Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ahmad Jamal Does It Again

In case you hadn’t heard already, Ahmad Jamal has a new album out on Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village imprint, titled Blue Moon. On one level, it raises the question of whether or not to expand on that: what else is there to be said about this guy that hasn’t been said already (“I get all my inspiration from him” – Miles Davis)? Perennially vital, lyrical, third-stream pianist with a prestigious place on Improvisation Avenue between Errol Garner and Cecil Taylor? If you’ve followed jazz anytime over the last half-century, all that’s old news. And there’s a good chance that most of the people who would conceivably want this album already have it. What makes this album different is that it’s essentially a latin jam session, a neat spin on a bunch of old tunes from the movies along with three Jamal originals.

A couple of the tracks here are one-chord jams in the sense that Indian ragas are one-chord jams: Jamal doesn’t need chord changes to animate them, awash in rippling neoromantic cascades, rhythmically devious staccato clusters, bright block chords, hitting the chorus head-on when least expected. The ten-minute title track sets the tone, Jamal’s darkly majestic interludes eventually trading on and off with Reginald Veal’s hypnotic bass riffage until they finally acknowledge that it’s the old doo-wop standard they’ve been messing with. Likewise, their version of Invitation coalesces slow and starlit into drummer Herlin Riley’s slinky clave groove, Jamal alternating big sustained ripples with staccato incisions and then taking it out as quietly and gracefully as he came in. And Gypsy unwinds slowly over a booming bass pedal note, Jamal leading the bass, drums and Manolo Badrena’s marvelously subtle, incisive percussion as he does throughout many of the tracks here, matter-of-factly introducing a bit of a fugue and then setting off some brief fireworks with the drums.

Jamal’s own I Remember Italy begins with a glittering, Asian tinge and comfortably settles into a lyrical, singing mode, pushing the boundaries of the melody further and further out until the steady rhythm section pulls everything together again: it’s a genuinely lovely ballad and the most trad thing on the album. A bolero, Autumn Rain sets Jamal’s apprehensively majestic splashes of color over a funk groove, then leaps away, spiraling over the wash of the cymbals. Their version of Laura pushes the beat with a tense rubato, bass again pacing through the raindrops scattered by Jamal’s leaps, bounds and a wonderfully syncopated, pointillistic upper-register interlude that circles around a simple fifth interval.

The aptly titled, bracingly modal Morning Mist has more Asian inflections, with a biting samba-tinged melody emerging from the torrents, submerging and resurfacing, hard-hitting rhythmic insistence switching on and off with Jamal’s polyrhythmic, rolling attack. The album winds up with the funky This Is the Life, Jamal coloring the attractive, remarkably accessible tune with pools of glittering, majestic sound, and then Woody n’You, a shuffling ballad disguised as tropicalia, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this album, and Jamal in general: straightforward melody with an irrepressibly bright improvisational flair. 81 years young and no less inspiring than he was sixty years ago.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps: In the Right Direction

There are several string quartets whose repertoire focuses on current composers (the Mivos Quartet, JACK Quartet and Chiara String Quartet, to name three especially good ones). There are others who play their own compositions, and even some who improvise, but it’s hard to think of another string quartet who manage to simultaneously carry the weight of being leaders in the world of new music, and have as much fun doing that, as Brooklyn Rider does. Pretty much every musician who makes it to major concert halls has virtuoso chops; what sets this ensemble apart is their irreproachable preference for material with substance and depth. And they are eclectic to the extreme, just as likely to dive into Armenian folk melodies or gypsy music as they are Philip Glass and Kayhan Kalhor (two composers for whom this group has become the go-to quartet). Their latest album Seven Steps is in many ways a distillation of their career, and yet a new starting point. Even if you may not agree with everything they’re doing, there’s no question that they’re shifting their paradigm.

The title track is a collective composition by violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen, with echoes of just about every place this group has been. Kicking off with a minor-key chromatic riff that bounces warily from the cello, there are allusions to Eastern Europe, Iran and hushed IRCAM-era ambience. The group matter-of-factly works its way through this eclectic mini-suite, from suspensefully slow tectonic shifts, to swirls of harmonics from the violins, to terse but lush melodicism, atonal atmospherics that rise to a hypnotically echoey Kalhor-esque crescendo and then a whispery conclusion. The second composition is Christopher Tignor’s Together Into This Unknowable Night. Simultaneously an anthem and a tone poem (which might sound paradoxical, but it’s not), it alludes to the hook from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, swooping energetically against the ambient wash of noise from the composer’s AM radio (utilized to add texture: it never becomes intrusive). Flickering, insistent Philip Glass-like motifs (and a direct quote, maybe?) lead to a long, organlike swell fueled by the majestic gleam of the cello in tandem with the viola; like the opening track, it whispers its way out. Played at low volume, it’s a gentle nocturne, but for the musicians, it’s an inescapable vortex, a fact which makes itself loud and clear if you turn it up. It’s a characteristically vital work in the growing catalog of this ensemble’s memorable commissions.

The final piece here is an eye-opening, idiosyncratic and utterly original interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131. While there is an improvisational feel to some of this, notably the slinky, slippery dynamics in the introductory adagio (which begins more lento, actually), the end result is simply the logical result of the group’s interpretation of this work as the summation of a life. Essentially, what they’ve done here is tie up the loose ends, formatting Beethoven’s short, punchy phrases into a more legato architecture: Mendelssohn might have been tempted to do the same thing with it. The ensemble expands the dynamic range in the faster passages, notably in the second, Allegro Molto Vivace movement, emphasis on the vivace for awhile, but then they revert to an elegant cohesiveness: if there was ever a singleminded interpretation of this work, this is it. And yet by the end, they’re playing it pretty straightforwardly, letting Beethoven’s emphatic, unassailable confidence speak for itself: for all its apprehension, especially in the middle passages, it’s testament to a composer who simply would not be deterred, not by fashion, self-doubt, his own self-destructive tendencies or even the eventual inability to hear what he wrote. In that light, Brooklyn Rider’s approach is less radical than it is emotionally intuitive. It’s one of the most delightfully challenging recordings of the year.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment