Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.
As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.
1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.
2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.
3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.
4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.
5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.
6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.
7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.
8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.
9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and JD Allen on tenor sax.
10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.
11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.
12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.
13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul It’s a Mack Avenue release.
14. Guy Klucevsek – The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.
15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.
16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes
17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives
18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.
19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.
20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.
21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.
It’s heartwarming to see an organization as estimable as the New York Philharmonic taking notice of young composers whose work they can deliver as only such a formidable ensemble can. One would think that every major orchestra would have the same agenda, but sadly that’s not the case. For every nineteen-year-old Shostakovich whose first symphony was premiered shortly after it was written, there are dozens of Iveses slaving away at the insurance company by day and directing the church choir on the weekend. So it’s good to have the NY Phil’s Contact series, focusing on chamber orchestra-scale works written mostly by emerging composers. Last night’s program at Symphony Space featured two rather stunning world premieres, a resonant suite of songs from a lion of the 20th century avant garde and a New York premiere, bravely played but less successful.
The stunner on the bill was the world premiere of Andy Akiho’s Oscillate, for string ensemble, percussion and piano, nimbly conducted by Jayce Ogren. Akiho is a percussionist whose unlikely main axe, at least in the classical music world, is the steel pan. There was nothing remotely calypsonian about this work: excellent and eclectic as Akiho’s debut album from last year was, this is the best thing he’s written. Inspired by Nicola Tesla (the title is an anagram of “Tesla coil”), it’s meant to illustrate an inventor or creator’s toil over a span of many sleepless nights, a battle to remain inspired as fatigue becomes more and more of a problem. Beginning with sirening strings against a restlessly mechanical pulse, shades of Julia Wolfe with hints of Bernard Herrmann, it took on an increasingly noirish, dissociative atmosphere, livened by a familiar Messiaen quote. A series of increasingly hallucinatory chase scenes driven by insistent staccato cellos finally gave way to uneasy ambience at the end: the triumph in question here seemed simply to be to get through a waking nightmare.
Another world premiere, Jude Vaclavik’s Shock Waves, for brass and percussion took rousing advantage of the vast expanses of sonics at the composer’s disposal, mutes being employed from time to time on virtually all of the wind instruments throughout the piece. Tuba player Alan Baer drew a round of chuckles as he nonchalantly stuck a huge mute the size of a couple of french horns into his instrument’s gaping bell. Inspired by the mechanics of sonic booms, the piece is built around a series of doppler-like swells that mutate, pulse, blast and intermingle with a Stravinskian elan. Like Akiho’s work, the suspense was relentless: it was impossible to know what was coming, and what would be next.
Coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sang four Jacob Druckman songs from the 1990s: two ethereal but bracing settings of Emily Dickinson poems and two utilizing Apollinaire lyrics with considerably more unease. In both cases, her melismatic lower register was especially strong and vividly plaintive. The composer’s son Daniel Druckman played percussion as he had on the premiere of this particular chamber arrangement fifteen years ago.
The one piece on the bill that didn’t work was Andrew Norman’s Try, a portrait of a composer concocting and then nixing motifs one by one before he finally comes up with something he likes. While it wasn’t without wit, the ideas flew by in such a breathless, whizbang fashion that it was impossible to focus on any one of them until they were already gone. And the minimalist piano ending felt forced, and interminable. This work screamed out for shredding more of those ideas and maybe taking what’s left at halfspeed.
Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich has an entertaining new live album, Pershing Woman, out with his “Tryyo,” Jonathan Golove on electric cello and Damon Short on drums. For jazz improvisation, it’s exceptionally tuneful, and funky, and fun, in an energetic post-AACM, Roscoe Mitchell way. Good humor and good times abound throughout this set, and it’s contagious. It’s all about interplay: conversations, pitch-and-follow, shadowing and dynamics. Vlatkovich’s sensibility is borne out in his titles: for example, the jaunty, swinging opening track, Our Costumes Should Tell Us Who We Are and What We Think. Obviously, this could be sarcastic…or is he saying that what we wear should illustrate who we are, and inspire us to ponder certain things?
The second track, Pursued By More Past Than Future picks up the funky riffage and continues a series of variations, Golove alternating between resonant pizzicato basslines, sostenuto ambience, the occasional keening overtone or staccato flurry as Short shuffles and romps around the perimeter. His cymbal work throughout the album, whether creating nebulous, misty atmospherics or lithely accenting the quieter moments, is especially choice. Vlatkovich is the good cop here, playfully nudging the group upwards out of the lulls, firing off clusters of bluesy riffage, often adding a droll edge with a mute, or a quote, or the occasional woozy slidestep.
The best track here is Black Triangles Yellow Corn and Pink Medicine Drops – chips and salsa requiring a hit of Pepto Bismol afterward, maybe? Golove opens it with a catchy funk bassline, Vlatkovich exploring tersely overhead, Short artfully building to a crescendo that he caps off with a triumphant flourish as they take it doublespeed and then back down again.
The bouncy, syncopated Once in a Blue Moon a Decent Wolf Comes Along rides an unexpected Powerglide shift from Short into Hostages of Romance and its steady staccato. The Imponderable Hiding in Extra Large Clothing goes on for almost thirteen minutes and as expected, finally develops some menace as Golove goes up the scale with tritones – but after a point there’s nowhere to go but into comedic territory on the wings of Vlatkovich’s smirking, muted squonks. There are also a couple of warped ballads here with vividly pensive, lyrical harmonies between trombone and cello, the weirdly edgy funk of Neighborhood Beasts Let Down Their Hair and the closing track, I Let My Magic Tortoise Go, where Vlatkovich draws a quick sketch of the reptile leaping over the garden gate with a grin, dancing across the lawn, so glad to be out in the sunlight again.
Yet another reason why we wait til the eleventh hour before putting up the annual Best Jazz Albums list: a release like Seattle group Endemic Ensemble’s stunningly tuneful, sophisticated latest one, Lunar. With three first-rate composers, swinging rhythm, great tunes and purposeful playing – always in the service of the song, and usually anchored in the blues – this is one of 2012’s standout albums. Bassist Steve Messick plays with a full-bodied, woody tone and makes every note count. Drummer Ken French is absolutely brilliant, an inventive and expressive player who goes for counterintuitive but never loses sight of the groove. Pianist David Franklin builds a lyrical third stream backdrop for baritone saxophonist Matso Limtiaco and tenor/soprano player Travis Ranney. Each reedman is especially noteworthy here for using the entirety of his register: Ranney builds a comfortable and welcoming home in the smoky lows, and Limtiaco wields his baritone with Mulliganesque flair in the upper mids.
The album’s title track sets the tone right off the bat, a brisk, catchy swing tune by Messick with genial solos from both tenor and baritone, French throwing in the occasional wry accent, everybody trading eights with the drums on the way out. The knockout track here is Return of the Pelicans, a vividly cinematic, uneasy ballad also by Messick, anchored by a vintage psych-blues bassline under shadowy horns, some wonderful chromatics from Franklin and finally a matter-of-factly tiptoeing bass solo.
Lilu, by Franklin works its way up to a gypsy-tinged waltz, latin-inflected chordal piano over lush cymbal ambience, crescendoing tenor and bari solos leading to a cliffhanger of a drum solo: it’s the last thing you’d expect to hear. They follow that with a Messick miniature, March-Bop, basically a drum solo, interrupted. Another Messick number, Solace makes its way slowly through Franklin’s judicious minimalisms to a casual conversation between tenor and baritone – it’s less consolation than simply good company.
Franklin’s 5 Syllables, another swing tune, hints at late 50s Cali noir before his own incisive block chords pick it up, turning it over to the baritone and then the bass before a jaunty dixieland interlude. Messick’s A Short Walk with Many Steps is a piano/bass duet that playfully hints at a fullscale swing, followed by the rich bari/soprano harmonies and lively bounce of another upbeat, melodic Messick tune, Spikenard. From there they jazz up Chopin and don’t embarrass themselves, and end with a darkly majestic clave groove by Limtiaco, Do the Math. Ranney’s smartly chromatic variations, echoed by Franklin, are a high point in this moody but bitingly intense piece. It’s a safe bet that if these guys were in New York instead of Seattle, they’d be much better known: albums like this just make you want to catch a west coast flight, jet lag be damned.
Efficiently if not particularly quietly, over the past ten years the One World Symphony has built a reputation as one of Manhattan’s first-class niche orchestras. Their season is shorter and their programming more diverse than, say, the New York Phil, but with a vintage Ormandy-era Philadelphia Orchestra sheen and heft, they are a mighty beast. Their concert last night in Chelsea, a benefit for the perennially needed Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, began with an impromptu addition to the bill, Craig Armstrong’s lushly crescendoing chase scene from the 2003 film Love Actually. It set the stage for the rest of the night. Maestro Sung Jin Hong is cut from the same cloth as Leon Botstein: a passionate advocate who leaves no stone unturned, Hong wasted no time in revealing how Brahms ripped off Beethoven (with a couple of excerpts, one involving audience participation). To add context, he also led the orchestra through his own richly swirling arrangement of the obscure Clara Schumann song Liebst du um Schonheit, sung with potently evocative restraint by mezzo-soprano Adrienne Metzinger. Hong doesn’t like to leave audiences hanging: he took care to provide background on how Brahms’ unrequited love for Robert Schumann’s wife finally inspired Brahms to channel his angst into the sturm und drang of his First Symphony.
Conducting from memory, Hong used every inch of headroom but also all the available footroom for that work: a briefly tiptoeing pizzicato interchange at the beginning of the final movement among both high and low strings was as whispery as the big swells of the first movement and the final series of codas at the end were stormy. In between, lush as the sonics were, individual and sectional voices were strong and distinct. Ed Gonzales’ rumbling timpani signaled a sudden end to uneasy nebulosity in the first movement; Marilyn Cole’s oboe solo in the second was pure liquid crystal. And the cellos dug deep into their Bach-like walking basslines as the third built steady momentum.
Hong was just as fun to watch as the orchestra. Although he doesn’t go for leaps and bounds, his approach is very physical: when he slows down, that’s a signal that the music is going to get very quiet, and the orchestra was with him every step of the way. After the performance, the music didn’t stop: the ensemble’s principal bassist, Justin Lee got to show off his swing chops in tandem with Jonathan Ward’s tasteful drumming throughout an animated performance of standards by the Robert Page Jazz Trio.
If you’ve been waiting patiently for the Best Jazz Albuns of 2012 page here, don’t worry, it’s coming. One of the reasons we wait til the end of the year is to catch gems like Old Time Musketry’s first album, Different Times: it’s this year’s best jazz debut by a country mile. Melodic contemporary sounds don’t get any more interesting, or downright catchy, than this.
The album ha a distinct northern New England flavor, no surprise considering that the group’s composers, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch grew up there. Each contributes a blend of warm and wintry, bucolic and often wistful themes interspersed with boisterous freely improvised interludes and a handful of jaunty romps. As the music blog Step Tempest was quick to observe, the obvious comparison is saxophonist Jeremy Udden’s Plainville (an album whose influence is vastly underrrated). There are echoes of Bill Frisell here as well. The group is propelled by the terse bass work of Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman, whose blend of New Orleans and Balkan rhythms is a breath of fresh air and adds welcome voltage to the slower material.
The opening track, Star Insignia, is akin to Udden doing the Velvets. Beginning as an accordion march and rising to a nocturnally pulsing overture, it’s the catchiest of the nine tracks. Playing alto sax, Schneit takes his time reaching from elegant legato to aching grit over Goldman’s hypnotically insistent cymbals, Schlegelmilch anchoring them with a stygian swirl. Parade sets an easygoing New Orleans piano shuffle under Schneit’s uneasy Udden-esque changes, Goldman reaching almost into tumbling vaudevillian territory in contrast to the gravitas of Rowan’s solo. The title track teases with a syncopated bounce bookending a free interlude highlighted by cleverly divergent tangents from Schlegelmilch’s piano and Schneit’s alto.
There’s a persisent if distant sadness to Cadets, another march, its autumnal Charles Ives colors possibly alluding to those kids’ ultimate destination, maybe: cannon fodder? The most stunning track here, Hope for Something More justaposes Schlegelmilch’s creepy piano lines – half Ran Blake, half Floyd Cramer – against Schneit’s morose clarinet, with keening funeral organ and echoey Omnichord building otherworldly ambience. Then they find the inner Serbian in Henry Cowell’s Anger Dance, improvising a march in the middle that’s as disquieting as it is nonchalant.
Highly Questionable reminds of the work of the great Macedonian accordionist Jordan Kostov, with its sudden shifts from bouncy to apprehensive and a nebulous, misterioso Schlegelmilch accordion solo. Likewise, Underwater Volcano mixes New Orleans and eastern European elements into a funky, echoey Rhodes piano tune. The album ends with the most Udden-influenced track here, Floating Vision, a slowly swaying ballad with hints of dub from multitracked keys.
Old Time Musketry play the album release show on Jan 27 at 8 PM at the Firehouse Space, just around the corner from Pete’s at 246 Frost St. in Williamsburg.
Unsilent Night grew from a New York phenomenon to a global one. Tonight’s annual New York pilgrimage from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square Park was magically timed down to within seconds of the duration of the 45-minute Phil Kline work played during the processional on the participants’ devices of choice. When the first processional took place (1993, if memory serves right), it was a parade of boomboxes playing cassettes of the richly swirling, pointillistic, sometimes gamelanesque, sometimes ethereal electronic work. This year the device of choice seemed to be people’s phones – there’s an Unsilent Night app for pretty much everything now. In addition, Q2 was simulcasting the full score, so there was the option of streaming it online. And Kline himself brought several boomboxes, along with battered cassettes and plenty of cds for those determined to be oldschool.
Volume-wise, oldschool won out handily: from a relatively veteran perspective (having participated in a few of these over the years), neither a phone nor a deck nor a tablet can beat a ghetto blaster. This year’s crowd was smaller than last year’s, and considerably younger, although that may simply be a function of the weather knocking out the older contingent. The undulating volume generated by the parade, as it wound from the Arch, around the fountain, crossing Broadway, down East Seventh to Tompkins Square, was also quieter, probably due to the predominance of phones over heavy appliances. What hasn’t changed is that like the original four separate cassette (and later, cd) tracks handed out at random, downloads are also randomly assigned: you never know which of the meticulously orchestrated parts you’ll be running on your machine, intermingling with the other three.
Unsilent Night has many lively moments – not to mention random moments of typical New York sidewalk unease, including but not limited to the taxi that almost drove head-on into a gaggle of people crossing Second Avenue – but overall it’s a soothing, hypnotic, enveloping piece of music, and experience. Like all parades, this procession is best enjoyed as a social event or a family outing (many took advantage of that opportunity – kids seem to love it). Doing this alone for the first time, it was hard to resist the Pavlovian impulse to bolt from the crowd, moving as leisurely as it did. A peaceful mood settled over the participants – no jostling for volume or position in line, most everyone lost in the music or in their thoughts, a few people taking pictures along the way.
Unfortunately, this coincided with Night of the Drunken Santas. Not being in touch with anyone in a fraternity or a sorority, it’s impossible to know exactly why half the teenage population of Connecticut – or New Jersey, or Long Island, or, sad to say, Ludlow Street – was wandering around the East Village wasted, dressed in Santa suits. They were too fancily costumed to be a flashmob and too disoriented to have any political agenda: protesting against Hanukah, maybe? As you can imagine, those spoiled brats wouldn’t make room for the procession, jostling people, jeering and blocking the street. A big pool of fresh vomit covered the sidewalk on East Seventh just past First Avenue, no great surprise. This element obviously existed many, many years before Unsilent Night, but they never invaded New York, let alone Alphabet City. On one hand, it’s heartwarming to see such a strangely beautiful musical phenomenon being embraced by a new generation; on the other hand, it’s sad to see that so much of that generation feels entitled to act as retarded here they as do back home in the suburbs, whose bridge-and-tunnel crudeness they will always embody no matter how many trendy bars they manage to hit before it’s time to get back on the LIRR.
From this particular perspective, the crowning irony is that as calming as Unsilent Night is, this year it took a couple of martinis afterward to take the edge off. We can hope that for the other Unsilent Night processions – still happening, around the world – that won’t be an issue.
For fans of the string quartet repertoire, the new Quadrants modern string quartet collection is heaven. With four ensembles playing five composers, all but one of them living, it’s an example of some of the most compelling recent composition and playing by a mix of inspired pickup groups and underrated, established quartets, extremely accessible yet state-of-the-art. It’s hard to believe that this is the only recording of Virgil Thomson’s String Quartet No. 1 currently in print, and the Boston Composers String Quartet has a ball with it. Having heard this in concert before but never on album, what’s most impressive is how almost completely through-composed it is, Thomson emptying out his songbag (or collection of pilfered themes: church music, hillbilly tunes and ragtime, among others). The quartet are at their best at the end of the second movement where the composer finally introduces some bracingly modernist tonalties amid his disarmingly simple riffs for a long-awaited, nebulously understated payoff, a device he employs to break up the shamelessly catchy neoromanticism of the third movement as well.
The album opens with the Boston String Quartet playing Marie Incontrera’s jaunty, dancing Limbic Breath, the cello kicking up its heels throughout much of this relatively brief song without words punctuated by a thoughtful lull or two before returning to a romp. It’s fun and it’s a hit.
The Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players contribute a somewhat sternly polyrhythmic, Philip Glass-influenced take of Ulf Grahm’s hypnotic The Timeless Lines of Time, moving precisely to a competely unexpected, nebulously nocturnal passage that establishes a murky tension left to linger memorably the rest of the way.
The New England String Quartet play the rest of the album, beginning with Michael Cunningham’s String Quartet No. 5, which deftly blends neoromantic melodies, modernist harmonies and classical architecture. The first movement, titled Zestful, works a tense suspense versus relaxed cantabile; the second, Languid, is far less languid than brooding, with a vivid exchange between cello and viola; the third, Spirited employs a rather wry tension between pizzicato and a steady staccato, with a big bracing coda and a quirky final flourish.
Alan Beeler is represented by two works whose rigorously mathematical underpinning is belied by their emotional vividness. Quartet 2000 quickly establishes a sense of longing out of hypnotic astringencies, closing with an altered waltz that manages to be sweeping yet austere at once. By contrast, his String Quartet No. 2 is basically a fugue with variations. A lush circular motif in the first movement falls away to many plaintive solo cello parts in the second, a quite possibly satirical, bouncy waltz in the third and then a pensive spaciousness in the fourth. It’s an unusual and rousingly successful blend of the here-and-now and the antique.
The shadow of Philip Glass towers over Michael Harrison and Maya Beiser’s collaboration Time Loops – out earlier this year from Cantaloupe -both in the unselfconscious beauty of the melodies and the hypnotically circling rhythms. Harrison, who plays piano, contributes most of the compositions. As the title implies, the central theme here is simple, looped phrases, whether from an elegant Bach invention, an Arvo Part diptych that finally shifts from a lullaby to more pensive tonalities, or the long three-part suite where cellist Beiser becomes an understatedly epic one-woman string section.
The more ornate loop music becomes, the simpler its motifs have to be in order to avoid dissonance, at least if that is the agenda as it is on Harrison’s opening triptych, Just Ancient Loops. Throughout the suite, Beiser gets to multitrack a rich array of timbres, textures and melodies: Indian classical music, blues, drones, Julia Wolfe-style staccato, cantabile nocturnal interludes and subtle shades of pizzicato all blend together into a seamless whole. There’s also a pretty straight-up indie rock tune, distant allusions to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and less distant ones to Glass. Counterrythms rise to the point where Beiser’s parts swirl out of the mix, one by one, much in the manner of dub reggae. The overall effect is hypnotic and psychedelic to the extreme: Glass’ later string quartets come very much to mind.
The album’s title track artfully juxtaposes a warm, lyrical cello line with backward masking. Somehow Harrison gets the harmonies to work, and Beiser keeps perfect time with them. They follow that with the Bach, then the Part, then Harrison’s Raga Prelude, a nocturne that’s ultimately far more interesting than either of its predecessors as the duo carry it into rippling ballad territory, then work a stately baroque theme until Harrison’s piano brings in the clouds and Beiser backs away while the chill sets in. All things considered, it’s the most consistently gripping composition here.
The final track is Hijaz, which ought to be the best one here, but it’s not, and that’s because annoying things happen here and there. These days, south Indian takadimi drum language seems to be all the rage, at least in academic circles: sure enough, barely three minutes into Harrison’s subtly otherworldly piano arpeggios – defly employing the just intonation which he’s long championed – the diggity-doo begins and then won’t quit. Compounding the problem is that there’s a whole crowd, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, doing the diggity-doo, at least when they’re not adding a quiet, sostenuto luminosity. The drum language actually has a purpose – in its original vernacular, it’s simply a way to count beats – but here it destroys the genuine hanuting quality of the rest of the work. Those with Protools should upload it and cut out the offending bits; a more oldschool option would be to copy the good parts to a cassette. Live at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, the effect was the same: it was like mixing beer and vermouth. A work so darkly majestic and memorable shouldn’t be marred by the vocalese tic-du-jour: it screams out for a new recording that does it justice.
Any opoprtunity to see cellist Fred Sherry and violinist Jennifer Choi share a stage is a bound to be a treat. And as much as the Stone is a wonderful place for many reasons, it was good to see John Zorn off his home turf and making a trip uptown to the Miller Theatre Tuesday night- in the role of roadie for the allstar cast playing the New York premiere of his new suite, Apophthegms and then his 2011 string quartet The Alchemist.
It would be overly reductionistic to describe the suite as a series of agitated cadenzas separated by bracingly airy atonalities, often punctuated by acerbic pizzicato accents, but that’s the basic shape most of them take. With Zorn’s persistent use of high, pianissimo harmonics, they’re also cruelly difficult to play, but violinists Christopher Otto and David Fulmer were game, bravely working the loud/soft dynamic for all it was worth. Acidic close harmonies dispersed into the ether; flurrying staccato passages built to the point where it seemed that one or maybe both musicians were going to break strings when they (literally) hit the pizzicato. Toward the end, an unexpectedly warm consonance gave way to creepy noir allusions, one of the few place where one of Zorn’s standby tropes made an appearance. Another Zorn standby is humor, and here he pretty much waited til the end, where the duo took a series of wry microtonal slides up to a jaunty, spiky coda.
For the quartet, Fulmer switched to viola, joined by Sherry, Choi and violinist Jesse Mills. Like the suite, it works a bustle-versus-stillness, frenetic-versus-calm dichotomy much of the time. Much as its tonalities are modern, it has distant echoes of late Beethoven and also Bernard Herrmann, especially early on where a particularly slithery line from Choi was anchored by Sherry’s creepy stalker bassline, generating grins from both of them. Quiet microtonal sostenuto introduced a romp punctuated by pregnant pauses, more reptilian noir and finally an unexpected triumph: they’d found gold after all, and calm after that. It was a workout – Zorn employs as much of the sonic spectrum as exists, in order to get gold from lead, but the alchemists onstage dug in and delivered.
This was the final “pop-up” concert staged at the Miller this year. Some of these shows are impromptu, last-minute affairs, sometimes not (this wasn’t). Keeping a close eye on the theatre calendar is your best bet to stay on top of them. Oh yeah, the concert was free, and there was beer and wine too! Shhhhh…don’t tell a soul!