Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CTI Records Reissues Include Gems by Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson and Ron Carter

Lately Sony Jazz has been emptying out the CTI vaults they inherited: it’s amazing how much good jazz is in there, and how well it’s aged. Conventional wisdom is that Creed Taylor’s California label was primarily a source for fusion, and there’s some truth to that, but not completely. Three delicious new reissues attest to that. First and foremost is Paul Desmond’s exquisite Pure Desmond: it’s such a good album that it would be a contender for the year’s top ten pretty much anytime in the last couple of decades. Desmond was rarely comfortable in the role of bandleader for many reasons, but he seems so on this 1974 gem, and even though it’s a mix of standards by Duke, Jerome Kern, Django and Cole Porter, the group here reinvents them. Desmond never overpowered anybody with his martini tone, and here he gets the chance to let it breathe over some of the smartest jazz rhythm guitar ever recorded, courtesy of the vastly underrated Ed Bickert. Meanwhile, Connie Kay plays an almost invisible beat with brushes, Ron Carter alongside on bass. Lyrical and unselfconsciously poignant, it’s truly Pure Desmond, very close, both tune and vibe-wise to his 1954 quintet session featuring another brilliant guitarist, Barney Kessel.

Another welcome rediscovery is vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s lush, psychedelic 1972 Sunflower album with Herbie Hancock on piano, Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Jay Berliner on acoustic guitar plus a string orchestra. It’s got the flamenco noir sweep of Jackson’s For Someone I Love, a vividly cosmopolitan version of Michel Legrand’s What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life, an understatedly funky, cinematic take of the Stylistics’ People Make the World Go Round plus the absolutely hypnotic title track, a Freddie Hubbard composition, its dreamlike pulse augmented by the strings. Gorgeously otherworldly, it deserves to be better known than it is.

Last but not least, Ron Carter’s All Blues – taking its title from a judicious, practically ten minute version of the Miles classic – is a refreshingly terse session featuring Joe Henderson on tenor, Sir Roland Hanna on piano and Billy Cobham swinging like crazy behind the kit. It sounds little like the kind of stuff Cobham would be playing later in the decade, and much the same applies to Carter: it’s all judicious funk and melody, no rat-on-a-treadmill walking scales. This title in particular stands out for how intelligently it’s been remastered (although that could be said of all of them): the bass, already amplified courtesy of a Fender amp, gets a welcome boost, although the drums remain comfortably back in the mix just as they were on the original vinyl. Highlights include the beautifully modal piano/bass ballad Light Blue, the gentle funk theme 117 Special – a classic showcase for understated Henderson soulfulness – and the playfully tricky Rufus, a shout-out to Rufus Reid.

Also available in the reissue series is George Benson’s White Rabbit – and for fans of long-forgotten synthesizer film scores from the 1970s, Eumir Deodato’s Prelude. All links here are to itunes, although cds are available as well.

Advertisements

February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series: Fearless Otherworldly Beauty

Just as the most exciting things in rock music are happening in the small clubs rather than in stadiums, the most exciting classical and chamber music these days typically happens off the beaten path. On and off, over the past several months, we’ve been peering into some of these dark but fertile corners: pianist Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall in Murray Hill may the most exciting of them all. Wednesday night she and her cohorts – cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and violinist Erno Kallai – tackled a program that was as diverse as it was individualistic, and frequently exhilarating. “Thank you for not watching American Idol,” Joan laughed.

First up was Brahms’ Trio in A Minor (Op. 114). Dating from 1891, it’s one of his final works. With its characteristic melodic beauty and alternating wary/warm passages, it follows a straight line back to Beethoven. There’s also some Brahms thinking outside the box, the gypsy passage at the beginning of the concluding allegro section being the most notable. This may be overly reductionistic to say, but essentially it’s a piece with assigned roles: the clarinet pensive, the cello mournful and the piano providing the energy and lighter contrasts. Joan, Thorsteinsdottir and Dukovski took those roles and gave them flair and personality.

For anyone who might have found that piece too predictable in its unselfconscious, pensive beauty, Bartok’s Contrasts, from 1938, was a feral, snidely joyous, jazzy treat. As Joan and Dukovski explained beforehand (they do that a lot, with a genuine passion for the music, which helps more than any pedantic program notes ever could), it was commissioned by Benny Goodman as a way to get Bartok an American visa just as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was looming. The concept was to get the composer to deliver something sufficiently short to release as a 78 RPM single: for whatever reason, Bartok didn’t exactly comply. What he did was shoot a savagely gleeful spitball right in Der Fuehrer’s face. Joan has a vividly acute emotional intelligence, and she went on the assault from the beginning behind Kallai’s slashing incisions while Dukovski got to demonstrate the “mellow tone” mentioned in his bio (he’s actually an electrifying player, as he would remind a bit later on). Warped Romanticism made way for lurid ragtime, a feast of creepy atmospherics and a conclusion delivered with the glee of an escapee from certain death. Kallai put down his Strad and picked up the house Guarneri for that one since the violin part is out of tune: the vicious humor in his tritone-packed solo was viscerally delicious.

The quartet then took on the formidable challenge of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Written in a Nazi prison camp for piano, clarinet, violin and cello because those were the instruments that the musicians captured with Messiaen happened to play, it was premiered there on the same day that the clarinetist made a failed escape attempt yet sufficiently charmed his captors with his playing, Dukovski related, so that he escaped what would otherwise have been a summary execution. To say that it is harrowing is an extreme understatement. As with so much of Messiaen, its movements correspond to Catholic liturgy: beforehand, Joan encouraged the audience to experience it for its universality. Which makes perfect sense: Messiaen may well have written it primarily as an illustration of the coming of a heavenly eternity, but its subtext screams out defiantly, an anthem for escape from and victory over the Nazis.

Which is where interpretations of Messiaen differ: where some hear otherworldliness and mysticism, others hear the macabre. Clearly, Messiaen found the prospect of heavenly rest nearly as daunting as being murdered by the Nazis, and horror is everywhere in this piece, from the ominous early-morning exchange of birdcalls that open it, to the stunned, jagged, wounded cadenzas that punctuate the tense stillness, to the seemingly endless, almost horizontal clarinet solo that may be its most riveting point. Dukovski pulled that off without a hitch: with its endless sostenuto wash, it requires an almost interminable sequence of circular breathing, and is extraordinarily difficult to play as a seamless whole, but that’s exactly what Dukovski turned it into. Like her collaborators, Thorsteinsdottir is a fearless player who will rise to any intensity required, and she dug in with a mighty vibrato. A final cry for rescue was followed by still, judicious piano that signaled an eventual if hardly unscathed victory over the demons. The audience didn’t know what hit them: the musicians clearly felt the music as overwhelming, intense and cathartic as the crowd did. Alexandra Joan’s next Kaleidoscope Series concert at WMP Concert Hall (31 E 28th St. between Madison and Park Avenues) is on April 27, a characteristically intriguing program featuring piano works by Enesco, Ravel and Mohammed Fairouz.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Microscopic Septet Play Monk to a Tie

It makes sense that the Microscopic Septet would do a Thelonious Monk cover album. Their new album Friday the 13th is a mix of unselfconsciously joyous, sometimes devious new arrangements of tuneful toe-tapping gutbucket jazz. Monk can be weird and offputting sometimes – not that those traits are necessarily a bad thing in music – but he can also be great fun, and this is mostly the fun Monk. In their thirty-year career, the Micros have lived off their reputation as one of the alltime great witty jazz bands, to the point of being something of the Spinal Tap of the genre. They’ve never met a style they couldn’t lovingly satirize, but this isn’t satire: it’s part homage, part using the compositions as a stepping-off point for their trademark “did you hear that?” moments.

Monk is also very specific: there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. So covering such an individual artist is a potential minefield: when the originals are perfectly good as they are, the obvious question arises, why bother? Unless of course you do them completely differently, and then run the risk of losing the very quality that made them appealing to begin with. How sanitized is this? How slick and how digital is this album, compared to the originals? The good news is that it’s not particularly slick, the production is bright but not obtrusive and and the arrangements are as unpredictably entertaining as you would expect from this crew – which is a lot. Co-founder and pianist Joel Forrester knew Monk personally, and it’s obvious that they’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways. For Forrester in particular, this is a tough gig – although he’s played Monk for decades, comparisons will inevitably spring up, and it’s safe to say that he gets it, letting the new charts speak for themselves. Was it alto sax player Charlie Rouse who said that “Monk keeps it simple and proper”? Forrester does exactly that. The songs here are a mix of iconic standards along with a couple of unexpected treats: an off-kilter, martial version of the extremely obscure Gallop’s Gallop that comes thisclose to galloping off the cliff, and a fluid, relaxed take of the vacation tableau Worry Later, one of several numbers to feature a stripped-down arrangement, in this case mostly for rhythm section and sax. In that sense, they adhere closely to Monk’s tendency to pare down segments of the songs, especially for solos, even when he was working in a setting larger than a quartet.

The opening track, Brilliant Corners establishes another very effective arrangement strategy here, portioning out pieces of the melody to individual voices, one by one. The title track gets a slightly more straight-up swing treatment than the original, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston contributing spot-on, blithely wary atmospherics. By contrast, Teo gets a bizarrely effective trio arrangement – most of it, anyway – with boomy surf drums and scurrying Don Davis alto sax. Pannonica maintains the lyrical feel of the original while adding a long, deliciously swirling, lush outro; Evidence substitutes dual and trio sax riffage in place of the suspiciously blithe latinisms of Monk’s version.

We See is redone as a funky shuffle with big grinning solos by Davis and bassist Dave Hofstra; likewise, Bye-Ya also funks up the original without losing any of its catchiness. The single most gripping arrangement here, Off Minor, finds its inner noir core and dives deeply into it with a spine-tingling series of handoffs as the saxes go up the register in turn, one by one. Likewise, Mysterioso goes cinematic with big sax swells, syncopated duo voicings and a creepy march out. The album winds up with a neat version that makes short work of Epistrophy: originally a boogie blues, they turn it into a little diptych, moving from echoes of Coltrane to a smooth swing with more of the tasty soprano/baritone tradeoffs that occur throughout this almost infinitely surprising album.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 2/8/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #721:

The Greenwich Village Orchestra – Greatest Hits 2006-2008

Fifty years ago, orchestras in smaller cities all over the world consistently put out first-class recordings. Some of them still do. For almost fifteen years the Greenwich Village Orchestra, as you would imagine for an ensemble from a New York neighborhood that until the last decade was a hotbed of good music, has played with a flair and virtuosty on par with any other orchestra passing through town. Here conductor Barbara Yahr leads the group through a spirited version of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, a vigorous Firebird Suite that arguably outdoes the composer’s own version (see #878, Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky), and a dynamically rich, anguished take of Shostakovich’s Stalin-era, brutally narrative Tenth Symphony that may be unsurpassed by any other. After that, there’s the Elgar Cello Concerto and a Rossini overture for the opera crowd. This one hasn’t made it to rapidshare or megaupload as far as we can tell, but it’s still available at the orchestra’s site. Also recommended – the 2002-03 “greatest hits” album including works by Brahms, Handel, Grieg, the allegro non troppo from Franck’s D Minor Symphony and selections from Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment