Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Intriguing, Edgy Cross-Genre Compositions From Dai Fujikura

One of the most eclectic and consistently gripping new instrumental albums of recent months is composer Dai Fujikura’s surreallistically titled Turtle Totem, streaming at Bandcamp. The image was inspired by the historic Nagara no ZaZa garden in Japan, where a bridge over a pond supposedly allows visitors to visit the afterlife and then return. All around, there are stone figures of turtles, some piggybacking on others who carry them to the next world (and presumably back as well).

The material here is a mix of orchestral pieces, unorthodox solo works and an opening number that’s essentially jazz. Will all this transport you like a turtle? With a little imagination, yes. As diverse as the sounds are here, Fujikura’s passion for strange tonalities and translucent tunes is contagious.

That first number, Three, is a triptych, which Australian trio Ensemble Three (trumpeter Joel Brennan, trombonist Don Immel and guitarist Ken Murray) tackle expressively in a live performance. The first part is lusciously Lynchian: Murray’s grim chords, awash in reverb, pulse in and out as the horns filter uneasily through the mix. The second part has the horns doing faster wah-wah than the guitar; the third part begins as muted psychedelic funk and ends with a long, acidic guitar solo that brings to mind Gordon Grdina. The composer calls this the happiest piece of music he’s ever written.

The performance of Fujikura’s Horn Concerto No. 2 by Ensemble Nomad with soloist Nobuaki Fukukawa was also recorded live in concert. Fujikura found other horn concertos rather strident, so he and Fukukawa experimented with special mutes for unexpected wah-wah and whale-song effects. And the ensemble mimic them as well, throughout calm, atmospheric passages, chattering acidity, shivery suspense and artful echo riffage for playfully astringent variations on a wobbly sound.

Tamami Tono plays Obi, for sho and electronics. In the liner notes, Fujikura boasts that this is the fastest that the Japanese reed instrument can be played. As he discovered, the answer is midtempo: Tono performs this trippy, immersively meditative piece in her natural upper register, echoed in the lows by what’s essentially a pitch pedal.

Ensemble Nomad bassist Yoji Sato plays another solo work, Scarlet Ibis, in an alternate tuning, evincing natural harmonics and overtones with a mix of fierce plucks and bowed echo phrases (and a ton of reverb) .Clarinetist Makoto Yoshida plays the album’s title track, an unexpectedly brisk, circling solo work utilizing plenty of low register and gritty extended technique.

The album ends with a third concert recording, Antoni Wit leading the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in Fujikura’s Umi for Orchestra, an oceanic new tone poem based on an excerpt from his opera Solaris. Opening with nebulously atonal vastness, the ensemble shift between waves shiveringly reaching onto the shore, bracing swells that suddenly subside, and a twinkling nightscape anchored by bassoon and cellos. It’s a calmer Hebrides Overture for a new idiom in a new century

August 14, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Harrowing Suite by One of the World’s Great Women Composers Rescued From Obscurity

Dame Ethel Smyth was one of the greatest and most relevant composers to ever come out of the UK. Openly gay, she was a prime mover in the struggle for women’s right to vote and ended up serving prison time for her activism. Her many symphonic works are colorful, cinematic and often stormy. Her imaginative orchestration is similar to Tschaikovsky – who was one of her fans – although her sound world is much different. With a fearless political sensibility, she never shied away from socially conscious themes.

One of her most important works is her final one, The Prison, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle based on a text by philosopher Henry Bennet Brewster (one of Smyth’s boyfriends and a longtime mentor). How serendipitous that soprano Sarah Brailey and bass-baritone Dashon Burton would join forces with the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus under James Blachly to release their dynamically rich, landmark world premiere recording of it in a year where this celebration of resilience in the face of imminent doom has more relevance than ever. The album is up at Spotify.

Burton “communes with his soul” in the sombe, lush opening predawn tableau, a dream sequence where he hopes to be “once more among the living” while intimating the worst, pondering if it’s time to consider what final message he might need to send. Brailey, in the role of soul (or alter ego) makes her entrance with a plaintive resonance as the orchestra pulses delicately behind her. The choir rise with the soloists in the second movement; there are echoes of the baroque, but in the context of dark, epic Romanticism.

Burton brings an imploring presence in contrast to the grimness of the choir in the brief interlude where he seeks “the secret of emancipation” – a loaded metaphor in a work written by a suffragette! Brailey offers some consolation in response as the ensemble shift in and out of waltz time, the orchestra nimbly negotiating Smyth’s fleeting, shapeshiftingly troubled passages.

The women in the choir join Brailey in a return to more lavish, distantly baroque-tinged ambience, up to an understatedly shivery peak. The first rays of morning flutter in and offer some hope, with a heroic sensibility. Here, as Smyth portrays it, the prisoner attains a sense of immortality as the orchestra sway toward a momentary celestial calm.

The second part begins as a trumpet signals the prisoner waking up amidst the sweep of the low strings. Brailey swoops in and then hits a soaring peak, warning Burton that his end is near. The people around him scatter and stalk out as the waltz behind them grows more blustery; Brailey and the choir channel a striking otherworldliness over a brooding backdrop in the sunset interlude that follows.

In the popular Freudian terms of the era, Smyth’s depiction of how the prisoner “disbands his ego” builds to a forcefully disquieting crescendo. There’s both sober plainchant and hints of British folk in the choir’s depiction of the “indestructibility of human passions;” Burton’s stoicism as he’s led off to his fate amid witheringly sarcastic faux-martial pageantry is as vivid as it could possibly be. Likewise, the gravitas and towering majesty of his final message, which seems to be that we should all be this fearless.

It’s never clear what the prisoner might have done to deserve this fate, or not. As murderously grim as the lockdown has been, this album reminds that the year 2020 is not the first time in history where a cabal of would-be feudal lords decided to criminalize normal human behavior.

August 13, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

August 7, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting an Inviting, Convivial French Late Romantic Collection by the Neave Trio

The Neave Trio got high marks here last year for their album Her Voice, a collection of rare pieces by women composers (some might cynically say that even now, anything by a woman composer is rare). But the ensemble had done rewarding work before that record, including their 2018 release French Moments – streaming at Spotify – a collection of somewhat less obscure pieces from the Late Romantic period. This music doesn’t dissemble. It’s convivial, translucent and attractive and probably won’t satisfy those who fortify themselves with Bartok or Stravinsky. But the trio rise to this music’s warmly Romantic, finely polished level of craft.

One of these pieces is a nocturne, more or less. Another is wine-hour – or babysitting-hour – music for the idle classes of 19th century Europe. Another is a late composition by a favorite of the era who has fallen out of favor – and it’s good to see this group recording his work.

The nocturne, better known on its home turf than it is here, is Albert Roussel’s Trio, Op. 2. They open the first movement with a warmly but suspensefully crepuscular, almost tremoloing pulse. The music rises to an insistent, almost breathless peak that quickly fades away into pianist Eri Nakamura’s starry diminuendo. The strings – violinist Anna Williams and cellist Mikhail Veselov -carry the next upward drive to a lyrical rondo, some agitation and a whip of a coda.

There’s a wistful, vividly cantabilee quality to the second movement, the group really taking their time with it, Williams’ nimble flourishes contrasting with Nakamura’s emphatic underpinning. Veselov gets a welcome opportunity to darken the lustre in the moodily waltzing, dynamically shifting conclusion, ending almost like a palindrome.

The drinking music is Debussy’s Premier Trio, a student work written when he was 18, shlepping from country house to country house with one of Tschaikovsky’s patrons…and babysitting. It sure doesn’t sound anything like the Debussy we know and love. Schubertian counterpoint, anthemic opening credits-style hooks, a little prescient modal vamping and lighthearted phantasmagoria: pretty stuff, nothing too complicated or unsoothing. The trio are obviously having a good time with it.

Gabriel Fauré’s Trio, Op. 120 is a late work, and the three establish a rather saturnine mood in the initial exchanges of sober cello and glistening night-sky piano. A lush, lilting contentment gains momentum with Nakamura’s steady triplets and a real coup de grace at the end of the first movement. The second has more of an insistent unison pulse; everybody gets more of a workout in the third, Nakamura especially. The first and second, especially, have long interludes of sheer gorgeousness. Even though he managed to outlive Debussy, Faure stayed Romantic to the end.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

August 3, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

August 2, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment