of the late Beethoven string quartets. For the sake of argument, here’s another: everyone, civilized or not, ought to experience the entire Bartok cycle in concert at least once.
Why? This music is as relevant – never mind cutting-edge – now as it was a hundred years ago, or more (the relatively rarely played String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1909). This evening’s themes included but were hardly limited to heartbreak, war, exile, loss and bereavement. And to illustrate just to clever Bartok’s harmonizations of folk tunes from his native Hungary, to Turkey, to North Africa were, Beaver introduced the program with a snippet of one of the ancient Magyar folk songs that the composer collected early in his career as a proto-Alan Lomax. Later, offering some insight into the night’s final piece, String Quartet No. 5, violist Jonah Sirota entreated the crowd to pay close attention to the piece’s concluding movement and the “delicious” series of chords that he clearly couldn’t wait to sink his fingers into.
The uneasy, verging-on-microtonal harmonies unravel so kaleidoscopically that there’s no end how fascinating this material is. Bartok wasn’t a string player, but he knew these instruments inside out and was generous to the extreme with virtuoso moments for everyone. Second violin seldom gets to have as much white-knuckle, intense fun as Hyeyung Julie Yoon had with the slithery slides in the rather vindictively matter-of-fact second movement of String Quartet No. 1. Out of the many, many challenges first violinist Rebecca Fischer had to pull off, possibly the most striking was how deftly she bounced her bow off the strings to provide stark high harmonics during the third movement of No. 5, the warped ghost dance where the whole group was forced to the limits of their extended technique.
Other riveting moments took shape less sharply and immediately but no less forcefully. The subtext of the first quartet seemed in this context less of a lovelorn lament and more of a cynical, I-told-you-so kissoff. The third, its horrified staccato growing as troops amassed along the border, was dynamically a world apart from heavy metal but no less ghoulish. And the dirge that ties up Quartet No. 5 came across as a cavatina that was arguably the most conversational passage of the entire evening. The crowd responded with three standing ovations before jazz started wafting through the room ,softly, as it had before the show. They’re playing the even-numbered quartets in the six-quartet cycle back at National Sawdust tomorrow night; advance tickets are gone, but $30 day-of-show cover is still a bargain for how this group delivers the material.
There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.
As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.
How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.
Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all
August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here
Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.
That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..
The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.
Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.
If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.
The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.
Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.
Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.
Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.
Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.
Let’s say you’re the world’s most famous classical pianist, or one of them, anyway. And you’re a real rock star. You’re riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, after having rescued your career with one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written, namely the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.
And you need an encore. Instead of coming up with another completely original work, you throw caution to the wind. Without a moment’s hesitation, you use a similarly haunting theme by Chopin – one of the world’s best-loved and most morose melodies – as a stepping-off point for an ambitious, dynamically gripping suite. That’s what Sergei Rachmaninoff did in 1903 with his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. Trouble was, it bombed.
Although considered by many to be the greatest pianist in the history of recorded music, Rachmaninoff’s surviving recordings – dating from the early 1900s through 1943 – do not include many of his compositions. Sadly, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin are one of them. Which is why pianist Marianna Prjevalskaya’s new album of that suite, along with the vastly better known Variations on a Theme of Corelli, is so vital, and such a revelation. Thousands of artists have released versions of the latter, and we know how the composer played them – far more quietly, and broodingly, than most have since. And you can hear them on Spotify, along with Prjevalskaya’s album.
But other than a handful of recordings by famous pianists – Vladimir Ashkenazy probably foremost among them – we don’t have anything of the Variations on a Theme of Chopin. It’s one of the real rarities in the composer’s canon. The critics didn’t like it, and audiences responded indifferently, which explains why the thin-skinned, angst-ridden Rachmaninoff quickly abandoned it and never picked it up again. Which is too bad. In its own idiosyncratic way, it’s every bit as gripping as the Corelli variations. Why isn’t it better known? You’ll be asking yourself that over and over again after you hear how Prjevalskaya approaches these 22 variations on the iconic Chopin C Minor Prelude. Where other pianists play it either raptly, or go to the other extreme and make heavy metal out of it – and is it ever heavy! – Prjevalskaya plays the prelude sparely, and spaciously, and lingeringly.
And then completely flips the script and plays the first variation with a liquid, Bach-like legato. The contrast is stunning, and may have something to do with why the suite went over like a lead balloon. Clearly, fans of the music weren’t ready to hear that iconic, funereal piece sliced and diced and spun through a prism as Rachmaninoff did with it – and as Prjevalskaya does here.
She finally picks up with the stern, emphatic (some would say interminable) gravitas associated with the composer, and then follows the logical trajectory as it spirals up and out. Both far more ornate and colorful than the original, it’s sort of proto art-rock from 1903.
Contrast the composer’s own version of the Corelli Variations with Prjevalskaya’s and then ask yourself how Corelli would respond. One suspects he’d be more at home with Prjevalskaya’s dancing, lilting Italianate performance than Rachmaninoff’s Slavic gloom. In so doing, she skirts both the temptation to go grand guignol on them, or fall into the trap of lefthand-versus-righthand that becomes almost a shtick if you want to ramp up the underlying menace. While it’s certainly worth a listen on Spotify, as is the case with so many classical recordings, some of the segments are flittingly brief, and ads pop up at the most inopportune times. One suspects that an awful lot of fans of dark, troubled music will be adding this to their cd collection so as to experience its dips and swells and tormented flurries as an integral whole.