Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pianist Liza Stepanova’s New Album Champions Brooding New Music by Immigrant Composers

As we’ve been seeing more and more over the last couple of years, many artists most closely associated with traditional classical repertoire have a not-so-secret passion for new music. Pianist Liza Stepanova lays claim to that cred with her new solo album E Pluribus Unum – streaming at Spotify – a collection reflecting her background as as an American immigrant. It’s mix of strikingly purposeful, accessible and rather dark works by her fellow immigrants, including several world premieres. Musically the takeaway is that if you think she’s good at, say, Tschaikovsky, wait til you hear this. And in a year where the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been committing crimes against humanity by forcibly performing hysterectomies on refugee women,, the album takes on even greater relevance.

She opens with An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood, a brooding, steadily Chopinesque, chromatically biting miniature by Lera Auerbach. Kamran Ince’s partita Symphony in Blue is a study in stabbing acerbity versus calm, spacious, often mysterious resonance, with a little inside-the-piano flitting. Stepanova’s carnivalesque music-box upper register work is enabled by what sounds like tacks on the hammers.

Chaya Czernowin‘s Fardance Close has the same dichotomy, flickering highs in contrast with low rumbles and even more suspense. Stepanova next tackles two selections from Reinaldo Moya’s South American refugee suite The Way North. The first, La Bestia, follows scrambling upward tangents which grow more allusively ominous. The second, Rain Outside the Church has artful contrast between high pointillisms and more enveloping, low-midrange variations: Debussy is the obvious reference.

The point of Anna Clyne‘s On Track, a surreally produced, propulsively chiming electroacoustic theme and subtle variations, is that change is constant, like it or not: the ending is completely unexpected. Mool, a Lake Michigan tableau by Eun Young Lee, has strikingly understated, spaciously nocturnal phrasing and a distant, austere glitter: it’s one of the album’s most memorable moments.

Badie Khaleghian‘s triptych Táhirih the Pure, dedicated to the tragic 19th century feminist mystic, begins with The Day of Alert, a dynamically-charged, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged prelude built around an uneasily circling lefthand riff. Part two, Unchained is assembled around the album’s most persistent trope, high/low contrasts, in this case magnified by dissociative rhythms. The conclusion, Badasht is a sort of mirror image of the introduction, Stepanova nimbly tackling the daunting, insistent pointillisms ringing out over moody resonance.

Piglia, by Pablo Ortiz is part pensive prelude, part a more subtle take on what Kachaturian did with his Sabre Dance. Stepanova closes the record with Gabriela Lena Frank‘s rather wryly phantasmagorical Karnavalito No. 1. All of this is as thoughtfully and intuitively played as it is programmed. Let’s look forward to the day we get the chance to see Stepanova continue in this very auspicious direction, onstage, in front of an audience!

October 4, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Long-Lost, Prime, Phantasmagorical Thelonious Monk Rescued From the Archives

About halfway through the version of Well, You Needn’t that Thelonious Monk played at Palo Alto High School in California on October 27, 1968, he launched into a slyly cartoonish parody of a football cheer song. In a split second, bassist Larry Gales – who had been in the middle of a darkly ambered, bowed solo until the bandleader interrupted him – was on it. This was a signal to the cool kids in the crowd. We feel your pain, Monk and his quartet were telling them.

Long before the web was anything more than a dial-up connection for the Pentagon, dodgy field recordings of every jazz icon who ever lived were ubiquitous, marketed to the unsophisticated and the completists for ridiculous prices. This album, streaming at Spotify, is not one of them. Monk may have been a notoriously nocturnal creature, but he’s on top of his game at what was probably the only high school gig he ever played, and the band are right there with him despite the early hour. This is a stereo recording, with relatively minor sonic defects, almost completely free of the dropouts that plague newly discovered tape from so long ago. Even with the ever-increasing glut of concert recordings by jazz hall-of-famers, this is a pretty big deal.

It’s about forty-five minutes of greatest-hits material. Just about the only place that Charlie Rouse’s tenor sax ends up distorting on the recording occurs as the band ease their way into the opener, Ruby My Dear. By the time he spirals up to the top of his solo over drummer Ben Riley’s spring-loaded groove, the problem has been fixed. The song only hints at the characteristic irony, and devious humor, phantasmagoria and momentary detours into the macabre that will follow shortly afterward.

Well, You Needn’t has all of that plus extended bass and drum solos where it seems the rest of the group go out for a smoke or the equivalent. Then Monk sends the band away for a steady, pouncing, unselfconsciously joyous solo take of Don’t Blame Me.

The jovial, extended version of Blue Monk – which really never was more than a reworking of the old blues song Since I Met You Baby – has workmanlike, crescendoing solos from the whole band, then the show hits a peak with a determined, gritty, fanged take of Epistrophy. No pianist ever played Monk with fewer notes than Monk himself, so Rouse seizes the moment to be allusive as Riley has fun with offbeats and wry flurries on the toms. There’s also a momentary solo encore, I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams, the bandleader choosing to end it with a trio of icepick passing tones. He had to cut the song short so he could get back on the road for a gig in San Francisco that night. Familiar as all this material is, it’s prime Monk, straight, no chaser.

October 4, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment