Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Nine Questions for Maestro Barbara Yahr of the Greenwich Village Orchestra

The Greenwich Village Orchestra, as their name implies, draws on some of the finest classical talent from a neighborhood that’s been synonymous with artsy downtown New York for decades. They play a diverse and characteristically thematic program this Sunday, November 20 at 3 PM: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture; Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, 16th and Irving Place. There’s a reception to follow: all this for a suggested donation of $15. The orchestra’s dynamic musical director, Barbara Yahr, took some time to answer a few lingering questions about this elite ensemble:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The GVO seems to be one of New York’s hidden treasures. You get major grants, you’ve played innumerable world premieres and New York premieres by important current-day composers. You are held in high esteem especially by musicians – it seems that practically everyone at your concerts is one! I’ve been going to your concerts for over a decade at the auditorium at 16th and Irving Place.

Barbara Yahr: I’m so glad to hear that!

LCC: Has this become a comfortable home for you?

BY: This is a wonderful home for us…with fantastic acoustics!

LCC: Does this have anything to do with the fact that audiences can literally get on top of the orchestra and experience the rush you get from being so close to the beast? I remember being a kid at Carnegie Hall and sneaking down from the peanut gallery to the orchestra during intermission. Here, it doesn’t cost $100 to get a good seat for the entire show….

BY: Low ticket price is only one of the great things about the GVO experience – but it does make a difference. We love the fact that the audience is so close – at family concerts, we like to bring kids up on stage! The next one is December 11 at 3 PM.

LCC: You remember the uproar when Alan Gilbert increased the number of rehearsals per concert for the New York Phil? How many rehearsals does the GVO typically have per performance?

BY: We usually have six – not that many when you realize that most fulltime, professional orchestras only have four and occasionally five.

LCC: In what way if any does your orchestra’s somewhat less hectic workload impact the quality of your performances, by comparison to, say, the Philharmonic or the New York City Opera?

BY: We get to live with the music for several weeks, which is a delightful luxury. We can get into the inner workings of a piece of music, really take it apart and put it back together.

LCC: You like themes. I’m assuming that you’re the one responsible for coming up with with the November 20 program, right? And would you say that this particular one is more thematic musically, or narrative-wise?

BY: This program is only thematic in extra-musical terms. All of the pieces make use of imagery. This way of writing music, as opposed to an abstract symphony with no clear extra-musical idea, does affect the composers, but these are three – four if you count Ravel, who orchestrated the Mussorgsky – very different composers.

LCC: There’s obviously a lot of camaraderie in this ensemble. To what degree if any is this a democratic institution, for example, if an inspired member of the winds says, “We ought to do this a certain way,” for example. How do you as conductor handle that?

BY: I love it when a player has an opinion – and if I like it, or find it interesting or exciting, of course we go with it! If it’s something I don’t feel works musically, then we have a discussion. An orchestra cannot be a pure democracy but it’s not a dictatorship. It requires leadership, but in the end, the best performances are collaborative.

LCC: Dynamic contrasts and the desire to portray one thing or another via the music seem to be especially important to this orchestra. Among these pieces, are there parts that you’ve singled out specifically for the orchestra to focus on? For example, in the Mussorgsky, how creepy are you going to make The Gnome? Or are you going to see how quiet and mysterious you can get with The Catacombs?

BY: I think the Gnome is pretty darn creepy, and yes, this piece is full of contrasts…but the heart of the work is found in understanding the backstory, the friendship between Mussorgsky and the painter of the Pictures, Victor Hartmann. For me, we are there, with the composer, at the exhibition of his friends’ works, walking from picture to picture. At the end, after he has visits the Catacombs, he confronts and accepts the death of his friend and is perhaps celebrating his friend with the finale, the Great Gate. This is a personal interpretation but it is, for me, a meaningful narrative for the piece, and helps us to understand the work as more than just a series of attractive pieces depicting a set of paintings.

LCC: Are you recording this? Any plans to release any of this material in the future?

BY: We always record our concerts— stay tuned!

November 16, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Explores Love and War

Iraq-born trumpeter Amir ElSaffar has been making extraordinary music for several years, most notably with his sister Dena in eclectic pan-levantine band Salaam,and more recently with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh . ElSaffar’s latest adventure in east/west cross-pollination, his Two Rivers Ensemble has a new album, Inana, recently out on the adventurous Pi label, that’s a lock for pretty much everybody’s best-of-2011 lists as far as both jazz and Middle Eastern music are concerned. This is ElSaffar’s deepest venture into jazz to date, reminding how well his microtonal quartertone style – which basically doesn’t exist in western music – is suited to American postbop as it is everywhere east of the Nile and many points in between. The album is a thematic suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and warfare. The melodies shift seamlessly between Arabic and western jazz modes, and as usual ElSaffar has a sensational band to play them: Shusmo’s Tareq Abboushi on buzuq; Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion; Ole Mathisen on alto sax; Carlo DeRosa on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. One comparison that springs to mind is Ansambl Mastika, reedman Greg Squared’s deliriously intense pan-Balkan band, which also works many of the same tonalities as this group, although they’re crazier and more improvisational.

The opening track, Dumuzi’s Dream is stunning and intense, ElSaffar’s bright but allusive trumpet contrasting with the suspenseful, rustic, dark levantine groove underneath. Rolling triplets give way to insistence, an otherworldly, spiraling qanun solo, and a biting, pensive oud solo over judicious bass that ElSaffar breaks out of with the Arabic equivalent of major on minor. It’s creepy, and it gives absolutely no idea of how wildly he’s about to take it outside. Meanwhile, Waits proves as comfortably at home moving from one odd (to western ears, anyway) tempo to another, often playing polyrythms against the bass or the rest of the percussion, injecting one counterintuitive, incisive riff after another when he can sneak one in.

That’s sort of a prelude. The suite really gets going with Venus the Evening Star, where the main themes get introduced: this one, a tricky dance with a distinctly Greek shuffle bounce, flutters along amiably until Zawil’s oud solo takes it in a much more ominous direction, DaRosa’s pulse signaling a long, captivating return to the party as ElSaffar casually works his way up to a triumphant note. A suite within a suite, Inna’s Dance coalesces slowly, then sets a catchy, simple trumpet/sax riff over a hypnotic bass vamp, Abboushi adding a thoughtfully energetic sitar-like solo. As it progresses, it takes on a funky edge (that’s Abboushi bringing a little James Brown to the party), Waits and DaRosa’s polyrhythms hypnotic under ElSaffar’s river of microtones.

The warm, stately Lady of Heaven kicks off the most straight-up jazz-oriented section here, simple, sustained trumpet/sax harmonies over clanking buzuq and Waits’ gentle flurries. Infinite Variety picks up the pace, Abboushi reminding that jazz chords are also suited to the buzuq, ElSaffar’s clever arrangement setting up a series of echo permutations against the central bass riff. The big fifteen-minute epic Journey to the Underworld should be Journey Through the Underworld instead: moving from lengthy improvisations for oud and vocals, it reaches unexpectedly upbeat terrain, driven by DeRosa’s insistent bass, then goes murky and rubato until ElSaffar finally signals that the end of the tunnel is in sight, yet almost having to pull the rest of the ensemble out by himself. Those are merely the highlights: it’s an absolutely fascinating, intricately orchestrated performance.

The suite’s concluding segment, Venus the Morning Star, answers the question of what side the goddess will end on: with a return of the simple, supple opening theme, it’s an optimistic, brightly evocative early morning tableau. The final track, Al-Badia, isn’t part of the suite, but it ends the album on the same richly intense note where began, an imaginative blend of oldschool funk and Mohammed Abdel Wahab cinematic hitworthiness, the instruments taking turns nailing the place where the choir would respond as the verse hits a turnaround. The fun the band is having is visceral: count this among the best albums to come over the transom here this year.

November 16, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I-Wayne: Philosopher King of the Reggae Ballad

Fans of roots reggae might have wondered what happened to I-Wayne, who burst on the scene back in 2005 with the hit Can’t Satisfy Her, from his album Lava Ground. He hasn’t been idle. At a revealing private performance for media late last month, he revealed that one way he gets inspiration for songs is to take a walk on Port Henderson Hill in his native Portmore, Jamaica, an area packed with history: the eras of Sir Francis Drake, the holocaust of the slave trade, the struggle for Jamaican independence and then of the Rastas have been interwoven over the centuries there. It’s fertile territory for deep thinking, which is what I-Wayne offers on his long-awaited new album Life Teachings. This guy is a serious artist – relevant without being preachy, romantic without being saccharine, he combines the confrontational, politically-charged fire of, say, an Anthony B with the easygoing spirituality and charm of Luciano. If those artists go back a few years, so does the vibe on the album: it’s real roots reggae, with a band, and real bass and drums, recorded in the same clean, efficient style as a Dr. Dread production from around the turn of the century. It’s out now on VP, the folks behind the Strictly the Best compilations for what seems about a century.

At the concert, a popular New York reggae dj marveled at how she thought that the first track, Burn Down Soddom (an original) meant that the album was going to be “all Rasta”- but then she was completely taken in by the ballads, “something nice and romantic, that a guy can sing to his girl,” she explained. No doubt she also liked I-Wayne’s soaring falsetto – he goes way, way up, further than Dennis Brown sometimes, into Al Green or Philip Bailey territory. As much as those songs, like Real and Clean – a plea to keep things down-to-earth – or Empress Divine, or Pure As the Nile work a catchy boudoir angle, the real gems here are the more in-your-face tracks.

It takes awhile for these to make an appearance here. Burn Down Soddom has to be the most laid-back incitation to arson ever recorded, with a woozy, lengthy dub passage. Herb Fi Legalize is the obligatory weed smoker’s anthem, a peaceful tribute to the healing herb that contrasts with The Fire Song, a no-nonsense, straightforward dancehall duet with Assasin to “get rid of dem thoroughly, burn burn dem no apology.” But Drugs and Rum Vibes is a surprisingly plaintive stoners-vs.-drunks narrative, cynically referencing the the CIA’s role in the illegal drug trade while alcohol-fueled violence kills thousands more.

Wise and Fearless is a message to the youth to understand how a cycle of violence can keep an evil, illegitimatepower structure in place. After all, di wicked aren’t about to Change Them Ways, as I-Wayne makes clear on the next track, an unselfconsciously gorgeous tune that contrasts with its grim lyrics. The title track is a casually amusing polemic in support of a vegan lifestyle (with plenty of ganja). The album ends on a surprisingly brooding but potent note with Do the Good, a seize-the-day meditation since there may be no tomorrow, and “plastic man dem fake like dem love ya…but dem blood ya.”

November 15, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Two Intriguing Albums by So Percussion

So Percussion has a couple of enjoyable, extremely diverse new albums out on Cantaloupe (the Bang on a Can peeps). Their first is a performance of Steve Mackey’s 2010 composition It Is Time, an entertaining, often absolutely hypnotic, somewhat minimalist but imaginatively orchestrated 36-minute suite which begins simply with a triplet rhythm commonly used in Malian desert blues. On one hand, this is a playful exercise in counting; on the other, the hypnotic quality of the music makes it tempting to simply leave the timing to the musicians and get lost in it. The concept is to feature each member of the group in turn: Eric Beach is first on metronome, pump organ, bells and china cymbal. From there it branches out cleverly with a series of steel drum interludes played by Josh Quillen, followed by Adam Sliwinski on marimba, both players using bowed and sustain techniques to achieve ambient textures typically not found in music for percussion sometimes atmospherically, sometimes adding a jarring, atonal and eventually microtonal edge laced with overtones. The final segment, played by Jason Treuting on drums, introduces an anthemic element: a rudimentary march, a descending riff on the steel pans which is the most distinctive melody here, gradually winding down to airy, sustained notes. Meant to alter the perception of time, it’s a subtly shifting journey from one rhythm to the next, sometimes utilizing polyrhythms.

The second, with reliably intense, incisive pianist Lisa Moore, is a recording of Martin Bresnick’s Caprichos Enfanticos: Los Desastres de la Guerra. An eight-movement suite meant to illustrate Goya’s satirical antiwar etchings, it follows a similarly caricaturish, sometimes cruelly mocking trajectory. A hypnotic marimba riff runs over and over to introduce it, followed by a twisted formal introduction, a “look who’s here” motif into a distantly flamenco-tinged piano-and-drums march, reaching for but never achieving resolution either melodically or rhythmically. Onward from there: a sarcastic tug-of-war between drums and piano (guess who wins); a bully and his sycophant; what might be a coldhearted bombing mission; an eerie, starlit, strolling piano/vibraphone duet and eventually a children’s dance under fire – or amidst a firefight. As evocative antiwar music, it doesn’t waste notes, literally or figuratively.

The It Is Time album comes with a DVD, which is of interest to anyone sufficiently intrigued in the mechanics of the music, and the considerable demands it makes on the musicians.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robin O’Brien’s The Empty Bowl: Full of Treasures

Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.

Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.

The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.

Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Threeds’ Oboes Make You Laugh and Give You Chills Too

The idea of a band with three oboes and not much of anything else is pretty awesome in itself. Add an irrepressible sense of humor, a penchant for rearranging familiar tunes in unfamiliar ways, and three players with chops as soulful as they are technically impressive, and you get the Threeds oboe trio. Their new album Unraveled is pure joy – except when it’s bittersweet, or sad, or even haunting, as it is much of the time. Much as Kathy Halvorson, Mark Snyder and Katie Scheele have a great time rearranging Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bjork and others, this is as about as far from a joke record as you can get. Can you say cutting-edge with a smirk?

On the opening track, Joga, they find Bjork’s plaintive inner baroque soul. Their cover of Billie Jean has Pavel Vinnitsky’s bass clarinet playing the bassline perfectly deadpan and mechanical, with the trio in perfect alignment. In the beginning, the arrangement really nails the cold, heartless precision of the original; as it goes on, it’s impossible to escape the context, and becomes just plain hilarious, especially when two of the oboes do those staccato backing vocal lines. Best yet, you can download it for free. While the version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition also has the bass clarinet playing the bassline, it swings, and so do the oboes – it’s blissfully funky. In a pretty stark contrast, Paranoid Android gives Radiohead’s crazy cyborg some real humanity – when it segues into a restless march, it’s one of the most unaffectedly intense moments on the album.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat begins as a duo, with Scott Anderson on acoustic guitar and Halvorson playing Mingus’ sad, bitter lead lines. It’s a potent reminder that Mingus wrote the song as an elegy for Lester Young, the bass clarinet’s sustained lines underscoring Halvorson’s understatedly wounded, blues-infused phrasing. Light My Fire has drums, percussion, and tambourine along with bass clarinet – it works as well as it does because Manzarek nicked a Chopin riff for it! The spiraling bop oboe at the point where the organ solo kicks in is pretty hilarious, and absolutely spot-on. The most intriguingly complex arrangement here is the series of lushly intricate, shifting segments in the suspenseful, nocturnal Spanish Stairs.

Dospatsko Horo is the Balkans done as baroque – it doesn’t quite turn the party into a wake but it’s definitely a radical reinvention. Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark also gets a radical reinvention, in this case as riff-driven 21st century circular music.The other tracks include the classic tango El Choclo done as a brooding yet sprightly baroque round; Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a bolero-flavored pop ballad; Little Feat’s Roll Um Easy, which surprisingly hits a mellow early 70s Allman Brothers vibe, soaring oboes enhancing the blue-sky ambience. The only track here that’s not worth uploading is not the band’s fault. This works on so many levels – as party music, as a monster ipod mix and as sophisticated 21st century stuff. Look for this one on our best-of-2011 list at the end of the year.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Classic Reinvented

This is the kind of group we like best – modestly titled but ambitious and very good at what they do. The Westchester Jazz Orchestra, who are in fact a conglomerate of A-list New York players, like to muscle up new arrangements of old classics, from Coltrane, to Dizzy, to Motown: their latest, a brand-new big band version of Herbie Hancock’s 1965 Maiden Voyage Suite, proves to be every bit worth the titanic effort it obviously took to create it. Hancock turned 70 this past year. No doubt he’d be proud not only to see how well his original has held up, but how inspiring it’s been to this large cast of characters, especially considering that they’ve added four relatively brief transitional passages – including a tantalizing, suspenseful conclusion to bring the suite full circle – which interpolate many of Hancock’s motifs. Ironically, the charts often take the tunes back in time to a late 50s milieu, especially when there’s a Cuban rhythm, a noirish, Mingus-esque crescendo or a bracingly cinematic Cal Tjader-esque moment. Conductor Mike Holober, along with Pete McGuinness, the group’s trumpeter Tony Kladeck and saxophonist Jay Brandford came up with the new charts. The rest of the ensemble includes David Brandom on soprano sax; Jason Rigby and Ralph Lalama on tenor sax; Ed Xiques on baritone sax; Jim Rotondi, Craig Johnson and Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorns; Larry Farrell, Keith O’Quinn and Bruce Eidem on trombone, George Flynn on bass trombone; Ted Rosenthal on piano; Harvie S. on bass, and Andy Watson on drums.

The prologue sets the stage, a somewhat murky ocean port scenario that segues up into the title track, understating its slinky pulse until Watson returns with a clave beat as it winds down. Before that, this eleven-minute monster gives Brandom the chance to flip the script from cheery to serioso, then Stamm foreshadows the intensity to an even greater degree. They segue again into Eye of the Hurricane, the heft of the charts powerfully enhancing its rhythmic insistence: Rigby follows Brandom’s tangent from the preceding track, Stamm swings it with the bass and Rosenthal gets to take it mysterious all by himself.

Little One stays closest to the original, with its series of wary alternating voices, a warm Farrell trombone solo over just the rhythm section and a beefed-up jazz waltz as the orchestra rises mightily. They follow it with a brief interlude that hints at the Caribbean. Survival of the Fittest, expanded into two parts here, gives Rotondi the chance to go completely out into the stratosphere with some lightning swirls and Rigby follows in the same vein on the second section, the big chase leading to the album’s most deliciously wailing crescendo. Dolphin Dance is the one that everybody covers, and both Lalama and Rotondi get to go deeply and thoughtfully into it, the trumpet shifting the mood rather dramatically from lush to wary – its final section, as the entire ensemble carries the melody, is richly satisfying. And the new Epilogue adds a neat suspenseful element to wind up an extremely original and successful reinterpretation. Spin this and you’re going to get a lot of “can you play that one again”‘ – and maybe a few “can we hear the original too”‘s.

November 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Phil Dwyer Orchestra Sweeps Through the Seasons

The cover of the Phil Dwyer Orchestra’s new album, Changing, depicts what looks like the storm from hell barreling down the highway, the one that Pierre de Gaillande warned about. Which on one hand is what you might expect from a bunch of Canadians. Just as Vivaldi did, composer/multi-instrumentalist Dwyer’s four-part suite follows a seasonal trajectory here, beginning with Spring and taking it all the way through to when that hellish storm would be most likely to hit. Is this classical music or jazz? It’s both, sometimes both at once, it’s absolutely gorgeous and it gets better as it goes along. When’s the last time you heard an entire almost 40-piece orchestra play a sweeping, majestic crescendo in 10/4 time?

Throughout the album, violinist Mark Fewer is the featured soloist: he’s a good choice, foreshadowing the main theme with a sly quote from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Fewer and pianist Chris Gestrin bring it in austerely and bracingly. From there the orchestra rises and falls, majestically and lushly, with big, ambitious Gil Evans-influenced charts, through a bucolic, Turtle Island Quartet-style dance, many artful exchanges of voices, hints of the blues as the brass rises and finally a bright, brisk Gestrin solo. As many ideas as there are here, they’re orchestrated, and articulated by the ensemble, with a seamless and joyous precision.

Summer is a nocturne, and a somewhat nostalgic one. Fewer channels contentment, but Dwyer’s tenor sax solo cleverly avoids anything resembling that, serving and dodging and doing anything to avoid resolution until he finally hits it head on and hands it off triumphantly to the clarinet. From there, the orchestra emphasizes its warm buoyancy as a jazz waltz.

The charts for Autumn are to die for, a model of restraint with distantly swirling and sweeping strings, lingering brass, counterintuitive Jon Wikan drum breaks and a trick ending. The bass introduces an insistent, bolero-tinged theme that Fewer uses as a launching pad not for bittersweetness but for incisive contemplation. This isn’t a requiem for a more blissful past – this is bliss, if a soberly aware one, seizing the day as it comes along. Likewise, Winter whispers in with tinkly piano and distant swirls of strings, and then gets funky, then goes swinging, Fewer introducing a characteristically thoughtful, pensively fluttery Ingrid Jensen trumpet solo. For Canadians, winter isn’t a death metaphor: this is when the fun really starts, and Dwyer winds up the suite with a vigorous ebullience as Fewer sails overhead, austerely but approvingly. There’s so much more here that would take pages to chronicle: from here, the joie de vivre is all yours. Count this is as one of 2011’s best and most emotionally rewarding albums in any style of music.

November 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gregory Spears’ Requiem: Beautiful Simplicity

It’s been a good year for requiems. The latest, by Gregory Spears, works permutations on a theme of the utmost simplicity, a series of spacious, allusively creepy intervals against a central note, creating a more surprisingly varied emotional palette than is usually found in somber works of this type. Yet overall, it is a serious, brooding, often considerably intense suite. The composer conducts a choir here which includes Ruth Cunningham and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek of Anonymous 4, Ryland Angel, John Olund and Lawrence Lipnik, accompanied by Jacqueline Kerrod on pedal harp, tenor Christopher Williams on troubadour harp, bass Kurt-Owen Richards on chimes, Daniel Thomas Davis on electric organ and Elizabeth Weinfield on viola. The themes are actually quite surreal and divided into two parts, Swans and Witches. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the music here was originally commissioned for a dance project: while the tempos are slow, with frequent counterrythms, there’s an understated grace to this music.

The opening prelude sets the tone for the rest of the work. Recorded at New York’s Corpus Christi Church in August of last year, the sonics are marvelously suited to the music: the natural reverb on the two harps gives them the incisive presence of a piano, but muted just enough to enhance the murky ambience. The voices enter in counterpoint, with an unexpectedly agitated, clustering, seemingly argumentative crescendo, the last thing one would expect to hear in a “Requiem Aeternam:” it’s jarring, to say the least, and it packs a wallop. The music begins to take on the feel of a baroque-era European folk song, followed by the contrasting modernism of the hypnotic Agnus Dei passage, a stately harp processional eventually giving way to the womens’ ethereal, otherworldly voices against a high viola drone.

That’s the dead swan. As with the bird, the dead witches get a simple, jewel-like broken chord for the choir to expand on, which then moves in the other direction, lower, then speeds up and takes on a distantly imploring tone: other than the big dispute earlier, this is as harrowing as it gets here. Like many works of this type, it ends on a more hopeful, more warmly consonant note (the final movement is available as a free download). It’s out now on New Amsterdam Records.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dead Cat Bounce’s Chance Episodes Work Out Better Than Just OK

With their four-saxophone frontline, Dead Cat Bounce create the kind of music that sends toy soldiers sinking fast into a mug of hot chocolate – ok, that’s the most surreal of the cd booklet images, but it’s a good one. Their latest album Chance Episodes dispels any demons you can imagine. Who knew that a commission from Chamber Music America could yield such amusing and entertaining results? With their eclecticism, relentlessly droll, usually spot-on sense of humor and counterintuitive charts, the obvious comparison is the Microscopic Septet. When composer/bandleader Matt Steckler is in a more straight-ahead mood, some of the material here evokes the World Saxophone Quartet. But their sound is completely original and often absolutely delightful. The group also includes Jared Sims, Terry Goss and Charlie Kohlhase on saxes and other reeds along with Dave Ambrosio on bass and Bill Carbone on drums. As a Cuneiform Records band, they’re playing their label’s two-week extravaganza at the Stone on Nov 25 at 10 PM.

As you would expect from a band this irreverent, the song titles match the music. Take the opening track, Food Blogger: this guy is a madman! Steckler’s arrangements are meticulous, and pretty hilarious, all helter-skelter scurrying and big sarcastic crescendos with Goss gone OCD, Kohlhase (one of the great wits in jazz) climbing wryly and knowingly with his baritone before Steckler scurries and tiptoes on soprano sax.

Tourvan Confessional goes in an even more wry direction, its funky/bluesy charts lit up by cheery Kohlhase accents. A bright, bustling rush-hour scenario, Far From the Matty Crowd highlights Ambrosio’s hard-hitting, tuneful bass, Carbone’s out-of-nowhere bursts and then a completely unanticipated descent into hallucinatory quietness where Carbone once again gets to play ham and makes the most of it.

Likewise, Salon Sound Journal shifts from funky to swinging and then to an austere, semi-fugal wind ensemble passage. Bio Dyno Man – a mellow superhero who sounds like a Kohlhase creation – has Steckler’s soprano defiantly resisting any kind of resolution, an unexpected whirlwind with the whole ensemble and then Ambrosio matter-of-factly bringing back the slink. A cinematic mini-suite, Silent Movie, Russia 1995 morps from staggered march, to bolero, then to clave, with a laid-back Sims tenor solo with a playful Dexter Gordon quote. Watkins Glen – a racetrack, so those alto accents might be car horns – gives Ambrosio, who’s the secret star of this thing, a chance to air out his classical side, Steckler’s flute rising in contrast.

A blithely swaying, latin-inflected number, Salvation and Doubt evokes the western hemisphere of Either/Orchestra with Gil Evans-inflected swells and some deviously unfocused alto from Goss. There’s also Township Jive Revisited, a lively mbaqanga-flavored tune that eventually brings in a genially pulsing New Orleans vibe; Madame Bonsilene, contrasting astringent atonalities with Kohlhase’s solid, strolling underpinning; and Living the Dream, a funk song with a long, intricately joyous crescendo to take the album out on a high note.

Another cool thing about this record: the cd back cover includes credits for solos. That’s not an ego thing – it makes a lot easier for a listener to figure out who’s playing what, and how.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment