For fans of low tonalities, BassX3’s new album Transatlantic is heaven. It’s the second one from multi-reedman Gebhard Ullmann (who plays bass clarinet and bass flute) with bassists Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas. To call this the best jazz album of the year so far invites all kinds of arguments – after all, can a recording this opaque, rhythmically inchoate and impossibly esoteric be much more than a curio? Absolutely! Whether you consider this free jazz, ambient music or indie classical, it’s a rich, murky masterpiece. Its centerpiece is the title track, an epic, 33-minute three-part suite. The low drone of the two basses being bowed in tandem builds a chocolatey mist laced with overtones, with the occasional creak, thud or rattle, evoking the hum of the diesels and maybe a hammock swaying in a stateroom. You could call it the Titanic Theme – from the point of view of passengers in steerage, anyway. Ulllmann, as usual, doesn’t limit himself to any preconceived tonalities, offering a blithely whistling microtonal solo in the first segment as the bassists rattle the occasional random household item like ghosts flitting through the sonic frame.
The other tracks here are just as enjoyable and much less static. The Thing features burbling, echoey twin basses with the bass clarinet wandering the moors, off to the side; then the basses back away, leaving Ullmann prowling contentedly, centerstage. The No Place has the bass flute looming pensive and minimalistic over jagged, distantly percussive bass chords and atonal accents and the occasional jarring pluck of a string: an Asian-tinged horror film score for before the point where the suspense reaches the level of a scream. The aptly titled Epic layers minutely wavering bass flute over a rather menacing backdrop of overtones and low washes; then the group all go spiraling around in what sounds like the bottom of a well before returning to a lusciously droning rumble that Ullmann uses as a long launching pad for some unexpectedly energetic low bass clarinet work. Ornette’s Closet contrasts brightly bouncing clarinet over echoey low-register playfulness; the diptych Berlin Is Full of Lonely People, a desolate, brooding tone poem, is the most melodically memorable track here.
Ullmann also has a considerably more lively if less intense release out with his Clarinet Trio, simply titled 4, featuring him playing bass clarinet alongside Jurgen Kupke on clarinet and Michael Thieke on alto clarinet. Fans of Ullmann’s back catalog will find this casually conversational session more in line with his previous free jazz work. The tracks include an artfully disassembled, brightly layered Balkan cocek dance; a wryly swaying, atonal blues; a tensely exploding tone poem that might have been a sketch for Transatlantic; a playfully martial study in low-register clusters; all sorts of friendly jousting, and an Ornette Coleman cover. Both albums are out now on Leo Records.
While it’s hardly necessary for a musician to be immersed in a particular style since childhood in order to play it well, growing up with a genre doesn’t hurt. Last night at le Poisson Rouge pianist Pablo Ziegler and cellist Maya Beiser celebrated their Argentinian heritage with a mix of Piazzolla classics and Ziegler originals, Satoshi Takeishi propelling the trio with a master class in restraint and subtle intensity behind the drum kit. Ziegler was a Piazzolla collaborator through the end of the composer’s life, and has been a major force in tango nuevo in his own right. Beiser is well known as a powerful and eclectic presence in the new-music scene: how does she approach playing Piazzolla and Ziegler? Like she’d grown up with them, dancing in her chair at one point as the trio kicked off the show with a bustling, noirish, Mingus-esque take of Piazzolla’s Michaelangelo 17. Ziegler’s arrangements and also his originals gave Beiser a launching pad for tracking down every bit of restless unease in the genre-spanning compositions: his part’s in his blood, meticulous yet forceful, whether driving the rhythm, adding jazzy flourishes or the occasional joyous glissando.
Ziegler recounted that Piazzolla enjoyed fishing for sharks, then led the group through the cinematic fish tale Escualo, Beiser reeling the line out with a perfectly timed microtonal swoop, kicking off its leaping, jaunty ballet-esque imagery all the way through to the big, slashing crescendo at the end. By contrast, the insistent longing in Piazzolla’s A Year of Solitude lingered vividly, as did a brooding, plaintive Ziegler piece that Beiser approached with a suspenseful vibrato, and a terse arrangement of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s Agua Y Vinho.
Introducing Piazzzolla’s Fuga Y Misterioso, Ziegler reminded the crowd how much of a fan of Bach Piazzolla was, and then reminded them again as Beiser played lively rapidfire riffage over Ziegler’s matter-of-factly precise baroqueisms. Beiser got a brief solo turn, playing Mariel, an aching, envelopingly atmospheric Osvaldo Golijov requiem originally written for cello and vibraphone, against her own recording of slow sustained notes and minimalist accents. As affecting as this was, it would have been even more interesting to have seen three cellists play it: there’s no telling how much more magic they might have been able to conjure up.
After a 1970s-era lullaby by Ziegler, the ensemble wowed what looked like a sold-out crowd with a plaintive version of Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino, then a swinging, somewhat satirical portrait of a macho doofus written by Ziegler and then closed with an impressively understated version of the iconic Libertango, its restrained, tense revelry a perfect resolution of the tension between Piazzola the pop tunesmith and Piazzolla the modernist composer. The crowd wanted an encore; they got an unselfconsciously beautiful rendition of Ziegler’s Muchacha de Boedo. Considering how much fun everyone onstage was having, let’s hope they keep this richly enjoyable project going.
Most cover bands are either a disappointment or a joke. This being New York, there are actually some covers bands here who transcend the label: Tammy Faye Starlite’s brutally satirical Rolling Stones and Blondie projects; the sometimes 18-piece Main Squeeze Orchestra, who perform original all-accordion arrangements of pop songs; and Burnt Sugar. Of course, Burnt Sugar aren’t just a cover band: founder/conductor Greg Tate has been leading them through their trademark hypnotic, psychedelic, atmospheric, improvisational soundscapes since the 90s. But they’re also a mighty funk orchestra. Last night at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy, they played an all-James Brown program that did justice to the Godfather of Soul.
How do you cover Jaaaaaaaaaaaaames Brown without turning it into camp, or a parody? By doing the songs pretty much how he did them – and by not overdoing the vocals. A rotating cast of singers, both male and female, took turns on lead vocals (often in the same song), the main guy wearing a James Brown helmet wig. But as much fun as everybody was having, nobody went completely over the top: no cape trick, no Vegas showmanship, just a lot of good tunes and good history. The band was colossal, in both senses of the word: a five-piece horn section; five harmony singers (one of whom had to multitask on turntables, something they could have left in the rehearsal room and the music wouldn’t have suffered); three dancers, who mingled with the audience, as well as violin, keys, guitar, bass and drums. When bassist Jared Nickerson’s slinky Bootsy Collins lines were audible in the amphitheatre’s boomy sonics, it was clear that he was having the time of his life. The horns lept in joyously and disappeared in a split-second, just as Brown would have wanted, and the singers both in front and behind the band delivered the songs with a passion that wouldn’t let up. Just a few of the standouts from this particular lineup: violinist Mazz Swift, whose austere textures were a welcome anchor; Bruce Mack’s alternately funky and lush keys and organ, Paula Henderson (of Rev. Vince Anderson’s band) on baritone sax, and Imani Uzuri taking a couple of characteristically alluring cameos out in front when she wasn’t singing harmonies.
There was also a multimedia component that packed a surprising punch. A screen behind the band showed slides of various James Brown property (shades, stagewear, personal effects) auctioned off after his death, while an actor played the role of auctioneer between several of the songs or segues. The most powerful moments of the night were when Brown’s soul came up for auction, and later when the actor and the singer in the JB wig evoked the introduction of the famous Boston concert after the Martin Luther King assassination where Brown is commonly credited from saving the city from the rioting that was taking place all over the country; this particular interpretation had Brown ignoring the Boston mayor’s well-intentioned condescension with a casually stern but insightful exhortation to the crowd to chill out. Other segments played up Brown’s message of self-empowerment and defiant ambition.
And the songs were supertight: I Feel Good, Super Bad, a cheery singalong of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), a surprisingly upbeat It’s a Man’s World, a version of Please Please Please that played up its doo-wop origins, and a surprising amount of material from throughout his career, not just the classic hits from the 60s. Brown’s angel dust period was vividly evoked via a long, atonal instrumental – a good approximation of this band’s original stuff – backing a spoken-word piece about heroin delivered by the harmony singer/turntablist. The crowd, sparse as the sun went down, grew in numbers and enthusiasm as the night wore on, the band’s dancers getting a party going in front of the stage. They’ll be there tonight at 8 if you’re in the mood.
It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning how much fun the quadruple bill – yup, four bands – at Freddy’s was on Saturday night. The music started at around 8 and ended some time in the wee hours – it was that kind of night, with tunes to match. The Roulette Sisters were first. These four badass players – resonator guitarist Mamie Minch, electric guitarist Meg Reichardt, washboard player Megan Burleyson and violist Karen Waltuch – have a great new album out (recently reviewed here) and as usual, had come to conquer. Their unusually early hour onstage was a warmup of sorts for a gig later at some costume ball (Meg already had her lion tamer costume ready to go). As usual, the set was a trip to a speakeasy of the mind circa 1930. Meg sang the cheery swing tune I’ll Take the South and the Cowboy Boogie, a funny mashup of oldtime blues and hillbilly music. When she got to the line “that cat was raised on local weed,” the whole band couldn’t help smiling. Megan sang the charming flapper anthem Coney Island Washboard and a nonchalantly innuendo-packed version of Bessie Smith’s Sugar in My Bowl. The whole crew sang an Al Duvall song which attempts to answer the question that if you’re shagging in the woods and nobody sees it, did you really get laid? Other songs included Your Biscuits Are Tall Enough for Me as well as a thinly veiled ode to masturbation and a lament told from the point of view of a woman whose man’s performance has been wiped out by Jamaica ginger (a deadly patent medicine that was sort of the 1920s equivalent of Prozac).
The Larch were next. The back room at the new Freddy’s isn’t as conducive to electric sounds as the old downstairs room was, but they managed. Lots of new songs in their set, which makes sense since they’ve got a new album coming out this year. With Liza Garelik Roure’s swooping, fluid organ lines anchoring her husband Ian’s razorwire guitar solos, they sounded like Squeeze circa 1980, when they were still Kool for Kats and rocking hard. Some of the songs – particularly one that might have been called Midweek Nebula – had a psychedelic edge, including one in tricky 9/4 time.
There were two more acts. Multi-instrumentalist Dave Wechsler is best known for his work with historically-infused chamber-rock band Pinataland, but his own solo work – which he plays and records as Tyranny of Dave – is just as interesting, and historically-inspired. Playing solo on acoustic guitar, with electrifying backing vocals a couple of numbers by oldtimey siren Robin Aigner, he ran through a set of mostly new material. Right about here, the memory gets fuzzy: moderate tempos, warmly melodic tunes, thoughtful lyrics and the occasional bright harmony dominated his hour onstage. The Magpie were next. This group is Dave Benjoya’s latest adventure in world music and they’re as good as they are eclectic, which is a lot. With guitars, accordion, bass and percussion, they swayed and bounced through a bracing mix of latin, gypsy and klezmer tunes, a couple of apprehensively charming Belgian barroom musettes and an English folk song. By the time they wrapped up their set, it was after midnight, but a crowd of A-list Brooklyn musicians stuck around and took it all in. Just a random night in a good Brooklyn bar – not something you typically find where the blight of gentrification has completely taken over, but reason to stay optimistic about music in this town.
If you’re wondering why there hasn’t been more activity here lately, it’s because we’ve been busy behind the scenes putting on some special fabric which, TEPCO assures us, will keep the radioactivity out. Oh yeah – we’ve also been feverishly compiling a new NYC live music calendar for April and May, coming tomorrow along with other stuff. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #670:
Ali Jihad Racy – Ancient Egypt
One of the world’s most extraordinary Middle Eastern musicians, Dr. Racy is a multi-instrumentalist equally skilled on the buzuq (similar to the bouzouki), ney flute, rabab lute and violin, among other instruments. This 1993 suite, based on selections from the Book of the Dead, is both homage to and an attempt to recreate the sounds of the age of the pharaohs. It follows a trajectory from the stark ney piece, The Lamentations of Isis, to the lush, rich jangle and clank of the buzuq and rabab in The Land Of The Blessed. Hymn to Osiris is balmy and otherwordly; The Boat of a Million Years, a ghostly, haunting tone poem, is the centerpiece. Racy follows that with the quiet, dreamy The Holy Lotus (the drug of choice among many around the region in those days) and the self-explanatory Funeral Processsion, which actually isn’t as dark as you might expect. After that, the gloom lifts with Hymn for the Sunrise and The Triumph of the Deceased, ending on an optimistic note. Here’s a random torrent via Like a Raging Bull.
More stuff in the pipeline here than you can imagine: Carol Lipnik’s great new album, solo electric rock on the Lower East and in Williamsburg, some amazing art at the Frying Pan way over on the west side, just to name a few things. In the meantime, every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #696:
The Ventures – Live in Japan ’65
The holy grail of surf music. What Never Mind the Bollocks is to punk, what Kind of Blue is to classic jazz, this album is to instrumental rock. The Ventures weren’t the first surf band, but they were the most successful, at least during their 60s heyday. This has virtually all of the best versions of their best songs, recorded in front of a hilariously polite audience in a country where they’re still more popular than the Beatles. It’s got kick-ass rockers like Penetration and Diamond Head; darker, eerie stuff like a skittish Besame Mucho Twist, Pipeline and the irresistible yet wary medley of Walk Don’t Run, Lullaby of the Leaves and Perfidia; Beatlesque jangle including When You Walk in the Room and the Fab Four’s I Feel Fine; sci-fi themes like Telstar, Out of Limits and a pummeling Journey to the Stars; and the crashing encore of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, with the late Mel Taylor’s long, iconic drum solo. The cd reissue is poorly mastered and on the tinny side, but the original mono vinyl album is strictly a collector’s item. Here’s a random torrent via dreamexpress.
Good Cop: Wow, they gave us a new assignment! We must have done a good job with that last review, no thanks to you…
Bad Cop: Just doing my job. Can you pass me that bottle please.
Good Cop: I didn’t hear that. Pass it yourself. I’m on duty.
Bad Cop [pours himself a huge glass of wine]: Today’s album is…how do you pronounce this…
Good Cop: Until the Sun Comes Up.
Bad Cop: No, the organist…
Good Cop: That’s Atsuko Hashimoto. Her new album is just out on Capri Records and it’s a throwback to the days of B3 jazz organ lounges in the 60s. When jazz was the people’s music, that everybody danced to and kept the bars open until closing time. Which explains the title…
Bad Cop: God, what a generic track listing. You’d think they could come up with something more interesting. Henry Mancini, Satchmo, You Are My Sunshine. Wake me up when this is over.
Good Cop: C’mon, let’s give it a spin. The opening track is All or Nothing at All – this makes me edgy, I can’t sit still. OK, give me a splash of that wine, I need to calm down here.
Bad Cop: Wow, this is fast. Did you just hear that nasty bluesy phrase she just ran for a couple of bars? This is juke joint jazz! I’m down with this!
Good Cop: You’re breaking character. Listen up, stay in character or risk the consequences.
Bad Cop: Such as?
Good Cop: Me turning bad. You don’t want to risk it.
Bad Cop: OK. The next track is Soul Station. Swing tune. Hank Mobley. Everybody’s done it. This sounds like Jimmy Smith – nothing wrong with that I guess. Who’s the guitarist?
Good Cop: Graham Dechter.
Bad Cop: Monster player. Listen to that tremolo picking, it’s like he’s lighting a match in the wind. I can’t understand why he’s not famous.
Good Cop: He’s not in New York. Colorado guy, from what I can figure.
Bad Cop: Come to New York, dude, plenty of work, even in a depression. And people will know who you are.
Good Cop: That’s Jeff Hamilton on drums.
Bad Cop: Noooooo…not the guy whose album we totally disrespected about a year ago….
Good Cop: Yup. Jeff, it’s about time we made it up to you. You wail.
Bad Cop: The organist won’t understand that…
Good Cop: Don’t assume that. That doesn’t make you look very openminded.
Bad Cop: OK. What I mean specifically by that is that I’m digging those shuffle beats and the fact that he’s not phoning it in, that you can just focus in on the drums and really enjoy being surprised…and the next track is So In Love. I don’t know this one. Curtis Mayfield did a great song with this title back in the 70s but this is new to me…whew…this is fast, I need another drink, pass me the bottle please…
Good Cop [passes the bottle]: OK. Now you know why every jazz bar had this kind of music back in the day…
Bad Cop: Amen [burp]. Wow. Joe Pass filigree runs, sixteenth notes, the crowd is on their feet…
Good Cop:…and a lush suspenseful passage when you least expected it. She knows how to work a crowd…
Bad Cop: The next song is Moon River, reinvented as a swing tune. Can I tell you a story? I saw REM – you know, the rock band – play this one before they got really famous and it was really cool. And this is kinda the same, it barely resembles the original and that’s why it’s great…
Good Cop: C’mon, say something bad, you’re out of character.
Bad Cop: REM sucks now.
Good Cop: I love this version, it’s such a river. What can I say. It blows away the original. Moon River – fluid, unstoppable, she nails it.
Bad Cop: OK, next track, What a Wonderful World. What a boring choice.
Good Cop: What a sweet rippling solo about three quarters of the way through….
Bad Cop: OK, next track. Blues for Naka. Club owner somewhere in Japan. Rescued and then consigned to obscurity with this song. But it’s good – swing blues with a balmy guitar solo, something you don’t expect from a requiem. Hey, I’m going upstairs, can you hang with this album for awhile?
Good Cop [quizzically]: No problem.
[ten minutes later] Good Cop: I have just been informed that Bad Cop has been overwhelmed by America’s favorite Chilean wine and will not be reappearing this evening. So to recap the album, I think it’s something that the new generation of kids, who like something fun and retro to dance to, will be into. Obviously, the indie crowd won’t dare to like this because the concept of fun doesn’t exist in the indie world. You know, if you express emotion, that might not be pre-approved for your peer group, and in that case you have to face the consequences. So I guess that means me facing the consequences! I like the delicious, unexpecting phrasing in You Are My Sunshine. I love how, in Cherry, the guitar solo goes intense when least expected. The way the guitar and organ, and then the drums, have fun playing back and forth with each other on You’re in My Heart Alone is just plain fun – I love that guitar solo – and I like how the last track combines a sort of Stevie Wonder feel with…wait a minute…whoah! This is California Sun! Did whoever wrote the Beach Boys’ California Sun steal it from a gospel song? Wouldn’t surprise me! Listen to this and decide for yourself. It’s out now on Capri Records.
Good Cop: It’s good to be back blogging again. When’s the last time we reviewed something here?
Bad Cop: December 09 I think, Jeff Hamilton’s trio album.
Good Cop: That poor guy deserved better than us. No wonder they put us in mothballs after that one.
Bad Cop: Yeah, I really love that album actually. Sorry, Jeff, it’s just my nature. I don’t know how to be good.
Good Cop: Did you ever review a concert before?
Bad Cop: Hell yeah! Foghat at Westbury Music Fair! [sings] “Fool fo the sitteh!”
Good Cop: Shhhhh! People will think you’re a crackhead or something.
Bad Cop: That’s the point, isn’t it?
Good Cop [ignores him]: So today we’re going to Barbes in Brooklyn to see Songs for Unusual Creatures. This quirky instrumental project is a creation of multi-instrumentalist composer Michael Hearst, who before this did Songs for Ice Cream Trucks.
Bad Cop: That was fun. I don’t like his main band though.
Good Cop: Would you please open your mind? You have no idea what this sounds like.
Bad Cop: OK, ok. Here we are. You want a drink? I want a drink.
Good Cop: No drinks for me. I’m on duty.
Bad Cop (looks around): Ewwwwww! Yuppie children! We gotta get out of here!
Good Cop: Don’t worry, they don’t look contagious, none of them are sniveling. Besides, what makes you assume they’re yuppies?
Bad Cop: They’re sitting still. Normal kids fidget during concerts.
Good Cop: Don’t stress. They won’t ruin the show for you.
Bad Cop: They’re sick, I just know it. Their brains are so fried by Prozac and Ritalin they don’t have the sense not to put their fingers in their eyes after using a public toilet.
Good Cop: Don’t forget, we’re on a mission. We have to turn in some copy here. Be a good sport, huh?
Bad Cop: Uhhh….ok, this band has a tuba, keyboards, trumpet, a guy with a claviola and a jazz drummer.
Good Cop: How do you know he’s a jazz drummer?
Bad Cop: He’s older than the rest of them, and he sits like a jazz drummer. Like he wants to play with brushes or something.
Good Cop: What’s a claviola?
Bad Cop: It’s a melodica with a fancy body. You blow into that tube and play the notes with the keys. Just like a melodica except probably more expensive.
Good Cop: OK, here we go. I like this first instrumental about a horned puffin. It sounds like klezmer but done with swirly space organ like a Ventures sci-fi tune.
Bad Cop: Good tune but tell me what the Ventures have to do with puffins. Or klezmer.
Good Cop: I dunno. It’s music. There are no rules.
Bad Cop: OK, ok. I like that creepy keyboard setting. This next song has the same kind of klezmer minor key thing going on except that it’s a bolero in disguise. And I like how it doesn’t just go verse-chorus over and over.
Good Cop: We’re not supposed to agree on things. This could get ugly.
Bad Cop: Oh, you know it will. Now this song is from the Music for Ice Cream Trucks record. It’s about that parking lot past the Gowanus Canal where they keep all the Mister Softee trucks, and it’s bouncy and fun. I just don’t understand how it relates to that slide projected up there on the screen behind the band, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.
Good Cop: If you hadn’t distracted me I could give you an answer, I think the guy driving the truck is a bassoonist, and wrote it, or played on it, or something. I wish I could have had children’s music like this when I was a kid…
Bad Cop [does a doubletake, looks around, raises his eyebrows]: Oh my god, you just dragged me to a children’s music show. That explains the…
Good Cop: I know, isn’t it awesome? A children’s band that doesn’t treat their audience patronizingly. Mummenschanz, eat my ass!
Bad Cop: That’s supposed to be my line!
Good Cop: Too good to resist. Besides, you broke character earlier. You have to admit, this music is really good, isn’t it?
Bad Cop: It is, it is. I’m tapping my feet, I like how these songs are fun and clever, how you can be a kid or an adult and enjoy them for different if equally valid reasons. And especially how dark some of them are. This particular number they’re playing right now about a dugong sounds like a requiem for the poor things. But they’re not from Australia like the guy said. They’re from the Persian Gulf, they’ve been decimated starting with the first Gulf War…
Good Cop: Now the band’s front line have all switched to melodicas. If you were paying attention you would have discovered that this song was written for and recorded by the Kronos Quartet…
Bad Cop: They suck! Did you know that they play to a cd? Eighty percent of what you hear at a Kronos Quartet show is prerecorded, makes an ELO concert look pretty good by comparison…
Good Cop: That’s funny. Did you hear? The tuba player just asked the claviola guy if the Kronos Quartet recorded the songs in his bedroom?
Bad Cop: I don’t see what’s so funny about that. Besides, I don’t like the tuba player.
Good Cop: Why not? He’s funny!
Bad Cop: Tuba players are funny by definition. Besides, this guy dissed a friend of mine.
Good Cop: And your friend couldn’t stick up for himself?
Bad Cop: She’s a girl. A pretty girl.
Good Cop: And your pretty girl…um…acquaintance couldn’t stick up for herself?
Bad Cop: It’s a guy thing, you wouldn’t understand. Chivalry.
Good Cop: OK. Let’s get out of here before your chivalry gets your butt kicked.
Bad Cop: Yeah, that kid just stuck his finger up his nose. Is there a liquor store around here?
Good Cop: I shouldn’t tell you. Follow your intuition.
Bad Cop [exiting]: Ghetto. Or what’s left of it. Fifth Avenue, downhill. Past the mattress store and the pizza place as I recall…
Adventurous Canadian trio Toca Loca’s cryptically titled new album Shed is a strangely captivating, grippingly energetic, strikingly rhythmic collection of new and older avant garde music. Pianist/conductor Gregory Oh, pianist Simon Docking and percussionist Aiyun Huang muscle up on a demanding quartet of numbers made for headphones: you can get lost in this stuff. It’s a wonder they don’t too.
The first piece, Half-Remembered City by Dai Fujikura, is a samurai piano duo for four hands. Oh and Docking have injured each other while playing it. Much of it involves passages where one holds down the keys silently while the other hammers away so as to evince overtones out of the dampened strings. There are a lot of pregnant pauses, along with a little leapfrogging and some furtive scurrying and flying cascades amid the slambang staccato. The album liner notes make no mention of whether the pianists injured themselves this time around, or how (or whether) they avoid making mistakes, or if improvisation is part of the process. Either way, it’s impossible to tell.
Huang premiered Heinz Holliger’s Ma’Mounia in 2002 in Geneva. If anything she does here was overdubbed during recording, that’s understandable: she has her hands full, with seemingly an entire orchestra’s percussion instruments to run the gauntlet with in seconds flat. With vibraphone, gong, timpani and what sounds like bowed bells, she scurries uneasily with accompaniment from guests Max Christie on clarinet, Mary-Katherine Finch on cello, Gabriel Radford on French horn and Stephen Tam on flute. A section with what appears to be simulated applause, a series of long, bustling passages and then a lot of Messienesque birdsong against that bustle eventually winds down and bows out with a squeak. The group’s first commission, Andrew Staniland’s Adventuremusic: Love Her Madly is not a Doors cover but rather a hypnotic, low overtone-driven soundscape colored with rapidfire piano cascades, an Asian theme played on bells and a trancey woodblock solo. The album concludes with Frederic Rzewski’s Bring Them Home, one of his protest songs from the early 70s, this one based on a minor-key Irish folk song. In typical Rzewski fashion, the variations go pretty far afield of the original, with a boogie about a quarter of the way in and a hint of a military march about two-thirds through it. It’s unusually imagistic: Huang gets the motif de resistance, a woodblock solo that snidely mimics an earlier, martial snare drum passage. With wars still going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s nice to see this piece getting aired out as vigorously as Toca Loca do it here. It’s out now on Henceforth.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #703:
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris: Leonard Bernstein
Today we turn from the obscene and juvenile to one of the most urbane and sophisticated albums on this list. It might come as a surprise to some that for several generations of New Yorkers, these pieces were a rite of passage, as much a staple of frathouses as concert halls. This is George Gershwin at the peak of his powers as one of the first, and best, white bluesmen. And who more appropriate to deliver the jaunty ragtime suite Rhapsody in Blue along with its companion An American in Paris – one of the most unselfconsciously romantic pieces of music ever written – than Leonard Bernstein? The first he does with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (assembled by the label) and the second with the NY Philharmonic. This late 80s reissue makes a diptych of both epically sweeping mid-50s mono recordings. Strangely, a little sleuthing didn’t turn up a single link for the album, although you can download them separately: Rhapsody in Blue here and An American in Paris here.