Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ambitious, Tuneful, Anthemic Americana Jazz from Joshua Kwassman

Newington, Connnecticut seems to be a nice enough place to grow up, one of those sleepy, comfortable New England hamlets off the interstate on the way to Boston. But it could just as easily be a setting for a Stephen King novel. Saxophonist Joshua Kwassman hails from there: the Maria Schneider-esque, pastoral sweep of his latest album Songs of the Brother Spirit has both the flinty rusticity and East Coast sophistication that define his home state at its best, as well as a moody, shadowy intensity. Here he’s joined by Gilad Hekselman and Jeff Miles on guitars, Arielle Feinman on vocals, Adam Kromelow and Angelo Di Loreto on piano, Craig Akin on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums.

Kwassman distinguishes himself as a first-rate tunesmith with an ear for the imaginative and unexpected: he’ll go to an anthemic change in a second to drive a point home if he sees fit. His writing is by no means constrained by traditional jazz tropes, with a  refreshing expressiveness and purpose. The opening track, Our Land has a Chris Jentsch-like clarity, Feinman’s airy vocalese blending with Hekselman’s lyrical lines for a springlike atmosphere, building toward clave with a simmering Kromelow solo and a roaring crescendo. We Were Kids, Kwassman’s hushed childhood reflection is lush yet detailed, with bounding alto sax, Kromelow taking it down gently to a balmy horn chart.

In Light There Is Song is terse and lyrical, with an optimistic, vintage Pat Metheny vibe, guitar and vocals again driving a long trajectory upward and then back down to an unexpected ghostliness. Meditation, a pensive reflection on the inevitable losses that come with the passage of time, contrats Kwassman’s moody clarinet against Feinman’s brightness. The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, The Nowhere Trail, a darkly cinematic narrative of a summer camping trip gone disastrously awry. A distantly sinister Di Loreto pedalpoint theme recurs with variations as Miles adds an offcenter unease against the dancing anticipation underneath. They rise to a fever pitch and suddenly the mood shifts, Hekselman drifting toward an apprehensive flamenco feel, Kwassman’s menacing melodica vamp signaling that suddenly everyrthing is not well. From there a dream sequence of sorts ensues, lit up by Feinman’s meticulously nuanced, opaque vocals and surreal glockenspiel: it ends by returning to a pastoral ambience with hints of the Beatles. Highly recommended for fans of Americana-flavored jazz, from Bill Frisell to Bryan & the Aardvarks.

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May 23, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Explosive Finale to the One World Symphony’s Season

“When’s the last time you went to a symphonic concert and looked at the program and didn’t see a single date of death?” conductor Sung Jin Hong asked the Chelsea crowd assembled at the One World Symphony‘s concluding concert of the 2013 season this past May 20. Hong had a good point: it’s not often that an established fullsize orchestra programs a whole bill of living composers. Hong designed this one to go out on an explosive note and succeeded spectacularly. While he didn’t address the concert’s politically charged content, the program did: “American Affairs: Great • Atomic • Desire.”

This orchestra is known for surprises, and there were a couple early on that raised the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the bill. Soprano Adrienne Metzinger went deep into noir cabaret mode for a lurid take of Benjamin Britten’s Funeral Blues, backed with a stalker’s intensity by pianist Gulnara Mitzanova and the orchestra’s first chair bassist, Justin Lee. Soprano Sonya Headlam had a hard act to follow, but ended up raising the roof with a spine-tingling take of Gershwin’s Summertime, the orchestra lush and balmy behind her as she went to the top of her register, adding a tingling mix of overtones and blues as she brought the song to redline with a triumphant crescendo.

Spring-loaded, catlike and looking somewhat feral on the podium, Hong ran the rest of the concert as a suite – he has a Leonard Bernstein-like aptitude for making connections between what at first glance might seem like completely unrelated pieces. Over the evocative, bittersweetly orchestrated ragtime of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Headlam continued with a more subtly vivid song, Where Is the Old Warm World, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed Daisy offering some wistful foreshadowing. Mezzo-soprano Eva Sun then gave voice to the character Myrtle’s plaintive ache as the backdrop grew more contemplatively atmospheric.

Soprano Ashley Becker aired out the moody intensity of two songs from Andre Previn’s score to A Streetcar Named Desire: the uneasy Sea Air, and a sultry take of I Want Magic. From there they segued into two selections from John Adams’ chilling Robert Oppenheimer-inspired Doctor Atomic, Mitzanova returning for a broodingly opaque turn in front of the orchestra singing Am I In Your Light, the atomic scientist’s wife’s lament.

Baritone Douglas Jabara got the most spectacular of the vocal numbers and made the most of it with a gut-wrenchingly intense, anguished take of Batter My Heart, channeling what the composer felt to be Oppenheimer’s dread for the death and destruction his invention was about to cause (and for his legacy no less, it seems) via text from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV. Offstage before the concert, Jabara said that he believed that Oppenheimer knew the sonnet, and he sang it with that kind of bitter certitude, dashing offstage with a dramatic self-effacement as it ended. From there the orchestra took the Bernard Herrmann-esque horror to a logical, shattering conclusion via a bridge written by Hong as a showsstopping percussion feature with the timpani, gongs and bass drum exploding and then lingering in a firestorm of waves for what seemed minutes on end. It captured the catastrophic horror of the explosion over Hiroshima, not to mention the horrific loss of civilian life, more evocatively than words could possibly have expressed.

Hong programmed the world premiere of his own Edge immediately afterward, a bold and potentially suicidal choice given the previous work’s pyrotechnics. That the conductor’s equally haunting narrative – a setting of Sylvia Plath’s final poem, loaded with vengeful Medea references – wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to its power, and the orchestra’s commitment to it. Soprano Sara Paar had only been given a week to learn it, Hong told the crowd, but she brought it to life with a clenched-teeth, angst-fueled focus against shivery layers of glissandos from the strings. Even when the work lightened toward the end – Plath wasn’t going to kill her kids, after all – the mortally wounded atmopshere lingered. Few orchestras would take such a gamble by ending their season on such a dark note; then again, this ensemble has no fear of taking chances.

May 23, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments