Is this a golden age for string quartets? The program for this season’s opening night at Music Mondays quoted the New Yorker as saying that. Whatever the case, it’s definitely true at this upper westside free chamber music hotspot. The monthly series at Advent Church at 93rd and Broadway has pretty much reached critical mass, both in terms of audience and programming. On the bill this season: the Claremont Trio next month; the Calder Quartet in December; the Horszowski Trio in January, all the way through to New York’s premier gamelan orchestra, Gamelan Dharma Swara collaborating with NOW Ensemble.
This past Monday’s piece de resistance was George Perle’s 1988 Quartet No. 8, “Windows of Order,” played by the Daedalus Quartet. Cellist Thomas Kraines explained that the composer, while a “total 12-tone guy,” wrote the piece on a theme of order out of chaos. It would be reductionistic to describe it as modernist tonalities arranged in a classical architecture, but that’s part of it. The vibrantly dancing, distinct quality of the melody line gets subsumed in a harshness that absolutely refuses to resolve with any kind of traditional western consonance as it alternates among a series of movements that are interspersed among each other rather than following sequentially. And the ensemble had a ball with them, through the bracing rises and falls early on, violinists Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul and violist Jessica Thompson joining Kraines in livening the languid midsection with a raw, timbrally edgy bite and then romping through the cruel hints of a big Beethovesque finale.
They finally got to deliver a long one of those as they triumphantly wound up Dvorak’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105. Their approach was to dig into its warm, courtly opening dance and give it some needed oomph, which hit the spot and worked well to set up the rich anthemics of the classic four-chord progression that drives the third movement: it’s a wonder no rock band has stolen it yet. Likewise, their performance of Mendelsssohn’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 12 underscored both its ebullient power as well as its shift into darkness: after the lush, pillowy first movement, the piece follows a trajectory away from comfort that’s never regained. In this group’s hands, even the pageantry of the waltz that follows the opening had a restless tinge. All of this made an auspicious kickoff to what promises to be a tremendously entertaining season. The Claremont Trio is next up here, on October 15 at 7:30 PM, reception to follow.
Music blogger reading Downbeat on the subway spies a mention of Guy Klucevsek’s most recent album The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour. How could a (relatively) new release by such an important figure in jazz and its outskirts have slipped under the radar here? Breathless email to the publicist at Innova – who put out this delightfully witty album at the end of January – results in a package of files which translates, at least to some extent, into what you are reading right now. This is not a heavy album, but it’s very smart, a bright, playful mix of short, droll numbers along with a handful of more expansive tunes. Novoya polka stars Brave Combo join Klucevsek along with a vast supporting cast mostly hailing from the downtown New York scene.
Marcus Rojas’ pulsing tuba drives the Balkan-flavored opening track, Breathless and Bewildered, shifting from major to minor with twin accordions in perfect unison. The pensive, slow Waltz for Sandy features drummer John Hollenbeck at his most tersely coloristic, adding vividly sepulchral brushwork. Jo Lawry’s deadpan, breathless layers of vocalese color the tongue-in-cheek Gimme a Minute, Please (My Sequins Are Showing).
Klucevsek follows that with Larsong, a diptych for solo accordion that shifts from a purposeful Nordic folk theme to a rather wary canon. Likewise, Ratatouille builds a circular west African motif up to a lavish choir of voices and then back again. There are also three imaginative rearrangements of Erik Satie “hymnopedies,” the first being a sort of mashup of Satie and a European hymn, the second a slightly more hopeful version of the famous Gymnopedie No. 2 featuring bright Dave Douglas trumpet, and the third a stately klezmer-inflected dirge that goes unexpectely bouncing with a surreal off-centeredness that would make its composer proud.
The best song here is Pink Elephant, climbing from an insistent Taxi Driver-style intro to a balmy but bracing Balkan dance. Klucevsek doesn’ t show off much on this album, but he pulls out all the stops on a deliriously thrilling, trilling solo. He follows that with O’o, a jauntily swinging psychedelic calypso number with all kinds of trippy efx. The album winds up with Ladereld, extrapolating on the riff from California Girls; The C and M Waltz, a coyly orchestrated schoolyard jumprope theme, and the irresistibly funny party-gone-wrong scenario Moja Baba Je Pijana, complete with understandably distraught English translation. Big up to Klucevsek’s like-minded supporting cast, which also includes fellow squeezebox guy Alex Meixner, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, bassist Pete Donovan, drummer Kenny Wollesen, singers Theo Bleckmann and Peter Eldridge, saxophonist Steve Elson and Texas bandleader Little Jack Melody.
Klucevsek works fast: he’s already got a lavish double album featuring even more collaborations than this one due out later this fall from Starkland.
Saxophonist Tia Fuller may be best known to jazz listeners these days as a member of Esperanza Spalding’s band. With her new album Angelic Warrior – just out from Mack Avenue – Fuller matches her ferocious, purist chops with an equally formidable, eclectically cerebral approach to postbop composition. Much of this has to do with having grown up in a jazz family as the daughter of bassist father Fred Fuller, singer mom Elthopia Fuller and pianist sister Shamie Royston, who plays on this album along with her husband, this generation’s exemplary extrovert drummer, Rudy Royston. The rest of the cast, sometimes adding up to an all-female band, includes Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass and Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington guests on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adds an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul, which the band reinvents as an expansive clave soul ballad, somewhat akin to Joe Jackson backing Sade.
On both alto and soprano horn, Fuller plays with a distinctively bright, penetrating tone, considerably more warrior than angel, right from the hard-hitting opening chords of Royston Rumble, the whole fam here united with a purposefulness that pervades this record, with a classic, explosive Rudy Royston solo toward the end. By contrast, Ralphie’s Groove – a Ralph Peterson shout-out, with a tip of the hat to both Ahmad Jamal and Tony Williamas – is the first of several showcases for Fuller’s razorlike precision on soprano. Fuller’s wickedly spiraling solo on the long horn toward the end of the title track is absolutely exquisite, as is her brother-in-law’s artfully shuffling descent to the toms after a bubbly solo by his wife: there’s an easy explanation for the chemistry in this band.
While the catchy ballad Lil Les may have been written as a playful child’s theme, with bright alto and piano solos in turn, it has a memorably uneasy undercurrent. Likewise, the breezy soca allusions in Descend to Barbados have edge and bite, particularly when Fuller ‘s alto nails the end of a casually sailing Pattituci solo toward the end. Their take on So in Love counterintuitively juxtaposes languid balladry with stilletto staccato swing lit up by an animated Jones solo and a clenched-teeth crescendo from the rhythm section. A pretty standard-issue Rhodes funk tune, Tailor Made suddenly dims the lights as Jones solos with a lingering tension before the band takes it back to funk on the heels of another Royston Rumble. They follow that with the catchy, spacious, brooding balllad Core of Me and then the matter-of-factly swinging Simpli-city, deftly spiraling piano in contrast to Fuller’s head-on, almost minimalist alto. And they finally take Cherokee from a suspenseful shuffle driven by Tinnin’s circling percussion to a racewalking swing, Fuller’s clustering alto crescendo keeping a steady eye on the target no matter how far she moves off center. Tunesmithing? Check. Playing? Doublecheck. Not a bad song on this album: a stealth contender for best of 2012.
It’s been too long without a B3 record here. Luckily, drummer Jordan Young’s new one Cymbal Melodies is just out on Posi-tone. The title is ironic since Young plays this one very low-key and in the pocket: there are cymbals here but they’re typically providing judiciously whispery atmospherics rather than ostentatiously whirling sonic snowstorms. Recorded in a single day last winter in Brooklyn, this is mid 60s-style gutbucket jazz-lounge stuff, a sometimes tersely robust, sometimes contemplative soundtrack for gin-fueled conviviality. As with Young’s previous release, the ubiquitously original Brian Charette plays organ alongside guitarist Avi Rothbard and saxophonist Joe Sucato.
They open with a jauntily swinging roller-rink version of Wichita Lineman, veering in and out of a jazz waltz with tastily bluesy guitar over a vamp as it fades out. Lee Morgan’s Free Wheelin’ revisits a jazz waltz rhythm with carefree sax, terse guitar and one of Charette’s trademark spinning, distantly carnivalesque solos. They tackle a couple of ballads, giving Ghost of a Chance a purist bluesiness, strutting their way through a sax-and-drums version of Best Thing for You Is Me
They reinvent the Police’s Roxanne as a clave tune – it’s better than the original. Grant Green’s Grandstand sticks to the oldschool afterwork party vibe, right down to Young’s martial volleys. There are also a couple of solid Young originals here: Bird Bath, a catchy blend of Booker T. groove and lush Charette melodicism, and the pulsing, bluesy Mood for McCann. The album closes with a briskly walking take on Easy Living, with a tip of the hat to Art Farmer. The only miss here is an attempt to redeem a cloying early 70s easy-listening radio hit as a swing tune: epic fail. With all the great songs out there, the choice of that one is the only mystery here: otherwise, the tunes, if not the cymbals, hit you upside the head in a good way. Young leads a trio tomorrow night, Sept 24 at B Flat, 277 Church St. between White and Franklin in Tribeca at 8 PM.
Today we shift from one kind of intensity to a vastly different one. Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima and his group K-18 – saxophonist/reedman Mikko Innanen, adventurous quartertone accordionist Veli Kujala and veteran bassist Teppo Hauta-aho – generate plenty of it on their new suite, Out to Lynch. Much of which sounds like they’re out to lynch somebody, but it’s actually a series of compositions inspired by David Lynch films (they have a thing for movies: their previous album was a Stanley Kubrick homage). K-18 is Finnish for “rated R” – apparently the Finns’ film ratings are less alarmist than they are in the US, considering how tame an R rating is here. How Lynchian is this album? Lynchian in an Eraserhead sense, certainly. And although this is challenging and frequently abrasive music, much of it is far from ugly.
It’s important to keep in mind that the compositions here are inspired by various films or characters, rather than being representational. Interestingly, Kalima never reaches for the twangy noir of Angelo Badalamenti. The opening track, BOB – the first of a handful of Twin Peaks references – squalls and squeaks and quickly throws rhythm out the window, then goes unexpectedly sketchy and minimalist. The Elephant Man inspires a quietly skeletal interpretation, Mulholland Drive a series of casually bracing, swirling clusters – lights moving against a Hollywood hills backdrop at night, maybe?
Laura Palmer is a suspense piece, bass stepping gingerly through the darkness before the guitar provides a flashlight and then they rise in eerie, noisy sheets before returning to a tense spaciousness. The most thoroughly enjoyable track here is, perhaps predictably, Eraserhead, a deliciously creepy microtonal acccordion tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Dave Fiuczynski catalog.
A couple of cuts draw on the lovers from Wild at Heart. Lula Pace Fortune gets airy flute and accordion over distantly menacing atmospherics that rise to a grinding sostenuto blaze; a bit later on, Sailor inspires a similarly terse series of duo improvisations. Alvin Straight, who drove hundreds of miles along the side of the road on his riding mower to visit his estranged brother, serves as the impetus for a wryly methodical, minimalistically paced tone poem featuring the bass.
The Mystery Man (from Lost Highway) is the most intricate number here, a series of circular riffs interchanging over dynamic shifts, growing more ominous with squalling, shivering sax and guitar and ending with a twisted march. Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper has a fluttery tone poem to show for all his persistence, while the Man from Another Place – another Twin Peaks character – gets all of thirty seconds of flurries. On the concluding cut, Frank Booth, there’s no candy-colored clown, only a funereal rubato bass pulse lowlit by guitar that finally explodes: it’s not hard to imagine the poppers oscillating through the Blue Velvet villain’s brain as he huffs from that evil tube. Innanen contributes a devilishly tongue-in-cheek interlude along with Hauta-aho before the album’s most melodic and appropriately menacing passage.
Like all Tum Records releases, this comes beautifully packaged, including artwork by Marianna Uutinen and a magazine’s worth of liner notes: the Tum peeps are writing a lavish history of Finnish jazz in installments. It’s also worth mentioning that Innanen – who ironically leads another project called the Serenity Ensemble – has an excellent, sonically challenging album of his own, Clustrophy, out from Tum as well.
Like so many musicians before him, Fred Hersch has found his muse at the Village Vanguard, no great surprise considering that he was the first pianist ever booked there for a weeklong solo gig. Unlike Alone at the Vanguard, his stellar solo recording of a single night there in late 2010, his new double-cd set, Alive at the Vanguard – just out on Palmetto – collects the highlights from his most recent stand this past February with his inspired trio of bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Hersch is a meticulous, eclectic, purist polymath, a Monk disciple with Bill Evans heart. A mix of vivid, mostly slow-to-midtempo originals and classics, this is not an ostentatious album, but it’s a deep one.
There’s a lot of music here: almost two hours’ worth. The trio’s chemistry is clear right off the bat, Hebert’s dancing, incisive bass and McPherson’s judiciously deft, terse brush and cymbal work fused with Hersch’s trademark lyricism. The album opens ausiciously with Havana, an insistently cosmopolitan nocturne, artfully switching up tempos. Tristesse, a Paul Motian homage, maintains an elegaically glimmering neoromantic atmosphere with a vivid sense of longing. Fittingly, it takes on a rhythmic pulse as the drum chair remains silent in tribute to Hersch’s former collaborator. Segment – the only Charlie Parker composition in a minor key – is precise to a fault, fluidly moving between tempos as Hersch engages McPherson in a cool chromatically-fueled crescendo up to a brisk latin shuffle.
They whisper their way conversationally and almost conspiratorially through a diptych of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and Miles Davis’ Nardis. Dream of Monk, from Hersch’s theatre suite My Coma Dreams, is arguably the high point of the album, a spot-on blend of terse tunefulness and off-center irony: it’s so good it could pass for Monk himself, through yet another devious series of tempo changes, from swing to an allusive waltz and then back again. Bracingly modern third-stream atonalities eventually give way to moody melodicism on Rising, Falling, followed by a carefully bouncy, shiny take of Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, the first of two tunes from the Sonny Rollins book, Hebert’s pulse leading Hersch out of the shadows. The first cd closes with a suavely swinging, ragtime-hued take of a Hersch favorite, Doxy.
The second disc’s appropriately titled first track, Opener, is a showcase for McPherson, as he builds his solo with the same judicious spirit that pervades this album. After a dynamically-charged take of I Fall in Love Too Fast, they romp through the deliciously bouncing, wryly dark Jackalope: the creature may be a cartoon, but this one has bite, Hersch enjoying himself throughout a long vamp that eventually reaches toward latin territory before returning to the big, bad opening riff.
Another pairing, of Russ Freeman’s The Wind into Alec Wilder’s Moon and Sand, is especially choice, beginning dark, hypnotic and lyrical, then turning the second number into a fugue with a strong, funky pulse. Sartorial, a tribute to Ornette Coleman’s fashion sense, moves from brightly clustering coyness to a latin flair, followed by a trickily rhythmic From This Moment On. They wind up the album with a segue from an expansive but measured take of Oscar Hammerstein’s The Song Is You into a joyously spiraling, swinging, relatively obscure Monk piece, Played Twice. Everything here is consummately thought out and in the moment: arguably the best piano jazz album of 2012. Vijay Iyer, double dare you to tackle any of the originals here.
Natalie Cressman doesn’t waste notes. The up-and-coming trombonist’s new album Unfolding, with her group Secret Garden, has a coolly resonant, springlike quality. Cressman’s compositions are remarkably translucent, her motifs are strong and memorable, yet this isn’t an album of big crescendos or pummeling intensity: you have to wait until her mentor Peter Apfelbaum’s long, intricately constructed tenor solo on the final track for any of that. As you might expect from a trombonist, there are occasional latin tinges, with a handful of wry allusions to classics from decades past. An airily pensive atmosphere dominates here, although some of the songs are lighter and more carefree. She brings out a singleminded performance from a crew of similarly up-and-coming players: trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg, tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, keyboardist Pascal Le Boeuf, Dutch bassist Ruben Samama and drummer Jake Goldbas.
Insistent Lee Morgan-style riffage kicks off the opening cut, Flip, Cressman establishing a terse, contemplative vibe with her initial solo. She also sings, in a clear, unadorned high soprano, contributing vocalese here and then singing her own wistful lyrics on Whistle Song, which artfully maintains a low-key backdrop for more of her cooly soulful trombone. Then the band takes a stab at reinventing Honeysuckle Rose as neo-soul: not necessarily a bad idea, but this one should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Cressman likes echo motifs, so it’s no surprise she’d use that as the title of the next track, an attractively direct jazz waltz set to subtle rhythmic shifts with a lot of nimble pass-the-baton. She follows that with the funk-tinged, pointillistically dancing Skylight, featuring rather considered and strong solos from Samama and Rosenberg. Her take on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is especially ambitious in that she sings Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. While she doesn’t have Mitchell’s range or nuance – who does? – the band rises to the occasion and outdoes the cast on the Mitchell version, maintaining an elegaic bittersweetness. They follow that with the artfully constructed Waking, with its echo effects and arpeggiated voicings – it has the feel of a catchy Weather Report number but with a more comfortably subdued rhythm section.
Reaching for Home allusively reaches for a 40s jazz-pop ballad feel, with nimbly incisive solos back-to-back from tenor and trumpet. The final track, That Kind, gives Apfelbaum a launching pad for one of his signature raveups: it’s a clinic in how to create something magnificent out of the simplest building blocks, Cressman following it with her most memorable contribution to the album, her trombone shifting in and out of modal shadows.
Not that this should be a big deal, but it’s worth mentioning that Cressman, a member of Apfelbaum’s NY Hieroglyphics, is 20 years old. Her trombonist dad Jeff is a member of Santana; she also has a money gig on the jamband circuit. This album establishes her as someone to keep an eye on.
The classical music world is just like the rock world, in the sense that the most interesting shows usually take place outside the big concert halls. Case in point: the American String Quartet at Manhattan School of Music uptown Sunday afternoon. The Borden Auditorium there has excellent acoustics and accommodated a pretty full house who had come out to see a decidedly non-stodgy program for an attractive $15. What gives? The American String Quartet are in residency there. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that their name wasn’t taken until the original members made it theirs in 1974 while still students at Juilliard; on the other, there was still plenty of snobbery in the old European guard at that point. The Quartet’s 37 year history since then speaks for itself.
This time out they played a slightly offbeat, absolutely fascinating program of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, opening with the sextet from Capriccio, the 1941 Strauss opera, augmented by Karen Dreyfus on viola and Alan Stepansky on cello. The concept is late Romantic orchestration of a baroque-style theme, sort of Strauss’ equivalent of Rachmaninoff beefing up late Renaissance Italian chamber works. It’s probably more interesting from an architectural point of view than it is to hear, although for that reason it’s probably a lot of fun to play. And that’s what the Quartet had with it, but with plenty of old world vibrato and careful attention to the endless exchanges of voices. Violist Daniel Avsholomov seized the chance to fire off some deliciously shivery filigrees early on; Stepansky got to burn plenty of high-tension, low-register amperage as the piece went on.
The other Strauss work was an eye-opening septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen. With Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb joining the ensemble, would this alternate version, posthumously discovered in 1990 in a sketch by the composer, be starker and darker than the fullscale tone poem for string orchestra? Not really. The overall balance and the alternate voices of the seven strings delivered a pillowy lushness that sounded like a considerably larger group, credit being due to both the composer and the ensemble. The piece, written as bombs were falling on Germany, is a requiem of sorts for a cosmopolitan Europe (or at least the romantic notion of a cosmopolitan Europe) gone forever. What metamorphosis there is develops very subtly, pulsing with a hypnotic swirl, finally quoting Beethoven as it reaches the brief dirge that ends it. It was a feast of minute timbral contrasts: violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney worked tones with such depth and clarity that it seemed as if there were a couple of oboes in the group.
Is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 the greatest of all works for string quartet? Some would say that: it’s also cruelly difficult to play. But this group first completed their Beethoven cycle decades ago, and they have it in their fingers, going deep into it for an especially revealing, emotionally charged performance. They let the rather tongue-in-cheek initial movements speak for themselves with a matter-of-factness which gave away absolutely no inkling of the fireworks in store. The little German dance that’s been used as a backdrop for a million PSA’s on NPR was delivered with an unexpected tinge of Teutonic gravitas. By contrast, the famous Cavatina was anything but weepy: its hushed somber restraint packed a quietly mighty wallop. And then they dug into the original conclusion, the Grosse Fugue, with its maze of interwoven polyphony and jarring tonalities that sound almost as radical now as they did in 1822. Nobody got offstage without breaking a sweat after this one, especially cellist Wolfram Koessel, leaping across the fingerboard with equal parts fire and aplomb. It falls to the violist to blaze through the highest point of the concluding crescendo: Avshalomov didn’t allude to it visually, but there’s no doubt that he was grinning inside.
These Manhattan School of Music concerts are a bargain (they have a whole slate of jazz as well as chamber and orchestral music), and they’re easy to get to (straight uptown on the 1 train to 125th Street; exit the back of the train if you’re coming from downtown and walk three blocks back to 122nd). Don’t rule out another similarly exciting program from the American String Quartet there this season.
Oliver Baer has been a steady, august presence in the New York underground poetry and music scenes for some time: the Trouble Dolls recently set a series of his poems to music on their most recent album. Baer’s poetry is also juxtaposed with Alexander Berenbeim’s elegantly intriguing black-and-white photography in the book Baer Soul, recently published by Western Indie and available at the usual online sources as well as select independent bookstores and from the author himself.
While the poems don’t follow a chronological path, there are recurrent themes that follow thematic threads, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes suspensefully: the tension between desire and reason; an alienated individualist at odds with the herd mentality; order versus chaos, freedom versus security. There’s a discernible stylistic arc: the earliest poems are the most overtly personal and expressive, and often follow a rhyme scheme, while the later works have a broader worldview, innumerable layers of meaning, and a frequently withering cynicism. Simply put, this is a deep book.
It takes awhile to get going. An obsession with a Juno archetype runs its course, the “boy with the goblin glass shard in his heart” trudging through a not-funhouse of mythological imagery and ending up…well, where you would expect someone in this position to end up, “reaction” and “traction” finding a rhyme that is as unexpected as it is wryly spot-on. And just when it seems that there’s nowhere else to go but Maudlinville, Baer quotes Shakespeare at his most blithe and tosses off the funniest poem in the book.
About two-thirds of the way through, an uneasy urban milieu (which could easily be the Lower East Side of New York circa 2001) becomes the backdrop against which angst rises and occasionally falls. Young people form family bonds, only to watch in horror as “the trouble dolls move in” and by the next page the city is enveloped in the ugly, smoldering shadow of Ground Zero a day after 9/11. At this point, the images become more lurid, the Bloombergian future less and less appealing:
Lightning cracked skies and thunderous mad laughs fill my nights.
The echoing orders of the mad tyrant ringing through my days.
As we tromp through the city enforcing his Singaporean law,
The sitcom mentalities proclaim the wonders of order…
An elegaic weariness pervades many of the book’s final poems. The sarcasm in a contemplation of how even Satan must have been born with a clean slate is crushing. Mirrors disappear so as not to be shattered. A mythical castle in the clouds crumbles. The downward trajectory eventually reaches a vividly photorealistic, metaphorically-loaded lakeside milieu and then moves further into wintry terrain. The final poem faces a headshot of Baer flashing a gleefully toothy grin against the somber, Mahmoud Darwish-esque text:
The chair is empty now
A cavity silence eating my background noise
Drilling quiet framed by the dark teething on a dying sun’s rays
Tendrils outlining the presence of absence
Berenbeim’s shadowy, noirish photo tableaux follow a considerably more direct path to a more violent ending, Anthony Rocco playing a raffish role against Kindall Almond’s haunted, black-eyeliner blonde femme fatale.
Baer Soul: Poetry by Oliver Baer; Photography by Alexander Berenbeim; Presented by Anthony Rocco Featuring Kindall Almond, ISBN 9-781935-995005