Indie classical outfit Cygnus Ensemble has a fascinatingly eclectic collection of Frank Brickle chamber works titled Ab Nou Cor out recently on Innova. They call it “neo-medieval psychedelia.” That’s actually not a bad way to describe at least some of this. The best way to start is not with the original compositions but with the new arrangements of a couple of fairly well known pieces from the 13th and 18th centuries. Perotin’s famous early medieval choral work Sederunt Principes has never sounded more modern. Utilizing the whole ensemble – guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader (who also employ period stringed instruments here), cellist Susannah Chapman, oboeist Robert Ingliss, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinist Calvin Wiersma and pianist Joan Forsyth – they highlight portions of the old madrigal to bring out a seemingly global range of influences, from a stately Spanish court theme (shades of Miles Davis) to a jaunty, practically Celtic dance. They also reinvent Ferrucio Busoni’s Berceuse Elegiaque as a warped Pavane for a Dead Infant with thoughtful handoffs between voices and some memorably rumbling and then eerily starlit (and probably extemporaneous) piano from Forsyth.
In addition to composition, Brickle is also an inventor whose pioneering work in software-based radio won him a government contract. Not that you need to be aware of that to see how disparate his interests are. The opening track is the first of a handful of partitas: a syncopated cello/theorbo dance, a dramatic third-stream jazz interlude with soprano Haleh Abghari soaring overhead, a return to the theme with the guitar dancing over a cello pedal note, a briefly somber interlude setting up a waltz theme with considerably more restrained vocals. Could this or some of the other works here have been composed for the theatre?
They certainly sound that way, especially The Creation, a Towneley Mystery Play. This number clocks in at around thirteen minutes of tension between dramatic consonance and airy atonality featuring high-voltage flourishes from Abghari, a couple of brief, brooding piano/strings interludes and a deliciously creepy, music box-style crescendo that leads to a concluding rondo. They explore jazz on Midnight Round, its hypnotic, elegantly fingerpicked interplay between the guitarists echoing Redhooker’s adventures in that field. Merlin I evokes Roy Wood’s explorations of moody medieval fretwork and then sees the ambience shattered by Abghari’s piercing, unnervingly atonal leaps and bounds.
As much as Brickle likes to explore multiple genres within a lengthy suite, he also likes vignettes. The title track is a rather insistent, brief work for theorbo and voice; the stately, pleasantly steady, rather skeletal Teutonic concluding cut featuring the same instrumentation. There’s also the murky piano miniature In Media Res with its striking low/high contasts, and Genius Loci, a delicately interwoven thicket of twin acoustic guitars.
Israeli jazz pianist Alon Yavnai & the NDR Bigband have an understatedly powerful, very smart new album just out, Shri Ahava (Hebrew for “love poem”). He’s playing the cd release show at Birdland this Sunday at 6 (six) PM with a fantastic New York band featuring Paquito D’Rivera and Malika Zarra: if you’re a fan of Gil Evans, or Middle Eastern jazz innovators like Gilad Atzmon or Amir ElSaffar, this is a show you shouldn’t miss.
The album’s most striking track is titled Travel Notes. Yavnai has a long history with D’Rivera, so it’s no surprise that he’d be as fond of melodies and beats from south of the border as he is of the many traditions from his own part of the world. This one takes a bouncy Peruvian festejo groove and works a mighty series of shifting motifs from the orchestra to a biting, Arabic-tinged interlude where the piano mimics an oud. From there they works variations on the theme through rapidfire solos by trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt and clarinetist Lutz Buchner to a fiery, practically stampeding conclusion. It’s a major moment in recent big band jazz.
Two other equally intriguing tracks are both pastorales that unexpectedly and vividly go noir. Au Castagney is a cinematic epic that leaps from comfortable cinematic ambience to become a spy story set in wine country, with deliciously creepy solos by Yavnai and guitarist Sandra Hempel, who mines some luridly terse Marc Ribot-style tonalities. Then there’s Ilha B’Nit (Beautiful Island), a homage to Cape Verdean music that shifts from lush exchanges of washes carried by two or three voices, to stormier, more rhythmic intensity that brings in some unexpected funk before going out with a darkly memorable bluster.
Bitter Roots is a hybrid Afro-Cuban/Egyptian groove that grows from increasingly agitated cadenzas over a one-chord jam to a series of hypnotic circular riffs. Zriha (Sunrise) builds from bright, optimistic atmospherics to an unexpected wariness calmed by a Frank Delle baritone sax solo, rising matter-of-factly to a clever false ending. The opening, title track juxtaposes pensive solo piano passages with sweeping, majestic charts set to an insistent bossa pulse; the album ends with a requiem for Yavnai’s friend, the late drummer Take Toriyama, brooding solo piano giving way to an exchange of voices that slowly introduce warmer, more comforting variations. Jazz doesn’t get as accessible yet as cutting-edge as this very often.