Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

DVD Review: Phil Kline – Around the World in a Daze

One of this era’s most fearlessly relevant composers, Phil Kline’s oeuvre ranges from the iconic moving “boombox symphony” Unsilent Night (a response to Bush I’s gulf war) to the Zippo Songs suite inspired by the words and phrases American GI’s in Vietnam inscribed on their lighters. Sonically, Kline’s work tends to be gamelanesque, upper-register textures meticulously manipulated and processed into a rippling, reverberating pool of sound. This new two-DVD set – recorded in surround sound and best experienced on a good-quality home system or, ideally, in a club with encircling banks of speakers – is more diverse, a mix of compositions which run the gamut from challenging to confrontational to playfully fun. In addition to the first DVD with its individual videos, the second includes a considerably informative interview conducted by WNYC’s longtime New Sounds host John Schaefer as well as a bonus video, Meditation (Run As Fast As You Can), a lighthearted, characteristically pointillistic soundscape illustrating a brisk early Sunday morning jaunt from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to the epicenter of New York’s financial district and then back again.

Here, Kline alternates between his usual collection of boomboxes, keyboards, loops and strings to comment acerbically on a range of issues both abstract and concrete, from confronting disaster to the death of New York via gentrification. The first track here, The Housatonic at Henry Street served as impetus for the entire project. Like his main influence Charles Ives, Kline  places himself in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists, the stream here cast in the role of river of life for a whole movement. The piece is a swirl of bell-like overtones (boomboxes slightly out of phase with each other) plus ambient street noise – happily, Kline must have edited out the car alarms and the shriek of the buses moving along Monroe Street a block away!

Svarga Yatra – Sanskrit for Stairway to Heaven – has pioneering string quartet Ethel playing live against themselves on a boombox. It’s a pretty, circular processional with an edge of disquiet enhanced by all the overtones. A madrigal manipulated, The Maryland Sample begins with ambient samples and grows eerie with a chorus of what sounds like a hall full of harpshichords. The DVD’s centerpiece, Pennies from Heaven follows a downward trajectory rather than Kline’s typical crescendo. It’s a sarcastic commentary on the trickle-down theory of economics, illustrating the effect it has on the people at the receiving end. With overlays of carrilonesque melody and variations on a tinkly descending progression, it grows more echoey and chaotic – something that began completely innocuous has gone horribly wrong.

Of the other tracks, Grand Etude for the Elevation (earlier playfully titled the Grand Etude Symphonique) layers  Todd Reynolds’ violin with trebly keyboards and insistent percussion, echoes of the Kronos Quartet’s recent work. Melodically, it’s the strongest composition here with haunting, Balkan-inflected tinges in places. The elegaic Prelude mixes an old recording of a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, reprocessed with a field recording of foot traffic in the Zurich train station. The concluding cut on the first DVD, The Housatonic at Dzanga overlays samples from an oasis in the Central African Republic where hundreds of elephants and grey parrots congregate, resembling a tower of Babel far more than any sort of bucolic Discovery Channel soundtrack. There are also a couple of sillier works here including one “Dude, look what the DVD player just did with my cd!” number that actually succeeds in being a snide swipe at Wagner. New music fans will salivate over this; for more casual listeners, the hypnotic aspect of much of the material here creates a comfortably ambient late-evening soundtrack.

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July 1, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Jeff “Tain” Watts 4 + 1 at the Jazz Standard, NYC 6/30/09

Longtime Marsalis brothers associate Jeff “Tain” Watts’ stand with his 4+1 group featuring Nicholas Payton on trumpet continues through this coming July 3 at the Jazz Standard. The fabled drummer – some would say the heir to Elvin Jones’ throne – is playing bandleader this time around, which other than the compositions doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Watts pretty much runs the show whether it’s his group or not, and this was a characteristically intense night: what took it to the next level is that he got to do his own stuff, which is uniformly excellent. As fiery a composer as he is a player, he’s never shied away from controversy or apt social commentary. The high point of this set was The Devil’s Ringtone, Watts’ update on the Mingus classic Fables of Faubus (named after notorious segregationist Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus) transformed into a commentary on the Bush regime’s failure with (or deliberate neglect of) what happened in New Orleans. The band left off the conversation between a certain Mr.  W and “Devlin” that’s on the landmark Watts cd but the sarcastic second line march that ended it was every bit as biting. On the way there, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Chris Smith built murky ambience over a crime movie motif for some blazing work from tenor saxist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Payton, flying over Watts’ booming crescendoing apprehension – cymbals to this guy are more or less the icing on the cake. It’s hard to think of another drummer (Rudy Royston, maybe) who gets the boom going as powerfully and propulsively as Watts.

The requiem theme was recurrent. Katrina James mourned both the loss of James Brown and New Orleans, beginning as eerie chromatic funk, Strickland bringing in the rage with an offhandedly vicious swipe at the end of a Payton solo, Fields’ persistently chordal attack against a Watts solo growing hypnotic against the impatient, anguished flail of the drums. The soulful, bluesy swing of A Wreath for John T. Smith – an especially poignant new number – gave Strickland and Fields the opportunity to contribute vividly bitter remorse in memory of a fellow Berklee student and drummer of Watts’ acquaintance who died young.

Watts is especially adept with latin beats, moving in and out of them, starting the first song of the set, Mr. JJ (a tribute to his dead canine friend) with a salsa feel that Fields eventually came around to. Mr. JJ must have been one crazy dog, considering how much everything had been chewed up by the time the group scampered off on the final chorus, Smith getting quite the workout climbing scales for the better part of ten frenetic minutes. The whole show only reinforced the relevance, fearless intensity and emotional depth of both Watts’ writing and his playing, and the new levels to which a first-class drummer can elevate a talented ensemble. You have several chances to see this crew through Friday, after which Watts is off to Europe again.

July 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment