Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Stunning, Haunting New Compositions by One of New York’s Most Adventurous Bassists

Good bass players are like good singers: they get enlisted for a wider range of projects than most musicians. Bassist Max Johnson is probably as well known for his work in Americana as he is with jazz. He’s playing the latter, leading an intriguing trio with tenor saxophonist Neta Ranaan and drummer Jason Nazary on Jan 28 at 7:30 PM at the Django; cover is $25.

But Johnson has another side, as a composer of new classical music. On his latest album When the Streets Were Quiet – a reference to The Trial, by Kafka – he appears only as a conductor, leading a chamber ensemble of violinist Lauren Cauley, violist Carrie Frey, cellist Maria Hadge, clarinetist Lucy Hatem and pianist Fifi Zhang.

The opening number on the album – streaming at New Focus Recordings – is Minerva, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. After a spacious introductory reference to Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time, the ensemble work a simple, increasingly emphatic, steadily acidic counterpoint. Quartet for the Beginning of Time, maybe?

Johnson switches out piano for viola for the quartet on the title track. Hatem’s clarinet moves broodingly over an uneasy, close-harmonied, organ-like sustain from the strings. A couple of shivers and subtle swells further indicate that trouble is brewing. Frey leads the strings deeper into otherworldly microtonal territory, as minutely modulated tremolo effects signal the clarinet’s mournful return and a solemn, slowly drifting procession out. Franz Kafka would be proud to have inspired music this spellbinding.

Next up is Johnson’s String Trio for violin, viola and cello. The more somber, sustained moments of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 spring to mind, Cauley leading a slow but ineluctable upward trajectory toward horror. Hadge leads the group into more calming terrain, with distant echoes of what could be a Britfolk ballad mingled within the unease. The trio take their time moving between a jaunty bounce and portentous swells on the way out.

Hatem, Frey and Zhang play the final piece, Echoes of a Memory, again echoing Messiaen at his sparest. Pianissimo highs against stygian lows give way to a cautious, icy pavane of sorts, part Federico Mompou, part Bernard Herrmann. This doesn’t sound anything like what Johnson will likely be playing with the jazz trio on the 28th but it’s often transcendent. Is it fair to be talking about one of the best albums of the year when we’re not even done with January yet?

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January 22, 2023 - Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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